Tutors Talk Books: Maggie Evans McGuinness

March 31, 2017 | By Samantha Ardoin (SF16)

Maggie Evans McGuinness is a tutor on the Santa Fe campus of St. John's College.
Maggie Evans McGuinness is a tutor on the Santa Fe campus of St. John’s College.

Tutors Talk Books is a series of interviews with St. John’s College tutors. In our second interview, we catch up with Maggie Evans McGuinness, who has taught in Santa Fe’s graduate and undergraduate programs for the past three years. This semester, she is teaching sophomore math, sophomore seminar, and freshman language.

Is there a particular book that was formative for you and pushed your life in a certain direction?

The Bible was the first book that I ever had a real relationship with. I was raised by a former Baptist minister in a religion-saturated environment. I went to church five times a week and was involved in Bible study groups with adults. I was 10 to 12 years old. What it sparked in me was the desire to take a book seriously. It was the only avenue I had for that. I was able to sit in a room with adults who looked at a book and took it seriously as a way to understand themselves and the world. They would talk about small passages and consider the different things the words could mean. It was formative for my brain and my heart, and it shaped me into a person who saw books as the path to figuring out how to live and what to do. I was sincerely religious at that time, and it was important to me for that reason. That shifted, but the formative experience of having those discussions around the book stayed with me more than anything.

I hit Milton as a teenager, and in some ways, 15 to 17 years old is the perfect time to read Milton. You have Satan striding the stage and refusing to be imprisoned, and all of those things that appeal to you when you’re 16. You feel like the world may be caging you in—and it is, in some ways. I was the kid who walked around with parts of Paradise Lost written on the front of my notebooks—very dramatic, but also sincere at the same time. Something moved me about this doomed figure who refused to be cowed even by invincibility. As a person who didn’t feel like I had much power over my life, that figure of someone who is ultimately powerless and yet still has control over themselves was really important to me. I don’t know if that was Milton’s goal, but it was what I took with me.

I also read poetry as a young person, but it was very staid, classic poetry. I didn’t really know that living people were still writing poetry until I was in college. At that point, I had cut my teeth on classic works and Great Books, but I was so excited by the idea that living people were still writing. It’s weird to think that you wouldn’t know that, but I didn’t—and when I realized it, I immersed myself in contemporary literature. I was reading things by people I might meet, and I met some of them, and I did an MFA, and I got to know people who were making art now.

I was glad that I’d read the things that I’d read, because the writers I admired had also read those books. We had a common ground and culture, but they were taking it from different perspectives. I fell in love with C.D. Wright’s book, Deepstep Come Shining. As a Texan, and as Texas is the honorary South in some ways, reading this Southern woman with this intellectual and accessible mode—you can think through the poems even though they’re wildly experimental—I felt like it made the world recognizable to me in a way that was new and exciting, and I felt thrilled about that.

What are you immersed in right now?

The Program, because I haven’t read much of what we read. There are exceptions, but especially on the philosophy front I’m in the wonderful position of being much like a student, where I’m reading these things for the first time, and they’re just so overwhelming. I’m reading these new books and learning new perspectives on the big questions that have been bothering me for a long time. I’m awash in all of these ways of thinking and trying to respond to them genuinely and take them in while moving to the next one. I’m in a materials-gathering phase.

I’m in this new place where instead of really bearing down on one book, which has been my mode in the past, I’m just filling my basket, and not knowing yet what I’ll build with it. It makes me feel like I’m 19 again, in some ways.

When you say “gathering materials,” what do you really mean?

As a person in my mid-30s, it’s easy to feel you’ve finished making something—when you get married, buy a house, have a kid, find a job you hope to stay in. It feels like something’s finished about yourself, and that can be stabilizing, but it can also be stultifying. There are some existential worries there, and I’m realizing that there are so many things I haven’t thought about, and that I’ve set aside and haven’t worried about. These books challenge me to reevaluate things I’ve assumed, and ask what is the good in what I’ve chosen to do. You can’t live your whole life in a state of vibrating uncertainty—but there’s a vitality that it gives that I’m excited to have.

In terms of the questions that I’m trying to answer, I’m trying to preconceive too much. Fruitful uncertainty is hard to find. So when I’m gathering materials I’m gathering questions, mostly, and seeing which ones I’ve answered in a false way, or in an incomplete way, or which ones I really have answered—it’s possible, though I have less certainty on that front.

This year, what book has been the most difficult to live within?

Aquinas, probably, because my taste and my mind have been so shaped by literature, and Aquinas’s mode is not literary. I’m trying to understand what questions he really wants to answer. I know that the Summa must be driven by truly felt questions that matter to him, and finding my way into those through logical manipulations which seem almost like divine technicalities in some places. To see those as something other than sidestepping the question has been challenging, but I think it has ultimately been fruitful because it will prepare my mind to respond more charitably to writers who are not in a literary mode, but also because I’m starting to think that the sheer avoidance of emotional or spiritual response to the question is hiding a deeply felt worry that Aquinas is facing.

At one point he says something along the lines of: When you read the divine law you then will have no doubt about what you ought to do, and this desire is to be in a state where you have no doubt about what the right thing to do is. How one could get to such a state seems like a question that has a lot of real feeling to it. The fear that we’re not doing the right thing, that doubt can come in the cracks from so many angles—he seems to be trying to patch all of those holes and really keep doubt out. Whether he’s successful in doing that for himself I can’t say, exactly. He certainly doesn’t assuage all of mine. But I can understand that desire.

My original question was “Have you ever hated a book,” but I think my real question is: Have you ever read something and felt that there’s nothing to get out of it?

I think I mentioned that I (have) read a lot of contemporary poetry. And there’s a lot of it that feels like an exercise. But maybe in part it’s that we haven’t had enough time to shuffle off the poems that don’t have a lot at stake in them or that don’t have a real question.

Frost talks about writing a poem like setting a piece of ice on top of a hot stove and letting it follow its own melting. There’s agency in setting the ice on the stove, but the ice also takes its own path in the work, and that seems crucial in anything being great or even being very good. Too many of the contemporary works I read seem to already know what they want to say, and don’t discover anything in their own making. There are certainly things I read every day that are disappointing or uninspiring or uninteresting. Generally, it doesn’t rise to the level of hatred. It would have to move me in order to make me hate it. I can’t recall a title that has moved me enough to hatred. Indifference, yes, and irritation, maybe, and even scorn, but not hatred. That’s too meaningful.

Inundation is one problem, in that so many people are writing contemporary poetry, but also that the contemporary view of art is oftentimes mostly conceptual: One just makes the thing they see in their mind’s eye, but it doesn’t move.

Yeah, I think motion is an important part of any book. In The Divine Comedy, I loved the focus on motion. Even though the thing that moved Dante was ostensibly this still point around which things turned was not moving to me in itself—the idea that the whole cosmos was defined by motion seemed true to me. I always think about what a book moves me towards and how it moves me there.

I think about it even in the advice I give student writers here at St. John’s who are figuring out how to write an essay. I think you have to be moving somewhere. It’s not just a report of a thought you had. The work itself has to move you, or it’s not going to move your reader.

I know the word “moving” takes on this valence of a saccharine solicitation of sentiment, but that’s not what I mean. I don’t know how quite to reclaim the word, but basically indulging your feelings about something you already had feelings about is not motion. A work should move you somewhere you haven’t moved before. I want to be surprised about where a work takes me.

Anything else that’s coming up for you?

When you’re doing the Program, the rest of the world feels like it falls away. It has its benefits at times. I’m not reading contemporary poetry right now. I’m not writing as much poetry as I was. That’s part of what I mean by gathering materials, too. As a poet, there are times where I’m not writing as much, and I’m just gathering materials, and there’s time for fruition. I don’t know that what’s going to flower out of it is necessarily poems—it could be a change in how I think about the world or how I live in the world. It’s interesting to be non-productive, in the strictest sense, and yet very fertile, and trying to remember that even though you’re not making things right now, you’re still doing work. Seniors probably feel that a lot, in asking themselves, ‘What have I made, what am I doing right now that I can hold onto?’ It’s an anxious place, but it’s also one of the most useful places to be, at least for a time.

One of my students, a freshman last year, felt like the whole foundation of everything he thought and believed was being destroyed and undermined by what he was doing in seminar and in math. We talked about how hard it is to be in that stage of looking around at the rubble and not seeing yet what could be built, and how that’s a necessary stage in any kind of renewal or creation. There’s going to be some kind of clearing of the ground. Feeling that things can be swept away can be kind of frightening. But trusting that someday you’ll be building something on that ground is important to see.

About Maggie Evans McGuinness

Before coming to St. John’s, Maggie Evans McGuinness completed an MFA in poetry at Texas State University and a PhD in Poetry and Poetics at the University of Oregon, where she was a fellow of the Oregon Humanities Center and a Dissertation Fellow of the Center for the Study of Women in Society. She is currently diving into the St. John’s Program and raising a family, but she continues to pursue her interest in poetry, as a writer and a reader — a notebook and Emily Dickinson are never far out of reach. Those interested can find her poems (some under Maggie Evans as well) in print and online in publications such as THRUSH, Black Warrior Review, Bellingham Review, Colorado Review, InDigest, and Willows Wept.