An Interview with Margaret Randall
"Good writing must embody the intersections between place and experience."
We are delighted to feature this interview with Margaret Randall, whose poetry and activism continues to inspire writers, both locally and across the country. Three of her poems appear on the Poetic Routes map: "A Sadness in Plywood," "Friday Night at the Community Center," and "This Could Have Happened."
Why do you write poetry?
I stared writing poetry in New York, in the late 1950s. I had been writing for a number of years by then and knew I wanted to make it my life work. But my early contact with poetry—badly taught in the schools I attended—made it alien to me. It was only when I started living among powerful creative artists and writers that I turned to poetry as something I could do. By then I was reading work by poets with whom I connected. I think I was drawn by the genre’s concision, its ability to say what it had to say in ways that deeply affected listeners or readers. As I developed my own poetic voice, and this took many years, I realized that I felt at home in the poem. I have also written short stories, essays, and memoir. But poetry remains my home.
How did you develop your writing voice?
By trial and error. Lots of trial and lots of error. My poems and prose writing often go through 30 or 40 drafts. Reading out loud to people I trust is always helpful. My goal is to be able to choose precisely the right words to express my ideas and feelings. I also think that age helps. When you’ve lived as long as I am—86 at this writing—chances are you’ve read enough by others and written enough yourself to make the best choices.
How does New Mexico appear in your writing?
The high desert landscape of New Mexico is underbelly to almost everything I write. Not only the images, but the feel of vast sky and red rock canyons. I grew up on this landscape and, although I lived elsewhere for many years, it has always been with me. But beyond this, I believe that location, environment, setting, is always present in the best work. Good writing must embody the intersections between place and experience. I am thinking of some of Barry López’s short stories. Hiking in the US American Southwest is nothing like doing so through a Colombian jungle or along a Norwegian fjord. Ruins we visit in ancient Egypt or Jordon present very different landscapes from those left by the first peoples to inhabit this land. We receive their memories differently and they in turn inform how we write.
What are you working on now?
These days I am reading from my recent poetry collection, Vertigo of Risk, published earlier this year by Casa Urraca Press. In a week I will be heading up to Boulder, Colorado, to read at Naropa University, and in early to mid-July I have readings in Silver City, Las Cruces, and Albuquerque. In fall 2023 I have three new titles due to appear.
Home is a collection of poems all addressing the topic of home, homelessness, the homes we make for ourselves. It will be published by Casa Urraca Press. Luck, to appear from New Village Press in New York, is a book of short essays in the vein of several previous such collections. And Time’s Language II, due out from Wings Press, will be a continuation of the Selected Poems the same press did for me in 2018. The first volume covered my poetry from 1959 to 2018. This new volume includes selections from my six poetry books published since then. I also recently recovered from a bout of sepsis, a difficult experience that required several days of hospitalization. That experience produced a long poem called “Room 5007” which Longhouse Books in Vermont produced in a limited-edition broadside.
Waving Goodbye to the Shadow of Myself
Memories and the knowledge they bring
invade the great hall of my brain
as if in baroque abundance
of a seventeenth century theater.
Those who know the performance by heart
crowd standing-room-only in the back
while the privileged rich
fan their bejeweled bodies
from elegant boxes closest to the stage.
In my altered image, muscles and tendons
stretch limber as in girlhood,
flawless skin and luxuriant hair
echo a time lost many years before.
My teeth line up, count themselves present
while ears try to trick me
into believing they can decipher
the broken murmur of streams
on a dying horizon.
Time’s talent is in its tempo, slow motion
barely perceptible to the eye.
Hair’s silver strands are only highlights
at first, and a wrinkle here or there
claim they can be repaired
with products advertised to restore
that ever-marketable youth.
Muscles promise return
through diligence of effort.
My mirror has taken a stand, refuses
to give back the youthful image,
shows instead a tired weathering,
seasons of living with and around
and over and through
all that came my way.
Rusty hinges push back folds
of mottled skin that thins with age,
my glory no longer a glittering crown.
I gave my fragile finger joints
to keys that spelled words,
my slender waist
to the children I birthed,
my hips to the hours
of sitting and thinking and writing,
feet to walking the circuitous trails
of battle in search of a justice
that would not come.
Bones splinter and break before
hitting bottom. Angry elbows
and knees want to shift position
but can’t. Voice has lost its resonance
and crows like a high-pitched whistle
in the dark. Confidence stumbles
over itself, dragging blood and heat
behind in this awkward dance
that spars with death.
But the memories continue to leap,
each glowing in dimming light.
Old energy struggles to keep today’s
rhythm and breath line, the power
that will stretch this life I’ve pushed
against every known boundary,
planting the seeds of future women
who will look in their own mirrors
and wave goodbye to shadows of themselves.
Some discussion questions for “Waving Goodbye to the Shadow of Myself”
In the poem, the speaker discusses the sacrifices they've made in their life, such as "giving" their finger joints to the keys that spelled words and their waist to the children they birthed. What do these sacrifices suggest about the speaker's values and experiences?
The final lines of the poem, "planting the seeds of future women/ who will look in their own mirrors /and wave goodbye to shadows of themselves," suggest a continuity of experience across generations. What message do you think the author is trying to convey here? How does this alter or enhance your understanding of the poem as a whole?
How might you write a poem about your own “altered image”? What details about your body (real or imagined) to allude to your values or your artist lineage?
Margaret Randall (New York, 1936) is a poet, essayist, oral historian, translator, photographer and social activist. She lived in Latin America for 23 years (in Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua). From 1962 to 1969 she and Mexican poet Sergio Mondragón co-edited EL CORNO EMPLUMADO / THE PLUMED HORN, a bilingual literary quarterly that published some of the best new work of the sixties. When she came home in 1984, the government ordered her deported because it found some of her writing to be “against the good order and happiness of the United States”. With the support of many writers and others, she won her case, and her citizenship was restored in 1989. Randall’s most recent poetry titles include AGAINST ATROCITY, OUT OF VIOLENCE INTO POETRY (both from Wings Press), STORMCLOUDS LIKE UNKEPT PROMISES and VERTIGO OF RISK (both from Casa Urraca Press). CHE ON MY MIND (a feminist poet’s reminiscence of Che Guevara, published by Duke University Press), and THINKING ABOUT THINKING (essays, from Casa Urraca), and ARTISTS IN MY LIFE (New Village Press) are other recent titles. YOUR ANSWER IS YOUR MAP is a “bus-ticket” or broadside published by Longhouse Books in Summer 2023. LUCK (New Village, essays) and HOME (Casa Urraca, poems) both appeared in autumn 2023. In 2020 Duke published her memoir, I NEVER LEFT HOME: POET, FEMINIST, REVOLUTIONARY. Two of Randall’s photographs are in the Capitol Art Collection in Santa Fe. She has also devoted herself to translation, producing WHEN RAINS BECOME FLOODS by Lurgio Galván Sánchez and ONLY THE ROAD / SOLO EL CAMINO, an anthology of eight decades of Cuban poetry (both also published by Duke), among many other titles. Randall received the 2017 Medalla al Mérito Literario from Literatura en el Bravo, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. In 2018 she was awarded the “Poet of two Hemispheres” prize by Poesía en Paralelo Cero in Quito, Ecuador. In 2019 she was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of New Mexico and in 2022 she received the City of Albuquerque’s Creative Bravo Award. Randall lives in Albuquerque with her partner (now wife) of more than 36 years, the painter Barbara Byers, and travels extensively to read, lecture and teach.
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