An Interview with Cate Marvin

Kore Biters
A monthly interview series that highlights the writing and literary activism of
women writers who are transgressive and transformative.

by Arisa White and Rosebud Ben-Oni

In New Hands

What was your last bite?

An “everything” bagel with veggie cream cheese from Bagels N’ Buns, a deli on Staten Island. Carb central.
Deeply fulfilling and equally guilt-inducing, but only $3.50. That was dinner.


Share with us something that you had to shake your head at lately.

This evening when my daughter, Lucia, who is six, and I were eating at a local diner, she noticed a group of policemen seated near us. She asked me, “Do you like police?” I told her yes and no. That it is complicated. She observed: “You don’t like them because they pull you over when you drive too fast.” (And this is true.)

I then tried to explain to her, later, when we were inside our car, that the police don’t treat everyone fairly. I explained that they often treat people of color differently than they do white people. “That’s not nice,” Lucia pronounced, fiercely.

Lucia then announces her plan to inform all of her friends of color about this injustice. Because she wants to warn them.

But I, on the other hand, am thinking of Lucia’s first grade teacher, who has already stereotyped Lucia as a “good girl,” and I’m wondering, the sweat forming on my brow, how this teacher will handle this line of inquiry within the classroom.

“Do you remember when we lived in New York?” Lucia asks, “and the police choked that man?”

Lucia is remembering what I told her, long ago, about Eric Garner, who was strangled to death by police who’d put him a chokehold. It happened just a few blocks from where Lucia spent her first four years.

“That was wrong,” Lucia says.

And what she’s saying is typical of six year olds. They have a very strong sense of right vs. wrong: so much so it sometimes verges on the ridiculous.

And then Lucia says, “I want to meet him.”

Well, kid, you can’t! Because he’s dead! No one is going to get to meet him ever again! Thinking about this, I shake my head so hard it’s a wonder it doesn’t fly off!

You’ve recently won a Guggenheim. Tell us about the moment you found out: where you were, what you were doing, what was running through your head.

I was parked at a rest stop in Maine when I discovered (on my phone) an unsettlingly ambiguous email from the Guggenheim Foundation. It implied that I might possibly be in the running for the Fellowship and to Say Nothing.

I’d been driving back to my home in New Jersey after visiting my boyfriend in Maine, and he was obviously the first person I needed to tell. But he didn’t answer his phone. The second person I needed to tell was my mother. She was playing bridge, as she does every Monday afternoon, and she quickly informed me she was busy, and that was the end of our conversation.

So I didn’t get to tell anyone but my daughter, who is, as you know, six. She was in the back seat of our car. I told her it was a secret. Once we got home, she proceeded to tell everyone. Thankfully, her “everyone” is comprised of friends her age and her babysitter, so no one had any idea as to what she was talking about.

What was I thinking? That I might, at long last, be able to get out of debt!

What were you attempting in your latest collection, Oracle? And what’s up with your fascination with teen dramas?

Oracle is a stew of elegies, for the self and others. I was not planning to write anything like it. No, indeed! I had another book entirely in mind. A very cerebral tome that would present a series of lyrical pieces that would hang adrift in some sort of cloud fashion . . . in other words, my initial idea for the book was to create an affect. I think the need to create an effect took over, and I (out of that strange, sleep-deprived new mother mindset and just beyond) ended up writing poems I simply wanted to write, either to amuse myself, move myself, or simply express myself. So, I wrote a book of very personal poems. I’m still figuring out how to account for them. I’m still, actually, trying to recognize them as coming from me.

As for “teen dramas,” I know you know that wasn’t ever what I was after. I never did want to return to high school, not in memory, and not by attending any sort of reunion. One of the greatest gifts of adulthood for me was leaving the experience of high school in the dust. I’m serious. I have no affection for that time in my life. For people I knew back then (the way one becomes fond of one’s cell mates), sure . . . but actually going back? Never in a million years. But then I entered a Girl’s Room in a high school in Suzhou, China, and I got to thinking . . . (I was on an academic tour of China at the time) and it occurred to me that all I was had been fundamentally formed in high school, and that this was true for us all. And I thought about what a wretched existence it was. And how much it taught me. And how what it taught me was not very good.

As such, it seemed an experience poised on some kind of brink: vastly significant to us all, a shared horror and a pit of nostalgia . . . it was when we all got to know each other after all, and to know ourselves. So I plumbed the depths. And I made many “high school” poems, some of which appear in Oracle.

I think that kids have a bad time of it. I think that kids are brilliant, and we shut them away in these institutions to essentially silence them. I want to hear more from kids. This desire directed me toward hearing some bits and pieces from my past high school self, who’d been long buried in the educational landfill of my subconscious . . . “My Ravine,” to reference the wonderful poet Dan Chiasson.

Share some past, present, and future history of Staten Island that we writers would appreciate.

Staten Island is home of the Fresh Kills Landfill. Apparently, it was once so large one could see it from space. But now it’s been turned into a new NYC park. I still don’t know how I feel about this. There’s a lot of garbage buried under this new park. Staten Island is a place I like a lot for the fact it has very little to offer tourists. People live there. Period. Visit? Maybe you can see how some people live. There.

The future of Staten Island is, many claim, terribly bright. An enormous Ferris wheel is about to be built right by the ferry. A friend of mine says she already feel it rolling over her house on the North Shore when the next hurricane strikes. I am doubtful as to whether Staten Island will ever change. It’s a stubborn and resolute place. A lot of people don’t like the idea of it getting gentrified.

I personally love the idea because I own a house on the North Shore and the possibility of my neighborhood becoming a part of the larger New City infrastructure is exciting to me. Call me superficial. I get money signs in my eyes whenever the Ferris wheel comes up in conversation. Not as a poet. No. As a homeowner. The poet-me says you should all take the ferry, and drink lots of beer on it. The ferry is free. And it’s lovely, but only during the day. Never take it at midnight. Trust me.

What are you working on next? And can we get a little sample?

I am working on a whole lot of nothing right now. But I’m reading a lot! (That counts as work, right?)


You teach at a few places including CUNY and Lesley University. How do you juggle teaching and writing?

It is VERY hard. I’m not actually sure how I do it. Mainly it’s hard for me because I have a kid. So I have very little downtime. Sometimes I ask my parents to watch my daughter for a week, and I spend that entire week writing. Mostly, I just get very little sleep, and write at night. I think the solution to this problem (which is a very real one, and a very big one) is particular to each person. I need to make money. Pure and simple. I look back on my days in grad school with great nostalgia, given that I’d spend entire evenings, one after another, writing. Nowadays, I catch my moments when I can, and I truly and only just barely scrape by when it comes to getting my mindwork done.

What does 21st century feminism look like to you?

How does it look to you? It depends, right? On where you live, and who you hang with. Despite the fact I find a lot to complain about, I have to believe things are looking up. Right? Right?

What is the future of VIDA?

Who’s to say? VIDA’s in new hands now. It was time for me to step aside because I finally experienced what I’d long been warned about: nonprofit burnout. I got super tired and sluggish, and it came time that I rotate out of the organization so that others could give it new life.

Kore Biters Womanifesto: Please add two-three approaches, recipes, directions and/or practices for transgressive and transformative behavior that you believe every woman writer should incorporate into their lives and writing.

1. Keep a journal. And do not try to write “well” when you write in it. Your journal should have no audience. You are writing for yourself.

2. Buy a plant. Care for it. Watch it grow. Love your plant.

3. Go to the movies by yourself. I’m serious. Enjoy.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, can you come up with a writing prompt that will help us take advantage of the abundance in our lives.

• Write a poem in which you lay out your own organs as a Thanksgiving meal.
• Who would you have eat you? Who would you like to poison?
• And you might want to ask yourself, in this poem, what does it mean to thank someone in the first place?
• Women not only thank people too much, they are all too rarely thanked for everything they do. Who thanks you? Address your poem to the thankless.



Contributed by Cate Marvin