Pimone Triplett is the author of Supply Chain (2017), a collection of poems from the University of Iowa Press. She is also the author of Rumor (2009), The Price of Light (2005), and Ruining the Picture (1998). She has been the recipient of the Levis Poetry Prize and the Hazel Hall Poetry Prize. With Daniel Tobin, she is the co-editor of Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play, a collection of essays on craft by Warren Wilson MFA Program professors.She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa. Currently, she teaches at the University of Washington and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.
This conversation took place via email over several months. I’m grateful and excited to open the second conversation thread on If You Want To with Pimone’s interview.
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JM: Pimone, thanks so much for chatting with me! I think a good place to begin is by asking what some examples are of “dumb, green change” that have been influences or impetuses in your creative life? A poem from your first collection, Ruining the Picture, got me thinking about this. In it the speaker contemplates Van Eyck composing The Annunciation, his oil-paint innovations “For the sake of making the mundane / seem to marry the mysterious.” In your poem “The Annunciation,” Van Eyck is imagined as both accepting and transcending his limitations, and the speaker goes on to conceive him thus:
So, out to pay the right kind of attention
to detail, as if, in the lengthening
carelessness of cracked roads leading away
from his town, beneath a matted pulp
of the year’s leaves, he wished he could hear
silence taking shape: a weed, say, starting
to split the surface, part vegetal
altar and example of dumb, green change.
PT: This is a marvelous question, Jessica. For me, the first sense of “dumb, green change” is inspired by the physical world which includes words themselves, their life as audible objects, their heard, mutable, “dumbness,” or ours, when we use them or they use us, and especially the sound of words as material realities, both simultaneously permanent-seeming yet also fleetingly felt. As you’ve intuited in your question, in this poem it’s the oil that gives rise to innovation for Van Eyck as he explores the physical reaches of his surroundings and the physicality of his medium. In direct ways then, this parallels the poetic act of “listening” for the right word, the next word, the music of words taken together as sounds in the mouth and ear, the apparent “weed” that can become an altar.
This is why I love how you’ve phrased it here, “as both accepting and transcending his limitations.” The “change” part, if we emphasize that aspect, suggests to me in your question, though, that innovation can come from influence? That’s certainly true, and from early on I was most attracted to “noisier” poetic voices in which a material sense of the word-rich surface came into play, poets like Hopkins, Keats, Hart Crane, Stevens, or some of the crazier pieces of Roethke. It was the primary sounding that caught me at the level of the body, and it was a sound I rarely heard in prose. As for seeking out the “dumb, green” places of change, of stylistic innovation, I’d offer as well the idea that you can’t of course always get that through apprenticing yourself to influence, although the latter is an absolutely necessary starting point.
Formal explorations might lead to innovation, or trying out a shift in point of view, or any number of ways that one might somehow leap out of one’s usual linguistic strategies. I suppose what I still love, though, about denser word-runs is how they can guide your experience beyond the purely rational meaning-making mind, or even beyond the relentlessly metaphor-making mind itself, into a kind of ear-driven surprise, an intuitive almost hypnotic state. I tell my students that when they go to a reading and the poem goes by more quickly than the mind can hold, that is its own delight, or at least its own lesson about the performativity of language itself—its event-like quality of happening only once, and the ability to accept and transcend, as you so aptly put it, intention, or what the poem is supposed to “mean.”
One of my listeners, a former student, the poet Gabrielle Bates, commented at a reading of mine how she could hear how I loved every word—I hope not in the sense of loving the sound of my own voice, or even my own poems, but actually each word coming when it does in musical relation to another word. There is more to a certain kind of brocaded surface in language—and Marianne Moore is another wonderful touchstone for this point—that can be in service of the unexpected, the irrational being given its stage time, an honoring of a word or word sequence as having a “mouth-feel,” for example. The mind, the race of it, is too easily satisfied, I find, in many poems I read. And of course Stevens said the poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully, along with asserting that it can never be satisfied. The intelligence always wants more and more, it’s a grasping, almost inherently colonizing force in most of us, or so bound up with circumstantial ego of moment in time. What’s more, I for one all too often am certain my thoughts and feelings are “true”! Only to realize later that another set of thoughts and feelings are “true” instead.
JM: I wanted to ask you about the relationship between “Snapshots with Wide Apertures Shown on the Road” from Ruining the Picture and “The Price of Light,” title poem from your second collection. The former poem uses photography to explore how we travel both to escape and to become part of—ourselves, our families, the myriad histories that press upon us (or as you put it in your current manuscript, “as travel is to travail”). “Snapshots with Wide Apertures Shown on the Road” is both a road poem as well as a poem that encompasses recollections and images of a grandfather, remote and elusive, in Bangkok. The poem concludes:
Say the moment arrives
at the frame, and she who is about to enter
the picture approaches.
At the end of the road trip, she turns back
in hopes of memorizing what’s been passed,
the colors that changed, the mirror-winks,
the real moisture, invisible, along side mirage.
His face was a once-darker shade of the dust in his country.
Some days he’d set the aperture, the opening,
as wide as he could,
to ruin the picture, to let all the light in.
“The Price of Light” is a poetic sequence whose exploration of place, family, history, and conventions is repeatedly approached though frameworks of light and dark. The poem begins with a funeral and ends with an incantation or something like it, and touches on supplication and cynicism, clarity and ignorance, as well as descent and return. The poem ends:
Chronicles tell, my love,
how fire spoke for once,
a cave inside a cave
All to show us to us
in shadow huddled over
driblets of blood
but priced dearly,
betrothed to banquet,
palm to palm new pressed
over the heart
Did you say you’d come
Someone still reads from the book of stone
After this, there is only subtraction
You have to take the whole,
minus the price of light.
These striking poems made me think of Emerson and some of his claims for light: “There is no object so foul that intense light will not make it beautiful. And the stimulus it affords to the sense, and a sort of infinitude which it hath, like space and time, make all matter gay.” This is all a rather long build up to asking you to talk a little bit about risking or even courting ruin, as well as about your philosophy of light (if that’s not too strong a phrase), poetic, scientific, or otherwise.
PT: But your “build up,” as you put it, is so insightful here! I love what you say about risking or even courting ruin. In “Ruining the Picture,” I was attracted to photographs as archival evidence of light (and image) that can feel both simultaneously flooded with the present and legibly inclusive of an historical past. And here I want to suggest both a biographical and a cultural history, as in my family stories about Thailand they so often overlap. Photographs can give us that particular kind of duration—the light as captured in one moment in time, it’s that one second’s present tense arrested. Then comes the inevitably attached character-driven—adding a pronoun always does this for me—sensation of the He/She/ You/ I in that moment who is actually made up of all the past history that goes into lighting up that present moment, making it appear.
I like how John Berger in his essay on the works of Paul Strand puts it as the “I am” which “includes all that has made me so.” What you get potentially in family photographs is the light of a moment—their present moment—looked back upon as an archetypal image for the imagination of our ancestral lives. I needed to picture the haunting quality of that double light on my grandfather’s face as making a deep impression on future generations of viewer offspring. One needn’t have a mother who hails from a distant country simply to have this sense; it could come from any art or object that suggests both a timeless quality and a fragility.
The paradox of photographic or filmic gestures as inevitably representing—re-presenting, re-playing the present moment, or the illusion of it—has to do with memory itself, as does poetry. And if there is an ars poetica here, I’d say that writing in a poem about any other art nearly always implies staking out one’s claims or commitments to art more generally. I don’t think it’s too much to say that there is a spiritual aspect to this inquiry. Terrence Malick’s stunning film, The Tree of Life, for instance, so movingly captures some of the workings of light and memory, personal and public histories, and just as you say, both “cynicism” and “supplication.” What I love about his approach is something I was also after in the poems of my first book, or perhaps in all of my poems, and that is to allow the sometimes painful oscillations between the secular and the sacred to really only “mean” in close relation to one another.
As in, each is meaningless without the other. In the first poem you mention, the secular reading of “letting all the light in,” or to “ruin the picture,” connotes a kind of perverse self-destructiveness that is referred to earlier in that same poem. I mean some of what is there is just “dust,” just the dirt of history, revolutions, failures. There are impulses that make us feel exposed and without protection, but there is something seductive also about this compulsion, a drive to escape oneself, if possible. There’s an addictive quality to this kind of “ruining.” Paradoxically, the affective cousin waiting in the wings is also an escape from self, or from the glaring light of consciousness, control, the burden of thinking, which is sacred in feeling, a flooding of light that cleanses perhaps, or rescues one from sheer isolation and into some sort of larger communal, or spiritual, vision. For me, part of the point of that poem (which I wrote, strange to say, twenty years ago) was to explore how both senses of light are intimate companions of one another, or how tragedy and consolation in some truer fashion refuse hierarchical stabilities, refuse to stay in place.
In the poem, I wanted to try to keep alive a kind of warbling or trilling, a less judgmental sense of each of these moments as equally human and inter-relational, rather than settling more easily into a self-congratulatory ethics that asserts how the first moment (the sacred one) is better than the next one (the secular one). My hope was that by the time we arrive at the last iteration of the word “ruin” at the close of that poem, both senses of ruination could exist simultaneously rather than merely linearly settling on one being inherently “better” than the other.
The Emerson quotation with respect to the poem “The Price of Light” is fascinating to me. There is in Emerson at least here a hierarchy, though, in which the “foul” must be more or less rescued by the intensity of light which is the action of the “beautiful.” I’d bicker with him slightly over that one, as you can see from what I’ve said so far. We traffic in generalizations at this point, but it seems to me that we do not live in a world any more where we can afford to look away from the “foul,” or wish it too easily transformed into the “beautiful.” I’m reminded of AR Ammons masterful, celebratory sequence on the strange abandonment and tragedy of garbage, of the discarded and overlooked, and even of the horrifying (the sublime as an experience of terror, which Kant is careful to distinguish from the beautiful) images from a film like Manufactured Landscapes, featuring the disturbing man-made landscape photography of Edward Burtynsky.
But at any rate, the later poem that you mention, “The Price of Light,” deals more explicitly with the economic “price,” to some extent, of being alive in a world of uneven development, so that of course the exoticism of Thailand is partly what is being marketed, along with warm weather and hot sunlight, to tourists who most typically hail from richer countries. The cave image draws on Plato’s famous image for the mind’s limits, its illusions, and here the light that is seen, and taken for “true,” is an image of the world bought and sold, as in section 3 of that same poem, which reads…“deep inside the darkened cave, the princess//still gets saved by laser show each night…”
I was spirited into this realm of thinking after my father, who is an economist, mentioned the work of William D. Nordhaus, which attempts to calculate the comparison in work/ labor hours of ancient humankind making fires as compared to the labor of our turning on a light switch. The historical sweep of such an idea is inherently poetic to me, with its willingness to embrace the looking at things slant, of finding, to me, astonishing likenesses. By the time the reader arrives at the closing section that you quote here there is again I hope a spiritual, or at least anagogic, sense of time and light itself, “priced” by darkness and generational deaths, but also “betrothed to banquet.”
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JM: Could you talk a little bit about the traditional Thai poetic form you’ve used periodically in your books, the kap yanii? The form consists of 11-syllable lines that maintain a series of internal and end rhymes. Here is an example from a poem in your third collection Rumor, “Family Spirits, with Voice of One Child Miscarried,” which a parenthetical indicates takes place in Thailand:
Oh but you can’t be always, you see, in residence,
can’t hide behind the fence of your city forever.
Why should more souls come down, in sum, in severe,
be whomsoever accident makes of skin?
What led you to this particular form? Are there any specific practitioners whose work you emulate or engage when employing the kap yanii?
PT: Thank you for this question! Kap yanii is a traditional Thai poetic form that I stumbled upon during a visit to one of the many Buddhist temples there. As you point out, it is a syllabic form with a high degree of rhymes built in. Like many languages, Thai is easier to rhyme in than English, as English is famously “rhyme poor” due to its hybrid history. Below is an example of where the rhymes should fall in the Thai form. Each unrhymed syllable is represented by an “o” and each rhyming spot is marked in bold:
o o o o A o o A o o B
o o o o B o o o o o C
o o o o D o o D o o C
o o o o C o o o o o E
As you can see, the fifth position, along with the eighth and the 11th, are key. There is no one, as far as I know, aside from myself, who has written in or tried to adapt this form into English. And I certainly wouldn’t claim that my version of it is “authentically” Thai any more (whatever that may mean!). I just wanted to see what could be generated by following it—I think ultimately that is what form is for, leading you into new places. In this case, it turned out to be a series of voices that were more or less unnatural in English—almost supernatural to me, or so I came to believe. Thus far, whenever I have used this form it has been to indicate the voice of an entity who is for some reason not able to speak “naturally,” usually because they are speaking from beyond the rational somehow. In the passage that you quote above, the voice speaking is that of a miscarried fetus addressing the world of the living, a world it never had the chance to join. I have another series in which characters in the afterlife speak in this form, coming from a kind of Buddhist-inflected limbo world.
It all sounds a little nuts, I know! But in this age in which traditional formal strategies in English are not requisite I’m a firm believer that poets need to find innovative methods to invoke form without always culling from only the English tradition (as rich as it is, and readily available also). I have had the pleasure of teaching student poets who explored “new” forms, or really older, non-English dominant forms, associated with their heritage, from Hebrew to Hindi, and the results were always innovative and startling for the poet and the class itself. The object in using form it not to slavishly repeat a structure for its own sake, but in order to follow where it leads, and to experience its generative qualities, which can enliven any practice.
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JM: You write so fiercely and movingly about mothers, motherhood, pregnancy, children, and the attendant losses and fragility that accompany hope and love—
there are so many poems I’d like to ask you about (“Stillborn,” “Grief Hotline,” for example) but “Motherland,” from Rumor, is one that agitates in a different way. It’s a harrowing poem about slavery and human trafficking, particularly the sexual slavery of children such as “the girl called ‘Lek,’ meaning ‘little,’ / [who] was sold at age three to the foreign businessman.” The poem ends:
There by the grace of
The body wholly body, spirit eaten out
We travel in trade
We owe a great debt
There is no speaking for here
Though there is singing
“entrusting our souls to the limitless sea”
Then and now now and then
the profit free of duty
the vessels unveiled in the harbor
heavy with rubies, emeralds, diamonds,
buying honey and moonlight,
waves on the wood planks shushing, slapping,
the child praying
I shall not be afraid
I shall not be
At what point did you realize the poem’s relationship to Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage”? Reading Hayden’s poem again, it’s hard to single out only one passage or aspect for praise, but I was struck by the way that lines recurring in the opening and in the conclusion of the poem are altered slightly in the third section, when the speaker says the Middle Passage is a “voyage whose chartings are unlove.” This feels like an utterly contemporary kind of utterance.
PT: Your observation about the startling contemporaneity of the Hayden line speaks to how much we both sense and continually repress—in order to get on with the necessary business of living—the parallel world of both present-day slavery, as it still is practiced with a global economy, and its relationship to historical or previous structures of dominance. I understood right away that I wanted to create an homage to Hayden’s piece, and could feel how its formal devices, including altered recurrence, spoke to the strange acknowledgment and simultaneous repression with regard to this difficult subject.
As Americans, we are most used to thinking of slavery in terms of our own shameful and horrific legacy of our racialized past, in terms of African-American lives, and that is as it should be. At the same time, my Thai heritage led me to see its ongoing global manifestation as well, and to try to grapple with the fact that, however much we prefer to believe that true slavery is over, it continues in various forms throughout the global marketplace. Of course, the body of the enslaved person is much more rarely visible to the average consumer who still benefits from the fact of grossly uneven economic development throughout the world. The problem is that the structures involved in these disparities are so large that many of us feel the situation is insolvable.
But I think it’s useful to examine the ways in which the other, exoticized, sexualized, objectified, looked at, by a predominantly, “neutral” Western eye, can be taken into account and understood as emerging from a longer history. In this poem it goes back to early encounters between Thailand and Western colonial powers, in this case the Dutch (although Thailand was never officially colonized by any European power, a result of mostly strategic placations, the influence of American military forces stationed in Thailand for R and R is well known). Of course I do not mean to too easily conflate the situation of enslaved peoples brought to the Americas, that horrific transport which is the subject of Robert Hayden’s brilliant poem, with contemporary human trafficking. The scale is different perhaps, yet there is no denying the practice of fishing industry and prostitution-related violations of human rights going on in places like Thailand, as many human rights organizations attest. Partly what I was trying to do in my poem is see for myself both the lesser and the greater moments of violation of the sacred human life as connected, both in myself and in the larger history.
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JM: Thank you for sharing your forthcoming manuscript, Supply Chain, with me. It’s a fabulous read. “Recital for Mixed-Race Player,” which comes early in the second section, is funny and tender, as well as a bit scathing. The poem opens with a description of the player, and ends with the recital itself:
Off key, off color,
disguised as clavichord in cardboard,
level, fretting over something
to majors and minors, latter of whom
could least afford
the single chord
expected. Weights above, pressings of pad.
whole notes, tenderly or in rush,
the timbre uncovering
ivory keys taken from a beast.
Stay confusion, I thought, sinking
and pianoforte, the heard, some treble
that, muddling, made us.
I love the way that “stay confusion” is made ambiguous by its relationship to “stay back,” which seems to hold its normal meaning of “to remain.” In other words, does “stay confusion” mean the speaker wants to remain confusion or to arrest it? Could you tell us a little bit about this poem, as well as any confusions that you are currently engaged in both perpetuating and fathoming?
PT: The sentence “Stay back” refers most immediately to the speaker’s unfolding in that moment of a realization about the “beast,” which is literally the elephant from whom the “ivory keys” were “taken” after its murder, and more figuratively the beast of categorization that we make of, for, and by one another, the categories, in this case, of the monoracial or multiracial. In this sense the wish is for that beast to stay back, or to go back into whatever metaphorical cage of innocence that the speaker may have been inhabiting in the imagined moments of playing before the realization of judgment, analysis, the divisions of belonging and its partner, a lack of belonging. So in that way your apprehension of “to remain” is aligned with my sense of what the poem is doing there. Just after, the sentence “Stay confusion” is in my mind an effort to grapple with Robert Frost’s famous assertion that poetry is a “stay against confusion.” Of course, he has in mind the formal restraints that, paradoxically, can generate innovation in any art, along with its power to console. There are many ways, however, to define “confusion.” Is it the useful aporia, or baffling, that the philosophers invoke? Is staying in confusion akin to remaining in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts”, as Keats would have it, “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”? It has always struck me as potentially misleading to think of poetry as that which provides a “stay,” or a mainstay against confusion. It’s that word “against” maybe that troubles. It seems to me that the artist, and the poet in particular, needs to distinguish in their process what kinds of confusion can lead to deeper places in the poem, or even unmoorings from our usual modes of linguistic or emotional or intellectual responses. And to allow for the confusion to carry one forward somehow, as opposed to being made too uncomfortable by it too early in the process, and then shutting down, or wrapping the piece up too readily or tidily. I had hoped that even the decidedly deflated tone at the close of this poem still, in its resistance to the idea of easier answers or certainty (if that indeed is confusion’s opposite) was worth the more communal gesture in the way that the shared “muddling” made, or makes, for an “us.”
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JM: A note for the title poem of your new collection directs the reader to www.slaveryfootprint.org, where, based on a series of fairly specific questions, the site calculates how many slaves suffer as a result of the survey-taker’s lifestyle in a high-income country. Here is the last third of the poem:
…The infant rodent
Another child, not mine, labors deep to find the shine,
through her fingers. Make progress. Take action.
not permitted distance. When the prey finally moves,
jumps a few inches, the cat
closes in, takes the injured flaccid thing into his jaws
for the kill
and carries it almost like a kitten across the lawn.
My hand crushes
the dark stamens and the littlest child
at the rat’s last squeal, begins to scream best,
is the best day of my life, and I have to walk back inside.
Was taking the survey the impetus for writing this poem? I like the way “witness / not permitted distance” follows the imperatives to “Make progress. Take action.” To me, this feels like a warning of sorts, though the poem gets to have it both ways, witnessing and averting the gaze.
PT: I like your phrasing of both “witnessing and averting the gaze.” This poem for me was an effort to explore that ambiguity, that simultaneity of seeing and not seeing. What is crucial again has to do with a spectrum, a scale of the very large and the very small, and where it is that one can feel them meeting up, resisting each other, but informing each other also. The question also arises of what we mean when we say witnessing, with its accompanying factors of position. In this I refer to both physical position on the earth, in the garden here of a home in a prosperous northwestern state of a relatively wealthy country, what you can literally see, or “dig to,” as the poem puts it, from this space, and what one cannot from this vantage point. Then of course the larger sense of “positionality” that the survey itself jolts one into recognizing.
Yes, taking the survey was the impetus for writing this piece, as was this experience with the children, the cat, the mouse, and all of us watching. All of us actors, or at least witnesses, to what could be an small-scale ethical domestic moment—should I let the kids watch the mouse be tortured by the cat, should I stop it or should I treat it as a lesson in nature red in tooth and claw, regardless how disturbed the littlest child might be? But what struck me about the experience was how innocently blood-thirsty the kids were actually, although I’m not sure each one was old enough to really understand death in permanent terms. What also of course was so obvious was that everyone was on the cat’s “side,” so to speak, because, like me, they knew and loved the cat. It’s a small thing, but our identifications are so powerful—in books and films, with the force of who gets to be the narrator as opposed to who is lesser rendered, or invisible—the projection of ourselves onto others, our various failings to empathize—and I include myself here entirely. I was interested in this poem in exploring to what extent these moments in domestic spaces can be ethical ones, and to what extent do we—do I, in this case—refrain from action. And what action is best? Is right action available to us, even if we want it? And the fact of all the little daily kills that take place in domestic space was a thought that was prompted by taking the survey itself.
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JM: Pimone, thank you again for chatting with me. I am so delighted you agreed to anchor this second series of interviews. Would you care to suggest 3-4 poets whose work you are interested in or who come to mind in light of our discussion? I hope to continue the conversation!