Words // Lin Stone
Photo // Jeffrey Trubisz
Poet Malisa Garlieb’s debut collection Handing Out Apples in Eden is in its own manner a creation story rich with myth and metaphor for personal evolution, the acquisition of knowledge, and of course, a fair bit of falling from grace. “Eve’s temptation and risk are tied to evolution,” Garlieb suggests. “Without her daring, humanity would have been denied the freedom of choice and the joys of learning. Without my personal falls, I would have known much less about myself and of what I am capable.
“Many of the poems in Handing Out Apples in Eden were written after losing two very important relationships. They were written out of emotional imperative and there’s a vulnerability in them. If the personal can be written to include the reader then they can stand as art.
“I did not set out to write a book, but when I’d amassed a certain quantity of poems, enough to fill a slim volume, I began to look for the overlapping themes and saw how my biography was providing a loose narrative arc. At that point I set a number of poems aside that did not fit the vision of the book and began writing new poems to fill in the story for a reader. Those newer poems tended to be more overtly autobiographical, more explicit, and riskier in what they revealed.
“The writing community I was now a part of also encouraged that new voice. Finding the Writer’s Barn and Daniel Lusk’s poetry workshop was pivotal in dedicating myself to writing. Having assignments, deadlines, and readers helps me stay productive. A few years ago, I also made a conscious decision to become ‘a poet.’ No longer having it [writing] be on the side, but bringing it to the fore and pursuing both refinement and expansion in my poems, and also getting them into editors’ [and readers] hands.”
When did you start writing poetry?
“I was raised in a working class suburb of Milwaukee and as a child lived only a block away from the public library, which had profound influence on me. It was one of the few places I was allowed to go to alone as a child, and I spent many hours among the stacks. All the librarians knew me and I lived for the summer reading program. I’d wait outside of the locked doors on the first day of the program, just to be the first to sign up. I usually had 20 books checked out at a time–the maximum you were allowed. I read the classics, like The Little Princess and The Diary of Anne Frank, but also the pulp romances from the adult section, the books on rock collecting, and about making your own potpourri and perfumes. I had eclectic reading habits.
“I started writing poetry in second grade. I’d write down little rhymes and show them to my teacher. Unfortunately, also at this young age, I tried my hand at plagiarism and tried to pass off a poem I found in Cricket Magazine as one of my own. My teacher tracked the poem down and called me out, but at least I learned that lesson early.
“It was my senior year in college when I came back to poetry in earnest. In my last semester before graduating, I took my only creative writing class, a poetry seminar… It was a little sad to me that I’d found this path of writing just as I was about to embark on a teaching career, and I put it on the back burner as I earned my “teaching legs” in elementary classrooms. But I never dropped it completely and over the next ten years I managed to have ten or so poems published in literary journals.”
What brought you to Vermont?
“I moved from Wisconsin to Vermont twelve years ago. At that time, I had just completed my master’s degree in Waldorf education and was looking for a well-established Waldorf school to teach in. I was lured to Vermont by its loveliness, the political leanings that matched my own, and because it’s a great place to raise a child. When I first moved here, I’d often be driving and have to pull over because a gorgeous new landscape had just opened up before me… In Mary Oliver’s poem, ‘When I am Among the Trees,’ she writes that trees ‘save her, and daily.’ I feel the same about beauty. I think you find [that] leaning in my book [too]. Handing Out Apples in Eden contains poems about some very hard times in my biography, but in loss there is truth, which has its own brand of beauty.”
Can you tell readers about your opening words in the poem, “A stutterer introduces herself?” and share your ending words of advice to other emergent poets?
As a person who stutters, one of the hardest social interactions can be the introduction. There’s no way out of it or around your name – the word must be said – and it can become very stressful. The poem holds a reader in that awkward moment, but through fairground imagery. At the end, however, it does release into flow.
I’d advise other emergent poets to write consistently, read at least a book a week, find an audience who’ll give you close readings, and submit…One of my take away lessons in writing this book was about resiliency. Art has many purposes, but I experienced how it gives form to what seems too large to capture. Art seems to be a medium that can hold the human experience with a sense of grace. I hope readers sense that grace that in my book.
“It takes commitment. And a smidge of grace.”