A native of Waterloo, Ontario, Cori Martin has worked variously in music and arts management, journalism, and university English teaching in places as far-flung as Toronto, Connecticut, New York City, Washington D.C., and (currently) Columbus, Ohio. She shared insights into her winning poems in a conversation with Occasional Verse adjudicator Kim Jernigan over e-mail in August of this year. The poems themselves and some of our judges’ comments appear in issue 136 (October 2015) or you can read them online here.
Kim Jernigan: In an interview about “Hired Men” and “Christmas Cattle” (a pair of poems that made it into the OV winners circle in 2013), John Haney asked you about the way the poems skirt the issue of “un-faith.” They are deceptively simple narrative poems delivered in a child’s voice, though something of the adult that child has become is evident in the poems’ retrospective endings. Both entertain questions of faith, balancing an expression of doubt against a respectful, even nostalgic, appreciation of those steadfast in their beliefs. “Quilters,” this year’s winning poem, also entertains people of faith, the quilters of the title, but the voice of the poem seems more mature, the appreciation of other people’s faith less qualified if still not shared. How conscious of this were you in the writing?
Cori Martin: I’m not sure if I was conscious of that particular comparison while writing, though I don’t disagree with it. But for me both poems are nostalgic—involving beliefs or practices that I no longer share but that were on some level a part of my past. That nostalgia carries a sense of loss and longing for those beliefs/practices in addition to the ultimate rejection of them. If other readers respond to the poems differently, though, that’s fine too.
Our judges made much of the linguistic play in these poems, the way the patterning of sound and language maps on to the patterns in the quilts. It’s something the poem itself points to, complimenting the quilters for accomplishing with fabric what you attempt in words: “With piercing / needle nibs for quills, their rhythmic skill inscribed / a wordless text, from fabric fabricating / poetry.” The difference is that theirs is a communal art, the poet’s solo and consequently, perhaps, more prideful and more lonely? Do you find the poet’s vocation lonesome, or are there other ways in which it, too, is a communal undertaking?
Having grown up in the Mennonite church where congregational part-singing is highly prized and then later working for a time as a professional singer, often with small ensembles, I can testify that there are few things more rewarding (to me) than making music with other people. It is the essence of communion. By contrast, writing poetry is, I find, excruciatingly lonely except when you get the good fortune to have someone read it and understand it. Writing, like any other communication, isn’t fulfilled without someone to catch it at the other end. This was the great pleasure for me in the Occasional Verse contest—the judges were sharp and sensitive and knowledgeable and insightful readers. That is the real reward. On the other hand, for a control freak like me, poetry provides the chance to exercise my brain and shape a work entirely on my own, which is also kind of satisfying.
The “turn” in the poem has to do with the uses to which the quilts so made are put, the way they see their recipients through all of life’s passages: birth, love, illness, death. We were interested in this context by your choice of the word “gaudily” to describe how the quilt swaddles childhood, embraces lovers, soothes the sick, and shrouds the dying. Thoughts? And about the way the quilt becomes by poem’s end a “banner”? Did you have in mind, perhaps, that old Christian hymn “Fling out the banner”?
I think I saw the brilliant colors of the quilt as being “gaudy” because they’re in such bold contrast to the sober black clothing the people are otherwise compelled to wear. Just super-colorful rather than garish or anything pejorative. “Gaudy” also has the sense of gaudium, “joy,” so there is also a way in which the women’s joy in making the quilt becomes a part of its fabric. As for “banner,” I don’t think I know the hymn you mentioned, but I did, as you suggest, have a sort of ritual element in mind there—as when in a (non-Mennonite!) church liturgical banners are carried in procession on high holy days. I think the allusion in the back of my mind was “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love” (Song of Solomon 2:4).
The poem “Christ in the House of Mary and Martha” is a departure from the others of yours I’ve read. A dramatic monologue in the voice of Martha, it’s full of gusto as Martha lays out her complaint about being left to provide the meal while Mary sits at the feet of the prophet. Her rant is fueled by a sense of injustice done, but one of the other judges pointed out how slyly you undercut her righteous indignation, for the monologue is itself a tour of the deadly sins: pride, gluttony, envy… Still, I have the feeling that you are on Martha’s side in the argument. Am I right?
It’s hard not to sympathize with Martha since she and her groceries are front and center in the painting by Vincenzo Campi on which the poem is based. (Christ with Mary and the disciples at his feet are seen only distantly through a window.) It seems that Campi wanted us to feel drawn to her situation. After all, there are piles and piles of food that would surely take poor Martha weeks to prepare for the supper table! Plus there is a feminine resentment in me that someone (usually a woman) has to see to everyone else’s needs, even in this day and age: you just know those disciples will be digging in when the food is ready. And it’s not like Martha isn’t also interested in what Christ has to say and might be wanting to sit at his feet too. Furthermore, isn’t Christ a bit hypocritical telling a woman not to labor away on his behalf, and yet relying on free meals and lodging throughout his travels? On the few occasions when he himself does prepare food or drink, say, at the wedding at Cana, or feeding the five thousand, he creates a meal by magic, not by the hard labor required of others who serve him. Does Martha express a litany of “deadly sins” or a litany of pretty normal human responses, whether or not they’re admirable? If only they had just ordered in pizza.
This poem and another of yours on our short list (“Horse and Train”) was written in response to a painting. Both are highly visual, but “Mary and Martha” is more broadly sensual. Is this a challenge you set yourself, to approach metaphysical questions through the physical. Or perhaps that’s the only way to approach such questions, so you make a virtue of necessity?
These are such interesting questions! I think the visual/sensual aspect is a natural result of basing the poem on a painting. It’s almost a comical portrait with Martha surrounded by mountainous loads of vegetables, fruits, fish, and game. In fact the artist, Vicenzo Campi, favored large-scale canvasses of produce—fish markets, and vegetable markets, and still-life genre pictures, so I suspect the story of Mary and Martha may have been just a pretext for his painting these luxurious piles of food, which really are the dominant element of the scene. I also love to cook and I love food history, so it was tempting to imagine what Martha might create with all those preposterous ingredients—like an episode of Chopped! But it’s really Campi who places the metaphysical question in the midst of this sensual, physical environment.
That said, the relationship of physical food and metaphorical/metaphysical meaning is prominent in Christian theology anyway—there are quite a few scenes in the gospels of Jesus eating and/or feeding people, most obviously in the last supper, where he chooses a meal as a lasting representation of himself. So the food in the Mary and Martha story (and thus Campi’s painting) seems to have some typological relationship with the sacramental meal, perhaps an inversion of it? On that subject, I was so glad that a TNQ judge caught one of several allusions to George Herbert’s Love III (“Love Bade Me Welcome”), a poem that totally physicalizes the communion meal, with the unworthy poet sitting in a tavern and Christ the inn-keeper waiting on him (“What do ye lack?”). I had Herbert’s poem very much in mind, and my Martha’s attitude is a reversal of those physicalized roles of server and served or host/Host and guest. I’ll leave it to readers to think about how or whether that reversal works (physically and/or metaphysically).
Okay, and on a more trivial note, how do you plan to spend your prize money?
Haven’t thought that far . . . but I’m sure something unworthy will come up, like fixing the plumbing!