I'll keep this short because I want you to experience Gretchen Marquette’s love stories about her dog Lucy and her insight on the creative process right now. But I will say, if you haven't checked out her first book May Day yet, do it. It sticks with you.
About Gretchen: Her work has been featured in Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review, Tin House, Harper’s, The Literary Review, PBS NewsHour, and other places. Her first book, May Day, was released in 2016 from Graywolf Press. She lives and works in Minneapolis.
Tell us about Lucy and your 14 years of companionship with her. Some favorite moments, memories?
I brought Lucy home on Mother’s Day in 2003. Lucy (then named Minnie) had been living at a shelter for six months, and was a little over a year old. I’d gone to the Humane Society with a friend to see if they had any rabbits, but while we were there, he convinced me to look at the dogs, and the second I saw her, I knew she was mine. I visited her several times, and went through the long application process they required, but eventually I was there handing a green leash over to the woman behind the counter. She said, “This morning I told Minnie that she’s finally going to her forever home.”
Now that I’ve written that, it sounds saccharine, but it wasn’t. Lucy had shown up there in pain and a little underweight, and watched her littermate be adopted and disappear three days into her own six month stay. She arrived knowing no commands, and with an infection in her leg so bad she couldn’t step on it. She wasn’t spayed, and didn’t know her own name. I didn’t know it yet, but here was a dog that wanted to be touched all the time, and she had gone so long without any consistent affection. And all of that was over for her. She did have a home.
There have been dark times in my life, but rescuing Lucy and giving her the love she wanted is one thing I know I’ve done right, and one reason I’ve been glad I was alive to help her. We’re getting into an It’s a Wonderful Life moment here, which is the opposite of trying to prove all this isn’t saccharine, so I’m going to stop there.
When I took Lucy outside of the shelter, she was too afraid to get in the car. It turned out she was afraid of everything. While we stood there, a strong wind blew, and she cowered in the grass and peed. It had been so long since she’d been outside, and her entire puppyhood had been spent in a small outdoor kennel. I knew I had to lift her in the car, but I was afraid, too. Would she bite me? It almost makes me cry, remembering this, because it was the last time she and I were strangers to one another. That night she slept in my bed after a lifetime on a concrete floor. She’s slept beside me every night since.
It’s hard to pick the stories I want to tell about my life with Lucy – I could write pages and pages, and this is especially true because until July of 2014, there was another dog with us – my husky, Sage. Sage and Lucy were not very close most of the time, but were partners in crime when it came to getting in trouble – running away in particular.
Once, I got a phone call from an unknown number. It turned out that someone had left the gate open at the house I was renting, and my dogs had gotten out. Lucy is a Treeing Walker Coonhound, but when the woman said, “I have your beagle I think?” I knew it was Lucy. “My husband is trying to catch your husky,” she said. I was two hours away, so I told the woman my address and asked if she would put the dogs inside (I left my doors unlocked in those days), and she said, “Honey, these dogs have been down to the river rolling in dead carp and they are covered in it.” When I showed up at home, I saw for myself. It was the foulest thing I could imagine, but they were both so happy. Still, it was a night of a thousand baths.
Lucy has always been a good friend to me; she’s very tuned in. One night, I woke in the worst pain I had ever felt. I would have a root canal later that day, but when I woke, I didn’t know what was going on, and it was 3 a.m., and I was afraid. My boyfriend told me to relax and not get upset because it would make it worse, and then went back to sleep, but Lucy sat up with me for hours while I cried on the living room floor. At one point she came and sat right in front of me, and I put my arms around her and cried into her neck, and she sat there and let me do that for as long as I needed. It was a profound experience of being loved and comforted – it’s for that reason that of all the thousands of days I’ve spent with my dog, this is one I choose to tell you about.
"It almost makes me cry, remembering this, because it was the last time she and I were strangers to one another. That night she slept in my bed after a lifetime on a concrete floor. She’s slept beside me every night since."
In your book May Day’s dedication and in your interview with Kaveh Akbar on Divedapper, we can see that you value your friendships: “I don’t think I’d be here if it wasn’t for those friendships. Which is strange because we give such a privileged place for romantic love and familial love, but in both of those forms of love you are under a contract in some way. But then you have friendships, which have actually been some of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in my life.” Do you count Lucy among these life-saving relationships? Or do you consider that relationship more familial? I’m always curious about how folks think about their relationship with their pets.
My relationship with Lucy is definitely a life-making/life-saving one. She has steadily accompanied me through my adult life in a way no other creature has, human or nonhuman. I realized recently that I’ve spent more time with her than I have with my siblings.
One thing I hate is getting in the car for a long drive home alone. Especially at night, but really any time. Having Lucy in the back seat makes it suck less. She’s lived in three states with me, and at nine different addresses. She was there when my brother deployed (twice) and when my partner left (also, unfortunately, twice) and she was there when my niece came home from the hospital and when I came home after signing the contract for my first book. I know she hasn’t “shared” in these moments in the way a human being could have, but she accompanied me through them in a deep way and I’m grateful.
"She has steadily accompanied me through my adult life in a way no other creature has, human or nonhuman."
I love that your dogs show up in your first poetry collection May Day (Graywolf Press, 2016), like in the poem “Powderhorn, after the Storm.” This part is one I think most people with dogs can relate to (maybe too well – I winced remembering times I had lost my temper with my now-dead dog Pete; I think that regret will follow me a lifetime):
I jerked her leash, nudged
her through the door
with my knee. These cruelties
aren’t held against me.
I regret them deeply.
What is it about documenting regret in a poem that appeals most to you?
I suppose I felt like it was important to be honest about that night, and losing my temper with Sage was part of it. I didn’t know it until I had time to process it later, but I was irrationally angry at her that she was sick, and I knew that she wouldn’t be with me much longer. I was terrified to think of losing her. I’d raised her from a six-week-old; she’d been in my life since I was nineteen.
I had also just had a terrible, frightening day, and I wanted so much to be asleep. She’d woken me up, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep. The power was out everywhere and it was hot, and there were constant sirens. I still regret it. Sage was such a good dog. She deserved so much better that night. Letting myself off the hook in that poem would have ruined it.
So much of May Day is in conversation with the interiors grief creates (to quote one of many examples, in “About Suffering”: “there are so many / places for grief to live that we can’t note each address”). These poems trace the ending of a romantic relationship, the worry over your brother who was deployed to Iraq. And it seems that animals are a language for grief in this collection – the deer wandering through these poems (which we’ll talk more about in a bit), the macaw and painted turtle, the cardinals in the poem “Red.” Can you talk a bit about how animals helped you excavate this rawness, this vulnerability in your work?
I lived outside of a small town in a wooded area, and there were animals everywhere. There would be hoofprints in the sandbox some mornings, and the railroad tie retaining wall behind our house was full of toads. There were skunks, and raccoons, chipmunks and squirrels – I saw them every day. Sometimes terrible things happened to these animals. They got sick and died. They killed each other. They were hit by cars. I don’t remember processing any of this, but my dad told me that when I was two, I would remind him, every time he drove away from the house, not to “bump the deers.” So their well-being was an early concern. They were vulnerability personified.
I also think (and this might have to do with my deer imagery issue as well) that watching a deer skinned and dressed in my neighbor’s yard when I was small was shocking and transformative in a huge way for me. For one thing, it changed how I thought about bodies, including my own.
I have used this quotation many times in connection with stories about what might have led me toward poetry, but it has never stopped feeling right to me. Alan Williamson says that, “for many of us, the moment when we experienced something we could not share with our outer world, because our outer world had given us no 'word' to acknowledge it, was the moment that impelled us toward poetry. And poetry was a struggle with the given language, to make it give us better words than 'unlikely' for what had fallen out of this world’s likelihood.” I think that’s the truest statement I’ve ever read, and my earliest transformative experiences that fell out of the world’s likelihood – stories that taught me about life and death – were told by animals.
"My earliest transformative experiences that fell out of the world’s likelihood – stories that taught me about life and death – were told by animals."
True or false: To love is to grieve in slow motion.
False. I feel they are separate. I’ve actually spent a lot of time thinking about this! I prefer to think of grief as being powerless to negate or eliminate beauty or joy, and I’ve also accepted (more or less) that beauty can’t eliminate grief. Grief is not going anywhere – there’s always more to come. But there’s a good insurance policy in that. If grief and joy can’t touch each other, joy is protected, and there will always be more of that, too.
Lucy is going to be sixteen years old in December. In August, they thought she had a mass in her bladder, and for a few weeks I was wiped out with sadness and worry. It turned out that wasn’t true, and now she’s healthy again. But I know she can’t stay forever. Every day, I cook ground beef and mix it with pureed pumpkin and mix it with her dog chow, to help keep her weight up. Every day it makes me happy to watch her eat. She wags her tail the entire time.
When I was reading May Day, I started noting in the margins “Gretchen’s deer” whenever one popped up. Let’s look at “Deer Suite” in particular, where the deer is directly tied to the theme of want that drives so much of this collection:
If I say my longing is a doe,
that it bounds,
that it chokes, has parts that splinter,
that it can be split
from breastbone to pelvis.
(I love how seamlessly this connects to the epigraph in “Doe,” a poem that appears earlier in the collection: “A Wounded Deer—leaps highest—” from Emily Dickinson.) Let’s talk about longing and want and when you first realized that theme would shape this book.
I think that theme has shaped everything I’ve ever written and will continue to do so. About a third of the poems in May Day were taken from my thesis. At the time I was really interested in those lines of Rumi’s – “There are love dogs / no one knows the name of. // Kill yourself / to be one of them.” I heard another poet use them once in the spirit of romantic adventure and they rang a little false to me. I don’t think we all get to be love dogs.
The poems I was writing during graduate school were about the partner I was in love with, and about Lorca, and about my little brother who is a soldier. They were about my own broken heart. I wondered if we were all love dogs, and if the condition of being one comes and goes, or if it really is a choice, as the poet I mentioned above seemed to think it was. I still don’t know. But this idea of longing plays into that directly.
During graduate school I wrote a poem called “Love Dog” (and, in fact, that was the title of the manuscript I first turned over to Jeff Shotts). The poem was about the first dog I ever met who was afraid of me and didn’t want to be touched. It was the dog that belonged with the family who bought our house in the woods. I had reached out to pet the dog and she growled at me. Her boy held her collar and apologized, and then said, “Some people hurt her for fun,” and then told me that she had been a stray, and that someone had shot her with BBs and they were still under her fur when they found her, running loose.
I realized there was nothing I could do to prove myself to this dog, and I saw myself for the first time as an unknown quantity to another creature. That I had the capacity to hurt someone else. She didn’t get to be a love dog. Things have happened in my life that have made it harder for me to be one, too. Is that a failure of courage or character? I don’t know.
Even though this seems to be getting off topic, I don’t really think it is. I want to be a love dog. I long to be one. And sometimes I feel like I am killing myself to be. But what I really wish is that I could be a love dog and also not kill myself.
"I don’t think we all get to be love dogs."
What are you absolutely obsessed with right now? It can be anything, not necessarily poetry or animal related.
I’m obsessed with cave paintings, with the spacetime continuum, with images of The Madonna, and with origins of human mythology and our earliest attempts at situating ourselves in the world. (I’ve been reading Joseph Campbell.)
What’s changed the most for you since your first book came out?
I suppose that it’s been an adjustment to realize, after so many years, that my poems have an audience. For so long it was just my classmates and my teachers. I’ve met new people because of my book; it’s brought friends and opportunities into my life. In some cases, it gave me a deeper home in poetry, and a chance to connect with other poets I deeply admire – some new to their audiences like I am, and others who have been heroes a long time.
Advice for poets staring wildly at the expectation of a second book and coming up short?
I’m working on my second book, too. Some days I feel like I have an answer for you, and some days I want you to tell me what others have to say on the subject!
I know that for me, the process is different than it was when I was writing May Day. I’m much farther removed from my academic community, and I’m working differently because my life as a poet has changed (see above). When I’m writing a poem I have to remind myself that each one deserves its own space. Every poem won’t make it into the book; I have to let the poems arrive, whatever they’re about and whatever form they want to take. That said, it is fun to watch a book arrive slowly – to see themes and motifs materialize. It helps me understand myself and the life I’m living.
I would say trust yourself the way you used to when you were writing a poem, back before book one. Your new poems can still come into the world the way those poems did, one at a time, and eventually you’ll have something.
It’s also a good time to rest, especially if your book just came out. I like intentionally taking time away from writing and using that time for reading. Collections of poetry are always inspiring, but nonfiction books also bring a lot to the surface for me. I just work hard in my writer’s notebook–taking notes, jotting down ideas or lines, etc. During my writing vacations, either what I read will inspire me, or the obstinate part of my brain that’s been told it can’t write for ten days will suddenly find itself very active. It works most of the time.
"Trust yourself the way you used to when you were writing a poem, back before book one. Your new poems can still come into the world the way those poems did, one at a time, and eventually you’ll have something."
A metaphor or simile for Lucy?
Lucy is my home.