The Distaff Side: A Conversation with Mary Leader about Poetry, Feminism, and Textiles – curated by Kristina Marie Darling

The Distaff Side is Mary Leader’s fifth volume of poems, her third in the United Kingdom with Shearsman, a house exhibiting, as noted by its editor Tony Frazer, “a clear inclination towards the more exploratory end of the current spectrum.”  Here, Leader explores the equipage of spindle and distaff used in producing yarn and thread, explores further the medieval use of a distaff as an emblem of women in general and women’s work in particular, and still further explores the idiom of the distaff “side” referring to the female branch of a family.  Voices and structures, wide ranges of both, make connections, between writing and sewing, mother and daughter, textile and text. 

Leader’s accomplished body of work has garnered strong praise from established sources on both sides of the Atlantic.  The New Yorker remarks on her “quite remarkable sensibility, which is one of the most self-possessed in contemporary poetry.”  Similarly, John Muckle, a critic at PN Review, observes, “The overall impression is of a mind that’s acute, musical and subtle being brought to bear on everyday life.”  In The Manchester Review,  Ian Pople emphasizes Leader’s ability to “jostle a sense of traditional form,” and goes on to laud her adeptness at anticipating and undermining “the readers’ expectations” of what poetry can or should be.

The author, Mary Leader, began writing poems in the midst of a career as a lawyer in her home state of Oklahoma, first as an Assistant Attorney General and later as a Referee for the Oklahoma Supreme Court.  Besides her affiliation with Shearsman, she is also the recipient of two major book awards in the United States, the National Poetry Series and the Iowa Poetry Prize.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Tell me about the larger project that this gorgeous excerpt is culled from.

Mary Leader:  This gorgeous excerpt ;-) is culled from a book 25 years in the assembling, culled from a much larger family of needlework poems, a clan.  My four previous collections all included needlework impulses.  This collection, all needlework in some way, has had various titles, such as MYRTLE, which underexplains, or BOOKMARKS MADE FROM TEXTILES, which overexplains.  Ultimately, I accepted THE DISTAFF SIDE as an economical means of joining: one, needle technique as writing technique, two, needleworkers in the book’s census, and three, my own maternal ancestry.  Not everybody knows what a distaff is — gear for spinning — or that the distaff side refers to female lineage.  The obscurity led me to give my reader aids such as a table of contents shaped like a distaff and a mostly found poem derived from the Oxford English Dictionary definition of distaff including the combination-form distaff side.

KMD:  Your poetry combines some of the best elements of contemporary hybrid writing — like Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women — with the performative qualities of multimedia projects — like Jill Magi’s THREADS and the subsequent Destroying Threads.  How would you describe your literary genealogy?

ML:  Eleanor Ross Taylor startled me with our similarity of purpose — why not sit readers of so-called poetry down and tell ’em about our folks, or better yet, let the folks speak for themselves.  Stamps were 25 cents at the time.  I am also keen on May Swenson’s typewriter-graphics and Marianne Moore’s quotation-graphics.  I value Wit in poetry.  I enjoyed a seminar on Alexander Pope.  In my old age, Thomas Hardy’s poems hit me in my heart.  I wrote my dissertation on Muriel Rukeyser’s sequence “The Book of the Dead.”  My literal literary genealogy includes my mother, Katharine Haddox Privett, a wonderful poet.  

Janet Frame was born the year my mother was (1924) in New Zealand and she went back there to live out her life, rather as I have done with Oklahoma.  She interests and moves me as a kind of hybrid poetry/fiction writer who seems entirely her outlier self.  I would say that all the people on this list were original.  

And thanks to your question, Kristina, I am now getting inspiration from people a lot younger than myself, especially Jill Magi.  I like her gestures against the prejudicial orthodoxies of book publication, and production.  Not only does she bring unfamiliarity of language and history to the tabula rasa, but she also renders it palimpsest.  She even restores the very art: cloth and thread, repair and craft, instruction and decay, scarrings and re-uses.  All learned from those who knew what they were talking about.  I like her materiality, her piecework.  Her scholarship.  Her inclusions from sources, such as Eduard Magi’s memoir and his translations, per request, of two poems by Liisa Magi.  I could be wrong — there are distinctions — but that seems not unlike my inclusions of two of my mother’s poems.

KMD:  As a feminist experimental writer, what drew you to the subject matter of sewing and textiles?

ML:  Well, it was long practice with sewing and textiles that drew me to writing poems about them, once I was writing about anything, and to efforts to show on the page how their utility and beauty come out of patience with messes and finitudes. I applaud the hanging of needlework, especially its colors and textures, alongside paintings in spaces such as museums, galleries, houses, apartments, castles.  For myself, I have chosen to limit my palette to black and white and my typesetter’s tray to the fonts and symbols that come supplied by successions of apple computers.  For the poem called “Spindle” in this book, I really, really, needed the right flower to lay upon a probably nonexistent peasant grave in the West of Ireland, Mayo?, circa 1750.  I tried a bunch of tittles and jots, but nothing did until, with much trepidation, I broke through my boundary by punching the standard-issue mac graphic format button and found a pre-designed blossoming branch I could size, cut, paste, re-size, re-paste, just a tad bigger, done!   

KMD:  Relatedly, to what extent does the innovative style serve as metaphor in this stunning collection?

ML:  It may be on that level that I feel kinship with Magi.  I feel both of us prefer to navigate and follow wild hares in work that considers radical illegibility a starting point.  We both like demonstrations: how do wear and tear progress; what are the limits of understanding; what do you do about them; what around you sheds light, or not, from within all the dark profundities; how can you situate yourself on a map when the collectivities that created it are obsolete but meaning-making, still, beyond circumstance.  Gaps may carry messages 

Superficially, the resemblance is not obvious.  THREAD is one poem gathering, gradual in its patterning, and THE DISTAFF SIDE is a miscellany — of borrowing and word-scarce experimenting, yes, but also of what I call homespun poems, simple forms and stories or story-like observations or dramatic monologues.  Not at all innovative, indeed old-fashioned.  Not new, but honoring people and an idiom possibly unfamiliar to new generations.  

But here’s the revealing thing: the initial decade of working on my distaff volume, for much of the time a trilogy, contained xeroxes of my mother’s and uncles’ books, with threads hanging off the edges, threads that turn into calligraphy when the thing is rendered in black and white in two dimensions on a ground that photocopies to gray.  I’m excited to see the resemblance of those to Magi’s pages, and there were snapshots in my book too, and a pencil rubbing of my mother’s silver medal bestowed on her as a student at Maryville College (featured narratively in the last of four long poems in this book).  

At 19, I was Oklahoma State University library’s xerox girl except it was before Xerox; the machine was Olivetti, and the toner was opaque liquid that produced a stench.  I worked out of essentially a closet and not very many patrons were used to getting copies (still the era of index cards).  So, out-of-sight and in my free time, I took images, particularly of my face, and today the copies of copies of copies and transparencies for overhead projectors make up a 4-page poem called “Annunciation,” which I have not known how to present.

KMD:  As a former lawyer and government official, you have had a rich array of experiences beyond the boundaries of the literary community.  Can you speak to the ways that these experiences have enriched your creative practice?

ML:  Early on, I second-chaired a jury trial and hated it. The drama of scenes featuring lawyers and judges (and in walk-on parts, the people whose lives are being impacted) is not generative for me.  As soon as I could, I got myself into an appellate job.  On appeal, there are almost no performances requiring people to appear.  Almost all the actions — namely narrative, exhibit, argument, precedent, decision — are performed by words written on a page.  

For example, in a divorce or estate case, there might be lists of property drawn up.  These typed-up lists were evocative to my imagination, to my emotions and ideas, in a way that meeting the parties to the lawsuit or observing a trial would not be.  I understood this while I tinkered up my early poem “Probate,” in my first book, RED SIGNATURE, published in 1997 when I was 49.  “Probate” is a ledger of items, some of them documentary.  Each item hints at a story behind it; in sum the list leaves a story behind it, a life story, unvalued by THEworld yet inscribing A world.  There, “property,” humble and rich, lands up in drawers — bureau or desk (optional), kitchen cupboard or sewing machine or old chiffarobe — of people who seldom “go to law.”  It commences: 

3 spools of thread

1 black

1 white

1 blue

KMD:  What else are you working on?   What can readers look forward to?

ML:  I have my next book, EARTHSHINE, ready to shop.  It is elegiac (now that I’m going on 75 years old) with poems composed and poems found, with experimental poems and homespun poems, scenes and amalgamations, everything looking and sounding toward transformation.  I need to go through shelves and cartons and drawers brimming with papers, looking for those xerox poems, for one thing, and letters, while editing and prefacing a selected volume of poems by the late Katharine H. Privett.  

An Excerpt from The Distaff Side