INSCAPE: Is it okay if I start, I have some questions. Thinking about the title of your collection, and thinking about the epigraph, why start off your collection with this quote, and the idea of sea and water? There’s just a constant theme of that coming back.
MD: The book was not originally titled this. I did what they always told me not to do, which was to title your collection and then write the title poem. Don’t do that, the poem never comes out well.
I wasn’t going to have an epigraph for the book, but I came across this in Matthew Nino’s work, and wrote to him. I just had a very visceral reaction to it. “Who can face the sea and not inherit its loneliness” is very much what my book is about. And he agreed to let me use it, and he was quite forthcoming about the fact that the character doesn’t exist—it’s a character, it’s not a person. And that to me felt very much in-line with the epigraph of the title poem, which is this Welsh word: a homesickness for a home to which you can’t return, or maybe never existed. And I liked very much that idea of pointing out that the work is of course a fiction. It’s a home to which you can’t return.
I think in general, though, the epigraph is very much a tie-in to California, to leaving the coast, and leaving everything I was brought up to believe the coast was, and what it meant to me. Everybody thinks of California as this ‘Liberal Safe Space,’ and that’s not at all my experience. It’s certainly different than everywhere else I’ve lived, and I do love it. It’s beautiful, and everything tastes better at sea level! But it’s no sanctuary.
INSCAPE: Great, thank you. Thinking about your five poems that are portraits of myself or myselves—at various ages or states and genders—what attracts you to the self-portrait, and to revisiting it again and again?
MD: I think first and foremost, the idea that we are very far from unchanging. We are not static beings. I think of a self-portrait as trying to find the right title for yourself: what lens can I look through to be sure that I see myself right. And I think that exploring that has been deeply cathartic, but also really healing. I came up in a religious household, and I came up in a home where femininity was really aggressive. I was put in homemade dresses, I had very long hair I was not allowed to cut, and there was a lot of reactive panic about the person that they imagined I could become. So I try to bring justice to that, through mourning, through self-examination, through multiplicity.
I don’t read those poems anymore: at the beginning, it felt like this very public sort of defiance. It felt very defiant, I felt provoked. These poems felt much louder to me at the time, and much more abrasive or aggressive. They wanted to be seen in some way. And I read them now, and I just want to reach out to that person who was writing those poems and offer compassion and tenderness. I didn’t know that I was hurting, and that these were coming out of mourning. They’re not happy poems. They tend to be a little dark, and they tend to be sort of snapshots. And I didn’t know that was a hurt I had to tend. They ended up being quite personal poems, and they’re not easy for me to read in public, I think probably because I feel so certain that I am being misread. So the self-portrait has become yet again this false representation. The poem doesn’t allow the audience the full picture: the reaction becomes instead, “There’s two genders in one self, and you’re imagining yourself as an old man.”
INSCAPE: This is a question that I’m personally invested in, because it’s something that I’m thinking about with my own poetry. Your collection contains lines that speak to feeling a multitude of emotions—you’ll have seemingly opposite ones at the same time. Do you see your poems as having some kind of emotional responsibility to your reader, or just in general?
MD: I talk about this with my students a lot, about the responsibility of the poet. I think often we get sidetracked around the public responsibility of the poet. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about the private responsibility of the poet, which maybe we should. Very recently, I had my thesis students start ‘required daydreaming.’ They have to sit there and daydream, and they can’t do anything else. Earlier in the Q & A we were talking about images, and how lovely it is to look at things, and to be an observer in the world: I think that we do have an emotional responsibility around the attention of the observer. I think of attention as just like a certain kind of love. If it is that we, as poets, are after directing attention to things as a way to show their worth, inevitably as a way to preserve them and prevent one another from destroying them, then absolutely we have an obligation to look directly at the devastation and the terror and find some kind of love in it. I think that we do have a responsibility in that way, to be archivists. But also, to be investigators who interrogate why it is that we feel what we feel
INSCAPE: Do you see being a poet as your responsibility?
MD: I must feel some kind of obligation. I must. I think about teaching much more as a responsibility. I’m built for it, and I am made humble by it, but I’m also really good at it. I was made to do it, and I can’t imagine a thing that I could spend my time doing that would be more important in the world. And I think that teaching makes me a better poet, and poems make me a better teacher. It feels very much like one of those symbiotic relationships. I feel an impulse towards it. I’m definitely not one of those people feels like if they spend even a moment away from the page, the spark will die. That’s not how I feel about poems: I just feel moved by the world, and that’s the one way that I can hit all cylinders at once.
INSCAPE: I hope this question is okay, if it’s too sensitive that’s fine. As a person who’s hard of hearing, it’s especially impressive that your poems are so sonically strong—they have an amazing sound to them. Do you find that your disability informs the way that you use sound?
MD: I’m profoundly deaf now: I haven’t been my whole life. I have hearing aids that sort of calibrate to peoples’ voices. It’s really cyborg! It has been weird, but I don’t write poems with my tech in anymore. I stopped doing that in college when I realized that I was trying to read aloud, which was like anticipating a hearing audience. Which was in effect negating the possibility of a deaf audience. That felt deeply sad to me, this erasure of American poetics and American readers. I’ve been told for years that I have a great ear, and it comes out of a fascination with sound. We all like music: it gets us wild. I was obsessed with the radio, because the radio is a thing you can put your hand to and feel. It’s like a drum: you can feel the rhythm, the beat. I think just fascination with sound, and then this intense obsession with trying to fill my poems with sonic play. I was often told that my poems needed sounds that leap across the field instead of sounding like some jackhammer in a city.
I memorized rhymes and I learned scansion by sight. I think many folks would see that as some sort of overcoming narrative: I adapted and I figured out how to survive in American poetics, not disability poetics and not deaf poetics. And it doesn’t feel that way. It feels really sad to me now. We spend so much time saying, “Be yourself, have your own individual voice!” But you don’t get to be an individual if you’re disabled. You get to be what you have, and that isn’t always welcome. I still feel really excited about sound, but I think of sound as in the mouth. I love a poem that feels good in the mouth. I think that’s where it comes from. I have no idea what my poems sound like. I could guess, but the poems in which I feel confident are poems that I toiled over to get right. But it’s all with hearing folks in mind, and there’s a grief to that.”
INSCAPE: “What is deaf poetry? What do you mean by that?”
MD: So we have American poetics, and in America we have American Sign Language, and it doesn’t exist outside this country. So you would assume American poetics would include all of the people that live in America, or at least in the United States. But because of the bimodal tendencies of ASL, it’s not published. There’s no way to represent that textually, and we’ve not done any work in poetics to figure out how to welcome it or make it accessible or give it value. Deaf Literature is rich! And there are a lot of deaf poets. But they’re not counted under American poetry.
I’m deaf and I write in English, there are a lot of us. But specifically with ASL, to be able to write poems or perform poems in my native language, and not have them called pictures, would be radical. Would be baseline. If you don’t feel rhythm in the same way, because your body is built differently, we see that as poetry that’s not good. Our aesthetics are so shaped by our privileges, because we like poets that write like they have had access to education. Our aesthetics are this site of really intense politic. There are huge groups of people that we don’t ever get to read, unless it is that they’ve conformed to this idea of American aesthetics. It’s kind of a fascinating problem, but it is another site of systematic exclusion of particular voices because they don’t fit what is normal, especially with disability poetics. Like I was saying earlier at the Q & A, this idea of a wrong body: how could you have a body that is wrong? I can imagine being unhappy with your body, I’ve been there. I can imagine being afraid of your body, I’ve been there. I can imagine wanting your body to change, or be different in many ways. But wrong is such a projection from the culture in a way that I think is so scary and damaging. It implies that others know better than you do about what your body should be.
INSCAPE: Thank you. I just have one more question, and this is a very general one that I was encouraged to ask. What advice do you have for beginning writers, particularly poets? The main audience for this journal is mostly Mormons. I’ve just been thinking about the way that you write about God, and you write about faith, and trying to create a more inclusive God or inclusive faith. And I really like that. What kind of advice do you have for poets and writers at BYU?
MD: I think two things: the first one I hope tends your question well. I mentioned Susan Howell, who sat at that symposium in 2014 on the illuminated word and devotional poetics. She said that we all have gods of our own making. That is a really radical thing to say, period. But it’s also a really radical thing to say in this space. At the time, I felt against that. I mean it’s such a reductive moment. I think that that’s the thing that I would push emerging poets at BYU towards, is examining that moment of refusal. Why refuse a god? I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, I have refused many things that I have wished to hold up in some kind of hierarchy. But I also think that there’s such important self-interrogation there around the question, “What is it that makes you want to be alive?” How is that not God? What makes you want to stay? And then seeing what makes other people want to stay is just a different way in figuring out what your obligation is to the reader. If I have to anticipate your god but also honor mine, the poem has to do acrobatics that it didn’t previously anticipate. And I don’t think it comes down to honoring or disrespecting, I think it comes down to openness of what is it that makes you temporarily permanent on the planet. I really want you, as I want for myself, to experience the outer boundaries. I think of writing in general in this way. Welcoming the adventure of it, and of being wrecked proper. Of being ruined. Moving towards the thing that obliterates you, but still allowing yourself to keep going and tell about it. Something about openness and something about not refusing others’ gods and recognizing that that can arrive in a lot of ways. I felt very resistant prior to this book to calling God “God.” For some reason I felt much more comfortable with the word Lord. But we call our God, or our gods, by a lot of names. I think that there’s a lot of generosity possible in that space.
The second thing I would say is: keep showing up. People told me all the time, “You need a writing habit, you need to show up for an hour every day to the page, you need to do this, you have to have a fancy notebook, there has to be a fancy pen, you have to have pages to show for it.” There are a lot of ways to show up to writing, and most of it doesn’t happen at the page. So I would encourage intentional deviation from what it is that one has been taught, in the spirit of experimentation. Asking yourself, “Does this work for me?” I really like standing in line. I like taking showers, and I like standing in lines, it’s the place where poems happen easiest for me. It’s not waiting in my car in line, it’s standing with people in line. It works for me. But I wouldn’t have known that had I been tethered to the idea that writing happens at the page. I wouldn’t have known, had I not expanded my idea of what writing is. But you have to show up, that’s the thing you do have to do. I don’t write very often, but I am always writing.”
INSCAPE: “Thank you so much, these are so wonderful.”
MD: “Oh, thank you! What do you think about all this? What advice do you have for your peers, or for me?”
INSCAPE: “No, I don’t think I have any advice for you! I really liked what you said about being open: I just read Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet,’ and that section where he talks about how most people only explore one corner of the room in their brain, and there’s this idea of being completely open. That really resonates with me.”
MD: I like to ask myself, “What if the opposite is true?” What happens when we get into the nitty-gritty of the question, “Why is art always inside, or in a frame?” We get back to the aesthetics question very, very swiftly. But I like that. Some people look at it as, “’Last Psalm at Sea Level,’ that’s a risky title!” But I like to think, “What if it’s risky to use any other title?” What if this is exactly as it should be, and I just have to live through and deal with whatever comes of it. Will that teach me more about being alive? It might. So let’s do it. That openness is crucial.
INSCAPE: “That’s great. I think BYU kids particularly need more of that.”
MD: Maybe everybody needs more of that. I think BYU is its own ecosystem, its own microcosm, its own bubble, but the institution where I work is also its own bubble. It has different rules, it functions under a different system, but it still has a system. And it still has a hierarchy. We’re all just trying to figure out what way works. BYU has its own way of working, and my college has its own way of working. Sometimes they might be at odds, but what if it’s right? The poet has to ask.