In 1996 I interviewed poet Judith Minty prior to her being the featured reader at the Michigan Fesitval Writers Day in Lansing, Michigan. Here is a portion of that interview.
Marc Sheehan: I was recently rereading your collection of poems, Dancing the Fault, and was struck in several different poems by images of people who become a part of the landscape: a crow beating in the ribs, a woman at her window becoming the color of finches, and especially your father turning a bend in the river and disappearing.
Judith Minty: I'm not sure I ever thought of it that way, but you're right. It's also there in the poem "Christine On Her Way to China: An Earthquake Poem." Buying a beaded blouse as "the earth is already moving" – I think that's the line – will somehow give her the earthquake.
MS: In Another of your poems, one of your "Letters to My Daughters," there's a great image of somebody who's cut off from nature. You write about people who'd have, "children with vestigial arms/two fingers to hold a fork, a pen, nothing more." That's a kind of nightmare image.
JM: It is. And those are often the people who run our country. That poem came all at once from the actual experience. I clearly remember eating lunch in a Boston restaurant with my daughter. And I remember saying to her afterwards, "Did you see their hands? Those lawyers' hands were not the hands of people who touch the earth.
MS: The poems in your most recent collection, The Mad Painter Poems, are very different, more surreal. Where did they come from?
JM: To tell the truth, I don't know how they first came, but I know where they came from. The only place I could write them was at my cabin on the Yellow Dog River in the Upper Peninsula. When I go up there I'm alone. I'm so removed from human contact, from anything except the natural world, that I think I go a little nuts. I moved so deeply into the unconscious that I wrote these crazy poems. There's no running water or electricity up there, just a little wood stove to keep me warm. In fact, I was in the UP on May 7 of this year, on my way back from Minnesota, and I couldn't get into the camp – even with my four-wheel-drive vehicle. There was still a foot and a half of snow in the woods!
MS: Getting back to your book Dancing the Fault – several of the poems are set in Northern California where you taught for a number of years. Do you miss that landscape?
JM: I do, in lots of ways. I had grown used to the constant mist of rain. When I was back in Portland for my daughter's wedding, I realized how much I missed walking around in the rain without a hat on. Just letting the rain be on my skin. I miss that climate a lot, and my friends, too. I was there for 13 years, except for holidays and summers, which I spent back here in Michigan. Dancing the Fault, for me, is a kind of book of migration – migrating back and forth between the ocean climate and redwoods and the Michigan landscape with its white pines and Lake Michigan and Superior and the Yellow Dog River.
After I returned to Michigan, I got interested in following the Sandhill Cranes. I became emotionally involved in their migration, in how they come to the Platte River each spring and spend a month to six weeks there before going on to the tundra. I became so involved that I did a three-month trip following the migrations. It became an odyssey across the country, starting from here in Michigan to the Platte in Nebraska, to eagles in Ogallala, to a bird sanctuary in Brigham City, Utah, near the Great Salt Lake where all those White Pelicans live. From there I went to the shore birds along the West Coast, through Northern California into Washington and British Columbia, and the Brant migration on Vancouver Island. All that time I was following the birds, I suppose, because I missed the migration pattern I had been in. I don't know how else to put it. I gave a poetry reading in Arcata, California, while I was there, and all I read were bird poems. I had enough bird poems to read for 45 minutes!
MS: It seems as though the two different landscapes, Michigan and California, become almost a single place within the poems.
JM: I believe that. Once the way has been internalized, it can be continued anywhere. It's as if those landscapes are members of the same family. It's all part of the same genealogy.
MS: I keep asking people if they have a great answer to a question they've never been asked in an interview.
JM: I don't know if this fits nor not, but… When we write poetry, which emerges from the personal, we're creating a personal mythology, yet when we do an interview we're not sure where the personal ends and the person creating the mythology begins. In poems like "Letters to My Daughters," the mother is, in a sense, me, but a "me" who takes on larger, wider proportions beyond my own little humdrum life. In a way, it's like having an idiot savant on your back that you're forced to drag around for your entire life, and you have to do whatever you must to nurture her so that she can do her work. Once I even had a dream where she was in the passenger seat of my car and I was driving her around!