10 Questions for Constance Merritt
- By Edward Clifford
—from “Liability,” Volume 60, Issue 4 (Winter 2019)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
Well, I could tell you, but I would have to kill you. Actually, when my mom came to live with my wife and me, more than thirty years since I had left my childhood home, she came bearing artifacts from my childhood: my abandoned stamp collection, my high school diploma, a trophy I’d won, and a sheaf of my juvenilia—all thirty-two, slightly beigeing, typewritten pages of it. The first three poems are called “Space,” “God Is There,” and “Dreamer’s Song.” Perhaps you begin to get the idea, but just in case, here’s “Beautiful”
Before you look into the mirror,
Look into your heart,
And what you see,
And would have seen
Will be worlds apart.
So when you look at someone else,
Please don’t judge too fast,
For true beauty lies within,
And it’s the only beauty that lasts.
Aren’t you glad you asked? This question also made me recall an early (but post-juvenilia) poem called (I think) “Spitting Prayer.” I think it was published somewhere. And had I had the foresight to have sent a copy to my dear dead mamma, I’d be able to put my hands on it right now. Alas.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
This question assumes that the writer is writing now, which I, again, alas, am not. But were I writing now, I’d like to be influenced by the Psalms and the Prophets, especially Isaiah, and John’s Gospel and by justice seekers like my homeboy Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Mother Teresa, by the New York Times and the Washington Post, and by treatises on economics.
What other professions have you worked in?
Though perhaps not technically a profession, at one moment in my life I really, really, really wanted to be a turndown at the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska, but the powers thought that one needed to be able to see far just in case there was a stray hair left in the bathroom after cleaning, so, again, alas. Briefly, I worked as a library assistant in a university’s interlibrary loan department. As a social worker I have worked with older adults in low-income senior housing, on a hospital palliative care team, in a community mental health agency, as a medical case manager for people living with HIV/AIDS, and now as a coordinator of a church food pantry. And I served as an Americorps VISTA for a minute “developing” financial literacy / empowerment programs. And a homemaker for my wife and cats and, briefly, for my mom.
What did you want to be when you were young?
A singer, a songwriter, a writer, a poet, and a social worker.
What inspired you to write this piece?
“Liability” and its sister poems were the result of a workshop given by the poet Kiki Petrosino at the University of Louisville’s Speed Art Museum. The focus of the workshop was randomness as a compositional technique. I left the workshop intending to write a cento and began salvaging one line from the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day emails. For reasons that were never clear to me, I also began blacking out all but one line of the poems I was trawling through. Unfortunately and/or fortunately, I’m not very good at doing one thing every day, and I often fell behind and got caught up and fell behind again, until I finally abandoned the task altogether. Then my beloved friend Taije Silverman recommended me for this issue of the Massachusetts Review, and more for love than for anything else, rather than say ‘No, I have no poems,’ I decided to take a look at my folder of “essential poems” to have a look and play around turning single words into lines and stanzas and finding that I could speak something of myself even using a handful of borrowed words. There’s a fussiness and prickliness in [Marianne] Moore’s work that I don’t much care for, though there is a certain precision that I do. Maybe the poem suggests something about the rational mind and something about a rose.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Prospectively perhaps, the Kingdom of Heaven, the New Jerusalem, Beloved Community. As I would imagine most of us are, I am sick to death of the love of power and all of the horrors and injustices it breeds.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My wife. Always.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Why choose? Music, especially composing for multiple voices. I once took a music theory MOOC and it kicked my ass. Dance / choreography—one’s own or others’ bodies as instrument, that’s pretty miraculous. Painting: watercolors, abstracts. Oh, and mosaics! The artist / designer Corita Kent called the making of something as “acts of hope”; I like that a lot.
What are you working on currently?
Answering these interview questions. Building community in a church food pantry, playing with beads, playing with watercolors. There’s a little shred of justice that I’m seeking. As for writing poems, it’s not something I have much desire to do these days and that’s cool with me.
What are you reading right now?
I have been saving the Civil War issue of the Atlantic for after the holidays, so I guess I’ll be reading that. I seem to graze books more than read them these days, so it’s hard to tell what I am still reading from what I have finished reading. Like I am sure I have read most of the words in N. T. Wright’s biography of the Apostle Paul or a collection of the essential writings of Bonhoeffer many times, though I’m not sure I’ve finished reading them. Or after great anticipation and some days of avid reading, I seemed to have mislaid my desire to continue with The Water Dancer. Novels from Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series is my bedtime reading.
CONSTANCE MERRITT'S fourth collection of poems, Blind Girl Grunt: The Selected Blues Lyrics and Other Poems, was a Nebraska Center for the Book honor book and a Lambda Literary Foundation Award finalist in lesbian poetry. She lives in Louisville, KY.