Suzanne Buffam: One pleasure—and challenge—of the list, as Eco points out, is what to include and what to leave out. Where to start and where to end are good questions as well. This is true, of course, of all poems. I wanted my lists, like poems, to feel shapely—to enact small trajectories of action or thought—but also to feel partial. By which I mean subjective as well as incomplete.

Suzanne Buffam is the author of two collections of poetry, Past Imperfect (2005), which won the Gerald Lampert Award for the best first collection of poetry published in Canada, and The Irrationalist (2010), which was a finalist for the Griffin Prize for Excellence in Poetry. Her third collection, A Pillow Book, is forthcoming in 2016 from House of Anansi in Canada and Canarium Books in the U.S. Born and raised in Canada, she currently lives in Chicago.

Suzanne and I conducted this conversation in fits and starts via email over the winter and spring of 2014/2015. A kind and generous correspondent, Suzanne shared with me the manuscript for her upcoming collection, A Pillow Book. It’s a wonderful collection, full of sharp and surprising humor, and I’m excited to be able to preview some of it here as well as to explore her fabulous previous collections. 

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MURRAY: Suzanne, I thought a fun place to begin would be with the poem “Open Water,” from your first collection, Past Imperfect. Here is the poem in its entirety:

In the dream I have been fatally wounded
by a shark and wake up to discover
I have only been seriously maimed.
Another piece of good news
is delivered in the form of a tiny green bug
that circles my head and flies off
in the general direction of spring.
I vow then and there to take action, before
it takes me. The morning gives back
my face, wide-eyed and bulbous, swimming
upside-down in the bowl of my spoon.
I build a raft in the basement out of blankets and string.
My friends all think I’m in Texas,
which, in a way, I am.

What are some states—however defined—that you find yourself in lately? Do those states play out in any particular way in the poems you are working on?

BUFFAM: Ha! I haven’t looked at that poem in over a decade, but I remember the state—and the northern province—I was in when I wrote it. Texas was a pure abstraction to me then—a kind of psychic inverse of my idea of “home,” however abstract that notion had become by then itself.

The older I get, though, the more complicated any idea of “home” becomes. I still find myself in the state of “Texas,” so to speak, from time to time these days, but in real life I live in Illinois, a state I’d never so much as a considered on a map before moving there twelve years ago. Soon I’ll have lived there longer than anywhere else in the world, but it still doesn’t quite feel like home to me. At the same time, though, as a mother, I feel increasingly responsible for creating a stable and reassuring notion of home under my roof. This gets tricky sometimes, and I often feel restless. For the past five years I’ve been working on a manuscript in which various states—marriage, motherhood, home-ownership, resident alien-ship, insomnia, etc.—play out in innumerable, often quite explicit ways.

At the moment, thanks to my husband’s sabbatical and my current state of unemployment, I’m living in the sunny state of Oaxaca, Mexico where corn and bean fields line the hillsides around me and I can’t help finding myself, however briefly, in a somewhat more relaxed state than usual.

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MURRAY: “The Wasp” is a lovely poem. In it, the speaker observes an insect drawn to a basin of soapy water:

…Why doesn’t it drink?
The wall must be an answer to its will.

Madder in amber, blebbed glass, intention
caught on the edge of act—the small

body blurs in the light. Oh I can tell
it wants in. I can tell by the way it resists.

Many of the poems in Past Imperfect seem to embody aspects of resistance implicitly or explicitly—do you find that resistance is a way of entering into things? Are you currently doing any productive resisting?

BUFFAM: Well, I just spent the past hour watching instructional videos by pre-teens on YouTube for how to make a toy stable out of popsicle sticks and a cardboard box—my daughter’s sixth birthday is in two weeks—so I guess I’d have to say that time itself is my main site of resistance these days.

In a sense, every time I sit down to write, and don’t lose myself down the rabbit hole of distraction, I feel as though I am performing a major act of resistance.

The wasp in that poem, like so much in that book, I see now, is poised on the brink of giving in to a temptation that would likely destroy it. My temptations are different, these days, but no less ubiquitous.

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MURRAY: In your second collection, The Irrationalist, the poem “Trying,” is in part a philosophical examination of the process of deciding whether to have children and how much effort to put into it. The poem is often quite funny, and it also points toward Aristotle’s investigations of the rational and irrational, the human and animal, as the genesis of the title of this collection of poems. Does humor belong to the irrational? It also seems to me that the “Interior” poems—“Ruined Interior,” “Infinitive Interior,” “Telescopic Interior,” “Dim-Lit Interior” and “Romantic Interior”—are connected as well to the exploration of irrationality that occurs in the book.

BUFFAM: I’m tempted to say that yes, absolutely, humor belongs to the irrational. A good joke is often absurd in a way that can’t be explained, isn’t it?—at least not without killing what’s funny about it. The few philosophers who’ve written about humor or laughter tend to agree that it’s marked by an overcoming of rational thought, and they tend, therefore, to disapprove of it.

But what about wit? What about irony? What about good old-fashioned self-mockery? Those seem to me pretty rational processes.

There’s an element of unconsciousness to humor, of course, but there has to be an element of extreme self-awareness—even hyper-rationality—as well. The comedians I love most these days—Richard Pryor, Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer—are at their funniest when pointing out, in an utterly deadpan way, what’s absurd or insane about contemporary life. The figure of the wise fool is the classic example.

The title The Irrationalist is, of course, to some extent tongue-in-cheek. Aristotle distinguished between the human and animal—and between the rational and the irrational—but he also believed that the sun revolved around the earth and that only fair-skinned women could achieve orgasm.

Meanwhile, recent studies show that dogs, rats and monkeys all laugh, and gorillas crack jokes. Does this make them less rational, or more so?

MURRAY: “If You See It What Is It You See” is one of my favorite poems in your second collection:

I didn’t look at the fire.
I looked into it.

I saw a wall of books
Crash down and bury me

Centuries deep in red leather.
I saw a statue in a park

Shake dust from its fist
And a ship called Everything

Sink down on rusted wings.
Ten thousand triangles collapsed

Into a point
And the point was this.

I cannot tell you what I saw.
My catastrophe was sweet

And nothing like yours
Although we may sip

From the same
Broken cup all afternoon.

Could you talk a little bit about this poem?

BUFFAM: Needless to say, perhaps, I was reading a fair bit of mystic philosophy at the time. Insight, enlightenment, presence, encounter: whatever you call it, you can’t really communicate it. The best you can do is talk around it. This is what poems do, too, isn’t it, in their endless raids on the inarticulate? To the best of my memory, this poem was at least in part an exercise in image-making–a quasi-mystic experience itself, if you will. The poem pokes a little fun at itself in the process, by way of those Zen clichés.

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MURRAY: I was excited to see so many wonderful list poems in your forthcoming collection A Pillow Book. Two early ones that caught my attention were “Sooner” and “Resemblances.” Here is “Sooner”:

Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than attend another baby shower.
Sooner starve than eat clams from a can.
Sooner join the Marines than a book club.
Sooner sleep with a fool than wake up with a wise man.

And “Resemblances”:

A squid, like a scholar, disappears behind a cloud of ink.
A housewife, like winter salad, begs to be well-dressed.
Seagulls, like city officials, scream over scraps.
Poets, like potatoes, ripen in the dirt.
A divorce-lawyer, like a dachshund, digs into deep holes.

In his introduction to The Infinity of Lists, Umberto Eco says, “There is the problem of deciding what a figurative list may be. The few books on the poetics of lists prudently limit themselves to verbal lists because of the difficulty in explaining how a picture can present things and yet suggest an ‘etcetera,’ as if to admit that the limits of the frame oblige the picture to say nothing about an immense number of other things. . . . the search for lists was a most exciting experience not so much for what we managed to include in this volume as for all the things that had to be left out.”

As you were writing A Pillow Book, did you find yourself developing a particular poetics of the list? And a related question: Do you have a list of rejected list poems that didn’t make the cut?

BUFFAM: The lists were the first things I wrote for the book—long before I had any conception of a book at all. During the draining, bleary years of early motherhood, I had zero access to any form of interiority and could not, I found, write a lyric poem to save my life. I did find, however, that I was keeping a steady stream of lists (ounces of milk expressed, smashed carrots consumed, diapers to buy at the drugstore, etc.), and I noticed one day that if I squinted at them, my lists bore a faint resemblance to poems. So I started writing poems in the form of lists basically as a way to keep some sort of poem-writing muscle from atrophying completely.

One pleasure—and challenge—of the list, as Eco points out, is what to include and what to leave out. Where to start and where to end are good questions as well. This is true, of course, of all poems. I wanted my lists, like poems, to feel shapely—to enact small trajectories of action or thought—but also to feel partial. By which I mean subjective as well as incomplete. The acerbic and aphoristic lists of a 9th century Chinese poet, Li Shangyin, and those of the wonderfully opinionated Sei Shonagon, of course, were deeply influential on mine. Juxtaposition, speed, asymmetry, compression, surprise: all those very ancient Eastern aesthetic ideals (which also feel very “postmodern” as well) lend themselves perfectly to a poetics of lists. I have dozens of rejected lists. And dozens more titles for lists I never wrote. What a great idea to include a list of them in the book.

MURRAY: A Pillow Book takes insomnia as its ostensible subject yet also considers questions of motherhood, relationships, creativity, academia, and the notion of triviality. The collection also tells the story of Sei Shonagon, a Heian courtesan whose The Pillow Book documents court life in 10th Century Kyoto, and who loves beautiful paper and composes list upon list for entertainment and edification. I’m interested in the play between creativity and the trivial in this collection, something that recurs in the Shonagon poems. Here are a couple of examples:

                                            . . . I  now  had  a  vast  quantity  of
paper  at  my  disposal,  reports a  nonchalant  Shonagon, and
I  set  about  filling the  notebooks  with odd  facts, stories from
the  past,  and  all  sorts  of  other  things,  often  including  the
most  trivial  material.


As  a  child  I  lay  awake  many   nights  on  my  pillow   with  a
flashlight  and  a box of cards  from  my  favorite  board  game,
Trivial Pursuit.  To   this   day,  I    would    gladly    recite   what
Thames   bridge   one   must   cross  to  get  to   Kew   Garden;
which   three   European   countries   begin  with   the   letter  A;                                                                                                        . . . I am not much fun
to play with, apparently, and have gone unchallenged for years.

Did the experience of insomnia lead to this particular exploration? One of the pleasures of this collection is how you’ve take up particularly un-poetic themes in surprising and interesting ways.

BUFFAM: I’ve never been what’s called “a good sleeper,” it’s true. Becoming a mother, perhaps needless to say, didn’t help. After months of writing nothing but lists, I picked up Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book one night (How could an insomniac not be drawn in by that title?), and discovered not only her marvelous lists, but also a vast miscellany of sections in prose that detailed the most exquisite and trivial aspects of life in Heian Japan.

I’ve long been a fan of minutiae, of small or “minor” things. I’m suspicious of grand claims and notions of “greatness,” which have always seemed to me pretty gendered. There’s a passage in Moby Dick, for example, that’s always stuck in my craw, however much I love and admire that book: “To produce a mighty book,” Melville writes, “you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea.” When I read that, of course I couldn’t help long for a mighty volume about a flea.

It may be hard to think of a subject less weighty than pillows. I decided to start writing about my pillow, on a lark, and just see where that subject might lead. Over time, things spun outwards to include, as you point out, a whole range of other subjects—but buried inside each block somewhere is at least pillow—which is possibly the flimsiest, most trivial constraint ever devised.

*        *        *

MURRAY: There are many poems in A Pillow Book about negotiating a creative life with your daughter, often called “Her Majesty.” I’m thinking about her trying to avoid a nap and saying, “I want to fall asleep when you do, she whispers into my face. I want to wake up when you wake up,” or her insistence on a tiara instead of a toy cat or toy pony when you agree to buy her a treat. These poems also address the old adage that having children means sacrificing one’s creativity—how do these poems answer or engage such concerns?

BUFFAM: Well, I hope that in a sense the answer to that question is self-evident. The book exists, in the end, not in spite of my daughter’s existence, but because of it.

MURRAY: Thank you, Suzanne, for chatting with me about your writing. I’m very much looking forward to the release of A Pillow Book. One final question: are there any particular poets who you’ve been reading or thinking about lately? I’d love to be able to share them on the website.

BUFFAM: Jennifer Maiden is one of Australia’s most prominent poets and yet utterly unknown, as far as I can see, in North America. I came across her book Liquid Nitrogen a few years ago when I was judging an international book prize, and return to it often. Her poems are mostly long, dense, obsessive, and absurdist theatres of global politics where the spirits of public figures from across the last century—Eleanor Roosevelt, Chairman Mao—share the stage with politicians, terrorists, dissidents, family members, and fictional creations from the present. It’s a wild and utterly eccentric read. The book is, to a large extent, an extended meditation on the uses and abuses of power, but the moral gravity of the poems is off-set by Maiden’s wonderfully self-effacing humor and tenderness, not to mention her elegant lines. Another recent book I admire is Alice Oswald’s Memorial, which deepens with every re-read.


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.

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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.

*          *          *

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.

*          *          *

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.

*          *           *

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.

*          *          *

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.

*          *          *

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.

*          *          *

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.

*          *          *

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.

Christina Davis: For me, a book is always “heading away from its name” (as Jabès might say), outgrowing the book itself. The title is a form of permission: to say farewell to the first intent.

Christina Davis is the author of two collections of poetry: An Ethic (Nightboat Books, 2013) and Forth A Raven (Alice James Books, 2006). She currently serves as curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

Our exchange took place via email as we we both wrapping up our Spring 2013 semesters. I appreciated Christina taking the time to join in the interviews, and I’m especially grateful for these thoughtful and thought-provoking answers, not to mention her terrific poetry.

*        *        *

MURRAY: I’d like to begin by asking you about two poems from your first collection. The poem “Forth a Raven,” expresses a dream of replacing god with birds, and gives a striking image of their movement:

         …the whole of their bodies

         is ahead, hazarded
         like a question. Every question

                      I have ever asked could be ground down to

         Do you love me? Will I die?

The poem “Border Patrol,” which closes the first section, also presses forward with harrowing questions:

         When you ask your lover what he is thinking,
         aren’t you really asking

         Do I occur to you? do I take place?

         Sometimes to walk toward anyone
         is the wilderness.

What are some questions that you are currently hazarding in your poetry, or are there any questions that poetry is hazarding of you?

DAVIS: I’m pretty sure that every poem I undertake is governed by the conundrum, “I am free. Why am I not free?” (with a nod to Sherwood Anderson’s “I am born. / Why am I not born?”). I grow curious about what constrains and structures me, as a person and as a poet. Which forces I consent to willingly and which I resist tend to differ on a regular basis, and a poem can be a great litmus and insight into fathoming (and informing) this physics.

MURRAY: It seems a fundamental question is, in some ways, about form. I know you’ve spoken of this a little bit in your wonderful interview at Open Loop Press, but in what ways do the things that constrain and structure you come out in your thoughts about and experiments with form?

DAVIS: I wish I could say something impressive. But the fact is, for all of my thinking about it, form is probably my worst hurdle. I suspect that if I am experimental at all, it is in the realm of the thoughts themselves, not the actual structure.

For instance, I am woefully obedient to the left margin; I’ve never understood my resistance to moving away from a left-justification. It’s a sort of inertia in my work, but every time I take a step away from the left, I distrust myself. It feels decorous, forced. What could possibly be telling me that? In a genre that is so committed to freedom, it fascinates me that I abide by these (unenforced by anyone) laws.

 *        *        *

MURRAY: Did you conceive of your second collection, An Ethic, as a continuation of the explorations taking place in Forth A Raven? An Ethic also begins with the eponymous poem, which touches on ideas central to Forth A Raven:

         There is no this or that world,

         only the long illusion we are landlord,
         the never-ending study
         of anotherness, the ark of ilks and kinds.

         It is a later wilderness

         in which we find ourselves . . .

How are you thinking of “wilderness” and in what ways does this second collection represent a later one?

DAVIS: I suppose you could say that Forth A Raven was written about death before I had experienced it first-hand. In so far as An Ethic is a continuation of my first book, it reflects a continuity of (involuntary) knowledge—from naïveté (in Forth A Raven) to experience (in An Ethic). We are always writing at a distance from the next knowledge, and experience is never final: So I do not mean to discredit Forth A Raven, which knew much that it did not understand and dwelt in a different kind of freedom than what follows. I remain grateful for that record of my ignorance, as it testifies to a life I can no longer lead.

Though I know it’s a little earnest, I find the title-poem’s placement at the outset of a collection is the most honest way I can proceed. Since, for me, a book is always “heading away from its name” (as Jabès might say), outgrowing the book itself. The title is a form of permission: to say farewell to the first intent.

MURRAY: Could you say a little bit more about this idea of bidding farewell to the first intent? In what ways are the poems in An Ethic heading away from its name?

DAVIS: Sadly, I’ve already said farewell to what I just said! It’s often very hard for me to perpetuate (or endure for too long around) an idea. Which is why I write short poems, and why I do not write much prose. I’m in it for the permission to be transient and to change my mind.

I am also a singer, and I suppose the analogy to your question would be that notes are never “held.” The whole idea of holding a note is somewhat erroneous. All vocal training is about passage, about carrying the note out of you and forward. So, by extension, a title to me doesn’t hold the poem: It’s just the opening of the mouth. It has to permit the poem to pass through and beyond it. Well, at least, ideally.

MURRAY: The poem “Addendum” from An Ethic reads in its entirety:

         Who was it said “AND

         is the greatest
                   miracle”? Praise 

         be his/her name.

What or who have been some fortuitous “ands” in your work or your poetry?

DAVIS: The dichotomies comes to mind, those old standards: Life and death. Here and there. Time-present and time-past.

Though I can’t always remember the context, I’m thinking this poem was probably a variety of self-instruction not to dwell on the rigidity of nouns but to look to the elasticity of “and” and what connectives (like “and”) allow to live together—in closeness and in stand-off. What wouldn’t we be, Celan writes (in Pierre Joris’ superb translation), if we were with our words.

MURRAY: “On Re-Reading Walden” is one of my favorite poems in An Ethic. It begins “Who has not loved / who could // teach them?” Could you talk a little bit about this poem?

DAVIS: I had it in my head that most people wouldn’t like that poem, that not enough of its original intention had remained (I carve away so vigorously at my materials). So, that’s heartening to hear. I was thinking, I believe, of apprenticeship: there’s that stunning statement in Oppen’s “Pro Nobis,” in which he says, “I believe my apprenticeship/ in that it was long was honorable.”

I was thinking then of the people (the dead and the living) to whom I have apprenticed myself, which is a particular posture, one that—at least in the political correctness of the time in which I was growing up—was coming under critique in certain situations. For instance, a young woman looking up to a male professor, etc. (And having studied at at least one institution where that hierarchy wasn’t openly questioned or critiqued, I can say that political correctness was a helpful lens and corrective to some problematic power relations.) But I remember thinking, prior to writing this poem: Of course, I loved them. My teachers, male and female. And why not call it what it was? If love is that permission to enter the unknown, and they were the bestowers of that intellectual access. There is love of the parent for teaching us the knowns and knowable, and then love of the teacher (and here I include mentors, friends, authors, etc.) for leading us into the unknown, the uncertain.

Stanley Cavell says that for a child to grow requires the familiar, but for an adult to grow demands strangeness. I suppose that’s what I was after in this poem.

*        *        * 

MURRAY: Who are the poets and writers whom Forth a Raven and An Ethic are in dialogue with? Did you turn to the writers in the process of working on the collections, or had you already turned to them, and the writing emerged out of those turns?

DAVIS: I don’t tend to write my poems with a collection in mind—that usually happens after many years of writing, 5+ years tend to pass between each book, so as you can imagine it’s very hard to name all of the poets whose works I experienced during that time. But if I had to isolate a few, I would say that during the Forth A Raven time-frame, Marina Tsvetaeva and Louise Glück were very present to me. And, as I was writing the poems in An Ethic, George Oppen and René Char and also Robert Duncan and William Bronk drew near.

In addition to deepening my meeting with another’s mind and (at times, you could say) with mankind, reading the works of my fellow poets helps to upheave my word-paths and re-orient my linguistic system. Not toward their work per se, but away from my own proclivities. “I heard speech reaching” (writes Peter Waterhouse). In reading others, reaching is returned to my language. I’ll hear a word I haven’t encountered or am encountering anew, and I’ll have to find a place for it in my mind. And in that moment, something moves an nth in me, something almost inevitably gives.

I suppose that’s why An Ethic is obsessed with the idea of welcoming, as a kind of primary humanities—this act of taking in. Admission: whether it be one mind taking in the conundrum of another; or the earth accepting the dead; or a nation welcoming people to its shores and borders.

MURRAY: I just came across a prose piece, “Poetry: Solitude Broken,” in A. Poulin’s 1987 translation of Anne Hebert’s Selected Poems, and it ends: “I believe in the virtue of poetry. I believe in the salvation of all right words lived and expressed. I believe in solitude broken like bread by poetry.”

The right words lived and expressed—this idea seems connected to the idea of “welcoming” that you point to in An Ethic.


[Note: In an email wrapping up the interview, Davis indicated that this was less a “not applicable,” for she had begun and then abandoned a too-lengthy response, than a “not answerable.”]

MURRAY: From your second collection: In the poem “Transcript,” some of whose lines are taken from the 9/ 11 Oral History Project, the speaker observes:

         In the presence
         of the unfinished we are

         invited to look
         in both directions, in case

         the Empty is us.

What directions are you looking in now, and what do you see?

DAVIS: I am working on a sequence called, “Mankindness.” But tomorrow I may not be working on a sequence called, “Mankindness.” (You know how it goes!)

 In terms of subject matter, I imagine I’m just trying to widen the circle yet again, my little lasso-the-moon routine. Yet another minimalist poet going after magnitudes….

*         *         * 

MURRAY: Thank you, Christina, for corresponding with me. It was a pleasure to learn more about you and your poetry. In terms of widening the circle, would you care to suggest 2-3 poets whose work you are interested in or who come to mind in light of our discussion? I hope to continue the conversation.

DAVIS: Well, I’m never very good at isolating just a few names, since I feel that my life is infused with the work of so many fellow poets and no single names suffice. But if I confine my mind to the past few weeks, I can say that the poets I have been reading with interest are: Dan Beachy-Quick, Peter O’Leary, Mary Ruefle, Eleni Sikélianòs, Jared Stanley, Peter Waterhouse, and Matvei Yankelevich. I’m also immersed in Inger Christensen’s poem “Meeting” and her book, “Alphabet,” but she has sadly passed away.

And, locally, I’m fortunate to be surrounded by many emerging poets in the Cambridge area: among them, Katie Peterson, Patrick Pritchett, Oni Buchanan, Janaka Stucky, Jonathan Weinert, and my dear colleague, Chloe Garcia Roberts (whose translations from the Chinese are forthcoming from New Directions). The list goes on.


Jennifer Moxley: I’d rather say that the reader’s dream mixes with the poem’s dream, and that the poem’s dream is born of the author’s desire.

Poet Jennifer Moxley’s full-length collections include: Clampdown, The Line, Often Capital, The Sense Record, and Imagination Verses. Her poem “Behind the Orbits” was chosen by Robert Creeley for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2002. In addition to the above collections she has published several chapbooks, most recently Coastal and Foyer States, a memoir, a volume of essays (There are Things We Live Among), and three books of translation from the French. Though a California native, she now lives in Maine with her husband, scholar Steve Evans, and her cat Odette. She teaches poetry and poetics at the University of Maine. For more information on Moxley, look here.

When I began to think about If You Want To, I immediately thought of Jennifer as someone who I hoped would be an early participant. I’d first learned about her poetry from Ange Mlinko’s 2009 review of Clampdown in The Nation, and in 2010 I contacted her about doing a blog interview for the literary journal Memorious. We initiated a correspondence after the interview concluded, and have been in touch via letters since then. When I was getting to know Jennifer and her poetry, I was feeling quite lost in the world of poetry: her generosity, fresh perspective, and, always, her writing, have been incredible gifts. This interview was conducted over email in two parts.

 *     *      *

MURRAY: Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about dreams and dreaming—something that is central to your collection The Line, in which the speaker “In One Body and One Soul” notes: “The heartbreak of time is not that it passes but rather the language yoke. By grace of grammar alone the moment’s fleeting existence. The spatial dream-life of complex syntax hides the author’s erasure.” Is the author’s erasure the act of erasing, being erased, or both? Is the “spatial dream-life of complex syntax” the place where the reader’s dream mixes with, joins, or erases the author’s?

MOXLEY: The voice coming through “In One Body and One Soul” asserts the position that only through the “dream-life of complex syntax”—that is to say, in lyric poetry, or the lyric prose writers such as Proust—can we experience time as non-linear. I discussed this idea first in my essay “Lyric Poetry and the Inassimilable Life.” My thinking on this issue was inspired by chapter eleven of Augustine’s Confessions, in which he famously discusses the nature of time, using grammar and meter as two important indicators. Studying foreign languages with different moods and tenses than English (the dominance of the subjunctive in French and Latin, for example, or the passé simple) has also taught me how central language is to our experience of time: “by grace of grammar alone.” It is a “dream-life” in that circular syntax with multiple subordinate clauses can mimic dream logic, which is also built on temporal spirals. And of course the poem’s effects are not physically real any more than are those of dream—they cannot actually stop the effects of time on the material world, the decay of the body and mind.

While I like the idea of the reader’s dream mixing with the author’s, I fight shy of making claims about what happens to readers other than myself. Perhaps I’d rather say that the reader’s dream mixes with the poem’s dream, and that the poem’s dream is born of the author’s desire. The erasure referred to is indeed that of the author’s life, but the paradox is that it is the author who is responsible for it, by the very act of authorship. A little resistance to “That in black ink my love may still shine bright.”

MURRAY: In his Poetics of Space Gaston Bachelard recalls a passage of Baudelaire dreaming of de Quincey, who is dreaming in winter of Kant, and Bachelard writes that “well-determined centers of revery are means of communication between men who dream as surely as well-defined concepts are means of communication between men who think.” Where/who are your centers of revery?

MOXLEY: What a wonderful question. I blush at it, because I feel a little lacking in such centers at present. But in the past, I have found a center in those authors whose work reached across time to give me the revelation of a transformative artistic experience I didn’t know was possible—Hopkins, Crane, Proust, Hardy, Yeats, J. C. Powys, H.D., to name a few. This works best with the dead. Certain of them have shown up for me—very tangibly—during crucial moments of inspiration and growth as a poet, as well as in moments of despair about the meaningfulness of this work.

*       *       *

MURRAY: Can you talk a little bit about your preface to Imagination Verses? You note: “When we hope for a future different from the present we uncover the injustice of our imagination. . . . Though we may dream the dream of equality, we dream it on a scale much larger than ourselves. If we try to make a poem of this dream, it will be smaller than its origins.”

MOXLEY: Interesting how all of these initial questions focus on the dream in one way or another. It has been a long time since I thought about that preface. Yet I still believe its basic claim, which is about poetry. The key phrase is that the poem offers “a history of and a future for the mind’s prerogative to exist as more than a memory of its milieus.” This is an anti-documentary, anti-experience based poetic. The poem is a portal beyond, it is “unjust,” like the imagination, because non democratic. There is a selfishness to the poem insofar as it allows us to indulge in our desire to extend the borders of the self down into the earth and out into the cosmos, backwards and forwards in time. Like the Somnium Scipionis, the poem creates vistas we may not be equal to or deserving of, yet desire nonetheless.

MURRAY: Much of your writing seems to be engaged with the limits of language, its failures, and our failure as artists and people to make it work, yet is to document such failures also an act of optimism? From the poem “After First Figure,” in Imagination Verses:

And as with imagination
there is no choice
being thought bound
the separate mind stands out, as matter
and maintains dreamily:
“I have been over to the words and they work.”

and the closing lines of the book, from “Wreath of a Similar Year”:

how strangely of untold direction
             it sounds, blind as
the first letter on the first stone
             written down
as if a wreath to circle
             the last sound spoken
on some distant, though similar

MOXLEY: Yes, that is a nice way of putting it, “optimism.” It is not a word I use much, yet I do feel optimistic when thinking about poetry. Not because I think it will be popular, or successful (quite the contrary), but rather because I believe it to be an art, among others, that is transcendent. We participate in it, as Robert Duncan notes, and it is a privilege.

In reading your question I realize that I have resisted the “failure of language” argument for a long time. “I have been over to the words” echoes a famous statement by Lincoln Steffens about visiting the new Soviet Russia, “I have seen the future and it works.” That statement represents a blind faith, so while I do want to affirm “the words,” I want also to represent the idealism of that gesture. I do not feel adequate to any language I’ve attempted to communicate in, including English. To imagine that I could pronounce any language a “failed system” seems the height of cheek.

The last stanza of “Wreath of a Similar Year” that you quote above is less about the failure of language, and more about the hope involved in any act of prayer. Are all poems apostrophic? Do none of us expect an answer? I like to believe that when we write from a position of honesty more often than not we are kneeling down before the Great Mystery, clasping our hands together, and saying: I am sending my sign into the darkness . . . I await yours in return!

MURRAY: When I first read your answer, I saw apostolic for apostrophic! If we never get an answer, do we ever get a sign?

MOXLEY: Yes, I think that we do. This relates back to your question about “centers.” The sign could be a visitation from a poet, the energy coming off a poem, or perhaps inspiration itself . . . the sudden “gift of the poem,” to bring Mallarmé into it.

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MURRAY: In the poem “Fixed Idea” from The Sense Record and Other Poems, the speaker says “I have no natural compassionate impulse and / therefore believe I have swallowed the key: poetry / pounds in the plank of smug memory and wills / no exit.” Is the speaker talking about the difference between making something and doing something, the problem of prefacing compassion before construction?

MOXLEY: I am tempted to ask you the same question! I can’t say with any certainty what the speaker is talking about. That poem was written in a breathless moment when I was destroyed by my own inadequacy in the face of such mundane everyday suffering as that of a creature unselved, as Hopkins puts in, in the midst of concrete landscape . . . well, it was the bird’s eye. To look into the eye of a dying thing, there are some private depths that don’t bear scrutiny. Any frightened animal will tell you.

I rescued and nursed a pigeon back to life when I was a girl. I fed him on the branch of our apricot tree. I know this is absurd. I know there is death, I eat animals and cut up plants. “Fixed Idea” is, I believe, trying to register the fact that ideologies do not solve the conundrum of these encounters. They do not assuage the spirit. At least I’ve never found them to do so, and I distrust people who feel righteous because of they’ve embraced “the right” ideology.

MURRAY: I think of you as a very prolific writer. Has your other writing—letters, essays, translations, memoir—informed your poems in any particular way?

MOXLEY: Yes, of course. I’ve already spoken elsewhere about how writing my memoir helped me to develop narrative strategies and a more agile relationship with complex syntax, which certainly went into the poems in The Sense Record. I love nonfiction literary forms such as letters and essays for the way they offer different modes of address. For example, in my correspondence—this won’t be news to you, who are a wonderful letter writer—there is a kind of freedom to write about the little failures of life, the mundane details and the everyday, as well as to say simply, “I’m reading this book, and I love it.” The poem may mine ideas from the book, but the letter just notes that it is important in your life, or that it fills you with inappropriate dreams. There are epistolary poets—Schuyler is one—but for many of us the poem is a formal occasion, or perhaps better said: an occasion for form.

MURRAY: I am glad you mentioned this idea of inappropriate dreams! I wonder whether you have any that you’d care to share for poetry?

MOXLEY: Sometimes I think of my literary ambition as inappropriate. By which I do not mean my “career.” I am ambitious for my poems. I wrote one titled “Not That, Disappointment” (which appeared in Public Space), which confesses to such. It opens as follows:

I am inappropriate      I feel it

in every said thing        in every

enthusiasm     desire       wish

but mostly in every

            unsettling ambition

I just added those italics! I worry that we are more comfortable with the idea that someone wants a better job, or even fame, than with the idea that they want to write a truly amazing work (even if it goes nowhere, or isn’t recognized). It is an idealism born into me by the study of literary history.

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MURRAY: Your recent collections Clampdown and Coastal seem to experiment with a relaxation, if that’s the right word, of your examination of “complex syntax.” In Coastal, you write:

We are trying, the both of us,
to make work that matters. To remain true
to that initial commitment. Artifice, dialogue, beauty.
A letter to a friend. “This glamorless isolation is killing me.”
I cannot accompany you into the abstract,
but grow more narrative by the year,
saying things to get them said,
feeling no leisure to take old risks.

To write such lines seems like a risk, and I wonder how far new ventures can stray from the initial efforts and still seem related to the initial commitment.

MOXLEY: The “initial commitment” seems so contractual! I think of my poetry as an ongoing and changing set of formal responses to problems of content. “Form is never more than an extension” and so on. Even before Clampdown or Coastal, The Line was an attempt to write simply in the face of a complex existential cascade. I don’t see one solution, but many. The initial commitment, if there was one, was to be honest in my work. To not follow trends, nor accept any strictures about what a poem should or should not do. To listen. Risk is relative. To say “my heart leaps up” in a poem is expected in some circles, a great risk in others. Some follow, some react. Others perform great curlicues of ironic contortion so as to not be held accountable for anything except a critique of and superiority over those who deign to experience unedited, unselfconscious joy in the world and in others.

Nevertheless, when I think of “saying things to get them said” in light of poems such as “Ode to the Man in the Mire of Babylon” in Imagination Verses, I do not think I’ve strayed so very far. I’ve had a long time admiration for, for lack of a better term, the “Socialist Realist” impulse. Coupled with my love of syntactical geniuses such as Sir Thomas Browne I don’t know where that leaves me, except perhaps back at that Einstein quote beloved of Zukofsky: Things should be “as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

MURRAY: Thank you, Jennifer. I am so delighted you agreed to be my first interview here. Would you care to suggest 2-3 poets whose work you are interested in or who come to mind in light of our discussion? I hope to continue the conversation.

MOXLEY: Here are three poets I know it would be interesting to talk to: Christina Davis, Megan Kaminski, Julian Talamantez Brolaski. I confess, Christina and Julian just came through Orono to read, and Megan just sent me her new book Desiring Map. They are all on my mind at present. There are so many others I might have named!