This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Maya Marshall, whose debut poetry collection, All the Blood Involved in Love, is out today from Haymarket Books. In these searching, confessional lyrics, Marshall interrogates the choice to become a mother—or not—and what it means to parent in a troubled world. Weaving family history with meditations on desire, Black girlhood and womanhood, aging, and death, the poems grapple with rage and despair but move toward self-love and hope. Poet Patricia Smith writes of Marshall’s collection: “This work—penned as backslap for the Black woman intending to stomp into, through, and beyond the existence she is laughingly ‘allowed’—harbors the hurricane’s unrepentant muscle.” Marshall is the author of the chapbook Secondhand (Dancing Girl Press, 2016) and the cofounder of underbelly, a journal that explores the practical magic of poetic revision. She has received fellowships from MacDowell, Vermont Studio Center, Callaloo, the Watering Hole, Community of Writers, and Cave Canem. She teaches at Emory University.
1. How long did it take you to write All the Blood Involved in Love?
The oldest poem in the book is about ten years old.
2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Can I give you several answers? Dealing with family. Taking an honest look at myself. Finding space between the speaker and myself. Admitting when the music was taking a backseat to my ideas. A simpler answer: learning the craft of writing poetry.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I can typically get myself to sit down and focus for a few hours a week. It depends on what my job is that year. This year I’m a fellow at a university, so I have dedicated time to go to my office at the school. There have been years when I’ve gotten up early before work to write for thirty minutes before I had to do things for other people, and those years I’ve written in my home office. Sometimes I write on my phone while I’m at the park or sitting in my car. I sit in my car for long stretches of time, usually avoiding going home or to an engagement of some sort. During the semesters that I’m teaching, sometimes I do the in-class writing that I assign to my students. In my unstructured free time, or when I’m procrastinating editing, I schedule writing dates with friends. We’ll write for an hour, usually remotely. When I can afford to and I have enough material, I go to residencies. Most of the time, though, I’m sitting on my bed or at my desk. It’s not romantic, just practical.
4. What are you reading right now?
Today I got Community as Rebellion: A Syllabus for Surviving Academia as a Woman of Color by Lorgia García Peña in the mail, so I’ll open that soon. I’m currently reading Camille T. Dungy’s Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys Into Race, Motherhood, and History and Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss. And I’m working my way through The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2021 and The Best American Essays 2021. I am typically reading a book that has not been published yet; Quenton Baker has one called Ballast that will be out next year. I am really excited by it. Recently I finished Hayan Charara’s poetry book These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit; his collection Something Sinister is an unrelenting marvel.
5. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of All the Blood Involved in Love?
I was surprised by the central question of the book: Why don’t you parent? As I was writing the individual poems over the years, I didn’t realize how much I was thinking about childbearing and childrearing in the American context.
I was also taken aback by how much Biblical language and theory and context shaped the thinking in the final movement. Being agnostic, I was surprised that the God figure is as present as he is. And by the same turn, I’m surprised by just how much anger I had to navigate to get to a sense of peace. The book thinks through things that people should be justifiably angry about, but I was taken by surprise by how deeply attached this speaker is to God—how close faith seems and how difficult it proves to be to attain, or maintain. I think it has something to do with my difficulty with hope.
6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
Working, daily chores, insecurity, family responsibilities.
7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
It was my mentor who said something that stuck with me. She said: “Do not discount the good work you have already done.” I have a tendency to see with only a critical eye, rather than with a forgiving one, when I look at my own writing. It is difficult for me to return to my pages with the eye of a curious bookstore browser—with the eye of the girl who loves reading. So it helps to have the reminder in my head that what is on the page can be altered; it does not have to be destroyed. It helps to remember the years I’ve spent learning to do this writing thing—that I’ve learned to do much of it well.
8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started All the Blood Involved in Love, what would you say?
Be patient. Loosen your grip. Write for discovery. Write because you want to, not to define yourself for the benefit of other people.
9. How did you know when the book was finished?
When I felt like I had a sense of the answers to the questions the book asks. When I was able to feel—with the poems in different orders—that there was an arc from the first poem to the last, I felt like I could let the book go. I felt released from the emotional terrain of that book.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Besides read broadly and keep writing? Go outside and watch plants grow.