August 3,1999

BILL MOYERS : From nine to five she's a working girl, a senior editor at The New Yorker. The rest of the time she's a wife, mother and poet. She burned the midnight oil for ten years to produce her first book of poetry. She called it "A Working Girl Can't Win," but it won for her the praise of critics and the gratitude of women who juggle the hazards of multiple chores and alpha males. I'm Bill Moyers. Join me for the Sounds of Poetry with Deborah Garrison.

Funding credits

Montage of poets' voices

The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival

Waterloo, New Jersey

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DEBORAH GARRISON : I'd like to do a couple of poems about working life, which seems to be my life, actually. This relationship I am about to read about is almost as important as a marriage. The poem is called "The Boss."

A firecracker even after middle age set in, a prince of repression In his coat and tie, with cynical words

for everything dear to him. Once I saw a snapshot of the house he lives in, its fence painted

white, the flowers a wife had planted leaning into the frame on skinny stalks, shaking little pom-poms

of color, the dazzle all accidental, and I felt a hot corrective

sting: our lives would never intersect. At some point he got older, trimmer, became

the formidable man around the office. His bearing upright, what hair he has silver and smooth, he shadows my doorway,

jostling the change in his pocket -- milder now, and mildly vexed. The other day he asked what on earth

was wrong with me, and sat me down on his big couch, where I cried for twenty minutes straight,

snuffling, my eyeliner betraying itself in the stained tears. Impossible to say -- I was crying

because he had asked. He passed tissues, at ease with a fearsome womanly squall that made me alien

even to myself. No, it didn't make him squirm. Across his seventy years over his glasses, he eyed me kindly,

and I thought what countless scenes of tears, of love revealed, he must have known.


GARRISON : I guess I should also read the title poem of the book, which is called "A Working Girl Can't Win." And this again is very much hearing a voice that we hear much more in the media maelstrom of New York City than in some other places. I work at a magazine and there are these editorial meetings where people sit and talk about current subjects and what we should cover and what we shouldn't cover. And there's something so horrible about the way people talk about each other sometimes. Anyway, I tried to capture a little bit of that voice here. It's called "A Working Girl Can't Win."

Is this the birth of a pundit? Or a slut? Is she the woman they courted for her youthful edge or a kiss and tell bimbo, A careerist coquette? The loyal daughter to spin doctors losing their hair or soul sister to feminist essayists everywhere? Is her meteoric rise the source of her potential demise? Is her worldview equal parts yuppie whine and new age rumor? Can we get a biopsy on her latest breast tumor? Is she a failed anorexic, or diet pill faddist who will let it all go and get fat in her fifties? Are her roots rural, right leaning? Is she Jewish, self-hating? Past her sell by date, or still ovulating? Will her husband talk? Does he mind her success? Does anyone know -- does he see her undressed? Has she been photographed? Will she play truth or dare? And more to the point, does anyone care? Come next year, will the masses be reading her story? Will she be on the cover or well past her glory? Either way, we'll move on and she'll tire before long: only her children will grieve at the way she was wronged.


MOYERS : I like the casual, gossipy tone of your poems-


MOYERS : It's as if we are having a conversation over the water cooler or-


MOYERS : -at the end of a day.

GARRISON : Yes. That has been very important to me in poetry, is conversational language. And I think Larkin and Robert Frost and the poets that have been very important to me often have been the conversational poets. To me the idea of intimacy and actuality are such wonderful goals for poetry.

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GARRISON : This poem about office life is called "Please Fire Me."

"Please Fire Me"

Here comes another alpha male, and all the other alphas are snorting and pawing, kicking up puffs of acrid dust

while the silly little hens clatter back and forth on quivering claws and raise a titter about the fuss.

Here comes another alpha male -- a man's man, a dealmaker, holds tanks of liquor, charms them pantsless at lunch:

I've never been sicker. Do I have to stare into his eyes and sympathize? If I want my job I do. Well I think I'm through

with the working world, through with warming eggs and being Zenlike in my detachment from all things Ego.

I'd like to go somewhere else entirely, and I don't mean Europe.


MOYERS : You got a really good response yesterday when you read the last part of that: I'd like to go somewhere else entirely, and I don't mean Europe.

GARRISON : Yeah. That's a strange line. It came – I don't know. It's a weird thing, when sometimes you don't know quite where a line comes from. I mean, when I wrote that, I wasn't sure: well, why did I mention Europe? And I think it just, ultimately, I couldn't change it. I mean, I couldn't find something that made more obvious sense that worked as well. And I think Europe in some ways is about an even more old-fashioned culture, you know? If I'm here complaining about alpha males and so on, I mean, Europe is even behind us in a way. And, in a way, I also meant, "I don't mean another country -- I mean another planet."

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GARRISON : This poem is very much a summer New York poem and it's about, really, the mood of New York in summer and the things that can happen there when the weather gets hot. It's called "The Firemen."

God forgive me—

It's the firemen, leaning in the firehouse garage with their sleeves rolled up on the hottest day of the year.

As usual, the darkest one is handsomest. The oldest is handsomest. The one with the thin, wiry arms is handsomest. The young one already going bald is handsomest.

And so on. Every day I pass them at their station: the word sexy wouldn't do them justice. Such idle men are divine— especially in summer, when my hair

sticks to the back of my neck, a dirty wind from the subway grate blows my skirt up, and I feel vulgar,

lifting my hair, gathering it together, tying it back while they watch as a kind of relief Once, one of them walked beside me

to the corner. Looked into my eyes. He said, "Will I never see you again?" Gutsy, I thought. I'm afraid not, I thought.

What I said was I'm sorry. But how could he look into my eyes if I didn't look equally into his? I'm sorry: as though he'd come close, as though

this really were a near miss.


MOYERS : Where did that humor, that is constantly poking through your poetry, where did it come from?

GARRISON : Oh, I don't exactly know. I mean, I think when you're in your daily situation -- and maybe this is partly what poetry is about too, is just pulling back a little bit -- and instead of feeling lost in the mire, trying to step back and see either the humor or the sorrow or the different layers of things that are there. In a way, that is what poetry is -- trying to find a way to understand and describe the world that lifts you a little bit out of it, instead of just being in it and being lost.

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GARRISON : This poem is about me and a fellow working girl, but far from the office, in another mood. It's called "A Friendship Enters Phase Two."

We were sitting on the porch After dinner, grownups taking stock, no chance of our stopping:

we were going to stay up all night. We're going to stay up all night one of us said, and you lit another cigarette

with a lazy flare, like we'd just been in bed, but our love was pure; I'd never

talked like that to anyone before. Two fathers, one husband, three would be lovers were duly sworn

and testified before us in their turn; their crimes were numerous; when we peered down their gun barrels

their faces and hands and eyes glinted and winked maddeningly at the other end. And we were mad -- mad to shake the kaleidoscope Again: Even virginity, that shoeless waif, streaked low across the moonless cloud-lake, like a slip blown from the line and carried off

to rest in some stranger's muddy yard. All, please; we'd tell no less, no stone was left etc. You were the maestro

twirling a smoke in the dark, then piping on it, braving the toy puffs of death, conducting the ragtag band

of losses. But why, you asked, didn't he love me? Your deep laugh dissolved into the peopled space between

the summer trees whose black leaves flickered green as morning came, the bitch, to shut us down. Goodbye perfect night. You raised your empty dinner glass to toast our forward march and tossing back invisible shots, we proceeded backward into the light.

GARRISON : I think I was in ninth grade when a wonderful English teacher gave us "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens and said, "I'd like you to write a poem, 13 Ways of Looking at --" whatever it is. And I did something incredibly corny. It was like "13 Ways of Looking at a Rainbow," I think it was. Yes, it was. And the idea of ways of looking at itself is a way of understanding poetry, isn't it? I mean, that it's not just what we think of as a rainbow, which is, you know, the thing you see in the sky. But, I don't know, I think one of the images I chose -- one of my little verses was about a fellow classmate's striped T-shirt that was kind of in a puddle on the locker room floor. And I felt so excited with this discovery, that this t-shirt puddled on the floor that was striped, many-colored, that this was a rainbow, and that – this whole idea of "Ways of Looking at," – that you could take one thing that didn't seem to be rainbow-like and then say, "Well, but this is a rainbow too."

"A Kiss"

It was not like everyone had said. Not like being needed, or needing; not desperate; it did not whisper that I'd come to harm. I didn't lose

my head. No, I was not going to leap from a great height and flap my wings. It was in fact

the opposite of flying: it contained the wish to be toppled, to be on the floor, the ground, anywhere I might lie down,

on my back, and you on me. Do you mind? Not like having a conversation exactly, though not unlike telling and being told

what? That I was like a woman admitting there was a part of herself she didn't know? There was a part of myself I didn't know.

An introduction, then to the woman I was like, at least as long as you kissed me. Now that's a long time, At least a couple of women ago.

GARRISON : Now that's a long time, at least a couple of women ago.

MOYERS : I wasn't prepared for that last line. The poem doesn't prepare me for the separation, the distance, the obvious pain that has been there all this whole time, since the kiss.

GARRISON : Yes, well, it's funny, when I read this poem with the students and they were wonderful. One of them talked about how she saw the poem was about memory. And I said, "Well, that's very interesting," and we talked about that and about how that maybe gave the poem, well, let's say you were going to write a poem about a kiss. And you set out to describe the kiss, which is what the poem is. But to give it that extra something is the turn at the end. I'm not just describing what it was like: great kiss, that's it. But the kiss, plus the added layer of what perspective I'm describing it from, which is several lifetimes ago in my life as a woman, I had this kiss, and some other junk [LAUGHS] happened in between. And that, I think, is the poem with an extra layer. That's what makes it a poem, actually.

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GARRISON : My father died when I was a teenager, and, every once in while, I do get in touch with that moment again. The poem is called "She Thinks of Him on Her Birthday."

It's still winter, and still I don't know you anymore, and you don't know

me. But this morning I stand in the kitchen with the illusion peeling a clementine. Each piece

snaps like the nickname for a girl, the tinny bite it was to be one once. Again I count

your daughters and find myself in the middle, the waist of the hourglass, endlessly pass through and pass through

but holding nothing, dismayed by the grubby February sun I was born under and the cheap pleasure

it gives the window. Yet I raise the shade for it, and try not to feel it is wrong to want spring, to be a season

further from you - not wrong to wish for a hard rain, a hard wind like one we sat out in together or came in from together

GARRISON : I remember being in my early twenties and looking back and saying, "Well, what has happened to me in my life?" And basically I grew up, I went to school, I went to college. I mean, the fact that my father died was the only thing I could say actually happened to me. And so it's a very double-edged thing. In one way, of course, it's the greatest sorrow of my life. I mean, I was 14, and my father was so important to me and of course that kind of loss is devastating in a way. But the flip side of it is that it very much defined who I was and being a survivor, being 15 or 16 and looking around me and realizing, "Hey, you know what? I survived." So now sometimes I look back with the strange thought like, "Could I ever wish it hadn't happened?" Because it's like saying, "I wish I were not who I am." When I've written about it, which hasn't been very much, I have felt that something about going through that and coming out the other side has been very good for me.

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GARRISON : I'd like to read a poem called "Atlantic Wind," which takes place at the beach on a very windy day.

"Atlantic Wind"

Up out of the surf like a dog gone swimming, slagging sand and spray every which way

and making the news unreadable. Nosing its cloud pups across the sun so that no one can tell

if the afternoon is hot or cool. First sun, then no sun; then with silent roar the sun again

as this restive breath uproots the gay umbrellas and sends them crashing down the beach, flowers become

missiles. I'm trying to nap, the towel slapping jib-like at my legs, the hat that wants

to fly, pinned over my cheeks with a crooked elbow, don't know if I'm frying or chilled as I descend

in my dream a hill where every headstone tilts, where the grasses bow down, obedient

to the blast, and the flowers bow down too - or are uprooted like more wayward umbrellas flung up into the tossing

sky, and then down again spinning they come, now small black parachutes plummeting soundlessly

and from their strings dangle a hundred men, dropped into a war and sure to meet their deaths,

their hundred fates, so many bits of seed or spore, their names I struggle against sleep to know,

but nameless they drop and someone says, we'll never see them more.

Dream over. One eye open, I spy the rustling scene askew: a wailing baby

smacks the sand with one small hand; a girl smooches her guy, a cord of hair whipping round his neck in the horny

breeze. Oh me, oh my, a golden noose to cinch the kiss: Why does the world sometimes menace us like this?

The wind can't tell you, nor can the poets, all along the seaside road come out

on battered porches with their typewriters, thinking to tap their souls away in the fury

but the paper won't stay put. [Applause]

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GARRISON : I'll read a poem called "3 AM Comedy." It seems to be a theme in my life that I am up at hours when I should not be. And this again is kind of a marriage poem. It's a love poem of an inverted kind.

"3 AM Comedy"

Sometimes it's funny, this after hour when whatever hasn't happened between us hasn't happened again, and I pretend

to be another kind of woman, who spends the night on the couch in a rage, on strike for affection.

How ridiculous. I'm always in this bed, if not having you, then forgiving you

exquisitely, consoling myself with a lame joke: I'm a shrinking being, tinier and tinier I grow,

there I go. The last woman on earth who even bothered about sex

and now I'm nothing but a speck. What a shame for all those lusty men; -- their world without me is barren.

While you, my dear, get larger: you're a hulking man shaped continent. A cool green

giant. (I can hardly reach your leafy parts), or a statuesque philosopher king whose sleep soars above mathematics, his loftiest argument.


MOYERS : You said yesterday, if I heard you right, you said marriage is a great subject.

GARRISON : I do feel marriage is a fan-, it's an infinite mystery. I love it as a subject, because so much of it has to do with conversation between people and different ways of seeing the world. And I also think that the domestic realm is just rich – as Frost found – with so many contradictions. The way you can live with another person and know them so, so well, and yet, in another way, being different, separate people is being infinitely strange. I don't know quite how to say that. It's easier to say in poetry, actually.

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GARRISON : "She was Waiting to Be Told"

For you she learned to wear a short black slip and red lipstick how to order a glass of red wine and finish it. She learned to reach out as if to touch your arm and then not touch it, changing the subject. Didn't you think she'd begin, or weren't you sorry

to call your best friends by their schoolboy names and give them kisses goodbye, to look away when they say Your wife! So your confidence grows. She doesn't ask what you want because she knows.

isn't that what you think when actually she was only waiting to be told, take off your dress to be stunned and then do this, never rehearsed but perfectly obvious:

In one motion up, over and gone, the X of her arms crossing and uncrossing, her face flashing away from you in the fabric so that you couldn't say if she was appearing or disappearing.

GARRISON : There is something wonderful about a man saying to his wife, "Take off your dress." And then for taking off the dress. And I tried to describe the moment as the dress, as she's kind of, the X of the arms crossing and uncrossing. The moment where, when the dress was coming over the head, that she sort of disappears for a moment in this transaction. She's, you know, she's both appearing and disappearing at the same time as the dress comes off. And that to me is an image that describes something between those two people that is almost easier to say to you than if I tried to describe to you what is the mystery of desire in marriage. If you said to me, "How do you describe desire in your marriage," I mean, I would just throw up my hands. But a poem about a husband asking his wife to take off her dress, when you can see that transaction with the image and some of those nuances, I think it says much more than I could say to you in the abstract.

GARRISON : Now moving through the seasons here. It's called "November on Her Way.”

"November on Her Way"

Here we go again, up the narrow stair of fall. And I'm full of nerve, have to have you, I'm looking for you everywhere. It's true, I like men too much. And when I see one in the street I used to know, starting to be bald, in a raincoat, eight years old, worry a lit fish swimming across his face. I could nearly wrap myself around him. I'm all too ready. But I'm sorry, it was for you I meant to do these things, for you to unbutton my blouse without a care. Not so difficult. Now the sun is tart, the river the very color of cold. November on her way to winter.

Poet Deborah Garrison

November 28, 1999

Editor, wife and mother. These are roles that poet Deborah Garrison embraces daily — and which fuel her poetry. Her first collection of poems, “A Working Girl Can’t Win” (1998) was crafted over ten years and struck a resonant note with both critics and readers.

In this episode of Sounds of Poetry, Garrison tells Bill that poetry is about “trying to find a way to understand and describe the world that lifts you a little bit out of it, instead of just being in it and being lost.”

She finds marriage a fascinating subject to write about. “The way you can live with another person and know them so, so well, and yet, in another way, being different, separate people is being infinitely strange,” says Garrison.

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