Katharyn Howd Machan

Photo by Carol Openshaw, 2009

INTERVIEW with KATHARYN HOWD MACHAN, by Jane Barnette (Dramaturg)

August 7, 2009 (via email)

JSB: Can you address the genesis of the Redwing poems? Have you written new Redwing poems since the publication of the book?

KHM: After my mother's death on New Year's Day in 1985, when I was 32, my best friend Rose advised me to go to Key West for time alone, as she had recently visited there and thought it would be a good place for me. I did so, and walked everywhere in solitude, thinking about my mother while also almost subliminally taking in all the 19th-century beauty of the island's architecture. Two weeks after my return to Ithaca, New York--a city also blessed with some wonderful 19th-century buildings--the first Redwing poem came to me (now titled "Elizabeth Stowe"), and more began to follow. All I knew was that these people lived in a town a hundred years ago, and that, unlike the characters in Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River they were not speaking from the grave but from their inner living thoughts. For months I had no names for the speakers or the town, but a spring trip slightly westward in New York State reminded me of the prevalence of redwing blackbirds on fence posts and cattails, and I had found the name of my community. Several visits to old cemeteries near Chautauqua provided me with period-authentic regional names for the residents of my fictional Tuscarora County. And why the specific 1888 date? I chose it for the practical reason that in 1988 Ithaca celebrated its centennial, so I was able to connect performances of the poems to this celebration. Once I had settled on that specific year, I was able to do much more specific research in books of letters and diaries and in such places as historical museums in Rochester, New York. And do the poems keep coming? Oh, yes! Since the full-length book's release by Foothills Publications on the 20th anniversary of my writing the first monologue, in January of 2005, I have written almost 50 more and have been publishing them individually towards an eventual expanded edition. Several of the new poems are in the current Kennesaw production.

JSB: What have been the sources of inspiration for the individual Redwing poems?

KHM: I have drawn freely from the human drama in my own and friends' lives: the hungers, the hurts, the needs, the aspirations, the failures, the triumphs. Female voices greatly outnumber male voices because I feel more comfortable articulating women's experiences. I have also drawn from history and literature, setting stories in the context of my imagined town. Sometimes one character's monologue has inspired the creation of one or more characters connected to him or her; these constellations have been especially appealing for staged productions.

JSB: What is it about the Victorian era that attracts (or attracted) you?

KHM: I believe it lies in the roots of my family history. My mother's grandmother emigrated from Germany in 1883 and my father's parents from Bohemia less than a decade later. I know nothing about any earlier ancestors. I clearly pictured the speaker in the first monologue standing on a stairway landing in a Victorian home--again, almost certainly, influenced by the unusual way I first experienced Key West, as a place for deep mourning.

JSB: I've been told that you performed some of these poems at a National Communication Association panel years ago with John Gentile. Can you speak a little about that experience?

KHM: The opportunity to have John as part of the cast was splendid! With his own avid interest in the Victorian period, he brought real passion and power to the poems he performed. Over the years, his enthusiasm for the monologues has been a central support to the construction of Redwing. He truly understands where they are coming from and how they should "take flight."

JSB: What other poetry are you currently writing?

KHM: I write often: individual poems and, as with Redwing, thematic ones. A current manuscript-in-progress is Gingerbread, based on fairy tales (a strong interest of mine in my own work and in my teaching of writing at Ithaca College and in the community). Another is Of Swans, monologues drawn from the Leda legend. My poems can be directly autobiographical as well--but the danger there is, as Stephen Dunn warns against, that sticking too close to the actual can prevent the creation of art.

JSB: How does your own experience as a performer shape your writing of poetry?

KHM: Definitely my fondness for literary monologues is linked to my years of performing literature aloud. An awareness of voices greater than one's own--even in "I" poems--creates a helpful distance. Central to my aesthetic is that a poem should be good on the page AND on "the stage" (I use the quotes here because I intend the phrase to mean ANY place in front of an audience). Marge Piercy advises oral readers to "belly forth" their poems; I carry that sense of "bellying" (maybe because I'm also a belly dancer?) into the silent writing of my poems.

JSB: I also understand that you had the privilege of seeing the earlier performance of Redwing that Gentile directed at KSU--what were some of the highlights of that production, from your perspective?

KHM: John's exquisite directing and the actors' full embodiment added new dimensions to the poems for me. Once a writer creates a work of literature, he or she truly has to let it go into the imaginations of readers and listeners and be open to others' interpretations. In the first Kennesaw production, I marveled at the insights into the characters, sometimes a deepening for me, sometimes a startling surprise--but all enriching to me as the Redwing poems continued.

JSB: Is there anything else that you think the audience should know about you or about this collection of poetry?

KHM: Because so many of the poems are dark and troubled, they may make people think I am much more anguished and tormented than I actually am. Hey, I flash around in sequins, playing finger cymbals to lively drum-driven music! And laughter is central to my life.