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.
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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.
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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
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
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!
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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.
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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
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.
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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….
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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.
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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.
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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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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
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]
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
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.