Allison Benis WhiteAllison Benis White is the author of Small Porcelain Head, selected by Claudia Rankine for The Levis Prize in Poetry and named a finalist for the California Book Award and the PEN Center USA Literary Award. Her first book, Self-Portrait with Crayon, received the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Book Prize. Her poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Her honors include the Indiana Review Poetry Prize, an Emerging Writers Fellowship from The Writer’s Center, and a Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.

Emilia Phillips: When I first read your second collection, Small Porcelain Head, I couldn’t help but draw a connection between the object meditated on, often the dolls, and the objects made of meditation, the prose poem. Could you talk a little bit about how the subject matter influenced your formal choices in the book? Are these small contained poem objects related to the small contained objects of which they are concerned?

Allison Benis White: Yes, absolutely, the objects the poems meditate on are hinged to the product of those meditations. Both the dolls and the formal choice of small “box” prose poems are a response to my friend Nicole’s suicide, which is the occasion of the book.

Initially I chose dolls as meditative objects because to me they represented both the newly dead body, and the act of caring for, talking to, holding a body one pretends is (still) alive. Specifically, the dolls were a way to act out and explore my grief and love, and to still be with my friend—and although she was an adult at the time of her death, the smallness of dolls helped me enter the maternal and childlike qualities grieving elicited.

The smallness of the objects was also a response to the need for control in the midst of enormous and heartbreaking chaos, and the formal choice of brief prose poems reinforced this need for order, for smallness. Overall the poems were written from a place where there was little time to speak, with the conscious pressure of the limited time we have with each other, as my friend had committed suicide without warning.

EP: Interesting that you describe the object in the poem as being hinged to the form, especially the prose poem acts as a kind of “box.” I start throwing out associations like solar flares when I think about it. The turn as a “hinge” (was that Matthews?) and Yeats: “a poem comes right with a click like a closing box.” Why do you think that, as poets, we’re quick to make connections between containers and their opening/closing mechanisms? Are we really in the business of containing?

ABW: I think poets are in the business of many things—and to contain is one of them (for me anyway), especially the act of opening/closing. The desire to see (open) and look away (close), to locate, to keep, to save, etc. are all impulses of containment. When I was a kid, I was devoted to making homes for my toys—I had this raccoon made out of brown pipe cleaners that I made a home for in a tin box. I have a visceral memory of the pleasure of opening the box, seeing the raccoon, taking the raccoon out, putting him back in to rest, and so on. I’m not exactly sure what this has to do with making poems beyond the desire to care for and watch over—and control—a love object. I have a similar feeling about my books, I guess—that the animal or whatever lives inside them is contained between the covers, and that it’s always there, “breathing,” waiting.

EP: When I reviewed your book—and forgive me here self-plagiarizing here by pulling a quote from that review—I wrote: “The prose form here provides as much texture as lineation. Wide margins and short, sometimes one-sentence, paragraphs affect the appearance of pentameter and stanzas. The end words, as they fall in the full-justification, feel deliberate—nothing out of place, nothing accidental.” I’m curious how much you controlled the form of the prose poem, if you intended a gesture of thematically relevant line breaks, or if this was a great overreading on my part? How much control do we have as poets over prose poems? Is it more than we think?

ABW: Sometimes the fact that a poem would end with a one word line was purposeful, meaning I revised the syntax/word count it until it landed that way, and sometimes it was a lovely (to me) accident. I can’t speak for other prose poets, but in this and other ways in Small Porcelain Head, I feel like I was trying to have it both ways: abandoning line breaks (using the sentence as music vs. the line) and still working to create the visual and physical experience of the lineated poem via compression and focus (with the wide margins). This all speaks to the previous question’s answer about control and concision in the face of chaos/violent death—in particular, to have the poems often culminate with a single word (“imagine” “bang” “quiet” “you”), to carve out a space for and put pressure on one word, suited the counter-pose I was after.

EP: You brought up chaos, and I think it’s something we don’t always think about as poets, as we’re often in the position of thinking about form rather than formlessness. Is chaos something we’re always working against, or is there a place in poetry to embrace it? Are there poets of chaos?

ABW: Chaos—confusion, bewilderment—these are things I’m always working against and within as a writer. Frost famously argued that a poem is a “temporary stay against confusion”—and by “stay,” within the context of “The Figure a Poem Makes,” he means clarification—a temporary clarification of life. This resonates with me, although I don’t know if I agree with the certainty of his claim—I think poems are definitely an attempt at a stay, a reach toward clarity or revelation. My experience is that these brief moments of (almost) order and light on the page dissolve fairly quickly into bewilderment again, which brings me back to the page to try (and fail) again. I like the idea, as you put it, of “poets of chaos”—I’m certainly a child of chaos, since my mother disappeared when I was so young, so I can’t imagine being any other kind of poet. There is a line in Small Porcelain Head that reads “…until the opposite is the same—she is empty enough.” This line is referring to death, but for me it also suggests the need for order is an act of emptying that is very satisfying—but human bewilderment naturally rushes in to fill its absence again.

EP: Whenever I encounter the idea of “bewilderment,” I think of Fanny Howe who, in an essay on the subject, references the Muslim prayer “Lord, increase my bewilderment” and then insists, “this prayer is also mine and the strange whoever who goes under the name of ‘I’ in my poems.” Roethke, in an invocation of the muse, writes: “O keep me perpetual muse, ears roaring with many things.” These two things seem related, do they not? And, if so, doesn’t that mean bewilderment makes of us a kind of vessel—dare I modify it as an oracular one?—that takes in so much and, dizzy, conveys it? What do you think, is the writing process ever this mythic?

ABW: Yes, I hope so. I’m so glad we’ve ended up discussing two key impulses in making: the desire for order—for a stay, for clarity—and the desire for bewilderment—for being lost, uncertain—in order to transcend the limits of self and enter, or be made to receive, some kind of larger, stranger act of speech. I’ve always liked Gertrude Stein’s take on this: “If you remember yourself while you are you you are not for the purposes of creating you.” What I think she’s saying is that while writing you have to surrender your singular identity—your awareness of self, your sense of recognition, the you “your little dog knows”—in order to make what she calls a “masterpiece,” something beyond an expression of the relational self.

When I’ve answered the phone toward the end of a writing session, the first question someone usually asks me is, “Are you OK?” or “Did you just wake up?” Apparently, my voice is pretty weird—I don’t know exactly what it sounds like—but this suggests I’m in some sort of altered state when I’m writing—if I’m doing it right, according to Stein anyway.

EP: Writing perhaps submerges us like dreams do, like fevers do. I have only written about dreams once or twice, as I think a poem about dreaming often seems too strict to “what happened” in the dream or seems too convenient in its pairing with “real” events, but I have written a lot when I’ve been sick, fevered. The cliché idea that writers must seek new and ever more strange experiences tumbleweeds into my conversations with students some time. But they aren’t alone. As an undergrad, I believed that to be a writer I had to drink a lot, but in my experience, I’m as sloppy on the page as I am in walking a straight line. Others seek out drugs. (At lunch today my husband and I were talking about his Burroughs and his quest for experiential alienation.) If a young writer asked you about your thoughts on this brand of strange-making—whether getting drunk or high to write, or getting a pen and paper ready when you have the sniffles—what advice would you give them? Is it naïve to hold this up as an ideal? How does lifestyle actually influence one’s writing? Can one totally segregate the writing life from one’s real life?

ABW: If a student asked me about writing drunk or high, or writing while physically ill, I would tell them first that I have no experience with this, so I can’t recommend it or speak to whether or not this would enhance or impede their writing. As far as seeking out strange experiences in order to make more interesting poems, I also don’t have much experience with that. My life has been so bizarre and unpredictable and kind of sad, with little effort on my part, so I’ve tended as an adult to hold still and seek normalcy, even blandness. My head is really loud and outrageous in its anxiety and imagination, so I find I do best, as a person and a writer, in a stable, ritualized environment. I remember when I was an undergraduate, and my life had begun to normalize, saying to my poetry writing professor that I was worried a calm life wouldn’t produce the kind of conflict necessary for good poetry—he responded very quickly that I shouldn’t worry, that life would naturally provide plenty of strangeness and horror and loss to write from. So I was appeased, and terrified—and of course he was right.

EP: You spoke of a stable, ritualized environment, and so I’m curious if there are certain things that you do before or while you write. I read other’s poems when I write and I have Safari open on some poems I really love. I don’t even have to look at the poems, but somehow I’m drawing something from them, like they’re irradiated or something. I’ve known other poets who have to go walk their dog before they write. Are these things superstitions? Or is it more in line with an invocation of the muse through the body?

ABW: I love hearing about other writer’s rituals—and I love how you describe the poems you have open while you write as “irradiated.” I also like to have poems in reach when I write—when I wrote my first book, Self-Portrait with Crayon, I had four books of poetry open on my desk at all times (what I call my “good voices”), and I had four different books open (The World at Large by James McMichael, Catch Light by Sarah O’Brien, Simic’s The World Does Not End, Nick Flynn’s Blind Huber) while writing Small Porcelain Head. My other ritual is that I write in a spiral notebook every night in bed, before I go to sleep—I just freewrite in prose and doodle, and these pages usually provide the music, fragments, or image patterns that begin a poem.

I don’t think these rituals are superstitions, but rather practical habits that facilitate work. However, I did have a superstition about the first computer I wrote poems on in my early twenties—I didn’t want to get rid of it and get a new computer; I sort of thought/feared the poems were coming from the computer and not me. I was so relieved when I realized I could actually write on a different computer. This sounds totally ridiculous, I know, but I’ve always had this idea that my ability to write is very tenuous, and that I could lose it or break it easily. This feeling has faded over the last few years, but I still worry.

EP: I’ve had conversations with an old printer, so I absolutely understand, and I don’t think it’s that far out either. A couple weeks ago I listened to that On Being interview with Marie Howe in which she says—and I’m paraphrasing—that poems act, even today, as a kind of spell. Beginning sudents often have a hard time with poetry because they think of poems as codes that have to be broken, and, in pendulum-like reaction, many have pushed toward making poems “easier.” Often this argument implies straight narrative, unadorned exposition or statement, a conversational tone with ultra-contemporary references to K-Mart and iPhones. Generally I find this work mundane. The other extreme is that one rejects all the trappings of the contemporary world because it’s not “poetic.” By rejecting the contemporary, poetry seems almost more mysterious, like it’s been passed down through time. You write about Degas in your first collection, and you have the dolls in the second. Are you ever conscious of selecting subject matter based its ability to exist in or outside the contemporary moment? Do you think that by maintaining impermeability of one’s poetry to the trends of the moment keeps it more spell-like, mysterious, like an arcane art?

ABW: In some ways I was conscious that the objects of meditation in both of my books existed outside the contemporary moment—I think that’s part of what attracted me, as I’m interested in poetry that isn’t limited by the obvious constraints or fashions of the contemporary, if that’s even possible. But that doesn’t mean I’m interested in poetry that seems antiquated (in its use of form or diction or syntax or references) or avoidant of the details of the world the speaker lives in either. The best way I can describe it is that I’m after what lasts, what is archetypal and maybe just simply human, which is often found below the surface of trends and individual personality or biography. On the other hand, I often find myself compelled, as reader, by poems that reference the contemporary and are conversational, as they can create a spell too, but as a writer, I’m not very good at that kind of magic.

EP: Why the prose poem? What attracts you to it? You’ve probably been asked this before. Regardless of your original impulse, however, I’m sure that in discussing it, you realize something new about the form, its capabilities, its flexibility.

ABW: My initial impulse toward the prose poem was two-fold: one was that I fell in love with Killarney Clary’s book of prose poems, Who Whispered Near Me, and the other was that I was frustrated with the lineated poems I was making at the time. I tried the prose form as a way to trick myself, or possibly free myself from the poetic tics I’d acquired over the past few years—there is that Louise Gluck line that goes something like “you change your form, you change your nature.” In other words, my voice changed in the prose form—I found that working with the sentence vs. the line shifted me (my pace, my ear, my patience, my sense of space) in a way that was revelatory. The compression of the smaller prose poem worked in my second book (in ways that I discussed earlier in the interview), and in my new manuscript, Please Bury Me in This (forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2017) I continue to use the sentence as a unit of music—although in this book, the sentences form individual paragraphs/stanzas that do not touch. I find form very emotional, very intuitive and bodily—and lately, in the new poems I’m working on, I’ve gone back to the line in these “shattered” poems. It’s amazing to experiment with line breaks after so long, and I’m a little in shock about how much I can do with them. I had forgotten the gymnastic quality of lineation, so I’m really excited to be working with lines again.

EP: Are you at work on some new poems? Could you tell us a little bit about where you’re at in the process?

ABW: I’m in the very first stages of new work (just in the last month)—I’m experimenting with some epistolary Wendy (Darling) poems in which she seems to become a kind of Jesus figure. There are other Wendys in line to explore, but who knows where this is going, if anywhere. I’m just glad to be inside something, following a line of crumbs, even if it’s off a cliff— especially if it’s off a cliff.

Robin Ekiss*: Let’s say tomorrow you were given an unusual—but wholly serious—ultimatum: you can either read poems or write them, but not both. Which would you choose, and why?

ABW: Damn, Robin, that’s an intense question. That’s like asking to choose only to love or be loved, or only to speak or listen. I can’t quite imagine one without the other, as one works so deeply in relation to the other. It’s a little version of hell to choose. But if I had to (I thought about this for a long time last night), I would choose reading poems over writing them—because of the loneliness that would come without other people’s poems. This would be a greater loneliness, I think, than the kind that would come with the absence of writing.

EP: Now, Allison, please provide us with a question to ask our next interviewee.

ABW: Last year at AWP, I went to a panel with Dana Levin, Carmen Giménez Smith, Cate Marvin, and Richard Siken on the life of the poet, the long haul—or the long con—how one keeps going, emotionally and psychologically and production-wise. If you were on this panel, what experience would you discuss, or what advice would you offer other poets, concerning endurance, sanity, and perseverance in the life of a writer?

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming 2016) from the University of Akron Press. For more information, visit her website: http://emiliaphillips.com.

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Robin Ekiss, Author photo: Lisa Beth Anderson

Robin Ekiss is a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford, the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award for emerging women writers, and author of The Mansion of Happiness, which won the 2010 Shenandoah/Glasgow Prize. She’s on the Executive Committee of Litquake, is a contributing editor for ZYZZYVA, and lives in San Francisco with her husband the poet Keith Ekiss and their son. (Author photo: Lisa Beth Anderson.)

Emilia Phillips: Since you agreed to let me interview you, I’ve been devising a plan for how I could turn an anecdote into a question. Several years after you published your poem “Edison in Love,” I wrote a poem about the very story you use in these lines:

René Descartes, too, traveled alone
with a doll-in-a-box
he called his daughter. Francine,

Francine

I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but at the time I wrote my poem I didn’t know yours! It was only later, after my book was picked up, my Francine poem nestled inside, that I encountered these lines! Forgive me for my self-reference, but I’ve always found it wonderful and strange when I find out that two poets have come to the same subject matter in different ways. For instance, Alan Shapiro and Tomás Q. Morín both have poems about Laika, the first Soviet dog in space. When I was working for a literary magazine in grad school, I would see rashes of poems about the same things: Gregor Mendel, “twilight sleep,” Frank Sinatra’s specially-made underwear, etc. I suppose that’s the risk when you take something from history or public knowledge and use it in your own poems.

My old prof David Wojahn has an essay called “Not Releasing the Genie: The Poetry of Knowledge vs. The Poetry of Stuff” that came out with The Writer’s Chronicle earlier this year; in it, he differentiates between the poem that simply nabs subject matter (from Google and Wikipedia these days, most likely) for the sake of novelty and the poem that demonstrates that the use of exterior subject matter has an intensive personal relevance and approaches that subject matter in a way that makes it new, compelling, and perhaps even strange.

So, first off, I’m curious about your encounter with this story about Descartes—how you came to it, how long it smoldered—and how you generally go about handling subject matter that comes from outside your life. What are things you generally try to avoid? Why go to history for subject matter?

Second, do you think that the internet has changed poetry? How so?

Robin Ekiss: I love that subject synchronicity, too—and the endless possibility of it. Even when we write about the same subject, our explorations are bound to be different. The “stuff” of the universe may be finite, but our interpretation of it isn’t: what we bring to the subject inevitably expands that universe endlessly outward. And inward, too, making something that’s historically or intellectually remote intimately personal.

That story about Descartes’ daughter Francine worked that way for me. When I’d read about it, it just started working on my imagination, and it didn’t take long to work its way into that poem about Thomas Edison, another iconic figure with some rather questionable quirks. I’m often drawn to the uncanny (and you can’t get much more uncanny than traveling with a doll in a box named after your dead daughter). In my life, and in my work, I struggle constantly with “daughter-ness” in a way that feels very Cartesian to me: a kind of separation of mind and body, in which love and grief are dueling, distinct states. The irony of Descartes staking his existence and his philosophy on the primacy of thought, but ultimately being ruled by feeling: that resonated tremendously with me in terms of my own creative process. I think the noblest writing bends anecdote toward emotion (not the other way around).

In that way, no subject matter exists outside my life and anything can have personal relevance. There’s not much I’m trying to avoid, but I’m drawn to history because it’s such an ideal playground for a poetic imagination: it attempts—and often fails—to give context to our experience, which is what poetry does, too. As a Jewish poet, I run toward history because so much of it is impossible to imagine, and yet I’m inevitably embedded it in: in my own personal history, in what’s familial, familiar. As a rhetorical poet, working in the tradition of Marianne Moore or Elizabeth Bishop, I feel like I can stand outside of it, apart from myself when I need to, to gain some insight into my own humanity.

One of my teachers, Eavan Boland, always made a distinction between history and the past: “history” being the public, civic record and “the past” reflecting more personal, often unspoken experience. I’m interested in both: where they intersect, how they feed off of (or feed) each other. And in building recognition of the emotional consequences of history, which we live with every day.

And to your second question there: yes and no! The internet has changed poetry, particularly for poets who research to write. Obviously, information is more accessible and immediate than it used to be, and that’s a good thing. But democracy is of no use to the imagination: more access doesn’t necessarily mean more insight. Is it a diminishment to curiosity to “click through”? Not at all. I find it helps me make connections more quickly and associatively, and broadens the scope of what’s out there to read and discover. That’s helpful to a restless imagination. But you’re still in charge of shaping the information you have, and that’s as much of a challenge as it’s ever been. I’d argue that other things have changed poetry more fundamentally, like personal computers or self-publishing or the proliferation of writing programs or rap, or a thousand other things. Poetry can handle the change. It’s made to evolve, right alongside us. It may even help us evolve.

And just for the record, I think we should all write poems about Frank Sinatra’s underwear, and publish an anthology of them. We can call it, “I Wore It My Way” or “They Can’t Take Briefs Away from Me.”

EP: “Boxers In the Night”—what were the chances?

A fun question: If we were to literally evolve through poetry, how would our bodies change? Would we have larger lungs for all that breath? Will we be able to use our feet to type?

RE: We’d all have skylights in our brains! And extra sets of eyes so we could see more of the world around us. And maybe bookshelves built into our backs, so we could carry a few slim volumes around for reference (although I guess that’s what smartphones and tablets and e-readers are for). More than a physical transformation of writers, I’d like to see a broad-spectrum evolution of readers: more people receptive to the ambiguity of language, more critical thinkers who engage with art and understand why it’s important, not just as entertainment but in creating empathetic, sentient beings. Poetry helps us walk upright: be more man, less ape, so to speak.

EP: I can’t help but think of your line “the spine is laddered // for an uphill climb” in “Genealogy” here and, well, looking back at that poem, I’m drawn to the idea of literary genealogy. For instance, my teacher’s teacher would be my literary grandparent, and the web extends. Do you think this notion is bogus? Can we inherit writing traits? Or does this sort of pedigree making make monkeys out of us?

RE: Is this like playing a literary form of Six Degrees of Separation? One of my teachers, Sandra McPherson, had Elizabeth Bishop as her teacher. Does that mean I can claim Bishop as my grandmother? (Or Marianne Moore as my great eccentric aunt, once removed?) If so, I’m disappointed they didn’t leave me anything in their wills. My husband (the poet Keith Ekiss) and I once went to Vassar to see Bishop’s archives, and by accident the librarian on duty gave us her actual notebooks (rather than copies). We only discovered the mistake after we’d handled them with abandon all morning (no pencils, white gloves, or preservation protocol in effect), and turned them in to leave for lunch. She’d made some very beautiful watercolor paintings of leaves, including one of the Croton tree. Croton is also the name of the town I’d grown up in. You could feel the warp of the paper, knowing she’d held it, and see the deliberateness of the brush strokes, imagining the intention behind them. I felt connected to her then by this intimate violation, in a way that I often do reading her poems.

In the poem you’re quoting from, “Genealogy,” I’m grazing around in this idea: the notion that we’re hard-wired to inherit. But biological imperatives don’t apply to art. Inherited traits aren’t: what we read and how we write may be predilections, but they’re not predeterminations. In art, if not life, we choose our own forebears, which schools we subscribe to, which poems teach us what we need to know. Many poets don’t have the benefit of a teacher’s mentorship, but that doesn’t make them orphans. If you love a poem, you go back to it. It claims you. But we don’t have to inherit what we don’t want to inherit. We have some free-will in the matter. I don’t believe in pedigree or the “purebred poet.” All poets are mutts.

EP: Do you think poets are too quick to create taxonomies into which we trowel poems, keeping the russets in one row, the yams in another? I’m mixing metaphors here—but in knee jerk reaction to the idea that one identifies with only one school of poetics or another.

RE: Identifying with a school of poetics doesn’t mean you can’t take classes outside the curriculum, so to speak. There’s nothing “textbook” about writing poetry, or reading it for that matter. I do have a tendency to go back and back to the same well, but that’s the nature of obsession, the root of all poetry really. It doesn’t mean I can’t wander into someone else’s garden. I would agree we’re quick to categorize, and maybe that’s motivated by a desire for a common language about poetry that allows some degree of superficial understanding. But I’m not sure it’s useful. Saying something’s “neo-formalist” or “confessional” may shape our expectations, but it’s pretty limiting and rarely so simple. One approach doesn’t necessarily contradict another, and they can (and should) build on each other. It’s why poems remain relevant to our cultural conditions: they’re able to change perspectives and evolve. Ultimately, poets are cobblers, so writing strictly in one mode just isn’t practical: you need access to all the tools in the shed. Poetry isn’t about either/or, it’s about either/and (and sometimes neither/nor). Schools are self-imposed stereotypes that don’t leave room for deviation, and the best poems are deviant in every way. Readers aren’t faithful to one school or one style; why should writers be? We’re polyamorous thinkers. And our poems should reflect that.

EP: I was once at an AWP Conference panel for the late poet Eleanor Ross Taylor, one of the last surviving Middle Generation poets. She was married to the fiction writer Peter Taylor but was really discovered by Randall Jarrell. One of the panelists quoted Eleanor Ross Taylor as having once responded to a question about Jarrell by stating that one has to be a little in love with one’s mentors. But I think that, in some ways, you’re right—we’re polyamorous thinkers—and we sort of come to love the poets whose poems we admire whether or not we like them as people, or if we’ve met them. Maybe this is a rather conceptual—if not unabashedly hokey—question, but I wonder: Is loving a poem a kind of unrequited love?

RE: No. Definitely not! When you love a poem, it’s always reciprocated! Poems aren’t people, obviously, but they can be just as responsive to our emotional needs, just as human, just as changeable and fickle, too. Loving a poem is a nostalgic kind of love: an act of remembrance. What may have begun as “love at first sight,” grows and deepens as we go back to that poem days, months, even years later. As we change, the poem changes—and what we demand of it, and what it demands of us—changes, too. If that’s not a relationship worth fostering, I don’t know what is.

EP: Then again, as readers, we insert so much of ourselves into the poems we love that it occurs to me that loving a poem, fostering a relationship with it, as you put it, is like indirectly returning all of that to ourselves? I always warn my students against using workshop as a kind of therapy, and I recently listened to one of the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Off the Shelf podcast episodes in which Joy Katz said that she had had a hard time finding poems that helped her through the grief she experienced after the death of her mother, until she encountered a poem by Mary Szybist, but I wonder: can we see poetry as a stay against the self-loathing of our culture? Is poetry self-help? Or is that simplifying it? Is it inflating its potential?

RE: There’s nothing simple about it. I’m not sure why people resist the notion that “poetry as therapy” is unproductive. If more people read poetry, they might be more conscientious about their own emotions, less prone to sentimentality, less guilty of triteness, more at ease with complexity and contradiction, more empathetic. Therapy isn’t inherently bad, anymore than „self help” is. (If we can’t help ourselves, who can we help, and who’s going to „help” us?) Poems can be paliative (in the way that all knowledge offers a kind of solace against the unknown). But even „the strange becomes solace,” (as Marianne Boruch once wrote) and for me, that’s the heart of it. It’s tempting to look for comfort in poems, but poems aren’t meant to comfort us. Quite the opposite: they’re discomforting. They introduce us to our own strangeness. They hold a mirror up to our experience, and don’t always forgive us for being human. In „The Grave,” Marianne Moore writes, „it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing;/but you cannot stand in the middle of this.” She was talking about the ocean, but she might as well have been talking about poetry, what moves us when we read or write poems. To quote Moore again, it’s neither „volition nor consciousness.” It’s mystery. And how we come to terms with that mystery—whether it’s grief and mourning, joy or anger or wonder, whether we’re readers or writers—well, that’s why we’re here.

EP: Even when I’ve felt a poem is done, I’ll sometimes have a very belated urge to revise again. Is that true for you? If so, how do you temper that urge to go back to the page?

RE: For me, it’s not such a belated urge: it’s omni-present. I don’t temper it at all. I just give in. I find myself altering words or phrases, changing them out when I give a reading. And why not? They’re not sacred texts. Is a poem ever really done? I don’t mean that lightly: knowing when a poem is finished is becoming harder and harder for me to gauge. I think about Elizabeth Bishop spending seventeen years writing “The Moose,” and I think, yeah, that sounds about right. I want my poems to reflect my understanding of the world now—not just yesterday— so it’s hard to look at a poem I’ve finished and not see a new way in to it.

There’s this cross-section of a redwood tree at a state park not too far from where I live, and the rangers have labeled the tree’s rings with important historical markers to give context to the tree’s age. You can see how big it was when the Mayans built Chichen Itza, or when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Every year, another ring is added, and it just keeps growing and expanding, while the world moves in its own circles around it. And when it’s cut down, you can see—literally—where it’s been. I like to think my poems can sustain a little pruning every now and then, in the interest of creating those kinds of layers.

Don Share*: Where will your poems be in ten years?

RE: Don! I have absolutely no idea—and I hope it stays that way. Perhaps they’ll have mastered teleportation, and visited the very distant future. Maybe they’ll bring back a few new words. Maybe they’ll replace punctuation with emoticons. I hope they’re still curious. I’ll let you know when I get there.

EP: Now, Robin, please provide us with a question to ask our next interviewee.

RE: Let’s say tomorrow you were given an unusual—but wholly serious—ultimatum: you can either read poems or write them, but not both. Which would you choose, and why?

Emilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming, 2016), both from the University of Akron Press. She’s the prose editor of 32 Poems. For more information, visit her website: http://emiliaphillips.com.

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Alfred Corn is a virtuoso, and with his new collection’s formal variety and impressive wit, Tables would have, in an earlier age, made an excellent appeal for patronage. It’s a shame that today’s great patrons of the literary arts, the universities, care little for virtuosity and much for credential and prestige, because, with the support […]

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Animal Fact

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