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February 2008 - Interview: Marbach
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  with Donna M. Marbach

Eve Anthony Hanninen,
artist, poet, writer and editor
of The Centrifugal Eye
dishes with
Donna M. Marbach,
artist, poet, author and editor
of ByLine Magazine.

                      Fertile Feasts & Festooned Festivities

EAH: You know, Donna, I've been accused of having 35,000 projects simmering at once, but I think you're the first person I've met that really does! Kidding aside, I'm heartened by the plethora of your artistic interests.

Have you always been so creative-driven?

DMM: I never thought of myself as being creative-driven, yet I discovered the arts at an early age and chose them for an alternative life-style. While growing up in a blue-collar family that had only ten books, I had my life transformed during elementary school by two wonderful people: The first was my first-grade teacher who nurtured my inherent curiosity and encouraged that which you call my creative drive. The other was a girlfriend's mother who took me to the public library to get my first library card. These two individuals introduced me to books and art. My involvement in these activities earned me recognition from adults and acceptance by my peers.

I wrote musicals and plays, school newspapers, and poems, even illustrated my own books. At age 13, I sent a poem to the Monterey Peninsula Herald's annual poetry contest (for adults). Much to my delighted surprise the editors published The Little Cowboy and even paid me three whole dollars! I was hooked.

In high school, I edited the literary magazine, was feature editor of the school newspaper, and named Junior Poet Laureate of the Monterey Peninsula. I also fell in love for the first time; the young man (now a Hollywood screenplay writer) became the next biggest influence on my life. David introduced me to real theater, classical literature, foreign and independent films, local artists and writers. Together we explored enchanting places: Doc's Lab on Cannery Row, the art galleries of Carmel, and the beaches of Seventeen-Mile Drive. I'd tasted a world so invigorating, I was determined to become part of it. And though I continue to hold all the arts close to my heart, writing has probably rooted the deepest.

EAH: You're the current poetry editor for ByLine Magazine. How is editing poetry similar to editing features?

DMM: I still need to come up with interesting ideas for columns and feature stories, contend with deadlines, proof-readings, and layouts.

Whether a feature or poetry editor, one still needs to be sensitive to the work of others — even when it doesn't quite live up to standards. Editors must demand quality without being destructive. Communicate clearly, be supportive, and say no tactfully.

ByLine publishes poetry from both novices and well-known poets, which allows me to accept a wide range of voices and poetic skill. I think it's encouraging to novice poets to have their work side-by-side with more well-known, accomplished writers.

EAH: Some educators hold the opinion that in order to master a skill or art, a student must devote singular attention to it without allowing for competing interests. Were you ever discouraged as I was from one or the other craft (arts vs. writing) by a "well-meaning mentor?"

DMM: I don't know about well-meaning, but I did have a professor in college tell me I wrote so atrociously that I shouldn't even be in college and must never consider a career requiring coherent thought or communication.

EAH: Oh, my.

DMM: And recently I received a rejection from a respected editor who declared that I don't write poetry at all — just prose broken into lines.

EAH: That's certainly a common poetics argument. What's your stance on it?

DMM: Ah, yes! Is it live, or is it MEMOREX®? The "unanswerable" question: what is poetry and what prose? The line between poetry and prose has become blurred by publishers in recent years. Carolyn Forché's The Colonel is a perfect example, having been anthologized as both prose-poem and short-short story.

I think a piece of writing is whatever the author says it is. Much as in the visual arts, where a similar debate continues over pieces such as Marcel DuChamp's Fountain, or the paintings of Jackson Pollock. Is it art or not?

In the case of my friend, the editor — while his criticisms may have some validity — his comment, stated as fact, seems more about his aesthetic than my work. The comment hurt because what it communicated was I think your work is bad. His criticism wasn't constructive. A more thoughtful editor might have said, I'd like to see more music, metaphor or subtlety in your work, clearly expressing an opinion and providing specific areas I might reconsider.

Words are powerful tools and must be carefully used — especially by people in positions of perceived authority or expertise. Teachers, editors, published authors have the ability with a mere turn of phrase to either encourage someone's passion or to destroy it. Opinion shouldn't be stated as fact.

EAH: Agreed—like that editor, long-ago, who told me I couldn't be successful at both writing and art and must choose between them. I admit it took some years juggling activities before finding ways to marry my interests satisfactorily.

DMM: Exactly. Those who believe one must devote singular attention to an art in order to master it may, in some cases, have a valid point. For example, I doubt Russian gymnast Nadia Comaneci could have been as great as she was if she hadn't been obsessively devoted to her sport. The same is often true of great musicians, who begin practicing instruments at age two.

But many people don't pursue painting with intentions of recreating the Sistine Chapel, or begin writing determined to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I believe anybody can be taught the basics of painting, writing, singing, acting, and produce art that's pleasing to themselves and others. Every art has teachable skills, and I believe people should follow their interests in as many divergent directions as pleases them.

EAH: Among the veritable feast of activities you indulge in, which are most appealing?

DMM: I've the attention of a fruit-fly and forever flit from one activity to another. Today I might be fascinated with Mexican folk dancing, then tomorrow become fixated on encaustic painting. Maybe its boredom, but once I've mastered an art to a certain level, I tend to lose interest and move on to something else. It might be weeks or months before it recaptures my interest.

Like most writers, I'm an avid reader — primarily of novels and poetry — though I'll occasionally consume a riveting memoir, history, or journalistic narrative. I'm equally entranced with movies and the performing arts: theater, ballet, the orchestra.

I dabble in all kinds of artsy-craftsy things: photography, needlework, candle-making, printmaking, scratchboard, collage, stained glass, jewelry and even dollhouse miniatures.

EAH: We've talked before about your in-progress dollhouse and your fascination with its tiny decorative pieces. Do you decorate your real house for holiday celebrations?

DMM: For holidays, we've always had special decorations. When my children were younger we often made decorations ourselves: construction-paper chains, pipe-cleaner reindeers and origami tree ornaments for Christmas. For Halloween, we've carved pumpkins, made spiders and bats from Styrofoam balls, and put a Freddy Krueger mask on old clothes stuffed with straw to make a creepy Scarecrow for our front yard.

Our family has all sorts of personal rituals and traditions, whether it's leaving a note with Santa's cookies (and getting a reply on Christmas day) or donning green derbies on St. Patrick's Day. Of course, each holiday has its own special meal — turkey on Thanksgiving, ham at Easter, corned beef on St. Patrick's Day, and a barbecue for the Fourth of July.

Now that my children are mostly grown, holidays have lost some of their pizzazz. The family still gets together for special meals on major holidays, but occasionally I feel as if we're just going through the motions. Something's lost. Maybe it's because there aren't any wide-eyed toddlers for whom everything is new and magical. Or, perhaps, it's the empty chairs where an uncle, cousin, or parent once sat. Maybe it's simply that as my children have developed more serious relationships, they divide their holiday time between two families.

EAH: Favorite holiday? Least?

DMM: My favorite has to be Halloween— where we've enjoyed dressing up, making costumes, having parties and watching spooky movies. Although recently, we get so few kids trick-or-treating — costumes all store-bought and treats mandatorily wrapped — that even that holiday has dimmed. Gone are the days of homemade pumpkin cookies and fresh apples. In becoming socially isolated from our neighbors, we trust less and share less of our individual traditions that used to make holidays special.

I love discovering new ways to celebrate holidays. Although not Jewish, we learned from friends how to celebrate a Seder — Passover meal — and have on occasion celebrated it as a reminder that — Jew, Christian, or Muslim — our faiths all originated in the same place. We've also learned the tradition behind menorahs and how to play with dreidels, so that we can enjoy Hanukkah as well as Christmas. (I hate that public school choirs can no longer sing Christmas Carols at winter assemblies. Instead of hiding our varied beliefs and traditions, I'd rather see them shared, learned, and yes, even enjoyed by everyone.) Exchanging traditions helps us connect with one another.

Living in Mexico helped us to understand traditions there, such as los dias des los angelitos y los muertos (The Days of the Dead), and los Posadas, the procession that imitates the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter. This event, beautifully recreated in song and story among neighbors, is much like old-fashioned caroling. Learning and participating in these feasts and festivities has given our family new perspectives and enriched our lives.

Of all holidays, my least favorite is New Year's. There's something melancholy about New Year's Eve, when everyone looks at all the deaths, wars, and political issues of the previous twelve months. I'm rarely uplifted or inspired to start anew. Instead, New Year's feels to me like a funeral for the past year and a head-on stare into the mirror of mortality.

EAH: Holidays are a source of pain for some families and individuals, as many of the poems in this issue of The Centrifugal Eye illustrate. Is poetry an effective medium for reaching out to those who experience holiday blues?

DMM: For some, writing poetry can be therapeutic. Poetry's a way for people to emote, or to release pain in a constructive manner. However, I think good poetry must go beyond self-confessional release. For me, good — or at least good public — poetry is a vehicle for communication. Good poetry can still be playful, as in Carroll's Jabberwocky, surreal and dreamlike as in the work of André Breton, or even obtuse and highly academic like Clayton Eschelman's. Words that are merely strung together may be considered journaling, brainstorming, emoting, or even a kind of private poetry, but for my aesthetics, such writing is not good public poetry.

EAH: Private poetry is generally characterized as using unspecific references, abstract or overused concepts, uninteresting diction, few visual images, clichéd phrasing, and lacking in poetic devices. It's typified as being over-sentimental and often employs angst as poor substitution for poignancy. It's most often too-particularly individual (while remaining curiously distancing) to appeal to the majority of readers. Would you agree?

DMM: Yes, and no. While I agree that private poetry is often characterized by all those things you list — things that are problematic for any poetry that's to be published — I don't believe that all private poetry contains these flaws.

For me, the key descriptive words are too-particularly individual. I think we've all written that occasional confessional or angry poem — perhaps well-crafted — that would embarrass or hurt others if sent out for publication. Writing it was still a valuable way for us to vent our emotions or expose our dirty laundry. We may also have written a fine poem to a lover that is rampant with metaphor and allusions, but the specifics of those references may be meaningless to anyone else, and thus inappropriate for a larger audience.

Although there's a place for private poetry, published poetry should reflect a certain level of craft, have universal appeal, and be accessible to a reasonably-sized audience. That doesn't mean all poems needs to be logical, literal, or even translatable into other words, but they somehow need to communicate our shared humanity.

While our poetry can be a comfort to others by sharing laughter, awe, or unspeakable joy, I think that voicing our hurts, vulnerabilities and doubts is important, as long as we're careful not to lapse into sentimentality. Candid communication opens further communication and invites trust. It shows others they're not alone, that we all have experienced similar pain, humiliation or despair. Mutual comfort can be found in disclosure.

Poets, more so than writers in other genres, are blessed with an abundance of poetry-reading opportunities. Attending readings builds social support and connections. Readings are like communal meals, where everyone exchanges thoughts, experiences, joys and frustrations. Conversations may spill over into cups of coffee shared afterwards. Poetry can be one way of countering the 21st Century's tendency towards social isolation.

EAH: Your essay in this issue looks at the alliance and analogy of eating with writing — just as many of our celebrations are trussed, like turkey legs and wings, to food and feasting. Do you like to cook, whether for family meals, dinner parties, or large holiday shindigs?

DMM: Do I like to cook? Sure, if it comes in a box or a can and heats up in the microwave. Seriously, of recent years it's the sad truth: everyone in our family seems to be too busy to have a regular sit-down meal (except on special occasions). The curse of technology, myriad activities, and fast-food.

I'm a reasonably-good cook and our family does continue the tradition of home-cooked meals at holidays, although my grown daughters now do much of that cooking. We still roast turkeys the "old-fashioned way," without aluminum foil, cooking bags or thermometers. We use cheese cloth, sear the skin to seal the juices, and baste every half hour.

In my younger —childless—days, we often exchanged dinner party invitations with friends, but fell out of the habit when screaming toddlers dropped catsup on white rugs or tipped over milk at each meal.

EAH: When I read your poems, Insatiable and The Hunger, I suspected you had firsthand experience with anorexia nervosa, and likely, other food disorders. Do you have "food issues?"

DMM: Yes, a bit. I grew up with a mother, 5'2" inches tall and model gorgeous, who always thought she was obese if she hit 100 lbs. She's been obsessed with weight her entire life. And my father nicknamed me Crisco® as a teenager (Fat-in-the-can), a hurtful name that added to my list of insecurities. I still feel guilty when the scale creeps up a few pounds.

My most intense experiences with food disorders came with my work in the mental health field. I've seen the damage anorexia nervosa and bulimia can do and have been attuned to its potential destructiveness in my own children and their friends. Luckily, my children, while not the healthiest eaters on this planet, don't have weight issues. I think they all value conduct and caring above appearance — their own or other people's.

EAH: Do themes around food and "not-eating" show up often in your writing?

DMM: I'd never thought much about the relationship before working on this project with you. Now, looking through my work, I see I frequently use eating as a metaphor for control, anger, inquisitiveness, or danger. And, as mentioned in my essay, I tend to use the vocabulary of eating readily. I think poets often have words, images, or objects that recur in their work — consciously or unconsciously.

In reading Janice N. Harrington's Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone (a beautifully crafted book), I was struck by the number of times she repeated certain words, such as yellow, magnolia, persimmon, cast iron, and dust. Henri Cole's Middle Earth is another work that contains a repetitive vocabulary. As for my own poetry, I definitely notice such recurrences. In addition to tasty eating words, I find I often use images of glass, mirrors, water, kites, shadows, and light.

EAH: In line with your tasty writing references, might one describe your job history as a banquet of assorted dishes?

DMM: I'd characterize it more as goulash, but my job history definitely has been diverse. Right now, I market academic and scholarly books for a small, combined, book-exhibit company, The Scholar's Choice, but my entire life has been more a series of jobs than any kind of definable career or occupation. I've washed dishes, sold sportswear, been a security guard, counseled women offenders and substance abusers, supervised an employment-and-training program, managed an adult-care facility, done billing for an attorney, worked in a dental office, taught art to school children and creative writing to abused women.

I love to teach and am reasonably good at it. I also work well as an editor. (I fancy myself a better teacher/editor than a poet.) Both tasks fulfill and enrich me in ways other jobs haven't. It's exciting to witness a person's ahah! moment, or to guide novice poets to a point where their works start to have real depth and individual voices.

I also raised a family of five children, four foster children, and a variety of dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, birds, and fish as well as strays (both children and animals) from the neighborhood.

All this has provided for a rich life and endless writing material.

EAH: Sounds similar to the eclectic résumés of many artistic types. Share with readers some of your recent visual-arts fests.

DMM: I've exhibited watercolor paintings (my preferred medium) and pastel drawings at the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester's annual Clothesline Art Festival, the largest outdoor art and craft exhibit in our area. All the top artists, as well as some lesser-known, participate in this juried-entry exhibit each October, rain or shine.

Additionally, I'm a member of the Rochester Arts and Cultural Council, Rochester Contemporary, and the Penfield Art Association, where I regularly have opportunities to exhibit in their shows. Up until last year, I was also PAA's newsletter editor — a position that let me combine my writing and editing skills with my artistry.

This past year, I participated in a collaborative project initiated by the Rochester Art Club, where poets were randomly paired with artists to produce pieces of art for a major art exhibit. My partner was Diane Elmslie, a professional artist who works in watercolor, acrylic, oils, collage and photography. We're both interested in experimenting and taking risks with our art, so we decided to produce an animated video, combining Diane's artwork with my poetry.

Neither of us knew anything about making a video and soon found we needed a videographer and a musician to assist us. We were probably a little crazy to try to do what we did with our minimal knowledge, but we had great fun with process: we stumbled along, made mistakes, learned a new vocabulary and laughed until we cried. In the end, we felt the product was reasonably successful and exhibited it at the collaborative show Artworks and Poetwords, in May 2007. An excerpt from the video is still available for viewing on RAC's website. (Look for Movie in the lower-right corner of the home page.)

EAH: As busy editor and constant creator, what's your parting advice for poets / writers about how to handle situations where they've taken on "more than they can chew?"

MM: Learn to say "no." Practice it several times in front of a mirror if you need to. Then do it with a friend until it rolls effortlessly off your tongue.

Seriously, I think there are times we all get caught up in the activities we love: readings, critique groups, book clubs, festivals, and signings. We take workshops, read books, and study with mentors. We try collaborations, edit newsletters, or compile anthologies. Sometimes what was initially an adventure turns into an obligation, and then a chore. Or our appetites for these activities preempt our writing — we're "too full" to write. When that happens, it's time to reevaluate priorities.

The only way one becomes a writer is to write. Yes, all these other activities are fun. Some teach us. Others help get publicity or introduce us to fellow writers. However, when our lives become so full of peripherals that we have no time to do the one thing we say we love — that's a problem.

That's when we need to get out the mirror and practice that little two-letter-word.

        No— sorry, I can't come tonight — I'm writing.
        No— I've done the newsletter for four years now; it's someone else's
        No— while I'd love to read for your group another time, at the
        moment I'm caught up in some serious writing.
        No— I'm sorry I don't have the time right now to do a book review for
        your journal. Talk to me again in the spring.
        No, thank you.
        No, not now.

I think you'll find that, even though it only has two letters, No's a powerful word — one essential to writers' utensil drawers, among their language recipes and life ingredients. And, No — I am not cooking tonight.

Arts & Crafts Menu Border - Ca. 1910

Donna M. Marbach is this issue's Featured Poet.
Read more about Donna on her Poems page and enjoy her Essay.

New Dinners for All Occasions
Foreword: Conserving Time, Thought and Labor
"If you would become a clever hostess, bear in mind that the first and most important rule to be observed, is not to attempt more than can be done well and with ease." ~from New Dinners, ca. 1910.
Elizabeth O. Hiller

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