Interview #2:2 Maya C. Popa
Maya C. Popa, interviewed by Mariah Whelan
Mariah Whelan: In your debut collection American Faith, there is a tension between violence and belief. The collection is made up of a poetic landscape where gun crime and political violence emerge from a deep-rooted history of cruelty. Nonetheless, again and again the speakers in your poems come back to a need to believe in something. It seems to me that within the collection, ‘faith’ emerges as an act of looking – an act of writing poetry to really pay attention to the world with all its faults and joys. Could you talk a little about how your writing practice engages with ideas of the divine?
Maya C. Popa: What you touch on is true, that faith emerges as an act of looking rather than a consistent set of beliefs. The majority of poems in the book engage with events that occurred between 2013 – 2017 in the United States. I was hoping to slow the language down sufficiently to resist the inimical flash of headlines, the rhetoric of power, and the pervasive sense of collective despair.
A source of lasting faith for me comes from language itself, how it moves through us and changes us. It’s why I can’t talk about despair without talking about hope, and I take that charge seriously as a writer. And then, there’s the reprieve granted by the natural world and the wonders within it, by desire and appetite and the profound mystery that is our connections to one another, as well as the innate capacity for goodness and empathy and understanding I believe all people possess despite the atrocities more readily advertised to us.
MW: As well as a poet, you’re also a critic and PhD student. Often, more traditional ‘academic’ pursuits are seen as the antithesis of creative practice, but I was wondering if this is the case for you? Could you talk a little about how you divide your time between your different writing pursuits and practices, and how these practices might inform one another?
MCP: It’s not the case for me, no, in terms of how I conceive of the relationship between critical writing and poetry, both of which require their own creativity. I enjoy bending my mind around how someone else has read a work, what conclusion he or she has come to based on what evidence and way of looking. It never dictates how I approach my own writing, a misunderstanding I feel may be at the heart of the academic vs. creative debate, alongside the notion that all criticism exists in a sea of jargon and mostly unintelligible accusations. I’m indebted to Eliot, Vendler, and Ricks for informing the ways in which I think about craft, as well as for the standard they set for careful, contextual critical analysis that sacrifices neither the writer’s private world nor tests the reader’s patience for sphinx-like prose.
As a critic and editor (at some moments of the day), I aim for descriptiveness and close study of the language over clear pronouncement of merit, though I understand that there are many critics who would find fault with this approach. I’m less interested, however, in making a claim for a work than I am in understanding how it works and arrives at its particular way of meaning, nor am I terribly interested in telling others how to feel about a work. I’m more concerned with understanding and articulating my own reading and positioning it, to the extent of that understanding, in what Jean Rhys called “the lake of writing.”
Teaching is an immense joy. It’s hard for me to speak about it without lapsing into sentimentality. My job consists of sitting/pacing/standing in front of a group of thoughtful, curious, interested beings and discussing the joys and difficulties of being human as relayed by other great minds. I have the privilege of introducing students to writers and to watching their initial impressions develop into sophisticated arguments (in essays, which can be tedious to grade, true). I adore reading out loud, which I do daily (the students are likely too polite to ask me to stop) alongside asking them to read to each other (the caveat is that they must read with feeling). I love the intellectual challenge and the human challenge of the questions they pose, and the pleasure of becoming so deeply acquainted with a literary work that you can recite parts of it from memory. Most importantly, I believe that the space allotted for these conversation and reflections reverberates outside the classroom, so the stakes feel high and necessary and vital each day.
MW: I first read some of the poems that eventually made their way into American Faith back in 2013. A lot of our readers are just bringing together the poems that will become their first collections and I was wondering if you could talk about your experiences bringing a book to life and any advice you might have for emerging writers?
MCP: The process of putting together a first book is strange. In my case, it took years to get past simply having an assemblage of poems to crafting a book with a purposeful arc. I’m aware that my advice to emerging writers–namely, to wait, to allow the poems the gift of time to arrive at some organic shape–would not have resonated with me at 24 or 25, which is when I first sent out the manuscript under a different title. It was a shortlist/finalist for various prizes in those years, which gave me some hope that it was not without merit; however, it had problems I could not yet recognize. I am grateful that I had several years to craft new poems and to cull old ones, as well as the critical distance only granted by time to find a structure that fit.
A less idiosyncratic piece of advice would be to consider organizing poems into chapbooks/pamphlets that might be sent out to publishers before the manuscript itself. I had two published by the time I signed a contract with Sarabande, which is a bit unusual, but those slim volumes were useful in helping me conceive of the sequencing as a whole. Many of the poems in those chapbooks made their way into the final manuscript, and I am grateful that they had lives in this other way.