Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing

“Let’s Get into Some Real Trouble”: An Interview with Cate Marvin 

Cate Marvin Headshot

Interview by Jenny O'Connell

Stonecoast MFA faculty Cate Marvin is the author of World’s Tallest Disaster (Sarabande Books), which was chosen by Robert Pinsky for the 2000 Kathryn A. Morton Prize; Fragment of the Head of a Queen (Sarabande Books), for which she received a Whiting Award; Oracle (W.W. Norton & Co.), for which she received a Guggenheim Fellowship; and numerous poems which appear in literary magazines across the country. She received the Kate Tufts Discovery Prize in 2002. Cate teaches English at the College of Staten Island, CUNY, and is a beloved faculty member at Stonecoast.

In this interview, Cate talks about her process, deep noticing, the power of writing community, humor as a rallying cry, and her newest book of poetry, Event Horizon, published by Copper Canyon in 2022.

 

JO: Let’s start with the title. An event horizon is the surface of a black hole, right? Where did the idea for this title come from? 

CM: I’ve always been really interested in that pair of words together, and I also feel like my life for several years was like an event horizon. There's a lot of domestic violence in this collection, and a lot of toxic masculinity. And then there's also just losing things that you'll never get back. There are a lot of poems about friendships that are never going to be recovered. 

JO: It was really interesting how a lot of the poems revolve around ghosts, or memory. Like you were speaking to the space in between what exists now and what was–or what never was.

CM: Because I want it back. When you experience things that you literally thought you would never experience, like the death of a really good friend, or the death of a really important friendship, or miscarriage, or being ghosted in really obscene ways, it's a sort of disintegration. But also, you can't just completely disintegrate. You have to hang around and see what happens in the after. 

JO: That feels like a reclaiming of agency, in some ways. 

CM: Yeah. You know, those ghazals were really important to me to write because they're about someone who's so complicated to me. They're love poems, but they're also kind of hate poems, about being involved with cis-het men, what that can look like, and how you can make yourself smaller. 

Those poems are an attempt to kind of duke it out, but also in the final poem they’re in the apartment, and there's snow outside the windows, and the sun’s coming in, and there's still love between them. The ghazal, by its very nature, resists linearity. 

JO: Tell me about your process. 

CM: Overall, you have to remember why you're doing it and why you enjoy it. You have to just write for yourself, and not for someone you're worried about impressing. I used to be unwilling to admit the fact that writing poetry helps me get through stuff. It helps me feel better. It helps me process sh*t. I love the act of doing it.

With this book, I have this writing group, and we would meet every week. They were my only audience, and I wrote the whole book basically in that writing group. But my poems were gnarly and messy, and didn't have the right endings. Honestly, I don't think I could have gotten there if I hadn't had Kathryn Larson literally rearrange parts and help me edit them. I also had a sensitivity reader, my friend Rick Barrett, because as a white woman there were some points where I was not cognizant of the potential harm. In a lot of ways I don't think this book would have ever been created without a lot of other people pulling me through. The idea that writers are alone is totally not true. 

JO: A lot of your poems collect small moments or images, like mattresses, and doorknobs, and other little things from everyday life. I'm curious what you're listening for as you're moving through the world. How do those things find their way into your work?

CM:  I'm always looking for potential images for my poems. I saw this mattress up against a tree in Portland, and I was like, Oh. I saw this man in a construction site standing in a hole with his head up, and I was like, That's how I feel. When you are a poet you're sort of going around like a vacuum cleaner, collecting images that you can potentially use in your poems. 

JO: Can you describe what it feels like when you know one of those images is for you? 

CM: I don't know if I can. First of all, delight. It feels satisfying. I really believe that we all carry around a storehouse of images that are significant to us, and that we all have a different set. For me, objects are really important. I have my students look at a dollar bill, for example, and really describe it. We use money all the time, but we don't really look at it. It's this act of noticing, and becoming someone who notices these small details sliding by. There’s a weird old man with a wig on our money. There’s all this symbolism. And we all carry it around. I’m a strong believer in those objects carrying their metaphoric weight within a work inherently. You can trust them to do a lot of work for you. 

JO: How has your experience at Stonecoast, or teaching in general, informed your own practice?

CM: To be in conversation with other people about this stuff really keeps it alive. A poem doesn't exist without its reader. So to read something together, to share a writer with someone and see people take those writers with them forever is really amazing

There’s also the gift of being with younger generations and seeing how they're thinking. This new generation, they're ass kickers. The way that they're holding space is so powerful. 

JO: One thing that I've always loved about your work is its irreverence. You get up to read, and I sit up a little straighter. I know we’re going on a ride. I know you’re going to speak truth to power. 

CM: A person is capable of writing a lot of different types of poems. I've written poems about my cats. I write plenty of boring poems. But usually the poems I’m interested in saving are poems that surprise me or crack me up. I want to be entertained, as a reader. And I've always had issues with authority.

JO: You’re also funny.

CM: I really, really, really want my poems to be funny. 

Humor is kind of like a weapon, I think, for women writers. Taking the language that people apply to you, or the notions that people have of you, and turning it into their own worst nightmare. Like a rallying cry, you know? Let’s get into some real trouble. I like my humor f*cked up. There are some books that I find very, very funny that other people just find disturbing, and I aim for that in my work.

A lot of what women say gets brushed off. And so the result is you can say pretty much anything. 

 

Event Horizon was released by Copper Canyon Press in 2022. To learn more about Cate, please check out her Stonecoast faculty bio and her author website.