Prose Feature: “In Our Living World: An Interview with Corey Van Landingham” by Prose Editor Emilia Phillips

May 1, 2015

Corey Van LandinghamCorey Van Landingham is a Wallace C. Stegner Poetry Fellow at Stanford University, and the author of Antidote (Ohio State University Press). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, The Best American Poetry 2014, Best New Poets 2012, Kenyon Review, Narrative, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. In Fall 2015, she will join Gettysburg College as the 2015–2016 Emerging Writer Lecturer.

Emilia Phillips, Prose Editor: As a reader I sometimes feel like I’m sitting in a dunking booth and poets are chucking softballs at some target that’s meant to plunge me under. They often miss, and I’m sitting high and dry. I re-read Antidote on my red-eye home from our reading together in Albany, California earlier this week, and you sunk me into some deep, cold water with (formally) turbulent waves. It was a real experience in reading your poems, not some amusement. Talk to me a little bit about how you set your sights on the reader when writing your poems. Are you focusing on the target all along or are you throwing blind?

Corey Van Landingham: First off, let me say that reading with you was such a joy, and that I’m astounded you could read anything on that red-eye home, let alone a book of poetry! So, really, I’m thrilled that I could still hit a target.

I’m certainly throwing blind when I’m writing. I wouldn’t even say throwing. Lobbing, perhaps. Scooting behind the softball on my belly and attempting to move it with my breath. That is to say, audience is the least of my concerns during the writing process. And isn’t that strange? Especially, as educators, when we tell our students, “If you’re only writing for yourself, then what are you doing in a workshop?” Not to imply that I only write for myself. In the initial stage of getting poems down, though, I require a kind of mise en abyme, where I’m standing between two mirrors and being reflected back to myself, in smaller and smaller forms, ad nauseam. Which sounds a bit masturbatory, I admit. But I need to approach the poem from every angle as poet, as self, to revisit it in every mood, at every time of day, hungry and full. If a poem still shimmers after I’ve read and revised it over and over and over again, then I can let the world in. Then I feel a bit like Prospero: “But release me from my bands / With the help of your good hands.” Audience comes as a form of liberation from that private act of composing. What mystery lingers in the poem must transcend the primary recursive process, to see if it can operate in a realm that demands sense and cohesion. There needs to be eyes to break the loop, the magic staff. You know, “Gentle breath of yours my sails / Must fill, or else my project fails.”

EP: Antidote is full of mystery, and much of that mystery comes from a disorienting—yet provocative—use of the fantastic: “A demon breathed into my dreaming mouth”, “They move like haunted houses,” etcetera. You seem to bring in the idea of being lost in the wilderness in many of these poem narratives. Talk to me a little about that. Where is that coming from?

CVL: I moved toward the fantastic, or the surreal, in order to find a new expression of elegy for my father, something that combined reserve with gravity, truth-telling with mystery. The surreal enabled a kind of spatial distance, one that allowed for the instability and scrutiny necessary to approach the difficult subjects of disease, love lost, and other various forms of valediction. These wildernesses are, I suppose, emotional wildernesses, ones utterly removed from my own physical setting, but very much so wedded to my speakers’ states of mind. I worry, sometimes, about the surreal being a kind of cop-out, that it can easily turn toward the willfully strange. I’ll say that, for me, it was a necessity. These landscapes were places I could enter into to access the stuff of the real world. Or, perhaps translate is a better verb. Wandering around in those created spaces, I could translate grief.

EP: Could one argue that the following quote from “Eclogue” is a statement of ars poetica: “wild is a process / that has to be learned”?

CVL: Absolutely. I’m constantly returning to this quote from Francis Ponge, which I use as an epigraph for a poem in the book: “If you obscure nothing, there is no dark to remember.” I see his words as a case for mystery. Language that is too conclusive, that does not call anything into question, lacks permanence. Questions that are easily answered don’t stick around. And the same goes for poems. I am uninterested, ultimately, in answering. Complicating something is much more compelling to me, as a reader and a writer. But I’m interested, too, in the action of obscuring, which Ponge also seems to be addressing. And this seems to have to do, somewhat, with control. It’s a control that I imagine I’ll always be trying to wrestle with, that we all will be. How do we keep our poems wild, but crafted? How do we allow the uncanny to exist within the promises of a poem? Just how much mystery can we expect a reader to tolerate/enjoy before she becomes impatient? Is impatience an important part of contemporary poetry, the contemporary mind? Is difficult poetry perhaps the most democratic, as it bucks the easily digested rhetoric and narrative of political speech? These are all questions I’m trying to learn the answer to, each time I write.

EP: In “Confessional” you write, “I choke on every creation myth.” But I wonder if every kind of poem isn’t a kind of creation myth, of some world. What do you think?

CVL: Good question. I’ve never really thought of poetry in exactly those terms, but that certainly seems like an apt way to approach individual poems, as they are simultaneously birthing and historicizing themselves. In that particular poem, “Confessional,” I saw it more as a weariness of received wisdom and rhetoric, of a world that has created, and thus seemed to take ownership of, a woman’s body, a woman’s selfhood. In a sense, I view mythologizing as generalizing (which I realize is a large generalization in itself). Though this is nothing new, of course. I like the idea of poems being autonomous instances of creation, however I worry that this perpetuates some criticisms—especially of lyric poetry—of poetry as a vacuum. Does a creation myth imply an existing world into which individuals are brought? Does the poem interrogate this preexisting world while populating it? I’m not sure.

EP: Talk to me a little bit more about this idea of poetry as a vacuum. Do you think it’s this criticism that helps perpetuate the notion that poetry is too hard? That it’s irrelevant to the general public?

CVL: I think the perception of poetry as a vacuum, cut off from the world, certainly relates to the criticism of it being irrelevant to the general public. What I mean by this, I guess, is I can see how people would criticize, or feel alienated by, poetry that doesn’t interact with the world. There are a myriad of ways to formulate this interaction, and I do think there are many poets doing so successfully. In a way, I relate this view—of poetry being closed-off—to the suspicion of the discursive in contemporary poetry. Often, now, ideas seem to be so distrusted that the act of making meaning falls away entirely. “No ideas but in things” might have run a little too rampant, so that, sometimes, I feel like the expression of the volonté générale is “No ideas, just things.” I’m being too curmudgeonly, and old-fashioned, I realize. This is to say: I think poetry is always, maybe even increasingly, relevant to the general public. I also do not think that making it more relevant to the public means to make it more accessible by reducing the rigor of thought, of intellect.

EP: When we read together last fall at the Albany Public Library, you read from a new manuscript titled Autoerotic. You mentioned that many of the poems are concerned with drones and the US’s militarization of drones. The poems I heard were charged, linguistically and politically; they were curious and cutting.

Would you mind telling us what drew you to this subject matter? Do you see yourself as actively seeking subject matter that’s relevant to today’s political and social concerns? Do you see this as the duty of poetry? Why or why not?

CVL: This became subject matter for me the way that every other subject has in the past: it is something that terrifies me, the very idea of the drone, and especially their militarization. Recently someone told me that one shouldn’t write about drones because they aren’t “a thing.” I believe that the opposite is true: that one must write about drones precisely because of their thingness, because of the terror of dehumanization, the unsettling distance. In steering away from detention and torture (as well we should), we’ve moved instead to drone strikes. It’s this idea that is, for me, so utterly terrifying: the ease of that distance. And, of course, this follows the advancement of technology. This new manuscript develops ideas about the mediation of the body and of love by technology while engaging with and repurposing political rhetoric, interrogating ideas of morality, and questioning beauty. In poems that approach drones and drone warfare through the guise of love letters, the epistolary form makes both parties complicit. It acknowledges power relationships: who can say what, who remains silent.

So in a sense, yes, I am actively seeking out political and social matter, but for me it feels more unavoidable than this. It is a world I am immersed in, and one I am responding to as best I can. Rooting the lyric poem in the political realm carries with it vast implications, and a unique responsibility to language. I recognize the dangers of slipping into the opportunistic objective correlative, of exoticizing the experience of others, making too-easy metaphors about love and the violent realities largely removed from the landscape of my everyday life. It’s specifically this idea of metaphor making that one must be so careful about. How can I possibly make leaps from this form of warfare to form ideas about love? I think it mainly comes down to imagination, with all its risks and responsibilities and rewards. If a political or social event is merely a catalyst for a poet or poem’s ulterior motive—then I think that’s dangerous territory. But I do believe one can write about violence from a distance, and shutting down possibilities of how one can approach it will do poetry a disservice. Ethical and moral considerations are necessary, but poetry that does not risk crossing experiential boundaries is a very limited poetry.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what poetry does, and, along with that, what its duty might be. But, just as I think poetry can do anything, I’m wary of assigning any specific duties to the art. I don’t think it’s necessary for poetry to address the political, nor the social, although I do believe it’s practically impossible not to do so. I hope poetry of the political and the social is a poetry that is opening up to the world, and tying poetry to a specific function seems to instead become an act of closing-off, of shutting down the imagination. Poetry’s allegiance should be to language. Though this may seem, at first, solipsistic and unengaged, I think it’s the most democratic stance the art can take. In discussing poetry and communism, Alain Badiou says that the poem “gives its inventions to language and as language is given to all, the material world and the world of thought must be given integrally to all, becoming no longer the property of a few but the common good of humanity as a whole.” Language and the world are, at least for me, inseparable, so that the care for and freedom of language also belongs, inevitably, to the social realm. I love this quote by Seamus Heaney: “Poetry cannot afford to lose its fundamentally self-delighting inventiveness, its joy in being a process of language as well as a representation of things in the world.”

EP: Even if language and the world are inseparable, I find over and over again in essays about craft this idea that language can never fully capture the world. Susan Stewart, I believe, says something in On Longing about how language can only represent language. Many poets in moments of doubt despair over the idea that poetry, that language, can never fully translate experience. But I’ve never felt that it was the duty of a poem to fully translate experience.

David Wojahn, my thesis advisor, suggested that he uses ampersands in his poems as a reminder that the raw materials of poetry are symbols: language. We might even think about this gesture as a vanitas—even memento mori?for poetry. Perhaps this is really the explicit work of the ars poetica, to remind us of the vanity of language and its ultimate transience. Do you ever find yourself gesturing at language’s transience in poems? Why or why not? Do you feel like poetry has a unique relationship to the untranslatability of experience into language?

CVL: I love that idea of a vanitas for poetry, of a kind of painterly quality reinforcing what it’s being made from. I, too, don’t believe poetry should translate experience, that it should, rather, transform experience. Still, the idea of poetry’s inability to translate experience is a source of both anxiety and comfort for me. I often write from a space of longing to revert to a time before language, to access a thing-in-itself, sans mediation. Of course, this is impossible, hence the anxiety. The comfort, however, follows that same incommensurability of poetry and experience. Just as a person can’t really access an experience without language, neither can a poem. This failure then becomes a privilege. Language in poetry is heightened, is the only tangible way to cross the borders between the world and how we experience the world. Poetry, more so than other forms of writing, seems to be an action of experience, rather than a replication. It creates the world it’s responding to. I find this comforting, the ability of poetry to help form the world it’s imagining.

EP: Recently I listened to an aspiring fantasy novelist talk about taking a “world-building” class at a fantasy convention. I tried to imagine what kind of advice would be given in a course like that. “You have to have a currency system and religion!” Prose writers of all stripes have the wealth of exposition to elaborate their worlds. Poets, however, only have form and image that suggest their world. Translating these into metaphors, we might think about prose (particularly long forms) as having the capability of the video camera—it can move with its subjects across time and space—whereas most poems seem to be more like a camera obscura—a fixed frame and a small aperture that, through mirrored surfaces and angles, enlarges its subject. As a poet, how do you go about world-building? Do you agree that poems have more of a fixed frame? Can suggestion sometimes be more potent than exposition? Are all worlds of a poem in some ways fantastical?

CVL: It seems to me that much of poetry’s world-building is marked by absence. The fixed frame of the poem, as you suggest, does have the privilege of crystallizing what’s in front of it, but it’s also elegy to what’s outside the lens. Because of this, I often think about an emotional world-building, about how a poem endures the necessary fragmentation from the actual to create (or recreate) the real. No emotional world in a poem is fantastical. We’re not naming new currency, I don’t think, in poetry. I think we’re more like archaeologists, rediscovering what is already there, recreating names and uses for language. We’re turning old coins in our hands. We’re trying to give the things of the dead a place in our living world.

Chloe Honum*: Do you have a favorite place to write? If so, what do you like about that particular place?

CVL: Though I’ve begun writing more at home, my favorite place to write has always been in coffee shops. There’s something about the concerted effort to get out of my apartment that makes me put a little more pressure on myself to spend my time writing, as if I need to earn my cup of coffee/journey elsewhere. My new favorite place to revise, though, is on airplanes. Perhaps because I’ve been on quite a few of them lately, but also because there’s some strange pressure to perfect a poem when a stranger might be looking on.

EP: Now, Corey, provide us with a question for the next interviewee.

CVL: Louise Glück has said that she doesn’t like to call herself a poet, one of the reasons being that it creates an unwelcome expectation or pressure. Do you call yourself a poet, to yourself, or to others? Why or why not?

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of two books—Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming 2016) from the University of Akron Press—and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). For more information, visit her website:

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