Leslie Prioleau McGrath '79 won the 2004 Nimrod/Hardman Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry and the 2007 Philbrick Prize for Poetry for her chapbook Toward Anguish, and her first full collection, Opulent Hunger, Opulent Rage (Main Street Rag, 2009), which won the Main Street Rag Contest, is a sensual smorgasbord of poems.
Bowdoin: Your poem "Butter Taps" from this collection appeared on the side of Cabot Creamery butter packages, how did that come about?
McGrath: In 2007 when I was in a nutrition program in New York, I met a couple of students who, when they learned I was a poet, asked if I could write a poem about butter. Butter is my very favorite food! They were marketing execs at Cabot Creamery, a Vermont dairy cooperative, and commissioned a poem about butter, which had to include a cow and a farmer. I had great fun writing a kind of bedtime poem about the comfort of the farm, which they ran on two million pounds of salted butter last year. It was probably the widest readership one of my poems will ever get.
B: Can you talk about the book’s title?
M: I wrote a sad and angry poem about a couple breaking up, and the phrase "you will not enjoy its opulent rage" came to me. I loved the idea of rage having that quality. But I couldn't use just that phrase because so much of my work is about hunger, both sensual and physical. So I included "opulent hunger" as well.
B: Can you talk about your favorite poem in the book, or perhaps your favorite line?
M: I love a line from "When We Last Made Applesauce." which looks back at the end of a loving relationship, in which the couple is working together in the kitchen. "For what other reason do blade and apple meet than separation?" For me, the act of cooking recapitulates much of what we do in life. This line reminds me that sometimes things (and people) come together in order to come apart. That is their purpose.
B: This book is so much about the senses, about sensory perception, what do you hope readers will take from it?
M: Despite all my good education—or maybe because of it—I've always been aware that we take the world in through our senses. The mind filters it later, makes the experience of the world more personalized. When a poem, or another piece of art, acts on a sensory level, it speaks to that within us, which is closest to the universal.
B: How do you think poetry is relevant in people’s lives today?
M: At its best, a poem can be a place of comfort, recognition, connection, surprise. At its worst, a poem can act like a wall, keeping the reader out, making her feel diminished. A poem makes demands on the reader—a little quiet focus, a willingness to be moved—that few Americans are willing to give themselves at this point in history. I understand this, and it’s okay with me. What I want is for good poetry to be available to people who want what it can provide them.
B: Mainstream readers are often apprehensive about poetry; do you have any advice about how to approach poetry as a reader?
M: I think patience, both with the poem and with oneself, is a good thing. A good poem is made like a beautifully-wrapped gift. It can be appreciated on many levels. There's pleasure in looking at it, in noticing the skill used in wrapping it, in the materials which simultaneously hide and reveal what’s inside, in the act of meeting the poem's meaning, and in understanding that the meaning can shift and change slightly upon successive readings over time. If after a couple of readings, a poem remains opaque, even irritating, find another. There's so much really good poetry being written around the world. There are so many voices reminding us that grief and suffering, humor and joy, are the waters in which we all travel. In difficult times, I find this reassuring. In good times, it makes me feel grateful to be a part of it all.
B: How did you become a poet, and what has been the most difficult obstacle that you’ve faced along the way?
M: I had always loved writing and always loved reading and always loved writing poetry and i did it from when I was a child—I would write poems for people's birthdays and Christmas, and deaths, and things like that, but it was not something in my family that was seen as a vocation. So I went to college, I studied psychology and romance languages, I was a Spanish major. and I was at Bowdoin during the '70s, when there weren't any—we didn't have to take anything other than what was designed for our major. So I took no English literature courses, I read none of the canon of English literature at all, but I was a lit major in Spanish. And I found when I began to really think about becoming a poet, and admit that I wanted to be a poet, when I was about 42, I found that my background in Spanish language literature was very helpful to me. I approach writing poetry and reading it—but certainly writing it—as something that is as much for the mouth as it is for the ears and the brain. I love the taste of language in my mouth. I love the way it feels to say my poems. And to me, it's a very sensual experience, and a very oral experience. I believe that it's my love of Spanish language poetry, which is very chewy, that has contributed to my sense of music in poetry, and the importance of music in my poems.
The most difficult obstacle for me was my own ego. Though I loved poetry, it was a hidden pleasure for me. It wasn't until I had trained to become a psychologist and found that wasn't right for me as a person, that I really admitted to myself that a poet was really what I wanted to be. I do think that a poet can be someone who doesn't come out of studying English language, a poet doesn't have to be someone who’d always wanted to be a poet. A poet can be someone who trained in other things, and who's not necessarily and academic. I think the deeper we make our well of poetry in the United States, the better the poetry is ultimately going to become.
Posted May 13, 2010