Nearly every year I feature a poem by Marie Marshall in this series. I love the way she continually pushes boundaries and expectations in her work. I even teach one of her poems in my AP class. You can find my review of her collection Naked in the Sea here.
I particularly like this poem, “cursive,” which I read on her blog recently, because it has such music, and because it reminds me of how detrimental and ultimately self-sabotaging unkind or unhelpful teachers can be. How many times in my career have I read personal essays by my students about teachers they’d had in the past who were insulting or demeaning to them, who baldly explained they weren’t good enough for this or that, who made sure they understood their work was not enough, not good enough, not full enough of effort, not right?
And how often have I heard students say that those hurtful things inspired them to be just that much better, to show the haters up and prove how good they really were?
In high school I had one particular history teacher who was, hands-down, one of the best I’d ever taken a class from. I even took his elective seminar on the Civil War my senior year, not because I had any interest in that era in history and not because I wanted to do a college-level seminar class on it and not even because I needed another history class — none of those were true — but because he was just that good a teacher. And when the time came for me to apply to colleges and I wanted to go to William & Mary (his alma mater, incidentally), he said he would write me a recommendation letter but that I had two really big strikes against me. First, I was from Texas rather than Virginia. Second, I was a woman.
I didn’t go to William & Mary. I didn’t even apply. (If I had gone there, perhaps I would have met my dear friend and writing partner Sarah a lot sooner, because that’s where she was.)
Here’s to all those who are made, even if unintentionally, to feel less than. And dear gods, I hope I’m never the one who gives you that impression.
When we practiced our cursive, the sea
was white and the wave-caps were blue,
the ocean effectively in negative; Ws
were shore-break ripples, while the run
of lower case Rs were Triton’s anger.
I refused common Es and Ss, became
alone a celebrant of rollers, breakers,
priestess of the breath of endless brine,
I knew only the hiss and heart, the salt.
Teacher told me in fact I wrote nothing;
page by page, I wrote till I drowned her.
Here is Marie’s bio, which is most charming in first person. No picture available.
Hi, I’m Marie Marshall. I’m Scottish, middle-aged, and on a good day I bear a slight resemblance to the Log Lady in Twin Peaks. I didn’t start writing until my late forties, I’ve had three novels and two collections of poetry published, one of the latter getting a nomination for the T.S. Eliot Prize, but that’s as far as it got. A whole bunch of psychological stuff makes me a very private person, so I’ve tried to use my pathological reclusiveness to create a kind of mystique about myself – I want my poetry to speak for me, to tell you anything you need to know about me. If that sounds a bit pretentious and po-faced, then I guess I’ve only got myself to blame. ’Scuse me, I have a date with a gin bottle, the moon, a Cossack, and a Kickapoo…