Sally Keith: I am currently, I think, writing poems more rooted in my own everyday life, poems that sound more like my actual speech. Ultimately this progress makes sense to me. Only now do I feel as though I can try less to get at whatever I suppose to be mysteriously lurking because I can sense “it” readily in the mundane, plain everyday stuff. It’s ironic, really. Things simplify, but of course they don’t.

Sally Keith is the author of The Fact of the Matter (Milkweed 2012) and two previous collections of poetry, Design, winner of the 2000 Colorado Prize for Poetry, and Dwelling Song (UGA 2004); her forth collection River House is forthcoming.  She has published poems in a variety of literary journals, including Gettysburg Review, New England Review, A Public Space, Black Clock and Literary Imagination.  Recipient of a Pushcart Prize and recent fellowships at Virginia Center for Creative Arts, UCROSS Foundation and Fundación Valparaíso, she is a member of the MFA Faculty at George Mason University and lives in Washington, DC. 

Our conversation took place via email during the cold, busy winter months of 2013/2014. It was fun to correspond with Sally, and I enjoyed reading her poetry as well as her thoughts on other writers and artists. I’m also thankful to have a few photos of her collaborative project, El Cuerpo de un Poema, created with her friend and fellow-artist Inma Coll during time spent in Spain at a residency called La Fragua. 

 *             *              *

MURRAY: Your first book Design is strikingly interrogative: how do things work, what are they, how long do they last, and how are they composed? From the title poem:

         Without wind, description saying nothing.
         Even blue skies our mind shrouds
                        pushing the tunnel further

                unraveling the black veil’s hue. We emerge.
        And how do I move? How
                                    can I
                                                lift a single foot into this field?

MURRAY: Are questions a function of wind in this book? How do we enter the field?

 KEITH: I’m noticing (with some degree of horror) that I have written a lot about the wind, the wind which I found, and still find, so dreadfully violent.  Then I was living in a farmhouse at the intersection of four fields; my bedroom was a futon in the middle of the floor, surrounded by large windows that shook as if the house would fall down.  Apart from that memory, an ongoing obsession of mine has to do with movement and force.  I explore this most blatantly in my most recent collection, The Fact of the Matter, which began as an interrogation of grace, grace as considered by Simone Weil as that which is uncanny in flight.  Nothing is that doesn’t move; . . . We must, then, in some strange way, enter what already is. . . . I don’t know how to “enter the field” (or, write a poem) except to find myself there, that is, to have been mysteriously led.

 As for questions, specifically, I would say that especially in my first two books, I felt the work of the question like the action of opening a door, or even blowing hard like the wind, and the silence afterward was a space I tried, in my own composition, to hear and record.  I am a sickeningly rational person and I lead a relatively ordered life (at least for the moment) but you might not know it from my dreams—thank goodness.  It is the space of dreams, the space of that which I do not rationally know, that is essential, even though sometimes I struggle to access it.

 MURRAY: I am curious about your phrase “sickeningly rational.” I think I know what you mean (and fear I may find myself in the same category). In fact, do you think most poets or artists secretly locate themselves in this camp?

 KEITH: What I guess I meant was just that I wake up to an alarm clock and keep a long to-do list.  It’s all so much less romantic than we might have thought. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that most poets are like this, but I imagine those who need to make a living mostly are.  I say “sickeningly” because I wish it were otherwise. 

*          *          *

MURRAY: “In Winter” begins, “Underneath, I understand—” as the speaker watches vultures circling. Yet, as in many poems in Design, the speaker reaches a moment of cognitive distress: “I think the body is a spanning, a T. // But my eye is unable. Cannot say. For example, where // does the inward breath end?” I understood the inward breath to be a poetic one, and I wonder if you have any ventures for where the inward breath begins?

KEITH: Looking back, I’m sort of amazed by the relative ease with which I have connected the outward looking (which “is unable”) and the inward breath.  And I guess that’s right, if not also paradoxical.   I’ve been thinking this morning, actually, about ecopoetics and ekphrasis, in preparation for a panel I’m contributing to at this year’s AWP in Seattle.  I realize that it was looking (and specifically at nature) that allowed me the space to write; at the same time, I have always closely aligned the experience of describing with the impossibility of mimesis.  In this case, the impossibility allowed for fragments of perception that, once threaded, felt like a satisfactory poetic output.  Amazingly, Katie Peterson has described this almost exactly in her interview answer when she talks about dissecting the gaze and the feminine self looking.  In sum, looking outward is as endless as that “inward breath” that gathers without knowing how or why.   I’ve been reading Marion Milner’s book On Not Being Able to Paint (1950) which has everything to do with the connect and disconnect between inside and out in artistic creation: “what one loves most, because one needs it most, is necessarily separate from oneself; and yet the primitive urge of loving is to make what one loves part of oneself” (78).  A similar kind of “double fact” (as Milner calls it) may be that the “inward breath” is breath itself, but to understand it as such would eliminate the bounds of a necessary impossibility.

MURRAY: When I read James Engelhardt’s “The Language Habitat: An Ecopoetry Manifesto,” I was struck by his insistence that an ecopoetics must inhabit both the realm of civic or cultural responsibility as well as the realm of play. Often, we think of these as separate or at least incompatible realms.  What are your thoughts on these bedfellows?

 KEITH: My first thought has to do with the importance of paying attention, which isn’t easy and, as far as I’m concerned, must be the most essential poetic act. Ecopoetics might inhabit a realm of responsibility simply through describing, if not otherwise presenting, the natural world.  I’m interested, after Engelhardt, in thinking about “the realm of play” as a way of more actively engaging.  We can think of “play” as both what we do with children and “play” as in to stand in for or to act.  Is it not true that most “nature-poems” are neither funny nor imagined into, say, the way a dramatic monologue would be?  Keeping in mind that the definition of “ecopoetics” is ever ephemeral, your question makes me wonder about the importance of activating “ecopoetics,” specifically through play.

I recently took a class on the neutral mask, which is a tool actors use to learn to calibrate motion; wearing a leather, gender-specific, mask with a neutral expression, the actor performs a series of exercises that prioritize the idiosyncratic action of the body over the expressive face.  One of the course goals was to increase a sense of play (which horrified me!)—we were meant to have fun.  And, alas, I increasingly do think that “play” is essential for poetry, especially ecopoetry, which aims to draw attention with the intent to change.  My friend, the wonderful poet, Karen Anderson recently mentioned that she gives herself assignments when she is not writing and had, as of late, been inventing names for caterpillars. I loved them! They were hilarious and smart!  I didn’t then think of it then, but I find this a great example of what Engelhardt must be pointing toward—an infusing of subject matter with imagination and life-force.  It means that the work is real, not merely a rhetoric.

 MURRAY: Your observation about looking at nature as being a catalyst to create space to write put me in mind of Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature. Do you know his book? He claims that human activity, sometimes unintentionally but more often willfully, has brought about the “end” of nature as it existed for millennia. That we have replaced nature as nature’s driving force. I’m wondering about how this transformation, if you agree that it has or is taking place, affects our access to poetic spaces.

KEITH: To be short, yes, I think poetic spaces, and all spaces, are shifting radically in this age of living inside an i-phone, if not the computer screen.  Sometimes driving to work I think about the irony of travelling through strip malls to get to the computer screen in my office, a windowless room, through which I’ll navigate my day of teaching poetry?  It’s as though web-sites are more important than construction sites. It’s crazy making.  Of course incredible new spaces are also opening for poetry on the internet, which I benefit from daily.  Like all change, probably one shouldn’t call it good or bad, wrong or right, but I will say that I prefer, at least, a window to the real world when I am glued to the computer at home or at work.  

*          *          *

MURRAY: “Morphology” is among many poems in Design that have images of descent and ascent:

                Folding segment (of stair) when will you end?   

          The dream was a ladder (mine, too). Each flight
                 moves up or down. The understanding lost
          and pieces and flight and who is it—

                 coming down? Rewriting
          the letter (again and again) tracing
                 the madness (desire)

          (moves through) to need. Rearranging.

MURRAY: The ladder and dream imagery remind me of Hélène Cixous’s Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Was she someone you were thinking of while writing these poems?

KEITH: Funny, since you mention it, I have read Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing and have found it enormously powerful.  The odd thing is that I read the book years after writing Design so it’s strange to see all these ladders as a way of thinking about desire and need and to so readily sense the connection to Cixous. 

MURRAY: Twice this poem gives the beautiful command to “unfinish the floor.” Are there any particular floors you are unfinishing, or attempting to unfinish at the moment?

 KEITH: A very meaningful experience to me was the trip I made to Ft. Collins, CO in Fall 2010 to read, at CSU, for my dear friend, Dan Beachy-Quick.  My mother was literally dying, though also unexpectedly dying, and I had no desire to leave and felt absolutely no connection or concern for poetry.  I remember sitting on the plane and organizing my reading, having decided to read poems that marked my friendship with Dan. What was most notable was that I felt I knew things, in the older poems, that I didn’t know I knew. I was struck by a mystical, almost supernatural, power of poetry.  A real exposure of the underneath.  In the same way that there were experiences just before my mother got sick that prepared me for her dying, I think I do believe that the self poetry manages to expose is timeless. 

 To more literally answer your question, I think I am caught in trying to unfinish the idea of what I am or might be as a poet, thinker, or writer.  All I am is me, a fact, and how shameful to lose myself to ideas of myself or to large ideas of poetry.   To be honest, in those lines, I have almost no idea what specifically I meant or what thinking had possessed me.  I was young and was identifying with the human urge to fit in one’s skin, knowing, fully well, the difficulty of it.

*          *          *

MURRAY: “Orphean Song” has an incredibly plangent ending. Could you talk a little bit about this poem? It’s from your second collection Dwelling Song, and closes:

         Dear love: A ladder

             in between. One falling to
         the other. One drops
         a flight of stairs. These are bones
         in the sky. Fossils. A broken
         cage. Washboard prayer.

                 A missing tongue, pressing
         its only word. Sad and
         stammering on—Dear dear:
         free, I’m free,
         free, I’m asking

KEITH: Reading now, it strikes me that the poem is “about,” if I had to say, a kind of impossibility.  All couched in the Orpheus myth, the poem tries to understand longing but also wants to be free of it. The address to the other morphs into a final repetitive knot where the stammering “free” unclogs in the present progressive moment of asking.  In the end, not very satisfied—I’d say. 

These questions are making me think about angles of approach in poetry.  Here, the images and the broken sentences, which highlight in each line a major caesural pause, emphasize fracture: pieces of song.  Think of the Orphean head floating, at last, down the Hebrus river after the body has been dismembered.  In my first two collections I wanted to fathom the contours of experience rather than to state them, a kind of sidereal making.  In Dwelling Song I often made strict, and often irrelevant, formal rules for myself and took pleasure in how the song eked out around those strictures.  I am currently, I think, writing poems more rooted in my own everyday life, poems that sound more like my actual speech.  Ultimately this progress makes sense to me.  Only now do I feel as though I can try less to get at whatever I suppose to be mysteriously lurking because I can sense “it” readily in the mundane, plain everyday stuff.  It’s ironic, really.  Things simplify, but of course they don’t.

Because, again, there is, (jeez!) a ladder, I find myself again thinking of Cixous . . . In the book’s second section “The School of Dreams,” Cixous describes the mysteries we need as lost and uses the example of the space between a sick mother and her daughter, a mother and daughter because “it’s the most intense relationship, the closest as far as the body is concerned” (89).  The poems I have written since my mother’s death are, at least to my mind, utterly different.  I haven’t read Cixous since my mother died, but reading this quotation allows me to better contemplate why, for the past three years, I’ve been longing to learn something about poetry through the body, why I have so craved a radically different kind of knowing.

 The summer after my mother died I ended up, very much by chance, at a wonderful residency, Fundación Valparaíso, in Andalusia, on the eastern Spanish coast.  For the first time, I was too weak to be utterly disgusted with myself when I wrote. (Bad habit, I know.) I didn’t care.  I wrote by hand in journals and I went to the beach, where I swam a lot, drank little beers, sat in the sun for too long, and spoke remnants of my high-school Spanish with a Spanish artist, Inma, with whom I fell into a very intense kind of friend-love. It was the first experience of pleasure after my mother had died.  I found myself moved by Inma’s work, which is bright and visceral, clearly made more of intuition than intellect.  To hear her talk about her process and to see pieces of the world through her eyes allowed me the sense of re-entering the world I felt had disappeared. 

I have returned to Spain for the past two summers.  The past July I worked at a wonderful start-up residency in Belalcázar, called La Fragua, on a collaboration with Inma. Together we put together what we called “El Cuerpo de un Poema.”  

[Click on Image to enlarge]

El Cuerpo de un Poema

El Cuerpo de un Poema


detail, El Cuerpo de un Poema

detail, El Cuerpo de un Poema


side panels, El Cuerpo de un Poema

side panels, El Cuerpo de un Poema


detail from panel, El Cuerpo de un Poema

detail from panel, El Cuerpo de un Poema


To trade lives and art in a broken language (broken because my Spanish is still not good enough to allow for a complex exchange) was inspiring but not without its difficulty—not to mention working in a heat wave in southern Spain.  In the end, I felt I had failed at matching the long poem I had written, and subsequently translated into Spanish, with the figure she had constructed, which was sewn together with text, including poems I had collaged from Spanish books; nevertheless, I got strangely close to this world that I don’t know.  To me, the experience of trying to do the same things (write, speak, make friends) but in a wholly new context is strongly connected with losing my mother, who I cannot stand to have lost, whose absence still does not make sense and, I suspect, never will.

*           *           *

 On a side note, I’ve just been to the Drawing Center in NY and have seen the fantastic exhibit of Emily Dickinson’s envelope letters, collected in The Gorgeous Nothings (edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin).  A most memorable letter begins, “we/ talked with/ each other/ about each/ other/ though neither/ of us spoke—.”  It doesn’t necessarily make sense to learn a new language, but neither does the nonessential communication one might spend years investing in via poetry.  Susan Howe, in the preface to the The Gorgeous Nothings, asks “How do you grasp force in its movement in a printed text?. . .Is there an unwritable unknown poem that exceeds anything the technique of writing can do?”  I love that last question.  We are all gorgeous nothings, impossible fragments.  Whatever I say, surely I’m always asking, if not literally, then through longing, just as any fragment might momentarily stand in for a horizon. 

*          *          *

MURRAY: The epigraph to your most recent collection The Fact of the Matter is from artist Robert Smithson: “Revelation has no dimensions.” This reminded me of Denise Levertov’s emendation of Creeley to “Form is never more than a revelation of content.”  How did Smithson come to be a point of departure for these poems?

KEITH: I hope I can remember exactly.  As I said earlier, this collection began as a meditation on grace and quickly, then, also on force.  I read books on mechanics (I once thought I would be an engineer and so I have some superficial memory of trying to learn mechanics in college) and I read Simone Weil, in particular her essay, “The Iliad or the Poem of Force.”  I started thinking about art as action.  Around this time I saw a Muybridge show at the Phillips Collection, in DC, and afterward read Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West; therefore, I had the frame-by-frame progression of Muybridge’s horse in my head, as well as the history of the transcontinental railroad. I also had seen a small exhibition of David Maisel’s aerial photography, from his series “Terminal Mirage,” in which sites of environmental disaster appear disguised as beautiful swatches of abstract color.  In one there was what looked like a tiny fern head, etched in bright red and hanging from some kind of planet or sun. Turns out that was the Spiral Jetty attached to the northern shore of the Great Salt Lake.   

Between these exhibitions and writing many of the poems in The Fact of the Matter, I read a lot of Smithson and also took a trip to see the Spiral Jetty.  The trip felt to me like a small example of artistic action, though it was nothing compared to the conviction it would have taken to find a truck and driver to dump 6,650 tons of rock and earth into a lake in the shape of a 1,500 foot spiral, which would, in time, become crystallized as the lake water levels rose and fell.

I think about the epigraph variously, but most plainly I think it had to do with the collection as a lyric meditation on fact.  Facts are flat and yet they aren’t; everything can be described as fact, and nothing can. (Maisel’s photographs, as it turns out, are a great example of what I mean.) Of course, I like a lot of what Smithson wrote and made, in particular all his meditation and work on “non-sites.”  There was a point at which all this thinking looked like it was going to work its way into a book mediating specifically on landscape, taking into account both land art and environmental technology.  The poem “On Fault,” which ended up as the last poem I wrote for The Fact of the Matter was a potential beginning for that next project. 

MURRAY: “On Fault” perhaps answers my earlier question about responsibility and play—the poem takes a very skeptical look at “the nation’s largest producer of geothermal power,” yet concludes with a sense of mischief. There is a wonderful sense of unsettled possibility in the ending. 

            “Believe, intend, expect, anticipate, and plan
            are all forward-looking phrases,” reads the information sheet.
            I hate feeling wary of the things people say.
            . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

            “We do cause quakes,” is the straight-up admission
            of the employee at the plant.
            “I hope” is one thing; “I had hoped” quite another.
            . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

            I saw an orange-red wildflower on the path. I saw a yellow bush.
            The pattern of eruptions from California’s Old Faithful
            some call a predictor of quakes, though the science is mysterious.
            Surrounded by bamboo and pampas grass, tourists sit and watch.
            Mount Saint Helena is the backdrop.
            That night at the bar when I ordered a glass he brought me a flight.
            He did it twice.

 KEITH: For me, there always is the problem of using “facts” in poetry, even in using research.  Or, there can be.  I travelled to Calpine’s Geothermal Visitor Center, just north of Calistoga, CA, with the purpose of learning how the steam fields work; quickly, however, the journey to the information became as important as what I, non-environmentalist, non-scientist, could learn.  Even as a very novice researcher it was easy to run into wildly varying perspectives on this supposed environmental technology.  I wanted to include the instability of information as well as some of the literal things that happened along the way.  I’m still thinking about your earlier question about consciousness and “play.”  It isn’t that I feel including information about the bartender, for example, is “play,” but for me it’s a kind of real-life engagement that feels necessary; it is trying to find, and even failing to find, the right context to frame experience. 

*          *          *

MURRAY: Your forthcoming book River House is a beautiful meditation on your mother’s death, and does feel like a stylistic departure from your earlier collections. As you mentioned, there is a bodily aspect to it, and one theme that threads through the poem is the relationship or balance between what is exposed and what remains hidden. Part of what makes River House so evocative is how you convey the sense that it is the small–often ordinary, often physical–experience that is so painful. Section 35 begins:

            What once was Kinkos is now Fed-Ex.
            Spring classes are starting. The photocopying
            Of syllabi I have managed well enough.

            Because I work in the suburb where I also grew up,
            I think of my mother in almost every parking lot.

And section 39 similarly explores how grief may constantly surprise or overwhelm us in any myriad of seemingly simple acts:

            When I eat the bean, pesto, and prosciutto salad
            For the first time without my mother, I cry into it.
            She used to be part of the world where I am.

            I liked the sentences in the Gospel reading, “They do not belong,
            but as I do not belong. I am not asking, but I ask you,”
            For all the indulgence in contradiction.

 How did you decide what to reveal and what to leave hidden? Was it a conscious decision? 

KEITH: Funny, I’m now finishing the manuscript and as the work progresses I find myself more and more prone to a checklist kind of regimen (what about when this happened?  Surely that was the most meaningful, the most metaphorical…) which I am trying my damnedest to resist.   What I’ve enjoyed about the project is how unconscious the decisions about what to include have been. Pieces fell into the poem—or that’s how it felt—and, of course, I was and am struck by the way missing someone so profoundly works its way into the most menial aspects of one’s life: you don’t just sit on the sofa and cry.  It has felt enormously satisfying, to me, to try to write about anything and everything, without weighing what feels “poetic.” 

 MURRAY: Many artists and writers accompany you and your mother (as well as your sister and father) throughout River House. Section 21 mentions the art of Walter De Maria and Agnes Martin:

            Driving that morning through the mountains to Taos
            I had already visited The Lightning Field,

            And wanted to see the Agnes Martin paintings,
            Titles like “Lovely life,” “Playing,” “Ordinary happiness.” 

            I figured a grid might satisfy something.

            In my recent dreams my mother has been cured.
            You already know the rest. How we all touch and hold her.
            How glad we all are. Averted emergency.

 The grid seems to stand in opposition to a disorder invoked earlier in the poem, yet something about the concept of De Maria’s land art work felt essential to River House. I kept thinking about them together, each exploring, seeking one kind of hypothetical, as you say,  “the notion: for each question / Somewhere there exists an answering voice.”

KEITH: Actually, the trip to The Lightning Field was originally going to provide background for what I thought would be a complement to “On Fault” (referenced above), the poem after the trip to the steam fields. I imagined these as the beginning of a new project, after The Fact of the Matter, originating with the two separate grids—one art and one science, both potentially beautiful, both radical act(ion)s. The experience of visiting De Maria’s The Lightning Field was phenomenal; it may also have felt like the most profoundly meaningless thing I’ve ever done. You can read extraordinary renderings of the experience in Carol Moldaw’s poetry collection The Lightening Field, as well as the art critic Kenneth Baker’s essay collection,  published by Dia Foundation. Although I wasn’t sure exactly why I made the trip or if a poem would result, I was compelled by what I knew of the artwork and wanted to see for myself.  Most stunning at dawn and dusk, due to mid-day’s flat light blending the poles into the sky, sure enough, still the grid has not stopped resonating.  And yet it did what any grid might do: it provided a framework for a space, an inside and an outside.  

The time in New Mexico, which appears a few times in River House, was just before we found out how profoundly sick my mother was.  I remember driving through what felt like endless land, under a sky larger than any I had seen, and calling my father; I could just imagine my mother there beside him on the sofa, feeling too sick to talk, a situation enacting a distance that was, looking back, ominous. I return to the image and experience of The Lightening Field as mysterious; I still don’t know what it meant, but I know that whatever land the poles grid, is also framed by miles and miles of land without a single boundary line of any sort, barely a tree.  Poetry must be like that, also life: we hope to balance our determination with the larger, less known world, a world not yet marked off in lines and rows. 

MURRAY: Sally, thank you for joining me and the other poets here. It’s been a pleasure to read your work and to learn about your art. In keeping with your final comments above, would you care to share the names of a few poets whose work you find strikes that balance of determination and ability to explore the less known world?

KEITH: Certainly, though there are many.  Influenced by Marianne Moore, Plath, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg, there is the sensational achievement of Robyn Schiff whose poems manage to weave information and experience into sentences shaped by formal restraint but then driven harder by voice.  Two recent collections that have stopped me are Catherine Barnett’s The Game of Boxes and Dawn Lundy Martin’s Discipline, which are radically different but both work in series fusing daily experience with a variously rendered necessity for emptiness and gap.   I have already mentioned Karen Anderson, who has a phenomenal second collection, Receipt, forthcoming from Milkweed; another poet who I feel very much as my contemporary, and a poet whose work I will always carry close to me, is Suzanne Buffam, whose recent The Irrationalist was published simultaneously in Canada (House of Anansi) and by Canarium, in Michigan.   











Katie Peterson: I was at first convinced of the moral value of this transaction between self and world as an act of adjustment, a way in to a world without the self as center. Later, I could see it less as a moral endeavor than as a way of surviving experience. So, all half-cracked semi-monastics and contrarian introverts delighted and still delight me.

 Katie Peterson is the author of three collections of poetry, This One Tree (2006), Permission (2013) and The Accounts (2013). Her newest poems can be found in recent issues of the American Poetry Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Third Coast, and Grey. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts and she teaches at Tufts University. She was born in California.

This conversation took place via email in the last few weeks of summer, while Katie was at Deep Spring College and just as we were gearing up for new semesters. I’m excited about this wonderful interview, so full of poets (and ideas about art, experience, and poetry), and which also includes a preview of a collaboration between Katie and the photographer Young Suh.

*         *          *

MURRAY: I think a great place to begin is with the poem “The Conversation” from This One Tree:

         Rain-soaked, the mottled bark
         of the flowering pear darkened
         past its texture’s vanishing.
         My confessions always provoke
         someone else’s confessions.
         Why do you stand in the kitchen

         if you don’t want to talk?

What a wonderful question–who or what is standing in your kitchen (real or metaphorical) at the moment, talking or not talking, or crowding in on your confessions?

PETERSON: The person in the poem is my mother. The kitchen of the poem is the kitchen of the house where I grew up. I don’t have to use the past tense because it is a poem. In the metaphorical kitchen my mother is always present. Before she died there was almost always a “you” in my poems, an addressee, which I (mostly) thought of as a you like Dickinson’s You, that father-lover-authority, the one who might witness you and love you in return. Strangely, in this poem, that “you” is her. If the world presents itself to you as a series of love poems, the world presents itself to you as a series of distances: you hope to discern the squinting of the beloved. In the first sections of the book Permission I can see myself charting those distances, in pursuit of love, urged forward by beauty, often disguised with the language of knowledge. It occurred to me as strange that when my mother died, this figure, this “you” began to disappear from the poems, since I always understood the “you” to be some (male) authority. But maybe it was never so clear in the mind. In a more present-tense sense, now that my mother’s absent, her absence crowds in.

A living person stands in my actual kitchen mornings and evenings this summer: my partner, who is a landscape photographer named Young Suh. My kitchen this summer is the kitchen of a house that used to belong to me at Deep Springs College (I’m here teaching the summer class on “Aesthetics, Ethics, and Community”). Young and I have been working on a number of projects that combine writing and photography in intimate, sometimes destructive ways: I’m writing directly on the photos, in some cases intentionally ruining them. Collaboration in this fashion between us has taken the shape of constant joyful interruption of each other’s tasks. But there is this destructive element – he’ll decide a poem has too many lines, I’ll decide to write directly on top of exactly what makes the photo graceful and elegant. Our subject is ruin in the natural world and we have traveled together to some remote places, including Alaska and the Mojave Desert, to observe and live in nature’s extremity.

The imaginary person who interrupts me these days is the economic anthropologist David Graeber, author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years and The Democracy Project, a memoir of activism before and after Occupy Wall Street that ends with a defense of anarchism. I can’t stop reading and rereading his books and thinking about his insights. He makes the point in the introduction to Debt that debt pre-existed currency and has an emotional component that can’t be reduced to shame, that our debts have historically charted what we value as much as they’ve charted how we are valued, how much banks and culture think we’re worth. I’ve spent most of my life as a poet writing a distanced form of lyric autobiography, engaged in an ostensibly private conversation, but lately I’ve been thinking harder about the larger world – specifically, I’ve been thinking about money. These books help me think, but they interrupt the assumption of my solitude, they keep me from believing in my own independence from any greater world.

MURRAY: I wonder if you feel there is a connection then between the presence of your mother’s absence, as you are aware of it, and the degree to which interruption is informing your artistic experience, either as a collaborator or individual artist.

PETERSON: You’ve made what could be, for me, a fruitful connection, and I’m grateful to you for thinking about it.

Interruptions are part of life, anyone’s life. When I start thinking about interruptions I think of Virginia Woolf who said something like, “for interruptions there will always be” (and there is a lovely book called The Interrupted Moment about Woolf by the scholar Lucio Ruotolo who was kind of an anarchist and therefore understood something about chaos). Woolf, who looked for unities and found fragments. And so the world appeared to me after my mother died. Her death interrupted her own life but it set into motion a constant interruption in my reality.

It certainly is the case that when you are grieving, at first, grief seems the constant and life interrupts, often in the form of the body’s needs (even the saddest person needs to eat). And then life becomes the constant and grief interrupts, and I guess this is supposed to be a kind of progress. It is interesting that my mother’s presence, when it interrupts now, is not necessarily a healthy life-giving image of the real. At times her memory interrupts like a radical might-have-been, a rageful should-have-lived-longer, a peevish why-don’t-I-get-to-be-here, a difficult why-didn’t-you-do-it-this-way. As her presence becomes more and more an artifact of the silence and less and less a set of actual memories (I admit I do begin to forget things, I confess I have probably made room for other things, though the memories I do have appear to grow more like childhood memories, symbolic and strange and big and vivid like dreams), there’s often a wild imagination of what she might be like now that comes in to inform what I imagine.  The presence of my mother’s absence gets a bit wilder and more erratic with time. My sister and I love to replicate her tone of voice and her sense of humor. Recently we started making a list of “Things Sheila Peterson Would Never Allow,” most of which she also never could have imagined. Like every life, hers ended with death as an interruption – to make her life, as it was, cohere, it would take an act of art.

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MURRAY: Is there a link we can put up or, even better, are there any images of the collaborations with Young Suh that we could show here?

PETERSON: I’m sending a few PDFS of our collaboration, which has the tentative title of “Correspondence.” We began working on it during a trip to Alaska, which is a messy place and which seems to ask for messy art, messy narratives about itself. I wanted to write a poem in the voice of someone talking to someone who no longer has a home. There’s a way that what I’ve been thinking about is how the opposite of nature isn’t culture (nature always seems full of culture to me) but home. The photos have a lot to do with rapacity, desire and eating. The poem takes the high road and tries to come up with something like a reason for living, but the feeling of the poem is lost, chaotic, unconvinced.

Peterson-Suh 1




P-S 3, from Correspondence

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MURRAY:  “Air,” the first poem in This One Tree, observes “Most life stayed put.” Yet the collection ends with “Legend” and the triumphant “look of life unable to sit still,” affirming, I think, the victory of the gaze as an act, an action, of expansiveness and revelation. As you were writing this collection, were you in dialogue with particular poets? Many of the poems express a tension between stasis and growth, or sometimes even seem to posit stasis as a kind of growth. How did you avoid the peril of familiarity taking its toll on discovery?

PETERSON: As I was writing This One Tree I was also writing a dissertation about Emily Dickinson. That humbling experience produced a messy result but laid a foundation for how I would inhabit poems. My interest in Dickinson had to do with how she lived through minute perceptions (the sound of insects, for example, or the awareness of silence) and what she used the experience of the senses for. I saw her looking taking a self away; I saw her gaze unmaking herself in a way; in the poems I could see her removing the first person, the “I,” both over the course of her career (the later poems’ speaker tends not to be an “I”) and in specific poems themselves (in a few significant lyrics, we can see her revising out the first person). I was at first convinced of the moral value of this transaction between self and world as an act of adjustment, a way in to a world without the self as center. Later, I could see it less as a moral endeavor than as a way of surviving experience. So, all half-cracked semi-monastics and contrarian introverts delighted and still delight me: Dickinson, Hardy, Hopkins, Niedecker. Robinson Jeffers. And I would also mention Elaine Scarry’s treatment of beauty across a few works, especially On Beauty and Being Just: her revitalization of the Platonic notion that the perception of beauty doesn’t enable the viewer to objectify but calls the viewer into a position of responsibility and engagement with the world.

For years, I think, I was looking for an answer to the question, “why can’t women write normal poems about nature?” The answer lay in an analysis of the gaze: the feminine self looking always seemed to have a different sense of responsibility and engagement, an ease in self-fragmentation, a rage against self assertion as the primary technique of presence. And so, I could see that stasis, for the monastic, was a form of growth.

The last question is a great question for any artist. I think I can say that whenever I can I throw my lot in with familiarity. Poems show that seemingly basic routines reveal dramatic differences in mood, in thinking, in politics. I suspect you have to give in to the routine and let things be boring sometimes. Dickinson wrote a number of really basic, kind of everyday poems about insects that aren’t that great but the best ones make T.S. Eliot seem like an incompetent preacher. I suspect she had to write both to write the great ones.

MURRAY: “Why can’t women write normal poems about nature”: Were you aware that that was the question you were trying to answer, or did it come as a later realization?

PETERSON: Every time I tried to write a poem about nature it turned out a bit odd! I had an appetite for reality – early on, I wanted to write realist poems (for lack of a better word). I gravitated towards poets with thick descriptions of nature and I often began my own poems with some descriptive impulse – I couldn’t see my own consciousness without material. I bought into the moralism that certain readers of Elizabeth Bishop seem saturated with, that sense of the world needing to be described, in detail, accurately, in order to dignify the poem. I have intense memories of trying harder and harder to anchor my poems in description and the poems becoming more and more untethered from exactly that.  Of course I missed the forest for the trees – it’s not description itself but the buried psychology within, the neurosis and the strangeness inside that description. I was aware of the question more in my reading than in my writing, I gravitated towards reading women who tried to describe the natural world and their place in it, and I took note of how those women tended to be less realistic than ecstatic, dramatic (even melodramatic), or hyper-scientific. Hence Dickinson, the mother of all these tones (her prayerful heritage) buoyed by a high degree of skill in describing real life.

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MURRAY: Permission, your second collection, is in part dedicated to Deep Springs College. What are some of the permissions you received there, and what are some of the permissions you gave?

PETERSON: I received permission not to be an expert. It’s a place with no experts: college freshmen drive tractors, and poets teach Nietzsche. Expertise is useless for a poet unless it involves practical matters like fixing vehicles, curing hangovers, or managing personal finances. Maybe an expertise in prosody is also useful, but prosody’s constantly changing, so you better update your software and your user’s manual a lot if you’re going to claim an expertise. At Deep Springs, I suppose, I also received permission to embrace solitude without guilt, which was useful for my future as a busier person. I think I was both giver and receiver of permission in these cases, but the landscape and the community had much to do with it as well. The epigraph to Permission is Robert Duncan’s title: “Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow.” I wanted to capture that feeling of returning someplace both natural and bordered, in the midst of wilderness but not wilderness itself. But I was also thinking of Crane’s wonderful lush line, “Permit me voyage love into your hands,” and of Dickinson’s dark sexy quatrains from the poem beginning “They put Us far apart,”

         Permission to recant –
         Permission to forget –
         We turned our backs upon the Sun
         For perjury of that –

         Not either – noticed Death
         Of Paradise – aware
         Each other’s Face – was all the Disc
         Each other’s setting – saw

All of these – Duncan’s, Crane’s, Dickinson’s – are love poems. In the love poem, the structure of knowledge is the structure of permission – the object of affection permits you greater access as you get to know it, or holds out that promise. But that access often breeds more curiosity and greater distance. And so, the problem of love becomes a kind of epistemological problem. Dickinson’s poem poses the lovers against some authority whose offered permission is actually a form of personal oblivion in captivity – the lovers choose, instead, real oblivion, the “Paradise” of the other, which is transitory (as all experiences of beauty are). Real “permission” always feels at first like an exception to a rule, a transgression.

MURRAY: The poem “At the Window” from Permission begins its final stanza:

         Not beauty but eloquence
         gets me through the difficult
         day: the garden become an explanation
         that refuses in all its deep intelligence
         to criticize or chasten.

Is there a transgression in the prefacing of eloquence above beauty, and/or is eloquence always (or almost always) a form of beauty?

PETERSON: Our residence with beauty is transient (the beautiful does not promise its permanence). Eloquence is a story you tell yourself that can last a bit longer. Though that story’s a kind of fiction (often a mannered fiction) it can get you through a difficult day. Beauty is the reason for eloquence, but it doesn’t necessitate it. Eloquence may technically always be a form of beauty but it calls attention to itself as something made, forged, told: an account. There may be a transgression in saying that the act of speaking itself, not what’s spoken of, is in more useful than the subject. But Socrates, in the Phaedrus, says that rhetoric is a form of soul-guiding, and thus, rhetoric is not only what we do in politics but in our private lives: the way we talk to ourselves is not some private purity but subject to the same conditions as our other uses of language, like some relationship with the truth, and some yearning towards coherence, and some falling-apart when lies are told. Sometimes it’s a horror that beauty is enough to get us through the difficult day (how many times did people remark on the beautiful weather at my mother’s funeral?) and seeing that, articulating that, can be part of eloquence. Still there’s something suspicious about the word “eloquence,” which doesn’t have the elemental to recommend it the way that beauty seems to. I think of it as worldly, rhetorical, pragmatic, smooth, a smoothing-over.

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MURRAY: I came to a panel you were on that Jill McDonough had organized, and it was called something like Women Behaving Badly, where each poet was asked to talk about something she got in trouble for, specifically in terms of poetry. One of the things I was thinking about was how rarely women are either writing about sex or getting published when they write about sex. From Permission, the poem “Conversation” begins:

         Ask me anything. I’ll never say
         I don’t want to talk.
         This isn’t to say
         there’s no principle of selection.
         I exclude what I like.

The poem closes with a different sort of conversation:

         I’d like to shift
         from this shape
         not out of hate but from delight.

         But I’m not answering
         any more questions.

         I think you know, from what my legs did
         and from what I cried out
         how much I’d like
         to become something else.

         Ask me like that.

I admire the emphasis on like and delight in the expression of physical pleasure here. What are some of your thoughts about sex in poetry, especially by women?

PETERSON: Dickinson mainly spoke of sex in terms of displacement upon the natural world and prayer, but also composed some of the most seductive letters ever written, the missives to the Master. Sex is a great subject and I like it when women write about it. I like it when they address it directly and psychologically, as if it were any other state of mind, as in the still amazing “Mock Orange” by Louise Gluck (“It is not the moon, I tell you. / It is these flowers / lighting the yard. // I hate them. / I hate them as I hate sex,”) or the unforgettable poem “Neptune” by Arda Collins (“The air is made out of statues and dead people // this is why we have sex together”). I like it when women are dirty and frank about it, like Ariana Reines and Rachel Zucker. I also like it when women are still the subject of their repressions and displacements like Dickinson – I’m thinking about a number of the poems in The Errancy by Jorie Graham, in which there seems to be sex behind the poem, and the poem is about making mistakes in perception, or daily life, or some such. In the poems of Sandra Lim, whose book The Wilderness is coming out next year, a sexy turn of phrase will ignite a philosophical meditation and you’ll realize the whole thing was actually a little bit about sex. Sex, like motherhood, occurs to me to be one of those terrains for women where the precedents that exist don’t exert much control over the poems yet to be written. Anna Journey’s poems find sexual occasions that might not have been predicted but tap into some elemental physicality. Sex also seems to me both a public and a private subject because any level of exposure feels like a violation of something (that violation might be pleasurable or no, but it seems to break a confidence). I wrote this poem very directly to someone and it’s exciting to keep keeping the (open) secret.

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MURRAY: Your third book The Accounts has many beautiful and moving poems about your mother’s death. “Argument About Appetite” begins, “When you say, imagine yourself / in a safe green place, I lie / on her grave, looking up.” The poem “The Accounts” closes:

         If you stopped to look at the nest
         you would see a sleep so purposeful
         the ladder of adoration would reverse
         and you would stay on earth.

These lines from “Argument About Appetite” put me in mind of Dickinson’s identification of her father after he had passed away as “that Pause of Space.” Also, could you talk a little bit about the purposefulness of sleep in “The Accounts”?

PETERSON: Should sleep have to be purposeful to convince the angels not to take us wherever they do take us when we die? Why is the speaker of the poem making such a case here? Why does she think if she can make an account in which sleep is “so purposeful,” it will work? Her rhetoric is admirable but it fails as of course it should.

We want to fold moments into narratives and make coherence out of them. Lyric poetry can help us take moments and see them in isolation. This “purposeful sleep,” which you’re correct to identify as a kind of euphemism for the dead in the transitional state, was a state of its own. In that nest, the sleeping bird parallels my sleeping mother. Their sleeps – the bird’s on the edge of giving birth, and my mother’s on the edge of death – may be seen merely as transitions into the most important moments of those narratives but I don’t think so. The transitional state exists for its own sake, and is beautiful and human on its own terms. Dickinson’s “pause of space” gives the lie to the idea that absence has no presence. We live with the presence of the dead as a space that loss occupies. I remember my mother’s sleep before death as utterly self-interested, self-occupied. She was concentrating on it, as the mother bird in the nest was concentrating on her job. Moments within the narrative of life, not merely the big finish, not the climax, make existence vivid. They appear to exist for their own sake almost. Sleep, when volitional, can be so magical. Do you know any of those particular individuals who possess sleep like a force of nature, with its own beauty, which is not simply a refreshment of waking or for the benefit of being awake?

MURRAY: Something that Christina Davis said that struck me was “we are always writing at a distance from the next knowledge, and experience is never final.” Thoughts?

PETERSON: At a distance from the next knowledge, the voice is at sea, desperate and resourceful.  You want to be doing the most difficult thing, the thing you can barely do. In ballet you want to watch a trained prima and in opera a grand diva but part of the reason in each case is that you’re watching someone do something rather difficult.

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MURRAY: “Elegy” from The Accounts includes these beautiful lines: “The mistake other people make, / I won’t: because the rules have changed, / there is nothing beautiful to obey.” Could you talk a little about these lines or the poem in general? It is a poem I keep returning to.

PETERSON: Is it my imagination or do I keep talking in this interview about things I’ve tried to do and failed to do? I suppose that’s how poetry often feels. In the middle of writing poems about grief I couldn’t seem to write an actual elegy, or what I would have recognized as one. I don’t think this is a particularly good elegy, if an elegy is a poem for the dead. This poem is about me trying to write a poem for the dead. The title announces a predicament “concerning the form of the elegy” in that sense.

I think artists have an appetite for form. Once I described form to someone as “any restriction.” I can recognize form by the restrictions it appears to make.  I can see shapes by the permissions they’re granted by form. The speaker of the poem is in distress; she has lost her authority figure, and thus, the force that makes form – that makes restrictions. In her desperate state she is willing to draft anyone (even the reader) to be her authority figure, to be her form-making muse.

I didn’t want The Accounts to just be about my life. An artist never wants that, I don’t think, even if the material comes so much from your life. But I was aided by the totalizing quality of grief – I walked around the world noticing ruin, which had always been there. But I became a keener observer of it. Is it a stretch to say that our sense of traditional authority, in places like the classroom and in politics, has changed for a thousand political and worldly reasons? With no one to guide me I looked to everyone as guide with some terrible hunger.

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MURRAY: In my discussion with Jennifer Moxley, we were talking about the idea of an initial commitment (terms she found too contractual) and poetic trajectories, but she pointed out that honesty in her work, regardless of the form it takes, has been her primary commitment, and that all risk is relative. What are some risks you feel you have taken in your work or have discovered in the work of others?

PETERSON: I want to say that I risk unintelligibility on human terms – that I risk not being understood in my thoughts and feelings. But doesn’t everyone? I think of this as a Romantic risk, the risk that someone like Wordsworth or Coleridge made vivid. I love the poems of Linda Gregg because her style is so clear but her state of mind is often so confused! I often feel like the subject of opposed clarities, be they body and mind, or hope and despair, or joy and sorrow, or beauty and ruin. The poem refreshes these oppositions with the opportunity but not the obligation to reconcile them. If I’m saying I risk not being understood than I’m self-possessed enough, at least in this moment, to admit I wish to be understood, which leads me to believe that I also risk the opposite of unintelligibility, sentimentality.

Women poets take interesting risks. Something I’ve been thinking about in recent years is how women wear their learning – and by learning I mean intellectual knowledge, learned-ness, or to use a more cynical but still appropriate term, “cultural capital.” I’ve been thinking about it because I love books and I love old books best and since they are my companions I like to talk about them and talk to them in poems. Sometimes people find this alienating. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this and though I understand this position (i.e. it’s pretentious or affected to quote someone else or write through myth and literature) there’s nothing I can do about the fact that I’ve been living in books since I could read and I started reading a long time ago, and I’m simply not going to stop writing poems that are love poems to books as well as people. There’s a number of women poets I admire for the way they wear their learning. Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s Heavenly Questions risks a bit of pretension with its kind of baroque, arcane, out-of-fashion surface, full of mythic references and stories. But in speaking through those stories, from Greek to Hindu, she preserves them, she uses them, she gives them to us. Anne Carson comes to mind, too, as someone who risks her readers’ trust by creating such learned and complicated worlds but rewards them every time. Dana Levin, too – she’s brought her readers into her Tibetan Buddhist lexicon while also filling her poems with kitty litter and junk food. I think her thinking is very human. Maureen McLane wants her poems to be both achingly, intimately direct and partake of the world of books and history. Lynn Xu risks being a drama queen about ideas and poetry both: I love it.

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MURRAY: Katie, thank you for joining me. It’s been a pleasure to read your thoughts on poems, poets, and poetry. Speaking of loves (and perhaps transgressions and permissions), could you suggest a few writers who you think it would be interesting to talk to in light of our correspondence? I’d love to continue the conversation.

PETERSON: There are so many and I am away from my bookshelf, but here’s what comes to mind in reference to this conversation in particular. In the last few years I’ve spent much time with Sandra Lim and with her poetry, which combines a stern, disciplined severity with a peculiar vernacular laced with slangy idiom and erudition (her next book, The Wilderness, is set to come out in Fall 2014): she’s someone who understands how much eloquence partakes of grotesquerie. Maureen McLane’s work combines the hum of the mind with a voice that’s always in a body and wears its losses without self-pity (something I’m still working on) – her poems are direct and intelligent. Sally Keith writes like no one else, and her book from last year, The Fact of the Matter, seems really serious when you first read it but teems with every other tone other than serious as you get into it: her modulations in tone educate me. Tanya Larkin lives very deeply the life of a poet, gives herself permission, pays attention to everything, writes surprising work.