The Spectral Wilderness by Oliver Bendorf, a collection of poems from Kent State University Press

Prose Feature: “Witness Through Listening: An Interview with Oliver Bendorf” by Emilia Phillips

February 12, 2016

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. (Photo credit: Fid Thompson)

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:

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