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It is with great pleasure that we publish the following interview with Linda Gray Sexton. Fugue is delighted to share it, along with four rediscovered poems (and an essay!) written by her mother, the poet Anne Sexton. We would like to thank Ms. Sexton, whose generosity and cooperation ensured that the rediscovered work of her mother and the following interview are included in Fugue's forthcoming issue 55 (which you can pre-order here). Additionally, special thanks are due to Drs. Zachary Turpin and Erin C. Singer for their efforts in bringing to light these lost works, and for drafting the introduction that appears in the print issue. We hope you enjoy the poems, the essay, and this interview as much as we do.

—The Editors


FUGUE:

Linda, thank you for agreeing to speak with us about your experience in bringing to light several of your mother's long-lost poems from the late-1950s. What was your experience of reading the poems presented in the forthcoming issue? Has this happened before—someone drawing your attention to lost or little-known pieces by your mother?

LINDA GRAY SEXTON:

It has been a unique experience to discover, read and experience these poems lost to us for so many years. It has never happened before that a stranger has contacted me serendipitously about new-but-old poems of my mother’s and thus brought them to light.

I cannot honestly say that I have never seen them before; I can only say that I do not recall ever having read them at any previous time. It is possible that when I was writing and editing Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait In Letters, I did encounter them and then dismissed them as early work that she would not have wanted seen. There were several other such poems, all of which her editor at Houghton Mifflin simply did not feel were worthy of publication, as they were too “young” and “inexperienced.” Likewise her play, Mercy Street, upon whose cover she wrote “BURN THIS.” When I consulted with her editor about possible publication some years after her death, it also was deemed not worthy because the themes and topic had been “better covered in the poetry.” Later, I would reverse my former decision to restrict access to the play until the year 2025—much less to burn it. Mercy Street is now available, in both her archive at the University of Texas, and in print through Broadway Plays; and I am involved in negotiations right now for bringing it back to the stage as an opera, with its original New York director. Once again, the decision was not made because the work was of her finest, but rather because it is of her oeuvre and thus deserves consideration when scholars and readers consider the trajectory of her career in poetry.

But I digress. I, myself, being “young and inexperienced” at the time this early poetry might originally have come to light, was unable to make a judgment independent of her editor about these poems or about Mercy Street; I was just twenty-one when my mother committed suicide and only then did I become her literary executor, which proved to be an arduous task, but one which provided me with an opportunity to mature as both an editor and a writer. I had much work to do, and I believe I have succeeded for the most part as the guardian of her work—all done both to protect it and to enlarge her readership. However, I cannot claim that I have never made an error; and perhaps forgoing the earlier publication of these poems was a “mistake,” in so far as it now seems to me that they are indeed worthy enough for the world to see: the efforts of a very young poet trying her hand at the genre, making her own mistakes, but showing early definitive talent.

I think my mother might not have wanted these four poems published—and might in fact dismiss them—were she alive and still writing and creating the main body of her work; however, part of a literary executor’s job is to make posthumous decisions that take into account the literary world today and the writer’s place within it. The poet grants the executor the power to override her desires, and relies upon the wisdom the executor must exhibit in order to make the “correct” choices—even if they may not be exactly what she thinks she wants at the time she is making her decisions for publication after her death. Had she and I had the benefit of a discussion on the topic of these early poems, I think I might have changed her mind about publishing them after she was gone, as a way of elucidating her beginnings as the poet, Anne Sexton.

FUGUE:

This early work almost perfectly resists encapsulation. It seems commanding yet self-conscious, dark yet buoyant, and perhaps to be coming from a place of what Diane Middlebrook and Diane Hume George have called "belie[f] in the possibility of recuperation." Do you think these early works help bring your mother's complex art and life into focus? Or do they reveal that there is an Anne who, for all our interest and care, we can simply never know?

LINDA GRAY SEXTON:

I find these poems to be tremendously revealing. My least favorite is “Argument in the Gallery” as it seems the most abstract and I find I am neither particularly moved by it nor do I see the “Anne” whom I have come to know so intimately over the years, not only “in person” but on the page, as well. To be emotionally moved by a poem was, of course, the quality she most treasured and to which she aimed above all. Eventually the formal qualities she captured so exactingly in the early poems—meter, rhyme, tone—were replaced by more inventive ones, in my humble opinion (being neither a poet myself, nor able to be much of a critic therefore).

As she moved onward in her career, her foremost objective became the “tapping” of the unconscious and bringing it into the light in a poetry that made language unique. (See “For John, Who Begs Me Not To Enquire Further” as an example of this concept of tapping the unconscious, albeit in an early iteration.) The internal mechanisms of the poems grow more mysterious as she ages, and one must dig for them to see how she has reinterpreted the more formal way of expressing herself. Despite this, in these early poems she did aim for the emotional pinpoint as the unconscious shaped it, and so makes herself infinitely “knowable.” My favorite of these is “Winter Colony,” with its overtones of a possible letter to a lover, or even an ode to winter with its cherished objective of skiing, though perhaps I only imagine this—yet in this imagining I become a true “follower” of what she may or may not have intended. And it is this dance between reader and poet that captures her final intent.

 Anne and her daughters in their home in Newton, Massachusetts, circa 1960.

Anne and her daughters in their home in Newton, Massachusetts, circa 1960.

FUGUE:

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.

FUGUE:

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.

FUGUE:

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.

FUGUE:

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.

 Anne and Linda just outside their home in Weston, Massachusetts, circa 1967.

Anne and Linda just outside their home in Weston, Massachusetts, circa 1967.

FUGUE:

Are you currently writing anything we should know about?

LINDA GRAY SEXTON:

I am working now on a novel. In a decision to take a break from more “literary” endeavors, I began a book of psychological suspense—psychology and the machinations of the unconscious never being far from my mind, perhaps unsurprisingly, considering at whose knee I learned my craft. It is titled On My Own and is in the stage of final revisions before I send it to an agent. Right now I have a writer whom I admire reading it for one last set of comments, and I am hoping she will find it ready to be seen by the “professionals” in the literary biz. The novel has been five years in the making and I am eager to move on to new territory. I think, this time around, that it will be memoir again. It is my favorite genre. And I find I have more to say as my mother’s daughter—and as her literary executor.

Linda Gray Sexton was born in Newton, Massachusetts in 1953.  She is the daughter of the Pulitzer-Prize winning poet, Anne Sexton. Linda graduated from Harvard in 1975 with a degree in literature. She has published four novels: Rituals; Mirror Images; Points of Light; and Private Acts. Her three memoirs include: Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton; Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide; and Bespotted: My Family’s Love Affair With Thirty-Eight Dalmatians. Linda is now at work on a fifth novel, and writes a bi-weekly newsletter/blog, for which you can sign up on her website, www.lindagraysexton.com. There you can learn more about her, read excerpts of her books, as well as buy them. She lives in Maryland with her husband and their three Dalmatians.

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