Maggie Queeney on Imagining the World of “Settler” [INTERVIEW]

Maggie Queeney is the author of “Settler” (Tupelo Press). Recipient of the 2019 Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize, The Ruth Stone Scholarship, and a 2019 Individual Artists Program Grant from the City of Chicago, her most recent work is found or forthcoming in The New Republic, Guernica, The Missouri Review, and The American Poetry Review. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University, and reads and writes in Chicago.

The full interview with Maggie, including poems recited from “Settler”, is available on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast. Excerpts from the interview are available below.

James Morehead: When did you discover a love for writing and ultimately pursuing an MFA in creative writing?

Maggie Queeney: “I actually started out as a fiction writer which feels kind of like a dirty secret. I remember the first short story that I cared about writing was in fifth grade. Our teacher had adapted Oregon Trails to be a classroom exercise and one of our challenges was to write a short story. So I wrote a really bad cowgirl short story. But what I remember most, is losing time when writing it. Writing it was like magic and I felt as though I was teleporting. In college, I wrote a lot of fiction and poetry as well. I decided to get my MFA in poetry instead of fiction because I thought poetry was more difficult. I didn’t consider myself a poet for a while, and now I write mostly poetry and occasionally write a short story every now and again.” 

James: I recently attended a Billy Collins reading and he spoke about finding your voice, and knowing that’s what happens when you realize that no one could have written the poem except you. At what point did you feel confident in your voice?

Maggie: “I don’t know what it would feel like to feel confident in my voice. For me, it’s a question of is this my voice or can I see other voices or influences entering in a way that I’m not cognizant of, or don’t mean. I feel at some point your voice is the only thing that you can speak in, so it’s not really even a decision. My feelings about it are kind of tangential — they don’t really matter. I could either speak or not speak, but ultimately, it’s going to be my voice even if I cover it over with other people’s voices or fancy tricks that I learned from other poets, which I definitely do. At the end of the day, it’s always you and a piece of paper. 

“I think that impersonating other poets is how a lot of us learn how to write. We figure out which impersonations feel true. So, I don’t really think of it as a dichotomy of my voice versus other folks’ voices. Thinking about reading other people’s work and then writing in response or in conversation or in collaboration leads me closer to my voice even if I realize that person’s voice isn’t my voice. I think it’s all part of the work of finding your own voice. Even when we imitate, we can’t completely assume anyone else’s voice. It’s still our voice and we’re maybe just learning something about its outer ranges.”

James: You’ve successfully had your poems placed in multiple prestigious journals. And like all poets have waited many months only to have a poem you are passionate about rejected. What advice do you have for poets starting their journey, and about to take that terrifying first leap into looking for a home for their poetry?

Maggie: “No one likes rejection, but it’s a part of everyone’s life as a writer. For me, it’s kind of a balance between pleasing other people and pleasing myself. I’ve tried to refocus or reframe what I think my work is, and my work is to write poems. Part of that work is to find that poem a nice and adequate home. I can’t really be concerned with why a poem didn’t get into a certain publication or why certain people didn’t like it. I think it’s good to look back at the poem and ask yourself if it is really finished and is this where you want to be. I can’t write if I’m really worried about what other people think so I kind of have to write without thinking about other people. 

“Then, when I’m working to home my poems, I try to think of it as the very last step in taking care of this piece that I’ve worked really hard on, but I can’t control what other people do. It’s okay to be frustrated and feel bad if you get a rejection, but it happens. My poem that won the Stanley Kunitz Memorial prize had been rejected a dozen times before that. Most people I know have their books rejected twenty times before it wins a prestigious prize and that’s just part and parcel of the process. Rejection is not going to feel good, but try to spend as little of your time thinking about it as possible. It’s outside your control and all you can control is your art practice and the practice is really what matters and needs attention.” 

James: The title of your book, “Settler”, combined with the striking cover (an aged and obscured photo conveying long ago), immediately sets a tone and expectation. Book titles and covers are crafted after the poems have been written. At one point did you realize you had sufficient material for a chapbook, or was this book, which is cohesive in themes and form, a defined project from the beginning?

Maggie: “This book was actually born out of a joke I had with a good writing friend of mine about how worse or more difficult our lives would be if we were born 200 years ago. I had this month where I was writing with a few writing friends and I was working out this idea of what my life would have or could have been like in some undefined period in the United States. Even though my ancestors weren’t here during the settler times in the United States, I tried to imagine what my great, great, great, great, great grandmothers’ lives might have been like. I don’t have access to that family history, so it was an imaginative exercise for me.

“I was writing poems every day and grappling with this idea of gender and violence in this other world or other time, which feels like the past, but with what’s happening right now in the U.S. with abortion rights, feels like it might also be our present and our future unfortunately. Not all of those poems made it into this book since it’s a chapbook. After that period of writing was over, I realized this is a project that I need to unravel further. So, I kept going back to it. I like to write a lot in series because for me, it takes the pressure off of getting it all down or all right in one draft. So the idea of having many days of fourteen lines to explore this world was really exciting to me. I write in series a lot because it gives me more room to play. That’s how this chapbook came about. I didn’t set off intending to write it or even realizing what I was writing about until I’d written a few of the poems and saw where my brain was working at that moment.”

James: What is your process for researching details and images that you haven’t personally experienced? In “Paper” you write:

"Transmuted cotton; inner bark pounded;
Rags torn of clothing and boiled, that oiled
Chapped udders, shrouded the heirloom pendant;
Now bleached egg-white, white of milk molar;

Pounded thin and toothy."

A wonderfully poetic passage. How did you find those details or are they pure inventions?”

Maggie: “I think it was definitely unconsciously drawing on a lot of literature I’ve read about what we call the settler colonial period in the U.S., which is still ongoing. I focused on the time that the West was quote on quote ‘won’. The sources were folks who are heavily researched like Cormac McCarthy, but also Little House on the Prairie was an influence. As a small child, I remember reading a passage from Little House on the Prairie where they got oranges for Christmas and that stuck out to me. If you go to any supermarket now in the U.S., there’s such a shmorgishborg of various fruits and vegetables. So, it blew my mind that an orange was seen as something so special.

“My poem “Paper” was kind of the same idea because paper wasn’t something accessible until pretty recently. Literacy has been kept from groups of people, traditionally marginalized groups. Now, I’m surrounded by this wealth of paper, pens that are very cheap to buy, and the world wide web, but two generations ago, maybe women in my family wouldn’t have had paper to play on in the way I do. So, I’m both trying to honor that and not take it for granted, which is something I’m still working on.”

James: I’ve asked several guests how they approach structuring their books. In “Settler” there is balance – three sections, each with roughly the same number of poems, each a single page. How did you decide where to begin, and to end?

Maggie: “I think the beginning part of the book kind of announced itself as the beginning. I didn’t think about it as a collection since I was working on individual poems for probably around a year. I often let things breathe, so I will set poems down and take a lot of time away. When I had returned, I realized that this maybe wasn’t a full length book, but it was definitely something, perhaps a small project. The first poem “Female” was important to set up the rest of the book because it’s an introduction to the themes and the images that the rest of the book picks up.

“I wanted to stress gender from the beginning. This is a poem about woman singular and about women plural. It felt balanced that way. The last poem of the book I wanted it to stretch out into a future that might be the past, but also might be the future. A lot of my work deals with trauma, violence, and cycles of violence in my family, but also on a larger scale. In the poems, it was important for me to be constantly moving between the individual, I, and the plural first person, we. The story here, whatever it might be, is one of many that overlaps with other women’s stories. I wanted that to bleed out into the future beyond the last page of the book.”

James: Your poetry often contains serious themes. How do you achieve that tricky balance of conveying these powerful experiences while ensuring the poem remains poetic?

Maggie: “Not everything I write does. I definitely have written poems that were less poetic and more for me to process something, which I think is really important and there’s nothing wrong with that. In general, I don’t like to keep my focus on the traumatic event itself. I’m someone who’s interested in what happens after the event in terms of cycles of violence and how they trace through generations. My view is always a bit to the side of what that actual violence is.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think violence is really that interesting. I’m interested in why violence happens, how it changes the world, how it changes the people who commit it, and how it changes the people who are on the receiving end of it, and everyone else who is involved. I’m interested in how it changes the world they all live in and experience after the violence. I’m a poet who identifies as disabled and I have complex PTSD. I’m always working to articulate how the world is different after life-altering or prolonged complex trauma, instead of articulating what that trauma is.”

James: Many of the poems in this collection are reinventions of the sonnet. The form is there in silhouette, an impression but not strictly constrained, particularly in the second section. This makes possible the opening lines from “Hand”

"Her, always her, hand on the dead-eyed
Slate at the front of the room, showing
How we should: the slanted lines
Like staves, line climb and loop

Like flags snaking the wind
Of lost battlefields."

How do you discover the form a poem requires?

Maggie: “I think of the form first or sometimes in connection with a problem or question or idea that is bothering me. I think about form as a way to contain and frame something that I can’t contain any other way. I write other poems that are in free verse, but I go to form when it’s something that’s too difficult to tackle without a neat little trap, which is sometimes how I think about a sonnet. I wanted to be a little bit looser here with what a sonnet could be, in part because I had so many of them. So, I kind of wanted them to sound out what could be the limits of these fourteen lines or what different shapes could these poems take. Some have a volta and a pretty clear closing couplet or are split into an octave and a sestet. But others are just fourteen lines and other things happen and shift within them. I was still thinking about the sonnet shape and how sonnets develop. Even if things like voltas aren’t always clear where they are, that turn was important to me. I also thought about the sonnet, as much as I love it, is I think a colonizing form or a form that has been used in tandem with colonization. So, I was thinking about what is kept within this really strict form and how it could be worked by what wants to break out and create another shape that’s more organic and more fluid.”

Maggie Queeney

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