Weekly Prose Feature: “Acoustical Pleasures: An Interview with Lisa Russ Spaar” by Emilia Phillips

July 19, 2013

Lisa Russ SpaarLisa Russ Spaar is the author of many collections of poetry, including Glass Town (Red Hen Press, 1999), Blue Venus (Persea, 2004), Satin Cash (Persea, 2008) and most recently Vanitas, Rough (Persea, December 2012). She is the editor of Acquainted with the Night: Insomnia Poems and All that Mighty Heart: London Poems, and a collection of her essays, The Hide-and-Seek Muse: Annotations of Contemporary Poetry, appeared from Drunken Boat Media in March 2013. Her awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Award, the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize, an All University Teaching Award, an Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and the Library of Virginia Award for Poetry. Her poems have appeared in the Best American Poetry series, Poetry, Boston Review, Blackbird, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Slate, Shenandoah, The Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other journals and quarterlies, and her commentaries and columns about poetry appear regularly or are forthcoming in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.

Emilia Phillips: In your reading at the Library of Virginia on May 9th, you indicated that your use of recherché and esoteric words in Vanitas, Rough was described by a reviewer as creating a kind of lexical depiction of Vanitas. I love this notion, but wonder if it’s one of the great, compelling over-readings. Saying that, however, I realized that it could be both an over-reading and intentional subtext: you might not have planned the metaphorical connection between your use of language and the Vanitas form but your interests and obsessions led you to both. First of all, would you mind telling us how aware you were of language as a kind of Vanitas and, second, how do your own notions about your writing and/or your intentions change once a collection is out in the world being read and reviewed?

Lisa Russ Spaar: I’m so glad you asked this question because it gives me the chance to think a bit more consciously about this observation that the densely brocaded, often arcane or even archaic diction textures in Vanitas, Rough function as or conjure in themselves the condition of a vanitas—which in still life painting captures objects that represent life’s transience and mutability: skulls, rotting fruit, decaying flowers, un-sprung musical instruments, often seized by the painter in the very act of vanishing. The poems in V,R were written over a period of 3 years or so, after the appearance of Satin Cash in 2008. Even when I was working on the title poem (and I actually had a series of vanitas poems in the works for a while), I don’t recall being particularly conscious that the choices and processes by which I wield language also represent or embody a vanitas in any sort of meta way. However, as you suggest, I was and am attracted to assemblages or objects or dramatic moments that articulate the ephemerality of life (and I think this has become more of an obsession for me than before because of my own mid-life confrontations of intensified rue, loss, chagrin, sadness—and the attendant recompense of a heightened sense of beauty and of the solace of Eros, belief, love). As you say elsewhere, Emilia, in a generous and, to me, very moving review of Vanitas, Rough, the poems in this book “[provide] us words that are as close to objects as they can get.” (“Objects withstand the gaze / better than words” &c.) This leads me to the second part of your question. I write very privately—I don’t share my work in the generative stages and rarely show a poem to anyone besides an editor before it appears, say, in a book or magazine (this isn’t to say that I’m not part of a community, because as a teacher of writing I am of course always learning, especially from my amazing students). And so when a new book of mine appears, I’m usually afraid to look into it for quite a while, often as long as a month. As I begin to read from it publically, and as reviews and other responses begin to find their way to me, I feel that I can at last actually “see” the poems, as if for the first time. The insights of reviewers like you return me to the excitement I felt and feel in making poems in the first place, back in that zone of solitude and reverie. And I learn as much from qualified or even negative reviews as I do from positive ones. In Satin Cash, for instance, there’s a poem called “How Was Your Day” that responds to something a reviewer of Blue Venus (2004) said about how (and I’m paraphrasing here) the speaker in Spaar’s poems is a very private one, almost like the “psalmist,” and how the reader sometimes wishes that Spaar would ask the him or her “how was your day?” I loved that, and tried to take up the challenge in a poem that directly addresses the “Dear Reader” by asking “How can I know?” and then flipping things around so that by the end of the poem, the reader has actually conjured the writer . . . .

EP: One of the issues that you bring up a few times in Vanitas, Rough is the notion that there are some things that can’t be conveyed in language, at least not fully, between the poet and the reader: “perhaps impossible here, in words, // to tell” and “Objects withstand the gaze / better than words.” For me, your admittance of the fallibility of language is evidence of your integrity as a poet and, by contrast, makes the sonic textures and rigorously precise details that much more impressive. If you were hypothetically able to convey everything in language, would there be a need for poetry? And, more realistically, does the imperfection of language drive you to continue writing? How so?

LRS: So much to think about here, Emilia! I suppose that language is perforce a transgression, a mediation. Words with their own secret ambages, their nooks, crannies. Their edges, as Anne Carson would say. Words like Dickinson’s “pretty blades.” Even at its most transparently direct or descriptive (the word “STOP” on a red octagonal sign, the phrase “pink sock,” &c), it stands in for (and in a sense mourns) experience, the “thing” itself, Rilke’s dinge. Language “outers” the objective, the subjective, the inner, and in the “translation” there is an altering, a making anew. There are ineffable states or conditions of being, I think, that refuse to be “worded,” or that the poet won’t/can’t articulate for reasons of “veil” or privacy. Poetry, with its broken-ness, its intensities of primal sound and figuration, perhaps comes closer to voicing those ineffable states than other kinds of language (I think of Juan de la Cruz, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Keats), but finally, even poetic language can fall short. Or seem to, at first. Here is Emily Dickinson:

I found the words to every thought
I ever had – but One –
And that – defies Me –
As a Hand did try to chalk the Sun

To Races – nurtured in the Dark –
How would your Own – begin?
Can Blaze be shown in Cochineal –
Or Noon – in Mazarin? (Franklin 436)

I love this poem for many reasons, not the least of which is its admission (as you suggest above) that there are limits to language (or to the self’s ability to wield it). The speaker has a thought for which she can find no equivalent word. She announces this up front. We don’t yet know what that thought is, but Dickinson is going to let us know something of its nature. In a typical tropic move in which there is an almost undetectable slippage of agency, the elusive defying “word” is replaced (or joined) by the speaker (and eventually the reader in that almost taunting “How would your Own – begin?”—that is , how would you do this, if you could, dear Reader?) in that synecdochic “Hand” that, nonetheless, “[tries] to chalk the Sun // To Races – nurtured in the Dark.”

Ah, so the thought for which the speaker can find no word has something to do with what’s hot, brilliant, light, heavenly—a condition that might be hard for someone depressed or unused to joy to comprehend, let alone articulate. Drawing replaces writing as the unknown word words (“chalks”) itself through the poet’s own linguistic sleights of syntax and figure. Even as the speaker questions whether or not any word can stand in for the passion that stalks the poem (“Can Blaze be shown in Cochineal – / Or noon – in Mazarin?”), Dickinson offers up two words for her unworded thought that are universes unto themselves. “Cochineal” and “Mazarin” are both foreign and exotic, etymologically, linguistically, and sonically, and seem particularly so in this 8-line poem. “Cochineal” refers to a red dye obtained from insects found in south and central America; “Mazarin” (or “mazarine”) refers to a deep blue color and its etymology owes to Cardinal Jules Mazarine (1602 – 1661), presumably to the colors of family or religious orders. Dickinson may not be able to find that one word to convey her ineffable ecstasy, but the words she does find are resonant with rapture, travel, strangeness, royalty, divinity, and transport.

Sorry to go on so long about this poem! I get carried away thinking about Dickinson. But all of this leads to the heart of your question: if we were able to say everything in language, would there be a need for poetry? It’s a wonderful question, and one to which I don’t have an answer. I would hope to always have a need to read and write poetry. On the other hand, as you suggest, I think it is the ineffability of our most urgent and even ecstatic experience that makes poetry essential. In Dickinson’s poem, it is the “defying,” the ways in which the world both resists and commands “wording” that keeps her going. And I know that this is certainly true for me, as well.

EP: I love Dickinson as well, and I think she provides an apt segue for my next question. The poems of Vanitas, Rough tend toward short forms (under twenty lines) with a few exceptions. Because each poem’s packed tightly with detail, I wondered if they were originally longer pieces later paired down to the essentials. How do you arrive at the size and form of your poems? How does the couplet, the most used stanza form in the collection, carry your poems? What’s the couplet’s allure?

LRS: I feel the influence of Dickinson in your poems, Emilia (name as poetic destiny?), which may be just one reason I admire them so much (“And the headlight shatters into a rain / Of glass, like a soul fixed in Death / And frozen. Their mother back home stirs / The clothes like a stew, the starch and filth foaming into / A cream. And the steam, and the steam / Their world is divided / Into alive or dead. They’ve no governess / Of desire, no pillows stuffed with down” from your “Goose, goose,” for example). In a poem called “The Strange Metamorphosis of Poets,” Howard Nemerov asserts that American poets move, through the course of careers, from “epigram to epic,” from lyric to narrative: “They start out Emily,” he writes, “and end up Walt.” I don’t think that is true for me. Or, I should revise: I was writing short, intense lyric poems early on, but they weren’t the poems to which my teachers and cohort in the 1970s and early 1980s responded (with the exception of Donald Justice, who quietly kept encouraging them, saying something like, “these other longer, confessional, quasi-narrative poems are what everyone else is doing, and you’re doing them competently, but something strange, something YOU, is happening in these shorter, more musical poems.” Justice called them “definition” poems, which I think might have been a nod to Dickinson. It was Justice who suggested that I really dig into Dickinson, which I did, and do, abidingly, gratefully). Once I got out of graduate school in the early 1980s, and began to teach full-time and to work on poems pretty much in solitude, my teachers were the poets I was reading: Keats, Hopkins, Dickinson, Rilke. Shakespeare (in the plays, where I think the really amazing lyric speech resides). Charles Wright is a very important poet to me. Carl Phillips. It could be that my evolution to shorter forms also owes to the exigencies of my life—three children, full-time job, very little time to wash my hair let alone write a poem—and to my temperament, as well (I’ve always got many things going on at once). I began to work in smaller and smaller notebooks that I could carry around and scribble in at the local shopping center parking lot, all three children asleep in their car-seats, or in various “waiting rooms”: hallway floors outside violin or guitar studios, the orthodontist or pediatrician’s office. As for the prevalence of tercets, and more recently, the couplet: my language, as we’ve been discussing, is so dense, so textured and damasked, that I find I need white space—to provide clarity, ballast, a matrix: something to pitch the fragments of language against or from which the text emerges. To give the reader (and the lines) some breathing room. The shorter stanza forms provide armature, something over which to trellis syntactically inverted or complicated phrases. Finally: Desire, Eros—these are my preoccupations, so couplets (the pairing, the parting, the reunion of them) feel right to me for that reason, too.

EP: Thanks for your kind words about my own poems, Lisa. While I wouldn’t necessarily call you a formal poet, it’s apparent to me in your allusions, diction, subtle gestures of rhyme, as well as musical cadences that you appreciate and read formal poetry. Do you believe that there is a general lack of understanding about or interest in forms? What are the dangers, if any, of free-verse poets not having any knowledge about the tradition, especially in terms of form?

LRS: I know I’m not saying anything original when I say that free verse is, or can / should be, formal. Or, rather, the poet working in free verse makes formal choices with each syntactical gesture, each enjambment, each decision in matters of diction, pacing, music. The free verse poet is going to work with more exciting and powerful volition, I believe, if he or she is familiar with received and traditional forms. I think that many of the poets I admire—again, Dickinson, Hopkins, Wright—were innovators who loved and subverted, imploded, amplified received forms (Dickinson’s hymn-haunted poems—which in manuscript look very little like the tidy quatrains of her work in print; Hopkins’s enormous sonnets; Carl Phillips hexameter-haunted love poems). I’ve always been interested in acoustical pleasures in poems—what Heaney calls the “binding secret” between words—and have recently been playing more with rhyme, end and internal, and especially off-rhyme, which could again owe to my thematic interest in coupling, pairing. Rhyme can be dulling or predictable, but it can also be sexy.

EP: I’d like to turn now and discuss another sort of form: the book. Since November 2012, you’ve published several essays with the Los Angeles Review of Books titled “Second Acts: Second Looks at Second Books of Poetry.” In one of these essays, you write:

it occurs to me that one thing that happens in many second books of poems, and one reason it is so important to pay special attention to them, is that often the poet begins to come into a fuller sense of earlier inklings — linguistic textures, rhetorical gestures, thematic obsessions, syntactical motions, line length, pacing, and so forth — that will give his or her work the feel of him or her about it.

I’m now completing my second manuscript and feeling immense trepidation about the stakes therein. Perhaps pessimistically, I wondered if this isn’t the process with each successive collection—if in the third, fourth, fifth etcetera collections one doesn’t come into a fuller sense of earlier inklings either to complete or reject them? Would you mind speaking about your experience of writing collection to collection?

LRS: First of all, I’m excited to read your first full-length book, due out in August, I believe? Congratulations! And, perhaps alas, I think you’re right that we poets feel some trepidation about the stakes involved with each and all of our successive books, possibly, one, because we work privately and worry about the life of any new poems in the world, and, two, because we always want to be evolving as poets, refreshing our practice, attempting Crane’s “new thresholds, new anatomies.” Will our new books merely parody what we’ve done before, or will they break fresh ground? Do they cohere? Is the gathering a book or just an assemblage? I do think that seeing a second book into the world is psychically important to writers. A first book gives a poet a toehold; a second offers a firm footing, the suggestion of further steps, launchings—a journey out into the world as well as within. As for the significance of second books that I mention and that you quote, above, I’m not sure that this is something the poet him or herself can or even should be conscious of, or try to suss out for herself, especially in the making stages. But I do think that, in retrospect, readers, in particular, can learn much about a poet, about her voice, about her evolving project, by seeing what happens in those sophomore efforts, those “second acts.”

EP: How important is it to find the right editor for your work? Do you ever feel that, through the publication process, the book becomes a sort of collaboration rather than an individual’s creation? Have you ever had a regrettable experience with suggested edits to a collection or individual poem?

LRS: I feel very fortunate in having the exceptional and gifted Gabriel Fried as my editor at Persea Books. Gabe is himself a poet, a very fine poet, and he possesses that rare ability to look, as John Berger says we must, in the direction from which a body of work is coming, and meet it there, rather than attempting to turn a painting, poem, what have you, into something we ourselves would prefer. This is a clumsy way of saying that Gabe seems capable of letting his authors be; when he does make suggestions, they uncannily address the mysterious workings of a poem, offering me access to gestures and inklings and tensions (and possibilities) of which I have not been conscious or aware. It’s a tremendous gift. And so I do think it is important to find the right editor, especially since, as you suggest above, the move from private making and manuscript to embodied book is a collaborative process involving, in addition to a host of practical details (font, endorsements, cover art) a matrix of honesty, trust, and stewardship to the work, which is something other than poet or editor.

EP: Both student and teacher poets may complain of feeling burnt out or bored with the “poetry scene,” especially after years of involvement. How do you continually renew your interest in poetry? How do we protect poetry from the business of poetry?

LRS: The privilege of working with emerging, apprenticing poets since 1980 as a teacher in university and non-academic settings reminds me that I am also, always, an emerging, apprenticing poet, and this is one way I keep my own practice refreshed. My students and colleagues, in English and creative writing but also in other disciplines, by their example, encourage me to risk new things and engage with new practices, processes, materials. I want always to engage with work outside my comfort zone even as I move more deeply into the stylistic realms that attract and please me. I would always rather be at work on a new poem, for example, than have a poem taken at a journal, and whenever I feel depressed by the po-biz “Auction / Of the Mind” prize/publication culture, or worry about the fate of the book, of reading—or whenever I wonder about how our technologies and means of obtaining information will affect the ways in which we think and make decisions, let alone art, I sit down and read poems I love, or go to the desk and open a notebook. Or I take a long look out the window. Or walk through my garden. Or talk with one of my children. This has a way of bringing me back to what matters.

EP: With the emergence of VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts in 2009, there’s been increasing attention on the gender imbalance in publishing, reviewing, and accolades. How important is it for all readers to be aware of their own reading habits in regards to gender, race, religious and cultural background? Are individuals as responsible as organizations in practicing and promoting reading equity?

LRS: I love VIDA and am grateful for the work they are doing, the inequities they have exposed, the intrepid work they promote. In my teaching, I am conscious about curating syllabus reading lists that are diverse in all sorts of ways, demographically, socio-economically, aesthetically, geographically, globally, and in terms of gender and race. In my personal practice, I also try to read widely, deeply. As important to me as reading equity in individual practice is just the act of reading itself. Capturing a few pages of something at Google Books, grazing the Internet for bytes, digesting an excerpt at JSTOR are all different from the reverie and duration of deep reading. Even many English majors don’t read whole books anymore. And at a recent graduation ceremony, I was interested to see that a number of students were unable to put themselves in alphabetical order in a procession line. I think this is because when people want to look up a word now they rarely turn to a real, bound dictionary with pages and alphabetized tabs; they just type the word into a search engine that grabs it for them, without any sort of context. One of my graduate students, who taught for a while in the Baltimore public school system, tells me that many students are no longer being taught to write in cursive—no need for it since most kids have been using keyboards practically since birth. Are these small changes to how we do things dire signals of the slippery slope to a more shallow way of discernment? Probably not. But I hope we never move away from deep reading, what Sven Birkerts describes as “the slow and meditative possession of a book. We don’t just read the words, we dream our lives in their vicinity.”

EP: That Birkerts quote reminds of Bachelard talking about how a description of a room will often cause a reader to daydream about a room in his or her own past, particularly one from childhood. Do you believe that deep reading, or even this kind of immersive daydreaming, must be learned in childhood? If one wasn’t involved in that sort of occupation as a child, how does one start reading deeply as an adult?

LRS: It’s late June as I type to you, Emilia, and the local schools are closed for the summer, and so at the coffee shop where I stop each morning on my way to work many more children than usual crowd the couches and floor space, accompanying their caffeine-seeking parents or caregivers. Most of the children occupy themselves with Kindles, Nooks, and other hand-held devices, but this morning I saw two young girls, twins, sharing an upholstered armchair. Each was absorbed in reading a thick book. Seeing them, lost in their delicious solitudes—caught in the liminal reverie that books inimitably invite—made me happy, the way that a wheelbarrow, ancient tool, anachronistic on a highway median strip, can fill me with joy. Your question about whether or not deep reading is something best, or only, learned by a habit of doing so as a young person is such a good one. We all know that children learn foreign languages (as well as morals, manners, habits, both positive and negative) more easily, and perhaps lastingly, when they are young. And I do wonder, as I said before, how the ways and means by which we now and will go on to gather, disseminate, and make sense of information will affect the ways in which we read, write, understand, and make ourselves known to one another in the future. In my own teaching, I find that my students, in general, have little tolerance these days for big novels like Middlemarch, Moby Dick, and Infinite Jest. “Too many words,” to paraphrase Salieri in Amadeus. On the other hand, part of this capacity for deep reading—which requires patience, time, suspension of disbelief—has to be circumstantial and temperamental, too. Blake warned us, as well, that even the most lively imagination must be exercised or we lose our capacity for empathy. So I like to think that the capabilities and pleasures of deep reading and immersive daydreaming can and should be cultivated in any one, at any age, who is in possession of an open mind—including those of us who already possess the desire and propensity to do so.

Amy Beeder*: As a poet, who was your important teacher?

LRS: For poets, I believe that everything is a potential teacher—the deer that nightly devour the lilies and phlox in my garden, an overheard conversation at the local Food Lion, a student poem, an amazing meal. For me to try to name the most important of these would be like trying to respond to my children’s question “Which of us do you love the best?” I know that I’ve learned a lot of wonderful things from this conversation with you.

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

LRS: In Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson writes, “As Sokrates tells it, your story begins the moment Eros enters you. That intersection is the biggest risk of your life. How you handle it is an index of the quality, wisdom, and decorum of the things inside you.” Do you agree with this statement? Does it bear any relation to your work?

Emilia Phillips is the prose editor of 32 Poems.

*As a part of our interview series, we ask each interviewee to provide us with a question for the next interview. To view Amy Beeder’s interview, go to June 21st’s Weekly Prose Feature: “Subject to Distortions: An Interview with Amy Beeder”.

Previous post:

Next post: