Risk for the Sake of Beauty:
An Interview with Laura Maher
Laura Maher is the author of the chapbook, Sleep Water (Dancing Girl Press, 2017). Her work has appeared in The Common, Crazyhorse, The Collagist, New Ohio Review, and Third Coast. She is the recipient of awards from the Spring Creek Project, Arizona Commission on the Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and the Academy of American Poets. Maher holds a Master of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She lives and writes in Tucson, Arizona.
LH: “Every desert poem needs a stark image, a figure in crisp shadow,/ something slow-moving, dried-up, just on the edge of living/ and dying, a husk of something recognizable.” These lines begin the poem “Root”—a poem that serves as a kind of multivalent guide on not only how to write a poem set in the desert, but also how to truly see the landscape’s abundance. The poem also seems to be a meditation on being, a reminder that the desert is also a state of consciousness. I’d like to let this poem serve as a “root” for the rest of our conversation about your chapbook, Sleep Water.
Can you start by telling us a little about what it was like to grow up in the Sonoran desert of Arizona? How do you think your poetic sensibilities were influenced by this specific climate?
LM: I never thought it strange, growing up here. I think my childhood maybe just had more instances of pulling cactus thorns from my limbs than other people’s childhoods!
Just like any place, there was the natural rhythm of the seasons—except that summers were spent indoors in the heat of the day and spent outside at night. (All that did was spark a love of the night sky and less fear of the dark, I think.) Growing up in the desert also just gave me a really keen awareness about skincare regimens. (Sunscreen during the day and rosehip oil at night!)
My poetic sensibilities were certainly informed by this landscape and climate. Most people will call upon the starkness of the desert as its key quality—so little alive, so little shade, so little water—but in reality, a desert is alive with as much as any other place, but usually on a different scale. People have been living here for thousands of years, and many of the traditional practices—collecting fruit from saguaros, grinding mesquite beans into flour, irrigation practices and water harvesting, making adobe bricks from mud—are still part of how people consciously live here. Plants and animals also have to rely on each other in the desert is pretty direct way—the bats that migrate through this desert time their flight with the flowering of the saguaro blooms, which open just for a few days. This nectar sustains their thousands of miles of flight—and like with many symbiotic ecological relationships, it’s a scientist’s guess which came first. A young saguaro cactus will only survive the intense sun of this desert if it grows under the shade of a mesquite tree for its first ten years or so (these mesquite groves are therefore called a nursery). It is not easy to grow in the desert, yet, there is such abundance and life when you turn your attention to seeing it. This is the sense that I try to bring to poetry—that every word is reliant upon what is around it, that you must take risks in order to make something beautiful, that a poem can hold secrets and can live multiple lives. I think a made thing—be it poem or desert plant—must be constructed in order to sustain life in extraordinary circumstances.
LH: What is something you find most non-desert dwellers assume about the landscape and/ or the people living there?
LM: Perhaps that there is a harshness to life here, and to the people. I’d call it more a toughness—it isn’t easy to live in a place with such heat, but a person can get accustomed to quite a lot with a little extra care. There is a slower pace to things, though I find that generally true of the West, not just of the desert, and that has an appeal to me.
The desert is a place that grows slowly, but blooms quickly. This is how I want my work to come into the world too.
LH: Are there any lessons you’ve learned by living in the desert that apply directly or indirectly to writing? In what ways has the desert been a mentor for aesthetics or any part of your writing practice?
LM: Yes, absolutely. The most important lesson is patience. I am a slow writer and reviser; I often will sit with ideas for weeks before committing them to paper, much less publishing them. The desert is a place that grows slowly, but blooms quickly. This is how I want my work to come into the world too.
LH: “Root” and other poems in the collection deftly address the ineffability of the desert’s expanses, its mystique, and starkness, and there is also a recognition throughout the collection of memory’s inability to properly recollect what’s been seen and experienced. And yet, the beauty is in the trying. The beauty is in the scratching of memory, testing the substance of it, uncovering layers. I also think that your recognition of ineffability and the inadequacy of memory are partly what keep your poems from becoming nostalgic. In your poem, “Into the Night,” the speaker says:
is spoken into an empty
room; the other side,
another empty room, so far
it could be another life.
is spoken into
a tin can—it is
echoing, is refrain
and verse, it is metallic
and altogether godlike.
It isn’t true, most
of it anyway, because
memory is often
a lie, or a half-truth
we tell to go on believing...
Can you talk about how memory functions in Sleep Water? What advice do you have for poets who want to write about their hometowns but avoid creating a nostalgic and therefore less genuine portrayal of a place and time?
The stories that I remember, that my brother remembers, are different and wild, and make me realize how easily ruptured our sense of self and the world can be. This is the place for poetry to explore, especially because memories shift, language and meaning constantly change, and so does our relationship to the world.
LM: Memory has become a routine theme in my work, despite not directly paying attention to the fact that I was writing about memories again and again. Maybe it's just that I seemed to think that memories were static, created narratives when I was younger, and then with time—as it is with many people—my connection to my past and my experiences changed. My heartbreaks, my successes, those important milestones are understood differently or even forgotten. Add in other people’s remembrances and memories, and that territory becomes even stranger.
I remember once when I was a kid, my uncle, my dad’s older brother, came to Arizona for a visit. He lived in Pennsylvania, near my father’s hometown, but he and my dad had lived most of their adult lives across the country from each other. They spent the trip sharing stories, recounting different narratives of the same experience from their childhoods, and many that they each remarked upon that they had forgotten except for the triggered memory from their brother. At the time, I was young—8 or 9—and I remember thinking how strange it was that these adults could have forgotten pivotal childhood experiences and that I knew that wouldn’t be true for my brother and me when we got older. But guess what? The stories that I remember, that my brother remembers, are different and wild, and make me realize how easily ruptured our sense of self and the world can be. This is the place for poetry to explore, especially because memories shift, language and meaning constantly change, and so does our relationship to the world.
I’ll share another example: my mom and aunt are identical twins, and into adulthood still look similarly, a fact that many of my childhood friends found incredible and strange. They always wondered if I got confused or if I had a hard time telling them apart. I never did, and so I never really worried about it. The fear about misidentifying the person to whom you should be most connected—the mother—is rooted in a primal fear, I think, but because I had no attachment to that fear, it never consumed me. The same is true for memory—what stories we tell ourselves about our memories are as interesting of an obsession than any objective reality.
Of course, I say all this, and I also have this deep need to express just how important I believe an objective reality is, particularly at this time in the world. This is why I love poetry: that it is a place for play and risk as much as it is a place to understand difficult truths. Poetry teaches me to reflect on what I believe, to test what I take for granted, and to understand where and why these ideas have appeared.
LH: I’d like to end on this: many of the poems in this collection center around romantic relationships. I think it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on how memory and longing function in Sleep Water but in regards to romantic relationships. It’s difficult to avoid nostalgia when it comes to past relationships, and maybe even more difficult to avoid resentment and blame. Your work doesn’t give in to what I would call “those lesser emotions” despite revisiting past loves, past heartbreaks. What are your views on stance in poetry? Is it something you are aware of while you are writing or is it something you address during revision?
Poetry teaches me to reflect on what I believe, to test what I take for granted, and to understand where and why these ideas have appeared.
LM: I like your word stance, because it calls attention to just how much control a writer has in forming the position of the speaker, the objects, the construction of memory, and those informed truths. I like to play with this stance in revision, sure, but I think it most often comes fully formed in a poem from the beginning. Nostalgia is an interesting emotion because I think it colors so much of my thinking about the past, whether I want it to or not. Little good can come from it and I can recognize it as misleading, yet it is also an oddly satisfying indulgence to try and color a past experience with new light. Mentioning the lesser emotions is important too, because it is hard to get away from how I may be perceived as a woman in the world. Romantic relationships—where I have most clearly confronted intimacy, risk, and reward in my interpersonal life—come to the page because writing a poem is an intimate, risky, rewarding act too. I am critical of my love poems, because I am aware that my stance as a female-identified person in body and on the page is more easily discredited. There’s no objective reason for this to be true except that I have carried it, and a lot of my writing begins because there are things I simply don’t want to carry around anymore.