Oliver Bendorf is the author of The Spectral Wilderness, selected by Mark Doty for the Wick Poetry Prize. Recent and forthcoming work can be found in Alaska Quarterly Review, diode, The Feminist Wire, Southern Indiana Review, and Sycamore Review. He holds an MFA and an MLIS from University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he held the Martha Meier-Renk Distinguished Graduate Fellowship in Poetry and taught creative and expository writing and comics, zines, and other visual literacies. He lives in Washington, DC.

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor: Your first collection The Spectral Wilderness recently came out from Kent State University Press. Talk to me a little bit about the idea of the wilderness and how it functions as a setting or metaphor for the collection.

Oliver Bendorf: For me, the wilderness in these poems functions as a mirror for the wilderness inside a person, unpredictable and even desolate, but also full of things becoming other things, in a matter-of-fact way. A tadpole becoming a frog, for example, like in the illustration on the book cover. That matter-of-factness of material transformation in wilderness was comforting to me in the face of becoming a man.

The spaces between—between girl and boy, boy and man, love and loss—are lawless, no ranger no map no path, and there is both pleasure and confusion in that, often simultaneously . . . and the pleasure is confusing, and the confusion can be pleasurable . . . So much is possible, and that is both happy and sad. You can’t take everything or everyone with you into the wilderness, and you enter without knowing how long you’ll be in the forest or where you’ll emerge, only that it won’t be where you entered. I guess this is the feeling I was writing from, being on the brink of transition, and the wilderness gave me a system of images and feelings through which to play out these dynamics. I go in and I search for my own reflection in the wild—in spiders, in tomatoes, farm equipment, goats, effigy mounds, pine dust, ice, fields of corn, canine apparitions . . . . I grew up in Iowa and I live now in Wisconsin, and often these were very real encounters.

Another thing about the wilderness is that it’s easy to idealize it from afar as a place where nothing hurts, but that’s not true. My parents live in the country and there’s a lot of death, a lot of loss, “a tumbling sense inside me / that everything has to transform eventually.” The Spectral Wilderness is haunted, but the ghosts are sometimes friendly.

EP: Do the ghosts act as an embodiment—less body rather, than traces thereof—as a kind of muse? I’m thinking of the classical Muses and the romantic Muse here; they must be called to the writers’ side, must be invoked.

OB: Maybe a muse; maybe an all-purpose metaphor, or an event. Less the ghost, more the ghostings. Unbearable nostalgia, and the body’s relationship to its past. Being visited by. Etc. All of this of course having to do with creativity! The muse may be at your side, but the ghost is inside of you. The ghost is hangry, it’s bad at boundaries, and it won’t go away until you talk to it. A few months ago, I created and printed a comic-zine called How to Talk to Ghosts. I think I made like 30 copies and I have 10 or so left. If anyone is interested in how to talk to ghosts, or barring that just interested in comics, please write with your address and I will happily snail mail you a copy while supplies last.

EP: I want a copy!

Two things about what you just said . . . first, that “less the ghost, more the ghostings” makes me think about nouns instead of verbs. Are verbs—that is, movement—the real “thingness” of/in poetry?

Second, that “unbearable nostalgia, and the body’s relationship to the past”! Most of us would probably attribute nostalgia to the mind or, for those that believe in it, the soul; your sentence almost links nostalgia with the body. Talk to me a little about that connection, and do you think that the relationship between the body and the past is the reason we write poems? Is the poetic body a body that can time travel? Maybe I’m getting a little quantum humanities here.

OB: Quantum humanities! That is fresh.

I like the idea of movement being the real “thingness” of/in poetry, though maybe rather than “real,” I’d say that something must feel true about them right now. What would it look like to not be in motion?

I think there is some danger to telling every story through its movement though. Rob Nixon writes about this problem in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Like, Baltimore had been in slow violence for a long time before the fast violence of Freddie Gray, and slow violence is harder to see, harder to feel as real. Some things probably do need to be named with a noun. Black Lives Matter has everything to do with thingness, with matter mattering, lives as nouns, lives as matter.

I think the relationship between the body and the past is exactly why some people get tattoos and also exactly why people other people don’t. I don’t know where nostalgia is linked, whether the body or the mind or whatever, the heart, and for me that’s part of its unbearability, not knowing its comings and goings and what it is that bears it. I hardly know my body from my mind from my heart, but I’m working on it. To me there is always a way about nostalgia where it’s hard to pin down. I get nervous about the body because I get nervous about materiality. Excited about them both as well. The desire for the body to be more than Tupperware, but the very real fact that our skin is our main barrier, both to keep the outside out, and the inside in, but it’s also so permeable. Sweat, for example. Tears for example. So the body is and it isn’t. But it must be. And sweating and crying lead us back to verbs. I definitely experience poems as bodies. I’m really into parentheses right now, parentheses as and holding thingness.

EP: This idea that some things need to be named with nouns in order to support their thingness is so compelling. Especially because actions, for the most part, end. I always tell my students that I prefer poems that move, continue moving, at the end of their poems, but it now occurs to me that some poems need to end at their closure. They need to stand monument or they need to stand, without flinching, witness.

Could you talk a little bit about how you feel that poetry should stand witness to the social issues of our time?

OB: I think that the act of witnessing is one of the most important things a human can do for another human. To not look away. There are a lot of ways to do that and they need not all be poetry. Standing witness is so powerful. We know that because of the resistance to it by those in power: resistance to filming racist police, for example.

A couple years back, I was lucky enough to meet Jake Adam York, and he inscribed my copy of Persons Unknown, “In silence, through silence, out of silence.” These are difficult times to live in. I’m not sure if every time is a difficult time to live in but I do know that ours is. And I also know, from experience and hard-won survival, that creativity is necessary most of all in difficult times: not a luxury that can be trimmed away when shit gets real, but as something that must be central; as a way to imagine a different future, as a way to cope, to stay alive. I feel pretty strongly that it is the moments in which we feel most that language does not suffice that we must grapple with it, must try, must bend it even when it seems that it will never possibly be enough, must wield it for justice, out of silence, and not always comfortably.

I think poetry can help us imagine different worlds by helping us be inside the one we are in, and this is not escapism but rather its opposite. Consider Fred Moten’s “The Gramsci Monument”:

if the projects become a project from outside
then the projects been a project forever. held

in the projects we’re the project they stole. we steal

the project back and try to give it back to them.

come on, come get some of this project. we protect

the project with our hands.

My teacher Lynda Barry says, “We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay.” We create to be able to stay. And when that becomes too hard to do with words, well, then, there are images. There are many ways to stand witness, to bear it, to make it.

EP: Perhaps one of the most important imperatives for poets, I would say, is to witness through listening. Are you ever spurred on in writing through listening—to music, to overheard conversations, to other poets?

OB: Definitely. When I’m writing, I know a poem or essay is done when I can’t hear it anymore. Sometimes when I come back to it later, I can hear more, but sometimes not. I think deep listening, not simply waiting for a pause in which one can jump in, but really truly listening, is one of the most loving acts we can perform, as friends, partners, teachers, students, poets, and humans. This is true also of listening to and for ourselves. The poetry manuscript I’m working on right now is tentatively called Voice Lessons, and it’s a study of the body as an instrument, through lyric and narrative, occasionally experimental, poems that assume as a lifelong process the work of coming into one’s own voice, both literally and figuratively. My own voice dropped in register as a result of transitioning with hormones, and I did take voice lessons, briefly, to relearn my register and be able to sing again without my voice cracking on a high note. I’m interested in experiments in utterance, in sound, in what happens when we admit that this thing about learning how to speak, how to say things, how to sing, continues throughout our lives.

But back to listening: Lynda Barry used to have us eavesdrop, and I found that pretty generative. It can be hard to stop, once you get going, taking notes. And I always know I’ve been to a great reading when I can’t wait to get home afterwards and write. If it’s a great reading, I’ll be able to hear that poet’s poems eternally in their own voice, for years afterward. I saw Kate Greenstreet read at Prairie Lights in maybe 2007 or 2008 and I still can’t get her voice out of my head. It’s inspiring.

EP: Have you ever had a poem stuck in your head like a song’s hook? (I get Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” in my head every now and then.)

OB: We must admit there will be music despite everything. I touch myself, I dream. The first day it feels like fall, I want to tell my secrets recklessly until there is nothing you don’t know that would make your heart change years from now. We project the project with our hands. Sometimes it’s the rain and the radiator, sometimes it’s the sun god. What did you think, that joy was some slight thing? I’ll tell you what I’ll inherit. Knot the tie and go to work. Unknot the tie and go to sleep. Pity us, pity the ocean, here we go.

(In order: Jack Gilbert, Richard Siken, Stacie Cassarino, Fred Moten, Ada Limón, Mark Doty, Anne Carson)

EP: Do you think of your most recent poems as an answer to the poems in The Spectral Wilderness? Are there ever any questions—explicit or otherwise—that come up in poems that you can’t answer except in later poems?

OB: Not an answer so much as a layer. They drop down into the body, into voice, and I think they’re a little darker.

EP: Does that make the poet a vessel for a poem, not the maker of it?

OB: Maybe a ship kind of vessel. Maybe a vector. I do think of poets as makers. “Make it,” we say, to endure, to manage, to survive, to create.

Diane Seuss*: What material, outside of the poetry/writing realm, has had the most influence on you and your aesthetic?

OB: Color. And teaching, and gender, and dreams. Color interests me in its presence and its absence. I think learning colors is lifelong, not just something that happens once as a child. Same with gender! The slippery space of dreams and the form and syntax our language takes when we try to recount them to ourselves or others is a constant source of inspiration for me– same with eavesdropping, a habit I picked up from Lynda Barry. And teaching creative and expository writing– being a reader and engaging with a student in a constructive way– is in a constant loop for me with being a writer.

EP: Now, Oliver, please provide a question for our next interviewee.

OB: A messenger owl is on its way to you right now. Who sent it and what does it bring?

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (2016), and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poetry appears in Agni, Boston Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. For more information, visit her website: http://emiliaphillips.com


Engineer’s Conundrum

February 8, 2016

Contributor’s Marginalia: Leah Falk on “Before Time” by Claudia Emerson

In Claudia Emerson’s “Before Time,” measurement’s the matter. In science, music, and mathematics, to measure is to reach an agreement with others, to say: this phenomenon can be expressed in standardized units. To say, let me show you, let me translate from my experience to yours. Measurement is why we know Mars is more than a pebble above the horizon, how we know the human heart can be approximated by the size of a fist. To measure the height of a child in centimeters is to make someone an ocean away understand a little of how it feels to stand next to or embrace him. Far from being the cold, less human cousins of words, the units we share with others can communicate precision of size, weight, time and force – they’re the score for architects, orchestras, and aerospace engineers.

But of course, as every home cook or self-taught musician knows, we can also measure without those units, using the body as a scale. Such measurements may not be as easy to repeat, and so often stay close to home, transmitted only through teaching or telling. Science is such a magnetic subject for poets because poetry exists at the junction between these two types of measurement: the agreed-upon accentual-syllabic rhythmic unit and received forms bonded to the poet’s private experience and sense of rhythm and tone.

“Before Time” opens with a catch-22 most of us barely recall: that to agree on the units of distance and time that allow us to communicate with others, we often have to sacrifice something of our own individual experience of the world, the function of the body as a personal measuring tool. (Anyone who has tried to record a recipe from a grandparent knows this problem well.) In “Before time,” this is expressed as an engineer’s conundrum, where bodily or “local” measurement is a barrier to standard, or “real” understanding:

The inexactitude of early measure
Claude did try to unlearn: that space between
the mother’s last breath and what you think is
the last breath rib-fixed, then as though fated.
Or the time it takes a melon to gorge itself on its own seed…”

The first irony of the poem is that the character Claude’s resistance to “early measurement” is resistance to what appear to be his own precise observations, the raw material of science. Such immeasurable, or inexactly measured, experience and observation isn’t so easily overridden by the world’s standard, as Claude discovers: “And when you cannot unlearn it,/ you turn to something else,” the measurement, in this case, of time – the building and fixing of clocks.

As a poet who often makes use of scientific material, I’ve often bristled against poems that seem intent on demonstrating that scientific inquiry is a mask for suppressed emotion or tunnel vision (yes, Whitman, yours, too). Emerson, even as she begins “Before Time” by positioning the felt against the measured, avoids this trap. Yes, her “you” “find[s], after all, the falling weight/ learn[s] to ignore a bee in blossom,” which sets up opposition between the observed natural world and precise measurement by machines, but the machine as an antidote to the rush of nature is turned on its head by the end of the poem’s first section. Unrelenting measurement, it seems, especially of time, can overshadow its object:

And you see the town become overrun with them – time pieces
set on their night-tables, with faces the size

of looking glasses, their small bells they bring you to fix –
wake them to the nothing there is.

Reading this, I’m reminded of a poem I have on constant loop in my head, as a writer with a day job: Tomas Transtromer’s “On the Outskirts of Work.” In the borders between the segments of our days, Transtromer argues, bloom wild ecosystems, if we would only remember to look away from our schedules.

Suddenly, in the face of so much measurement it’s almost meaningless, the imprecision of “the time it takes…for a gourd to gorge on the pith/ of emptiness” seems precious. How do we go back? Having learned the language of standard measurement, having code-switched into the lingua franca of clock-measured time, how to keep that “early measurement” alive – not just for our own enlightenment, but also so that our tools can help us comprehend greater portions of the world? Or will “what lords over” us, “deeds/ and wills, deaths, weddings, births,” the punctuation of our lives, always hold sway?

Emerson asks these questions – fundamentals, really, of scientific inquiry as well as best science fiction – just as her character, fixing the gears of the big town clock, mourns his role in encouraging the public to privilege the clock over their attention to nature’s measurement: the kind of attention that must have made him a good machinist.

…You set it all
to the rights again should they ever look up
to see what they think must have been pigeons
you have made afraid by the perfected strike of noon.

Ending in the subjunctive, Emerson allows us to hold both kinds of observation together: fixed to do its job well, the clock has the potential to be a wake-up call, to urge a measurement-dependent public to remember the strength of their senses.

To its strength, the poem doesn’t end with a condemnation of either the measurement of time or the organic experience of it. Emerson reminds us that clock-time exists in the same world as time measured by pigeons and gourds, and we can’t count our own days without witnessing the confluences and contradictions of nature with the way we study it. The relationship between nature and science Emerson champions, rather than the adversarial one inherited by so many western poets, is instead a relationship between teacher and student: the clock, rather than erasing the sun and stars, learns from them, sings with them, extends their light. At the same time, like any good science fictionist, Emerson is concerned with the limits of machines, only as good as the brains that build and fix them. While our machines are busy counting, what might have escaped their measurement? Look up: a kit of pigeons may be flying above; a fat melon may be ready to separate from the vine. Somewhere, someone may be breathing his last breath, and we must not miss it.

Leah Falk’s poems can be found in Kenyon Review, Smartish Pace, Field, Blackbird, and elsewhere. Her song cycle “Book of Questions,” written with composer Joshua Morris, will premiere in New York in December 2015.



February 1, 2016

Contributor’s Marginalia: Kathy Fagan on “Flower” by Melissa Stein What draws me to Melissa Stein’s poem, “Flower,” is the visceral magnitude of her first line, which to my ear echoes many of Dickinson’s opening lines: “The ruler left a welted stripe.” At first I read Stein’s “ruler” as monarch rather than measuring stick; the hymn meter so commanded my […]

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Prose Feature: “Untethered from Product or Object: An Interview with Diane Seuss” by Emilia Phillips

January 29, 2016
Four-Legged Girl, a collection of poetry by Diane Seuss, Graywolf Press, 2015

Diane Seuss’s most recent collection is Four-Legged Girl (2015, Graywolf Press). She is also the author of It Blows You Hollow (New Issues Press) and Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open, which won the Juniper Prize. Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl is forthcoming in 2018 from Graywolf Press. Seuss was raised […]

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“The Wormy Compost: An Interview with Rebecca Gayle Howell” by Emilia Phillips

January 15, 2016
Rebecca Gayle Howell

Rebecca Gayle Howell is the author of Render /An Apocalypse (CSU, 2013), which was selected by Nick Flynn for the Cleveland State University First Book Prize and was a 2014 finalist for ForeWord Review’s Book of the Year. She is also the translator of Amal al-Jubouri’s Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation (Alice James […]

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