Mandy Sayer chats to Krissy Kneen about The Poet’s Wife
Mandy Sayer’s third memoir vividly details her marriage to the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Yusef Komunyakaa, and their unconventional life lived across the United States and in Sydney’s Kings Cross. Here, Sayer talks with Krissy Kneen about committing her tumultuous marriage to the page.
When reading a review of a memoir we often come across a repeated set of related words. ‘Brave’ is the first one that springs to mind, along with ‘courageous’, ‘fearless’, ‘bold’. But what is so brave about telling the truth (or at least your subjective truth) about your life publicly? So many of us do it on social media, don’t we?
Well, not exactly. We tell a version of ourselves but much of the truth is hidden. We show off our best side: our most flattering selfies, our most humorous quips and clever patter. The art of the memoirist is a different job entirely.
‘Compelling memoirs usually reveal the narrator’s vulnerabilities, secrets, confusions and mistakes,’ says Mandy Sayer, who has just released her third memoir, and eighth book, The Poet’s Wife. ‘Many people aren’t comfortable with that level of public revelation about their so-called weaknesses, which I can understand. However, it’s usually on that level that a bond can grow between reader and narrator, and where identification begins.’
Sayer has certainly forged a kind of bond with her own readers, many of whom have followed her since her first novel, Mood Indigo, won the Australian/Vogel Literary Award when she was just 26. But it was her first memoir, Dreamtime Alice that gave readers an insight into her life and character. Dreamtime Alice, which focused on her nomadic life tap-dancing across New York and New Orleans with her drum-playing father, intersects with The Poet’s Wife – her newest self-revelation. In both her previous memoirs, Sayer looks back at herself as a child. In The Poet’s Wife, the child becomes an adult, falls in love, and then struggles to retain some sense of self within a relationship that is ultimately destructive.
Sayer survived her marriage to Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa, but The Poet’s Wife begins and ends with a different ‘poet’s wife’, the woman Komunyakaa partnered with after Mandy had left their relationship. Poet Reetika Vazirani, Komunyaaka’s partner, tragically killed herself and their young son. The horror of this murder-suicide haunts the book, giving weight to Sayer’s own struggles with mental illness and self-harm during the years of her marriage to Komunyakaa. There are two ‘wives’ in this memoir, two women who are also writers, and there is a pervading sense that the fate of one might easily have been the fate of the other if things had gone differently for Sayer.
‘The framing device [of Vazirani’s murder-suicide] is intentional and so is the title. I did research a little of Reetika’s life and did find certain similarities,’ says Sayer, ‘especially once I read her posthumous collection, Radha Says. It is so full of anguish and confusion over her relationship that some of the stanzas reminded me of my own shocking, pleading diary entries years ago. My heart went out to her, and of course to their son.’
Sayer’s diary plays a central role in the book: committing her thoughts to paper is a powerful act in the memoir. In fact, the craft of the writer takes centre stage, as the young Sayer begins to help Komunyakaa with his poetry and is, in turn, encouraged by him to embark on a writing career of her own.
This book contains many thoughtful insights into the art of writing, alongside the personal struggles of a young woman desperately trying to salvage her relationship, as well as her own self-esteem. In The Poet’s Wife, Sayer studies with some of the great writers and demonstrates her own fascination with the process of writing, and the construction of both novels and memoirs.
When pressed about the architecture of her work, and the differences between the two forms, her answer sheds light on the assembly of her latest book, echoing the same passion for craft that infuses a large part of the narrative in The Poet’s Wife.
‘With a memoir you start off knowing all of the material and the real task, in order to find shapes, patterns and structure, is asking yourself what to leave out of the narration. With a novel, it’s the complete opposite: you start off knowing none of the material – a literal blank page – and the task is asking yourself what to include. The memoir is subtraction; the novel is addition. Both are mathematics!’
The Poet’s Wife is a pacey read. The sentences race along, jumping from moment to moment, leaving a reader with hardly any time to wonder what has been subtracted, what parts of this life have been chipped away to serve the shape of the plot. Sayer is aware of her own natural rhythms, which occur in the text. ‘As a tap dancer, and coming from a musical family,’ she says, ‘I became attuned to nuances of rhythm and music far earlier than those of literature. It’s also the backbeat of everything I write, including fiction, poetry and essays.’
The Poet’s Wife offers much to those interested in the construction of memoir, but also provides readers with plenty of universal truths to unpack along the way. It is a fine balance for most relationships – how do you keep the mystery of a honeymoon period alive while fostering a depth of relationship that only honesty and experience can engender? The Poet’s Wife is a formidable lesson in this struggle associated with marriage. As Sayer says when questioned about the plot of The Poet’s Wife, ‘In some ways it can be read as a kind of domestic thriller, with the wife-detective trying to unravel the truth about a mysterious and unknowable husband.’