In this interview, Ireland Dempster talks with Marjorie Maddox about Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation, a captivating collection of poems exploring the human body’s physical, spiritual, and mental aspects. Describing her father’s unsuccessful heart transplant during the blizzard of 1993, Maddox walks the reader through her experience with losing her father and her journey of healing, often through surreal descriptions of her experiences, such as comparing the liver to a professor. Reading Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation, readers are reminded of or introduced to the losses and rediscoveries related to the death of a loved one. In this conversation, Dempster and Maddox discuss the poet’s writing process (including how she decided what to base her poems on and how she revises) as well as how she feels about her own poetry. They also discuss Maddox’s “central obsession”: “the intersection of body and spirit.”
Dempster: Tell us a little about the background for this book.
Maddox: Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation was first published by WordTech in 2004. The book eventually went out of print and was re-issued just this past August by Wipf and Stock, for which I am incredibly grateful. My father died after an unsuccessful heart transplant during the Blizzard of 1993. Thus, although I grew up in Ohio, most if not all of the poems were written after I began teaching at LHU in 1990 and after my father’s death in 1993.
Dempster: In your poem “Treacherous Driving” you describe a wintry scene. I related the winter scene to the process of transplanting a heart because of the lines, “this is the hole / in the stranger, in my father, / in my own cracked / chest, hail cupped in its cavity, / the aorta beginning to freeze.” Is this something you intended or something I interpreted as a reader?
Maddox: Yes, in the poem “Treacherous Driving,” I wanted to employ such wintry images to convey the danger of driving in blizzard-like conditions, the danger of the transplant itself, and the irony of the quotation from the cardiologist, “It’s as safe as traveling to work.” Here is some background information for the poem: at the age of 39, my father suffered his first of ten cardiac arrests. The years of my youth were filled with ambulance sirens snaking their way to our house. As a pre-teen, I gave him CPR. Although my father lived until 65, he did not survive a heart transplant. I had recently accepted a teaching position at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania. During that period, my father had been waiting many months for a heart donor when I traveled home to Ohio to visit my parents over spring break. Once there, I heard ominous forecasts blaring from the radio, so I rushed back to PA and my teaching job. Soon after the blizzard hit, a man died in a car accident, and my father received that man’s heart. However, the State Police closed all the highways. There would be no returning to Ohio. For three weeks, the transplant seemed successful, but eventually, my father’s blood became infected, and he died. For years afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about this stranger’s heart buried inside my father. Many of these details are incorporated into the poem.
Dempster: I wanted to ask you about the meaning of your poem “Magnificat.” What were you thinking of or what were you doing when you wrote it?
Maddox: Because this particular poem was written over 20 years ago, I do not remember exactly what I was thinking when I wrote it. However, I do remember that I wanted to capture the struggle between faith and doubt and the won’t-leave-you-alone mystery of Word Become Flesh of the Incarnation. Thus, “Magnificat” was composed as a different version of Mary’s Magnificat, as my humanly flawed version, I guess. Even though we, as humans, may poke and prod at the mystery of Christ being both all-God and all-human (and maybe even try very hard to reject this miracle), in the end, Christ takes a hold of us and won’t let us go. And thank God, literally, for that.
Dempster: How do you determine what in your life you want to write about?
Maddox: Whatever happens to interest me at any given moment! I admit, I have a wide range of interests, so you’ll see books on my website using various genres (poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and children’s literature) and topics (the medical, baseball, domestic abuse, faith, collective nouns, teaching, living in an unsafe world, headline news, etc.). Right now I am writing about memory and my mother’s early stages of dementia—among other topics. I do keep circling back to the intersection of body and spirit, which I see as my central obsession. One of the things that I love about poetry is that it can be about anything. Poetry is a way to discover what you think about any given topic or experience. It also allows you to better see yourself, the perspectives of others, and the world around you.
Dempster: Tell me about your revision process for your poetry. How do you determine what you want to keep?
Maddox: I do revise A LOT, so some of coming to accept what I want to keep, delete, or revise comes through many years of writing, through reading the poem aloud, and through trial and error. It also is helpful both to have others read and give feedback on the poems (though I am just starting to do this again) and to let the poems sit a while and come back to them with fresh eyes after a period of time.
Dempster: What do you enjoy most about your own poetry?
Maddox: Again, in general I really love that moment when I discover something about myself or the world through the process of writing. I also love the plain old fun of playing around with words, allowing sounds and images to come together to create a new and separate experience for myself and, if I’ve succeeded, for the reader. I don’t always enjoy writing; it can be downright painful, but I can’t imagine myself or my life without it. It’s part of who I am.
Dempster: I want to ask you about the last line in your poem “Tape of My Dead Father’s Voice from an Old Answering Machine” because of your word choice. What did you mean when you said, “Lying, I repeat that I am fine, / take out the home he was, and leave my name”?
Maddox: Here’s some background information about the poem. After my father’s death, my sister and I were helping my mother clean out drawers when we found an answering machine tape which my mother had labeled simply “Dad’s Voice.” The poem’s ending lines refer to imagining calling and listening to this tape with his voice, having to revise away his name, and—because of the way grief sometimes works in society—pretend that I was OK when I really wasn’t; thus, deleting his name and leaving the “message” of my name, the one still living.
Dempster: What do you admire about your own poetry?
Maddox: That is hard for an author to answer, but I do like the lyrical and musical quality of many of the poems. I also am grateful that readers can identify with and have been moved by many of the pieces—or so they’ve told me. I also hope that they speak honestly to readers about faith and life.
Dempster: In section 3 of the book, why did you choose to write poems about body parts? What did they relate to? Your father or something else?
Maddox: Some more background information: A few years after my father’s death, I became very intrigued by the medical world and spent an entire summer carrying around the medical textbook Gray’s Anatomy and began writing about various body parts. I was particularly impressed with how metaphorical this medical textbook was. Therefore, the catalysts for the poem were both my father’s death and this book. Free fact: After I read any of these poems at various universities, I always have students come up and suggest an additional body part!
Dempster: In your poem “After Learning of Our Own Deaths,” you left the third stanza or section blank. I’m wondering how it affects the meaning of the rest of the poem. Is the number therefore the meaning of the trinity? Is the subject of the poem learning about their own mortality?
Maddox: Oh, that’s an interesting interpretation about the Trinity. I hadn’t thought of that. In “After Learning of Our Own Deaths,” I wanted to capture with that blank stanza just a bit of the great mystery of faith and also the mystery of moving from this life to the next. What is it that allows us that leap to the fourth section of “We believe”? That is what I’m grappling with and also embracing in this particular poem.
Dempster: When I asked about what you enjoyed most about your poetry, you mentioned the lyrical aspect of the poems and I noticed that a lot of your poems have that lyrical aspect. How do you go about writing rhymes into your poem? I figured it was connected to revising. Is there any particular system you have?
Maddox: I often read aloud when I compose and pay a lot of attention to the way words resonate. For example, I might include alliteration, assonance, and consonance to enhance the music of the line. I don’t use a lot of rhyme or fixed forms in Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation, but this is something that I do employ more in other collections, particularly in True, False, None of the Above, which focuses on writing and on teaching literature.
Dempster: Also I wanted to ask about your inspiration about your poetry. Do you think it would have been as easy to write about the emotions in your poems if you hadn’t had the same experiences you did? For instance, do you think it would be as easy to write about grief if you hadn’t had the same experiences?
Maddox: Good question. I think our experiences do help us empathize with others, but there are many forms of grief and many ways to grieve. No, I wouldn’t have been able to write these exact same poems, but my grief has made it possible for me to write about others’ different forms of grief. For example, in my book Local News from Someplace Else, I address living in an unsafe world and write about those affected by school shootings, natural disasters, terrorism attacks, etc. Perhaps seeing how those who lost a child in Montoursville grieved (or by simply being a parent myself) gave me insights into the horror that someone might feel who is affected by the above tragedies. In some ways, all news is local news—pain is pain.