Familiar Spirits

Yesterday I reported on a particular poetry performance and discussion event coming up in Chicago on September 15, 2012. A recap:

The Changing Light at Sandover, by James Merrill, Reading and Discussion

With: Richard Fox, Barrie Cole, Jeff Abell & Robert McDonald

When: Saturday, September 15, 2012, from 7:00 p.m. until 11:45 p.m.

Where: 1922 W. Berenice Ave., Chicago

It turns out that, as a good son and a working man, poet Robert McDonald won’t be able to attend, due to his job obligations and caretaking for his parents, but he answered the same questions I posed to Richard Fox!

Kathleen Kirk: What attracted you to poet James Merrill? His work in general? This particular occult detour?

Robert McDonald: I was curious about Merrill for several reasons when I was a young poet. The first reason is that my mentor, Diane Wakoski, wrote about him (in an only slightly disguised way) in her long poem, Greed. She thought, at the time of that writing, at least, that he won the awards he did because of his wealth and class, and because people wanted his money and influence, and not because of the actual work he did. If I remember my reading of Greed correctly, she felt that Merrill had never had to struggle at all for anything material, and his poetry was correspondingly flat.

Wakoski also has always maintained that a poet should know some sort of occult craft or habit. She herself knew how to give a Tarot reading, and has written poems based on tarot cards. I am pretty sure she thinks that The Changing Light is the most interesting of any projects Merrill did. I used to use Ouija boards as a kid, and scared myself silly with them, and the fact that someone used this tool or toy to create a whole body of work fascinated me.

I confess I have no real affinity for most of Merrill’s work. In some ways my working-class heart did indeed see his poems as effete and lacking in some sort of ballsy American oomph. Until I picked up Sandover one day, that is, and found myself utterly captivated. The occult hook was there, but more than that, Merrill showed me a level of skill in his rhyme, meter, and wordplay that I found irresistible. Completely unlike the poetry I was more familiar with, which was earthy, and image-based. More Dionysian than the cool, controlled, virtuosic voice of James Merrill.

Although I hasten to add that another reason I think I respond to this particular books of his is because it is not just Merrill’s work. Every time he sat down to the Ouija board it was with his life partner David Jackson. The brief memoir by Alison Lurie called Familiar Spirits details their working habits, and points out that the men treated the project as a collaboration, even if it was not published as such. And if you don’t believe it was angels and ghosts moving the pointer around, then you should know that David Jackson was the man generally holding his fingers to the planchette while Merrill took dictation.

I was also interested in Merrill because he was openly gay in a time when almost no one was. To me he represented the kind of learned, good-looking, well-travelled, rich, accomplished gay life that I imagined might be mine one day. Still waiting on that.

KK: Do you ever compose in ways that attempt to access the supernatural–via Ouija board, automatic writing, dream transcription, etc.? Anything that would enlighten me (and EIL readers) on this!

Robert McDonald: I have at times kept a dream journal, and am always frustrated that what seemed so vivid upon waking fades so quickly. I have never tried to write using a Ouija board, but I do try to practice writing where I just set pen to paper and see what happens. I don’t really believe I am accessing a spirit world or a voice other than my own, nonetheless I certainly have experienced times when I look at a page and have no conscious idea of how I wrote what I did, or where it came from. It can be an eerie feeling.

KK: Why do you think Merrill was drawn to this activity?

Robert McDonald: My opinions on this are greatly influenced by Lurie’s memoir. She makes a strong case that the composition of this book, and the communing with the spirits, allowed Merrill and his partner to share a powerful and addictive activity when their other bonds were loosening. I also think Merrill recognized that a continued partnership with the spirits could not only give his primary relationship new ground to stand on, but also provide him with material for something epic. It gave him material far beyond the occasional poem, the light verse–he could make a film instead of a video clip, a saga instead of a vignette.

KK: Thanks, Robert, and I’m sorry you won’t be able to participate in this particular reading, but I do hope you’ll attend performance and discussion events on poetry in the future. EIL Readers, take a look at Robert’s poetry feature here at Escape Into Life, as well as today’s blog artist, Xue Jiye, and yesterday’s EIL Blog interview with Richard Fox! 

And, if you like this topic, please look into Alison Lurie’s Familiar Spirits. And maybe, especially in the current American economic climate, you’ll check out Diane Wakoski’s Greed.



Robert McDonald at Escape Into Life

Richard Fox Interview in EIL Blog

Xue Jiye at Escape Into Life

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.