Mary Lou Buschi’s chapbook, “The Spell of Coming (or Going),” was selected as the winner of The NYC Siren Series and was published by Patasola Press (2013). Her poems have appeared or are appearing in Willow Springs, Cream City Review, RHINO, Tar River Poetry, The Laurel Review, and Indiana Review, among others. She is a special education teacher in the Bronx.
Brandon Amico: What was the germ that brought “Scouts” on, the little thing that set the writing of this poem in motion? And is the final product a combination of memory and imagination, or does it sit solely in one of those camps (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun)?
Mary Lou Buschi: In truth, I was never a Girl Scout. I only made it as far as the Brownies. The girls were mean and I hate uniforms and groups that follow rules or recite pledges or prayers, so even as a little kid I knew it wasn’t for me. The penultimate moment, when Helen puts the corsage in her mouth, was a moment of absolute disgust told to me by a friend who did make it into the Girl Scouts. I found her disgust really interesting so I followed the instinct to write the poem. I also felt that her fear/disgust was closely linked to the speaker of “In the Waiting Room” by Elizabeth Bishop. Although the speaker in “Scouts” denies any likeness to Helen, she remains “other,” safe in her 8 year old self. So, to answer your question the poem is imagined.
Interesting. I don’t get the sense of “absolute disgust” in the speaker’s tone when it comes to Helen, though. I feel more of…a disconnect, a confusion at Helen when her task isn’t tidily completed the way she expected it to be. Though, the opening images definitely carry traces of disgust, albeit at the distance of a child’s imagination. What was it about your friend’s disgust when telling the story that interested you enough to spark this poem?
I found her disgust humorous. Maybe it was her facial expression, but I thought of Bishop immediately; that awakening into the inevitable decline our bodies. I suppose that is where the images at the beginning of the poem came from. The poem has been edited quite a bit from the initial impulse. There was more of the child’s imagination at play in the first few drafts but the images were not serving the poem.
I like the parallel you drew to the speaker in Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.” It’s intriguing to me that in both your poem and Bishop’s, the events are presented as memory: the adult consciously looking back and relating what they felt as a child. I’m interested in your thoughts about writing, as an adult, from the viewpoint of a child. Is it fun or challenging? Is the knowledge of everything that happens after the events of the poem a help or a hindrance? The desire to wink at events and issues of the present when writing from the past is tempting, but you seem to have resisted that well.
Obviously, writing in the past tense offers the gift of reflection. However, I usually have no idea where I am going when I write. I let the poem find its way. It’s atypical that I know an ending before I begin. This was one of those rare times when I knew that the old woman would eat the corsage and the speaker would dig her heels in and “get back to herself.” In that way, this poem was a bit scary for me to write because it’s not my usual process or style. It’s a narrative poem and I have a difficult time with narrative poems because my tendency is to leap from image to image rather than recount from memory.
Switching gears here: you did a reading at AWP this past March that centered on what is called “magical realism” and “slipstream” writing. What do you think those modes have to offer in the crafting and reading—the experience—of a poem?
The reading and panel discussion was for A Cappella Zoo, a literary magazine, as described by the editor, as one that focuses on “overlapping styles, including absurdist, uncanny, fabulist, cross-genre… For [their] purposes, the combined terms MAGIC REALISM & SLIPSTREAM illustrate the range.” I believe I was invited as an example of “slipstream.” My poem “Beauty School” was awarded most notable contribution for their Spring 2012 issue. The speaker in the poem is experiencing a heightened consciousness about hairdressing. Each act becomes more and more dangerous ending with the speaker handling an extremely sharp instrument.
After the reading an audience member asked the panel the very same question you are asking. I’m afraid I still don’t have a great answer other than “Fantastic” or Magically Real/Slipstream is how my mind works. I don’t set out to write in any certain style.
As David Young points out in his Magical Realist Anthology, MR is the collision of 2 different realities that are left unresolved in terms of a logical explanation. For example, Marquez (I can’t talk about Magic Realism and not mention Gabriel Garcia Marquez) in his story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” an entire village is experiencing the same “hallucination.” If so, than what they are seeing is real. Or when Gregor Samsa wakes up from a night of anxious dreams to find that he is a gigantic bug and he states, “It was no dream.” The fantastic and the real are coexisting. I won’t go into the political or religious reasons why writers may employ these styles. That is for a different discussion.
I must say, as a reader, I am drawn to this genre so I am sure that my fascination informs the writing in some unconscious way. I also think that many poets who employ or depend on leaps of imagination through imagery may find themselves labeled as someone who writes in said styles. I’ve never put myself in any one camp or style. I find it interesting when editors align me with a certain way of writing. But I do think that allowing the absence of logic makes for a more interesting writing experience.
“Scouts” does not appear to be a poem of magical realism or the fantastic; it does seem quite grounded in reality, or at least the possible. But there are touches that largely remind me of magical realism, moments where something happens that is unexpected—like Helen taking the flowers into her mouth (though now I know that this is actually true)—that are represented matter-of-factly, a hallmark of magical realism poems and stories. Do you use this approach in your, let’s say, more “realistic” poems consciously, or is this measured, level-headed way of presenting the poems’ more “fantastic” moments just something that happens on its own?
I hadn’t thought about the moment where Helen puts the corsage in her mouth as magical or fantastic, but now that you mention it I probably would never have written the poem if I wasn’t drawn to that image for that very reason. And the way that the image lands is unresolved, which again works with the collision of two realities. I hadn’t thought about that.
What’s next for your writing? Any projects you’re working on or big news to share with us?
I have a full length manuscript making the rounds (which may have some good news soon) and a new chapbook that I am working on. I am just starting to hear the voices of the new speakers. They’re interesting in that they are naive yet persistent. I have to spend more time with them.
Lightning round: Murakami or Marquez?
AHHH, such a hard choice. If I were being shipped off to an island and I had to choose just one I would choose Marquez.
What’s the creature you’d least like to wake up and find yourself metamorphosed into?
A snake. The thought of not having any arms or legs terrifies me.
Who is the first poet you can remember reading whose work struck some chord in you and gave you that feeling that you wanted to write poetry too?
The first poet that really struck a chord with me was Rimbaud and Andre Breton was a close second. Specifically these two lines from Rimbaud made me choose to write: “The green faded dresses of girls / make willows, out of which hop unbridled birds.” I think it is the way the image unfolds so slowly through the syntax that grips me even now. I wanted to make these magical images.
Mary Lou’s poem, “Scouts,” appeared in Swarm’s Spring 2013 issue.