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Wisconsin Book Festival 2009: Marty McConnell speaks

Marty McConnell is not for the faint of heart: The spoken-word artist's performance poetry blows through the border checkpoints of faith, freedom, gender, humanity, integrity and sex in ways that are frequently beautiful, sometimes transgressive and, in her most exhilarating work, both at once.

A veteran of HBO's Def Poetry Jam and six National Poetry Slams, she took her MFA in creative writing and poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and has performed on university campuses and at poetry festivals from coast to coast while publishing in more than a dozen anthologies and journals.

At this year's Wisconsin Book Festival, McConnell joins Team Hawai'i (two-time winners of the International Teen Slam) and UW-Madison's First Wave Hip-Hop Theater Ensemble as cornerstones for a "Making Waves Showcase" at 7 p.m. Friday, October 9, at the Wisconsin Historical Society's main building on the UW Library Mall.

In an exchange conducted via e-mail in anticipation of her appearance here, she relates her earliest memories of poetry and spoken-word performance, considers the significance of YouTube as a contributor to her renown, selects a poem she might read at a state dinner hosted by President Obama -- and identifies the people she'd like to have at her table that night.

The Daily Page: To whom or what might you ascribe your poetic impulse?

Marty McConnell: I guess I can ascribe it to a fundamental drive to connect, coupled with a deep tendency toward introversion. I think that poetry is really the distilling of experience in such a way that it can be shared, so despite the fact that I'm awful at talking to strangers at parties, I can write a poem about the party that will enable other people to have that experience along with me.

When, where and how do you prefer to compose?

My schedule tends to dictate that I write wherever I can, whenever I can. That said, the most consistently productive setting for me to write is a hot bath with a glass of wine.

What is your earliest memory of a poem? What effect did it have on you?

I read really early, and always loved books. My grandmother gave me a copy of A Children's Book of Verse, and it was this inches-thick hardcover cadet blue tome.… It weighed more than anything else I owned, and I thought it must be what grownups read. And I wanted more than anything to be like grownups. I don't actually remember any of the poems themselves, but I do remember loving the way they looked, so compact and self-assured on the page.

What is your earliest memory of spoken-word performance?

In the sense of what we consider modern spoken word, which is to say what we think of as performance poetry now, I guess the first real performance I remember is Saul Williams at the Green Mill in Chicago. This must have been 1997 or 1998, and I had no idea what was going on, but it was magnetic and magic and fascinating; it was nothing I expected from poetry.

When, where and how did you find yourself onstage for the first time? What were the circumstances that compelled you to get up in front of an audience?

I was a theater kid, and honestly, I have no idea when first I took the stage. I was organizing shows in the living room in some of my earliest memories. What's strange is that I was actually very shy outside of the family and off the stage. But I was fearless in character, in the spotlight.

In terms of your own gratification, how do applause and cheers compare to publication? And how do both of those responses compare to the crafting and completion of a new work?

The difference between applause and publication for me is a question of immediacy. In live performance, I know if I'm connecting, if what I'm saying is coming through. With publication, it's good to know that some people will be reading the poems, theoretically, but literary journal publication is more a means to an end in terms of building an academic reputation and resume.

Both of those are very different experiences from crafting and completing a poem, which is the most gratifying experience, though also the most short-lived. I'm in love with the poem as I finish it, but within a few days there's something new itching to be written.

What are your expectations of your Wisconsin Book Festival appearance?

I expect great things of the appearance -- I'm thrilled to be sharing the stage with the young people from Team Hawai'i and the First Wave folks. I won't even need caffeine with all that energy flying around.

How can your Wisconsin Book Festival audience best prepare itself to get the most out of your appearance here?

I suppose that coming prepared to understand that the world is broad and the voices poetry encompasses are vast would be helpful.… My work can be a little boundary-pushing for people, and sometimes catches people off-guard. But I like that, so I hope there are some folks out there who come with no idea what to expect.

How has YouTube affected your career? And how has its impact compared to your appearances on HBO's Def Poetry Jam?

I don't know how it's affected my career really, except that it's another way people are seeing the poems. The internet in general has definitely had an impact on my readership (not necessarily the same thing as career, of course) in the sense that every once in a while a poem will spark and pop up all over the blogosphere, seemingly at random. But YouTube is interesting -- there are videos up there I had no idea existed. And it's given a longer life and broader reach to the footage from Def Jam; I wouldn't be surprised if more people have seen those poems via YouTube than ever saw it broadcast on HBO.

What challenges do you confront as a poet and spoken-word artist of some renown? And what rewards do you reap as a consequence of the name recognition you enjoy?

I don't know that I confront any real challenges in that regard, except maybe people requesting poems that I am not nearly as proud of as I am of more recent work. Do I have name recognition? It's always gratifying when people have read or seen the poems, and email or talk to me at shows about how a poem has affected him or her. But that's not about name recognition, that's about the poems.

One strange and amazing thing has happened in that there are people I've never met and a few I've met briefly who have lines out of my poems tattooed on them. I recently received an email from a woman who had a gorgeous visual representation created around a line of text and inked on her calf. Because it's what I do as well -- attach words to my body -- it's especially stunning.

Why do you live where you live?

I recently returned to Chicago, my hometown, from New York City, for a lot of reasons. Most notably, there is a resurgence in the poetry community here that I am overjoyed to be part of, particularly as a woman and as someone who believes strongly in the synergy of page and stage. It's an electric time here, and I can't wait to see what we manifest over the next few years.

The theme of this year's Wisconsin Book Festival is "Courage." How do you define courage? What is the most courageous thing you've ever done or seen?

I believe that courage is adherence to personal integrity in the face of forces working against it. The most courageous thing I have ever seen is someone confessing to a secret she believed could end the relationship that mattered most to her.

Which of your works would you choose to perform for a state dinner hosted by President Obama? Why would you choose it? And which seven other guests would you most like to have sitting at your table?

I would like to think that I would write a new poem for such an occasion. But, the question and the pressure of that being what it is, I might do "Anna Politkovskaya to Katie Couric," because I think that poem addresses much of what he feels about America, about activism and doing what is right rather than what is expedient or popular. Also, it discusses motherhood, and I think that might make Michelle want to be friends with me.

The seven other guests I would most like to have there would be Adrienne Rich, Gloria Steinem, Marie Howe, Hillary Rodham-Clinton because she grew up in the suburb next to mine, my parents, Terrance Hayes because I think he and Obama should be best friends, and my partner, Tristan Silverman, to hold my hand so I don't faint. (Yes, that's eight. Sorry.)

Where were you and what were you doing on 9/11/2001 when you learned of the attacks? What were the first words you wrote down?

I was in Manhattan that morning, temping at some Midtown company, having just finished grad school and come off tour. There was almost nothing to do there but they needed someone to answer the phone occasionally and greet visitors. I literally thought to myself as the woman walked away, "This is going to be the most boring day of my life." The first words I wrote down were the address of a place to donate blood, though the line was so long and they in the end needed so little that I never did end up donating.

What was the last book you read that you would recommend? And why would you recommend it?

Crush by Richard Siken because it is genius, one of the most authentic and startling and moving books of poetry I've ever read.

What do you carry with you at all times?

Snacks. I'm a little hypoglycemic. Also, my Blackberry. Sad but true. It's an addiction.

Which of your ambitions might you describe as your greatest guilty pleasure?

I get great pleasure out of surprising people -- not shocking them with sheer content, not shock for shock value alone, but creating and performing work that simultaneously makes people feel wildly uncomfortable and incredibly connected to their own humanity.

Among the other presenters at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival, who do you hope to encounter?

Meeting Bill Ayers would be amazing.

Facebook, Linkedin or Myspace?

Yes. And Twitter and Livejournal.

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