THINGS WE’RE DYING TO KNOW…
Let’s start with the book’s title and your cover image. How did you choose each?
The title came as a result of the poems, through realization that the disease, Parkinson’s, was taking away/stealing my husband/marriage from me, just as a mistress does. The cover image was chosen for its haunting beauty, its transparency, its fragility. The sculptor Karen Lamonte sculpts life-size figures from glass, which for this book was the perfect image for a subject that was/is so jagged, rough, chipped, delicate.
If I asked you to describe or sum up your book, what three words immediately come to mind?
Seduction, passion, grief
What were you trying to achieve with your book? Tell us about the world you were trying to create, and who lives in it.
Ultimately, The Mistress is a love poem written through the textured experience of a long and passionate marriage. Then enters the mistress: Parkinson’s disease. The book is framed in one of the most imaginative ways: persona or mask where various voices speak throughout the book. Throughout the narrative, the mistress has her say. Breaking The Mistress’ grasp are a series of love poems each dated before the diagnosis of Parkinson’s. The book is structured this way, as an invitation to the reader to exhale, and trust the passion, the body, the spirit as it is presented.
Can you describe your writing practice or process for this collection? Do you have a favorite revision strategy?
Because of the fragility and heartbreak of the subject, my husband’s Parkinson’s disease, in order for me to find my way into the poems, I discovered that writing from persona at least initially was successful. The disease speaks as The Mistress, Kilimanjaro sighs, medications chant. I was alone in a monastery when I began this book, needing complete silence and privacy except for the sound of bells.
My revision strategy: I read each poem aloud hundreds of times listening for its musicality, its needs, which are often very different than what my needs are as the writer.
How did you order the poems in the collection? Do you have a specific method for arranging your poems or is it sort of haphazard, like you lay the pages out on the floor and see what order you pick them back up in?
The ordering of the poems in The Mistress was deliberate. The voice of The Mistress acts as say, the frame for the poems contained within. Woven throughout are voices of others, the neurologist, the wife, he says, she says, Kilimanjaro, an insecticide, and always is the wife’s voice that speaks the poems “Before We Were Three/” that impress upon The Mistress, and the reader, that there was this, this life, this love, this passion, this wholeness of marriage before the diagnosis of Parkinson’s, The Mistress.
What do you love to find in a poem you read, or love to craft into a poem you’re writing?
I love to experience this: “What!!!!! Are you kidding me?” Or this: “How did she/he move me from here to there?” Or this: “I can't breathe because of where this poem took me.” Or this: “ I am at great peace because of this poem.” Or this: “I'm crying because of the simple brilliance of this poem.”
I love to see that a poet has experimented with white space, therefore breath. I love to study how a poet, with clear and simple language, and with few words, has written a poem that affects me so deeply, into my marrow that I can't do anything but read and reread, and tape it to my refrigerator for others to see.
Can you share an excerpt from your book? And tell us why you chose this poem for us to read – did it galvanize the writing of the rest of the collection? Is it your book’s heart? Is it the first or last poem you wrote for the book?
Little known but one of the earliest symptoms of Parkinson’s is the loss of the sense of smell that can occur in many people up to 15 years before a diagnosis of the disease. For me, for us, in our marriage, this was a terrible realization that my husband could no longer smell me. The grief was astonishing in fact because the sense of smell is powerful, an aphrodisiac, and knowing that there was now this loss when already there were so many, caused yet another grief. The loss is addressed in various poems in the book; this one is set on our property. I wouldn’t say it galvanized the writing for the rest of the book, rather, it was another sign of the deterioration of brain cells in my husband’s brilliant brain therefore another beating by The Mistress to our once fiery marriage.
Your Loss Comes On Like Grief/
My Grief Comes On Like Longing
Even the mud smells
good I say and you say
yes along the San Cristobal Creek
where we drop to our knees--
sanctuary in brilliance of soft afternoon glow
where I breathe the scent of mud where
you breathe—my set of wet
eyes that perhaps
your eyes see neither of us paying
attention to the song, loud in my heart, and yours
the mud smells good the mud smells good
glee swelling my flesh.
Breathe me in—unexpected
desire for you upon
my lips, an hour’s reflection
of creek flow during early spring,
open somehow quiet in
I am a scentless woman
to you, and to her, too.
That the mud smells good smells good that I want you
to say I remember.
If you had to convince someone walking by you in the park to read your book right then and there, what would you say?
I might say, "Hey! I’ve written this book of poetry and I want you to have it to read and share with others, and if you want to contact me later to talk about it, please do!"
For you, what is it to be a poet? What scares you most about being a writer? Gives you the most pleasure?
At this age and at this point of my life as a poet, I cannot imagine my life any other way. I live for my own creativity as a poet, and for others’ poetry, also. There is nothing that scares me about being a writer. I am at peace when writing. I love the process: from the earliest impetus that most likely came about in a stream of consciousness writing, to discovering the poem, the language, to line breaks, the craft, the sound, the voice, to the presentation to other poets for critique, the presentation of the poem out into the world. Each gesture of writing a poem, even in the most emotionally difficult poems, is spiritual, helping me grow as a poet.
I’ve heard poets say that they’re writing the same story over and over in their poems. Is that true for you?
Are there other types of writing (dictionaries, romance novels, comics, science textbooks, etc.) that help you to write poetry?
There are some novelists whose writing is so poetic that I refer to their books for the rich vocabulary and their use of language, such as Colum McCann. And, always a thesaurus.
What are you working on now?
I have in process three separate manuscripts now, but Pitchfork is the working title of the one I’ve been most absorbed in over the past year. It consists of small poems about insects and the insect world. I research endlessly when writing each book so now have sites, articles, and picture cards about insects on the planet. And the poems, though many of them humorous, are really once again complicated with the intricacy of human relationship.
What book are you reading that we should also be reading?
There are two: A Life Well Worn by Larry Schreiber and Canto General, Song of the Americas by Pablo Neruda, translated by Mariela Griffor; Jeffrey Levine, translation editor.
Without stopping to think, write a list of five poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least write in permanent marker on your clothing, to take with you at all times.
Odysseus Elytis, Pablo Neruda, Patricia Smith, Galway Kinnell, Orlando White
Purchase The Mistress.
Catherine Strisik is a poet, and author of The Mistress (3: A Taos Press, 2016) and Thousand-Cricket Song (2010; 2nd edition, 2016 Plain View Press), and manuscript-in-progress, Pitchfork. Active in the Taos poetry community for over 33 years, Strisik’s poems appear in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Drunken Boat, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Kaleidoscope, Tusculum Review, and elsewhere, and have been translated into Persian. Strisik has received grants, honors and prizes from CutThroat, Peregrine, and Comstock Review, The Southwest Literary Center, The Puffin Foundation, as well as residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, Truchas Peaks Place, and Christ in the Desert Monastery. Strisik is co-editor of Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art (www.taosjournalofpoetry.com), and also teaches privately and is available for readings, workshops, and interviews. She lives in San Cristobal, New Mexico. Visit her online at www.cathystrisik.com or www.taosjournalofpoetry.com.
Nicole Rollender is a poet, editor and seeker.