Mormon wives “speak” through poems

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May 19, 2013

Poet Marita Dachsel is the author of the new collection Glossolalia, and of the previous collection All Things Said & Done. Glossolalia is a re-imagining of the lives and voices of the 34 wives of Mormon founder Joseph Smith. Julian Gunn interviewed Daschel at the end of April for the Coastal Spectator. See the poet’s blog at maritadachsel.blogspot.ca.

Glossolalia is a long-term project. What was its genesis?

I’ve always been interested in fringe religions, and in 2006 the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints in Bountiful was in the news again. BC has long been home to strange sects and cults, and for the most part they are left alone. I thought that if the FLDS would just give up polygamy, then they could live in peace. I wondered why they practised it, and soon learned that it was a vital part of their faith that had been introduced by Joseph Smith back in the 1840s.

Did you always see Glossolalia as a book about all of Smith’s wives? (Or some version of all, since you mention that the exact count is unknown.)

I could understand why modern women born into Mormon Fundamentalism would choose polygamy—it’s their culture, it’s all they know—but I wondered about those women who agreed, who started it all. I read biographies on Joseph’s wives and began to write poems inspired by their lives. It was perfect timing, as I had finished my first collection, All Things Said & Done, and wasn’t sure what I’d do next with my poetry. I soon knew that I wanted to a whole book on them. At the time, I had no idea it would take six years, but I quickly fell into the rabbit hole of research and obsession.

Often, you have only one poem with which to evoke some aspect of each woman. How did you know what would do justice to each one?

Some were definitely easier [to capture] than others. Some came immediately. I’d “hear” their voice in my head and I knew what they’d disclose. Others took a long time of trial and error—the voice, the form, the story all had to click. “Emma Hale Smith,” for example, was the very first poem I wrote for this series, but it wasn’t right. It was really important to me to do her justice and consequently, it took six years of writing her to finally get her poem work the way I wanted it to.

Despite all the research that I did on the women and early Mormonism, not all the poems are based on biography. In the early years of the project, I was a little too tied to the truth, but learned to let that go. I’m not a historian; I’m a poet. My main goal was to write engaging poetry. Sometimes that meant skimming from the women’s lives; sometimes it meant making things up completely.

You use many different formal techniques in the collection. Was there a process by which you decided what techniques you would use, or was it done by intuition and experimentation?

My process was pretty loose. I’d start by reading about the woman, noting ideas or phrases as I went. I’d write a rough draft or two to see if I could get her voice right. If could, great! Then I’d work on the content and form—one usually informing the other. If I couldn’t get her voice right, then I’d either read some more about her, or move on to another wife. Repeat as necessary.

Like “Emma,” “Lucy Walker” is another [voice] that took a lot of trial and error. A few wives had told their own stories during their lives and I was particularly struck with hers—so full of heartache, confusion, and manipulation. I tried to capture it, but the poem always fell flat. Finally, I realized that I didn’t have to do what she already had done, that I could use her words. I played with her text a lot, but nothing was satisfying. Then I came across Jen Bervin’s amazing Nets and it was like a revelation to me. (She ‘erased’ many of Shakespeare’s sonnets into beautifully spare poems.) What I loved about her take on erasure was that we could still see the original poems, just in lighter text. For Lucy, I wanted her real story to still be available to the reader, but I liked the idea of it being deliberately crossed out, as if she were editing her own story. The private truth versus the public record.

How do you find blogging as a medium, as compared to poetry and conventional essays?

I really enjoy reading other people’s blogs, but I’m a terrible blogger. I don’t make the time to do it properly, so lately my blog has become not much more than a place for shameless self-promotion. A few years ago, I did an interview series with writing mothers that I really enjoyed and it still brings the most readers to the blog. I think that when I find time, I’ll revisit that form—return to interviews and discussions. When done well, blogging is an immediate conversation. It’s topical, yet focused. It creates community. I think I write too slowly and have too many interruptions to do the form justice right now, but I am so thankful that others do.

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