Oyster River Pages: If you could tell your younger creative self anything, what would it be?
Marissa McNamara: I would tell my younger self three things. First, read--read new poetry, read old poetry, study it, evaluate it, emulate it. When I was younger, I was pretty arrogant and thought that anyone could just emote on the page and be a poet. I really didn't understand that reading was essential to my own development. I was lazy. Now, I try to read poetry that is new to me 2-4 times a month.
I would also tell my younger self not to listen to everyone who critiques your work. When I was in my early 20s, I had a professor who looked at my end-of-semester portfolio and told me that he didn't know how I'd become an English major, that my writing wasn't good enough. I stopped writing for 12 years after that. What a lot of wasted time!! I've learned that I have my own style that doesn't appeal to everyone, and that's ok. (And I learned a valuable lesson about how NOT to teach.)
ORP: When did you first learn that language had power? What was that experience like for you?
MM: I first learned that others' language had power when I was an undergraduate. I took a women's literature course where we read authors like Zora Neale Hurston and Sylvia Plath. I had gone to high school in a very white, middle-class suburb; I had read from the canon of dead white men , so the world opened up for me when I read women and women from other places and cultures. It helped me to see that I could have a place.
The second place I learned the power of words was at a writing school in Cincinnati, Ohio: Women Writing for a Change. This is where I learned that my words and my experiences have power, that the idea of success isn't necessarily being widely known or writing to fit into the publishing world. In that community of women, I learned that my own voice--my own story--could be other than what was expected and that it was valuable nonetheless.
The third place I have learned the power of words is in the classroom. I could go on about this forever--how students' writing can make them more confident and excited about language. But I'll mention one student, a police officer from Georgia, who chose to read Toni Morrison's Beloved for my class. When he finished, he told me that it was one of the most powerful books he'd ever read and that it had changed his mind about slaves' and African-American people's experiences in America. That is the power of words.
ORP: What does becoming a “better” writer or artist look like to you? How do you define success?
MM: Being a better writer means always improving, always reading, always looking for new ways to approach a topic. I like to play with form as well as imagery, with how things look on the page, with sound. Being a better writer means being willing to take chances, to listen to others' criticism and suggestions, and to pick through those suggestions to find what works best for me. Workshopping poems is essential to improvement, but you can't let everyone's opinion make its way into your work. Some of my best work has come from opening a book about writing and doing one of the prompts. This gets my mind going in ways that I hadn't considered. Looking at or creating other art, even if I'm not good at it, also gets my mind thinking in different ways. Overall, I would say that being a better writer means being open to new experiences and to taking chances. As Anne Lamott says in Bird By Bird, you have to be willing to write a shitty first draft, or you'll never get to a good one.
Success--Recently, I had a block of poems published. All five are about my husband's death from cancer in 2004. I posted the link on Facebook, and today a colleague stopped me in the hall to tell me that he really enjoyed them. He said he'd sent them to a friend whose husband just died, and she had found them comforting because she could relate. Another friend messaged me. He lost his husband of 40 years just a few months ago. He said that he, too, found the poems relatable, and he thanked me for sharing my experience. What is the success here? For me, it's not the publishing, per se. It's nice, don't get me wrong, but knowing that my work has touched someone means so much to me. When I write something that makes someone feel less alone, makes them feel understood and connected, then I have achieved success.
ORP: What advice would you give someone who has never been published?
MM: Here is my advice about publishing--have a thick skin. Be ready for rejection. It doesn't mean that the work is not good. It could mean that it needs some revision, but it is likely that the work you sent to a publication isn't a good fit for them. This is why it's important to read publications first to see if your work is something they might be interested in. I am a contributing editor for Georgia State University's The Chattahoochee Review, and I can tell you that some work that I see is excellent--it just doesn't go with our mission or our aesthetic. Keep sending things out.
I would also say that you should never compromise your voice. Improve your craft, yes; revise, yes; but never write something based on what someone else wants--write as who you are. It is only in this way that you can be authentic, and work that lacks authenticity and does not connect to the audience in some way (in my opinion) is not worthwhile work.
ORP: What are you currently working on?
MM: I am currently working on a collection of poetry that is a memoir with a narrative arc. My first husband died of cancer in 2004, and I have been writing about it since then. I am only now to the point where it is an assembled manuscript that is almost ready to submit to publishers. (The work you published is part of that manuscript.) My book is different than other cancer/illness stories in that it also includes artifacts such as photos, doctor records, letters, e-mails, journal entries, and other documents. I have struggled with whether or not the world needs yet another cancer story, but I have to remember that each of our stories is important, and each of our stories is unique.
Marissa McNamara teaches English composition and creative writing at Georgia State University and in local Atlanta prisons. She is also a contributing poetry editor for The Chattahoochee Review. Her work has appeared in several publications, including the anthologies On Our Own and My Body My Words and the journals RATTLE, Assisi, Melancholy Hyperbole, StorySouth, Future Cycle, The Cortland Review, and Amsterdam Quarterly. Marissa lives in Atlanta with her three crazy dogs, one very patient boyfriend, and a flock of pink plastic flamingos. Find her poetry here.