INTERVIEW WITH JENNIFER WILLIAMS
Listen to Christian's interview with Jennifer Williams at the Scottish Poetry Library
INTERVIEW WITH SUSAN J. TWEIT
Read Christian's interview with Susan J Tweit for Story Circle Book Reviews
RADIO INTERVIEW WITH FRANCESCA RHEANNON
Listen to Christian's interview with Francesca Rheannon on WMUA
Welcome to Christian McEwen’s website.
You will find news of what Christian is working on, excerpts from her published books, as well as some examples of her uncollected prose.
There is also an excerpt from her short film, Tomboys! co-produced with Julie Akeret.
Christian's play, LEGAL TENDER: WOMEN & THE SECRET LIFE OF MONEY, opened at the Quaker Meeting House in Northampton, MA on International Women's Day 2014. There were four performances, all of which were entirely sold out. Since then, she has been using portions of the play to generate community discussion, most recently at Middle Church on Second Avenue, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Visit her website: www.legaltenderplay.com
To read more about the original performances go to:
Also, see Legal Tender on youtube:
In Christian McEwen's irresistible "Sparks from the Anvil," each of the collected interviews sounds more like a conversation than an interrogation. McEwen encourages, delights, surprises and enlightens her subjects, drawing astute connections between their lives and poems that they themselves may never have considered. Underscore the "quest" in questioner. With passionate curiosity and a nearly spiritual ardor, McEwen seeks discovery, and tasks herself to elicit extraordinary insights, both delicate and frank, nuanced and bold. And Eureka!, does she find them!
See NEW INTERVIEW interview with Dan Blask at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, published 31st August 2015.
http://artsake.massculturalcouncil.org/blog/artsake/index.php/2015/08/31/christian-mcewen-lyrical-nonfiction/Questions for Christian McEwen for ArtSake
Dan Blask: Your book Sparks from the Anvil compiles interviews you’ve done with poets at the Smith College Poetry Center. Many of your projects involve collaboration or engagement with other artists. What part does that engagement play in your own creative process?
Christian McEwen: I was born in London, and grew up in Scotland. If I had stayed in the British Isles, I might well have written poetry and fiction. But I moved to the USA in my early twenties (I was given a Fulbright Scholarship to Berkeley, CA), and that required me to find a way to ground my work beyond the ease and fluency of my natal language. English-English may look the same as American-English, but it really isn't. It has a different flavor (flavour!), a different sensibility. One of the ways I dealt with this was by writing non-fiction and becoming a kind of literary anthropologist. I did my first interviews for the Village Voice back in the nineties. (I particularly remember a long, delicious conversation with the poet, Olga Broumas.) Since then I have conducted more than 100 more, for my non-fiction book, World Enough & Time, my play, Legal Tender, and now this most recent project, Sparks from the Anvil. All these projects have helped me to "root" in what remains for me, to some extent, "a new found land."
DB: One of your interviewees from Sparks from the Anvil was past MCC Fellow Patrick Donnelly. Did any portion of your conversation with him particularly strike you as an interviewer and fellow poet?
CM: I especially love the section that follows. [If this is too long, please feel free to cut after "a variation on those two."]
CM: There’s a thread of melancholy in your work, a deep consciousness of your own mortality, and the mortality indeed of an entire generation. Reading your work, I felt almost as if you had been schooled by death, by loss, by illness to a point where death was somehow the truest of all life experiences, some kind of apprenticeship almost. There are lines in one of your books where you’re talking to a dead lover, “Thank you for the hollow/you left in this pillow./I practice/ putting my bones here.” And there’s a teacher or a friend who scolds you, “At fifty-one you are too young to think of death so much.”
I’m not sure what the question is, but I wondered if you could comment on my fumblings here, and say where they feel true to you, and what in fact death, mortality, has meant to you.
PD: I don’t think you’re fumbling at all, I think you’ve hit it on the head, it has been an apprenticeship, and this is the gift of HIV to me. I said before, “Every front has a back,” and the front of HIV is terrible, but there is a gift to every negative thing that happens. And in terms of the literary community, this morning someone wrote that he had longed for fame as long as he had longed to be a poet. Now I can imagine feeling that as a young person, but that’s not a way I would like to end my life. Those are not values that I aspire to. The knowledge of my own mortality, and watching so many people die, during the late eighties and early nineties, was a splash of cold water in my face, both about how I was acting and how I thought about myself, and what I thought the world was and what it is for. I still don’t know the answers to a lot of those questions, but I know that the time is short, and I’ve lived with that now for almost thirty years. Remember the Flannery O’Connor short story, “A Hard Man is Good to Find”...
CM: “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
PD: [Laughs] “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Hmmm. A Freudian slip. Where one of the characters says about the old woman, “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
The Japanese poems that Stephen [Stephen D. Miller, PD's spouse] and I are working on are Buddhist poems from eight hundred or a thousand years ago, and they are incredibly aware of impermanence and mortality. Everything is passing away from these speakers, it just slips through their hands, and this is the reality of the world we live in. And I am glad to be aware of it, absolutely it has infused my writing, this is what my writing is for. I’m not at all comfortable with this situation. I want to shake the bars about the way human life is designed. We come into the world in a very difficult way, causing pain to others, and we struggle, and then there’s only one way to get out of it, and the end of life is ugly whether it comes early or late, it’s painful, and there’s suffering and indignity...
Both Stephen and I have had aging parents; now his whole family is gone. It is awesome, in the literal meaning of that word, to watch. And to me it’s really the only subject other than love. There’s a letter of Emily Dickinson’s, where she’s writing to someone about her nephew’s death from typhoid at a very young age, and apparently right before he died he asked for the door to be opened: “…who were waiting for him, all we possess we would give to know…though is there more? More than Love and Death? The tell me it’s [sic] name!” So this, to me, is the poet’s landscape. There are other subjects that are subordinate to these, and they are a lot of fun and even comedic and farcical and neurotic subjects, but it all boils down to a variation for me on those two.
CM: Saul Bellow has this line about poetry being “a skirt thing, a church thing,” in America today. And I wondered if you’d talk about what’s been involved in protecting a certain tenderness, a certain luminosity in your spirit in a world where that’s not so welcome.
PD: For someone who lives and breathes poetry, it’s almost hard to imagine those people outside the charmed circle for whom poetry means nothing. I’m surrounded with poets, many of my closest friends are working poets, working artists, and this is important to us, and so if someone else doesn’t think it’s important then that’s fine.
About the tenderness, or what you call luminosity, that’s how I see things: at the center of everything, no matter how hard or ugly the shell, there is light, there is luminosity, there is tenderness. I could be wrong about that; but I don’t care, that is the way I choose to live my life and the way I choose to interpret everything that comes at me.
Dan Blask: In your book World Enough and Time, you describe a conversation with Thomas A. Clark in which he suggests that poets should perform a simple, repetitive task, like carrying a stone up and down a hill every day, to hone the creative senses to fully perceive small moments and events. Do you follow his advice? If so, what is your simple, repetitive task?
CM: Yes, I do follow Thomas A. Clark's advice, in the sense that I make time to pray and meditate each morning, and often (not always) go for a daily walk. I am always astonished by the power of the small pause, and how much it can contain. "A little can be a lot, if it's enough!" as my good friend Mariel likes to say.
DB: You won an MCC Fellowship in 2011 by submitting an excerpt of Legal Tender, which has since had a series of performances and workshops. What compelled you to begin creating that work? And how did the project change (or not) as other collaborators became involved?
CM: I began work on Legal Tender in the spring of 2009, about 6 months into the Recession. I had been listening twice a day to NPR, and heard almost no financial stories having to do with women, so I decided to start gathering them myself. Over the course of the next five years, I spoke to more than 50 women about their relationship to money, and then transcribed the interviews. It was a mammoth task. I always knew I wanted it to be a play, but had tremendous difficulty figuring out how best to structure it. Friends and allies helped me to focus in on particular stories, characters and themes, and then to create a show, adding music and movement. For the performance at the Quaker Meeting House in Northampton, there was a floating curtain make of dollar bills by way of backdrop ($300 total!), and we were given front page-coverage in the local paper. Most recently a friend and I have been presenting "Money Stories" workshops at a local Credit Union, using excerpts from the play by way of catalyst.
DB: You’re a playwright, filmmaker (with Julie Akeret on the documentary Tomboys), prose writer, and poet (and perhaps more?). What does working in multiple disciplines bring to your work as an artist?
CM: I think of myself as practicing what one might call "lyrical non-fiction" (a term invented by my good friend Ruth Gendler). If sensibility/aesthetics/core values are the palm of the hand, then the disciplines are the different fingers, allowing me to grasp whatever has become the current focus of engagement. I guess I think in terms of themes or areas of interest more than I do in terms of genre. This keeps the work open and risky in a way that sometimes causes panic, but also gives great joy.
DB: Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you got the news about your MCC award, in 2011?
CM: I was able to go back to my journal, to discover what I was up to when I heard the news about the MCC award in 2011. It was February 1st, a snowy day, flakes falling fast from the sky, and I had been busy darning a big cardigan, and crocheting a yellow woolen "money disc" for a presentation of Legal Tender. When the phone rang at 9:30am, I was at my desk, and got up grumpily to answer it.
"And it was Dan at the MA Cultural Council, and he wanted me to know they were giving me one of the literary grants this year --- $7,500! -- There were only 4 awards in the playwriting group -- 4! -- out of 150 people -- and I was one. I was astonished -- delighted. "The Bible says something about how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who bringeth good tidings," I said. "I feel I should kneel down and kiss your snow-boots!"
And told him how tough this year had seemed, and how now I'd have 6 months rent, and what a relief that was.
DB: What did you use the money for?
CM: I did indeed use the money for rent. By that point I had put in almost 700 hours of unpaid work -- 43 interviews, with each transcription taking 8-10 hours, plus the interview itself -- let alone the editing and shaping. When the check came, I figured I had made about $10.00 an hour. Ah well... I was entirely grateful.
DB: What’s next?
CM: A good friend of mine, Arthur Strimling, wants to direct a full length performance of Legal Tender next year, and we have just started work on that. Meanwhile, I am continuing with my "Money Stories" project -- using excerpts to jump-start community conversations -- both at City Lore in New York City, this November, and in Point Reyes, CA next spring. I would like very much to bring both performance and discussion to Boston if there is interest, and am certainly open to enquiries.