An Interview with Linda Nemec Foster about Lisel Mueller

Can you tell me a little bit about how you got to know Lisel Mueller?

As you know, I graduated from Aquinas in ’72. I went to graduate school in ’77, and that’s where I met Lisel. I’ve known her for over 30 years. In July 1977, I went to Goddard College in Vermont for my MSA in creative writing, and she was my instructor and mentor. We were assigned together, and I am so glad because she was the best. She was such a great teacher.

It was a low-residency program, the first in the country, although they are everywhere now. Low-residency means you can live anywhere in the country, and you only have to be at the school for two weeks every year. Every three weeks I would submit work to Lisel. I would have to give her all the poems I was drafting plus a list of my critical reading ladder. She would, after a week or so, send me her responses and I would just keep on working. We would go back and forth back and forth. So that’s how I got to know her. I had her for two semesters.

Lisel was very, very instrumental in my development as a writer early on. We began this relationship as a teacher and student, but we became very close friends. She’s almost like a member of the family—she’s very close to my children and my husband. I’m lucky to be one of the few [of her students] to develop a close, personal relationship with her.

What was your initial reaction to her poetry?

I really loved it because it was very deep, yet it was very accessible. It wasn’t some obtuse, obscure, abstract poetry. It was really something you could sink your teeth into, but there was always a mystery deep in the core of her work. I love that balance between her accessible language and her very deep meaning. She is very much anthologized because of it. She’s not one of these big names like Joyce Carol Oats, Maxine Cumin or Ted Kooser. She doesn’t have that visibility yet, but she is more anthologized than more visible poets because you can identify with her images and how she uses language.

How would you describe her style?

I think [her style is characterized by] the fact that she was born in Germany, so she is using English as a second language. She is very aware the kind of metaphor that is connected to a certain word or phrase or image. I think that really makes her stand out because she is really aware of language, maybe even more than someone like me that was born into the language. She’s really approaching English from the totally different perspective of being a foreigner.

I also love the layered way she uses metaphors. [For example, at the end of the poem “Why We Tell Stories”] I love the fact that the last word is “and.” When you say “and,” something comes after that, so we will continue on that journey of telling our own story. And I love the fact that there is no punctuation after that final word to keep it open-ended.

Her work seems so effortless. Sometimes you look at poems and they feel labored, like the writer is really, really trying. With her work it’s not like that at all. When she writes [in “Why We Tell Stories”] “Because we used to have leaves / and on damp days / our muscles feel a tug, / painful now, from when roots / pulled us into the ground” she doesn’t mention “because we were trees” but she mentions all the other images that go along with that.

I’ve noticed in her poetry she likes to use a lot of music imagery and metaphors. Is this a special interest of hers?

She loves music, and you know she’s 85, but she’s very interested in modern contemporary music. Not rock or rap, but very modern classical music that a lot of people don’t like because it may be atonal. She loves jazz, she loves Blues, she loves very modern, very contemporary music. Her husband died in 2001 from complications of Alzheimer’s Disease, but they were married for a long, long time—over 50 yrs. I know that he was a musicologist, so he studied music. They had a great collection of music at their house. She loves music as much as she loves poetry.

I’ve also noticed throughout the book Alive Together that Lisel writes a lot about her family—especially her mother and father, and her personal history. In one of her poems she describes being “hurt into poetry” by the death of her mother. Do you have any insight into that?

She was very close to her family. She left Germany right before World War II—it began September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. That’s another tie we have, because all of my family is from Poland. Her family is from Eastern Germany. After WWII, Germany was divided between Western Germany and Eastern Germany, and Eastern Germany was under communist rule. Now East Germany is just part of Germany, since Communism is defeated in Eastern Europe. The war began September 1, 1939, and she left to come to America in July of ‘39. They didn’t leave because they were Jewish, but her father was a socialist. Because of his political beliefs, he was detained, he couldn’t get teaching jobs. It was very difficult for them so they wanted to get out. Thank God they did because they probably would have been persecuted. She was only 14 when she came to this country—her parents, her, and her younger sister. Unfortunately, her grandparents died tragically being displaced from their homes in Germany after the war. Her mother died when Lisel was in her 30’s, and it was then that she started writing poetry.

Do you know of any poets that Lisel particularly admires?

I know that she loves Rainier Marie Rilke, but I think as far as contemporary American poets go, it would be W. S. Merwin, Charles Wright, and Charles Simic. I know she loves Wallace Stevens. She loves Studs Terkel—he’s not a poet but she loves him, and I know he was a big fan of hers, too.

Do you have any other comments about the book in general, or a specific section that particularly like?

This book means so much to me because a number of these pieces, and as a matter of fact, a lot of the poems in The Need To Hold Still were written when I was her student.

Another favorite poem of mine in this book [is a] poem collected from an earlier book called “Monet Refuses The Operation.” This is another facet of Lisel. We talked about how she loves literature and music and dance, and here’s visual art. This poem is so phenomenal in the way it moves. It’s basically Lisel’s interpretation of Monet’s impressionism. The way it streams and flows so effortlessly! I mean, what a magnificent poem—the very finest persona poem I’ve ever read in my life. Then of course I love her takes on fairy tales, like “Voices From The Forest.” “The Triumph Of Life: Mary Shelley” [is another] strong long poem, and probably one of the strongest long poems I’ve read.

I know there is a poem in the Alive Together book called “Why We Tell Stories” that is dedicated to you. Can you tell me a little bit about how that came about? How does it feel to be recognized by a Pulitzer Prize winning poet?

In my professional career it is really one of the highlights. It’s a story, how that happened. When I was her student in 1977, I had a whole list of reading that I had to do. The semester was dedicated to my writing poems based on fairy tales and mythology. I was writing this sequence of poems called A Modern Fairy Tale: The Baba Yaga Poems. Baba Yaga was a Russian witch, and what fascinated me was that she had a name, she wasn’t just “the old witch in the forest.” Also, not only was I reading a lot of fairy tales, but I was reading a lot of studies about fairy tales. Lisel had taken courses in this when she was a student, and she had worked with one of the foremost masters in myths and folklore. In one anthology of fairy tales one of the stories was “Why We Tell Stories.” To tell you the truth, I can’t even remember the fairy tale, but I remember reporting it in my critical writing to Lisel. And she just loved that story, and she took that title and ran with it. And she told me she would dedicate the poem to me because I gave her such a good poem. She sent it to a very prestigious publication called Poetry, and they published it. She sent me a copy, and there was the dedication!

When she won a Pulitzer Prize for this book [Alive Together], I was interviewed by The Associated Press and Reuters. They wanted to talk to her students, and that story went nationwide. So I sort of had some kind of fame because of her. It was a wonderful affirmation of my own personhood, so it just means so much to me. I’ve had other poems dedicated to me, but I’ll be honest to you, none has meant to so much to me.

Is there anything else you think the readers of Through the 3rd Eye would be interested to know about Lisel Mueller?

The most important thing about Lisel Mueller—and I’ve never seen this with another poet—is how she balances her creative life, her professional life and her personal life. She was married to and faithful to one man for over 50 years, had two wonderful children and she was able to be a poet, a wife and a mother. She is my role model because there are very, very few people that can do all of that so well. I don’t know of very many poets who have done what Lisel has done and she had done it so brilliantly.

Works by Lisel Mueller

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.