Maya Jewell Zeller completed her undergraduate degree in English and Education from Western Washington University. She taught high school English for three years before attending Eastern Washington University’s Inland Northwest Center for Writers, where she received an MFA in creative writing with a focus on poetry. Alongside her graduate studies, Zeller worked as assistant acquisitions editor and intern coordinator for Eastern Washington University Press, as poetry editor for Willow Springs, and as an instructor for Writers in the Community, teaching at retirement homes and area schools. She now teaches writing at Gonzaga University, Central Washington University, and the Community Colleges of Spokane, edits fiction for Crab Creek Review, and co-directs the Beacon Hill Reading Series. Zeller is the author of the book Rust Fish and the chapbook Yesterday, the Bees, as well as several essays and individual poems.
Zeller’s essay “He Worked as an Electrician. He Watched Television. (His Obituary was Plain.)” can be read in Issue 71 of the Bellingham Review. She was interviewed by Julia Hands at Adagio Café in Bellingham, Washington, in October 2015.
Julia Hands: To begin, how did the experience of working at Eastern Washington University Press and Willow Springs during graduate school shape how you put together your own manuscripts?
Maya Jewell Zeller: In terms of manuscript structure, I learned as much working for a literary magazine and press as I did in my creative writing workshops. At that time, Eastern’s academic and literary press was headed by Christopher Howell. He is an incredibly prolific poet and a fascinating person. I worked most closely with him, and he taught me most of what I understood about the arc of a manuscript and manuscript screening and acquisition. At EWU Press, I sometimes read 20 manuscripts a day; this helped me understand what was out there at the time, and how my manuscript, which was my thesis, fit into that landscape. I spent hours reading manuscripts and trying to figure out what a “strong” or “award-winning” manuscript looked like; it taught me what I needed to know about polishing Rust Fish and sending it out.
JH: When you were reading those manuscripts, what sort of things specifically caught your interest and, perhaps, transferred over to your own writing?
MJZ: I remember there was this one manuscript that was a collection of these really spare, weird poems. Each was about a seed and the manuscript was composed like a seed catalogue. It introduced me to this kind of lyric essay or hermit crab form (as Brenda Miller would say), to taking a shell as it exists in the world and making that your form. Manuscripts like that helped me when I started to lay out Rust Fish, and when I was thinking about the lyric, the dramatic, the narrative. I was thinking about all these modes and how I could reach out to different readers.
JH: What else have you learned as you’ve gone through the process of constructing multiple manuscripts, first Rust Fish and now Yesterday, the Bees?
MJZ: Melissa Kwasny says that “You have to open the robe just a little bit, and then you have to close it.” So, give a teeny-tiny glimpse and then close the robe. I think that’s what a manuscript needs to do in the first few poems. A friend of mine, who runs a press, says the first three or so poems need to introduce the major players in your work, whether it be characters, forms, motifs, or the questions you’re asking. The next three poems need to strengthen those relationships, and then the rest of the manuscript needs to answer those questions while continuing to surprise.
JH: You say in your Issue 71 contributor’s bio that you see both, “He Worked as an Electrician. He Liked Watching Television. (His Obituary was Plain),” and your new book, Yesterday, the Bees as elegies, part of a meditation. How does that fit into this idea of opening the robe but not too much?
MJZ: I think in Yesterday, the Bees, I open the robe a little too much in some ways. I consider it to be a deeply confessional manuscript because it’s about the most intimate, transformative experience of my life, which is becoming a mother. Writing about sex is easier than writing about becoming a mother. Yesterday, the Bees is a chapbook, so it has slightly different rules. It still needs to have the mystery and all those introductory moves, but it gets to do them faster. It doesn’t have to develop a complexity quite as deep. It still needs to be complex, but the nuances need to be clearer early on.
Yesterday, the Bees does that by opening up with poems about a pregnancy, and then moving quickly into a mother having a C-section, which in real life was unplanned and unintended. The speaker in my manuscript, who is largely informed by my own autobiographical arc, thinks a lot about the ways that birth is a natural process, children are natural outcomes, but we are still an invasive species. It navigates that with naturalized plants. The plants are these nonhuman things in this natural world that collide and offer something to that world that I can’t. I can’t pollinate. I can’t assist a bee in bringing that honey back to its hive. The bee has more of a claim to the landscape and its lineage, its heritage. It’s really more of a simple process, more of a claim than I do, more of a right to reproduce than I do, which I think fits into the interrogation of feeling displaced by post-partum depression and feeling as if you don’t have a right to be a mother.
JH: Let’s transition to “He Worked as an Electrician,” which is a lyric essay. What did the lyric form allow you to do in that specific piece that you weren’t able to do in the poetry collection, Yesterday, the Bees?
MJZ: That essay actually began as a poem. That whole first section is mostly the original poem. I shared it with my friend Laura who’s also a poet, and she said it was terrible. One of the challenges I like to give myself is to turn a bad poem into a good essay. So I took it home. This poem, like Edward Hirsch says, was dragging around a bag of cement. It wasn’t showing us what the cement was made of, the materials. The essay allowed me to interrogate family lineage; it takes us back to Osbourne, Idaho, where my husband’s family were miners, when his parents were small children in Osbourne and Wallace, Idaho. It allows me do a little bit of genealogy and weave in larger themes of social and environmental justice with medicalized birth. The essay form allows those things to emerge together.
JH: Were you still able to do the same work in the essay form that a poem allows you to do?
MJZ: A good poem braids together multiple impulses. A good poem will say, here we are in this moment, and then it turns and looks out the window. Then it looks back into history, and then it looks across the street and asks someone to go for a walk and have a bagel and then it comes back to where we started. It all works together, and a good lyric essay will do all that work as well.
JH: What I’m curious about then is, because you’re writing about such autobiographical topics, what happens when you ask the reader to follow you on this journey? Especially considering you write your family into the piece in connection to such a deep-felt experience.
MJZ: I think if you write an essay about almost losing a child and you choose to share that with the world, and in that essay your family figures in—and frankly, it’s scary to include your family—you ask yourself, “is this my story to tell?” When you share like that—and many would say this essay is in a very confessional mode—I think you’re inviting your reader to consider your experience and deepen their empathy. I may not get any more healing or intellectual advancement out of that, but I like to think maybe my reader will find something.
I think about it like Pound’s dictum that you need to have an image that affects an emotional and intellectual complex in an instant of time. For me, then, it’s about knowing that maybe that reader found something there that allows them to say “I experienced, or I can write about something intimate and personal.” It makes topics like birth and maternity and motherhood and almost losing a child part of the public discourse in a way that I think is distinctly feminist. And maybe that’s what I get out of it: advancing a feminist idea of motherhood.
JH: How are you playing with the balance of the intellectual and emotional in “He Worked as an Electrician?”
MJZ: I think part of that essay is about not knowing or understanding. Not knowing about our bodies; it’s about mortality through motherhood, through losing a family member. It’s about grief. The narrator in this spends a lot of time in a cemetery, so she’s sitting there thinking about whether she wants to be buried or cremated. What she wants to happen to her body as she’s nursing her baby. So I feel as though the chemical reaction of nursing a baby and the emotional and physical relaxation that happens during that, strangely, has a lot to do with your own mortality and thinking about what happens to your cells as your cells pass through your body and continue to live after you die. I think it’s very visceral. Any time we’re talking about breastfeeding, we’re talking about the body.
JH: The body seems to be a major theme running through your pieces. How has your understanding of the body changed as you’ve been growing and working as a writer?
MJZ: I see the body as being a part of a landscape. Before I had children, I tended to think of myself as more indigenous to our landscape. I thought of myself as being born in Oregon, and I am from Oregon. I thought more of my body and the self being tied to that landscape. When I was a child, my family moved a lot, so I was friends with the plants. I would recognize the plants, I knew their names, so we had a relationship. People didn’t last, so the personal body for me and the poems in Rust Fish feel spiritually connected to the earth.
That said, in Rust Fish there is violence from nature; the book is aware of nature’s indifference. But the speaker hopes/thinks she’s the exception. In later work then, after giving birth through C-section, it changes how you view your body and your body’s relationship to the natural world. The realization that, even though women have been giving birth vaginally for hundreds of years, sometimes that does not happen. A lot of times, it doesn’t work that way. Nature is violent, not intentionally, but through indifference. That’s something I think my earlier work is aware of too, but in a different way. So in new works, like “He Worked as an Electrician…,” the essay’s ethos is one that is more aware that your body is separate from the earth, and even if you’re cremated and flow through, you’re still a human body and in some ways, you’re still a pollutant.
JH: To bring this interview to a close, then, it seems as if a major theme in your work is the evolving nature of motherhood, how it evolves for your speakers and then yourself through lived experience.
MJZ: My writing is very much about me and probing my brain to understand what I’m doing. In early drafts, I don’t know why I’m writing what I’m writing, I’m just often lit up by a line I’ve read somewhere else and feel a need to respond to it. I feel as if a lot my writing is interrogation of the emotional, intellectual, physical landscape of the body.
To find out more about Maya and her work, you can check out her website here.