Madeline DeFrees is the author of two chapbooks and eight full-length poetry collections, including Spectral Waves (Copper Canyon, 2006) and Blue Dusk (Copper Canyon, 2001), winner of the 2002 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and a Washington Book Award, as well as two books of nonfiction about convent life. She spent many years as a nun with the Catholic Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, which she entered after high school and from which she later requested release. She has published essays, reviews, and several short stories and has received fellowships in poetry from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. As Sister Mary Gilbert, DeFrees completed a BA in English at Marylhurst College in 1948 and an MA in Journalism at the University of Oregon in 1951. She studied poetry for brief periods with Karl Shapiro, Robert Fitzgerald, and John Berryman. From 1950 to ’67 she taught at Holy Names College in Spokane. In 1967 she resumed her baptismal name before she began teaching at the University of Montana, where she remained until 1979. She taught at the University of Massachusetts from 1979 to ’85, after which she retired to Seattle. Since her retirement, she has held residencies at Bucknell University, Eastern Washington University, and Wichita State University. She was interviewed by Jennifer Maier.
Image: When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer, and can you remember the first poem you wrote?
Madeline DeFrees: I can. I was eleven years old, and we were assigned to write a Mother’s Day poem. I did one, and it was proclaimed the best in the class. I now know that it was dreadful.
Image: Can you remember it?
MD: I can. It went:
That mother who has guided me
through the depths of life’s great sea,
I will wish you love today
in a cheerful sort of way.
—I love you, Mother dear.
When I need a helping hand,
I turn to mother, you understand.
I hope in happiness she’ll abide.
I want her always to be my guide.
—I love you, Mother dear.
So I’m wishing you happiness in every way.
I hope you’ll never see a troublesome day.
I want you always to live in cheer,
health and strength all through the year.
—I love you, Mother dear.
I bought a piece of green construction paper and some white ink, and I had my neighbor letter it, and I gave it to my mother with a box of candy, when she read it, she cried. It ruined my day.
Image: She was crying from happiness, but you didn’t know it?
MD: I guess she cried over everything, and so did I for years of my life. When I think about that poem now, though, if you start “that mother who has guided me,” you’re holding her at about the greatest distance you can.
Image: What were your parents like? Were they literary people?
MD: Oh, no. My mother didn’t finish high school, and my dad finished high school and went to a business college. But we only had about three or four books in the house, and those weren’t the greatest. My mother was an orphan, and she never found out anything about her parents. She held things in place by making all these ex cathedra statements: “No one in this family is musical. No one in this family can carry a tune.” And so that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Imaginary Ancestors has things about that, if you want to read about it.
Image: For nearly thirty years, you were known as Sister Mary Gilbert, and you published your first three books under that name. Why did you become a nun?
MD: I had gone to Saint Matthew’s parochial grade school, where the Sisters of Saint Mary of Beaverton, Oregon, were our teachers. Most of them were girls straight off the farm, and not very well educated. I loved my first grade teacher, but in general they used to send us the older, crabby nuns, because we had boys who were hard to manage. We had four grades in a room, with only two classrooms. For high school, my mother wanted me to go to Saint Mary’s Beaverton, which was taught by the same order. I don’t know how I ever had the courage to refuse, but I just said, “No, I won’t go there.” She wouldn’t let me go to Hillsboro High, although my brother had gone there. But my uncle who lived in Portland said, “Why don’t you let her come and stay with us, and she can start at Saint Mary’s Academy with her cousin Wanda?” Saint Mary’s was such an intellectual expansion for me. The sisters were well educated and good teachers, and that made me think about joining their order, the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. There wasn’t much for a woman to do at that time. I was sixteen. I entered the order on July 27, 1936. I was seventeen years old on November 18.
Image: Can you describe what it was like to discover your vocation as a poet while you were still in the convent?
MD: I had already pretty much committed to poetry while I was in high school. I taught myself the elements of versification, and I used to read the Louis Untermeyer anthologies. I learned something about scansion in Latin classes as well as in English. When I found a poem I really liked, I would use the methods I had learned from Model English to imitate it.
All through high school I sent poems to the Oregon Journal and the Sunday Oregonian, and they published a number of them. Those were bad poems, too. When you’re young, unless you’ve been lucky enough to be part of the Poetry-in-the-Schools project, you write poems as a way of testing experience. So I’d write poems with titles like “Facing Life.”
Image: Can you remember one?
It won’t be long until I’ll be obliged to face the facts,
pursued by grim reality, the tribute life exacts.
But when I have some time to spare,
there’ll linger in my mind
imaginations, pictures fair,
the charms of fancy, kind.
Image: Did you feel any internal or external conflict as you were developing as a poet while you were in the convent? Was the conflict that you perceived externally imposed, a consequence of the rule that, especially in those days, discouraged particular expressions of individuality or intellectual inquiry, or did you feel more torn personally between, say, the habits of mind required to be a good nun and a good poet?
MD: There was a lot of internal pressure away from poetry. I knew Hopkins had given it up because he thought it would interfere with prayer. And Thomas Merton had published an essay in Commonweal saying that if a person was looking for a life of contemplation, sooner or later the time would come when that person would have to give up poetry, because contemplation was moving towards silence, and poetry was necessarily moving towards expression. But then, five or ten years later, it bothered Merton’s conscience, so he wrote an essay saying he had made a mistake, that in fact poetry was not something someone did, but part of what someone was.
I used to think that because poetry required a kind of total attention, and so did prayer, that they went together. I had superiors, at least one, who told me that I wasn’t anything special just because I was a poet. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be writing poems when I was supposed to be praying. But they really are very close.
Image: In his introduction to your second book of poetry, When Sky Lets Go, Richard Howard says that Madeline DeFrees is “a woman who has made herself intimate with us, without making herself less private, public without making herself known.” Is this how you see your work, and was this a persona that you intentionally crafted as you were developing as a poet?
MD: Over the years I was in the convent, I cultivated something I called the cult of obscurity, which was a very common topic of discussion during the time of Cleanth Brooks and I.A. Richards, the New Critical period.
I thought that my deepest convictions were probably in some way different from most of the nuns’. In the novitiate, everyone wrote poetry. There’s a natural high that comes from versifying, and people were always writing letters home and putting verses in. I used to look around and think, “The difference between them and me is that they’ll stop and I’ll keep on.”
Image: Was there also a difference in the theme or topic of your poetry? Were they writing purer expressions of religious experience?
MD: Most of their poems were kind of cute, like a lot of religious verse. I remember one little verse that was quoted to us:
Bed’s too small to rest my tiredness
I’ll take a hill for my pillow,
Soft with trees.
I’ll pull the sky down over my chin
God, blow the moon out, please.
I didn’t want to write that kind of poem.
Image: What kind of poems did you want to write in those days?
MD: I tried all of the nun poets, and the one that I liked the best was Sister Maura. She was a Notre Dame Sister who wrote mostly satirical poems about advertising, that kind of thing. That wasn’t exactly my subject. As soon as I was introduced to Hopkins, I tried to imitate him. He’s a great poet, but a very bad model—like e.e. cummings.
Image: You also discovered Dickinson, didn’t you? I remember in your poem “Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins” you say, “I owe my life to that New England nun.” What did you mean by that?
MD: I had a very good friend who had been one of my teachers at Saint Mary’s Academy, Sister Margaret Jean. She had taught at Catholic University of America in the summers. She used to tell me that I should write prose instead of poetry, which I found disappointing. I asked why, and she said, “Most women don’t have the freedom to be really great poets.” She meant freedom of expression, that we were constrained and contained by men’s attitude towards us.
Image: What did you find in Dickinson that countered that?
MD: I have to admit that at first I used to think that there was something wrong with her rhymes—and even Samuel Bowles started to correct them when he was first publishing her. But gradually I recognized that she was absolutely original. That was one of the main things.
Image: Did you feel that you had to share your poetry with your superiors in the convent, and did you feel that they understood what you were writing about?
MD: You had to have permission to publish things, but after I got two or three poems published, I was told that if I thought a poem was publishable, it was okay. The same did not pertain to fiction. I remember asking the provincial’s permission to submit a story in which I had the nuns “crouched” over their prie-dieus, and she didn’t like that. I remember going to Father McAniff, this wonderful Irish priest who had been a chaplain with the military in India for a long time. I asked what I should do, and he said, “Do? Just put it in your bottom drawer and write away like hell. She won’t be the provincial forever.”
What happened instead was, Hans Küng came to lecture, and in the dining room at Gonzaga University, with all of us there, he came right out and said that the Index of Forbidden Books should be abolished (this was a list of books that Catholics weren’t supposed to read, and it was abolished in the sixties). A little later I got a note from the provincial, and she said that if I thought the story was publishable, I could submit it, and if I wanted somebody else’s opinion on it, I should ask Sister Matilda Mary. I didn’t ask her opinion. I just sent it out, and it was published.
Image: It’s interesting that somehow you didn’t need permission to submit your poetry, that poetry was somehow safer than fiction.
MD: I guess they thought that if they couldn’t understand it, nobody else could either.
Image: You mentioned learning to write through imitation and modeling and teaching yourself the essentials of scansion. But I know that you also studied the craft of poetry formally. Who were some of your teachers?
MD: My first assignment as a nun was as a fifth and sixth-grade teacher, which I did for four years. The first two were a nightmare, but by the third year I got hold of it a little bit. Then a journalism teacher left our school, and they thought, okay, she’s a writer, we’ll send her. So they sent me to the University of Oregon to study journalism. I was a real freak there. The journalists took as much history and political science as they could, and I was taking English lit, because I knew that would be all I had to go on. I took nineteenth-century poetry. I sat in on Alice Ernst’s poetry workshop, and in fact I think she even let me bring in a couple of poems. And then later at the University of Washington, when Nelson Bentley was on campus during the year (he didn’t teach during the summer), I took him some poems to read. He told me later that when I asked him, he thought, “Oh no. This is going to be dreadful.” But he liked them.
Image: Didn’t you also study with John Berryman at one point? What was that like?
MD: That was in 1962, at the School of Letters in Bloomington, Indiana. He picked on me mercilessly. He liked to pose as the authority on all things Catholic, and so it didn’t matter what I said, he would tell me it was all wrong.
Image: About Catholicism, or about poetry?
MD: About anything. He would do wild things. For example, he would tell us to spend fifty hours over the weekend reading Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence,” and then we were supposed to come up with a name for the “deep, limiting form” of the poem. No matter what you said, he would have the “right” answer, and it was never what anybody else had.
I remember one time we were reading Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” and I’d noticed that there were a lot of allusions to the New Testament all the way through—phrases like “the trippers and askers of questions.” By this time, I had already had lunch with Robert Fitzgerald and cried into my soup about how Berryman had picked on me. I told him I had checked with some of the other students, and they said I wasn’t making it up. Fitzgerald said, “Well, why don’t you just withdraw from the class?” and I said “I like the class, and besides, I don’t want him to know that he’s won the contest.” He said, “The thing you should know about John is that he’s something of a sadist. Does he know he bothers you?” I said, “Yes, I have the same trouble I’m having right now.”
After that, I made a few resolutions. One was that I would never make a statement in class; I would phrase everything as a question. Another was that, because he interpreted all of T.S. Eliot as sexual, I would try to figure out what Berryman would say about a poem, and then try to go one level beyond it. When I did that, he would say, “Sister, I didn’t say that. You said it.”
So I had gotten out my New Testament and figured out all these allusions in “Song of Myself.” Berryman let me go through explaining the whole thing in class, and I could tell that he was getting it. And then he said, “Well, of course you’re absolutely wrong,” but I knew he didn’t really believe that. From then on, things went better.
Image: How did leaving the convent influence your writing in terms of style, tone, and subject matter? And maybe you can say something briefly about why you decided to leave and whether that had anything to do with discovering your vocation as a writer.
MD: Well, in retrospect, I think that my writing had a lot to do with my leaving. I always felt guilty when I wrote. At that point, they didn’t encourage people to write, and if you were asked to write something in verse, they could blackball it. Once I was asked to write something for our Christmas card, and I referred to the Blessed Mother as “simple as daisies.” The novice mistress said, “Simple in Ireland means retarded. You can’t say that.” And I said, “I don’t care whether you use it or not, but if you use it, that has to be in there.” It was left in. I know a Benedictine brother who says that their idea of encouraging art was to get the ceramist to make fifty identical mugs for Christmas gifts.
Image: How did your own work change after you left the convent? Did you feel freer in the subjects you could write about? Did your style change?
MD: I have never studied specific poems to find that out, but I think your self-image changes hugely right away when you’re no longer in the straightjacket of the habit, with all the regulations about privacy and family. Most people have a natural reticence about saying certain things about their families that ought to be kept private. Multiply that by three thousand, which is how many were in the Oregon Order at that time, and you have an idea of it.
Image: You’ve also been a successful fiction writer. Your story “The Model Chapel” was included in the Best American Short Stories of 1962. Why did you decide ultimately to focus primarily on poetry?
MD: Poetry is what I did first of all, and I think that most of my short stories are unusual in that they are more interested in language than plot or character. I had one in Helicon Nine about moving out here from the east coast. As I was packing up my apartment, looking at everything I owned, I relieved the monotony by making up paragraphs that were sort of like little poems about an object, and that was kind of fun. Then as I was driving, every time a moving van passed me, I could make up another paragraph, and when I passed a moving van, I got to make up two.
Image: What starts a poem in you? Is it an image most often, or a phrase, or an idea, or an experience?
MD: I published an essay once about the origin of poems for me. I said that they started in one of two ways. One was a phrase or a sentence that I found really compelling, and my job was to figure out why, and what the rest of the words were. The other way was an experience that for some reason was different, and then I had to come up with the words that communicated it.
Image: What connection do you see, if any, between your faith and its expression in your writing?
MD: I used to think that the reason I didn’t write religious poems was that I really respected religion, and there was nothing worse than a poem that wanted to be religious and fell short of the mark. The main shortcoming would be sentimentality. There are rhythms that trivialize, even.
Image: Do you imagine a particular audience or an ideal reader when you’re composing a poem?
MD: I’ve had several friends who are good readers. They are people who don’t believe that reading a poem once is enough. I like to read poems until I know them from memory, if I really like them.
Something that can really get in the way of being a good reader is if you have a sensibility that’s so limited that you only like poems that are like your own. I used to find that in workshops all the time. Some students wouldn’t try to take the poem on its own terms. They would take it on the terms they imposed.
I do think that there are a lot of people who wouldn’t think of themselves as fans of poetry who would be able to get it and like it if they heard it read by the writer, or someone who can read well, instead of seeing it on the page.
If I hadn’t first heard Hopkins from somebody who knew what it was all about, I wouldn’t have gotten it. You have to read it with the right intonation and everything, because even the grammar is strange:
Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou has bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.
I don’t think that’s hard to understand when it’s interpreted by somebody who understands it.
Image: You’re great at reciting. How do you memorize poems?
MD: I just read them over and over. My own poems I can remember if I get the starting line, and if I’ve read them recently. But if I go too long without reading them, then I have trouble. I think memorizing poetry is a great discipline. I learned that a long time ago. I had a teacher in high school who had us do choral reading of poetry for five minutes at the beginning of every period. Eventually I had enough poetry memorized to entertain myself during all the hours I had to wait for buses.
Image: Why do you think that poetry is still vital, that people still attend readings with so many other things to do? What does poetry do for people that nothing else can?
MD: First of all, I think it gets at things that more direct language can’t. It expands. It’s like something you put in water and then it just expands. We hear so much language that’s 95 percent waste—and so something that is more memorable is significant.
Image: Can you name a few favorite poems?
MD: I love “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” There are a number of Louise Bogan poems I’m fond of, especially the one called “Women,” which begins, “Women have no wilderness in them / They are provident instead.”
Image: What do you understand about life now in your eighties that you didn’t understand fifty years ago?
MD: Now I know that I can’t measure the success or failure of my life by what I have achieved. When I was in my thirties, I felt I hadn’t gotten where I wanted to go, in poetry, in life, in practically every way. At thirty you come to this place where you think at least a third of your life is probably over, and you haven’t made any big waves. But now, instead of feeling that way, first of all I feel lucky that I’ve been given this many years, because so many people haven’t. Secondly, I think that all in all I’ve had a reasonably happy life.
Image: What do you wish you could go back and tell that younger self now?
MD: That there is a very strong competitive streak in me, and I think that along with that goes a certain amount of ambition. So I think I’d tell my younger self, “Cool it.”
Image: What would you say that you understand about your craft now that you didn’t understand fifty years ago? What has poetry taught you in the last fifty years?
MD: That I should look in the poem for the parts that are most satisfying to me, and then I should use them as what Matthew Arnold would have called a “touchstone” for the weaker parts. Can you make this weak part as good as that strong part? It helps you to compete against yourself, which makes more sense than competing against someone else.
I had a very hard time rewriting poems, for a long time. And the way I learned to do it was to change the lining. If I change the lining, it might put the weak part at the end or the beginning of the line, and then I could see that it was weak.
Image: What advice would you give to young poets generally today?
MD: I would tell them after they write a poem to put it away for at least a month, maybe even longer, and that when they come back to it, they’ll see all kinds of things they hadn’t seen before. There’s nothing like distance to help you with that. When you’re writing it, usually you’re feeling something, and that feeling gets in the way of objectivity.
I’d also say that reading is important. I used to have students who would say they didn’t want to read, because they were afraid they would end up imitating or stealing. A couple of times when I found myself doing what I thought was stealing, I saw later that what I was writing was coming from some part of me.
Image: What are your future plans, in terms of poems to come? What are you working on now?
MD: I want to do a poem about my sister, who just died, but I don’t have anything except some memories, an image of her, and the image of a funny little metal frog leaning on a short wire border in the yard, just outside the front door. I can’t think of a way to make it a poem yet, but I keep seeing the image. There are some scattered things I’ve thought of, but I don’t know how to use them at all. One is that whenever we had pictures taken together when we were little, she was always hanging on to me, and half behind me. She was very shy. Also, she died of congestive heart failure, and she had the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known. I remember the way she was even with animals. She was always loving and compassionate to anything alive.
Image: What’s the worst thing for you about growing older, and are there any good things about it?
MD: The worst thing for me is that my memory is not as good as it used to be. I have to use my calendar all the time, and if I don’t, I forget things. My rote memory is going, too. I still remember a lot of poems, but if I haven’t given a reading for a long time, then I need the first lines. I discovered one time when I was clowning around that there must be something distinctive about my rhythms, because I caught myself starting to recite one poem and then suddenly being in another one, because the rhythmic structure was similar.
But there are also good things about growing older. I just don’t care about certain things as much as I used to. If I don’t want to go to something I’m invited to, I can stay home. I don’t care what people think as much as I used to.
Image: Do you think about death more now?
MD: Well, I’ve always thought about it a lot. I once read somewhere that “An artist always carries death around with him, like a good monk, his breviary.” I used to argue with one of my students about whether happy poems or dark poems are better, and I used to always say that the dark poems were better. I thought they had more substance to them, and that they were more true to the way the world is. But I don’t know if I still think that.
Image: How would you like to die?
MD: The way my mother did. She just collapsed. She had her coat on and the oven mitt on her hand, and she was lying on her back on the floor. I think she had just checked the roast she was cooking to make sandwiches to take to work. At times when she wasn’t working, she’d get loaded up with Altar Society stuff, and then she’d quit all that and go back to work.
Image: What would you like to accomplish yet; what’s ahead for you?
MD: Well, of course, book number nine.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.