A version of the following interview with Christine Marshall appeared in Issue 16.6. Some of the questions refer to her essay, “The Circle,” which was pub-lished in that issue.
IHLR: I want to start with a not-so-literary question. In your essay “The Circle,” you write, “Often people say ‘Wow, weird,’ / when they meet my twin and me.” I have said (or at least thought) this when meeting identical twins, possibly due to some highly unscientific beliefs about twins that I might or might not hold. I was wondering if you could address some of them here. (If any of these questions are too annoying or inappropriate, you are of course free to skip them.)
When a twin experiences intense emotion, the other twin can feel it, even miles away.
Marshall: In high school, my sister and I used to tell people a story about how I cut myself chopping vegetables in Home Economics and she spouted blood in the middle of Latin. Then we would laugh at them for being so gullible. Having said that, I talked to my sister (who lives on the other side of the country) last night, and was amazed (for the millionth time) to find that we are in the midst of very similar emotional experiences, despite the fact that our lives are very different. So while there’s nothing telepathic about our connection, we are very much emotionally in-sync. It’s comforting and also unnerving at times to know that another person in the world understands so fundamentally what I am feeling.
IHLR: Some have suggested that twins learn a private language before they learn any other type of language. Is this true, and also is it true that twins continue to speak this language behind closed doors throughout their lives?
Marshall: I’ve heard about that, and I love the idea of creating a private pre-language language. And while we didn’t do this ourselves in the way that you are describing, I guess I would again skirt your question by saying that language takes a variety of forms. There’s nobody in the world whom I can read more clearly than my sister, and I mean without words. I can tell what mood she’s in, whether she’s upset about something or relaxed and happy, just by looking at her face. I think this makes sense in a very non-mystical way: We spent every single day of our lives together until we went away to college. And we have the same DNA.
IHLR: When speaking to an identical twin, what degree of skepticism is fair, due to the likelihood that the person you’re talking to might actually be the other twin disguised as the one you think you’re talking to.
Marshall: I would say a high degree of skepticism is not only fair but warranted. There’s about a 70/30 percent chance, sometimes higher, of a human sleight-of-hand when it comes to pretty much any pair of twins in the world. The worst part is that you’ll never know. We’ll just spend the rest of our lives laughing at you behind your back.
IHLR: Thank you. I’ll try to up the maturity level for the remaining questions.
I loved “The Circle.” Above, I called it an essay. Is this how you would categorize it? Do you think of it as a hybrid form? To what extent do you think such genre classifications are interesting/useful, or irrelevant/harmful?
Marshall: Thanks, Michael. I really appreciate that. I think of it as an essay, too, and also a hybrid. An essay because it’s ten times longer than most of the poems I write, and because it’s thinking through a set of issues in a more sustained way than my individual poems typically do—and a hybrid because it employs line breaks, imagery, and a certain kind of juxtaposition that I associate with poetry. I always find genre classifications interesting, if only to debunk them, in the same way I find gender, class and race distinctions interesting. I like to debunk those too. I wouldn’t say that genre classification are harmful any more than I would say that gender, class or race distinctions are harmful, per se—they just frequently don’t work. What I find important about labeling is the work of consciously examining our assumptions about what things are and are not, and overturning those assumptions if we find that we don’t believe them. For example, why can’t an essay use poetic imagery to pursue a logical thread, or a critical one, or a narrative one, or all three? Lots of people are talking about this right now, and it’s satisfying and fun to see the proliferation of categories in the literary world. And then the argument could be made that there has always been a plurality of forms that we’ve just squeezed into convenient boxes through excessive analysis (that’s my original idea and not Foucault’s, in case anyone asks).
IHLR: While the opening section in the clinic seems important to the speaker’s fascination/alignment with images of circles, holes, and absence, that fascination also seems to predate and extend beyond the clinic—choosing to run around the lake-like graveyard over the temple, Bishop’s “cold, blue-black space” surrounding the “round, turning world”, and even the tattoo. Hopefully this doesn’t seem like a long-winded, sneaky way of asking what your tattoo means, but can you talk about why these images are so rich for you?
Marshall: I don’t know what my tattoo means! Didn’t you read my essay? As for the circle, well, I like its tidiness, the way its ends are tucked in. In reality, my own circular process is very messy. A friend in college once referred to me as a “cloud of chaos,” which brings to mind all those lines (dust?) that surround Pigpen in the Peanuts cartoons. I guess when it comes down to it, as a messy worrier, the idea of a circle is tremendously liberating. Yes, I come back to the same problems again and again and again (most of them profoundly original like: what does it mean to be human?) but each time I encounter the problem yields a new beginning. There’s no end but I can always start anew.
IHLR: The piece often moves associatively—the figurative graveyard in the first section moves to the literal graveyard in the next—something the radiologist says triggers memories of Elizabeth Bishop, or family photos, and so on. Were you actively following these associations as you wrote the piece, or did they only occur to you after considerable thinking and drafting?
Marshall: Well, this essay seeded with this image that I couldn’t budge from my mind during the weeks following the ultrasound. The little deflated sac did look to me like my tattoo, and so I began with that. And then, as you say, I just followed those associations. My first drafts are always like that—I’m a bloodhound on a scent. Then I get more analytic, and think about how all the pieces fit together, and whether the piece makes sense as a whole.
IHLR: This is probably not an easy question to answer, but what are your five favorite Elizabeth Bishop poems?
Marshall: I’m going to mention four real Bishop poems and one imaginary poem, and leave it up to you to figure out which is which. Well, my favorites are always changing. I consistently read “Crusoe in England”—it’s a longer poem, maybe could even be considered an essay of sorts, and it’s both associative and logical in ways that thrill me every time I read it. The other ones I’ve been reading a lot lately are the poems “Anaphora,” “End of March,” “My Three Cats,” and I’ve been writing another essay on the poem “Visit to St. Elizabeths,” which is strange and different from her other poems.
IHLR: In a longer, highly narrative piece like this, do you think of enjambment and line breaks in the same way as when you write shorter poetry?
Marshall: There are moments when I do, when I’ll invest a lot of meaning on an enjambment, but whereas my shorter poems tend to be heavy and dense, I like a lot of movement in the essays. I do want the same element of surprise that occurs with a strong line break, but I also want it to happen less often, because it tends to slow the reader down. I want to reader to feel caught up in the current of these essays, so the lines—length, enjambment, etc.—are calibrated towards fluidity.
IHLR: What are you reading now?
Marshall: Kate Greenstreet’s Young Tambling and Karen Rigby’s Chinoiserie, both of which I love. And I can’t wait to read Claudia Rankine’s new book Citizen. And, of course, I am reading Elizabeth Bishop.
IHLR: What are you writing?
Marshall: I’m on an Elizabeth Bishop streak right now. So I’m working on a couple of essays, one that engages her poem Vising to St. Elizabeths, and one on several poems that make use (I think) of the Lacanian idea of the real.
IHLR: Thank you, Christine!