Oceanic is the fourth collection of poetry by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Copper Canyon Press, 2018). Concerned the fragility of the natural world and the humans who live within it, Oceanic moves in and out of ecopoetry. She explores various forms, creatures and voices to create a vivid portrait of a world at once beautiful and at risk of irrevocable change.
Nezhukumatathil was the 2016-2017 Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi, where she is a professor of English in the MFA program. She has received, among other awards, a Pushcart Prize, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and fellowships to the MacDowell Colony. She is also the author of three previous poetry collections: LUCKY FISH (2011), AT THE DRIVE-IN VOLCANO (2007), and MIRACLE FRUIT (2003)––all from Tupelo Press. Her most recent chapbook is LACE & PYRITE, a collaboration of nature poems with the poet Ross Gay.
FWR: What spurred the writing of Oceanic?
AN: I never set out to write a book—even after 4 books, I still find that prospect daunting. Instead, I focus on the individual poems, getting those done week after week. And sometimes some quiet times in between too. Lots of ‘not-writing.’ And after some time, I take inventory of my poems and see if anything is gelling together or having arguments with one another.
FWR: I was struck by the appearance of the haibun in your collection. What brought you to this form?
AN:I started experimenting with haibun more seriously after having my first child. I was head over heels in love with this new creature and while I loved articulating this newness in poems, I also wanted to be private about this special new time for my family. Traditionally speaking, the haibun’s focus is on landscape or travel—more outward than inner observations, though of course how you describe the outdoors can evoke an inward glance. During those sleep-deprived months, I could just about think in haibun and then write haibun more than any other form. Something about that concentrated sensory experience with a sort of ‘rose clipping’ (the haiku) at the end was very conducive to my state of being those heady first years of being a new mom.
FWR: While thinking more broadly of form, you range through different forms, utilizing prose poems and ghazals, and dipping into poems that seem their own form (“Daughter” and “Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth”). Could you talk a bit about your relationship to form?
AN: I love using form as a way to corral and round up the ecstasy of writing a line that wants to unfurl messily down the page. I’m all for mess, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes a large initial image needs a little belt-tightening, a little trimming—so it becomes a puzzle in the best sense of how to lock and align your poem to a form.
FWR: I’d love to look specifically at “The Falling: Four Who Have Intentionally Plunged Over Niagara Falls with the Hope of Surviving.” These poems seem to speak to a love of destruction inherent in us (whether causing pain to another or the planet). Yet, there’s such joy in the destruction rendered in these poems, even as Annie Edison Taylor says, “Don’t hate me because I sent the cat first” or “Look / at your life: it can count” from the “Steven Trotter” section. Could you expand on what drew you to these poems?
AN: My (not-so) naughty little secret is that I read way more natural history/ science/ history/ biographies than I do actual poetry. I remember reading a newspaper article that celebrated the anniversary of Annie Edson Taylor’s first plunge over the falls, and I just became intrigued/ horrified/ delighted about the history of the number of people who intentionally went over Niagara Falls. Many of these people died in relative obscurity and I was hungry to hear their voices, their rationales, their fears, and their desires through a contemporary lens with persona poetry.
FWR: I’m interested in how you play with images of the body and motherhood, and juxtapose those against images from nature. In doing so, there’s a freshness that appears (I’m thinking of a poem like “In Praise of My Manicure” or “The Body”), which might seem pat in another’s hands. Did you find yourself resisting any of these poems or images?
AN: Thank you so much! But no—98% of the time, I start a poem with an image and I’ve had to learn to trust my digging towards (and away) from that image to see why it had lingered with me in the first place.
FWR: I saw that you are working on a book of illustrated nature essays (World of Wonder, 2020, Milkweed)— how is the process of writing essays different from (or similar to!) the writing of poetry? What lead you to that project?
AN: It came from a very real and deep love and wonderment about the animals and plants of the world that don’t always get heralded or adored. I feel lucky that though my parents did not directly encourage my writing; they very much unintentionally encouraged it by making sure my younger sister and I had family road trips to outdoor landmarks all over this planet from such a young age, and they taught me the names of animals and plants that weren’t usually found in zoos or nurseries. Most of all, they showed me by example what it means to be curious about this planet: it means you’ll never be bored or lonesome. How could you, knowing there are such wondrous creatures that live below hundreds of feet of ice, or deep in the backwaters of south India? But in all my reading as a young girl—I never saw brown women authoring these books. Of course, there must have been marginalized voices writing and publishing about the outdoors back then, but I certainly never had teachers who taught these authors. And I tried and tried to find them in the library myself to no avail. One would think brown women did not even go outside if you looked at the average library shelves in the 70s and 80s. This absence of Asian American voices praising the outdoors, naming the precariousness some of these animals, and frankly showing how extraordinary this planet’s strange and beautiful inhabitants are before they disappear is something I’m hoping to remedy.
FWR: Is there a poem (or poems!) that you love to teach or share?
AN: I love to teach Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Mint Snowball.” It’s quite literally the first poem I ever fell in love with from a living writer, and I love to see the smiles and delights on my students’ faces when we discuss it together now too.
Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel, Florence In Ecstasy (Unnamed Press), was a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2017 and has been published or is forthcoming in Italy, the Czech Republic, Russia, Poland, Turkey, and Romania. She was awarded a Fulbright grant to Italy to complete the novel, during which time she was the writer-in-residence at Florence University of the Arts. Her writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Slice, and Global City Review, among others. She lives in New York City, where she is an editor at Words Without Borders. Find her at www.JessieChaffee.com and @JessieLChaffee.
Florence In Ecstasy follows Hannah, a young American in Florence who is recovering from an eating disorder that has severely affected her emotional and physical health. Determined to defeat the disorder, Hannah joins a rowing club, propelling her into the vibrant and tight-knit community of Florence. However, Florence’s mystical history and art, particularly as it pertains to the saints –– women who starved themselves in the name of God –– is seductive, triggering in Hannah a desire to return and reclaim her disorder. Throughout the novel, Hannah asks herself the questions we all must eventually ask ourselves: “Who was I?”, “Who am I?”, and, “Who will I become?”
FWR: To begin, I want to ask you about the origin story of the novel. Did you always know you were going to place Hannah’s story in Florence or was it a discovery along the way?
Jessie Chaffee: The origin was really two things. One was that I was in graduate school and I was reading a lot of books about women on the fringes. And around the time when I started this book, I read the full canon of Jean Rhys, and in particular, her book Good Morning, Midnight, which is amazing. Good Morning, Midnight is about a woman who is descending into alcoholism in Paris and her rendering of that mental state –– which is really hard to do, I think, to capture altered states and addiction believably –– and what is really a love affair with alcohol was so powerful. I wanted to know how to do that.
Almost a decade earlier, I’d had an experience with an eating disorder in my early 20’s, which was less extreme than Hannah’s. I hadn’t written about it and hadn’t been able to write about it, but it left me with questions, and questions are always a good place to start a book. I hadn’t seen an eating disorder written about in the same way that I had experienced it and really Jean Rhys’s account of alcoholism came closest.
FWR: That’s interesting that you say that you hadn’t seen eating disorders written about the way you experienced it. So often I feel that eating disorders are written through tropes and act as warning stories. Like, these characters are the consequence of low self-esteem, or women who have experienced major traumas and destroy their bodies as a result. Much of Hannah’s experience with her eating disorder is wrapped up in art. While so much of her experience seems to come from a search for meaning, especially towards the end of the novel, it also comes from this desire for ownership. She describes the disorder as creating, carving, and sculpting. Can you say something about Hannah’s relationship to art and her disorder?
JC: Thank you. That’s a great question. So, her background in the book is in art and it is how she understands the world and sees the world. And one of the reasons that I wanted to set the book in Florence was because I wanted to put this woman in a place where she would be alone, but also not alone. Florence operates like a small town, so inevitably she can’t remain anonymous forever. But also because Florence is full of art and history –– it’s everywhere –– it made sense to me that she would go there looking for answers, so to speak.
In terms of the artistic creation, one of the things that I wanted to capture about the disorder was the high of it. When I began the book, the saints weren’t a part of it. It was in the writing that they emerged. Reading their accounts of ecstasy and about their very sensual, fulfilling, but ultimately painful relationship with God, I found their experiences resonated with somebody who’s caught up in an addiction. To the outside world, of course, it looks like Hannah is simply starving herself and abusing herself. But the reason that the disorder is so hard for her to get out of is because it’s seductive. It gives her a high. Because there is something about it that makes her feel as though she’s creating herself in this really powerful way. So, I think that’s where the connection to art comes in. She feels as if she’s creating herself. And it is not about beauty. It’s not really about how she looks. It’s about what happens internally when she’s in the process of doing that that drives her.
FWR: Yes! I realized that you’re exploring this idea, especially with Hannah and the saints, of erasure as a way to create. Hannah and the saints are making space by erasing what is already there, in order to create. For the saints, it’s more of a spiritual creation. But for Hannah, it’s a kind of knowledge of the self through the erasure of the physical self, which seems both counterintuitive but also so clearly what we’re often doing as artists–– clearing the space to actually create. Even when you’re filling the page, you’re removing the initial space, you’re changing the actual platform. When you’re painting, you remove the color or the absence of color, and sculpture is also a removal of physical parts. Especially in writing, so much of the work is actually erasing so much of what you put on the page in the first place. There is something in Hannah’s experience that rings so true about the agonizing but also amazing experience of being an artist, just creating and erasing, creating and erasing.
JC: Absolutely! And you’re also trying to erase the self. The best writing for me, and the best moments of writing, are when I disappear, when I feel like I’m no longer in it. I think there really is that kind of total self-erasure where you hit whatever it is that you’re reaching for. It doesn’t happen most of the time, but when you get there, it is almost like this ecstatic state. It is, I think, what can make artistic creation addictive and make you come back to it. And in those moments, I feel like I’m really gone.
FWR: And that brings me back to this theme of ownership. There’s a moment in the book where the reader thinks Hannah’s going to be alright, she’s in a relationship, she’s eating, she has a job at this library full of rare books. But then she steals all these old manuscripts of first-hand accounts of women saints’ spiritual ecstasies, and their experiences trigger her addiction, sending her into a downward spiral. While this is happening she starts talking directly about the disorder, and she’s saying that she “loved it,” that she “clung to it,” but also that it was hers. There’s this real desire for ownership, but she also says that she belongs to it. So then, it seems to me, the big question the novel begins to ask is one of ownership, whether it’s ownership of the self, or art, or history, or the body.
JC: Yeah, that’s great. Hannah does repeat throughout the book this idea that whatever this thing was, it was hers. She states directly, “It was mine.” You know, that’s not necessarily said with pride but is said with a recognition that this relationship is so intimate that it is necessarily a part of her. It’s not just something that is being done to her. And she’s also a part of it. That’s the tricky thing about any addiction, I think, that getting out of it is so difficult because you’re not just letting go of the thing but you’re letting go of a part of yourself. You’re letting go of a version of yourself that is yours. With the saints, I was really interested in their desire to erase, both their individual identities, and also their physical selves through starvation, other kinds of self-mortification, or other behaviors to deny the body. Because their purported goal is to totally erase themselves, right? To give themselves over completely to God, to erase their physical bodies, to be fully in the Spirit, to be completely pulled away from all things earthly and all things of the flesh. However, when they’re practicing this extreme behavior, they’re actually creating these very powerful identities that were long-lasting. And so they were creating the exact opposite of erasure. They were creating a legacy for themselves. And I think there’s real ownership in that. I’ve mentioned it in the book, but the fact that there are all these accounts that begin with “I, Angela”, “I, Catherine”, “I, Claire”. That kind of “I-ness” of the saints is really about the legacy they’re creating through the stories they’re telling about their experiences.
FWR: You do such a good job telling their stories through Hannah’s experiences and growing obsession with the saints. But what I found so interesting is that while she, and the saints, are wanting to erase, so much of Hannah’s experience with them, and with Italy, is physical. You’ve got all these relics, and she goes to see Saint Catherine’s head, and she’s got all these old books that she hauls home. And she’s also in Florence, and is physically experiencing Florence, and joining a rowing club. So much of her identity, in Florence, then, is developed through the physical, and through physical intimacy and pleasure with Luca, as well as pain, like the saints. Can you talk a little bit about how the book is looking at the relationship between the physical and visible and the spiritual and intangible?
JC: I think the saints are so fascinating because their descriptions are so physical. Even though, supposedly, it is about erasure, they have these incredible visceral descriptions. They are very much in their bodies. Even the mortification of the self is really about being in the body and the pain inflicted on it. And I think for Hannah, part of the struggle is to come back into her body. I purposefully set the book after she has really lived in the depths of the disorder because I didn’t want to romanticize that. You see glimpses of it because the reader has to understand her experience, but she comes to Florence to live. She’s trying to live and she’s trying to be back in her body, and so I think she comes to a place that really forces her to be present. Her relationship with Luca forces her to be present, too, and to be present in her body, and so does the rowing. You can’t row without a body. You can’t row with a weak body. You can’t do that if you’re starving yourself. So I think the physical ends up being important to her and that ultimately, even though she’s bumping into all of these remnants of the saints and recognizing the power of their ecstasies and also their mortifications and the behaviors they practice to gain their independence, and to gain their voice, that part of her becoming a body again, is rejecting some of that.
FWR: You said you didn’t want to romanticize the actual disorder addiction. I think one of the ways that you achieve that is actually showing not only her wrestling with it but also the physical pain that she’s experiencing. For example, there’s that scene where she runs and shoves saltines down her throat and drinks a bunch of water, but instead of reducing the pain, she becomes more uncomfortable. It’s not that you are giving the reader these grotesque images of it, but it’s just very real. It’s a very real kind of desperation. Also, what I loved is that you don’t give an origin story or blame the disorder on a huge trauma that happened to her. It seems really important that it is just a state of being that Hannah struggles with, in relation to her status as a woman, not only now, but throughout history.
JC: Yeah, it’s an old story.
FWR: Totally! And you seem to be hitting on a larger societal ill in relation to feminine subjugation. Could you talk a little bit more about what you were thinking as you were developing Hannah’s addiction, but also her intellectual experience of it, because the reader is so much in her head.
JC: A lot of what she’s trying to figure out in the book is: why did this happen to me and where did it start? Thinking about structures and things that you get rid of in books further along, when I started the book, any flashbacks where distinctly set off in italics, and they all began with the line: “This is where it starts.” And it was all sort of an indicator of her searching for the origin of how she ended up in this place where she really lost herself. I appreciate that you say that I don’t give an origin story because I didn’t want there to be an easy answer for “this is why this happens.” And I think that makes some people uncomfortable. I’ve certainly had people ask me, “Why did it happen to Hannah?” And I don’t know if you would get that question when it comes to other addictions, right? Why does somebody become an alcoholic? I mean, you start engaging in a behavior that becomes addictive. Certainly with not eating, there’s this initial positive response. There are so many women of all ages who are at war with their bodies and have negative relationships with food. Hannah is on one extreme end of an eating disorder, but when you think about the spectrum of people’s relationship with food and their bodies, women and men have really disordered behavior all the time. I didn’t want to give a single reason for why this is happening. Also, I was less interested in the reason that it was happening than why somebody would get caught up in it, and what would make it hard for them to get out of it. I also was hoping that people reading the book would be able to relate to it so that whatever kind of addiction or abusive relationship anyone has experienced, they might be able to find some of that in Hannah, rather than saying, well, I didn’t experience this trauma so I don’t relate to this.
FWR: I don’t think you need to have experienced a major trauma or addiction to be able to connect with Hannah. She’s simply struggling between the desire for control and the desire to let go, which is innately human. Yes, Hannah is an extreme version of that, especially in today’s world. But these desires were also experienced by the women saints. Their ecstasies are about control and fulfillment, right? And meaning. So many of the saints’ lives are interpreted historically as a way to escape a strict patriarchal system that limited their agency. Saint Catherine didn’t want to get married. Saint Bernadette also wanted to avoid being forced into a relationship with a man, and so many other female saints experienced ecstasies or visions in order to remove themselves from the society that wanted to control them. But they also wanted to remove the feminine connected with that society, maybe perhaps in order to have control over their own selves. And with Hannah, she has this conversation with Luca about not eating, and Luca asks her if it’s because she wants to be skinny, as if it has to do with being sexy or attractive, and she immediately rejects this idea. And it reminds me of all these conversations I’ve had with friends and essays I’ve read about wanting to hide the body, to avoid being seen as sexy and feminine, and instead attempting to hide the self through baggy clothes, or boyish looks, or anything that might help make the feminine part of the body disappear.
JC: Right. Wanting to not go into the world body first, which is what happens for girls as soon as they hit adolescence. Your body is no longer yours once it begins to be seen and noticed. Throughout the book, Hannah has this sense that she’s being watched all the time. There is this desire in her to disappear, which in a certain sense is a removal of the feminine. But that ultimately isolates her and her ability to connect intimately with other people. And I do think a part of her actions throughout the novel are about wanting to disappear. The disorder is certainly not about her wanting to be beautiful, but it’s about something different. Part of that does become about erasing herself. But part of it too, and this is the hard thing about any addiction, is that it starts as one thing, and then it becomes something else. So it begins as maybe a control, or self-erasure, or the desire for something that she hasn’t found, and it becomes a place of meaning. You know, it becomes a kind of philosophy. It’s great to find meaning and it’s great to find your philosophy if it’s in a place that’s healthy, but often we find those things in places that are unhealthy and that makes it really hard.
FWR: One of the things I think the book is doing so well is that it makes some really interesting statements about what it means to form identity, and what are the consequences and risks of claiming, creating, or denying identity. And so much of Hannah’s eventual reclaiming of her identity is dealing with those consequences. She goes to Florence, she starts rowing, she becomes romantically involved with a man, and so much of the trajectory could just move towards this idea of the runaway love affair that will save her, but then you take an entirely different turn. And, without giving too much away, so much of Hannah’s reckoning with her own identity is dealing with the world she’s run away from.
JC: Much of that was very conscious. Many of my favorite books are incredibly dark, where things don’t end well. And I didn’t want to write a book that had this easy, unrealistic, happy ending, but because I was writing about something that I’ve experienced and I know a lot of people experience, I didn’t feel like I could leave the book in a totally dark place. There had to be some hope. I feel hopeful for Hannah and her ability to not necessarily get out of things, but to live with things and survive. It’s not something that can be answered and fixed by somebody else loving and accepting her. So, I always felt like she had to go home because part of actually taking ownership of her life is dealing with her life. Part of being an agent in her life is facing it and dealing with it. That doesn’t mean her relationship with Italy and with Luca isn’t meaningful. It is meaningful. But just because it’s meaningful doesn’t mean it’s the answer.
An excerpt from Florence In Ecstasy
I wake the next morning to rain that doesn’t let up. At the club, everyone will be indoors—all bodies crowding in, all sounds echoing loud, all the older men clustered in the bar instead of on the embankment, all eyes and voices. I avoid it. I should open my laptop, look for work, but I avoid that, too.
I visit San Frediano in Cestello on the other side of the river, the Oltrarno. Luca was right—the church is beautiful. A small plaque on the wall outside announces that the mystic, Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, lived and died in the adjacent convent. Inside, there is a chapel dedicated to her with a painting of the saint in ecstasy, and in the chapel’s belled ceiling she welcomes souls into Heaven with sweeping arms. This is why he sent me here. There is nothing more, though—not in the little brochure I was handed and not in my guidebook—and the gates leading to the convent beside the church are locked.
I find a small café not far from the church, glowing warm on this gray day. I stop for a coffee, but the place seeps in, holds me there, and I stay from early afternoon into evening, alternately reading and watching people battle the rain through the wide window. I return the next day and the day after that. The waitstaff has no qualms about my making the transition from a coffee and salad to a glass of wine when the café empties and they have their staff dinner, scraping at plates and laughing, while I watch the gray light stretch across the tables in shifting bands and catch in my glass.
I’m still reading about St. Catherine. As a teenager, she pleaded to join the Mantellate, a group of older widows cloistered in the Basilica of San Domenico, but her parents refused—she was not old and was not a widow. She would be married. Until she grew ill, so ill that even when her father took her to the thermals baths, the boiling waters had no effect. Her illness was a sign from God, she said, and so her parents acquiesced, allowing her to join the widows in prayer, and Catherine was healed.
Her career began with a movement inward, with visions and ecstasies. When in a trance, she did not wince at the needles that disbelievers jabbed into her feet. This and her vision of a mystical marriage to Christ secured her celebrity. As she grew older, she looked outward beyond San Domenico. She cured the lame, drew poison, and drank pus from the sores of the sick. She learned to read and became politically active, composing letters of criticism to the pope.
And she made herself empty for prayer. By age eight, she was slipping meat onto her brother’s plate. By sixteen, she ate only fruits and vegetables, then used instruments—a stalk of fennel, a quill—to throw them back up.
As another steaming dish arrives nearby, the thick, smoky smell drifting my way, my stomach turns over—with desire, then revulsion—and in this, I understand the saint’s denial. I remember well when my days became punctuated by sharp sensations:
Sunlight too bright.
Counting. And with the counting came praise and with the praise came questions. How do you do it? Claudia asked, one of a chorus when I began losing flesh, December into January into February. There was admiration in their voices, and I knew what they were asking: How do you cut so close to the bone? By the time Catherine joined the Mantellate, she had stopped eating almost entirely. This body of mine remains without any food, without even a drop of water: in such sweet physical tortures as I never at any time endured. She was empty, open. I’d like to think that she belonged to no one but herself, that the sweetness of the pain was hers alone. But she writes, My body is Yours.
Love. Her letters are filled with the word. The soul cannot live without loving… The soul always unites itself with that which it loves, and is transformed by it. I envy her ecstasies, emptied of everything. Is that love? All that emptiness and the trance that follows? Love is a tunneling, I think. An envisioning and then a tunneling of vision, the edges disappearing until all that remains is the beloved. I had hoped that I would feel that with Julian, that with him I might escape the mornings when I woke tamped down and pressed myself back into dreams that did not soothe. But he was no match for the other solace I found. He fell away with all the rest.
By the second day of my residency at the café I’m almost all the way through Catherine’s life. The soul is always sorrowful, she writes, and cannot endure itself. Outside, people are hurrying through the rain to the evening service. The bells begin to clang furiously, ricocheting off one another as one of the staff appears.
“Un altro bicchiere?” he asks, lifting my glass.
“Sì,” I say, wanting him to leave me to listen to the bells. They are playing a hymn. It is familiar to me and I feel a rush of happiness, uninterrupted. Even in this gray light it grows, and I’m afraid of the moment when I’ll slip over the peak and feel it dissipate. I close my eyes and the bells continue. They are asking a question: Are you searching for? Are you searching for?
Jaclyn Gilbert’s debut novel, Late Air, is about love, loss, and the art of running. Late Air (Little A) hit bookstores November 13th. Jaclyn Gilbert received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and BA from Yale University. She is the recipient of a research fellowship from the New York Public Library, a contributor to the Bread Loaf and Tin House Writers’ Conference, and her work has appeared in Post Road Magazine, Tin House, and Lit Hub, among others.
Four Way Review sat down with her recently over coffee, and eventually cocktails and ice cream, to discuss her writing, grief, and what it means generally to be a human being
FWR: Okay, I figured we could start with the basics, which is essentially asking you about the genesis of this story, and how you actually began approaching your first novel. So, what is the origin of this story and when did you realize that it was actually a novel more than a short story?
Jaclyn Gilbert: Well, originally I just wanted to tell the story of this accident that came to me out of the blue. I was running along the Bronx River Parkway, and I had this horrible thought: what if a stray golf ball hit me on the golf course? I trained on a golf course [while running at Yale] without really being afraid of that happening, but something about looking at it from a present vantage point made me look at the risks differently. It suddenly seemed really dangerous! So I started writing this short story about a coach dealing with a golf ball hitting his star runner. It was a world that I knew really well, so I decided to set this opening scene on the course where I could really ground my imagination and my senses and kind of observe the possibilities.
When I’d finished a draft, I gave it to a friend in my MFA program, and she was like, “My God, this is so compelling. You have to keep writing it!” So that gave me the courage to see it to some kind of finished point. Then I submitted it as a story that took place in a couple of weeks, and was only about Murray, the coach, trying to deal with the accident, but in a much more sympathetic way than the novel seeks to portray him. But after I had finished writing the story, I didn’t love it. It wasn’t providing enough conflict or enough understory to really to make it something that felt real. So I went deeper. I didn’t want to hide behind this really sad and pathetic character who’d had this horrible thing happen. I had to really figure out what his life was before this event and what were all of the ramifications of that past into the present.
So that led to a lot of layering in order to develop his moral ambiguity and place around this event. And later that summer, after I’d written the story, I tried out writing from whole other point of view, which became Nancy, Murray’s estranged wife, and this became an interesting way to look at Murray’s past. Once I started exploring all of her memories and ideas about marriage, I started to conceive how these two timelines might intervene in the present. I started looking for as many potential echoes as possible between the two. I was really interested in how the associative echoes that are happening with Murray’s psyche and his consciousness in the present and how there might be these points of correspondence with the past and what Nancy remembered. I drew from a lot of colors and essential images that re-emerge throughout the story to create parallels in the narratives, constantly bouncing off Murray, trying to force him to confront this repressed past. I guess the genesis of the story really came by trying to imagine what this man’s mind like, what are all the different timeframes that might be operating in it, and pushing the story to be more about him.
FWR: What did you want the story to be about, then?
JG: I really wanted to write about a marriage, which meant I had to develop Nancy. So the revision process really became about Nancy not just being in the service of her husband’s story and past, but about a woman’s journey that in many ways is opposite to Murray’s. It’s through that counter narrative that I could explore the ways we grieve. Once I realized this was really a story about the process of grief, I was able to shape this vision into a more realized story about finding truth or recognizing shared pain.
FWR: You just said something really interesting. You said you were running and you suddenly had this imagined fear of something that could have potentially happened in the past. But you never had that fear during the actual time you were running on golf courses.
FWR: Which is interesting because I think a lot of the book is about not having fear in the present but then actually reflecting on the events of the past, which creates a fear for the present. When the characters are together, they are in the moment, and they actually don’t have fear. But when they are later separated and the trauma has occurred, they seem to be incapable of being in the present. In particular, Nancy, envisions not only the fears from the past, but that fear invades her present. She becomes kind of obsessive in her own feelings and the things that could go wrong from the vantage point of looking back. Do you think that there’s anything in there that you were examining in terms of how we perceive our past or how we establish fears based on the examination of the past and past trauma?
JG: I don’t think I could have seen that in the writing process because I think I was just reacting to my own fears. But I think that this book is capturing what posttraumatic stress is like. As I was writing this book, I was confronted with my own traumas, especially during college. I didn’t necessarily know that was a traumatic time in my life because I had never really given voice to admitting that it was traumatic. I just thought I was very stressed. When I was in college, I actually remember not feeling very much at all. Like I was just so programmed to achieve these prescribed goals. It felt like this insurmountable thing and I didn’t really even know what it was that I needed to achieve. I was so terrified of failing that it consumed my daily operating systems so much so that I couldn’t even pinpoint what I was so afraid of.
I think maybe that’s why something about the ball literally coming out of left field was so jarring, because it was asking me to look at that time and for me to recognize that that was a painful time. Maybe that’s also why I could relate to Murray’s character so much– he’s clinging to these systems for order and control through running, which has always been my go to since I was young. That was how I made sense of my world when it felt chaotic. But it also has blinded me to the fact of that trauma, because it was like, “oh, I’m always muscling through this thing”.
I’ve come to believe that when things are really incomprehensible and painful, you can’t possibly know how you’re going to feel until much later, after the event. The story feels born out of that because Murray and Nancy couldn’t have known that their child was going to die, the suddenness of that. And I felt like I did experience a sudden trauma in college. So I think I was drawing from the suddenness of something that I would have really wanted to be able to prevent, but that I really had no possible way of preventing and fixing once it was over.
FWR: But there’s also something so fearless about Nancy and Murray’s characters when they first meet. That first initial meeting in Paris, there’s something almost risky in their leaps of faith in each other. They’re willing to rush into this love. They’re willing to take these risks that allow them to take each other in, both physically and emotionally. Then, even before the trauma, that risk begins to erode when life become settled. It’s similar to what you were saying about your own personal experiences as a young person running on the course: you had no fear. But looking back on the experience, and reflecting as an older person, you recognize that a danger or a potential danger was always there. So there’s almost something being said about evolving and growth and not only the pros of maturity, but also the cons, like what we sacrifice. When we agree to be mature, when we agree to be adults, we sacrifice a kind of fearlessness that allows us initially to be creators, whether it’s a baby or a book.
JG: There’s always this inherent risk in everything you do. I think what I was really looking at through these characters, especially in their past, is idealism. I think it’s at heart of everything. As much as it is about perfectionism, it’s also about idealism. This search for this idea of perfect love or the idea of being the perfect parent, or appearing one way on the outside. Like you really have everything that you could possibly want. It’s really about attaining an ideal, like a dream. And these Ivy League institutions breed a kind of mindset that ignores and tries to hide what’s really going on behind the scenes or how corroded that dream could be.
And if you’re in a place as romantic as Paris – and I’m also really fascinated by Paris as this place built on this nostalgic dream and I think that’s really one of the big reasons why Giovanni’s Room plays a big role for me in thinking about Nancy’s character. For me, [James] Baldwin is writing about this idea of Paris after he leaves America and is looking at the unrest from the Civil Rights Movement from a distance, but Paris isn’t really real and there’s a denial built in. You don’t know that when you’re reading Giovanni’s Room until eventually it all crumbles.
I think that’s what I was trying to achieve—the kind of stories we tell ourselves when we take these risks and build these ideas and dreams around what we think we want and what love is and what marriage is, when in reality it’s all a constant imperfect test.
FWR: Your prose is just so vivid and alive, and so for the most part I was just enthralled and caught up in the narrative, but now that we are talking, I realize how much of the story is about reflection. It’s not really about the initial experience, it’s about reflecting on that experience and placing meaning on it after it’s happened.
JG: One of the things I was trying to think about was tense. I couldn’t really write the whole thing in past perfect, but that’s kind of how you could read Nancy’s section because, like you said, so much of this is comparing the past to the present, and so much of Nancy’s story is in the past, and a lot of it is thinking about things that could have been, but even that could have been has passed. So the future, present, and past are all in the same stream. I had to be really careful about my tenses and figure out how to artfully break the rules of time so I could get Nancy to a moment where she’s got to break that dream mentality of what could have been and just deal with the reality of grief.
FWR: Much of his book is centered on a marriage, but it’s not really about a marriage as much as it is the collapse of a marriage because of the inability to communicate grief and pain. So much of that pain — even before the grief occurs — is centered on the physical, but in very different ways for each character. In what ways does the book examine the physical manifestations of grief and how and why do they differ in each character?
JG: That’s really at the heart of the story. A lot of these manifestations are really interwoven in the characters’ identities. So a lot of the expressions of grief are really about survival of the self. But on the other side, there’s a whole subconscious narrative because there isn’t a voice for that pain because it’s so unspeakable and impossible to sit with. So even though the characters are doing all these things that make them think they are feeling the pain, they aren’t really, because the real pain necessary to heal is so deep and so real and so beyond the rituals of the physical. So there is a lot of running away instead of running towards, but eventually you have to run directly towards it, or at least hopefully that’s what happens.
Jaclyn Gilbert was interviewed by Jessica Denzer for Four Way Review. Jessica Denzer is a writer and educator. She received her BA in English Literature from Fordham University and her MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY, painstakingly trying to make the writing magic happen.
From Late Air
Late August, Monday
“Remember our goals,” Coach Murray said. He and his number one runner, Becky Sanders, were in his car headed to the campus golf course. Through the darkness, the empty streets, Murray relied on his headlights. He tuned the radio to a clear station: the Doors.
“We’re aiming for 5:00–5:10 pace,” he said.
“Okay.” Becky was peeling a small blood orange, one long sheath unfurling on her lap. At 5′2″ and ninety-five pounds, she reminded him of his two-time cross-country All-American Sarah Lloyd. As a senior, Sarah had set a course record of 16:23.14 in the 5K. Becky was only a sophomore, but Murray believed she had even greater potential than Sarah; he saw Becky winning Nationals this year, maybe even competing in the Olympics one day.
Murray hadn’t showered or shaved in three days. It was humid in the car, and the gray stubble around his long mustache felt damp.
He hadn’t always had a mustache. In his youth, Murray was clean-shaven, but he’d worn his blond hair a little long through his own college running days. He’d run on full scholarship for the University of Scranton. Growing up in Luzerne County, he’d gone by his first name, Samuel, but on Scranton’s track, the chant Mur-ray had sounded best—especially at the age of twenty-three, when he’d qualified for the ’80 Summer Olympics in the 10,000-meter run.
Now, almost three decades later, Murray was sixty-two and no longer ran. His two knee replacements made walking so difficult that at the golf course, he’d have to use a cart to get around. He couldn’t miss a split.
At a red light, Murray noticed as Becky carefully removed two strings of pulp from the orange, then divided out the first quarter section. She raised a sliver to her lips and bit in slowly.
Murray’s breakfast sandwich still lay warm on his lap. No cheese, just ketchup and egg. He smelled oil and toasted bread, and then the juice misting the air as Becky’s thumbs pressed down.
He’d grown accustomed to their prolonged silences. In fact, he’d come to welcome them. Becky never challenged his insistence on their two-a-day practices, the first of which always happened in the morning, and the second later in the afternoon, when he held practice for the whole team. Murray had started his precedent in ’01, when he’d been named head coach—the year after Sarah Lloyd had joined his ranks—and he had groomed at least a dozen other phenoms since then, each as hungry as the last to qualify for Regionals, then Nationals, to earn the elite status Murray had tasted in college too. Every record Murray set had depended on running before daylight, the darkness an ideal time for finding focus, this protected space where he could demand only the best from his girls.
Becky warmed up at the fairway of the first hole. She did some form drills: high-knees, butt kicks, some rabbit hops. The sun had partially risen, mist clouding the first hill a soft, dusty green. Becky’s father, Doug, was an ardent golfer, and he had met Murray for eighteen holes the summer he’d started recruiting Becky. It was then that Murray had told Doug about his recruiting plan to help earn Becky’s admission to Yale, given her slightly subpar grades and test scores. In the end, she’d chosen him over all the other coaches vying, even those offering full scholarships. The pressure for her to keep up academically remained high, but he felt assured by her 3.6 average last year, when she was still a freshman.
He marked a tall elm as the start line and read her target splits from there. He told her to focus on her foot strike, keeping her weight centered. She’d have two minutes of rest between sets. “Four of them,” he said.
Becky rolled her neck around. She jounced her knees. When she readied her stance, he began his three-second countdown, stopwatch tight by his thumb. He clicked hard, and she bounded forward, her stride chiseling the mist. Her tan calves parted as they pushed into the fairway grass. Her thin, muscular arms sliced the breeze.
To Murray, Becky would always be like a Belgian warmblood, this magnificent breed he’d once bet on as a child, with his father, at the Erdenheim Steeplechase. The horse had a pinwheel brand on its left thigh. Becky had a scar, too, but on her right shoulder.
Last year, Becky had placed third at Regionals. Murray had taken her to a diner for a pancake breakfast to celebrate. It was there, her fork circling tiny slivers of pancake, that she told him how she’d been burned by someone’s still-lit cigarette. She’d been walking with Doug on Atlantic City’s crowded boardwalk when someone brushed her hard. She hadn’t really eaten any breakfast that morning, so Murray had finished the pancakes for her, a heaviness in his stomach he’d disliked; it was the hunger he longed for, the exertion that earned it.
Murray watched Becky in the distance as she hooked around the first bend, the quarter-mile mark.
Her forward lean looked good, legs kicking back nicely. Gravity was taking her, he thought. She let gravity take her.
He lumbered over to his golf cart but had a difficult time lifting his right leg and stepping in; even more cumbersome was crouching down into the seat.
Just two minutes to get to the finish at the base of the fairway on the second hole. He turned the key and floored it. He kept one hand steady on the wheel, the other over his notepad. A breeze cooled his face and the sweat that had gathered along the back of his neck. He focused on the bluish grass unspooling beneath him.
At the finish point, he pushed hard on the brake. He checked his watch: 4:55.16. He squinted his eyes, waited for a sign. Checked again: 5:10.39. Where is she?
5:25.16. He slammed hard on the pedal and careened up a side path. He called her name several times, but nothing came back.
It wasn’t until several minutes later, in the distance, that he saw the white of her T-shirt, shapeless and crumpled. The closer he approached, the more he could discern of her body: fetal, motionless. He checked his stopwatch—10:23.57—and clicked stop. Frantically, he thrust his body forward, shoulders jerking unevenly to make up for his wobbly stride. He bent over where she lay in the grass. A dark purple bruise marred her right temple. He squeezed two fingers together and touched the side of her neck. A pulse. He lowered to his belly, met her at eye level. With a middle finger and thumb, he peeled the right lid open. It was dilated. He leaned in toward her mouth, careful not to move her head. A difficult angle, so he had to drag his cheek over the grass. Her warm breath emanated, but it was ragged and shallow: one deep inhale followed by two seconds of apnea.
“Becky.” He spoke close to her ear. “Blink if you can hear me.” When there was no movement, he shouted, “Please, Becky! Blink!” He waited three more seconds, close to her mouth, monitoring the warmth, and then he was fumbling for his cell phone, fingers pressing for 911; he was shaking. He heard himself on the phone, specifying Becky’s head trauma as severe, maybe a level 6 if he went by his years of sports medicine training. A first responder asked him to keep close watch of the time, to note any changes in her vital signs. He reminded Murray to stay calm and—above all—not to touch her neck. Estimated wait was seven minutes.
Murray dropped his phone into his pocket.
Last night he’d called ahead to the clubhouse; no golfers had been scheduled. They were on a slope by the woods. Could the ball have rolled? He thought he saw a shadow moving from behind a tree. He called out, asking if anyone was there. But no one answered: there was just his own voice resounding, and then the deadening silence after that.
Becky’s hands were curled tight and close to her chest. Like an infant—silent, spine tucked into her mother’s womb. He thought he sensed a blue light passing overhead, lucid and wavering, then this slow ascension of her body.
Darling Nova, Melissa Cundieff’s full-length debut, won the 2017 Autumn House poetry prize. She earned her MFA in poetry from Vanderbilt University, where she received an Academy of American Poets Prize. Her poem Hurt Music was published in Issue 10.
FWR: Your poems seem to be interested in the limits and constraints of language, whether the closing stanzas of “Paradox” –– “when the heart is just a lonely muscle/and language/just a tongue not knowing, not even touching/another tongue” –– or “In Media Res” –– “I once imagined my life differently/ but no one hears, so I say it again, and again/ until the words turn to ice, clear and contained”. These seem to speak to the desire of many women (myself included) to be heard, to feel as if their voices matter. Could you expand on this?
MC: I think of language as the holiest muscle, because it enacts and performs transformation — private, political, creative. That no one is necessarily listening, though, is an important reality. It’s important to remember that I’m sometimes my only company. And I don’t mean to sound severe, but I suspect this is so important because when something needs to change, when it’s truly time, the words to start that change must be heard. They should be as plain as still objects on a table.
FWR: I’m struck by how the places you describe in your poems then informs the conversation about each poem. “Romance at the Abandoned Mine”, for instance, enacts the echoing of tunnels (and the lines “Sometimes, even God wants to say yes/ before he says no” have reverberated in me for weeks). How does place influence your work?
MC: I think the God line I wrote in “Romance at the Abandoned Mine” tries to speak to the ethics of wanting to not only linger in a relationship or a meaningful sexual experience, but to also linger in the earthly place where it took place. I wonder if some version of myself and of that person I was with are still there, continuing on. I hope so, because we were happy, and we didn’t yet know what would happen to us.
So, place influences my work because of whatever my experience of it was. I think place or landscape serve as our most significant hauntings — in particular, the specifics of the light or the air do. Perhaps my most complicated grief is the one I feel for my childhood home. Not for my childhood but my childhood home. I like to imagine that it still exists exactly as it once did, and I’m there, inside my own life’s prologue, and my young mother and father are as well, and we’re all immortal in our orange kitchen, Winston cigarette air, encased by the greenery and wet air of Irving, Texas. I wonder if that house, which still stands but I’m sure no longer resembles the interior of my childhood home, is as haunted by me and my young, beautiful parents as I am by it. It certainly wasn’t always a perfect place, but its walls mean to me that I was born and ferried first via a car and then by my mother’s arms to the rooms that would shelter me for eighteen years – which is not everything, but it is profoundly mysterious and somewhat excruciating, especially now that I’ve grown older and made many mistakes, now that my mother’s bones hurt her and my father will die soon, now that I have children who live inside their own childhoods.
FWR: Several poems are elegiac, particularly “Remainder”, while still resisting any attempt to aggrandize or idolize a loss. Matt Rasmussen’s collection Black Aperture comes to mind, but did you look to other poems or poets for guidance on those poems?
MC: I admire Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture very much. It’s a beautiful book. Proper elegies are foundational to me; I think a lot about death and its metaphors. And you’re right, I try not to idolize loss. I do try to talk to my disappeared. I try to impart that I survey what’s left behind and sometimes feel consumed by it. Larry Levis is a person I turn to when I write those poems. I don’t understand how he wrote the poems he did. Each and every one of them is of another world. The way he travels so distantly to return to something as bare and reduced as, “My father is beginning to die. Something/ Inside him is slowly taking back/ Every word it ever gave him” (from “Winter Stars”). His poems taught me to (try to) push language into the tall weeds, to borrow its limitlessness, but they also taught me to exhale (inside a poem) — those moments that floodlight the inflexible truth that some of us are alive and some of us are not.
Larry Levis’s Elegies and the poems for his father in Winter Stars don’t only grieve the dead or dying but make something like primordial leaps to communicate with and through them. I try to do the same — it’s a way of not idolizing loss and death but certainly a way of confronting it and even giving it a heartbeat. But yeah, it’s consuming work, a consuming process, to stare at a landscape emptying itself of the people we love. The quiet, exhaustive energy that goes into doing so needs to be communicated and offered up like a currency.
FWR: I’m drawn to the way you work with the mutability of time, such as the poem “The Conqueror, 1956″, or “Burning Hair”. To me, the folding and play of time reinforce the destruction and creation associated with cycles: “when the vase breaks against the driveway the shards will reflect the blue/ scattered eye that sees clearly when one thing shatters into many”.
I was hoping you might speak further to this?
MC: Forgive me for quoting the musician Joanna Newsom now when the epigraph to my book is also a Joanna Newsom song lyric, but: stand brave/time moves both ways (from “Time, As a Symptom”). I guess I think of time as a thing that we must intellectually, physically, and creatively endure, and, like Newsom suggests, that endurance involves courage.
Maybe more significant to me, though, is memory as the fruition and uniquely private demonstration of time, and what I think requires (almost parasitically!) fortitude. I think this because it makes us feel and confront very potently our lives thus far lived. Nostalgia, too, is powerful in its great difficulty to be stymied, and it’s through nostalgia and memory (to my mind) that “time moves both ways.”
Memory, in this case my memories of childhood, is wonderful and vivid though not without trauma. Memory, more so than time, reminds me simply that time is passing. And we all know what that leads to. So, when I allow myself to sink into remembering, it’s a way of confronting the past and future, my beginning and then my end — whatever that will be, whenever it happens. And maybe memory isn’t a parasite, maybe I’m a parasite to it. I think it must be one or other though, right? All that energy of remembering or being remembered must drain from a great source.
Furthermore, memory isn’t even remotely reliable; it both guards and abandons the past; it entails multiple versions of and revises what has and has not exactly happened; its nature is to be both vivid and scattered; it always enters the room with a knife in its teeth. It’s so fractured and multitudinous that I often feel consumed by it, and so writing about memory requires writing about time, as well. Drawing often unexpected connections between the past, present, and future is to exist in all directions, is to both create and destroy our own ghosts, is to make living memories, which is what I hope my poems partly are.
FWR: Is there a poem you love to teach or share?
MC: To name a few: Adrienne Rich’s “Power”, Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s “Salvation”, Trey Moody’s “Dream with Gun and Five-Year-Old Daughter”, Hayan Charara’s “Mother and Daughter”, Norman Dubie’s “Oration: Half-Moon in Vermont”, Roger Reeve’s “Cymothoa Exigua”, Ocean Vuong’s “Aubade with Burning City”, and Cara Dees’ “Vigil Hemming In”.
Born and raised in Detroit, Tommye Blount now calls Novi home. A graduate from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, he has been the recipient of fellowships and scholarships from Cave Canem and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His work can be found in various journals and anthologies. His full-length collection is forthcoming from Four Way Books.
FWR: How do you protect your time and foster your writing?
TB: Like many poets now, and throughout history, I work a demanding weekday job, so writing can sometimes feel nearly impossible for me. With that said, I do dedicate early Saturday and Sunday mornings (or any off days) as “writing” time. Writing is in quotes, because in these sessions, I make no promises to myself that I have to write anything at all—and, to be frank, sometimes I don’t write. There may be times where I do nothing but read essays or books by other poets or fiction writers. (Oh! One of my obsessions as of late are essays on fashion—have you read The Battle of Versailles by Robin Givhan?) If you were to pop in on me, you might even see me looking at YouTube videos of other artists—either performing or talking about their disciplines. Where I am getting at is this: the act of writing for me encompasses a lot more than the physical act of writing.
Right now, I am in New York for a theater run—something I do often. Yes, I am gaga over musicals and plays, and get gooseflesh anytime someone starts talking about Audra McDonald, but all of this too is a part of my process. Watching other artistic disciplines feeds me. Not so much the subject matter of their work—although that is fair game for me as well—but I am more interested in their materials. For the past couple of years, I have been going to Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. Here, the plays and musicals are performed in repertory—so many shows are going on at once. You will see one actor playing two, or three, different roles in different shows. I love this, because to me, and my poet brain, it always leads me to rhyme and the shapes of rhyme. When I am watching occurrences like this happening, something seemingly minor to most of the audience, I am thinking how can I translate this into a poem. Of course, I can’t ever pull it off when I mean to pull it off—I’m too slow for that. Ha! It takes a while for the idea to sink into my body and, it always seems, out of nowhere I pull it off without thinking about it—or maybe I am thinking about it? I don’t know.
FWR: I’m struck by this image of actors playing multiple rows in multiple shows. It makes me think of the moving between forms and personas, how the self can be fractured and recast (in a poem like “The Bug”, for instance).
TB: Bifurcation is a frequent kind of transformation that takes place in my work. Many of my poems are in first person singular, so I often challenge myself to see what happens when that gets split off into two entities sharing the same space. “The Bug” complicates the first person by allowing that other man to speak through him halfway through the poem. What better way to explore a kind of love than through possession? And going back to your mention of form—in my chapbook there are many received forms that resist the conventions of those forms. These too act as a kind of fracture and recast, but moreover it goes back to my love of bodily transformation and how that allows me to divorce a body from its intent.
FWR: Can you speak further to finding inspiration in different art forms? (and considering those explorations part of the act of writing!)
TB: Of course, as writers we should first be lovers of reading, but other art forms too have much to teach us. In 2017, I was one of 18 recipients of a Kresge Arts in Detroit fellowship. Each year, there are two groups of nine artists chosen from two rotating categories. This time around the categories are Literary and Visual Arts, but everyone is doing all kinds of work: art criticism, sculpture, mural painting, collage, quilting, dance, and more. The fellowship comes with a pretty large amount of money with no-strings-attached, but that has not been the highlight of my tenure. The best part has been getting to dig into the work of the other fellows and, in one case, getting to sit in on a session. I just think writers limit themselves if they are only looking toward their own discipline for techniques or new ways of thinking about stuff. The dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones teaches me just as much as the poet Carl Phillips.
FWR: I’m drawn to the way you play with syntax in many of your poems (“The Black Umbrella”, for example). It seems to not only allow for a reveal and revision of information, but also to suggest greater possibility in the memory of a poem. Along the lines of structure, I’d love to hear what you were thinking while arranging this manuscript. How did you decide when to echo back to a previous poem or image, or when to expand upon an idea?
TB: Matthew Olzmann, the killer poet and a dear friend of mine, was—thank goodness—my editor for What Are We Not For. The manuscript I submitted to Bull City Press, structurally speaking, was close to the final arrangement, but Matthew encouraged me to meddle with the linearity of the structure. I mean, the narrative of the collection is pretty linear right now, but some of that echoing you are hearing is due to Matt’s suggestions. One of the most obvious examples is what happened with what I call my doggie suite of poems—poems for which you all graciously gave a first home: “Bareback Aubade with the Dog,” “And the Dog Comes Back,” “The Runts,” and “Lycanthropy.” In my mind, that was the order of these poems and that is how they appeared in the initial manuscript. Matthew and I decided to break up the suite and rearrange them, so that they call out to each other across the book while informing the poems immediately around them.
Another choice I should talk about is where the title poem falls in the collection—it’s the penultimate poem. Matt deserves credit for this choice as well. At first, I had this poem so obviously seated at the center of the book. Poems, when putting a manuscript together, are really fractals building toward a single larger version of themselves—that’s what this chapbook is up to as well. Just as each poem is aware of where its volta sits, so too does this collection. “What Are We Not For,” the title poem, acts as a turn of revelation in the collection. “What are we not for,” that phrase, because it is the title of the book, gets teased out for much of the book—it is at once: a dare; a mandate; a question; a resignation. It is not until the penultimate poem that the collection realizes what it has been up to all along.
FWR: Speakers are bodied and performed in a way that responds to assumptions about race and gender (“the black boy/lurking in our imagination” from “There is Always a Face to Tend To”). Yet, there is also this movement away from the body, both as a means of protection (“Our bodies are museums/ Our bodies are objects in a museum A thing a thing” from “The Lynching of Frank Embree”) and a refusal to be limited to the body’s confines. I was wondering if you could speak a bit to this.
TB: The bodies in these poems are always in danger—or at least I mean them to appear that way. These gestures of transformation, or the botched attempts at transformations, are markers of a larger exploration (I think—how can one really be sure) that my work as a whole seeks. Transformation, to my mind, allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent. My poems mean to explore the breakdown between a body’s intent and the gesture that intent manifests. It’s why the poems in this collection are interested in race, gender, and sexuality. Well—all of that and the fact that I am a Black gay man negotiating all of this stuff. In the case of Frank Embree, I mean the speaker to be victim and assailant at once. He, and his kind, has suffered at the hands of men who look like Frank Embree, so he is enraged. He is also troubled by this rage, because it is, also, directed to himself—inheritor of Embree’s body. I like to think that no one, not even me as creator, is protected in my poems.
FWR: When you say, “the bodies in these poems are always in danger… transformation, to my mind, allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent” —firstly, I love this. And, I think it speaks to two correlated ideas, the first being that destruction can allow for transformation (the cliché of the butterfly and all that), even if that transformation is happening in the witness. The second thing I think of is the push between identity and the gesture, how performance might codify identity— for better or worse.
TB: When I say transformation allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent, I’m thinking in terms of how, at last, a body can reveal itself to be meant for another way of being than one those outside of that body anticipate.
As a Black gay man living in Michigan, I often get the silly phrase “You don’t read as gay.” When, in my mind, I am so very gay. There is a disconnect happening between my choreography and how my postures are being seen. And look at all of the police murders of Black folks that are happening: blackness being seen as a threat that must be stomped out. Little Trayvon in his hoodie being gunned down by Zimmerman, because he thought the boy looked suspicious. Or, in my neck of the woods, Renisha McBride, a Black woman shot while knocking on a door for help. It should not be a surprise that my poems want to sit inside of that disconnect between gesture and intent.
FWR: The play between sensuality and sexuality, particularly with regards to expressions of masculinity/manhood, is threaded throughout the text. I see the movement as poems ease from inertia (the experience or suggestion of pleasure) to urgency (wanting, acting on sex). I read it as a desire to reclaim space, in spite of the stereotypes and violence associated with having a “body/dark and big as history”.
TB: Yeah, okay, sure: that is one way one might look at that patterning—it is there of course. But, I must say, I’m not sure if that reclamation of a Black space, or that redefinition of some view of Blackness, was at the fore in my mind. I’m probably repeating myself, but I’m really interested in this breakdown between intent and the gesture that intent brings forth. This misfiring between intent and gesture is how we arrive, often, at points of pleasure and violence. So, yes, I am thinking about this Black body I have inherited, but I am also thinking about this gay body I have inherited at the same time. This is why, for example, right after “The Lynching of Frank Embree” there is “Aaron McKinney Cleans His Magnum”—a poem around Matthew Shepard (whose death scared me further into the closet in undergrad). And in the reference to Shepard’s murder you are to hear echoes of Pinocchio (another “wicked” boy) and his plight. This is not to say that the book is an erasure of Blackness—you are right; it is there—but it is complicated a bit (or at least I mean it to be).
FWR: When you say “he [the speaker] is troubled by this rage”, is there also the element of society’s denial or suppression of Black anger? An awareness that whiteness expects a Black body to hold his/her feelings without release?
TB: That self-inflicted rage of which I speak comes from a kind of shame. The conversation that is happening in this poem has to do with the speaker and his relation to his own black maleness—and the inherent history with which that comes. Any conversations about the role of whiteness is in the periphery or gets superseded by what is happening between the speaker and the image of Frank Embree. That is why, for example, the admission “yes, white” appears in parenthesis; why the speaker’s thumb tip print sits over the image of the lyncher’s brim. The speaker in the poem is challenging what he can say and do and in what space—the boundary between the room of the gallery and the private room in which a porn film is playing is fractured.
FWR: To shift gears, is there a poem you love to teach or share?
TB: C. Dale Young introduced me to Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s book The Orchard while at Warren Wilson. Now, I am not going to lie, I bought that book a couple of years before getting into Warren Wilson and it sat unread on my bookshelf. (Bad poet, I know.) Let me tell you: when I finally read that book for the first time it unhooked something in me. It’s hard to just tell people to only read one BPK poem, so I often suggest they read The Orchard, but then I tell them to pay close attention to the title poem of that book. The images in all of her poems, but in that poem especially, fidget; they refuse to remain static on the page. Specifically, she does this with similes that I always have a hard time explaining to people, because they think I am talking mixed metaphors or something. (It’s not—I swear!) Watch out for the fucking dog in that poem! Just in the first few lines, the dog is said to be like a horse. Then, without warning, the poem calls it “the horse.” I hate poems, including mine, when there are gestures toward figuration that are only a means of comparison or ornamentation. No, figuration should and can do more. In “The Orchard,” and many other of BPK’s poems, figuration is how the poems keep pushing forward. I was so sad when I heard she passed away. What a loss.
FWR: Thinking ahead to when Four Way Books will publish your full length (and congratulations!) and considering what you say about the ordering of your poems, I was wondering if you might speak to what the process is like moving from a chapbook to a full-length manuscript. Will you be pulling many (or any!) poems from What Are We Not For over? How does the process of revisiting those poems change the way you see them working in conversation with each other?
TB: Thanks—it’s all exciting and scary for me at the same time. Actually, that is my everyday temperament; excited and scared. Ha! Martha Rhodes has been such a huge champion of my work and then there I am like, “Who? Me?” It’s still very early in the process, but I am told things are going to get a little crazy in the next few months for me. At first, I did not want to pull anything from the chapbook, but as the concept for the new book is working itself out, I am seeing that a few poems will be making cameos. Then there are these new poems that will totally recast (there is that word again) those old poems in new ways. That is probably my favorite part of this process is seeing how the old poems gossip with the new poems.
francine j. harris is the author of allegiance (2012), a finalist for both the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the PEN Open Book Award, and play dead (2016). She won the 2014 Boston Review Annual Poetry Prize and her poetry has appeared in many journals, including McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, Poetry, Meridian, Indiana Review, Callaloo, Rattle, Ninth Letter, and Boston Review. She was a 2008 Cave Canem fellow, and was awarded a NEA fellowship in 2015. She currently serves as the Writer in Residence at Washington University in St. Louis.
FWR: The “pink pigs” poems from your book Play Dead started as a personal essay for Tran(s)tudies. At what point did you decide to turn that essay into poems? Are the headers and footers in the poems a relic from the original essay, or were they something that came out as you worked on the poems?
fjh: I think it may have been the other way around. The poem began as a poem, and I used it in an essay I wrote for Tran(s)tudies; the essay was about code switching and I used it in this part where I was talking about speaking back to people that I grew up with, in kind of an indirect way into my writing. I can’t answer the question about ‘who you’re talking to in your poems or in writing in general’, but there are moments where talking back to folks that I couldn’t have certain conversations with. And in the essay, I believe I was talking back to some of the girls I grew up with and it was an example of one of those internal conversations turning into a piece. This piece was an amalgamation of a few specific people.
Actually when I wrote it, I had been reading Donald Barthelme; he has these little short narratives through dialogue and it just triggered something as I was reading it… But after I wrote it I realized that I was reaching even further back in terms of influence. It wasn’t exactly Barthelme who was triggering that voice, but Gayl Jones, who in the novel Eva’s Man has this very particular way of men and women talking, or not talking. There is a way in which their dialogue says and doesn’t say lots of things about consent and passiveness, and about things happening under the surface. I think all that stuff was playing into that, and when I originally wrote it, it was all one long piece but that didn’t quite work in the book, so I pulled it apart and let it intersperse throughout the whole collection.
FWR: Throughout the whole manuscript, there is this feeling that there’s this conversation happening between the past and present or imagined present and imagined past.
fjh: When you say imagined, what do you mean?
FWR: Looking back upon events that have happened, one tends to recreate them, but in that recreation they’re never quite the same as they were.
fjh: I think what I like about that conversation is that I don’t think it’s that idealistic, though. There’s just as much failure in that conversation as there might have been, or would have been, or was, in the relationships themselves. I think art allows a different kind of failure, a failure that can be productive. But I think, partly that’s what I gathered or what inspired me from Gayl Jones, that these imagined conversations are not any more romantic than the original. It just sits differently in the psyche, manifests differently. Does that make sense?
FWR: It does, and it speaks a little bit to that tension in the form and structure of your poems: between who is speaking, or when there’s an attempt to say or an inability to say. Is that fair?
fjh: Yeah, I think that’s fair. I’m definitely one of those poets who began writing because I didn’t know how to talk. I still don’t know how to talk. A lot of times I say things wrong, all the time. Ha! I think sometimes if I could just stop talking, and just do poems, everyone might be better off. Ha!
FWR: When you’re writing, do you see the poem ahead of time? For example, in “kara, you wild.andIdon’tknow” or “tatterdemalion,” were those the shapes you wanted because of the tension that you wanted that syntax to create? Or was it only through the playing through different forms that you realized that that’s the form you were hoping for?
fjh: I think that started– I get a lot of questions about this– I think I’ve realized, I don’t write towards visual structure. I’m interested in it, but maybe only in revision. I appreciate visual structure on the page. It’s not like I look at it and think it’s gratuitous or that I don’t find beauty in it, but I don’t think I come to it for that reason. It’s always something I’m thinking about in hindsight. So in answer to your question, no, I have no idea what shape it’s supposed to take.
I draw a little bit and sometimes if I’m drawing, I think, “what if this was text that looked this way?” I’ve tried that and it hardly ever works. It’s usually very forced. But I think because I do appreciate things visually, it’s become an editing point for me. It’s become a fun way to edit things. So those boxes, I started making those boxes and I didn’t know why I was making them, but it seemed to make sense because that’s what Kara Walker in “Cut”, which is an illustration she has of a girl figure with these really slashed off wrists, and so it just kind of made sense. But I was just doodling, and then I realized that this has a kind of resonance considering who I’m talking about and what I’m talking about in the poem. I guess I play with [visual structure] and if I like it, I’ll keep it.
FWR: Do you have a favorite poem to teach? How do you open up that conversation?
fjh: Every semester I gather things. And there are things that I come back to, and usually the poems I keep coming back to are because I can teach them for so many different reasons. Mary Ruefle’s “White Buttons” [for example]: I keep teaching this poem, because there are so many reasons to teach this poem. I can teach it to talk about how images reinforce themselves over a period of time because it’s a little bit longer, so these images just develop out of thin air– almost literally- there are these text pages, these book pages, like petals, and you don’t know how it happened, right? There’s a way that the images build, and I can teach it for that. I can teach it for the associative moves she makes, like that weird move she makes where she suddenly says:
(I am sorry I did not
go to your funeral
but like you said
on the phone
an insect cannot crawl
I can teach it as a second person address, that interrupts the speaker. I can teach it for so many different reasons. One of the poems I’ve been teaching on and off for years is Yusef Komunyakaa “You And I Are Disappearing” for almost all of the same reasons. There are so many reasons to teach that poem: listing, cataloguing, subtext, how you can read a poem have two entirely different experiences with the poems based on your experience with the subject matter, imagery. I’m always grabbing poems for imagery… The funny thing is, I feel like, and maybe this is an essentialist statement, I’ll say poems today that stay with me, stay with me for the same reasons– because there’s a lot going on in them. Every time I come back to them I’m thinking of something else, something else that makes it work.
The thing that– I hear it like dinging. This is the thing this time around that jumps.
FWR: Who or what is inspiring you right now? If you could recommend one piece of art to anyone in this world, who might it be?
fjh: You know, it’s funny when you asked me this question, I had a weird moment, because I think the question you actually asked me was, ‘is there an artwork or a poem that you would share with anybody?’ and the first thing I thought was, ‘what I’m supposed to say is if there’s a piece of art I could give to someone like Trump that would somehow change him, what would it be?’
I was thinking about the artworks that I like, thinking, would it make a difference for Trump to walk through a gallery of any of those artists, or would that matter? Would it make a difference for someone to read Dawn Lundy Martin into his ear while he slept? But I had this moment where I realized how personally I view art. I’m kind of selfish about it. I don’t want to share anything with someone I have so little respect for. So if I were to show art to someone, it wouldn’t be for the thought of changing them, it would be for the thought of giving them something.
Sometimes I just gather things to show friends at appropriate occasions. I was going to tell you about this artist I’ve just found, whose work I really love, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, just because I was so excited about her art and her process, and it is the kind of thing I would want to share just, over a moment, over coffee. That’s how I think of sharing artwork, not as changing the world.
from FWR Poetry Editor Nathan McClain:
While at Cave Canem, I had the opportunity to chat with, and interview, poet and photographer Rachel Eliza Griffiths on the functionality and nature of photography and, more specifically, how aspects of the gaze and engagement contribute to a photo’s overall work. Her responses were far too wonderful and in-depth to distill, so I’ve provided Rachel Eliza’s responses, in their entirety, for your perusal. Rachel Eliza, too, provided us with a photo essay, which I’ve embedded in her response, as I sense the two are in conversation.
A poem, or a photograph, after it leaves you, is a virus that exists in the world. It replicates itself and, despite its framing, it cannot be contained. My hope is that Rachel Eliza’s photos and responses affect, or maybe more so infect, you…
NM: How would you say the photograph directs the gaze in a way the poem may not?
REG: I want to be careful to not make any sweeping statements, as your questions are so interesting and fluid to me. I’ll think of these questions for years. I admit that I feel the photographer in me resisting my efforts to verbalize or theorize the parts of me where my visual alphabet works in terms of imagination and politics. There is obviously as much nuance within photography and photographers as there is amongst poets and the tools/language they employ to shape, light, and to shadow their work. For me, there are shared spaces between imagery and vocabulary and other spaces where neither can help, witness, direct, or translate the other.
The presence of tension and intuition, whether in a poem or photograph, is critical for me in terms of process. When I think of process, I think of my body and of its systems. How I experience my body, as I am writing, is distinct from the sensations I experience when I’m using my camera. For both, landscape – where I am and with whom and where, the specific geography – becomes literal, internal, spectral, exterior. I don’t resist these contradictions. I get away from squares, unless they are pages or viewfinders. For a while, all shapes are doors, stairs, and windows. After photographing, I feel my work in my muscles, my back, hips, and arms. They’re sore. When I write I have to remember my body. I look up and hours may have passed without me even getting up for a glass of water.
In a photograph, I have to meet myself as an “I” in ways that I’m unable to articulate in a poem. But I don’t see this as a failure. The mood or space where tension exists comes from the same vulnerability, the same power. In a poem the “I” is working at something, so interior, that the photograph can barely perceive it, much less reveal it in its entirety to my own gaze.
For example, many of my self-portraits included here incorporate blurring. If I take an image of myself and I seem too still in it I feel as if I’m dead somehow. I get freaked out. Blurring helps me see how spiritual I am and reminds of how the past, present, and future can function in a two-dimensional portrait of one’s self. I don’t necessarily need narrative but I often like to sense movement in the environment, which is also living and moving.
When I’m looking at myself I’m hoping for discovery. I accept the outside and reject the outside. I accept the inside and reject the inside. I use language and I subvert language. Texture, color, light, shadow, frame/composition, sound, absence, voices, and faces become surrogates for what I cannot say. Recently I began to incorporate my body in photographs. That space is difficult to metastasize, or offer in my poems because of how freighted and unstable language can be. I think of alchemy, authority and permission, and how those relate to photographers and to poets. Sometimes I think of the gaze and I think about beauty and desire and violence. I think about how a poem about my body might be received if it were placed next to an image of my body. I try to let the work say it because the work knows it better and more honestly than grammar. People will say a photograph does not lie but, of course, photographs lie too.
But photographs and poems also become glyphs – they’re 2D. I’m not. I have to push at them, break them, to give them bones and flaws and flesh that can outlive me. There is a relationship that must happen immediately, structurally, thematically, and psychologically between the poet and the reader. Mortality happens between the poet and reader. The photograph itself happens immediately and then, if the photograph is strong enough, it will reverberate and live, sometimes hidden for years, inside of the gaze where it was first experienced.
Time in a photograph also splices and freezes an experience in a way that I feel a strong poem can also transform its reader. For example, consider the past and the future. I don’t know if the present tense exists in photographs but it does, often, in poems. When I invoke the past or the future in a poem I don’t see it with the same lifespan a photograph holds. Photographers can photograph or intuit the future but the implication of doing that almost goes against the common intention of most images, which are snapshots, which is to convey what Reality is/was like. With the “likeness” being accurate enough to the real. Being ‘accurate’ in a poem has little value or meaning unless it is part of the poem’s truth. It is easier for us to accept a photograph or dismiss it as, ‘that’s not real’ in a way that does not happen easily in a strong poem. Poems make us believe in ways that photographs aren’t necessarily concerned with – and this calls into light the places where the air thins between these ideas.
Our world is so visually conscious of itself. While certain types of cropping or manipulation, lack of credit, laws of fair use, etc. in a photograph can be egregious sites of outrage, manipulation in a photograph is usually not as averse to our reaction to feeling manipulated by a poet. Is there more at stake when we, in our roles as “readers”, are manipulated?
Most of the time we assume that the photograph we are seeing has been revised, edited. And a photographer is more likely to have a photograph plagiarized or appropriated (without much consequence) than a poem. Some photographers are okay with this because of how democracy, amongst photography, works in its contemporary republic. Most people would never quote or use a poet’s work without providing some attribution or credit. But photographers expect this and as such, there are photographers who make their living by selling ‘stock’ images. ‘Stock poetry’, wherever it appears, is usually derided. As viewers, we are more likely to be impressed and admire a skilled photographer’s manipulation of an image than we might necessarily be if we were to witness a certain type of cleverness or verbal pyrotechnics in a poet’s toolbox. We might be dismissive of that poet for being ‘experimental’ or ‘too much’ or find such dazzling attempts as distractions from the work itself.
There’s The Gaze too. I don’t have enough space to go into that! But reciprocity is part of this conversation. We must speak of what is private and public within the context of the gaze. What is authorized. What is banned. What is legislated and outlawed. Do we judge the photographer for immorality or ethical trespass in the same way we might apply such concepts to a poem or a poet? When a photographer has the opportunity to ‘take the shot’ (always this hyper-aggressive vocabulary of taking, shooting, capturing), what is at stake? What is at stake for a poet who gives voice to those who cannot speak? What is at stake for a photographer, who looks, makes visible the necessary moment, when the world will not see or would not see otherwise? What is at stake when the poet executes that identical gesture? How do we compare the notion of silence and speech when it occurs in either poem or photograph?
Depending on who is looking, the photographer is as much the object and subject as the production of the final image. For example, consider celebrity photographers whose celebrity will sometimes be noted and lauded before any actual attention is given to the work. I believe that this happens, but a bit differently, with poets. The notion of a photographer as ‘author’ can be as expansive as the poet’s task. But there are other elements to examine for both poet and photographer including accountability, anonymity, privilege, intention, politics, ethics, and of course, imagination. Again, it depends on the type of photographer. War photographers need different tools than underwater photographers or wedding photographers. I don’t have any judgment about this. I believe it’s about the way you feed your eyes, what you must look at and what you need to see and every wound of gray in between.
NM: Is there a way in which we engage with a photo that we do not with a poem?
REG: There are many ways! I think about this all of the time so I don’t have a static answer. We engage poems differently, even amongst ourselves, as readers of poetry. We assign value (and outrage) in dynamic terms when it comes to photography in ways we might not when we are reading. We engage photographs differently when they appear in museums, advertisements, family albums, or social media. Many of us are curating various narratives and lifelines with our ‘smart’ devices. There is also a global coherence that is happening now, irreversibly, because of technology. This is complicated, revolutionary, amazing, and dangerous.
If I read a poem written in English it possesses a distinct fluency because my first language is English. In which language(s) do we experience photographs? Many of my favorite photographers are not American. But how can you look at photograph and immediately discern its author’s identity or where that photographer is from? How does the concept of universality relate to a photograph beyond the image itself and for its own sake?
With poems, it’s interesting. If I’m reading a poem that was originally written in French, I’m likely to look at several translations or ask friends for suggestions for the most informed version. I’ll be looking for the best version, the closest version. I have to do more work because I want to experience the language of the poem as closely to its original text as possible. All translations are not equal but how would that notion manifest in photography?
Intimacy is also something I often think about in relationship to both poetry and photography. The intimacy I might share in a photograph is neither identical nor lateral to the intimacy I share in a poem. Both forms engage different threads of the gaze. These forms are often contradictory in relation to the acceptance or rejection of the gaze. The shapes of the gaze in either medium are relative to my content and intention. For me, any attempt to answer this question only provokes questions. Who is the We? How do we, as individuals and public citizens, understand, maintain, and define ‘literacy’? Personally, I’ve had numerous experiences where there is concerned.
Photography’s functions are not identical to poetry’s processes and forms. Perhaps poetry and photography are fraternal twins. If I look at a photographer’s work my dialogue with that work happens in a matter of seconds. I find an opening, a narrative (however fragmented or fractured), a visual seduction or rhythm, an emotion that is persistent. Visceral. I find what fails in its complete articulation to be verbal or knowable.
In this installment of “Between the Lines,” Dustin Pearson talks with Benjamin Miller about journeys through the desert, words as objects, and poetic self-interrogation.
DP: A lot of the poems in your collection share the same titles. The title in common I found most central was “Desert.” Between the appearance of the first “Desert” and the last, the speaker seems occupied with the idea of having done or doing nothing. My mind immediately associates those poems with Moses’ liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, but I struggle to draw an explicit connection considering the different circumstances by which the two journeys are provoked. How do you imagine the connection, if any?
BM: I did put that title there with a biblical text in mind, but it was Abraham I was thinking of, not Moses. Or, at least, Abraham most of all. He’s told by God, not once but twice (Genesis 12:1, 22:2) to get up, go, find himself, don’t worry about where, God will show you. And that idea of journeying without knowing where you’re going is what appealed to me, the being drawn forward, but where are you the whole time? You’re in this desert, this vast and isolated space. And you don’t know if you’re close or far, or if in fact you’ve traveled any great distance at all, because the light plays tricks.
Now, I know the poems themselves don’t enact that exactly: there are trees and windows and clocks and doorlocks and couches and things.
Part of it, I confess, is that this title came late to this series of poems. Originally these were days of the week, starting I think with a Wednesday, which generated the wolves who chase the sun. But another part is just a function of how I compose, which often involves taking words or objects (or words as objects) and playing with them — subsetting them, rearranging letters, thinking of their opposites and apposites — and trying to get them to yield up some insight or emotional understanding I hadn’t had before. So the couches and the bathroom door cracks and the days started out as real, but they took me to that lonely place where I could see the lines being part of this series of poems, even if the narrative of the text itself isn’t set in the desert.
DP: Your collection seems to be sensitive to the coming of night and morning, the idea of home, and especially return and arrival. I most readily think of your poem “Field Glass (Manifest)” as a good example of all these themes working simultaneously. Can you comment on what inspired this? How conscious or unconscious are their recurrence? Did that element of consciousness change over time?
BM: It did become more conscious over time. The poem you mention was written in more or less one quick outpouring, though it did get a lot cut out of it afterward, and some minor revisions made. (Other poems have had a much more belabored history.) So that wasn’t a deliberate attempt to include these themes; it just was the headspace or wordspace I was in at the time. But in my MFA thesis workshop, we were put on “word watches” by Lucie Brock-Broido; I think I also had wings and lightning and dark, which I was happy to cut back on because I didn’t want the whole book to be too, too, well, for lack of a better word, emo. But I think it was around then, seeing the consistent presence of departure, travel, sand, light, that I began to think of the book as cohering around the Abrahamic journeys I mentioned earlier, and to look for more ways to build those up: more deserts, more field glasses, more sand.
DP: The interviews in your collection are among the most fascinating and difficult poems. Can you comment on how you imagine your readers accessing these poems?
BM: Though you might not know it to look at the pages, much of the book was written under the star of W.S. Merwin’s The Lice and The Moving Target; his “Noah’s Raven” was one of the first poems I remember learning by heart, and its spirit floats over the waters of my deserts. These interviews bear clear traces of Merwin’s “Some Last Questions,” which I’ll quote a little of if I’m allowed:
What is the head A. Ash What are the eyes A. The wells have fallen in and have Inhabitants What are the feet A. Thumbs left after the auction No what are the feet A. Under them the impossible road is moving Down which the broken necked mice push Balls of blood with their noses
and so on. As in other cases, what I think we’re both doing is trying to re-see the significance of something right in front of us, whether it’s parts of the body or parts of words. It’s a self-interrogation, a self-spurring onward beyond the first impression. When I write,
What is the sun?
A single star does not define an evening.
I really am trying to answer the question, but to use the search for an answer as invitation to aphorism, so the answer can also stand apart from the question — and, of course, to generate new questions in turn.
… Does that answer the question?
DP: Yes, that’s a fantastic answer, thank you.
DP: Your poem, “Checklist for a Savior” seems as much a critique of saviors in general as a critique of saviors in a Christian or other religious context. Many of your poems juxtapose spiritual musings with common daily happenings. There are multiple individuals that are likened to Biblical saviors. Regardless of the miraculous tasks included, do you imagine your speaker’s checklist as an appeal to any one savior or is the checklist more symbolic?
BM: Thanks for this question: I do think the intimation of the spiritual within the everyday is part of what I wanted here, throughout the book, not least because I felt a debt to some of the people who recommended me for graduate school: I applied at the same time to MFA programs and to rabbinical school, and had the same recommenders for both, which led to some interesting conversations, to be sure, but also a conviction that to walk through the world in search of a poem is in some ways to search for the numinous. That was one idea, anyway, and somehow I ended up with swans, so go figure.
This poem is not addressed to Jesus, if that’s what you mean, and in my own Jewish context the coming of the Messiah ushers in “ha’olam haba,” which I take to mean “the eternally approaching” (rather than the usual translation, “the world to come”). So in my head, the savior isn’t someone who actually does arrive. To use the terms of your question, then, this isn’t addressed to anyone in particular.
At the same time, I don’t think symbolic is quite right, either, at least in the sense of signs referring to some clearly marked referent. What’s important for me is the stance — the waiting — the speaker, more than the spoken-to. If the poem had only the last two lines, maybe it would work just as well. Or maybe then I wouldn’t be able to say them.
Benjamin Miller has studied at Harvard, Columbia, and the CUNY Graduate Center, and has taught writing at Columbia and Hunter College. His poems have appeared in RHINO, Pleiades, The Greensboro Review, and elsewhere; Without Compass is his first book. For more about Ben, visit majoringinmeta.net.
Dustin Pearson is an MFA candidate at Arizona State University. He received his BA and MA in English Literature from Clemson University. He would eat white rice and soysauce regardless of living on a graduate student budget. He is from Summerville, South Carolina, and would love to direct your literary festival. He can be reached at Dustin.Pearson@asu.edu.
|More InterviewsJoseph D. HaskePaul LisickyMegan StaffelCraig Morgan Teicher|
In this installment of “Between the Lines” we talk with Issue 5 contributor Wesley Rothman about poetic process, the creative relationships between different art forms, and the cultural state of contemporary poetry.
FWR: Your poetry likes to locate itself at the intersection of different artforms: blues music and lyrics, for example, or the relationship between text and visual art. Is this just a part of your aesthetic or the result of a conscious poetic project on your part?
WR: I think it’s a little bit of both. I’ve always been addicted to music and visual art, and maybe more importantly, the artists that create these mediums. Clearly I’m in love with Frida Kahlo, and I don’t think you can talk about Frida without at least thinking of Diego Rivera. I’m also obsessed with Nina Simone and David Bowie (who were dear friends), as well as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Billie Holiday, Van Gogh, ’90s hip-hop artists, and Salvador Dalí (who was an intimate friend of Federico García Lorca’s). So I’m obsessed with these people, the art they made, what they did to society and history, and in terms of a conscious poetic project, I’m interested in how they are remembered, what their legacies look like and become over time. I want to make poems that serve as snapshots of these legacies, or make us wonder about legacies and how they morph. Art to honor art and artists. It’s interesting that we make poems about figures and by doing so we may be affecting, in some small way, how future generations remember these figures.
FWR: That’s interesting, especially since it’s still fashionable to talk about poetry being this opaque, elitist, stodgy art form that’s fading out of relevance. How do you respond to claims like that?
WR: It is fashionable, isn’t it? This has been on my mind for quite some time, and I’ll try to compress my thoughts about these sorts of claims, but it will be a bit oversimplified, I know. It seems to me that most people making claims that poetry is opaque, elitist, and stodgy say this because they don’t understand the craft decisions of the poets they read (if they do read any). I think “they” also say this because they have been miseducated about what poetry is, how it happens. People who tear poetry, as an art form, down do so because they don’t understand and are frustrated by this lack of understanding, like not understanding a Jackson Pollack painting. People who aren’t interested in investing time and energy to understand artistic/historical/theoretical context typically dismiss the work at hand in favor of something easier. I frequently teach a Susan Sontag essay/excerpt about boredom (or frustration) to my students to wrestle this disposition. This brings me to a cultural and historical consideration. When Eliot wrote “The Waste Land,” people thought it was crazy, “opaque, elitist, stodgy, and fading from relevance,” yet it’s absolutely canonical for us. I think younger generations love Langston Hughes and Robert Frost because they rhyme, and that’s what they expect of poetry. Younger generations also love Bukowski and Ginsberg, because they’re rough and bombastic and bold, things that younger people seem drawn to like honey or bright light. In short, I think poetry was better, or more commonly, taught to generations 50+ years ago. And if it wasn’t that much more prominent in education, it was more prominent at home; parents read poetry for leisure. As education and home exposure of poetry has declined, as public recognition of poets has declined (or turned attention toward media figures), new generations are less prepared to tackle the challenge and rigor of poetry, as they are with other difficult or abstract artforms or topics. This is obviously a generalization, but I think it’s demonstrated by widespread practices like No Child Left Behind which prefer mastery and memorization of concrete facts, typically hard sciences and “hard-ish” social sciences, rather than strengthening of critical and independent thinking skills. All of this to say that I think our society has in many ways conditioned new generations to feel this way about poetry. ON THE OTHER HAND, I also think those who have been encouraged to read and internalize and wonder about poetry or other challenging art forms are coming into the arena more than ever. Even though many people feel poetry is becoming obsolete, there has been an incredible surge in recent decades of new, young poets, journals, online forums, reading series, MFA programs, high school poetry programming, higher educational development with creative writing as a valuable and valued process. Poetry is thriving in many ways in spite of a cultural preference for simplicity/entertainment/empty wittiness.
FWR: It’s frustrating, how otherwise complex and fascinating poets end up anthologized and then taught at the secondary level in the most insipid ways. Gwendolyn Brooks comes to mind. Are there any writers whose work you wish was taught differently?
WR: I wish people would teach more than “We Real Cool.” I wish anthologies would include more of her poems. Sadly, I think most poetry and literature is simplified and bastardized at the secondary level. Contemporary education standards require hard answers, meaning, and measurability. Poetry and literature actively defy these things, I think. I can’t think of any writers or poets I wish were taught differently, per se, mostly because I can’t say they’re taught in universally similar ways, but I wish writing and reading were taught differently, and I wish poets other than Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, WCW, and Frost were taught in high schools. It’s important to become familiar with the canon, but teach high school students poetry that speaks about their world, not the world of their great-[great-]grandparents. Teach them Natalie Diaz, Marcus Wicker, Amiri Baraka, Wallace Stevens, Roger Reeves, Matthew Zapruder, Natasha Trethewey. Something that I can’t put my finger on at the moment is making history and historical context difficult to process for younger generations. We have to find a way to help young people find poignance in what happened 200 years ago before we can help them find poignance in Coleridge, Wheatley, Blake, Austen, and Wordsworth.
FWR: A lot of us have extremely complicated relationships with the canon. You wrote a great essay about Terrance Hayes responding to Wallace Stevens and that mixture of resistance and devotion, a kind of helplessness in the face of an otherwise problematic writer’s tremendous talent. Has that been something you’ve had to personally navigate?
WR: That’s a great way to describe it! I think everyone’s relationship with the canon is indeed extremely complicated, based on breadth of exposure, taste, historical and social perspective, and the list, I’m sure, goes on. Thanks for the kind words about that piece. As I become more and more familiar with Stevens, I feel a little bit of what Hayes is talking about in his poem—primarily on an ideological level. I don’t know that I’ve navigated this elsewhere. Every now and then I come across a canonical or contemporary poem that is problematic in its content or perspective, but well-crafted. I think this is less expansive than what Hayes is wrestling. In other words, Stevens was generally and consistently bigoted, but I think when I experience this conflict of resistance with admiration of craft, it’s more often a single poem (rather than a body of work or a person’s problematic social beliefs) demonstrating an uninformed perspective. I think this comes down to a person’s understanding of themselves and their beliefs. I don’t know that Stevens was problematic in many ways, but his work does demonstrate on occasion a very problematic social belief system concerning culture. Not all of his poems present this bigotry, but it’s there enough. I can’t think of another poet with whose work I’ve encountered this in the same way, but there may be other poets whose personal views I find problematic, shown in their work or not. (tough question).
FWR: It’s a really tough question. You mentioned before that you include social justice as a major priority in your writing and your teaching. How do arguments about “art for art’s sake”, or “divorcing the art from the artist” strike you, then? There have been some pretty high profile versions of this debate in the news recently.
WR: I have fishy feelings about “art for art’s sake.” I don’t think we just make it to have it in the world, that it comes from some impulse simply to create. Something drives us to make art. The specifics of that something are important and are motivated by vibrance and burning and terror within us. Art’s about passion or curiosity, and I think my passions and curiosity are served by poem-making. I kind of like the idea of divorcing art from the artist…once it’s been made. I don’t think an artist should blankly make art, but I think readers or viewers should absolutely divorce the art from the artist. That is, the art can’t help but be divorced from its maker. This happens when a poem is published or a sculpture sits in a gallery or museum. The artist isn’t alone with it anymore, the relationship is publicized and a wedge comes between the piece and the artist’s intentions or context. In many ways, I think, the artist abandons the piece when this happens, and vice versa, I suppose.
On a similar but different note, when making a poem, I think losing some control is usually, if not always, a good idea. Improvising with language, sound, syntax, and form leads to some of the most brilliant mistakes, phrases and verbs and metaphors that never could have come through a controlled hand or mind. It’s also important to not know everything that’s going into a poem, to search for something yet unknown, to be dumbfounded sometimes by the language that comes into a line, to discover something. All of this comes from a very personal drive to make a kind of art, and I think the art is populated by passions, obsessions, questions, and a kind of alchemy.
FWR: Speaking of passions and obsessions, your poem in Issue 5 was entirely about Frida Kahlo and, to a lesser extent, Diego Rivera. Why Frida? Are you more interested in her artwork, her status as a cultural icon, or something else entirely?
WR: She’s stunning. The image of herself that she painted over and over in various scenes and circumstances is stunning. Her metaphors are stunning. Her paintings’ color is stunning. The only other visual artists that have struck me the way she has are Basquiat and Van Gogh, and maybe Gerhard Richter. She’s a wonderful bundle of complexity, both artistically and personally. Her personal life is tragic and richly beautiful. Her work is like nothing else before or since. For me, she has a voice that is like a really well-done love poem, full of visual rhythms, a voice loaded with feminism and honesty and force.
FWR: So you respond to feminist voices (which is awesome). Do you view yourself as a feminist writer?
WR: I appreciate feminism as a concept and practice. I’ve learned a great deal, and I hope adopted a feminist lifestyle, from reading, thinking about, internalizing, and trying to practice feminist ideals. But I don’t know that I’d call myself a feminist writer. I’m not necessarily trying to convey feminist ideas with my poems, but I hope they are there. I think I respond to voices of witness in general. A pillar of my teaching and writing philosophies is “diversity and inclusion,” or striving for better social equity. I’m particularly interested in examining and undoing white male privilege. James Baldwin is one of my greatest influences/guides/sparring partners. He has challenged me and taught me more than anyone. Kiese Laymon, bell hooks, Jake Adam York, Danez Smith, Jericho Brown, Lucille Clifton, Natasha Trethewey, Yusef Komunyakaa, Terrance Hayes, Carl Van Vechten: these writers tug and mold what I’m most interested in, and I think, I hope, some of my writing adds to this wide conversational awareness and art of social engagement.
FWR: You mentioned early experiences with Whitman and Dickinson in another interview, with The Missouri Review. You could almost call them diametrically opposing forces in American poetry. Do you feel that your own writing has developed a position between these two influences?
WR: The things that Dickinson does with language—the sounds and semantics—are bewitching, not all that different than what Frida accomplishes with meaning/message/metaphor and color. Whitman messes with syntax and line, but his poems have always been, for me, about washing this thick layer of water over whatever subject he happens to be exploring. His poems feel like heavy blankets that cover everything and cozy me into a way of thinking or feeling. If his poems were paintings they would be gobbed with oil, lunging off the canvas like a Van Gogh. I don’t know that my own writing has developed between these two poets. Whitman has been more present than Dickinson. But I think I’m balancing the scales, discovering and revisiting more and more of Dickinson as time passes. Everyone who hasn’t read some of Leaves of Grass lately, or has forgotten the sting of Dickinson’s metaphor, should pick up or buy a book soon, now.
FWR: Have you found that working in an editorial capacity, especially for a respected publication like Ploughshares, has influenced your own development as a writer?
WR: I think editorial work has done a lot for my own writing, but most notably it has helped me gain a sense of distance or objectivity with my own work—somewhat. It’s incredibly challenging to forget “what you meant” or avoid defending writerly decisions during the revision process. I think editorial work has served as a reminder to treat my own writing as I do that of submitters. Expect the work to be well-rounded, polished, poignant, well-crafted, and meaningful. I don’t know if all my writing accomplishes this, but editorial work has helped me reach for this.
FWR: What poetry are you reading currently?
WR: Currently and very recently: Jake Adam York’s Abide, Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam, David Tomas Martinez’s Hustle, rereading Leaves of Grass, Lisa Olstein’s Little Stranger, Roger Reeves’s King Me, Ruth Ellen Kocher’s domina Un/blued, rereading Terrance Hayes’s Lighthead (always rereading it), Shane McCrae’s BLOOD, Victoria Chang’s The Boss, Harryette Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed, rereading Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec.
FWR: What poetry do you really dislike?
WR: I’m actively trying to expand my taste, but the kinds of poetry I’ve disliked are overly casual in tone, gimmicky, weak prose in a really bad poetry mask (i.e. because a thing has line breaks doesn’t make it a poem), precious in the worst ways, lackluster without a purpose, and/or archaic-sounding for supposed fancy’s sake.
FWR: You already mentioned the difficulty of distancing yourself from your own work. Could you talk a little more about your writing process?
WR: My process isn’t very interesting, I don’t think. It’s very difficult to force myself to write. So instead, I read and search for things that get me thinking, then poems need to come out, and I’m often excited or hopeful for what I’ve first written down. After a week or so, I usually start to notice what needs to be tweaked, but more often, I leave the poem alone for awhile (a month, six months) or I submit it, and when I come back, sit down with it, I realize what’s terrible and am more comfortable slicing and adding and moving and changing. And I’ve recently noticed something about my own process that I never hear poets talking about: sometimes poems just don’t work out, no matter the tweaking or full-scale bombardment I give them. Sometimes poems need to be abandoned. This sounds an awful lot like giving up, but I think it’s more about learning from unsoundly built poems. It might seem daring or revolutionary or intriguing to build a house out of shoes, but no matter how you arrange that structure, that shit’s gonna fall apart.
FWR: Maybe no one talks about that because they don’t like to acknowledge that they do it all the time. There’s a kind of folk wisdom in poetry circles that everything is useful, that you can mine even your worst failures for the seeds of new, great poems. It’s almost more revolutionary to admit, “Yes, I tried to build a house out of shoes. That was idiotic. Moving on!” Why do you think poets are so uncomfortable doing this?r
I think there’s something to mining the worst failures for seeds of new, great poems, but it can sometimes torture you in unproductive ways. I’ve tried to make new poems from failed bits, but the phantom of what I wanted the original poem to be and do was always hanging over the new work. Maybe that’s a failure on my part as poem-maker, but I couldn’t shake it. I think it’s sometimes useful to hang onto those remnants, but other times cracking on is refreshing. I don’t know if poets are uncomfortable doing this, but maybe it’s just a matter of being uncomfortable admitting they do this. If they are uncomfortable abandoning a poem, maybe it’s a matter of proving their resourcefulness, maybe it’s a matter of intimacy. I often hear poets refer to their poems as children, and I hope everyone is uncomfortable abandoning their children, barring extreme or peculiar circumstances. I guess this means I don’t think of my poems as children.
Read “Bathing with Frida” in Issue 5
In this installment of “Take Four,” we speak with Issue 4 contributor Joseph D. Haske about narrative structure, blood feuds, drinking, and the pleasures of writing in and about Michigan’s U.P.
FWR: Your novel North Dixie Highway is very much about place, but it seems just as much about time, especially its ability to deepen wounds instead of healing them. It is painful to watch the book’s narrator obsess about killing his grandfather’s murderer, a man who, for very practical reasons, he can never reach. This kind of abiding hatred—this concept of “blood feud”—is often associated with small, rural communities like the novel’s U.P. Do you think that these wounds really do run deeper there, or is the distinction just a cultural fantasy?
JDH: Based on my experience living in both small towns and in cities, I think it may be a bit of the two things, tendency and cultural mythology. In American literature, particularly in rural fiction, as you’ve pointed out, the wounds do run deeper and vendettas tend to linger on, and I think that the blood feuds represented in rural literature do convey a sort of truth about how problems in general are handled in small towns as opposed to cities. Of course, with the globalization that’s occurred in the past couple of decades, and the unification, albeit superficial, that results from our cyberspace connections and the subsequent instant gratification, I’m not sure if these urban-rural distinctions exist in the same way they used to, or at least they aren’t as marked as they were before. Traditionally speaking, though, small town people have handled feuds differently than those in the city. That’s another reason why time is important in North Dixie Highway, because the novel takes place during the decades leading up to this shift, before the widespread use of the internet and the movement toward globalization. Up until that time, rural areas were much more ideologically isolated from urban centers than they are now, which, perhaps, made small towns more distinct in character. This fact was not lost on writers such as Twain, Faulkner, Caldwell, O’Connor, and others, and they did well emphasizing these differences to add another layer of sophistication to their respective fictional masterpieces. I believe that these writers recognized that there were real differences in how people handled problems in the city as opposed to rural areas, and they realized the importance of conveying these differences to demonstrate how the concept of community varies from place to place.
Simply put, the city has typically symbolized progress, and in much of the fiction set in the city, people handle traumatic situations differently than country folk. City dwellers may feel less able to act on the murder of a loved one because of the relative anonymity one experiences: there are so many people living in the city, where does one even begin to search for the murderer? Also, there are more random acts of violence in the city, so a person might become desensitized to some extent, and you might learn to mind your own business if the crime does not directly involve you or your family or friends. Having fewer people involved in these situations could accentuate this feeling of helplessness. This is certainly not the case in a small town. Everyone typically knows one another in rural areas, knows more than they should know about everyone’s business, and it’s much harder to keep a secret, to hide a murder, for example, without people finding out. For better or worse, the entire community would be affected by such an event, which might just as easily agitate the situation or help lead to resolution.
FWR: The chapters in your novel alternate between two consecutive decades in the narrator’s life. In the first he is a boy just shy of adulthood and in the second, a man just on the other side of it. It is easy to discuss the novel as a collection of linked stories, or as two intertwined novellas. When did these stories come together for you, and why do you think such modular forms appear to be gaining popularity?
JDH: North Dixie Highway actually began with a few independent stories, not as a novel per se, but I noticed a consistency of theme, voice and conflict and knew that it had to be a longer work—that the storyline deserved multiple angles and the kind of complexity that is more easily achieved in the form of a novel. You’re right that one might classify the book as intertwined novellas, or, perhaps, a unified collection of stories. Once I decided that all of this would end-up as a longer project, I tried to achieve an elusive, if not impossible, task: to write a novel constituted of chapters that work autonomously as stories. In some cases, I think I was able to achieve these story-chapters, and with other pieces, maybe the chapters are less effective as stand-alone pieces. In order to create unity in a longer work, a writer must, in most cases, sacrifice the autonomy of individual sections, whereas a truly effective story should be self-contained, so this can prove sort of contradictory. I admit that some of the chapters in the book are quite dependent on the book as a whole for their effectiveness, but they have to be in order to carry the work as a novel. The novel and the story, at least in a traditional sense, are truly distinct art forms in many respects, but such boundaries are often blurred in contemporary writing, and I suppose I was working to capture some of the elements that make both of these forms successful, combining the intensity of effect in the short story with the unity and development of a novella or novel.
The temporal shifts, I believe, are useful for showing what has changed and what’s stayed the same with the narrator and his physical setting as the story progresses. There are major gaps between events, of course, using this method, but I tried to follow the model of many great contemporary writers and tell the story through everything that is both there and not there, with multiple narrative lines boiling just under the surface.
I don’t know if I can speak for the popularity of modular forms, other than acknowledging that there has been a trend in this direction in contemporary literature. It probably all started with the fragmentary nature of the early 20th century modernist movement and the stream of conscious narrative. Then, at some point, it became a real trend in books, then film, especially in the 90’s and beyond. In the case of North Dixie Highway, it just seemed like the best approach to tell the type of story I wanted to tell: the narrative pattern reflects the state of mind, the consciousness of the protagonist. That may or may not be the goal of other writers who utilize this sort of modular form, but it was my primary motivation.
FWR: How important to you is faithful representation of a character’s consciousness, compared to more technical concerns like plot?
JDH: I see where you’re coming from, but from my point of view, with the way that I work, representation of consciousness is intertwined with plot—the two things can’t be exclusive of one another. I certainly care much more about representation of consciousness than some highly-structured, Victorian notion of plot, but I pay a great deal of attention to the structure of the work as a whole and how the story unfolds, even if the plot isn’t organized in a “logical” manner. The human mind isn’t logical, after all, so even though it’s impossible to mirror the function of the human mind through literary artifice, works such as Ulysses, for example, or even earlier examples of the novel, such as Don Quixote, or Moby Dick, come closer to achieving the desired effect. I guess that the point is that there is often more attention to plot in a novel than meets the eye when one considers that what seems to be a lack of structure, the elements which are not there, often serves as a catalyst to propel the narrative. I think the plot in my book manifests itself as a representation of a sort of selective memory process.
FWR: The characters in your novel do a lot of drinking. The male characters especially seem drawn to both its danger and its necessity, much the same as they are to the prospect of avenging their grandfather’s death. In the end, the two are brought explicitly together with the poisoning of his murderer’s scotch. Why, for these characters, do you think drinking and violence are so important, and so intertwined?
JDH: When I first spent significant time away from the U.P. as a young adult, one of the first things that I noticed was how people in other parts of the country seemed to drink so much less than many people in the U.P. do. I’ve often sat around with friends and speculated about why drinking culture is so akin to the lifestyle of many in northern Michigan. Maybe it’s the long winters, widespread unemployment, geographic isolation—I’m not sure why, exactly, but it’s a significant part of the culture there. Not everybody living in the U.P. is an alcoholic, but I think we have more than our share up there. The characters in NDH are representative of the region in a very real way, and that’s one simple explanation as to why drinking is so prominent in the novel. As a literary device, a character’s choice of alcohol is certainly a mode of developing that character; one can learn a great deal about a person by what they drink. Also, in NDH, as is the case in life, at times, alcohol is used to form bonds, or destroy them, as the case may be.
FWR: Do you have any objections to being known as a “U.P. writer”?
JDH: Not at all. When I was still living in the U.P., I was aware that writers such as Hemingway and Longfellow had written about the area. I knew that Jim Harrison, a native of northern Michigan, although not technically from the U.P., spent significant time there and that he had written extensively about it. He still does, along with fellow best-selling authors like Steve Hamilton and Sue Harrison, the latter a writer from a town that neighbors my hometown.
More recently, however, it has come to my attention that there is a thriving literary community centered on the U.P. that includes people who either live there, use it as a backdrop for their literature, or both. At the center of the movement to bring more attention to Upper Peninsula literature is the playwright, poet, editor, and author of the novel, U.P., Ron Riekki. He recently put together an anthology of new Upper Peninsula works with Wayne State University Press, The Way North, and it just earned a Michigan Notable Book Award. Through his efforts, I’ve come in contact or reconnected with U.P. writers such as Mary McMyne, Eric Gadzinski, Julie Brooks Barbour, and many other talented people. Many of the authors included in the anthology were names that I’d recognized from other important national venues, people like Catie Rosemurgy and Saara Myrene Raappana. Needless to say, there is a burgeoning literary movement centered on U.P. writers, and there are certainly countless other talented writers that I’m forgetting to mention here. The literature of the U.P. includes a broad range of styles and themes, but I’m glad to see that the writers of the region are getting some much-deserved national recognition.
“Lyrical, passionate, unflinching, Joe Haske’s fiction grabs hold of you and shakes you to your core. He is one of the most exciting young American writers of his generation.” ~Richard Burgin
Read “Red Meat and Booze” in Issue 4
In this installment of “Take Four,” we talk to contributor Megan Staffel about her short story “Saturdays at the Philharmonic” and her latest collection from Four Way Books.
FWR: “Like “Saturdays at the Philharmonic,” many of the stories in your book Lessons in Another Language portray characters in the midst of some form of sexual awakening. Though the stories are set in the late sixties and early seventies, the characters’ experiences with sex seem more painfully emotional than the narratives of freedom and personal autonomy we so often associate with that period. What are your thoughts on the relationship between subject and chronological setting?”
MS: Culture changes so slowly we don’t see the changes until we hold a memory against the present. In my last collection, Lessons in Another Language, I was compelled to revisit the period I grew up in through fiction because I understand it differently now that I am an adult. I feel a bit wiser because of experience, but I’ve also gained a different perspective through the cultural changes I’ve lived through. That’s where sex comes in. As a culture, it seems to me we are less naïve. I believe (I hope) we are more nurturing of young women. These are generalizations of course, and they’re suspect because they are generalizations, but that’s why we need fiction. Fiction gives us the specifics.
There was a house in my childhood that contained all of the things I didn’t understand. I’ve revisited that house in dreams and in stories. It’s a house my mother spent her summers in as a child and I visited as a child, a big and forbidding stone house built by my grandfather at the foot of a wooded hill in Connecticut. It had a distinctive sound, a wooden screen door snapping closed, and the distinctive smell of old fires in a stone fireplace, and these sensory memories are what launched me into the group of stories that make up Lessons in Another Language, most of which are about characters in the in-between territory after childhood, but before becoming independent adults.
There was a secret in every drawer of every cupboard in that house and in the early sixties, as I wandered about by myself, pretending I was Nancy Drew searching for clues, I found only the mangle sitting by itself in the center of a small room in the attic and in my grandfather’s dresser drawer, a collection of pornographic photos. At nine years old they were both frightening and compelling, but thinking about them now, they gain meaning. My perspective now, influenced as it is by the culture of the 21st century, prompts me to ask, why was it necessary to sleep in ironed sheets, and what an extravagant waste of time it was for the woman of the house to create them, and behind that question is a more interesting one: did my grandfather ever tell his wife his fantasies? I think not. I think they were both constrained by their ideas of married life. He spent his days on the golf course while she was in the attic, running wrinkled sheets through the hot rollers on the mangle, making them crisp and smooth.
When a story takes place is as important as where it takes place, and I would say that the word “setting” includes both place and time and gives them equal importance. The story you mention, “Saturdays at the Philharmonic” was written after the publication of Lessons, but it was written from the same retrospective point of view that inspired the stories in that collection. And yes, you’re right, the sixties and early seventies urged us to enjoy sexual freedom, but that was a reaction against the constrictions of the fifties and also, probably, a direct result of the development of a birth control pill for women. Yet as freeing as the pill was, it also wreaked emotional havoc because we were girls formed by the sheltering mores of the fifties. That’s what’s so fascinating about history. The extremes of one decade “correct” the extremes of the previous decade. For instance, that ubiquitous Beautiful Hair Breck blonde whose pale features were on the back cover of every Life and Look magazine I saw, was the utterly convincing messenger for Breck shampoo and the icon I and many other young girls worshipped. Her every hair was in place and her face was so calm it was death-like. That purity was the ideal of beauty we sought. That is, until the sixties bottomed out and Jimi Hendrix screamed, “Are you experienced?” Then, she was no help to us at all.
Where a story sits in time gives the writer a perspective to work from. It provides the particular images, sounds, and smells that bombard our characters, but perhaps most importantly, it gives us the context that pressures the choices a character makes in his or her life. When is often the subject of the story, but at the very least, it’s a supporting element, one that’s impossible to peel away from character or events.
FWR: I’m intrigued by the idea that, in a world in which generalizations are a necessary evil, fiction has the potential to provide us with specifics. It seems art is so often accused of being too generalized, too abstract to serve much of a purpose.
MS: I suspect those accusations are from people who aren’t readers, who haven’t had the experience of “living” in a story or a novel and then missing it when it’s finished. When you have truly inhabited a piece of fiction, long or short, it feels like a complete world and the odd and marvelous experience of reading fiction is that it’s both real and imaginary, actual and invented. That is, we are experiencing what are only black marks on a white background while at the same time, we are translating their message. The black marks don’t, of themselves, create the illusion of reality; they need to be partnered with a mind to create that illusion. They are the code we translate to get access. With movies and TV, there’s no code. But we must partner with text and that’s why it has the potential to envelop us. And when it envelops us in a complete way, that is, when the illusion it creates captures us so utterly we don’t question anything (i.e. we suspend disbelief) it can rescue us from the banalities of our culture.
Those of us who are readers depend on this form of rescue. The specifics in the world of a novel or story are the antidote for the mind-numbing generalities in the commercial muck we slosh through in our daily lives. We tune a lot of it out of course; we have to. I tune out most of it because I live in a rural place and don’t have a TV or subscribe to the contemporary versions of the Life and Look magazines of my childhood.
But still, I am part of it. Leafing through the New York Times “Sunday Styles” magazine I see the word Aruba, and then below it: “Unwind on one of the best beaches in the world.” The photo shows an empty beach with a hand-holding couple walking away from a rocky cove in loose, wind-rippled clothing towards the foamy surf. I am spying on them from a hidden vantage point somewhere above.
What’s being suggested? Sex, of course. The photo shows us a post-coital moment. And then there’s the word unwind, a gloriously general term with nothing but positive implications supported by the curving shoreline, the curving path of the footprints, the body-hugging style of the sheath dress the woman wears, the flapping, unbuttoned shirt on the man. It’s rich in implication but starved of substance.
Fiction writers manipulate just as boldly. Our manipulations, of course, have a different purpose: we don’t try to numb our readers, we want to wake them up, to remind them of the finite quality of our individual material existence.
I like the word “material.” I am an epicure of the material world, in love with the concrete, sensory plain that supports our existence on this earth and perhaps my underlying purpose, as a writer, is to steer my readers away from that Breck woman, that Aruba fantasy, those abstract and generalized visions, back to the disquiet of the sensory.
As I am writing this, I am sitting on the porch of this house I share with my husband. It is late August and I look out at beds of flowers. This summer I have planted a lot of long-stemmed zinnias. They are a great flower for cutting and a wonderfully generous creature because the more you cut its stalks, the more flowers it will produce! And so our house is filled with vases of flowers and each time I walk by them I admire the shapes, colors, textures. But they last only four or five days. The daisy-like heads on the zinnias fall over, and all their intense, startling beauty turns to dross.
In the sensory world nothing lasts. A flower in full bloom; a moment of true communication in a relationship; the infectious laughter at a dinner party; a phrase in a tune that is perfectly melded into a movement with a partner on a dance floor: these stunning moments all pass. And yet these are the concrete experiences that energize us. So we go to art because the painting, the photograph, the conversation in a novel are the only ways of keeping them with us.
And, in a wonderful way, the art that catches that perfect instant in time isn’t static either. That is, it doesn’t stay on the canvas or on the page; it visits and informs the actual. So, a particularly beautiful arrangement of flowers that sits in a window in my kitchen reminds me of Matisse’s 1905 painting , “Open Window,” where color literally leaves the petals of the flowers and rises into the air.
In Shirley Hazzard’s 1980 novel, The Transit of Venus, there is an amazing scene between the duplicitous Paul Ivory and his one-time lover, Caro Bell, when Paul Ivory confesses not only his affairs with men, but a dark moment from his early life that resulted in a death that was deemed accidental but in fact was not. “I killed him,” he tells her. “I thought you probably knew.”
Paul believes Caro knew because his rival for Caro’s love, Ted Tice, had witnessed the “accident” and guessed the role Paul played in it, and Paul assumed he had told Caro. But in fact, he hadn’t. This is a startling revelation for both the reader and Paul Ivory because it means that Ted Tice is a scrupulously moral man. Even though Paul Ivory had been his competitor, Tice did not malign him. He wanted Caro to choose which man to love on her own and not because she had learned that Ivory had a dark past. So when Ivory confesses all, Caro sees Tice differently, and for the first time in the many years he has pursued her, she is ready to respond to his romantic overtures.
It takes an entire novel to set up this reversal and though it’s a development specific to this group of people, it spills out beyond it. That is, because it’s so specific, its truth is universal. It illuminates the complicated layers of human relationships in general. What it suggests to me is that the tangles in my own life, though different, are not so strange. So this is another way fiction can rescue us.
And then there is the curious comfort of the invented world. I think it unites us with our more playful, childhood selves. I am a great believer in the adult necessity to “play pretend,” and fiction ushers us through that portal; it allows us to exit the real and experience the rejuvenating qualities of imaginative possibility.
I believe art helps us to accept life’s messes. It provides release through catharsis. But it can do so only if it relates to our sensory existence, that is, if it communicates with the same specific and material world we inhabit.
FWR: So, in a way, art not only gives us rich experience, but the possibility of revisiting and reinterpreting that experience many times. You say the stories in Lessons in Another Language were partly an attempt to revisit the cultural moment of your youth. The book, of course, presents specifics – material, I suppose – perhaps not all of which was originally present in your memory. What do you think it is about the act of writing itself that lets us access or interpret our experiences better than memory alone?
MS: In my brain, and I will assume that this is true for others as well, the stories I tell myself about events that have happened in my life have a minimalized quality, an owner’s shorthand, that makes them knowable in an instant and habitual way. When these stories are translated into a narrative that will make sense to someone who is not the owner, there is a great deal of invention. Memory is patchy and so the supporting material must be filled in.
Should it be filled in with the purpose of telling the truth or with the purpose of telling a particular story? As a writer, I never take the first option. I’m not a memoirist; I’m not interested in what we call objective “truth,” what actually happened; I’m interested in what almost happened or what might have happened. I am bored if I have to stick to what I already know. I want to throw the doors open and invent! Invention allows more light, more air and thus, a new perspective. Invention creates the possibility of discovery. Also, it eradicates the memory groove and that’s a good thing.
The story in Lessons In Another Language that is the closest to actuality is called “Daily Life of the Pioneers” and two marvelous things have happened since that story has been published. One is that I have lost much of the original memory because the invented narrative has taken its place. And the other is that the first time I read that story, my audience laughed. I was, of course, hoping that they would laugh, but they did truly laugh and they laughed not just once but frequently. So the “real event,” the summer that my sister and I were sent to an Alexander Technique and raw-foods sleep-away camp in the wilds of Pennsylvania, was changed forever. Now it’s funny and awful, so I’ve been able to abandon the original dark and serious version, the memory I used to have to drag around.
But the true value of invention is that it allows the writer to approximate the cacophony of feeling we human beings possess. It seems to me we are always at the mercy of inchoate feelings — they are massively conflicting and difficult to articulate. And then to make everything more challenging, the actual events of our lives often lack the spectacle that our feelings suggest. So how do you get at them? I invent. Invention is the tool that gets us closest to the expression of those feelings.
Here’s what I mean: When I was a little girl I joined a Brownie troop. It was probably about 1959 and my mother, an abstract expressionist painter who worshipped color and led a bohemian artist lifestyle, was minimally supportive of the whole project. When she could no longer procrastinate the purchase of the outfit, she took me to the department store and I picked out the brown dress, the brown belt and the brown socks. To be a Brownie, that was what you had to wear. We gathered these items and then, on our way to the cashier, we passed a table of Brownie extras, things to improve the Brownie lifestyle. One of those was a little brown plastic change purse designed to hang on the belt. Brownies had to pay dues at each meeting and the purse would give me a place to keep my money. It cost only ten cents and I wanted it, badly, but my mother was determined not to spend another penny on such abhorrent items. Quickly, she slipped it into her handbag. It was a small thievery and yet, relative to my decision to join the troop and aspire to be a good Brownie, it was enormous. I felt ashamed, scared, guilty, and desperately unhappy. My mother paid for the other items and we walked out of the store.
Were I to fictionalize this, I would have to add things to increase tension. Maybe there would be a store cop. Or maybe a cashier would look our way. Maybe the little girl character would notice mirrors hanging down from the ceiling to apprehend shoplifters.
Because that’s what it felt like my mother was. The filching of the change purse was huge and it was irrevocable. It put us on a path I didn’t even know existed. Yet for my mother it was a simple and very small incident; she was only out of patience, with me, with the culture, and with her life as it was at that moment in time.
Lately I’ve been working on a novella about a young woman’s first romance. As many of us do, she chooses an inappropriate boyfriend, a sex addict and compulsive liar, and gets so entrapped by his version of reality she forgets that it isn’t her own. It wasn’t until I had finished the story that I realized I’d made use of my first boyfriend. I’d changed his context and given him better accomplishments — the invented boyfriend was a professional dancer —whereas the only creativity the original possessed was a remarkable timing and visual acuity that allowed him to do a reckless highway ballet that should have caused accidents, but only caused a woman to drive up alongside us and tell him she was glad she wasn’t my mother because if he kept on doing what he was doing, I was going to be dead. Oddly enough, her words had no effect. He was high and I was so numbed by constant fear I shrugged it off.
When I recognized that relationship in the novella I was surprised. I hadn’t set out to use that material, but I think memory is always guiding us. From the perspective of my invented characters, that crazy summer of my life suddenly looked very different. For the first time, I could see the absurdity.
I hadn’t set out to use that material, but memory must have been guiding me. And now with the novella complete (I won’t say finished because nothing is finished until it’s published) I am pleased that I’ve fictionalized a secret time in my life. When it goes out into the world, and if it creates a spark of recognition for some readers, that’s the real pleasure.
Not since Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid has there been a book which so articulately reveals the complex
To kick off our new interview series, “Between the Lines,” we talk to contributing editor Craig Morgan Teicher about the vagaries of the artistic process and the thematic obsessions that ultimately guide its course.
FWR: You’re currently working with prose poems, which also take on a more conversational structure than some of your previous work. In your poem, “Layoff,” from your book To Keep Love Blurry, you write, “It’s not what you say, but / how you say it and why, whom you address / that makes a poem go.” Can you talk a little about the how and why of these new poems?
CMT: Well, I’m not currently working in prose—I’m actually really going on a new heap of poems that I hope will settle into a manuscript soon, and I’m not sure yet whether this group of prose pieces will fall in with them. These prose pieces came about because Rusty Morrisson at Omnidawn was kind enough to ask me for a chapbook, and after writing and turning in and editing and seeing the publication of To Keep Love Blurry, I felt pretty dried out. Good writing just wasn’t coming, though I wanted to be writing very much—there’s no better feeling than words coming out. So I set myself a project—to take “big topics” as my titles and then kinda think my way down a page on the topic. I let myself write in prose because many of the poems in To Keep Love Blurry are in strict forms and rhyme schemes, and I wanted to break my mind out of those habits, or to take some pressure off. As I wrote a few pieces like this, a voice began to emerge and the pieces began talking to each other. Whether or not it seems like it, these pieces were heavily worked over and drafted over months, which is to say, I guess, that they were a lot hairier when they started.
FWR: Your chapbook, Ambivalence and Other Conundrums, will be published this fall by Omnidawn. The poems featured here touch briefly on specifics, such as a mother’s death, a father’s alcoholism, the speaker’s wife. In the chapbook, do these pieces combine to create a longer narrative?
CMT: Dang, and I thought I was being veiled and unautobiographical in these pieces. Alas. Those three characters—the mother, the father, the wife—which, er, may or may not have an autobiographical basis, keep coming up. Obviously, aside from their relationship to my lived life, they’re important symbols to me, as I end up writing about the way between being a child and being a parent, how one gets there, what the markers and stepping stones are. The chapbook doesn’t have a narrative, but it’s got plenty of evidence of my same old obsessions, as do the new poems I’m working on.
FWR: Do you feel you tend to address your obsessions directly in much of your writing, or do you find they usually manage to seep in on their own? How have they evolved—whether the obsessions themselves or your approach to them—between books?
CMT: I think there are two kinds of writers: those who repeat themselves a lot and those who repeat themselves a little less. I’m the former rather than the latter, I believe, though I hope I’m finding new ways to say the same things. I don’t mind it when writers obsess over their obsessions for an entire career, as long as they get somewhere with it, which I hope I am/will. I think we’re pretty helpless against our obsessions—mine include fear, guilt, my mother, poetry, fatherhood, son-hood, and thinking on camera, as it were—but I try to find new angles of approach.
FWR: I love this idea of taking these “big topics,” as you mentioned earlier, and writing into them, both intellectually and personally. What was the first “big topic” you chose and how did you begin? Did you discover something new or surprising about your relationship to any of these topics while writing these poems?
CMT: Jeez, I can’t even remember now. It was probably fear…I think the subtitle of all of these pieces is “fear,” if not the actual title. Writing is just an endeavor to keep the inner mouth moving, to fend off silence, which is the element in which fear spins its weird webs, which, in fact, are probably as harmless as real spider webs are (to people), but that doesn’t stop most of us from freaking out whenever we walk into one and feel its invisible chords sticking to our skin. I suppose I was reminded of how susceptible to fear I am while writing these pieces, and how interested I am in it, what a muse fear is.