Carol D. Marsh’s Border/Between: A Symphony in Essays is a stunning work. I have explained in detail in a link to the trailer for the book why this book moves me to the degree that it does, so no introduction, I feel, is necessary. In the conversation below that I had with Marsh, her heart and artistry is on display. Her empathy and kindness that is found herein is real, as true as her fierceness and tough as nails might.
In your new book, Border/Between: A Symphony in Essays, you take numerous cues from music including the idea of movements, verses, repeating choruses. Haydn, George Harrison, Quincy Jones and prayer, the rhythm of them, act as skeletal mass that you then dress with each of the four essays in the book. Songwriters are often asked, what came first, the music or the lyrics, could this be asked of you in your composing of this book?
I wrote “Hush” in 2020, “Song for the Dying” in 2021, and “Requiem for the Fall” in 2018. They were part of a long process in which I explored the ways in which written forms and structures coincide with musical ones, and vice versa. Themes, motifs, rhythms, movements, dynamics/emotions – all these are equally applicable to writing style as to musical. That fascinated me, and so I played with it over the course of those three essays. When I learned, last year, that some publishers do prose chapbooks, it took about three seconds for me to realize I had the makings of a chapbook in these three essays. That was an exciting moment for me. I love it when worlds collide and I get a burst of creative inspiration. So in answer to your question, which came first, I’d say they arrived together out of an already existing fascination that I’d been exploring for some years. (Please note: I don’t mention Quincy Jones anywhere, thought I get the connection you’ve made.)
The structure of each essay, which you have noted as movements, have a different rhythm, both in tone, structure and subject matter. What brought you to bring these four essays together as one work?
Well, I pretty much answered this in the first question, so I’ll talk about how I wrote the first essay, “Sonata.” Once I decided on a chapbook containing the three essays I’d already written, I needed to write the first essay. I made about eight crappy starts before I realized I had three movements, the classical symphony structure is four movements, and the first movement often serves as introduction and foreshadowing of themes and motifs to come. Though I love to be creative, I also respond to structure, so the idea of putting all the years-long mulling I’d been doing into this chapbook that could mirror the form of a symphony was another exciting moment for me. I call the first movement “Sonata” because the first movement of a classical symphony is, historically, the sonata form: typically three movements, but sometimes four. So there you go – form (movements) within form (sonata) within form (symphony in four movements). I used the first movement of my essay-symphony to function in the traditional way, which is in movements that introduce themes and motifs (themes, but shorter) to be explored in later movements. Addiction, forgiveness, living with the unlivable, finding hope in despair and good in bad, death and dying, individual and mass destruction. Living in the between.
You have written a number of essays about your experiences as well as a book of memoir (Nowhere Else I Want to Be). In Border/Between: A Symphony in Essays you merge your personal history with history removed from you. There is such a large want in the world of writing and literature for books to be a specific genre by both readers and publishers. Did this present hurdles in trying to thumbnail the book or land some it? Was that even a concern?
An insightful question. There are a couple things I can answer. One is that publishers didn’t seem to understand what I am trying to do in Border/Between. It doesn’t necessarily fit into expectations of a prose chapbook. After a while, I decided to look for a publisher who knew writing AND music and musical form. It took some months, but one day I found Bamboo Press. It seemed such a perfect fit that I ignored the fact the website has no Submissions page and emailed Mark a query. He responded in two days, I sent the manuscript, and you and he accepted it in about a week. An object lesson in not giving up. Also, because of the direct and creative tie-ins to music and musical form, I did have a difficult time coming up with a thumb-nail. Do I emphasize the unusual melding of music and word? Do I emphasize narrative arc or themes? I suppose that’s why Bamboo Press is the publisher that picked it up—your understanding was organic and didn’t need any explanation from me.
The most successful experimental film or music or writing, in my mind, does not announce that it is experimenting. It draws your attention in to such a large degree that you are awash in the work, you are not thinking of dissecting or prodding it because the senses are boiling over with no time for that. It is only after repeated reads that I see the seams, the labor, the layered mirroring that went into your book as the essays are so engrossing.
I love it that you say the seams and the layers are revealed as you re-read! I didn’t want to make them obvious, I wanted what I call the slow reveal. You know, you read and suddenly you think, oh! I’m starting to get it! There’s delight in that, and I think it’s one of the reasons one of the reviews says the chapbook leaves the reader “hopeful, even inspired,” though it’s about pretty dark topics. Though I’d written three of the essays before, and though they echoed and complemented one another already, I did go back to each of them and tighten up some of the language, word-smith the concepts I wanted to come through. What was interesting to me was that there were, in the end, very few changes to make. The three essays I’d written in earlier years already had most of what I needed for this work to cohere. I think that has to do with the number of years this idea—to write in a way that evokes and follows musical form—was hanging around in my subconscious mind.
In the movement Hush Crystal is pulled from your history, Miriam’s House, a DC residence for homeless women living with AIDS that you founded, directed and lived at. In Song for the Dying you recount your brother Bill’s life and death. Both of these are harrowing pieces, and both hinge on different interpretations of a song. In the case of Hush it is the old spiritual which the piece is titled after that most will recognize from Quincy Jones’ score to Roots. In Song for The Dying, Bill sends you links to a cover of George Harrison’s “The Art of Dying”. These are songs of hope in the future, regeneration. In both essays I was hearing these songs in a new light, as I do when an artist reinterprets a song that has been the soundtrack to my life, allowing me to hear it anew. It is a stunning way to memorialize these two figures that you loved. The soundtrack was before me as I read these two essays and did in fact act as a salve, an embrace.
The tune of Hush was actually in my ears as Crystal died. But her death and her story are so harrowing that it took some years for me to allow myself to remember that night and the music in my heart. I was a bit afraid to lift that story out of my memoir (Nowhere Else I Want to Be) as I worried it would be too harsh, too judgmental out of context. Or maybe it was that I was still feeling harsh and judgmental about her life and death. As I was first trying to write the essay a few years ago, I became agitated. So I picked up my singing bowl and listened for a while. What I write about feeling the untethering of judgement and opinion is exactly what happened, and what freed me to write the essay. Song for the Dying, on the other hand, was an essay I knew I would write as soon as Bill’s fiancé told me he’d listened to it just before he died. That so overwhelmed me in its symbolism and irony and as an intuitive act that between all that and my grief, I couldn’t begin the essay for more than two years. Even when I felt ready to start on the first draft, it was gut-wrenching to hear the song, to think of my brother in that hospital bed, to know that he—who loved music so much—turned to that particular song when at his most vulnerable … To this day, I can only listen to The Art of Dying when I’m feeling otherwise strong. (NOTE: Bill never sent me the link to The Art of Dying. I learned from his fiancé that it was the last song he listened to, according to his playlist, before he died.)