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The following interview was published in the Sept-Oct issue of the Lummox Journal, 2001 

Maggie Jaffe is a lecturer at San Diego State University.  She also co-edits Cedar Hill Publications. Her book The Prisons was sent to me for review and that’s how we connected.  This interview was conducted via email over a two month span.

RD: How'd you decide to write The Prisons?


MJ: Christopher Presfield, the founding publisher of Cedar Hill Publications, first published my poems, and then he accepted 7th Circle, a volume of poetry that dealt with, among other things, suicide.  Naturally, I went to visit him, [Christopher is incarcerated for robbery relating to his heroin addiction] and we had a delightful visit the first time.  He's very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about poetry.


The next scheduled visit was different.  He was accused of funding a scheme to smuggle heroin into the prison in a clock radio.  The authorities put Chistopher in "the hole" (solitary) while they investigated.  After 7 months, the drug smuggling charges were dropped, but he was charged with, and I quote his counselor, "the serious infraction of buying too many stamps."  (See the poem "Jailhouse.  The Rock").  When I went up to visit Christopher the next time, they brought him out in shackles, put him in a glass booth, and gave us an hour to talk through a telephone which didn't work.


It was emotionally devastating to see such a gentle person in chains just as if he was a mad dog.  It was then that I knew I had to write about this.  You know, transcend trauma through art.  I don't have any

illusions about poetry bringing forth social change; I wrote the poems "for the record," so to speak.  There's also this wonderful camaraderie between visitors of prisoners-mothers, wives, girlfriends, children, siblings, fathers-and I thought that was important to describe.  Some of the exchanges with others from the "free world" are humorous and informative, definitely an "us against them" situation which is a kind of resistance.


RD: So is this your first foray into "political" writing?


MJ: No, all my books are “political”, although the distinction made between politics and poetry is peculiar to the United States.  As Martin Espada writes in his intro to Poetry Like Bread, north-American critics don't even have a vocabulary for critiquing political poetry.  Whatever we do is political, relating to the Greek word "polity," pertaining to people.


RD: What are some of the other examples of political poetry?


MJ: I greatly admire Jim Scully, Marilyn Zuckerman, Sandy Taylor, Kim Addonizio, Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Joy Harjo, Jimmy Baca, Adrian Louis, Barbara Anderson, Margaret Randall, Eric Fried and Bertolt Brecht.  I love Latin American writers especially: Claribel Alegria, Ernesto Cardenal, Roque Dalton, Otto Renee Castillo, of course Neruda.  I lived in Latin America in the mid-70s and became "radicalized" during that period.  Had an important course in US foreign policy by just observing.  Pretty hair raising stuff, CIA all over the place, state of siege and so forth.


RD: What you wrote about Christopher being punished for buying too many stamps reminds me of something I read about in the Sunday LA Times...there was a picture of a man being arrested in Niarobi for trying to plant trees to protest the govt. deforestation plan!  I thought, “My god!  What kind of a world do we live in?”  It sort of makes me sick.


MJ: It is sick and we're all so dreadfully alone.  Community is important.  Laughter is important, getting high and making love is important. 


RD: Amen to that!  So, do you think that poetry can set out to make a difference (dumb but necessary question)?  Do you aim for that?  Or does the poem dictate its direction to you, like a block of stone directs the sculptor's hand?


MJ: I honestly don't know.  Auden thought that poetry can't change much, yet Herman Melville's White Jacket, an early novel, made the British rethink flogging on its naval vessels.  Of course, Melville nearly went crazy from neglect as a writer.


I don't know if poetry changes anything, but it's good to think that some of us aren't silent, that we won't shut up.  For me, political poetry demands a finely tuned aesthetic because of the mostly negative

reaction to it.  It's actually harder, I think, to write it.  It would be arrogant to think the powers that be will roll over at the sight of my poem.  I just know that I have a modest talent, and it's important for me not to be a "good German." 


RD: You're a professor at UCSD, right?  What do you teach?  How long you been at that?


MJ:  No, I'm a part-time lecturer at SDSU.  English Dept, 20 years.  As Bobby said: " Twenty years of schoolin' and they put you on the day shift."  I teach intro to screen writing, intro to lit. 


What's your blue-collar gig?  I'll have to send you The Heat when I get more copies.  Stories and poems written by steelworkers.  It's got a lot of heart.


RD: I’m a couple of notches up the ladder from day laborer.  I fix people’s houses, do a little painting and the like, even trim trees on occasion, and yes, sometimes I even dig.  Some people think it’s “romantic” that I work with my (callused) hands.  I can tell you this, there’s nothing noble about working.  The nobility is in the individual style & grace of those who work.  Work sucks.  If I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn’t.


MJ: Oh, did I tell you I met Ernesto Cardenal last night?  Actually, I frightened the poor dear because I'm utterly inept at schmoozing.  But New Directions did give me permission to reprint his wonderful epic "Zero Hour."  I read that poem when I was a  young poet working in a bookstore.  It was the closest thing to a religious experience because Cardenal showed me what poetry might do.


[Cardenal's poem "Zero Hour" is of epic proportion detailing Augusto Sandino's fight against Somoza as well as the U.S. who invaded Nicaragua in 1911 to "protect" one of its primary interests, The United Fruit Company.]


Gerald Locklin just sent me his book published by Lummox Press.  It's a fine book.  I’d like to get a copy of Bill Shields' book [Meat Eater – Lummox Press].  Shields is hard core.  I know his work through the press, Burning Cities Press, which published two of my books.  One book is out of print, which is too bad.  I was the first woman and non-combat veteran which BC published.  I wanted to get Shields to submit poems, but I heard he hated academics.


RD: My impression of Bill is that he’s a standup guy with a strange sense of humor.  You should contact him.


One of the questions I always ask is how do you retain your creative inspirations so you can nail them down later?


MJ: I don't know.  It’s very random. Right now, I have ideas for a new group of poems on movies.  Don't know how it will shape out.  I want the poems to be fun, irreverent, illegal, immoral and fattening.  I don't know why anyone creates.  For me, I feel (almost) total freedom when I write since I never thought I'd make money at it anyway.  But it's not money, it's the weird feeling of losing one self but, paradoxically, feeling really present.  Writing seems to be part of witnessing. We're here during a particular period which I feel is in crisis.  The choice seems to be not whether or not to write but *what* to write.  When I got my MFA in Vermont College, I was amazed that people actually wrote nature poems: the hegemony of falling leaves.  That seemed so odd to me and frankly boring when so much is happening currently.  I distrust poetry that's "timeless" or universal.


RD:  I was wondering, how did you get involved in with Cedar Hill Publications? 


MJ: Christopher wrote to me and asked to use my work in an anthology of women's verse.  I then sent him 7th Circle which he published.  It's a tough book, written during my suicide phase.  I realized, though, that suicide is also very political, especially since people won't discuss it for fear of seeming weak, or unhappy, which might be a crime in America.  


RD: You say this book was written during your suicide phase...what do you mean by that?  The book itself deals with suicide through the "eyes" of historical figures, but are these poems actually metaphors for your own dark turbulence?


 MJ: Yes, my twenty-five year marriage ended in divorce, and I didn't realize how being pre-menopausal was going to be an emotional roller coaster.  Hard to explain.  It's as if I didn't have an extra layer of skin.  Nothing rolled off; everything seemed colossally stupid, or sad, or a lie.


RD: People have this notion that poets must suffer more than the rest of the population and that somehow there is a degree of sanctity in that suffering. 


MJ: I think Freud was off the mark when he said that artists produce out of neurosis.  I think everyone is depressed, frightened, etc – that's part of human consciousness.  But an artist's production is a positive means of channeling grief and sadness.  That's not what I mean.  What if everyone is on the edge, but only artists can describe it?  We know about the suicide rate among artists, but what about the invisible people who lead lives of "quiet desperation" (Thoreau).


RD:  So what was your motivation back when you wrote the poems in 7th Circle?


MJ; During that period, I thought so much about suicide, mostly because my sadness was becoming a bore in way to me and to everyone else.  I told my therapist friend that I wanted to write about suicide, but she counseled  me not to.  She was wrong.  Reading, research and writing are calming, at least to me.  I felt almost sane during writing, at least the turmoil was channeled into something else.


RD:  In the sixties and seventies, I remember it was popular to do prison poetry workshops.  Have you done any?  You don't hear much about it being done anymore.


MJ: No, I just finished my MFA, which was a way to make more money.  Naturally, right now I'm just deeper in debt.   I would travel to Vermont twice a year for the MFA, since it's a low-residency program.  I do want to work with prisoners.  I've done some scholarships on the literature of trauma, and I'm interested in that.  Right now. I'm also teaching four classes, three of which are full to brim, and I can't manage my time as it is.


RD: So, how long have you been working the POEM (as I call the craft of poetry) and who were some of your early (or contemporary) influences?


MJ: Living in Central America (Guatemala) and traveling around South America connected me with Latin American poets.  In the early 80's, I was involved with US intervention in Central America.  I would read other peoples' work or my own at political rallies.  Those were the days: pretty fired-up readings.  None of that audience of poets who couldn't-wait-to-read-their-stuff kind of stuff.  But the rallies were occasionally violent.  Scary, but it felt useful. 


But I'll read anything.  I also like German and Polish poets.


RD: I have a question/observation about your photo.  In it you look almost like you're Latin American (I think of Castro -- must be the shades) and I notice you are biting your lip.  Uncertainty under the mask of impenetrability?  What was going on when you took that photo?


MJ: I look Latin or Mediterrean.  I was mistaken for Bolivian in Bolivia (non-Indian of course, Castilleana).  When I was in the Czech Republic (which was very hard), people spoke Czech to me as if I lived there.  I had to memorize one sentence: "I do not speak Czech.  I only speak English."  Actually, my family came from Minsk in the Ukraine which isn't too far from there.  But I never thought I looked Slavic.  I have a great story but haven't been able to write it.  I was on the trolley in the CR when I burst into tears: it was in September and we were scheduled to teach there until June, and I didn’t know how I would stand it.  An older Czech woman, very grandmotherly, started to pat my arm and made me sit next her.  She then spoke rapid Czech in a consoling way for about 15 minutes.  Finally, I said the above sentence.  Happily, she burst into laughter and so did I.


RD: Your comments on how we all are living on the edge and it's the artists job to portray it... I think I know what you mean, but I'm not sure I agree completely.  Could you elaborate on that some more?


MJ: I don't know if I can explain what I mean.  Freud pathologizes artists, but in fact, art-making seems to be an acceptable mode of pulling together an otherwise atomized life, which I feel most people live right now, at least here, in the good ol' USA.  I think writing has kept Bill Shields alive for example.  I don't know.


RD: I'm curious bout your experiences in the CR.  I have a couple of subscribers in Europe, but it's difficult to get them to talk about what's going on over seems that everything is politicized but no one wants to talk about it.  We hear bits and pieces about that area of Europe and it sounds like a pretty ghoulish situation, one devoid of humanity, but is it?  Your story seems to belie that. 


MJ: The Czech Republic is probably the most together of all Eastern European countries.  Teaching was awful, though.  The students are arrogant since only the "elite" may attend the university, but they were also spying on each other during the Occupation: students spying on profs and other students, profs spying on students.  Basically, the Soviet Union did enormous emotional damage.  But now they're plagued with crime and will soon understand unemployment, but that's capitalism.  It was hateful for me, physically uncomfortable, no phone to check on my aging mother, not even a washing machine. Yeah, go ahead and laugh, but I had a traditional marriage in many ways, and it was my job to do laundry, clean, cook.  But the marriage was on the rocks as well, as you can imagine.  To me, the whole place seemed redolent of the nazi occupation.  Once, a couple of skinheads purposely butted into us, and I wanted to kill them.  They would have done serious damage if I tried to fight back, but I felt such rage and humiliation.


RD: Well, fortunately you can express yourself through writing.  So what does the future hold for you?


MJ: I hope to continue doing what I've always done: write, read, garden, take care of the cats, teach, obsess about the government and so forth.  I would also like to be more politically active since this particular period is especially repressive.  Fortunately, my work with Cedar Hill Publications allows me to feel at least somewhat engaged, since I'm especially interested in the work of John Heartfield and George Grosz, two German artists during the Weimar Period, who used "art as a political weapon."  In other words, I'd like to kick corporate ass, at least in my head.




From the guard tower, a voice warns,

Stay to the right, a high-powered

rifle beaded on my back. Where am I,

unarmed but dangerous, at least in my head?

Mule Creek State Prison, where a profusion of spring

flowers front a hot-wired fence, and I nearly

get shot for missing the turn to A Block.

They hustle him from the hole

into a booth adjacent to the visitor's

center, hand-cuffed to his waist, leg irons

and soft felt slippers. When I press my palm

up to the glass, he struggles against

his cuffs to "touch" me.

I think of Eichmann in Jerusalem,

hermetically sealed in a glass cage,

his last words, both banal and ominous:

After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again….

"Like a late-night bad movie," he smiles.

Then I'll play Eva Marie Saint in On The Waterfront

and he'll be Brando as Crazy Horse captured

by the cavalry, nailed to history: Now the cons,

not the cavalry, get to wear the Blues while

"sensitivity-trained" guards look right through

me when I complain. Forced to leave

after one hour, heading west

to Sacramento, the field's on fire

with western meadowlarks and road

signs touting a politician, tough on crime

and favored to win. The jet lifts off.

After the flight attendant instructs

Us in emergency procedures,

The woman next to me opens

Her book of Revelations; others flip

Through magazines or twist off bottle caps.

I press my face to the scratched plastic window,

Stare at the receding concrete runway.


Maggie Jaffe

(from The Prisons; Cedar Hill Publications; 2001)

Maggie Jaffe

Exploring the Creative Process since 1996