Thursday, April 26, 2007

Work in Progress: Jane Satterfield

I met then-poet, now poet-essayist, Jane Satterfield at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference way back when; we were both scholars, I in fiction, and she in poetry. For me, anyway, it was a heady time, being at Bread Loaf, being a scholar, being with all these other writers, drinking gin and tonics with agents and Important People (along with the usual Self-Important People). I remember thinking that the group of poets was cooler in that deeply cool way than the group of fiction writers I was hanging out with (sorry, Dan, Dan, Rachel, and Joe!; we had heart!), but isn’t that often the case? Poetry is flash and quickness, capturing light, and novel writing is staying the course, putting in the hours and days and years to get to page 300 and the magical words “the end.”

But very little in writing—or life—is completely broken down into “either/or.” Here is Jane’s beautiful essay:

How I love the word slog.

With its old-country ring, it takes me back to the tidy, generative space of an English garden, the small swatch of earth my grandfather—a steel worker in England’s East Midlands—beautified with roses, petunias, pinks. It takes me back to the moments where I watched him at work in the allotments at the edge of the estate where residents kept their vegetable gardens. “Wo saw the tatty-hoakers,” he’d sing, working his way along the rows. To hoke: a word from a linguistic nether-world. To rummage, poke through, dig.

Slog—in my mind—suggests that one goes slowly, purposefully, unwittingly or unwillingly—as in a spell of hard, steady work. A colloquial word of uncertain origins, it surfaces in 1876 in the Mid-Yorkshire Glossary: “to walk with burdened feet, as through snow, or a puddle.” A secondary meaning is equally interesting: to slog away at something is to deal it heavy blows.

For all this, the word lacks the sense of excitement implicit in new beginnings; it fails to capture the frenzy of impassioned thought a writer feels at the intersection of work and inspiration. I’m thinking now of the opening lines of “Notes from the Front Line,” an essay by novelist, journalist, and cultural critic Angela Carter. Her inimitable voice--edgy, authoritative, ever questioning--shines through as she reflects on the question of how gender, and specifically feminism, influenced her writing:

"I’ve just scrapped my sixth attempt to write something for
this book because my ideas get quite out of hand the minute I try to
put them down on paper and I flush hares out of my brain which I
then pursue, to the detriment of rational discourse. To say something
simple--do I ‘situate myself politically as writer’? Well, yes of course.
(I always hope it’s obvious, although I try, when I write fiction, to think
on my feet--to present a number of propositions in a variety of different
ways and to leave the reader to construct her own fiction for herself
from the elements of my fictions. (Reading is just as creative an activity
as writing and most intellectual development depends upon new readings
of old texts. I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the
pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode). "

Whatever subject Carter turned her attention to—literature, film, music, politics, fashion, or travel—her essays, collected in the 1997 volume, Shaking a Leg, all embody Hazlitt’s description of the essay as “intellectual walkabout”: a central narrative line or argument is consistently disrupted with seeming digressions and even lengthy parenthetical statements as Carter relentlessly questions assumptions along the way. The unapologetic subjectivity in her voice--its colloquial and even iconoclastic tone--creates a powerful impression of a mind at work on the page. It’s a quality I’d kept in mind while working on nonfiction the past five or so years.

My own “walkabouts,” collected in a recently completed memoir called Motherland: A Year in Britain and Beyond, are—I hope--the more-graceful end-results of slogs through varied terrain: the contradictory demands of eros, history, and motherhood against the backdrop of a year abroad and the break-up of a marriage. A dual British-American national on my first return trip to England in over a decade, I found myself an exile in what should have been my home. Jobless and confined by an unplanned pregnancy, I faced a woman’s fundamental decision: to become a mother against my will or forge a new life on my own. That the decision was not so simple was only the first of many revelations. Along the way I’ve lingered in guilty pleasures, hoping to offer readers a lighter glimpse of mid-'90's Britain with an eye toward its music (the skiffle rock of my mother’s youth, Oasis vs. Blur!), popular culture (football, stone circles!), along with literary detours on the Brontes, Sylvia Plath, as well as the late Angela Carter (for whom I served as babysitter in my Iowa grad school days). Funny, now, to think of Motherland’s unlikely genesis in that year abroad where I put the writing of my first book of poems aside.

These days, during a semester leave, I rummage, poke through, dig, walk purposefully—at least between eight and three while my daughter’s at school—in language, in lines of thought and layers of history; in forms old and new—epistle, refrain, litany, fugue, I-Tunes party-shuffle. In the face of headline news, in the horrors of Baghdad and Blacksburg, the poet’s may seem a tiny voice. Yet I remain convinced the gestures of the lyric as Plath put it, watching her infant dance in the dark of an icy winter night, are “warm and human”; their light “Bleeding and peeling/Through the black amnesias of heaven.” Thanks to a fellowship from the NEA, I’m working on a new book of poems, reflecting on how women’s lives intersect with the larger culture. I’m particularly interested in the ways that poetry can bring to life the experiences of women, whether in the domestic sphere or within environments politically or culturally volatile.

Putting old wine in new bottles, generating explosions. Not a bad way to start.
~~Jane Satterfield

About Jane Satterfield: Born in England and educated in the U.S., Jane Satterfield received an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. Her first poetry collection, Shepherdess with an Automatic (Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2000), received the Towson University Prize for Literature; her second, Assignation at Vanishing Point (Elixir, 2003), received the Elixir Press Poetry Prize. She has received three Individual Artist Awards in poetry from the Maryland State Arts Council and is also the recipient of fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Sewanee Writers Conference, and the Wesleyan Writers Conference. Her nonfiction has received the Heekin Foundation’s Cuchulain Prize for Rhetoric in the Essay, the John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Award, and the Florida Review Editors’ Prize in Nonfiction. She teaches at Loyola College in Maryland.

Scroll down here to read one of Jane's poems.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.