A Writer’s Insight: Mairead Small Staid

Mairead Small Staid’s poem, “Notes for a Eulogy,” appears in the Spring 2021 issue of The Southern Review. Here she discusses the body as both anatomical and romantic, belonging, and poetry’s space for the serious asking of silly questions.

Shakirah Peterson, Editorial Assistant: For this reader, “Notes for a Eulogy” led me to meditate on the concept of belonging. You write of the Earth being “just rented” as a “storage space.” I loved this metaphor and am curious to know the moment and/or memory that sparked the idea for this poem?

Mairead Small Staid: The poem is a few years old now, so I’m afraid I’ve forgotten how it began. But I tend to write less from a single moment than from a scavenging impulse, gathering lines and notes and facts and images (over the course of months, sometimes, or even years) until enough of them cohere, the pieces gesturing to some larger whole. I like the idea of belonging as a through-line for this one, though. I think the poem is concerned with the question of whether we belong to our bodies or they to us—whatever we and us might mean without them. My first impulse is to say Not much, but then I do think we live on in the memories of others, in the air and dirt to which we contribute, in—oh, I don’t know—the poems and pages we write, if we’re lucky.

SP: You write of the human desire to “trust the dirt to hold our bones undisturbed” in death. You ponder “Why not?” about robbers making a fortune selling corpses. Do you think our relationship to our bodies in death affects the way we choose to live?

MSS: The “Why not?” in response to grave robbers is intended a bit cheekily, of course: there are any number of reasons why not, decency toward the dead and respect for the grief of the living among them. I should probably make it clear that I don’t condone robbing graves! But I wanted to let the question into the poem, non-rhetorically, as one of the things I like about poems is their ability to ask such silly questions, seriously. What else should we do, when we are done with them? asks the poem next, speaking of bodies, and the switch flips (in my mind, anyway) from glib to earnest.

As for your question, I don’t have a ready answer: surely, I want to say, it must be yes! But I know that I—despite Montaigne’s recommendation—tend to keep the fact of death at a distance, so that I can get something done in the meantime. This is a weakness, perhaps, but it’s worked this far, so I’ll probably keep at it. But it’s possible I was reading Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers around the time I wrote this poem, which would have forced some contemplation of my own eventual corpse. For anyone interested in good, solid, non-poetic answers to the questions of what we should do with our bodies once we’re done with them, Roach has some suggestions! I highly recommend her book.

SP: My favorite line of the poem is at the end. You write of a poet gifting a book of love poems made from his skin to his mistress. You imagined her response, “I love your body, but not when you have left it.” This was such a poignant message. What would you like readers to take away from the poem?

MSS: Thank you! It’s funny, I do think of “Notes for a Eulogy” as a love poem, if a somewhat inverted one. I can’t remember where the anecdote about the skin-bound book of poems came from, but it struck me as such a patently absurd gesture, so over the top as to seem funny instead of grotesque, and I wondered how one would possibly respond gently and diplomatically to such a gift. I’ve written a fair amount about the body as an object both anatomical and romantic, and those interests meet in this poem, kind of sparring with each other. The inevitable presence of the grave really makes clear that there’s a limit to the body as this romantic, sensual, more stereotypically poetic thing. But love isn’t so limited, and I like this poem as a sort of coda, whether to much of my own work or to poems at large, the kinds of poems that a poet would bound in his own ridiculous skin. After all those romance-soaked lines about hands and lips and whatnot, in the end, it really isn’t about—or just about—the body.

SP: Are you working on any new projects you’d like tell us about?

MSS: My first book, The Traces, will be coming out from A Strange Object in the fall of 2022. It’s a work of nonfiction about art, travel, happiness, and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and I’m very excited that it’ll soon be out in the world.

SP: Where can we read more of your work?

MSS: You can find several essays and poems on my website, maireadsmallstaid.com. Most recently, I’ve written about consuming art in the pandemic for the Paris Review Daily, reviewed two memoirs about grief for LARB, and published another love poem (can’t help it!) in POETRY.

Mairead Small Staid received fellowships from MacDowell, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and Phillips Exeter Academy, where she was the 2017-2018 George Bennett Fellow. Her work has appeared in AGNI and The Georgia Review.

Shakirah Peterson is the editorial assistant for The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in creative writing at Louisiana State University. She writes across all genres: poetry, fiction, nonfiction. She is originally from Los Angeles, California, where she earned a BA in communication studies at California State University, Long Beach.

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