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"What Makes the Dream a Nightmare": An Interview with Martha Grover


Martha Grover is an author, poet, artist and writing coach living in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of One More for the People (Perfect Day Publishing) and The End of My Career (Perfect Day Publishing). The End of My Career was a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards in creative nonfiction in 2017. Her work has also appeared in The Collagist, Vol.1 Brooklyn, and The Portland Mercury, among others. She has been publishing her zine, Somnambulist, since 2003. Martha is currently at work on a book of prose poems and essays about Catastrophe, Myth, and being a sick person in the 21st century. When she is not writing, Martha is making zines, coaching her writing clients, making art, and selling Real Estate.

Her essay, "The Math Class," appeared in Issue Ninety-Five of The Collagist.

 Here, Martha Grover talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about recurring dreams, recalling high school, and creating zines. 

Please tell us about the origins of your essay “The Math Class.” What inspired you to start writing the first draft?

I had been having some version of the dream described in the essay for years and years. Several years ago, I thought I had “won” the dream, meaning I’d confronted the situation in the dream and I stopped having it. I didn’t have the nightmare for over a year and then it came back again. When I had the dream again, I started thinking: what does this dream represent? Why do I keep having it over and over?

Part of what makes the dream a nightmare is the fact that, not only am I forced to go back to high school, but I have to go back to take a math class. Math has always been a very challenging subject for me. In comparison, everything else is a breeze. I’m lucky in that getting good grades has always been incredibly easy for me, except when it came to math.

Your essay describes a recurring dream that you must have been dreaming for many years now. Have you done any journaling of your dreams prior to writing this essay? Did you rely on any such documentation when composing this piece, or did you work from memory of the dreaming? More generally, what has been the relationship between your dreams and your creative work?

I have always been interested in dreams, in what they mean, how they relate to our waking lives. Once, I was taking a prescription drug that gave me very vivid dreams and I actually made a little dream journal zine during that period and gave it to friends. But when I wrote this piece, I had been having this particular dream for so long that I didn’t have to refer to any old writing. Also, embarrassingly, I’d seen status updates referring to the dream come up in my “Facebook Memories” around the same time that I started having the dream again. So in a way, Facebook memories acted like a dream journal to jog my memory.

Another dream I often have, always involves some very particular harm or disfigurement/ dismemberment to my body. I should probably write a sister piece to “The Math Class” to explore that recurring dream. I think it’s fascinating how our brains return to the same scenario, with slightly different details, over and over. It’s like a riddle our unconscious is trying to solve.

Amid the narrative of this dream, you recall many details that evoke your experience of high school, one after the other, some in sentence fragments, like a catalog of images. Can you describe the process of selecting and arranging these particular details? Of course there must be so much more to that setting that had to be left out of this picture, so how did you choose what to include? Are all of these details somehow associated with iterations of the dream, or do they fit some other criteria or goal that you had in mind?

One of the things I had to ask myself in the course of writing this essay, is why would it be not only awful to return to high school as an adult, but why would it be awful to return to my particular high school? To answer this question I obviously focused on the more negative details of my high school years and the environment there—in rural Oregon. Of course, I have many positive memories of high school but that wasn’t the point I was trying to get across. And those positive memories are mostly surrounding having fun with my friends. When you are out of public school for a while, at least this has been my experience, you get a better perspective on the institution as a whole. You see the drudgery, the pettiness, the lack of professionalism and going back there, especially for a math class, begins to look more and more dreadful. I really wanted to convey the feeling of dread and hopelessness that came along with the dream.

What creative project(s) are you working on now?

Right now I am slowly writing my third book, which is a collection of traditional essays. I’m also simultaneously writing a fourth book of essays that are a bit more like “The Math Class” – shorter, more lyrical, more experimental. (I’m looking for an agent!)

I’m also in the beginning of turning part of my first book into a play. In 2008, I was forced to move back in with my parents. At that time, there were several other siblings living with them. Every Sunday morning my parents forced us to have a family meeting. So I took the “minutes” and posted them on my blog, and then eventually compiled them into a zine. And then those eventually got published in my first book. And now I am working with a playwright to translate “The Grover Family Meeting Minutes” into a play. It’s very exciting!

In addition to being a writer, I’m also an illustrator and fund my work through my Patreon page. This keeps me busy producing podcasts, artwork and zines. You can look me up at: patreon.com/marthagrover

What have you read recently that you want to recommend?

I really loved Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters. I’m also reading Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot and it’s breathtaking.

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