The Tower Journal

  Interview with Mimi White

I have known the poet Mimi White for many years, and have always loved and respected her work. She is a lyric narrative poet whose use of nature imagery and the quiet,  non-didactic wisdom gained from living life thoughtfully.  I have always been delighted with, and at times even envied this in her work.  In 2014 I had the opportunity to organize an ekphrastic collaboration involving six artist/poets with  director Susan Schwake for her ArtStream Gallery then located in Dover, NH (now in Portsmouth, NH).  Mimi was one of the first poets I solicited for the project as I had heard she was working on a new book written in the form of tanka.  I knew the poems would be interesting and lend themselves to visual representation. Susan and I paired her up with the Dover artist/poet Kate Knox. The project itself, titled After You was more than what Susan and I had ever hoped for. While talking with Mimi throughout the collaboration and seeing some of the poems she would be using for the final show, I couldn’t wait for her new book to come out.  I knew it would be good, and I knew I was in for a treat.  Her book, The World Disguised as This One far exceeded my expectations though.  It is a book which holds the most fragile of emotions, and one of the most insightful books dealing with themes of grief I have read.  And it is flawless in its persistence to face and to explore those themes and emotions. It is wise in its refusal to come to conclusions, and wise in its choice of beauty above tragedy in both its imagery and kernels of truth.  This interview was conducted through a series of  conversations we had over tea at The White Heron in Portsmouth, and then finalized through an agreed upon email exchange.  Below is the interview.


S:     Can you explain to our readers what tanka is and how you came to create your new book using solely that form?

MW: I first heard about the tanka from Chase Twichell several years back when I was taking a poetry workshop with her.  I remember she told me that the tanka was slightly longer than the haiku, usually by two lines and several syllables, and that it was amazing how much one could do with that extra space.  Then my friend Candice Stover gave me Poems of a Mountain Home by Saigyo, translated by Burton Watson and I was hooked.  I devoured those poems.  They placed me in the moment, within a season, and conveyed with economy and lyricism the emotional life of the speaker.  Being a lyric poet at heart, I was drawn to this form in a way that felt both natural and inevitable.

One of the oldest Japanese forms, the tanka (or waka) originated in seventh-century Japan.  Perhaps less well known to Western audiences than the haiku, it predates this form by several hundred years.  The tanka usually contain thirty-one syllables or sound units, nearly double the haiku’s seventeen.  Like the haiku, the tanka’s central image is taken from nature, but a shift almost always occurs when that image is recast through a more personal lens. 

Around the same time that Candice handed me Saigyo, an Australian friend Kerryn Forster who is a sculptor, invited me to collaborate with her and another Australian visual artist, Jessie Stanley.  Our task was to explore the word contain through the lens of our art forms.   Already smitten with the tanka, I knew I had discovered a poetry form that would allow me to stretch my skills as a lyric poet and explore the meaning of what appears at first to be a very simple, less than evocative word.  My hope is that these small poems contain much more than their five lines suggest.  Or as Jane Hirshfield wrote about this book, “…each five-line poem is complete in itself, a world presented in full.  Yet in reading these pages through, their accumulation leads to a shifted landscape of being.  As life itself does.”

S. The collection is divided into four sections which follow the seasons.  I find it so interesting that it begins in winter.  In these earlier  poems I see such conviction and determination to look at your husband’s illness and the possible loss of him squarely and honestly. A conviction to face the loss of the world you both have known up until now.  I also see your commitment to writing in the tanka form and to writing for one full year in it as going hand and hand with that conviction and determination.  Your poem, “When I saw the boat/ tipped on its side a ghost/ entered our story―/ it did not matter/ that the tide would right it” spoke to me of an absolute commitment to stay the course of your new reality and how your life was now changed.  To not look at or run to the world of false hopes or even real ones, but to stay within the here and now of your current “winter” and explore it.  I also know that tanka requires such discipline, and I consider a year of it as unwavering discipline! Can you speak to that commitment and determination you felt, and to what you feel you gained by seeing the year through?

MW: I started the book in winter because that is when I began my year of tanka.  As the year unfolded it seemed only natural to continue that course, following the months and seasons.   When it came time to revise, which I did continuously as I generated poems, and when I was shaping the book, I discovered that starting the book in the darkest season was just about right for the story that was underlying and hovering above the natural world.

When an oncologist tells you that your husband has metastatic prostate cancer that has no cure and that will most likely shorten his life expectancy by several years the world as you know it ends.  I never made a conscious decision to walk into that world with my eyes open.  I suspect it was forty years of writing poems that led me into that space.  Poets look for clarity and truth through the lens of language.  Language can temper pain or heighten it, often at the same time.  Poetry is full of contradictions.  There is beauty in poems that break our hearts.  There is even humor in conveying what is obvious, mundane, and useless, if we have the skills to move beyond what is at hand.  Poems, I think, come from us but often bypassing the brain by miles.  Ha!  See, it just happens, but only after years and years of playing with words.  I don’t see myself as brave.  Not writing is much worse that walking into the fires.  Poets go there every chance can get.

I wrote in the wee hours of the morning, daily, and usually by candlelight.  Unnatural light blinded me to the nocturnal beauty of my home.   My husband and I have shared a small farm near the sea for more than forty years.  The book was an homage to this land as much as it was a recording of the daily internal landscape of the heart.  I was driven, not disciplined.  I wrote when we were away on vacation; while driving in the car, while lying awake in bed, tapping out the syllables, memorizing lines.  The engagement was nonstop.  You can only imagine how bereft I was when the year was completed, the next year of revisions done, and the book was off to my publisher.  How to begin again I wondered?

S: These are poems of deep grief.  One inexperienced with grief may expect your seasons to contain groups of poems in ordered and resolving stages of emotion.  But I see the way you have grouped the poems as raw and as real as grief itself, which we know does not really have “stages”  at all. The stages of grief ebb and flow, turn back on themselves, only to flow and ebb again, so to speak.  We have learned that there are recognizable kinds of emotion associated with grief, but no patterns to them.  Each person experiences their emotions in unique patterns as they must.  I was delighted to see a poem such as, “I hold my forehead/ to the boulder’s cold face/ and shut my eyes/ not against what is coming/ but for the wild hidden gorge”  at the end of the book rather than at the beginning.  Again, it shows a commitment to honesty.  Honesty to explore that part of you that refuses to name what the future will be, but to stay within the here and now. I love how in autumn, which is the final section, you are still aware and committed to the unknown.  Can you talk a little about how you came to group the poems, and about how this relates to your experience with grief? 

MW: I am so glad you like that poem and where it appears in the book.  A very close friend and amazing fiction writer suggested that I bring the beloved back into the book closer to the end, but in the end I knew the book was headed toward its own ending.  Only after I completed the final section did I realize that the speaker was alone and that the book had turned toward the philosophical.    This one poem you mention seems to me the one conscious act of bravery.  I wanted to live not against what was coming (and it is still coming), but for the wild hidden gorge.  I wanted LIFE.  And if there are any New Hampshire fans out there, that gorge is The Flume in Franconia Notch.  We hike it every year on my birthday, which is November 4, smack in the middle of autumn.

Grief happens.  I can’t speak to how it happens, though I know it hurts, takes time, will always be present.  The grouping was an act of remaining faithful to how the poems evolved.  I remained faithful to that.    Each season contains only poems that were written during those three months.  I moved poems around within that block, I morphed a few into one, but I felt the book was strengthened by honoring the natural evolution of the speaker’s heart.  I believed that the best crucible for the tanka was the abiding seasons.  They gave me strength.  They held me up.    And they still do!

S:  The title poem, “Nothing seems to hold…” is exquisite.  I see it as the emotional glue if if you will, for all the other poems in the book because it asks the central question (and I am paraphrasing here): Given the knowledge of a lovers serious illness, how do I, how do you, how do we live our lives? A very philosophical question which requires looking back, looking at the present, and looking into the future.  It is a heart wrenching question which is explored in all the other poems so aptly and beautifully. Can you speak to your experience writing this particular poem and your thoughts around choosing it as the title poem? 

MW:  This poem is the guiding force behind all the others.  When I talked about the book with friends or shared poems in draft form I always came back to that poem.  It encapsulates the strange phenomena of mortality.  Heightened news of any sort, be it good or bad, shakes your soul, shifts the landscape.  But learning that the beloved has a mortal illness places you face to face with the biggest news of all—we will all die.  Isn’t it strange that we live with such blinders to this?  Stanley Kunitz once told me that we are living and dying at the same time.  I could not get my head around that until recently.   I think that poem was the truth of that pressed open in five lines.  The operative word for me is disguised.  It suggests the cruelty of such knowledge.  A sense of trickery.  The world playing games with my heart.   And then the long slow acceptance of this news.  The world also offers incredible beauty which, as I have said, saves me and makes the painful knowledge of our limited time here lighter.  That tanka presented itself to me early on as the title for the book and it still stands up for me as the lens through which one should read the book.

S: How did you answer the question, “How to begin again?” with writing once you completed the year and the book?

MW: After the book came out, and the flurry of readings had subsided, I could not write a word.  I told a friend it was as if I had stopped hearing the music.  The silence in my head frightened me as did my inability to retrieve language or stumble upon language that was adhering to my thoughts or emotions.  One night in bed I read something I had written to my husband.  I don’t know why.  It was part of meditation I had been keeping on a book of poems by Wang Wei.  I knew that being with gorgeous poems would suffice and bring me back to that river that runs beneath us.  “That’s a poem,” my husband said, and he was right.  Slowly, more words came.  Some still feeling like the tanka, but then a few longer ones came, something that pleased me to no end, since by  the time I completed the year of tanka, I was itching to write something longer than five lines!

As for discipline, nothing stuck!  That year was truly exceptional.  I am back to my old habits.  I jot down words.  I keep a meditation journal off and on.  I try to work in the mornings.  But when I feel a poem coming I catch it.  That is the feeling that had escaped so I make sure I pay attention to those visitations.   And I must mention that my friend Grace Mattern has been sending me Monday morning prompts for a few months now.  Those have sparked some good writing and some eventual poems.  I keep her prompts and go back to the ones I neglected when I need a jumpstart.  But reading, and reading widely, also nourishes me.  I loved Carl Safina’s book, Beyond Words.  It gave me a line about ancient elephant paths in Africa that moved a poem I was working on into a new realm and gave the poem focus.

Mostly, I am grateful to still have poems in my life.  Yesterday someone asked me if I I was defined by my husband’s illness, was that who I was now.  I replied, no.  I am a poet.  That still is what defines me.  Cancer is a thread, but my river is words.

S Stephanie’s poetry, fiction and book reviews have appeared in many literary magazines such as, Birmingham Poetry Review, Café Review, Cease, Cows, Literary Laundry, OVS, One, Rattle, St. Petersburg Review, Solidus, Southern Indiana Review, The Southern Review, The Sun and Third Coast. Her three chapbooks are Throat (Igneus Press), What the News Seemed to Say (Pudding House - re-released by Igneus Press in 2015), So This is What It Has Come To (Finishing Line Press 2015). She is Editor Emeritus for The Tower Journal. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches at the NH Institute of Art in Manchester, NH.

The Tower Journal
Winter 2016