Maya C. Popa is a writer and teacher in NYC. She is the recipient of the Poetry Foundation's Editor Prize and the Hippocrates Prize, among others. Her chapbook The Bees Have Been Canceled was named a PBS summer choice in 2017, and her second chapbook You Always Wished the Animals Would Leave was published in spring 2018. Her first collection will be published in Fall 2019.
Her writing appears in the PN Review, Poetry London, the TLS, Tin House, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She holds degrees from Oxford University, NYU, and Barnard College and is a member of the English faculty at the Nightingale-Bamford School in New York City where she oversees the Christine Schutt Creative Writing Program.
Earlier this spring, Oxford Writers' House author Ramani Chandramohan caught up with Maya to ask her some questions about her work:
1. In ‘On the Forces of Improvisation Under the Gun Law’, I found the line “I’m sorry there can’t be more poetry in this” especially haunting because of its acknowledgement of the limits of poetry. How important do you feel it is to comment on the nature of poetry itself in your own work?
First, thank you, Ramani, for your attentive reading of these chapbooks.
That line is to some extent disingenuous, as it appears in a poem. ‘On the Forces of Improvisation Under the Gun Law’ opens with a set of statements. It’s not a particularly lyrical opening, and the apology works in part to suggest that, to be faithful to the subject, the language offered to the poem needed to be stunted or shortchanged somehow. In a way, it’s less about poetry’s limitation and more about my frustration at the elliptical conversation around our gun laws, a topic central to American political discourse.
I think poetry offers a space to be strategically responsive rather than reactive, which is what we often are in our political identities. We answer fiercely to headlines and hearsay. And, indeed, this is necessary for a politically conscious society. But poetry slows this down, and with that comes the potential to explore the essence and implications of an issue beyond the headline itself. You won’t always get it in one poem; this may be why, living in the United States, every other poem I write seems to invoke gun violence.
2. The phrase “…has been cancelled” recurs throughout your chapbook The Bees Have Been Cancelled, referring to as diverse a range of objects as “the Government”, “the Colour Wheel”, “the Return to Nature”, and “the End of the World”. Why does the theme of cancellation feel particularly transcendental to you?
The series began with the bees and its opening image, “Never again the humming saddled flowers,” which I turned over and over. I must have been reading about dwindling bee colonies that morning at work (I was at the wonderful Poets & Writers Magazine at the time and often wrote notes at my desk).
“Cancelled” is a deliberately glib term. Meetings and events are cancelled; we have the heavier, Latinate “extinction” to describe the end of living things. The series plays on the lightness of “cancelled” when applied to complex, significant subjects, such as the government (which, incidentally, was shut down in 2013). Once I drafted those two poems, the others were quick to follow. I was particularly interested in the idea that if things go badly in our cities, we might return to the woods and live a sort of Romantic, Wordsworthian existence. This is increasingly unlikely to play out, as the poem suggests.
3. You write that “Everything / gets languaged eventually” in the poem ‘Wandmaker’. Do you think that poetry can help us find a vocabulary to express grief appropriately and effectively in a way that the news cannot in the aftermath of terrorist attacks?
I think poetry can, absolutely. To quote the oft quoted William Carlos Williams on this subject: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” (from ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’)
I often write in response to what is happening in the world and showcased on the news, though not all of these efforts become full-fledged poems. Some are probably too particular to resonate with anyone else, which I realize pretty early in the drafting process. Of course, one secretly hopes that every poem will mature into something worth sharing with a wider audience, but this is not always the case. I have never drawn pleasure or inspiration from political debate, since I prefer to process on the page than out loud. I grant, though, that such discussion is vital and necessary.
4. Both your chapbooks have titles connected to the disappearance of animals. This is a subject that is highly topical at the moment, given the recent death of the world’s last male northern white rhino. What is it about the relationship between humans and other species that especially attracts your focus?
I have always loved and been transfixed by animals. I feel a profound sense of gratitude for them. I am equally fascinated by how our human history has been linked to theirs (often with unfortunate consequences for them). So, I am avidly preoccupied by this, which is a tricky thing to say given that I’m not, as many important people are, working in conservation or social activism. But it creeps into everything I write.
5. Your works never shy away from divisive issues, such as nuclear energy in the poem ‘Uranium in English’. However, poetry, especially when it is studied in school, can come across as an apolitical sphere, removed from the real world. Indeed, Auden’s comment that “poetry makes nothing happen” has often been taken as a dismissal of poetry’s importance, when it can be read as a statement for poetry’s public value. As a teacher yourself, how do you think that we can show students the power of poetry as a tool for social change today?
I love that line of Auden’s—particularly as it appears in an anti-heroic elegy, not in a post-modernist manifesto. The line seems bitter and sad, but not necessarily something the poet himself believes. Just prior, Auden is referencing the political unrest in Yeats’ Ireland. However, in the next breath, Auden offers poetry a pretty spectacular endorsement: “it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.” It outlives and continues to shape in the author’s absence. If that’s not a keen form of magic, I’m not sure what is.
I’ve never felt nihilistic about poetry’s impact. This may be in part because I’m a teacher and get to watch students fall in love with language and texts daily. I have always assumed poetry can change lives because people are changed by what they read. (Now, okay, I concede that devoted poetry audiences may be smaller than prose audiences, but still).
In America at the moment, poets are decidedly preoccupied with the poem as a vehicle for social change. Last summer, I was invited to contribute to the 92Y’s “New Colossus” (https://www.92y.org/new-colossus) project in honor of Emma Lazarus’ iconic 1883 poem, a monologue in the voice of the statue of liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The poems in that collection are just one example of the poetry community’s engagement with political narratives, its dreams and its disappointments.
6. In your opinion, what possibilities are offered by prose-poems – such as ‘Knockout Mouse Model’ – that are not by their verse counterparts?
I love the look of prose-poems. I think the energy is different and linguistic compression functions differently. Line-breaks, which are such a delicate business in poetry, are nullified. Other powers are affected as a result. I don’t know exactly how I land on prose poems—I think, though, that when the poem is more heavily reliant on plot or a sequence of events, the muscularity and steadiness of the prose line suits.
7. When reading ‘Sinaia, Romania’ and ‘American Faith’, I was struck by the impression that both poems gave of religion as being primarily grounded in the landscape, rather than in people and organisations. Would you say that your poetic conceptions of divinity, and spirituality more generally, derive from nature?
That’s an interesting question. I come from a long line of doctors and priests, which might explain my fascination with nature (both as science and environment) and religion. I can’t think of one without thinking of the other.
My parents were refugees from Romania. I was born shortly after in the United States. As a native Romanian speaker, I feel psychically tied to both countries and their fates. I don’t draw much of a distinction in my own thinking between people, organizations, and the land they belong to. I am more often interested in the land, the atmosphere and mood, than anything else. But I suppose the more practical answer is that they are inextricably bound to one another.