Cover Story: For the Eyeing of My Scars, There Is a Charge

Up-and-coming poet proves poetry has an edge

Jymi Bolden

Cate Marvin

After moving from house to house in the Washington, D.C., area as a kid and finally settling down in Potomac, Md., Cate Marvin found it difficult to be like the wunderkinder who surrounded her, All-American teen-agers on the debating and chess teams looking forward to being doctors, lawyers and politicians. These were the elite of inside-the-beltway.

Marvin, now a 31-year-old doctoral candidate in English at the University of Cincinnati, was just the opposite. Delinquent, sarcastic, uninterested in what public education had to offer and heavily impacted by the massive weight of suburban ennui, she found herself to be something of a bad ass.

"After eighth grade, I got so annoyed with the people in my high school that I was genuinely someone you would not want to mess with," Marvin says.

Moving around a lot wasn't the only reason she had difficulty. Though her parents were raised to be good, clean Protestants, they nurtured Marvin in an atheistic environment. Teen-agers with religious backgrounds hardly understood such extreme liberal thinking, so Marvin often ran into trouble.

"Growing up being an atheist is kind of difficult when you're in school," Marvin says, "because most people are like, 'What's your religion?' And I'm like, 'I don't have one.'

And they're shouting, 'Devil! Devil! Devil!' "

Despite childhood hardship, Marvin is resistant to being labeled a genuinely bad youngster.

"I wasn't a real bad ass," she says. "I never got arrested, and I was pretty careful with drugs. I never did coke, and I was pressured all the time to drop acid, but I never did."

But what about the tattoos? Aren't those a sign of a bad ass? "I got those when I was 21," Marvin says. "Back then, not everybody had tattoos. If I had known that everybody was going to have tattoos, I probably wouldn't have gotten them. I wasn't a rebellious teen then, but I was very self-conscious, and the idea of changing my body was appealing. Tattoos are sort of cliché right now. I have friends who write about the experience of getting a tattoo, but I would never write a poem about it. This whole tattoo thing is about Cate Marvin the person, not Cate Marvin the poet."

From the little girl who didn't know what she was going to do when she grew up, Marvin has fully transformed into what she was destined to be: Cate Marvin the Poet. But she's not your typical the-moon-is-out-so-I-think-I'll-write-a-poem kind of poet.

Deeply entrenched in the small but rigid hierarchy that is the modern-day world of professional poetry, Marvin has achieved what many poets can only dream of: her first legitimate publication with Sarabande Books in Louisville, Ky.

Along with a cash award, publication of Marvin's book, World's Tallest Disaster, was the reward for winning the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, a monumental honor for Marvin. Not only that, but the judge of the prize was the 1997 United States Poet Laureate and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, Robert Pinsky. Having written six volumes of poetry, translated Dante's Inferno, edited numerous poetry editions and having been a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, Pinsky's no intellectual slouch. Rather, he is a master of prosody.

Pinsky's prestige was not lost on Marvin.

"It freaked me out," she says. "When I was a finalist and I discovered that he was a judge, I thought, 'Oh. My God.' And the person that I talked to at Sarabande was so blasé about it when I asked who the judge was. She said, 'Oh, a guy named Robert Pinsky.' And I was like, 'Robert Pinsky?' "

Though Pinsky's reputation precedes him, Marvin has never met the poet. But they have corresponded via letters. Marvin says each communication has been characterized by kindness. "In every experience I've had with him, he's been incredibly nice."

As part of the adjudicating package, Pinsky wrote the preface to Disaster. "It's better-written than my book," claims Marvin. "It's so well-written, it's crazy. I'm almost ashamed that my poems come after that preface. He blows me away."

Modesty aside, it's no surprise Pinsky chose Marvin's manuscript to be the winner. Full of anger, passion, deception, adultery, arson, fire and a kind of ultra-violence you might find in a metered version of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, Marvin's Disaster is an incredibly action-packed, emotionally-charged experience.

As Pinsky writes: "Cate Marvin's cunningly-measured, deceptively regular stanzas partition the elegant dwelling where Eros like a wild ghost bangs anyhow against walls or bursts across windowsill and threshold. That dance or combat between form and passion makes an immediate impact in the characteristic poems of World's Tallest Disaster."

Pinsky appreciated the chaos and destruction inherent in Marvin's poems, but those motifs have hardly appealed to all fellow poets. Between getting her B.A. from Marlboro College in Vermont and her M.F.A. in poetry at the University of Houston, Marvin took time off to live in St. Paul, Minn., where she participated in a poetry workshop at The Loft: A Center for Literature and Writing.

While there, she'd written a poem about a grandmother who was the model of sentimental romance for her youthful, rebellious granddaughter, the voice of the poem. In one scene, the speaker smokes a cigarette on the balcony while the grandmother takes tranquilizers before going to sleep. Too groggy to realize the house is burning, the grandmother dies in the blaze, along with all the old-school gender norms she's imposed on the speaker.

"So the grandmother is choked with her values and all her ideals," Marvin says. "People were really upset by this poem, but I was kind of proud of it. People didn't like the idea of killing a grandmother in a poem. But frankly that's the whole point — to kill the grandmother. So the teacher said, 'You don't want your speaker to sound psychotic.";

"I said, 'Why the fuck not?' I'm interested in poems that occupy an emotional space. It has to be extreme. I don't care about poetry that says, 'I'm sitting here drinking a cup of herbal tea/and two little birds are jumping around in a tree.' I couldn't give less of a shit.

"I like dramatic poetry that is really charged, that is there for a reason. I think that's something a lot of American poets don't think about. Does this poem need to exist? Are there serious stakes involved? Is the poet or reader changed by this poem?"

Today, Marvin calls her experience at The Loft "totally vile, and you should put that in the article."

The best thing about getting published, she says, is that the book is finished and she can begin working on another volume. After devoting five years of frustration, sweat and tears to a single work, it's almost a luxury to leave it behind and begin anew.

"That book is from my 20s and, now that I'm 31, I'm just not as Romantic as I used to be," she says. "I'm writing a really different kind of poem right now. There's a sense in World's Tallest Disaster that the wound is still fresh. Now I feel like someone with a crutch or a limp.

"I'm trying to write a harsher poem now, a poem that's more grounded in reality, that has a more real violence instead of the metaphorical or dramatic violence. There's a lot a violence in (the title poem) 'World's Tallest Disaster' — slaps, people getting beat up, torrential storms and fires. But I'm now more interested in personal abuse and the real pain of relationships." ©

These are the lines that will turn you inside out.
A pocket pulled from your coat's side,
exposing penny candies and the wad
of bills you nicked from someone's locker.
These are the lines that will mark your brow.
As your face contorts, eyes going wide.
As you stutter, I didn't know, I swear ...
You smell of gasoline. Are those matches?
This stanza is the locked drawer in your desk.
Has your wife managed to force it open?
She holds the letter and reads aloud.
Here follows a series of explosions.
And if this paper's a color, it's the pink welling
from her hand's slap. Here's the pale
hand you hold just over your mouth.
Straighten up and stop your trembling.
Here's a picture of a building burning; worse
than a slap, its skin's aflame. Look, orange
windows! Can you see the arms waving?
Why do your hands smell like gasoline?
And your skin, paler than any ghost, lets you get away
with everything. The silver ring rests hot
in your pocket, tarnishing into the same green
as your iris. Your stare strokes a flame.
Here's the package I find when I get to the scene.
Opening it, I see your lie, as big as a building.
I light it with a match, study its burning.
I watch its heat. Why does it feel like my body?

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