Conversation With Editors Susana H. Case and Margo Taft Stever on:
I Wanna Be Loved By You: Poems on Marilyn Monroe,
Milk & Cake Press, 2022.
In this in-depth re-viewing of an American female icon, editors Susana H. Case and Margo Stever, discuss lesser-known facts of Marilyn as a feminist, director of her own film production company, poet, serious actress, avid reader of Literature, sieving the private individual from the public persona, and bringing to the forefront Marilyn’s courage, talent, and intelligence.
The anthology is poised to be the definitive collection of poetry on this iconic figure of beauty and femininity who is seen as a harbinger of the feminist movement by the editors recasting a sexualized icon into a more nuanced symbol. Lois Banner, one of the founders of the women’s history movement, author of several books on Monroe, has written the introduction. The proceeds from the anthology will be donated to RAINN, the largest U.S. organization that fights against sexual violence. The anthology of over ninety poems delves into the fable, myth, muse, goddess, and legend that was Marilyn Monroe. On the sixtieth anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's death, this anthology includes poems by Sharon Olds, David Trinidad, David Lehman, Marilyn Chin, Delmore Schwartz, Sylvia Plath, Ernesto Cardinal, Denise Duhamel, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ted Berrigan, Frank O'Hara, Ai, AND Marilyn herself.
Interview by Usha Akella (2022)
Margo Taft Stever’s three full-length poetry collections are The End of Horses, Broadstone Books, 2022, Cracked Piano (CavanKerry Press, 2019), which was shortlisted and received honorable mention for the 2021 Eric Hoffer Award Grand Prize, and Frozen Spring, winner of the 2002 Mid-List Press First Series Award for Poetry. Her latest of four chapbooks is Ghost Moose (Kattywompus Press, 2019). Her poems have appeared in numerous literary magazines including Poem-A-Day, poets.org, Academy of American Poets. She is currently an adjunct assistant professor in the Bioethics Department of the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University. Stever also teaches a poetry workshop at Children’s Village, a residential school for at-risk children and adolescents. She is the founder of the Hudson Valley Writers Center and the founding and current co-editor of Slapering Hol Press.
Learn more at www.margotaftstever.com
Susana H. Case is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently The Damage Done (Broadstone Books, 2022), and five chapbooks. Dead Shark on the N Train (Broadstone Books, 2020) won a Pinnacle Book Award for Best Poetry Book and a NYC Big Book Award Distinguished Favorite and was a Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award. Her first collection, The Scottish Café (Slapering Hol Press) was re-released in a dual-language English-Polish version, Kawiarnia Szkocka (Opole University Press). Her poetry is translated into Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. Widely published in journals, Case recently retired as Professor from the New York Institute of Technology in New York City, where she taught for thirty-eight years. She is a co-editor of Slapering Hol Press.
Learn more at www.susanahcase.com
I Wanna Be Loved By You: Poems on Marilyn Monroe Book Cover
Upcoming Readings for I Wanna Be Loved By You: Poems on Marilyn Monroe
Thursday, Feb 24, 2022, 7-8:30 PM, Red-Headed Stepchild, via Zoom
Tuesday, March 1, 2022, 7 PM, Poetry Society of NH, via Zoom
Saturday, March 19, 2022, 7-8 PM, SMOL Bookfair, via Zoom
Friday, March 25, 2022, 1:45-3 PM, AWP Philadelphia, Anthology Panel & Book Signing
Sunday, April 3rd, 2022, 3-4:30 PM, Cultivating Voices, via Zoom
Wednesday, April 20th, 2022, 7-9 PM, Hudson Valley Writers Center, hybrid
Saturday, June 4, 2022, 5 PM, Lit Balm, via Zoom
Monday, Dec 5, 2022, Cafe Muse Anthology reading, 7:30-8:30 PM via Zoom
Here is What I Think Makes Me a Woman
“If I’d observed all the rules, I’d never have gotten anywhere.
Usha Akella: First, congratulations on the anthology and resurrecting Marilyn in a way we haven’t seen in poetry. Susana, you have explored the narrative of feminine or female beauty as orchestrated, prescribed, and self-perceived in your poems such as ‘Nerve’ and ‘Red’ about Shirley Manson (lead guitarist and vocalist for ‘Garbage’). In ‘Nerve’, you have a line, ‘here’s what I think makes a little girl’—and now, this anthology delves into what made up a very complicated woman—Marilyn Monroe.
And, Margo what was the hook for you to compile and edit this work. Comments from both of you?
Susana H. Case: Marilyn Monroe’s relevance continues today in terms of raising questions about gender roles and their enactment, and the ways women attempt to negotiate the differences between their private and public personae. At a time when binary aspects of gender are challenged, this anthology, divided into four sections on persona, body, art, and death, is a literary look at a historical figure damaged by the reification and exploitation of rigid gender rules. I'm totally interested in gender. I write about it—particularly the experience of girlhood in the culture within which I came of age—and until this past autumn, I taught a course in it. I am interested in the construction of glamour, and once we begin to think about glamour as socially constructed, it's impossible not to consider Marilyn Monroe, about whom I have been writing poems for years, though not as a series. Once Margo and I realized that we had both written poems that referenced her, we became curious about how much other work was out there or could be written in response to a request for poems in which she was somehow part of the subject matter. Marilyn in a way is the objective correlative for writing about a whole range of issues that affect women: unrealistic standards of beauty, repressive notions of female sexuality, power inequities, unequal pay, abuse, and reproductive pressure.
Margo Taft Stever: With the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique just a year after the tragic death of Marilyn Monroe, the second-wave feminist women crusaders hit the pavement and the new women’s movement began. While Monroe was alienated and displaced from everyday life and suffered from drug addiction, she paved the way for the feminist movement through her struggles to combine sensuality with intellectual curiosity; her refusal to be silenced about the sexual abuse and harassment that she had experienced as a child; her rebellion against the dumb blonde role that she created and the dull formulaic work that she was dealt; her serious study of acting and her interest in literature and intellectual pursuits; her immediate divorce from DiMaggio after he physically abused her at a time when wife-beating was considered acceptable; her struggle to resist male domination by directors and producers; her role in being one of the first women to start her own film production company; and her interest in continuing her career as an older woman by reinventing herself when most actresses were encouraged to retire as homemakers. In some of her earlier films, such as Clash by Night, Monroe had the opportunity to amplify her serious side, “her private persona” and down-to-earth nature, when she appears in blue jeans rather than foxy gowns. Through her courageous actions, Marilyn Monroe was a pioneer of the women’s movement and helped to usher in the liberalizing of views by and about women in the decades to come.
UA: Margo, you are making the point of seeing her striving to resist forced role-playing and as a participant in the feminist struggle in various ways including dealing with aging and leadership in the movie industry. I am curious about the film production company, was she able to push more enlightened women characters under its banner?
MTS: Marilyn Monroe could have been involved in the feminist struggle if her birth date were ten years later. Though she had few role models, she fought against male domination in many forms, including that of her second husband, Joe DiMaggio, who believed that she should retire from film and live contentedly as his homemaker and wife. She also fought against producers and directors such as Fox’s Darryl Zanuck who pigeon-holed her as the dumb blonde. While male movie stars could continue to play major roles into their sixties, Monroe understood that audiences and major film companies would not accept older women actors; they were expected to retire after a short career. She once said that she would never get a facelift. Because of her childhood trauma and her courage in speaking out about it rather than allowing herself to be silenced, we women of the following generations owe her a debt of gratitude.
About her film company, Lois Banner points out in Marilyn, the Passion, and the Paradox, that what is unique about Marilyn’s company, MMP, is Monroe’s insistence that it would bear her name even though she realized that the IRS would accuse her of attempting to avoid taxes, which they did. Her reason for insisting that she owned the majority of shares was that she wanted everyone to realize she was the principal owner, and that her partner, Milton Greene, owned the minority share. She was brazenly battling against the public perception of her as the dumb blonde.
At the same time that she worked on the creation of her own film company, she had to fight with 20th Century Fox to change the terms of her contract with them, contending that they had not fulfilled some of its clauses. They objected to every clause of her new contract, even when The Seven Year Itch was released to significant critical and box office acclaim; Fox fought Monroe and Greene for six additional months. She was finally able to challenge and modify her contract with Fox to create her own company.
Monroe’s major goal was to be a serious actor, and rather than accepting her prearranged fate, she was one of the first women to establish her own film production company. She and Greene limited the number of films that she was required to do for 20th Century Fox, and through her film company, she was allowed to work with directors and photographers whom she believed shared her goals. Unfortunately, before she could create much of a legacy for her film company and determine what she might have actually accomplished, she died.
UA: There is so much that we need to know about Marilyn, in essence, separate from the media portrayal of a ‘sex bomb’. Susana, you were already writing about the objectification of women like Marilyn (poems: ‘Hourglass’ & ‘The Unpublished Poems of Marilyn Monroe’) and ‘Diva’ about Maria Callas, before this anthology, and your work has tackled gender, sexual politics, and violence—when did the notion of the anthology take form—the recasting of Marilyn as a feminist icon—what was it about her that was relentlessly occupying you?
SHC: When I suggested creating the anthology to Margo, it was more in the form of a tossed off notion at first, a comment on the synchronicity of the poems we chose to read at a poetry reading in which we were both participating, an online series called Lit Balm. It was Margo's persistence that we should consider the idea seriously that made the project real.
UA: YMargo, had you tackled Marilyn in any of your creative work? What prodded you to take this on?
MTS: Many of my poems, such as ‘Splitting Wood,’ ‘Nothing’s Holding up Nothing,’ and ‘Raven’s Rock,’ are about women’s struggle to survive in a frequently hostile world, the parameters of which are too often defined by men. Many of my poems are on the sixth extinction. In my view, the struggle to save the earth and to maintain biodiversity is distinctly feminine. The granular reason that we decided to create this anthology is because Susana suggested it after we both happened to read poems that we had written about Marilyn Monroe at a Zoom LitBalm poetry reading. But in a broader sense, it seemed like an opportunity to delve into the societal myths and prohibitions that contributed to Monroe’s success in her life and the trauma of her death. Why do so many women in diametrically different realms who have achieved greatness such as Sylvia Plath and Lady Diana meet similar fates? Why did Monroe get trapped as the dumb blonde?
UA: Indeed, it seems like Marilyn was articulating protest, resistance, and pain early on…she was looking for love unabashedly. Why do you think her courage and mind were so downplayed—do you think she could have controlled her narrative now? And what has changed in the popular American mindset that makes it prepared to view her more fully? Indeed, it seems like Marilyn was articulating protest, resistance, and pain early on…she was looking for love unabashedly. Why do you think her courage and mind were so downplayed—do you think she could have controlled her narrative now? And what has changed in the popular American mindset that makes it prepared to view her more fully?
MTS: The Hollywood movie directors and producers salivated over Marilyn’s dumb blonde role which she had created after she trained with Natasha Lytess, her acting coach, and Michael Chekhov, one of her teachers in the Stanislavsky Method, both of whom had fled Nazi Germany and were trained in the European comic tradition, including the study of the role of clowns. After her early films, the 20th Century Fox producers forced her to solely play this comic role though she strongly preferred to portray serious characters. After she attained enough fame, she became one of the first women to establish her own film production company, just so that she could take on complex roles. Arthur Miller wrote such a role specifically for her in The Misfits. Their relationship fell apart during the filming; Monroe was hospitalized in the middle of it, and she died by drug overdose before she could attain her lifelong dream.
Many feminists such as Gloria Steinem have addressed the question of whether Monroe would have met a different fate today. Some have predicted that she would have been welcomed by the feminist movement and would not have withered and died.
SHC: Intelligence was not a valued trait in women mid-century. Studios were controlled by a few powerful men and there was sometimes a startling lack of both imagination and the ability to see the potential. Marilyn was made over in the style of Jean Harlow because Harlow was already successful, and that's what the studio bosses knew. But pain and resistance—yes, there was a lot of that. She stood by Arthur Miller when he was tried by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), even though those around her feared it would ruin her career. When she posed nude, even after her photo was used without permission as the first Playboy cover, she owned that display of nudity. Instead of emphasizing her victimhood for being economically exploited, she insisted there was nothing wrong with what she had done. She was defiant, I would say, rather than protesting. And it did take courage because for much of her career before she owned her own production company, she was economically at the mercy of the studio bosses. Her love relationships did not work out. I'm not sure those who were involved with her knew how to treasure her. DiMaggio wanted to control her, and Arthur Miller was sometimes embarrassed by her. Her first husband was simply not at her level, and she left. I'm not sure if she could control her narrative now. The “dumb blonde” trope would no longer be acceptable. But an intellectual woman who is also glamourous and overly sexual is still a bit difficult to accept, at least in American culture which is still clinging to its puritanical roots.
UA: I am thinking of Britney Spears struggles, as well as other contemporary female stars as we converse, in the sense of media control of image, and financial and body autonomy
SHC: Britney Spears pulled in $300,000 per show in a recent contract for a total of $15,000,000. She seems to have good management. She doesn't have the struggles Marilyn Monroe went through trying to become a mother, but she seems to have had a mental breakdown. I don’t know much about her, but she did seem to be overly sexualized and objectified before the legal struggle with her father over who controlled her money. She also seems to have been overly out of control in her behavior and unlucky in her relationships. All of this becomes, of course, fodder for the media, but it might be the same for a “bad boy” in the music industry as well. So, there are some commonalities with Marilyn Monroe, but also many differences. They both struggled for control of their artistic expression, but I think there’s a huge chunk of the country not paying close attention to Britney Spears. In Marilyn’s time, I believe that she spellbound a larger swath of the population. I suspect Britney Spears won't still be an object of curiosity sixty years after her death.
MTS: I am not at all familiar with Britney Spears though I know that some people view her as a latter-day Marilyn Monroe.
UA: I was thinking of a woman’s struggle in the entertainment industry for autonomy. And, how some things are still prevalent in American society—drugs’ overuse in the entertainment industry for example.
MTS: Drugs, and probably more than anything Nembutal and other sleeping pills, contributed significantly to Monroe’s demise. The reason for her taking those drugs is what needs to be considered. She suffered from chronic insomnia with wrenching stories of her affliction such as her taking a cab in the middle of the night to the Strasbergs where Lee, her famous acting teacher, would rock her to sleep and then carry her to her bed. Her failed efforts to find relief from sleeplessness through Nembutal and other drugs apparently ruined her marriage with Arthur Miller which she had begun with a sense of so much hope and renewal.
UA: Not much is known about her as a poet, were any of her poems published in her lifetime?
SHC: None of her poems were published while she was alive, and she may not have regarded them as ready for publication. That is unknown. They were different though from her autobiography, which was also published posthumously. The autobiography was ghostwritten. The poems were her own, discovered in boxes she left with the Strasbergs. Arthur Miller said of her that she had “the instincts and reflexes of the poet, but she lacked the control.” She never got to fully develop her poetry, which at the time of her death was still a series of fragments. But she respected poetry and poets—she was a reader of Whitman, Rilke, Dickinson, and many others—and had she lived longer, she would have had the time to refine her work. She danced with Carl Sandburg—he was a friend of hers—the year that she died. Surely, he would have been helpful to her in her poetic practice. He wrote a tribute to her after her death for Look Magazine and would have delivered the eulogy at her funeral—Joe DiMaggio, who handled the arrangements, ask him to—but he was in poor health, and so Lee Strasberg gave the eulogy instead.
MTS: In her biography on Monroe, Lois Banner documents that during the time that she lived in New York, Monroe shared her life of poetry with Norman Rosten, a friend of Arthur Miller’s. Rosten held poetry readings at his apartment which Monroe attended. Apparently, she was particularly interested in love poetry and elegies. Rosten commented that her poetry was dark and menacing with many poems about abandonment. He described her poetic interests in the following way:
She understood, with the instinct of a poet, that [poetry leads] directly
to the heart of experience. She knew the interior of the floating world
of the poems with its secrets, phantoms, and surprises. And somewhere
within her she sensed a primary truth: that poetry is allied with death.
Its intoxication and joy are the other face of elegy. Love and death,,
opposite and one, are its boundary—and were hers.” (Rosten, Marilyn:
An Untold Story, 57
Though she never had the opportunity to finish high school, Monroe brought volumes of Shelley, Whitman, Keats, and Rilke to movie sets, along with the novels by Thomas Wolfe and James Joyce, as well as books on history and mysticism. In Monroe’s own autobiographical films, interviews, and writing, she discusses her feelings of being cast outside of conventional society—her displacement and alienation. Joseph Mankiewicz, the director of All About Eve, remembered her carrying around an edition of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. According to him, “She was not a loner; she was just plain alone.”
In his biography, Marilyn Monroe: The Life of the Actress, Carl Rollyson describes how one of Joe DiMaggio’s nieces, June DiMaggio, was moved by Monroe’s ability to recite passages of Emerson’s poetry. She liked to discuss serious literature, as when she impressed the reporter, Tom Hutchinson, with her knowledge of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Early in their relationship, the famous playwright Arthur Miller, her third husband, recounts her emerging from a Los Angeles bookstore almost singing a stanza from e. e. cummings’s famous poem, “in Just.”
Captured in fragments (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and published posthumously, Monroe’s poetic efforts demonstrate that she had talent as a poet, but she never developed her craft. In my mind, there is no doubt that instead of being encouraged, she was frozen by the movie producers, directors, and her own audiences into the mold of the “dumb blonde,” a role dense with history, but antithetical to that of either a poet or a serious actress.
UA: I’d read that her library had over 400 books…Her defense of her Playboy photos points towards something very progressive, women making the choice of what to do with their bodies, embracing the notion of sexuality as empowering not objectifying…in some sense appearing to be objectified but turning that process into empowerment.
SHC: Ironically, Playboy published those photos without her permission. She was paid $50 for the photo shoot. She hadn’t posed for Playboy, but rather for a pinup photographer named Tom Kelley and she didn't have control over what he did with the photos. The photos that Playboy used were a few years old, and Hugh Hefner used the nude cover photo to launch Playboy's first issue. So, she had very little choice other than to defiantly “own” her posing nude. Because she was so popular, it didn't ruin her career. And then she got the Life Magazine cover, so her respectability couldn't be easily challenged. She was able to turn a situation brought about by her lack of power into a powerful statement.
MTS: Marilyn Monroe documents in her film, The Childhood Years as Told by Marilyn Monroe, that she felt faceless and ignored as a child. She didn’t even realize that her own mother was her mother when she visited from time to time at the neighbor’s house next door where Monroe was boarded. Her foster parents would drop her off at the movies during the weekend as a means of taking care of her and told her to stay from morning to night watching the same film such as an early version of Cleopatra. She learned to revere actors and actresses, including Clark Gable, whom she thought of as her father, at the same time that she experienced abject neglect. Following her first foster home, she would live in eight others and in an orphanage. She was humiliated and mistreated in many ways, including sexual abuse. She states that only when she was about eleven years old did the world open up for her because of the attraction of her developing body when boys began to notice her and girls had to reckon with her beauty.
This early awakening made Marilyn Monroe realize that she could get the attention that she craved by revealing her voluptuous body. Her famous dream that Ernesto Cardenal and so many others have documented in which “she was naked in a church / (according to the Time account) / before a prostrated crowd of people, their heads on the floor / and she had to walk on tiptoe so as not to step on their heads…” tells of a Marilyn Monroe whose body is a temple. As Cardenal says, “The temple—of marble and gold—is the temple of her body / in which the Son of Man stands whip in hand / driving out the studio bosses of 20th Century Fox / who made Your house of prayer a den of thieves.”
UA: I was also wondering about how much has been said about her as an actress, I’ve watched a few films and she has this great comic timing and nuanced acting…
SHC: She was serious in pursuing her craft. She studied acting at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg and before that with the Actors Lab. She was an adherent of method acting, the Stanislavsky approach. Strasberg believed that she had a gift and had worked with her privately before she began to study at the Actors Studio. In fact, he has been quoted as saying the two greatest talents he ever worked with were Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe. Other students at the Actors Studio respected her as well. An irony is how nervous she was about performing in front of the class.
MTS: Carl Rollyson, who has also written several biographies of Sylvia Plath, published Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, which concentrates on Monroe’s acting ability and passion. Monroe considered herself as a serious actress and worked passionately to perfect her acting abilities. In Los Angeles, she studied acting with Natasha Lytess, an acting coach; Monroe infuriated some directors because she honored suggestions from Lytess over theirs. She also studied with Michael Chekhov, using the Stanislavsky Method. Both of those teachers had fled Hitler’s Germany for Hollywood. In Germany, as characters of the absurd, clowns marked the horrors of war and embodied the wisdom of fools, escaping to a fantasy world of their own making and providing such escape valves for their audiences. Both Lytess and Chekhov were versed in the clowns of the commedia dell’arte. Through learning the European comic tradition from her acting coach and her teacher, Marilyn developed the dumb blond character that captivated the postwar public, but in the end trapped her in its iron clenches and stultified her efforts to become a serious actress.
Strasberg had a tremendous impact on American acting and produced generations of actors such as James Dean and Dustin Hoffman. What is perhaps most noteworthy is that he put Marilyn Monroe on the same rung as Marlon Brando, calling her one of his most formidable students.
Arthur Miller, her third husband, wrote a complex role for her in The Misfits, their marriage was falling apart as she abused Nembutal, which she took for insomnia; she was hospitalized in the middle of the film, and even though that film was completed, because of her untimely death, she was never able to fully realize her goal of becoming known for successfully playing serious roles.
In a purely political move, the producers and directors at Fox decided to sell Monroe as a brand, and they refused to allow her to appear in any other kind of role than the dumb blonde.
UA: It’s unfortunate, as Leanne Grabel expresses it, “Too bad she made us so hungry.” Perhaps, we have to examine as a society the pressure the public exerts on celebrities, the formula of fame and image can be weighty for men or women.
SHC: Celebrity often brings into question the ownership of our bodies, though I don't believe this is limited to female celebrities. There's that old saw about trying the first part of your career to have people recognize you and then spending the later part fleeing from that recognition to have some privacy. Perhaps it's the pressure to be perfect, which, of course, no one is. But part of the job then becomes creating the illusion of perfection. When I've written poems about Marilyn, one thing that has interested me enormously is the divide between the private person and the public persona. I think for someone in the business of glamour, maintaining that public persona can cause a lot of stress, the loss of the self. You can begin to feel you have no self, that it is gobbled up by your fans. A couple of academic psychologists, Donna Rockwell and David C Giles, identified stages of fame: at first, it's thrilling, even if the celebrity feels ambivalent about the gratification. But then, it becomes addictive. It becomes hard to imagine not having it.
UA: The poems in the anthology are quite the spectrum in the complexity they conjure and reference—a lot of death-themed poems, beauty, self-reflection, coming of age, politics, media constructs, pajamas. Numerous stunning lines resonate like Alex Clifford’s
“She was origami—flesh like onion skin.” What were you looking for when you culled the poems?
SHC: We were looking primarily for good writing. And then, we wanted the works to be largely accessible. We wanted a variety of voices, female and male poets, contributors who were diverse racially and in other demographics, and we wanted to hear from those who both adored Marilyn and who had deep antipathy. We primarily selected poets who wrote in English, but we also included a few translations in the interests of variety and because we found some good poems that were in languages other than English.
UA: Finally, how has the reception been so far? What’s in store for the anthology in terms of readings and such, and how can readers order the book.
SHC: The anthology is just about to launch, but it seems to elicit immediate interest. I think Marilyn Monroe will always be a figure whom people find compelling. We have anthology readings events booked through December of this year and we are also going to AWP with a panel on creating anthologies.
The book can be ordered from MilkandCakePress.com.
From the KGB BAR Launch—Monday Night Poetry on Monday, February 14, 2022 7-9 PM