INTERVIEW WITH DEVON MILLER-DUGGAN
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editor: “Mary Talks About Breasts” dismantles the sexualized fantasy of breasts through the voice of the Virgin Mary. How do you believe that giving Mary a voice provides a new perspective to this discourse?
Devon Miller-Duggan: I had breast cancer last year. Every woman’s experience of it is different for lots of reasons, but one thing I think is fairly common is that many strangers suddenly have access to your breasts that is both clinical and intimate, though profoundly un-sexual. So I thought a lot about breasts. And about how and what they are. Mine fed two baby women, and generally had a good time, but I felt very un-upset about losing one—as if the cancer had already taken it from me, so it had already ceased to be part of me before the diagnosis. There ended up being 3 poems in this sequence about breasts—one about pink ribbons, another specifically about Northern Renaissance paintings, and this one. “My” trans-temporal, trans-national Mary, it turns out, has things to say about everything from how it feels to have a baby turn in your belly to Paul to the Southern Baptist Convention. She gets to be a Voice on the subject of breasts simply because there are more paintings and sculptures of her breastfeeding than of any other woman in human history, I think (certainly in the West), so she’s the icon or avatar of the breast’s primary evolutionary purpose. The fact that they’re generally pretty may also have an evolutionary purpose, but I think that’s just a human thing. And she, theologically speaking, breastfed God—not the only woman in human mythologies to do so, but still…
RR: We love the voice in the poem, with its combination of fearless honesty and brutal humor. Can you talk about how you approached the persona of Mary and how you came to give her this voice?
DMD: Thank you. She was sort of given to me. I was buying a Virgin of Guadalupe medal in a shop in New Mexico about 15 years ago and the cashier picked it up and stared at it for a minute and then said something like, “You know, I’m not very religious, but I’ve always admired her. After all, she’s the only woman in history who got to make God stand in the corner.” It stuck with me. I should probably say here that I am a practicing Episcopalian, so for the purposes of the poems and the interview, I start from a position of belief. She’d have to have been seriously tough—you know, a very young woman in a culture that stoned women for out-of-wedlock sex saying yes to being knocked up by the Holy Spirit (who is, btw, properly referred to as “She”) without asking her father’s or her fiancé’s permission? Who then had to figure out how to parent a very unusual child? I think “fearless honesty and brutal humor” were probably just two of her ferocities.
RR: Is there a specific painting or sculpture (or perhaps a particular period in the history of art) depicting a woman’s breasts that prompted the poem? How did the idea develop for you?
DMD: Medieval European art is the basis of much of the imagery she talks about, but Michelangelo (High Renaissance) and Rubens (Baroque) both also did lots of half-grapefruit breasts. And there are those temples in India. I’ve always suspected the Venus of Willendorf was made by a woman—no one glued those girls on as an afterthought or offered them up as dessert.
RR: As a teacher of poetry, what advice would you give to young writers who are inspired to take on controversial topics?
DMD: Do it. But don’t preach. All the usual workshop guidelines apply. My first “serious” poems (now lost, thank God) were political. I was 14, had been writing for 4 or 5 years, but then 1968 happened, and I lived in the suburbs of a city that blew up and then was violently suppressed (Wilmington, DE—it still hasn’t truly healed). So what had been one of a list of artistic “hobbies’ suddenly felt urgent. Sadly, that urgency tried awfully hard to sound like a cross between Whitman and the King James Bible. But I did learn that poetry helps by giving words, even if they aren’t good words, to experiences when people need help with finding words, any words to frame the unbearable. So your first few poems on tough topics may whimper or holler, and wallow in comfortable clichés. But silence is the voice of complicity. So just wade in and forget about making your slam audience comfortable. Poetry, like religion, is supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Go for it.
RR: We understand that you direct a reading series called Poet’s Corner. In your experience, how does reading poetry out loud change it for the audience?
DMD: Out loud is straight from the poem’s heart to the readers’ hearts. The Poets’ Corner Reading Series(titled after the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey), is co-sponsored by my church and the UD Dept. of English, is designed specifically for audiences who don’t usually fetch up at poetry readings. Poets read 75-90% work by their favorite poets, with just a few of their own woven in. We’re in our third year and the audiences, while not large, have doubled each year, so far. People who’ve never seen poetry as anything but a painful memory from high school come (because I beg shamelessly) and are now bringing friends or their kids. There are no tests, no way to be zoned-out by an hour of the same poem-voice, just one person sharing what makes their hair stand on end with others so they have the sense of being let in on the joy or relief or permission of poetry. The poets usually bring set-lists. People want to take them. Something is going right. Out loud is alive.
Devon Miller-Duggan’s work appears in Issue 7.1: