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Lisa Martin is the author of Believing is not the same as Being Saved (University of Alberta Press 2017), which was a finalist for the City of Edmonton Book prize, and one crow sorrow (Brindle & Glass,2008). She is currently a PhD Candidate and Vanier Scholar in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta.
Uche Umezurike spoke with Martin about her newest project, the chapbook Typology (Anstruther Press), which is written as a sonnet sequence in homage to the Myers-Briggs personality types. Typology is taut, sprightly, and richly allusive. In these sixteen sonnets centred on the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), Martin reminisces wittily on love, marriage, and betrayal, refusing self-pity for self-affirmation. The poems are as intimate as they are affecting.
The MBTI is one of the most widely used tests in corporate industries. It is modelled on the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s concept of psychology types. According to Jung, people experience the world through four distinct ways: introversion/extraversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, and judging/perceiving. The Americans, Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, expanded the concept to sixteen types, outlining four general groups of personalities: analysts, diplomats, sentinels, and explorers.
Congrats, Lisa, on your chapbook Typology. Some writers I know have found it difficult to produce art during this Covid-19 pandemic. How have you managed to remain creative?
Well, I wrote these poems before the pandemic—I submitted them to Anstruther Press about a year ago. But the thing that really helped me creatively this past year was that I was approached by the Edmonton Opera to collaborate on an original song about the pandemic to be performed by their chorus. I worked on the lyrics for that song through the spring and summer last year. At first, nothing came. I just walked and walked and there was just silence and wondering what I could possibly say. But because I was working with (and for) other artists, I kept going. I trusted that the words would come. And they did. Artistic collaboration was a lifeline. And then I mostly worked on revisions, which as I’m sure you know are a very different kind of work than writing something new.
Although the sonnets in Typology are titled after the sixteen Myers-Briggs personality types, they deal with love, fidelity, betrayal, heartbreak, and separation. In the poem “INFJ,” the speaker ruminates about the importance of persisting amid breakups. How might poetry help us to make sense of loss or “what’s shattered”?
Yes, the poems really are about these things—you’ve noticed! They’re about relationships more than they are about individuals. How does poetry help us make sense? This is the question, isn’t it? Somehow, we turn language over, and it shows us something. We turn over a rock, and something’s living underneath it. Of course, then we keep doing that, looking for what’s alive in places we think we might find it. ‘What’s shattered’ has an uncanny way of adhering to absolutely anything it can in order to be seen. Our losses want to be acknowledged, not only by others but by us. So, poetry is one of the practices that allow us to show ourselves what we’ve lost, and then to turn those pieces of language over in ways that maybe someone else can use as a mirror, or as the splintered pieces of a mirror arrayed in the sun.
Why did you choose to write sonnets and not free verse?
I think sonnets are a fun form here because they are constraint-driven, and so they kind of mirror the Myers-Briggs types in a way. Every sonnet is itself, even though it uses the same constraints as every other sonnet; in the same way, every INFP (Introversion, Intuition, Feeling, and Perceiving) is radically, particularly themselves, even as they share certain traits in common with all the others.
In the first sonnet, “ENFP,” the speaker says, “Art is a response. You make life of what/materials exist.” An image of bricolage is what strikes me here. Can you expound on this?
I’d written sonnets before this, but a sequence of sonnets was a new effort. Something about the topic allowed me to feel pretty footloose about the rhyming, and I had much fun with it. I would say the sonnet form itself, on the one hand, was a big part of what interested me as I was working—the sonnet form as a driver of line-level innovation and also of thinking and then the types, the effort to capture something about the personality types, on the other hand.
Biblical references feature significantly in Typology, such as “Leavener of spirits,” “Walker on the water,” “this garden gate’s barred,” and “I’ve painted blood over the/doorpost.” Was there any connection you were trying to make between the existential and the mystical?
That’s an interesting question. I guess that connection is present for me in the sense that my deep autobiography contains these Biblical symbols and images in ways that are so formative; these are the deep myths, the origin stories, that I was given. So in a way the existential is inseparable for me from the stories that first informed my experience of myself in the world. Poetry tends to pull the theological register out of me more than prose does–maybe because poetry (at least as I practice it) is so much about the symbolic, the lateral, the gestural. I am quite a heretic by now, and I enjoy the way that comes out in this sequence.
The speaker in “ISTJ” says, “Back then, I hadn’t learned to get through/the needle’s eye, my own pain, to someone/else’s point of view.” Implied in those lines is a sense of empathy and acceptance. Can you say just a few words about that poem?
That poem is about my failed marriage. I think this poem is an effort to tell the capsule version of that failure from a point of view that exceeds—is larger and broader than—my own angle on it all at the time. It’s an effort (along with the sonnet that follows it) to understand in a generous way, in a more capacious way, what might have happened.
Lastly, what do you hope readers would take away from your book?
Often my books are pretty heavy—death, you know, that’s been my main subject. I guess with this one I hope it’s a pleasure.
Uche Peter Umezurike holds a PhD from the English and Film Studies department of the University of Alberta, Canada, where he is an Assistant Lecturer. An alumnus of the International Writing Program (USA), he is a co-editor of Wreaths for a Wayfarer, an anthology of poems.