Interview with Kelly Hansen Maher on Tremolo — September 29, 2016

Kelly Hansen Maher’s first collection of poems, Tremolo, was released in 2016 by Tinderbox Editions. Her work has been featured in Briar Cliff Review, New Orleans Review, and Blue Mesa Review, among other journals. Kelly teaches with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and with the Liberal Arts in Prison Program at Grinnell College. Kelly was the recipient of an Artist’s Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, and a Loft Literary Center mentorship in poetry. She now lives with her husband and daughter in Grinnell, Iowa.


Christopher Nelson: For those who haven’t read Tremolo, can you contextualize these poems? What are they about?

Kelly Hansen Maher: Tremolo came out of years of my recurrent pregnancy losses. I began writing poems after experiencing four miscarriages—and the birth of my daughter, Freya. Then I continued writing as I went through several more losses. One of the central losses was the stillbirth of a baby we named Winifred, so a long sequence in Tremolo, based on loon calls, is for Winifred. I had a lot of curiosity about what these babies were—if they were babies—what kind of lives these were. I wanted to get at something that was beyond my feelings, so it seemed natural to turn to poetry as something that could embrace the silence around the known thinking and language I had for it. And I had no graves, so I think of these poems as a way to locate ghost bodies or create definite grave sites or something almost physical. Another concern I explored in these poems was sound, thinking about sound as something real but invisible, and all of the ways that we can see inside the body with sound waves and what can be opened through sound. That is all really magical to me, moving to a different realm through listening. You know, you can’t see a baby that’s never born; you can’t bury a baby that’s never born; but there is this death, this loss. So, how to handle it?

Nelson: I appreciate your courage to explore what obviously is a difficult subject. I think of these as confessional poems, and by confessional I mean “speaking about that which is usually kept private.” That you’ve spoken against a silence is one way these poems are courageous, for me. I’m curious if you can comment on that as an intention: why was it important to plumb the grief? Why was important to talk about this, as opposed to keeping it private? 

Maher: I feel like everything I write is something that could be kept private because we don’t have everyday language for it. But I really wanted to write about what these experiences were like for me—to go through that interior and the shell around it, to move into that spot and write from there because I wasn’t used to articulating it in everyday conversation. So the idea of a confession doesn’t fit well for me because a confession is an articulation of something that is usually kept quiet or concealed, but I needed to discover how to articulate what was going on inside me. And I think that’s what I do in everything I write: to try to find a way to move the way I think or the way I see the world, the way I process loss or love or any of those things. And I think all poets are doing that. So I wonder if the tradition of confession comes to mind for you because of the notions around the woman’s body: it’s a private pregnancy when it’s a lost pregnancy; it doesn’t become public unless the mother makes it public, unless it’s in a doctor’s office or a bathroom.

Nelson: That could be. Confessionalism doesn’t have negative connotations for me, and I think of it as an admirable and often necessary mode to enter. In any case, I appreciate the apparent lack of shame in your poems, and I think you’ve made an important distinction between that which we choose not to articulate and that which we don’t know how to articulate. 

Maher: It’s interesting that you mentioned shame. I don’t know, maybe there is a sense of shame around pregnancy loss and still births. I’m not sure why though. Because there is silence around this kind of loss, I think that enters or creates the world in which shame lives. Self-blame is present for a lot of people worried about what caused these losses. It felt really mysterious to me; I could never figure out why this was happening to me, and why it worked once, why I had one live birth amid all the losses.

Nelson: And you certainly captured that mystery. One of the things I found most evocative in the book is how you gave voice to those who never became fully embodied, or weren’t embodied long enough to have a voice—and they function like a chorus. I’m not a musician, but for me the formal arrangement, the musical framing—the overture, chorus, interlude—gave a structure to something that is quite amorphous and mysterious.

Maher: I wanted to see what would happen if I gave them words. I also named the number of weeks that I carried each pregnancy, and that played into how realized the language could be. So one poem has three early losses lumped together, and that’s a collective. In others I maybe did or did not know the sex of the baby-to-be, and maybe I didn’t know if it was a medically confirmed pregnancy, but I was looking for some way to create a link to these lives. There was life there—and death there—even though there wasn’t necessarily an individual, with the exception of the one that I wrote for Freya. Could I give words to such nascent beings, to put into words how they might see or think? That’s the connection I have with the natural world as well—so what is the consciousness of a loon or a crow or a garden? And it often fell more into that invisible realm, so if the imagery isn’t visible imagery it became sound imagery. My intention with the structuring was to try to pull the reader through the whole of the book, because I wanted the reader to be able to experience it by reading it cover to cover. I was looking for movements that would pull a reader from one poem to the next, and the next, andthe next so that the narrative could surface in a kind of loose way.

Nelson: I think it does that really well. I’m one of those readers who will start a book of poems in the middle and read around somewhat randomly, at least initially, but with Tremolo I was compelled by the structure to go through linearly.

Maher: Good. That was a goal of mine. The poems all related to sound or music in some way, but to bring it consciously to that form came later in the process. I was really trying to present something narrative without it being delivered in individual narrative poems. Trying to move away from the idea of a collection of individual poems and into a collection of cycles or movements, and that sounded like music to me.

Nelson: And the seventh voice? It has a lot to say.

Maher: I had a series of very early rapid, mysterious losses where there had been pregnancy-test confirmation but not clinical confirmation. I was pretty in tune with what was happening with my body, especially when I was hoping to have another baby, yet there was such a repetition of loss that the first two “sevenths” were never fully confirmed, so it could have been seven, eight, nine. I think you see anger and some hostility in a couple of the “seventh” voices, which may come more from me, but if you’re trying to give voice to something that isn’t even given a confirmation of existence, there has to be some hostility associated with that.

Nelson: One of the recurring images that I love is the boat in the fog. Do you regard that image symbolically?

Maher: It came out of an actual experience of canoeing through fog in the Boundary Waters, and I suppose it did become symbolic. The book was born in that boat in the fog on the water.

Fog is visible but not exactly tangible, and you can move through it and hear through it but you can’t see through it. That’s certainly symbolic, but the water is even more so; you can be on it, you can dive through it, and you can drown in it. I needed to think about what was through the veil of the fog and beneath the surface of the water—what was right there, but on the other side?

Nelson: It’s really evocative, and I love how you’ve coupled that imagery with these voices that are described as coming from the depth, which suggests water but also cosmologically—it’s a lofty word—that unknown “place” from which we come into being.

Maher: In that fog, in the boat when the sound of the loon wail pierces through, “cosmology” does not feel like too lofty a word, it feels like you are in “high-language land.” So the mystery really presents itself: What is this opening to? I started listening to loon calls and finding out what they are trying to communicate with each call. So the four main calls—the wail, yodel, tremolo, and hoot—became this way of sequencing grief and memorializing Winifred in a way. The wail—that sound we always hear with the loon, sounds kind of like the wolf howl—a loon will make that call when it is on the water and wants to let another loon know where it is; it’s also an invitation to a call-and-response, so it’s about location, it’s saying, “Here I am, come find me. Where are you? Answer me.” That really struck me as incredibly moving, and it suggested the possibility of an opening through the fog into something, some place where I can know a daughter a little bit. The loon’s tremolo call is that crazy laughter call, and it’s used to show alarm, but it’s also the only call a loon will make while in flight. It was always my title.

Nelson: You reflect on a loon’s total presence to the now, when there isn’t the possibility of a past or future. I wonder if, in the context of these losses, that is a consolation or a curse, to be perennially bound to the now.

Maher: That’s a great question. Was it curse or consolation? Company maybe. More curse, I think. Maybe I just wanted the loons’ company more than I was deserving of it. In working on the “Loon Calls: Variations for Winifred” sequence, I wondered if loons, in their cycles of migration for example, were even capable of experiences outside “the now,” like memory or hope. If they weren’t, maybe I was expressing some envy about that? And yet there has always been something about “the now”—the idea of living only in the present—that feels sad to me, like it is too sheared of love.

Nelson: You write, “To be a mother is to be endless in earth’s hunger.” How is a mother’s hunger different from a poet’s hunger, or are they different?

Maher: Similar but different. They’re not the same hunger. I think the endlessness, the cycling of it, feels most different. The mother’s hunger feels much more at the mercy of nature. The poet’s hunger—I have ambition, and I can control how I try to realize that ambition far more than I can as a mother. And the mother’s hunger feels tied to something, to earth, the matter we have and my own matter. Often as a poet, I’m not worried about my matter. Biology as a poet is really different than biology as a mother.

Nelson: “Matter” and “mother” share a linguistic root.

Maher: Right. That’s funny, isn’t it. I was reading interviews with women in Ireland from about one-hundred years ago; they were reflecting on miscarriages. Talk about silence, there was darkness shrouding even the burials of remains—it happened in night; there was no speaking about it. But one woman referred to the substance of the womb as “the dirt.” I’ve been thinking about that a lot, that being tied to the earth and how we need a lot to have life. I can’t imagine how it ever works; we need so much to make life work. But earth seems pretty primal in that regard. And while I’m thinking so much about water in Tremolo, I’m also concerned with dirt and soil in later parts of the book. I’m a gardener, so I suppose I’m always thinking about seasons and cycling through.

Nelson: The Edmond Jabès epigraph at the beginning of the book proposes an evocative idea: that the letters of the alphabet covet “erased signs reproduced by gestures at the heart of what is named.” So the signs themselves are coveting something more essential than that which they can represent. Talk about that idea, if you would, in relation to Tremolo.

Maher: I love that quote. It begins, “The letters of the alphabet are contemporaries of death. They are stages of death turned into signs. Death of eternal death. But there are other signs which the letters covet …” And those are the letters you are talking about. The notion of beyond—beyond death, which may also be considered before death—and this sense of what we have to communicate with one another, our language, and in particular the alphabet, which are the smallest symbols of our language brought together to create conversation, books, poetry, instruction—all of it. That maybe there is a shared space, and that beyond and that before is where the true language is. Or if there’s a gesture like flight, which he gets to at the end—“the bird’s take-off contains all forms of flight”—something that contains all forms; if that’s an essence of something central, then everything else falls short, including the language that covets the essence. So it’s pretty philosophical, and when I read it, I knew it had to be what started the book. I instantly understood the layers in what he was trying to describe and the effort of bringing something forth—it’s the mother’s effort, the poet’s effort; but we see it happen effortlessly in nature, at times. That quote comes from his Book of Questions, and I have so many questions about trying to become a mother and all of the losses. So maybe this gets back to your first question, how can I have any kind of answer? Maybe I just needed to reach myself into whatever that language pool might be. Poetry holds so much silence and white space and fracture, but it felt so whole to me. The idea of silence being hearable, that’s something that feels like that desire to have an answer. And obviously we don’t hear anything in silence, it’s devoid of sound, but it’s not nothing to me.

Nelson: Maybe its visual corollary would be the fog, the inability to visually perceive in it, and yet the awareness of the lack of perceivability is quite a force.

Maher: Right. I guess that is the thing, the awareness of it. Real death has no awareness … or maybe it does. [Laughter.] I wrote about it in the Audubon section,—Audubon Park was the name of my neighborhood in Minneapolis. The idea was that only life has silence, so I thought: death was earless. “In death the ear has been sewn up.” So that earlessness equates to what you’re describing. If the ear is there, it could perceive something, even if it’s silence.

Nelson: There’s a haunting motif here of questioning the real. The sky that seems like an empty sky but isn’t actually sky. The initial belief in the sound of the ocean in the shell but the inevitable doubt of all impressions. Is this one way you hope to make us feel the presence of ghosts—with those uncertainties? I wonder, what does it mean to be haunted, if not the constant sense of uncertainty?

Maher: Well, you’ve tapped into something that has been an artistic preoccupation of mine throughout my entire life. Preceding this book and many of these attempts at having a baby, I studied theater and directing and acting. The notion of what is real is always a core drive for me, so that’s neat that you are picking up on that, especially in the context of this book and these losses. The questioning of something that is very temporary but completely changes my biology for a short time and gives forth life—and when that happens, we can’t even be certain what it is. And if there’s a demise, when did it become something that dies? We don’t know. Harkening back to the idea of confession and what is public and what is private, I’ve found that the most common public way to handle this kind of loss is to treat it as if it was a child and to share sympathies. So a grieving mother would have had an association with that pregnancy that would be like what she would have had with a living child, or something close, and what I found was that there was a big difference in how I bonded or didn’t bond, or personified or didn’t personify, each biological occasion of pregnancy and loss. And so what is real? What is living? Getting back to the idea of what’s behind the language or beyond the language, if there’s some essence, is that the real thing? And otherwise are we approximating, is it artifice—all of it? What I see as sky, is that just the color white behind some clouds? And I don’t really know where the sky starts … Yeah, you could really hurt your head after a while. As a child I used to do that to myself thinking about outer space, the infinity of it—“Certainly there’s an edge, right?” But maybe there isn’t.

Nelson: Yes. It’s interesting that you brought up theater because an essence of that art is the illusion of reality and how well that’s created.

Maher: And that’s the illusion around the loss. The typical condolence that you might get around loss in general, but when it’s the loss of someone who was never born, then it’s really ambiguous. So the edge, the boundary comes up in the book a lot: the Boundary Waters, two nations are merged in these waters—where does one form start and another stop? And you can see that in a pregnant woman: one might be the performance and one might be the actor.

Nelson: That’s a great metaphor.

Maher: So these are all the things I was curious about. I just wanted to explore that ambiguity, and live in not-knowing, and make it into something I can hold. It’s very satisfying to have a book for that reason. 

Nelson: And what are you working on now?

Maher: I’m writing poems about the prairie. Partly because I’m missing the lakes and woods, and trying to love the prairie more! But I’m spending more time in prose these days. I’m working on a book of connected essays about some horrifying family history. About six years ago I discovered that three of my grandmother’s siblings were sterilized by the state of Minnesota when they were quite young, during in the 1930s eugenics era. This discovery has, as you can imagine, some really emotional magnetism for me. I had a close relationship with my grandmother and one of her sisters, my Auntie Fay, who was sterilized, childless, when she was sixteen. Just how to tackle this subject matter as a writer, and as a daughter/granddaughter/mother, has puzzled for me for many years, but I’m finally beginning to find a good structure and form.