Margaret Ray on Thunderstorms, Witness, and Florida

I’ve recommended Good Grief, the Ground, Margaret Ray’s debut collection, to anyone who has even remotely expressed an interest in poetry — it’s intimate, brave, intense, and full of so much feeling. Ray vividly captures the uncertainty of girlhood and adolescence (“be very careful / not to let your body stain the world”) and the sticky interior of Florida (“the windows / are often obscured with mildew or frogs or vines // or condensation”). Willing to engage with anything that enters her world, from invasive insects to whiteness to ShamWows to placenta, Ray has a sharp wit and dedication to detail.

As Stephanie Burt says in her forward, “Margaret Ray sees injustice all around and understands how many of us want support, want somewhere to stand.” The book holds a lot of grief, as have the last several years for many of us. These poems – especially “Taxonomy” and “Grief is a Sudden Room” —somehow created a little more breathing room around my own grief, even as I continue to “let my mind wander further into traps I set myself.” As much grief as there is here, there is also hope:

The peach

isn’t good, but
can you imagine?—
next year there may be

peaches again.

Margaret Ray grew up in Gainesville, Florida. She is the author of Good Grief, the Ground (BOA Editions, April 2023, winner of the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize selected by Stephanie Burt) and the chapbook Superstitions of the Mid-Atlantic (2022, selected by Jericho Brown for the 2020 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship Prize). Her poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2021, Threepenny Review, Narrative, Poet Lore, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. A winner of the Third Coast Poetry Prize and a shortlister for the Montreal International Poetry Prize, she holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and teaches in New Jersey.

I chatted with Margaret over email on Good Grief, the Ground and Southernness this spring.

What do you love about your epigraph? Was it a line that stuck with you for years or did you specifically search it out? Was it an intentional focal point for the collection or did you come to it after you’d finished putting together the book? 

It was Kaveh Akbar who first introduced me to the poetry of Jean Valentine, in a lecture he gave at a residency for the Warren Wilson MFA Program. This particular talk of his was about many things, including breakage in poetic language – moments where poems approach unsayable things, and that proximity between language and language-less-ness. Anyway, he began the talk by reciting the short Valentine poem “I came to you,” which ends with the twice-repeated line “we were sad on the ground.”

It wouldn’t be until several years later, when I could start to see the arc of the whole thing, that I came back to Valentine’s “I came to you.” I was realizing that a lot of what I was writing about was grief, or pre-grief. Of course all this grief takes place “on the ground,” which was already part of a line from one of the poems from Good Grief, the Ground, a poem called “After,” which is about living in the aftermath of some world-altering loss or shift, and which begins the final section of the book. “After” ends: “We’re still alive / here. We live on the ground. / On the ground, mostly.”

So while I was working on the order of the poems for the book, I suddenly had Valentine back in my head, and her line, the strangeness of it that feels so right and matter-of-fact, just had to be the epigraph. Certain kinds of epigraphs feel, to me, like a way of reaching out to touch fingertips with another writer across time and space, or like a way of saying “hello, yes, I feel it this way too, thank you for saying it better, first.”

I think it’s interesting that you begin the book with an ending in “The End of August” – it really sets the tone for the whole collection with the last line “here, here I am, come and love me, I die.” Can you talk about how you determined the order of the poems in the collection, how you formed the sections, and how this poem landed its spot? 

The simple answer to how that poem ended up at the beginning has to do with the fact that I’m a teacher, so I’ve been living on an academic schedule all my life, and September is when things begin. That’s sort of cheating to say, though (although I’m realizing now that I also have a spring, end-of-the-school-year poem, “Garden State,” second-to-last in the book). The main reason I initially moved “The End of August” to the front was because it’s maybe a kind of ars poetica, or at least its last line is.

I put the sections together to be more tone-based than anything else. Yes, the first section has the poems about adolescence, but I knew I didn’t want the book to be telling a story from start to finish, I wanted it to be messier than that. When you put together a book of poems you have to think about what you need your reader to know first, in order for later poems to vibrate more, to chime with whatever the earlier poems have taught the reader.

What drew you to the meteorological symbol for thunderstorms as a section divider?

I decided to use the thunderstorm symbol for section breaks partly because I grew up in north-central Florida, in a house where we sort of always had The Weather Channel on, back when that was a thing. In the summer and fall, there were thunderstorms just about every afternoon. The sky would be clear in the mornings, the air dripping with humidity, and then by about 1 or 2 p.m. the clouds would gather and open up into swift, violent thunderstorms accompanied by torrential hard rain that would be over in about half an hour, before the sky would clear again. Something to do with the air stream coming over the warm air of the Gulf of Mexico and then dumping on Florida at the same time each day before heading out to the Atlantic. Those storms always felt like an event you had to plan your day around; you would get soaked if you were trying to move around the world from 1-3 p.m. The storms felt like punctuation in the daily routine.

A lot of your pieces focus on the idea of scripts, what we’re “supposed” to do or think or say — and how to break the script. Has this always been an obsession in your writing or is it something that developed recently?

I wrote a bit about scripts for an essay to go with my poem “Reader, I Married Him” for the Poetry Society of America. I’ve been obsessed with the idea of scripts for some time, and I see them everywhere. I think the most insidious ones are the scripts or paths that we see in the world for how our lives “should” go, especially when the culture tries to shuffle us into those scripts while discouraging us from considering them first.

In my life, that has looked like a lot of learned behavior as a girl that turned into learned behavior as a young adult. Lots of other people have written about this more sharply than I am here, but a lot of the poems in this book are interested in exhuming behaviors I learned by looking around and then mimicking other girls and women, both real people around me in the world and characters in books and movies.

I’m working on a lifelong practice of trying to make these inherited scripts visible to myself for two reasons: the first is that I feel a little alien or unsure of how to BE, especially in public places (in ways that are probably rather universal or normal, though my brain doesn’t like to let me think so), and therefore I’m very vulnerable to the temptation of the perceived safety of a script. And so, when I was younger, especially, I paid a lot of attention to watching how other girls around me behaved, how they talked, etc. I still do.

The other reason I’m trying to get better at critically identifying scripts that tempt me to step into them is because I’ve made some horrible decisions by thinking it was impossible or too late to step off the path that I’d somehow ended up on. Scripts can be dangerous. My instinct (for better and worse) has always been to keep my head down. I’m trying to unlearn that.

When I read “Substance and Accident” I immediately thought of Gabrielle Bates’ “The Dog,” which also features a gory accident with an animal. Both poems are grappling with ideas of witness and aftermath, the choices you make after experiencing violence. After seeing an alligator hit by a car, the speaker in your poem says, “You can look, or you can look away, and who am I / to tell you what to do with your monsters?” Can you say a little more about this poem? Is this a collection of poems where you’ve stopped and examined your monsters?

Ah! I love that you put this poem in conversation with Gabrielle Bates’ poem “The Dog,” a poem I admire deeply. I really felt moved and seen by what Stephanie Burt wrote in her introduction to the book touching on my alligator poem: “It’s not that…we know how to turn away, but rather that we don’t know, we’re just flailing, there’s blood on the road but we have to get home to put dinner on the stove.” She also mentions the Auden poem that begins “About suffering they were never wrong,” a poem I almost have memorized by accident – I’ve taught it so many times. And that is the issue I’m thinking about in “Substance and Accident,” the problem of how the grind of capitalism, having to find ways to eat, can tend to silo us and separate us from each other, such that any collective acts (of grief, of mutual aid) feel more revolutionary than they should. They should and could just be the way things are. But people have places to be, “somewhere to get to,” Auden writes. For my poem, and the lines you quote, I was also thinking about how the internet and social media have commodified acts of looking, documenting, or witness, or turned them into performance, even if they begin with genuine empathy, because the internet has this flattening effect – the memorial posted for social capital and the one posted from a place of deep grief might look the same online.

In this poem I’m trying to learn to hold, at once, both humility and an understanding of my own complicity in brutal systems. I’m trying to think about the near-daily dilemma of being simultaneously complicit and largely powerless as an individual. As for monsters, well, we have to look at them, don’t we? And we are them, too. Maybe this is obvious: the alligator is monstrous, maybe, but so is the car, so are the people who stop to look, so are the people who look away… the category of “monster” starts to break down if you look at it long enough, since it’s always insisting on a kind of “not-me-ness.”

The first half of this collection contains a lot of vivid, sharp depictions of Florida from someone who clearly spent a lot of time there. Besides serving as the setting for some of your poems, are there any ways the South or Southernness show up in your writing? Does your current home in New Jersey show up in different ways?

I’ve lived in New Jersey for 11 years now, and I’ve come to feel very protective of my adoptive home state. It is, or was, fashionable to hate on New Jersey, to think of it as this ugly, sprawly place known for its corrupt politics and trashy beaches. I think a lot of the hate for New Jersey is mostly just thinly disguised classism. The second-to-last poem in the book, “Garden State,” is my love-letter to New Jersey.

Florida! The South…that’s a hard question. Southernness is so many things, such a various and mutable category. I’m a cisgendered white person who grew up in inland North Florida, so my relationship to the South is complicated by the feelings of complicity I talked about before. What does it mean to love a place and see the deep, urgent need to revise it at the same time?

As a teenager and young adult, I spent a lot of energy trying to differentiate and separate myself from “Florida” or “Floridians,” which now seems like a kind of “pick me” move I was making that just mirrored back some collective disdain for Florida that I must have learned somewhere. The older I get, though, the more I can actually appreciate the ways Florida shaped who I am, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, even if, as a kid, I was trying sometimes to fashion myself in opposition to the place.

So maybe Florida is part of what gave me my early self-consciousness, but in a productive way, which can be an engine of writing. I find it hard to write (well) about things I feel clear-cut about, and often more interesting to write about things (like Florida) that I have a whole mess of conflicting feelings and ideas about.

In your recent essay “On Distance and Clarity” in The Adroit Journal, you write: “Florida contains a multitude of Floridas which are invisible to people who have only ever visited, or read about the politics, or been to a theme park, or traveled to visit their parents or grandparents in a gated community near the Southern tip.” Your essay talks about writing to capture something real about the place, which I think you do really well in GGTG. Could you share with us something that you love and miss about Florida that’s invisible to outsiders? Or a misconception outsiders generally have about people from Florida that you’d like to set straight? 

I think a lot of people’s stereotypes about Florida are just as classist as their stereotypes about New Jersey. But also, Florida isn’t just full of white people in tank tops and jean shorts. Florida is various. There are artist communes in Central Florida. There’s a lot of gun ownership in Central Florida. There are (of course) queer people in Central Florida, people who make chosen families there. There are local public school boards standing up to the current governor’s horrible mandates. There are immigrant communities from all over the world in all parts of Florida, not just Miami. There are indigenous people in Florida, including people whose ancestors were never conquered by the Spanish. Of course, Central Florida is extremely racially segregated. Florida has some of the most dangerously racist places in the country and some of the most radically, imaginatively progressive. I don’t know anywhere near as much as I would like to about all of this – I aspire to be a student of Florida all my life.

I think the messy interior landscape of Florida will always be the landscape of my imagination because it really imprinted on me growing up. Florida is pretty flat, which means that in practice, especially in the middle of the state (not the coast), you rarely get a real horizon view. You can’t see very far because the trees rise up and there are no hills from which to see beyond them. It can feel boxed-in as a result, which I’ve come to appreciate differently than I do a hilly vista.

I think, when I’m there, and when I was there, that the kind of boxed-in feeling gave me a different kind of interiority than I might have had if I grew up in a place where you can see far into the distance. There’s more mystery, to me, in a landscape like Florida. I don’t know if that had anything to do with how my imagination developed as a kid, but maybe it did. Maybe it developed my sense of wonder on a smaller scale: elaborate insects, miniature landscapes by a creek. I like looking closely at small things.

Good Grief, the Ground
By Margaret Ray
BOA Editions
Published April 4, 2023