Your mother often referred to herself as a "storyteller," even ahead of the word "poet" (much less "confessional" poet). "I prefer people," she wrote in 1959, rather than conceits or imagery, "people in a situation, a doing, a scene, a losing or a gain, and then in the end, find the thought (the thought I didn't know I had until I wrote the story)." What stories do you see these early poems telling?
LINDA GRAY SEXTON:
So much of her storytelling expresses itself in incidents rooted in her life. Big surprise! Plumbing the depths of the personal—whether it is in an abstract concept or in some more objective reality—she found inspiration in what was happening to her. And all this came prior to her early excursions into the nature of mental illness; thus these rediscovered poems are exemplars of her bent as a storyteller of other topics as well. I suppose this is obvious.
In “These Three Kings,” she takes on the more pleasurable family traditions that were so carefully observed during her childhood, writing successfully of her place as a young girl in the Staples/Dingley/Harvey clan in exacting detail, and so denies Louis Simpson his edict that no poet of her generation should use the words “ceremony” or “dance” or “praise.” Here, for a certainty, she praises a history in which she was a child heroine, observing the dance the family made every December 25th, during which all the generations clasped hands and moved in a big circle. She showed me that same dance when I was a child, “gnarled fingers to new fingers,” perhaps trying to preserve it through history, just as the poem captures and thus preserves the ritual. Though I have long forgotten this dance, I do recall the tune the revelers sung, and its haunting refrain has always played a large part in the retelling of the story, from her to her children, from me to mine; in the poem likewise, from poet to reader. My sister and I were regaled with tales of her father in his Abercrombie and Fitch Santa suit, stomping in the attic with the great aunts to mimic the hooves of rain deer, or carrying a pillowcase filled with oranges, ready to be distributed among the tribe of many young cousins.
All this fits so well with her image of herself as a storyteller, and it was one that would persevere throughout the years. A short story from these same years as an early poet, was, I believe, also only published in a magazine or, perhaps, never even published. (I wish I could remember the name of the story! However, it escapes me at the moment—though perhaps some other reader will enlighten us all. Certainly it is part of her archive at the University of Texas in Austin).
This particular short story, written to the child “Linda,” was never part of a collected work, but goes on to elucidate some of these same family traditions presented in the poem, a new generation of the “marvelous chain,” as she says in “These Three Kings,” those which were therefore given over to me for safekeeping—and for recounting, as she passed along these memories as surely as she passed along her recipes. I then told these stories to my own sons every Christmas morning. To recount the story in prose, wherein Linda learns about Santa and the family’s traditions, was yet one more way of carrying on her sense of self as a storyteller. For me, that hand-to-hand storytelling from one individual to another was one of her great gifts as a poet.
Your mother had complicated feelings about growing older, particularly about middle age. In her poetry aging is often a "cancer of the background," though many of her narrators float in a sort of ageless reverie ("In a trance I could be any age"...."In a dream you are never eighty"). What do you think it is about aging that disquieted her? Your mother would be ninety this year. Do you imagine her as a grandmother, a great-grandmother even? Or has she, in your mind, always stayed a certain age?
LINDA GRAY SEXTON:
I wish I could project forward to see her as a grandmother to my children, or even as a great-grandmother to my grandson. But I can’t. In my mind’s eye she is stuck at forty-five—the age at which she killed herself. When I realized that this year, 2018, she would have turned ninety, I was shocked. Her premature death means that, in terms of time, she has been gone as long as she had lived.
She was afraid of death even as she embraced it. Perhaps she pulled it toward her as a way of controlling it, of looking it in the eye up close and saying, “you will not win.” In the end, the tragedy was that it did win, on one level at least. Yet the poetry lives on, defeating the “cancer of the background,” cheating death itself. Our memories are alive with her words and this keeps her with us, for all time.
In your memoir Half in Love, you write about living in "the magnetism of my mother and her powerful sphere of influence," and about the years spent finding, often painfully, a territory that's yours. What did you learn in that time, and how has it influenced the way you raised and relate to your children? How has raising children changed the way you relate to your mother?
LINDA GRAY SEXTON:
Raising my children radically changed my view of motherhood. Perhaps this sounds simplistic or even obvious, but it was not until I had a child that I fully understood what a toll the childhoods of my sister and me had taken on my mother. It was perhaps inevitable that she not be a “good” mother in all the common senses of the word, because her own mother was a failure as a role model, and also because her poetry required all her devotion. Before I was a mother I resented this, feeling rejected and pushed aside. After my two sons were born, I understood her better, as both a parent and as a poet. In the writing of Searching For Mercy Street, I began to see it all from a different point of view, not only of parenting and the delicate balance it requires, but also, when this balance was set in opposition to the demands of her art. To my surprise, I began to forgive her for all she was unable to give me as a mother, and to celebrate instead what she gave me as a writer. This was hard to do, but resentment dimmed as I wrote. The memoir was essential in terms of realizing myself fully as both a daughter and as a mother.
In my own life, I have set my own writing with care on the edge of love and attention to my children, the drawing of all important boundaries (something my mother was never able to do), and the willingness to put my work aside when the kids’ demands seemed to me to be more pressing—more worthy, in some sense. That has probably made me more of a successful mother and less of a successful writer, because if I had to choose, it would be to be a better parent. My mother would have made an entirely different choice. Her work was all. It sustained her in ways we children could not.
Which of your books are you the most proud of and why? (You have so many to choose from.) Which particular project was the most difficult to write? The most revelatory?
LINDA GRAY SEXTON:
I am the most proud of Searching For Mercy Street, which tells such a deep tale of child to mother devotion, then the adolescent breakaway to a new identity, then the exasperating and elevating experience of motherhood—each phase moving onward to forgiveness for all the ways in which my mother disappointed me. It also speaks to the gifts she gave me, especially as a writer, gifts through which she taught me so much because she gave of her talents so freely. Writing the book revealed to me that we had more in common than I had thought, and also less in common. But mostly, it revealed her individuality as both a mother and as a poet, and taught me a great appreciation for all she did achieve. Perhaps it taught me to love her again after a long hiatus.