Mary Jo Salter

MARY JO SALTER by Michael Malyszko 2013

“To me, writing is nothing but risk. I don’t want to glamorize it, but every move a poet makes, syllable by syllable, entails a risk.”

Mary Jo Salter is the author of eight books of poetry, all published by Alfred A. Knopf, most recently The Surveyors (2017), Nothing by Design (2013), and A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems(2008). She is also a lyricist whose song cycle “Rooms of Light: The Life of Photographs” was composed by Fred Hersch.  Her children’s book The Moon Comes Home appeared in 1989; her play Falling Bodies premiered in 2004. She is also a co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th edition, 1996; 5th edition, 2005; 6th edition, 2018). Her essays and book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, The Yale Review, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. Salter taught at Mount Holyoke College for 23 years and is currently Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

(Photo © Michael Malyszko 2013)

bulbEmily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop, you’ve said, are important influences on your poetry. What is it about their work, in particular, that has inspired you? How do you see your work fitting into a tradition of American women’s writing?

I try not to think too often about my fitting in to a tradition of women’s writing, American or otherwise, simply because thinking about such things usually doesn’t help me write better. Also, how a poet fits in the tradition of her language and literature is likely answered better by an astute literary critic than by the poet, who works both by conscious plan and by blind intuition.

My young adulthood as a poet provided me with far fewer female than male models, on the page or in person, but the women poets I met were essential to my building at least a little confidence. As an undergraduate at Harvard I was lucky to take a course with the (then very young) poet and superb teacher Jane Shore, and then another poetry workshop under a much older guide, Elizabeth Bishop. I was just twenty years old when I met Bishop, and could not have been more impressionable. Although Bishop herself rejected all gender-labeling in poetry, she couldn’t help but serve as evidence that women poets could, indeed, be great. Bishop’s greatness was inextricable from her modesty. It came across in her manner of speech and in the tone of her poems, and in the patience she proposed. Nothing she said meant more to me than her advice to wait to publish poems until we had thought about them a long time. The world wasn’t on the edge of its seat demanding our poems.

Emily Dickinson took that publication-shy philosophy to an extreme, of course. But Bishop and Dickinson actually garnered different benefits from it. Bishop was rightly praised in her lifetime, and after, for waiting to find the last, perfect word before she would publish. But Dickinson, by publishing so little—and by preserving multiple alternatives for certain words even in the relatively final “fascicles” she sewed together with string—served as a reminder that every poetic choice may leave others behind, some of them excellent or (depending on the reader) better.  What I hoped, and still hope, to do when I fasten on key words is to imply the words I’m not using—either by means of wordplay, soundplay, ambiguous syntax, or other clues. I didn’t immerse myself in Dickinson until I was thirty, but her attention to the hidden properties of words has continued to instruct me every day of my writing life.

Bishop and Dickinson are models for me of complementary, equally appealing approaches to poetry. Bishop is about achieving a natural rhythm, usually unfettered by exact meters; Dickinson is about discovering freedoms within strict meters. Bishop is about plain, direct truth-telling, and absolutely no showing off; Dickinson is about telling it slant, and she shows off all the time.

I should add that another older woman poet, Amy Clampitt, was my good friend and mentor from 1979 until her death in 1994. I’m still awed by her exuberance and her intellect, and still hope, as I complete a new poem, that she might have approved of it.

bulbMany of your poems, such as “Bed of Letters,” describe what seem like autobiographical details within a controlling metaphor. How do you balance these elements? Would you describe the process of writing such a poem?

You’re right that I often end up with some sort of controlling metaphor, at least in shorter lyrics, although I’m not sure this principle is limited to my autobiographical poems. But poetry’s controlling techniques do actually help us discover our feelings and work through them.

For me, stumbling upon a figure—a symbol, simile, metaphor—is very often what opens the door to writing a poem at all. In the case of “Bed of Letters,” I couldn’t have written the poem if I hadn’t started with the figure of sheets of paper being like bed sheets. The shared word “sheet” insists upon the likeness—which of course many other writers have noted. The poem took off when I saw that this likeness would help me write about two writers in bed, not merely two lovers. I hope it deepens the poem that there’s another governing image complicating the paper and printing image—that of plants growing. The letters in a printer’s tray of type are compared to little pots at nurseries meant for transplanting into one’s garden. The “you” in the poem has planted his lies in the home garden’s “bed,” and they’ve grown—they’ve become “tall tales.” I love being able to use a cliché like that, if I think I’ve earned it. James Merrill was the master of the earned cliché; he’s another influence on me, almost as important as Bishop or Dickinson.

I almost called my most recent book Bed of Letters, but my editor said people might think it was a pun: Bed of Lettuce! That was a double meaning I did not intend.

bulbDo you feel there are any risks or dangers or pitfalls, in general, we might look out for as we write poems about our own lives and our own families? For example, what kinds of strategies do you use in poems about family to avoid or challenge sentimentality?

To me, writing is nothing but risk. I don’t want to glamorize it, but every move a poet makes, syllable by syllable, entails a risk. We risk being boring, we risk being confusing, we risk being programmatic, or sensationalist, or sentimental. Probably the worst risk of all is being boring. And paradoxically, some of the most boring poems are the ones that are ostensibly the edgiest. Nothing is more tiresome than a poet deluding herself that she is being shocking. In 2015, anyway, it’s impossible to shock anybody.

You can only write a sentimental poem if you’re having a sentimental feeling. If you actually feel that cuddling cute kittens is sufficient compensation for your coming death, you’re having a sentimental feeling, and you can’t just insert some cold, hard, ironic, worldly phrases that will disguise the kitten poem’s essential sentimentality. In my graduate classes, sentimentality is such a widely feared no-no that people always are seeking “strategies” (the word you’ve used in your question) to avoid it. There can be no strategies. You can put a cute kitten in your poem if you see it with fresh eyes, and see its context freshly, and if you don’t lower your usual high bar for poetry-as-verbal-artifice.

As for family—for me, it’s no sentimental subject. It’s all about having and then losing, about children bringing joy but also growing up, and going away. In the case of my own family—both the one I was born into and the one I helped raise—the divorce of parents was the additional cause for dissolution of the family unit. Yet even a happy 70-year marriage has family mortality written into it. There’s nothing too cute or too sweet about being a member of a family.

bulbSo many people seem to always assume the “speaker” of a poem is the poet herself or himself. How do you resist or challenge this practice in your own reading? And how do these assumptions shape your writing process?

It’s important, for the purposes of teaching poetry-writing, that I remind students not to conflate the poet or speaker with the “I.” This is good manners, and it protects the poet’s right to try on selves, a right we instinctively give to fiction writers and playwrights as they invent characters.

In my own case, a poem with an “I” in it usually starts out being about me, more or less. Yet here’s the rub. As soon as the poem has become as finished a work of art as I can make it, it’s no longer entirely “about me” or about anyone; it’s a poem, a thing in the world. It does say something about the person I was when I tried to start writing the poem. But I’ve been altered by writing it—I’ve turned into someone who has captured an experience by means of a new poem. It’s likely I’ll be partly pleased, partly disappointed, by my efforts, and that the next poem will be influenced in some way by what I’ve just learned about writing. I’ve altered the experience, too. The poem becomes something like the snapshot in the family album that you’ve looked at so many times that what you’re remembering is the picture of the picnic, not the picnic.

bulbAre there any liberties you wouldn’t feel comfortable taking in poems otherwise based on autobiographical material? Conversely, do you feel there are any autobiographical subjects that you might avoid? In other words, how do you balance your priority to the emotive and intellectual “truths” of the poem with your priority to the people in your own lives that you write about?

I’ve grappled with this question a lot in my writing life, and increasingly. You can’t expect other people involved in the life events you write about to be philosophical when you publish versions and interpretations which they might find wrongheaded, or which invade their privacy. I’ve risked hurting people many times, because I believed my poem had enough merit to be published or read in public. The writer who takes these risks with relationships must take the consequences; we don’t get a free pass, and we may experience the hurt of being seen as insensitive.

On the other hand, I’ve sometimes written what I thought to be a good poem and chosen not to publish it; or I’ve published in a journal what I thought to be a good poem, but then decided not to collect it in a book. The danger to the writer of such decisions is that she risks not writing the poem at all, because of some sort of self-censorship, often not conscious. As a teacher, I’ve emphasized to students that you can, and really must, write whatever seems urgent to you. Make it the best it can be, and then decide later, after reflection, whether you must publish it.

Women often self-censor in writing about sex. I’ve made a conscious effort, later in life, not to censor myself from writing on that subject. Given the thorough freedom many young women poets feel today, it may seem surprising that those of us who were young during the feminist revolution ever held back in our writing. But many of us did. We were trained long ago to be demure—to wear a lady’s white gloves, so to speak, as we picked up our pencil.


In every interview, we ask the following standard questions:

 How did you come to poetry?

Both of my parents were artistic types: my mother was a painter who later became a ceramic sculptor, and my father was an English major who channeled his love of writing into an advertising career. Both of my brothers write clever, skilled poetry to this day, although they don’t publish it, and my older brother had a career as an opera singer. Although I was too lazy to get really good at piano, drawing, watercolors, these were pleasures too. I come by my arty side honestly, and I’ll be forever grateful for the assumption in my house that it was worthwhile to make things—paper dolls, Christmas ornaments, junior prom dresses, dinners, home movies, poems.

I remember bringing a poem home from school to my parents, and getting praise for having written it. I was seven years old. Praise brings confidence, even when you don’t deserve it, and it does little harm. So I thank my teachers, too, for their encouragement. I had excellent English teachers all the way, who led me to relish not only poetry but the winding, branching logic of grammar. By the time I was 18, I knew that writing poetry would be the greatest creative pleasure and ambition in my life.

Can creative writing be taught? How?

It can be taught, but it may not be learned! I do think there is such a thing as inborn talent, and that you can’t go very far without it. But a great talent will be squandered if the poet doesn’t embrace discipline, and that’s what creative writing courses nudge you to demand of yourself. By discipline I don’t mean simply the learning of formal aspects of poetry, such as meter and rhyme. I mean the discipline of reading widely and yet painstakingly, reading poetry but not only poetry. Discipline means having the courage to abandon an excellent line if it doesn’t fit the overall feeling of the poem; it means never being defensive about criticism, from oneself or from others. The best teachers of creative writing inspire students to be rightly humble and undefensive about their efforts, to want to try and try again. Good teachers inspire a sense in the classroom that we’re all in this together, that we’re all on a team serving Art with a capital A, rather than merely serving ourselves.

What’s your required reading list? Which five books should everyone reading and writing poetry today know?

Oh, thanks for such an easy question. Let me see. Can I call one of the books The Collected Shakespeare? I hope that’s not cheating. If I could read only one book, I would read Shakespeare’s plays, which I love far more than the sonnets, great as they are. In any case, to attempt to be an English language poet while unfamiliar with Shakespeare would make no sense at all.

I’ll attempt to be slightly more contemporary in my other choices. Dickinson is still radical—in some ways, the first modern poet, one whose rule-breaking still disturbs people. You can’t write contemporary poetry without understanding the achievement of Dickinson.

I’ll skip all the other heavies, like my beloved Milton and Keats and everything you read in English 100. I’ll add three books by writers who have helped me think beyond genre and beyond all sorts of assumptions I’ve had about life itself: Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, and W.G. Sebald’s “novel,” really an uncategorizable masterpiece, Austerlitz. I am constantly surprised as I re-read these books—even though I remember them well. They’re good training for poets because they are always fresh, down to the last dependent clause.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received or your favorite writing quote? What’s your advice for working young writers?

Be patient.

What are you working on now?

The usual thing—another book of poems. There seem to be a lot of ekphrastic poems in this new manuscript, as well as poems sneaking in some sort of cultural or political commentary. War was a subtext in my most recent book, Nothing by Design, and it seems to be cropping up in this one too. I don’t intend to be political; it just comes out. I haven’t lost interest in presenting in short lyrics the reflections of a solitary person—me—but I think at my age you almost can’t help looking at the longer view of what’s happening and might happen to humanity.

Can you provide us with a poetry prompt for our students?

Identify (or ask a friend to identify for you) whatever your habits, your go-to strategies, have been in writing your last five poems. Did you write in the first person every time? Present tense? Lots of short sentences? In rhyme? Do the opposite: write a non-rhyming poem in the third person, in the future tense, and make your poem one long sentence. Do whatever’s hard for you.

Classroom Portfolio:


Discussion Questions

  • How do these poems document, catalog, and make sense of autobiographical details and memories?
  • What are the controlling metaphors of “Bed of Letters“? Of “The Buttonhook“? Trace how the metaphors evolve and intertwine in the poem.
  • Mary Jo Salter mentions in her interview the “risks” that writing requires. What have you risked in order to write, personally as well as artistically? How are these risks related?
  • Compare versions of an immigrant experience in Salter’s “The Buttonhook” and Vuong’s
  • Mary Jo Salter mentioned several older poets as influences on her work. Find a poem from one of these poets online. Discuss how you see the older poet’s influence manifesting in the living poet’s sample of work.
  • Both Mary Jo Salter’s and Ocean Vuong’s poems seem to deal with the theme of inheritance. How do these poems explore the ways we inherit aspects of our identities? Where do these inheritances come from? How do they affect us as poets and as people?

Discussion Questions (PDF)

In-class Activities

In this in-class exercise, students work with the concept of controlling metaphor and practice complex comparison. For this exercise, you might bring in a variety of objects for students to use, ask them to bring in objects for class, or create a grab bag with names of objects on slips of paper.

Controlling Metaphor Exercise (PDF)


Lightbox Prompt:

Find an object or a photograph that recalls an important family memory for you. Write a poem that recounts this memory that also makes use of an additional element: a myth? A controlling metaphor? Another language?

Lightbox Writing Prompt (PDF)

Mary Jo Salter’s Prompt:

Identify (or ask a friend to identify for you) whatever your habits, your go-to strategies, have been in writing your last five poems. Did you write in the first person every time? Present tense? Lots of short sentences? In rhyme? Do the opposite: write a non-rhyming poem in the third person, in the future tense, and make your poem one long sentence. Do whatever’s hard for you.

Mary Jo Salter’s Prompt (PDF)

Mary Jo Salter Online

Buy Mary Jo Salter’s The Surveyors

You Might Also Like