Martha Serpas

The poet discusses impermanence, process, and her new collection, The Diener.

*A full transcription of this audio interview can be found below.



Ben Evans: You’re listening to Fogged Clarity. This morning, I’m pleased to be joined by the poet Martha Serpas, whose third collection of poems, The Diener, was recently released by LSU Press. In addition to teaching Creative Writing at the University of Houston and crafting poems that have been featured in The New Yorker, The Nation, and here on Fogged Clarity, Ms. Serpas holds a degree from Yale Divinity School and has served as a hospital trauma chaplain since 2006. A co-producer of the 2012 documentary, Veins in the Gulf, she remains active in efforts to conserve the threatened wetlands of her native Louisiana. Martha, glad to talk with you.

Martha Serpas: Good to talk to you, Ben.

BE: Well, the second poem in this collection “Betsy”—the title referring to the 1965 hurricane— evidences themes and fascinations that persist throughout The Diener, I wonder if we could begin with you reading that?

Martha reads her poem “Betsy”.

BE: Thank you. You are working toward, and arriving at, some very big things in this poem and the book at large. Namely this question, I think, as to whether wholeness and continuity, in both an organic and spiritual sense, leave room for the concept of the singular soul… What are your thoughts on that interpretation?

MS: In terms of?

BE: Are you working against this notion of the singular soul towards one of more collective harmony, or the soul as it may exist collectively?

MS: Well, I think that’s one of the questions that propelled me in thinking about these poems, the first poem questioning whether we are able to be creators at all, singularly, or whether we really only rearrange what has already been created. So I’m working through this idea of the singular artist, and then with respect to a sort of collective spirit, I think that question extends to the natural world and the separation between a collective human experience and the experience of the natural world.

BE: You grew up in a land of a very pronounced natural impermanence and, I imagine, Christian faith was relied on in answer to the anxieties it created. Were you, yourself, raised in a religious household?

MS: Oh, absolutely. I was raised in a Catholic household, but in a particular context of Cajun Catholicism. One thinks of Catholicism as being very inculturated, you know Catholicism in Mexico is extremely different from Catholicism in Italy etcetera, and within those places very much localized. While Cajun Catholicism is very practice oriented, and it’s very family oriented, and not very doctrinal at all. So I grew up in a place of rituals that are very specific to the place, of sacramentals, practice of the rosary, and less so an emphasis on theological doctrine.

BE: That’s fascinating, because Christian tradition as it commonly exists seems far too confining for many of the ideas that emerge in The Diener. How did examining religion at Yale help you to transcend some of the more stifling conventions it entails?

MS: Well I was… There were a lot of Catholic students at Yale, but the largest population is Episcopal and the heritage is Congregational, so even though, as I say, there were a lot of Catholic students, the instruction and the tradition and the doctrines we were examining were wholly Protestant. So I think, by contrast, I really recognized the aspects of Catholicism that had formed me, and especially informed my poetry, in a way I wouldn’t if I hadn’t experienced three years of that sharp contrast.

BE: There’d seem to exist a great divide between your role as a poet and your role as a hospital chaplain. The former demands you investigate your beliefs, while the latter would seem to require you to hold fast to them—despite the fact they may be changing. What strategies or principles do you rely on in order to conduct both offices without contradiction?

MS: Well, honestly, I mostly saw continuity between the two. The hospital where I was trained and practiced is Tampa General, and that’s an inner-faith group of chaplains. When I started, the largest group—there were various denominations—were Protestant chaplains, but there was a Native American chaplain, a Buddhist chaplain, a Jewish chaplain, I happened to be the only Catholic chaplain, which was odd, because the largest population of patients in that hospital are Catholic. But, be that as it may, we all responded to whatever call came in. So, it was less holding fast to my belief system as expanding it so that I could be present with a wide variety of patients and families; I mean a variety of beliefs, or lack of belief. I certainly was called upon to be present with families who did not believe at all. And, if I could say something about the poetry part of your question, I quickly learned that there was a similarity between trying to be fully present in writing a poem and be fully present with a family; also, encountering the blank page, and walking into—say if I’ve been called to a patient’s room—and walking into a room, which is also very white usually, and not knowing at all what I’m going to encounter, and sort of writing, if you will, the visit back and forth between the patient and myself—one minute I’m the reader the next minute I’m the writer as I take in what the patient says and then respond.

BE: Yeah, and that’s showcased in the poem (“Hirudo Medicinalis”) about the leech “in his salty pyx”, and—I can’t pronounce the Latin—but you say: What carries us forward, / when I enter the room, / is the blankness—the sheets, / the walls, the page.

So, there are expressed frustrations in The Diener concerning humanity’s disregard for nature, repressed sexuality, and the ultimate insufficiency of words… All of these lend to the collection’s intimacy. And I wonder, if you think the creation of any good poetry requires the galvanizing force of contention; something to push at, or against if you will?

MS: Absolutely. I would call that tension paradox. And, if a poem is not grappling with paradox then I tend to be frustrated with it, and sometimes the paradox is expressed through a contrast between the music and the semantic meaning of the poem. I’m frustrated with poems that choose one mode or the other, and I do think that that trying to reconcile differences, even as one knows they can’t be reconciled, is what poetry does.

BE: That’s essentially what I’m trying to get at, and what I’ve been thinking a lot, a lot about lately—If poetry does need something to push against; does this somehow limit the poet’s claim of having access to a higher truth, since the poet continues to engage with the conflict such truth presumably transcends?

MS: That’s a very good question, and one that I’ve been recently grappling with. How much responsibility does the poet have to be guide, even if guiding means being one step ahead of the reader, and how much is left to the reader to create those aspects of the poem? I think that’s a really good question, and it’s a really difficult problem for me right now. In our contemporary moment it seems that much is left to the reader, as poets, in general, shy away from what you’re calling an expression of higher truth, which I think is a really good phrase.

BE: Yeah, it’s… As I said it’s something I’ve been struggling with in writing myself, it’s like: once you demonstrate awareness you can’t take it back; once a poet acknowledges that thoughts are, the mind is, tenuous and can’t be relied upon, how can we continue to demand they do (can) for readers? I suppose I mean, if one acknowledges uncertainty, what point can there be in continuing to expose it? And maybe the answer to that is that poetry is beautiful and enjoyable. And, also, you know, I’ve come to look at poems as kind of microcosms of the inter-relationship between struggle and wisdom, the poet grapples with something only to emerge having revealed something larger, more spacious.

But, I guess I ask those questions to ask this, Martha: There are so many moments in The Diener where you are writing from “the mind’s highest point” as you name it in your poem “Sunset Bridge”, yet there are others where you seem to be very much in argument with death. I am far more trustful of the former moments, than of the latter—which seem to be less reflective of the overall consciousness of the book as it is evidenced in poems like “Free Descent” or “Humus“.

MS: Wow, that’s also a really good question and one I’ll definitely take away from our talk. I guess I’m…Although I name death and invoke death a lot, I guess when I speak about it I speak about loss as the death of the marsh and its inevitable rebirth, a rebirth that I have no access to, and that trying to imagine it (the rebirth) only accentuates the loss. I don’t think I have anything helpful to say about that except boy, I need to grapple with that.

BE: I mean, these poems, I think they get at the ineffable and they do point to this uncertainty, and their usefulness, much like the Tao Te Ching lies therein. They are gorgeous expressions. And I first came to this book through a poem that appeared in The New Yorker about a year ago last month called “The Best of Us”, and it’s just an unbelievable narrative. I was wondering if you’d read that to us.

MS: Sure. I consider that poem a real gift to me, and I appreciate that it also speaks to you in some way. And sure, I’m happy to read it.

Martha reads “The Best of Us”

BE: Ah, superb. Ah, superb. The invention of narrative, the transitional fluidity, and it’s just… You leverage this narrative to get to one of these moments you arrive at often throughout The Diener and that’s Shame is such / a bastard, its fly-by-night parents that function as almost direct addresses to the reader. And, I’ve mentioned it already, but it’s an amazing element of this collection, the intimacy. In “Breakfast at Starbucks with Egret” we get: Don’t think less of me, Reader.; in your poem “Crossing”: Friends: Don’t seal me in a marble card catalog / to which no borrowers come; and finally in one of my favorite lines in the book from a poem you read, “Betsy”: God how I want to tell you this story! What is the craft behind deploying those moments of address and having them work; or are they simply a product of courage?

MS: You know, nobody has ever pointed that out to me. And, I think I had a lot of anxiety about these moments where I want to shed any kind of persona and also this anxiety I feel about speaking, especially speaking for a culture, and this isn’t so true, well maybe it’s true about “Betsy”, but, I was going to say this earlier: It was really difficult to me, say in the poems that are set on the bayou, feeling like I was saying something for the place I grew up. And there are a lot of my peers, my colleagues, who lament that poets don’t step forward and speak for communities, as has been the historical role of poets, and I had a lot of anxiety about doing that. Especially since I don’t live there anymore, I live there in my heart and I live there in spirit, but I don’t bodily live there, would love to but don’t. And I had a lot of anxiety about… worrying about appropriation. And then I came to the place of: this is my home and it’s the only one I have, you know, I can’t pick another place, and I got more comfortable with it. I hope that that speaks a little bit to the idea of intimacy, that not only did I have to feel comfortable shedding this persona and speaking directly to the reader in an intimate way, but I also had to become comfortable with where I was standing when I was doing that.

BE: Yeah. They work, and they’re tremendous.

With its attention to landscape & narrative construction, I wonder if you see The Diener in some ways stemming from the Romantic tradition?

MS: Absolutely. There are people who believe that we’re still in the Romantic period. And, you know, with the rise of challenges to so-called nature poetry and the field that’s coming to be known as ecopoetics, I think that I both value that tradition and I welcome the critique of it. And by that tradition I mean the tradition of the walk, the life in nature, and the problem with projection and anthropomorphism. But from my perspective that’s almost a first step to entering into a relationship with nature, and it can be critiqued—this is another paradox—it can be critiqued as insufficient, and it has to be the first step, and I do see myself shuttling back and forth and trying to move forward in representing nature and appreciating nature on its own terms.

BE: And, the lessons that can be found therein are incredible. You know, I’ve come to be someone who was really skeptical of the Romantic tradition starting out, now I understand it more. I spend time out in the woods by myself at my cottage and it’s wondrous to be out there, you know, hence the anxiety that emerges in The Diener at having that threatened, that natural wonder threatened. And I think there is some anger pushing behind some of these poems, would you go that far? Do you think in some ways this is a book born of anger?

MS: I would say, if anger is frustration, yes, that’s part of the impetus for this book.

BE: We get, in this gorgeous poem, which really feels like a key to the collection, it’s called “Travel Slowly Back”, and, again we get one of these addresses: I know you don’t believe it, but this is all about you: / about where you went when you saw a stillness / you could not believe, a weight so dry and oppressive / it had to be ironic.

Was the “weight” referred to in this poem a provoking force for The Diener? Would you be willing to discuss the experience or experiences that birthed those lines in “Travel Slowly Back”?

MS: I think when faced with intense grief we often have access, and I would say have access, and not feel like we have access, to a more enhanced relationship with other people, a more enhanced access to what you called earlier “higher truth”. And it often looks, to folks outside of it, as a kind of grief-induced insanity—the idea that one could stop someone on the street and feel a deep and intimate connection along with biographical details, say, for instance. A metaphor might be that one tries to follow the person who has died, and if you’ll take the trope of that person moving up, the one left behind trying to follow that person and thereby getting a broader view of earth and people below. And then having to come back, because one can’t live there; one can’t survive and make one’s way in the world from that height. So that’s what I ended up meditating on in the first part of the poem, that height, and then the travel back in the second part of the poem.

BE: So, it’s indicating the travel back from an almost formless state we can arrive at when grieving or suffering intensely?

MS: Yes.

BE: Yeah, that’s something. It’s been really interesting reading this book alongside the Tao Te Ching and they pair closely together, they’re really interesting. Martha, I had a great time speaking with you. Thanks so much.

MS: Thank you, I’ve enjoyed it and you’ve given me a lot to think about.

Martha Serpas is the author of three collections of poetry: Côte Blanche (New Issues), The Dirty Side of the Storm (W.W. Norton), and 2015’s, The Diener (LSU). Her poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. Active in efforts to restore Louisiana’s wetlands, she co-produced Veins in the Gulf, a documentary about coastal erosion. She teaches at the University of Houston and serves as a hospital trauma chaplain.