(Image by Shary Boyle)
INTERVIEW WITH MAGGIE DUBRIS
Poet Ali Liebegott took an epic road trip across America. Destination: the Emily Dickinson house. She interviewed female writers — mainly poets — along the way. In previous installments of the series, she introduced the trip, spoke with Maggie Nelson, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum and others. Here is her interview with Maggie Dubris:
I first discovered Maggie Dubris in 1998 when a friend gave me her 59-page prose poem, Willie World, largely drawn from her experience being a 911 paramedic in New York City. The slim chapbook, with cover art from David Wojnarowicz, an x-ray of an anatomical heart with an arrow through it, became an instant favorite of mine. Dubris later published Skels (Soft Skull), Weep Not, My Wanton (Black Sparrow) and most recently In the Dust Zone (Centre-Ville Books) illustrated by Scott Gillis. We spoke in her East Village apartment. –Ali Liebegott
The Believer: I want to talk to you about your sign on the door of the apartment coming in. Why is this the Ezra Pound Apartment Complex?
Maggie Dubris: Years ago me and my friend, the poet Elinor Nauen, and my friend Rachel, went to Ocean Beach, and there was someone selling signs like, “The Hansen’s House”, it was so suburban and I thought we should give our apartment building a name. We thought, well who was sort of crazy and might’ve lived in our building, who else? Ezra Pound.
BLVR: That’s so excellent. I love New York so much. What is the city’s effect on you as a writer?
MD: It’s been huge for me because I didn’t go to high school here. I moved here right after and I had this idea in my head—I wanna be a New York poet. That was my total goal. I thought I was going to make a living as a New York poet somehow (laughs) but at that time you didn’t need that much money, it was the 70’s—you could move in and if you couldn’t pay the rent you just got another apartment. They didn’t ask for a bank account they just wanted the rent for a month or two and then you got your new apartment and it was 80 bucks a month so I moved here.
BLVR: Where did you move from?
MD: Michigan. But New York is really my home. I came here and did what I dreamed of, which was to meet Ted Berrigan and be a poet but then, of course, I discovered you couldn’t make money being a poet. So I had to get a job and such. It had a huge impact. I feel like I pretty much grew up here and grew up on the ambulance and grew up in my neighborhoods that I lived in and if anything shaped me it was New York.
BLVR: I am very interested in the question of work—as a writer what do we do, and I know for years you drove the ambulance. Can you talk about how that fit in with your life? I know your book Willie World uses some of that material.
MD: Yeah. I felt the paramedic thing worked really well because I personally don’t believe I could live with my own thoughts 24/7. I need to be torn out of myself and I need something like the ambulance to do it. So it was great. I felt like I got material—not medical material but material like I could go into people’s lives and talk to people I never would’ve talked to and get to know a scene I never would’ve gotten to know—like a midnight street scene, which, as a woman, is no place for you—there aren’t that many places for men either but definitely not for a woman in that scene. You could be a whore or that’s about it.
BLVR: Did you always work graveyard?
MD: I did for most of my time. I started out working four to twelve and then I went to day shift and then, for 15 years, I was on midnights—7pm-7am. I would write at work. A medic was a good job when I had it. I had insurance, which made it easier for me to be a poet because I didn’t have to worry. You can’t make money at poetry. But you can try. And that ruins a lot of poetry to try and make money at it. Now I’m doing two things. I’m doing hypnosis, which I love and I’m working with little kids in a cancer hospital doing martial arts.
BLVR: As a woman writer who was looking for other models of women who’d written longer poems it was such a miracle to find Willie World. It was a very, very important book for me growing up as a writer. I love the fact that at that time there were only 500 copies and with those chances I could still find it.
MD: You know, for years I couldn’t get it published. And then I met Richard Hell. I didn’t know him as a Rock n’ Roller. I only knew him as a writer. He was in charge of the Poetry Project or one of the reading series and he asked me to read and I’m not sure where he heard about me but I read from Willie World and he really liked it. He said, “Can I have a section for CUZ?” And then in ‘97 or so, he called me and said, “Hey I’m thinking about starting this press and if you give me Willie World I’ll do it, and then I gave him a re-written one and he called me up and said, “You ruined it.” I was like, “Oh, I did not.” But he was right. And I had a hard copy. I didn’t even have it in my computer anymore the way it was and I re-typed it in and gave it to him and he put it out. That led to a lot of good things for me. It led to Black Sparrow. For being only 500 copies and he gave me 100 so 400 copies he got distributed it opened up my world so much.
BLVR: When did you first think of yourself as a writer in the world?
MD: Out in the world? I guess I started when I was in 9th grade. I was totally depressed and I had no idea what I wanted, but I didn’t want what I was seeing. I knew I wanted to somehow be creative and I had this secret idea that I could write poetry. And then in 10th grade, I got into a poetry class with Andrew Carrigan, who is a great poet. I wasn’t doing particularly well in school, but I went in and turned in a poem and I had this hope that it was good but I didn’t think it was that good and he Xeroxed it and said, this is great, you should be a poet. So I went home that day thinking I’m a poet and I’m going to be a poet. And that was really my idea so in 10th grade I had this picture of myself, “I’m a poet.” And that was my identity for ages.
BLVR: It’s so crazy how much power a single person could have in another person’s life. Like a teacher. What if they hadn’t Xeroxed the poem?
MD: I know. What if I hadn’t gotten his class? What if I’d gotten someone else’s class who thought poetry should rhyme? I would’ve ended up a drug addict if Andrew Carrigan hadn’t been there. Because I just didn’t see a way out.
BLVR: The trip I’m taking right now ends at Emily Dickinson’s house. And I like to ask everyone I’m interviewing, do you remember the first time you read or heard Emily Dickinson?
MD: You know I must’ve read her before I decided to put her into my novel. But I’m not sure, really. I didn’t have any patience with that kind of poetry but then I wanted to put a woman in and she was weird enough that she could fit in my novel so I started reading her and because I was older I felt like I got her. She’s not my favorite poet. But I felt like she’s a poet who sees smaller and smaller until it blows up. And that is really interesting. She lived in sort of a small world and yet she exploded it.
BLVR: Have you been to her home?
BLVR: It’s pretty cool actually, in Amherst. It’s just really interesting to look out the window you know she must’ve been looking out when she was writing those poems. Have you ever made any literary pilgrimages?
MD: Yes. I went to Père Lachaise. I was looking forBaudelaire’s grave and we met this Frenchman and he said, “Are you looking for Jim Morrison?” and we said, “No, we’re looking for Baudelaire.” Even though I wanted to see Jim Morrison too. He was so happy to find people who weren’t looking for Jim Morrison that he took us to Baudelaire’s grave. You know these people are real but to actually see the place they’re buried is so strange. If you can see someone’s grave you’re not their contemporary but you’re in their time in a certain way. Like we can’t see Homer’s grave. We can’t see Sappho’s grave. We don’t know where they’re buried. We don’t even know what they looked like. But Baudelaire—we’re contemporary enough we can go to his grave or Emily Dickinson—you can sit in her chair. It’s interesting because it expands your idea of who’s your contemporary.
BLVR: I know you write in different forms and I see that you paint and I know you do music—you’re a Renaissance lady.
MD: A dilettante.
BLVR: Can you describe any kind of psychic differences you would need for poetry versus more prose things.
MD: Sure. Poetry is tactile almost and it comes in the same place as music does for me—it feels like it was already there, and I’m carving it out. Even Willie World, which was very much my experience, felt like the words already existed and there were only certain right words and I had to smooth them out and get them to be this kind of river, I guess. I feel that way about music too. If I want to right a tune I kind of just unfocus my eyes. Whereas prose, it’s not like that at all. It’s like the words and the story aren’t there. The words serve the story, and the story is difficult for me to get to. Whereas poetry is easy. And I can’t tell what’s right in prose. I love prose. That’s what I read mainly but it doesn’t come as naturally at all as poetry.
BLVR: Do you miss driving the ambulance?
MD: Sure. But I miss the driving more than anything. You know I miss being in that world. And I don’t know. If I hadn’t gotten sick, if the Trade Center hadn’t happened would I still be there? I don’t know. Like how long do you do the same thing kind of thing even if it’s a really fun thing—not fun like ha ha but really absorbing, really engaging—it’s still the same thing. So I don’t know if I would still be there.
BLVR: Were you working on the ambulance when 9/11 hit?
MD: I was not at work. But everyone who was a paramedic ended up down there. At a certain point they just called people in. So what happened was, I was here, and it came through the radio, and I was talking to my partner who lived in Brooklyn Heights. We were both like we shouldn’t go down there—then the second one went in and we both thought, it’s going to be a total nightmare down there as a paramedic. And then the Tower collapsed and my partner called me right when that happened and he said, “We gotta go, our friends are all dead.” So he came to pick me up and went to Bellevue thinking there’d be some kind of organization there. It was chaos! There was no organization there. So we just got in an ambulance with these guys who are all covered in dust and went down there and ended up south of the south tower with a bunch of firemen and basically no equipment. We broke into an ambulance just to get equipment and my story is also a lot of paramedics story—if you had an ambulance when the Towers fell you lost it. So people were basically down there with nothing not knowing what was going on.
BLVR: So when you were down there as a paramedic you knew that the towers collapsed because of the planes?
MD: We thought they’d gotten blown up and I didn’t know where they were. Like I heard on the radio, “Oh my God, it’s all disappearing.” So when we got there, there was just nothing there but dust and big dark brown-red clouds. And I didn’t know if it had just fallen over, like tipped over and landed on some people or on some blocks. We didn’t know if there were bombs in there. If it was a bomb they often put one bomb one place or have a diversion first and then blow it up. So is that what happened, the planes went in and then there was bombs in the planes and then everyone got drawn in and BAM. So such massive confusion plus your memories were fucked with—mine were, because I was there and then when I came out—what I actually experienced, which was all disjunct and discombobulated and I lost huge chunks of time. And then there was this narrative on TV that was different from what I experienced and then there was all this strangeness about millions of people coming in from all over the country and offering everyone massages and I was only down there the 11th and I felt like everyone’s dead there’s no question, there’s no reason to be here and I was there until 8 and I was talking to some supervisor and I said, “Should I stay?” and he said, “Why stay, there’s no one alive in here,” And I was like, “Yeah you’re right. I’m going home.”
BLVR: So was the digging for bodies a performance?
MD: I think psychologically people may have needed it, initially. But I think it should’ve been stopped—that’s my opinion. Because people ended up really badly injured because they were down there for weeks and months and even if you thought someone was alive for the first three or four days, it was very obvious after a week to anyone, no one’s living in this burning hot thing that’s there and yet they still sent people down there to dig. So I feel like people should’ve been stopped.
BLVR: Selfishly I felt like it was probably really great I wasn’t living here when that happened because my tender psyche could barely handle it in Providence, Rhode Island.
MD: It was truly horrible. For my entire life that will be one of the pivotal events and not in a good way. Ultimately, you make sense of it and you’re like, Okay I was here, it was a historical event and I was actually a participant in it and as a poet it’s my job to write. Like you can’t not write about it. I finished Dust Zone about six years after the Trade Center so it took me that long to get past everything that was phony into something that I feel actually represents my experience. I don’t know how much it represents anyone else. But I feel like it really got to the heart of what, for me, that time was.
BLVR: I think about this a lot because I still haven’t finished my book that revolves around the media of 9/11 and it’s been nine years. I always feel as a writer I’m dealing with stuff that happened ten years before anyway so it will be interesting to see how literature that came out right after 9/11 varies from work that gestated awhile. What’s your advice to people writing today in this non-1970’s New York?
MD: If I was talking to someone who was young who was just starting out, go to college for something other than writing. Like don’t go to writing school. Go for science or something that’s really interesting and then write about that. That would be my advice to them. Do you know Murat Nemet-Nejat? He’s a Persian poet but he lives in the states and he had a workshop at St. Mark’s and he said to us, “Well, the nice thing about being a poet is you’re making bread that no one wants to buy so you can make it as salty as you’d like.” So when I think of that, that’s when I’ve written my best stuff. There’s no stakes in poetry. The best poets have not made their livings off it and possibly weren’t even acknowledged much in their lifetimes except for maybe other poets or a few people. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change that they were great. When I read something I know if it’s great or not. It doesn’t matter who wrote it and it doesn’t matter who else likes it. To me that’s an inherent quality and if people want to be poets that’s what I would go for. Go as hard and deep as you can into your own vision and make it pop into the world and shape it and make it exactly you—and what you’re seeing. Make it into a solid thing. Then just put it out and don’t worry if people like it and don’t try to adjust it for anyone. If they don’t like it, it doesn’t change it. That’s my advice.
BLVR: I love your advice. We shape our whole lives around being able to write despite that there’s virtually zero cash and prizes. To me it’s constantly perplexing what sacrifices we do for this thing.
MD: Right. And when I look at my life I wouldn’t pick any other life.