From the category archives:

Interviews with Poets

Brittany CavallaroBrittany Cavallaro’s first collection of poems, Girl-King, was the Editor’s Choice for the 2013 Akron Poetry Prize and was published by the University of Akron Press in early 2015. Individual poems have appeared in Tin House, AGNI, Gettysburg Review, and the Best New Poets anthology, among others. The recipient of scholarships and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Vermont Studio Center and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, she is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

Emilia Phillips, Prose Editor: I first encountered your work when I was a graduate student editor at Blackbird, and I most admired the threat in your poems and how the threat was brocaded with allusion, myth. It was like a harsh stone façade covered in bursts of otherworldly lichen. What gets me about “White-Armed Persephone Walks Into His Van” is the last line: “The hidden knives agree.” Before we get to that ending, we know that the girl at the gas station has decided “to yes the next man / who asks. Her knees // above her kneesocks guarantee.” It seems that personification of inanimate objects, a part of that person or something closely linked to them—so, a kind of synecdoche or metonymy with human feelings or gestures—speak to the underlying, hidden, or most-base of a character’s intentions. For me, this gives us an unsettling fragmentation, a kind of psycological severing of mind from body. Do you consciously seek out images—the external—to reveal something about the character—the internal? If so, how do you go about locating what that is, and what concerns, if any, do you have in allowing inanimate objects this kind of power over the narrative?

Brittany Cavallaro: Your question made me think of that evangelical Christian exhortation to ‘be in this world, but not of it.’ I’ve always failed completely at extricating myself from the world’s demands. I really thoroughly enjoy reading fashion magazines, on a more or less primal level. Sometimes I have the sneaking suspicion that I own so many books simply because I covet them as physical objects. In my apartment, I’m a compulsive arranger of vignettes of things that suggest small narratives—those three candles, that porcelain vase, and that accordion on the credenza say to a visitor that this kind of girl lives here. None of this is particularly new or revelatory, I don’t think—to some extent, a lot of people do these things, feel this way—but I’ve always been really caught up in the power of self-presentation. Not just to the world, but to the self. When I was a teenager, I went to boarding school on a scholarship, and I remember thinking to myself, okay, I should wear argyle knee socks. That’s what one does in such a place. So I did. Of course, that sort of costuming can suggest wildly different things to different audiences. Some men look at a seventeen-year-old girl in knee socks and think diametrically different things about that decision than the girl wearing them. I hadn’t thought about this so specifically before your question, but I’ve always seen one’s relationship with the world as a series of cause and effect spiraling further and further away from your original decision. I will speak in this way because I am pretending to be the sort of girl who speaks this way. You interpret the sign of it as your own expectations and prejudices lead you to, and treat me accordingly. I, altered by that, volley back. It’s destructive. And yet there’s still so much pleasure in the initial serve.

I don’t mean to conflate the experiences of my characters with my own experiences (and I do think about the girls and women who populate Girl-King as characters much more so than autobiographical representations of myself), but I do think that, especially, as a teenage girl, when you’re in the business of creating a self, sometimes the small, visible decisions you made that morning—what you adorn yourself with, what you carry— broadcast so much larger and louder than anything you say or do. And in that way, they create a self you might not have ever intended.

EP: So then I have to wonder whether or not the act of taking on a persona of a poem in some way changes the poet. It’s certainly true for some actors; many claim that working in particularly vicious or unsettling roles “disturb” them. Popular outcry links disturbing roles and actors’ mental health, especially after a premature death. As poets, should we view ourselves as a kind of actor? Are these voices we take on like possessions? Or masks? Is it ultimately a question of empathy? As artists, can empathy be unhealthy?

BC: It’s hard to wrap my head around the idea of empathy being unhealthy, though I do think it can be at times. Choosing to offer empathy to one person and not another, certainly, can be vile, if not exactly unhealthy—here I’m thinking of those who rallied behind the Isla Vista shooter and not his victims, seeing them as girls who refused to ‘give’ Elliot Rodger what he ‘deserved.’ How do we write about horrific situations? What are our responsibilities to those whose voices we assume? There’s a long section in Girl-King, in dramatic monologue about the Burke and Hare murders in the early nineteenth century. At first I thought, I’ll speak for the victims. They were largely prostitutes, women on the fringes of society, women Burke and Hare thought wouldn’t be missed. Their bodies were sold to Dr. Knox at the Anatomy School to be dissected by the medical students there. And then, after learning that Audubon famously paid a visit to Knox in Edinburgh, I spoke for the bystanders, culpable in their silence, and then I found myself obsessively writing Burke poems from the point of view of his own dissected body. So a project whose aims were originally reclamation moved towards one that was more interested in sensation, although I did take care to speak for the people on both sides of the equation. I am, in some ways, more interested in what I consider to be the much more banal subject of killers and why they kill. Banal because the world’s explored this to death, and I don’t know if my voice is a necessary one to add to the conversation. If there’s unhealthiness in taking on the voice of murderers, it’s something akin to treating those topics as junk food, something to engage with on your sofa, flipping through network television. And I do it; in some ways, it’s my bread and butter. I write mystery novels (that I’m serious about, but that don’t necessarily take murder seriously), read trashy horror, watch unhealthy amounts of Law and Order. But I try to take a different approach with my poems.

If I ever do have that feeling—the idea that I’m skirting something dangerous with the voices I inhabit—it’s when I’ve taken something from my own autobiography and warped it to fit the poem. Certain poems I’ve written come from a place of could-have-been-me, if things had shaken out a bit differently, and there’s a wistfulness in that, and a danger, too.

EP: Could it be argued that the poems we inhabit for so long, either as the writers or readers, do become a part of our autobiographical life?

BC: As much as the books we’ve read and the places we’ve visited, I’m sure that the poems we’ve written become a part of our autobiographical life. Especially for those of us who live relatively sedentary, quiet lives whose color comes largely from the art we intake and make. Certainly any kind of seismic change in my physical or emotional landscape is going to show up in my poems, but those are few and far between. I tend to mark time by what I’ve read and what I’m reading and what sort of writing project I’ve undertaken. The voices I inhabit for those projects need to feel important to me at the time I’m writing them, or I wouldn’t be able to dig in the way these things demand. And when I step away from the writing, the characters don’t always disappear. Right now, I’m working on a series of young adult novels, and it feels at times like I have the narrator for those books sitting just over my shoulder. I know what he’d say in response to pretty much anything I’d ask him, and so he feels real, if maybe slightly more separate from me than some of my less definitively defined personal poems. It all comes down to narrative voice, in the end, and how separate that voice is from my own internal monologue.

EP: How do you balance different genres? Do the young adult novels influence your poems?

BC: I wish I was a little bit better at balancing them, to be honest. I tend to work fairly obsessively on a novel when I’m in the drafting process, and though I might have ideas for poems during that period, I’ll sketch them out in a notebook (if I’m feeling particularly responsible) and then forget about them. I’ll be reading poetry and criticism while I’m writing fiction, to be sure, but whatever generative impulse I have is directed toward the book. It doesn’t leave room for anything else. I wish it did. Once I’m revising the novel, I try to get back to writing poetry, but when I’ve been away from it, I have to write a number of terrible poems before I have anything I can work with. It takes me awhile to relearn poetic narrative. Oftentimes I find that I’ve used up all my narrative impulse getting my young adult characters from point A to point B, and that the first poems I write when I return to poetry are lists of incomprehensible, bizarre images, like I’ve pried open some pipe in the basement only to have black water rush out.

I’m relatively new to working in two genres at once, so I’m hoping that this all gets easier.

I don’t think my young adult fiction influences my poetry, or vice versa. That said, they’re definitely drawn from the same well. In both genres, I write about inheritance and coming of age and history. My young adult series is a Sherlock Holmes story; there’s a series of Holmes and Watson poems in my new manuscript. I don’t necessarily put on a different hat when I’m writing YA. Well. There’s a lot more humor in my fiction, but considering my poetry, that’s not a tall order.

EP: You sound much more organized than me, that’s for sure. If I was switching between a project as big as a novel and poems, I’d be all over the place.

You brought up the drafting of terrible poems. I’ve been doing a poem-a-day or rather a “blob-a-day,” as our group leader has deemed it. Usually I can sweep the terrible poems under a rug—or just not write them—but this forces me to get them out on the page and share them with other poets. Do you see value in the terrible poem? Care to snip the brass buttons of an ill-fitting coat and give us a few lines?

BC: I’ve done poem-a-day too, though I’ve been avoiding it lately—again, the fear is that I’ll somehow downshift into poetry if I let myself. I do find that forcibly unloading a whole lot of terrible lines and makeshift images at the beginning of the month opens up an opportunity for me to reimagine and reshape those lines and images later. I write a lot of poems about, really, not a lot of things; that is to say, I write the same poem over and over again until I get it right. Or at least closer to what I was intending. My fiancé was telling me the other day that, growing up, he thought all songs had to be about ‘a girl.’ I’m pretty much the same. All my poems are about the girl.

That said, I do really love the terrible poem and the process of writing it. There’s a certain element of fatalistic glee you hit when you’re ten lines in and you know it’s not going anywhere special. Sometimes it allows you to make moves you wouldn’t otherwise make if you knew the poem was a stronger one. I can be cavalier with work I don’t think is good. I do what my friend Jacques J. Rancourt has told me is an insane thing: I don’t save multiple drafts of poems. When I’m revising, I’ll tweak something and hit ‘save’ instantly, wash rinse repeat. When I’m finished, I do my best to forget what the draft looked like going in. I tend to obsess otherwise, and not in a productive way.

I did find a poem that I’ve written recently that is laughably malformed. It has a few lines I like, but in those, I realized I was borrowing so heavily from my favorite Lucie Brock-Broido poem that it’s more like bald thievery. Caveat emptor.

Each movement
is a choice. Sometimes in a locked room

I am not a woman anymore, am the blinds,
am armature, am the product

of blindness. Then you enter
disheveled, awful in your loveliness,

offering me a cup of tea. I am only myself
to you. I am myself only to you,

and that is the disaster, how well
I’m being seen.

EP: Are you an active imitator? Do you sit down and say, “I’m going to imitate this poem today by blah-blah-blah”? Why or why not? And, an addendum to that, do you see persona as a kind of imitation, in the same way that—oh, let me pick a recent example—Ocean Vuong’s “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” in the New Yorker is an imitation of Roger Reeves’s “Someday I’ll Love Roger Reeves” and Frank O’Hara? Persona doesn’t have to be of a poem or literary figure; it can be an endeavor to find our way into the voices of many different people. But I’m wondering if there’s a connection to be made between the two forms.

BC: I’m most comfortable using imitation as a teaching tool. My worry is that, when I’m attempting it myself, I won’t be able to transform the imitated poem enough to make it my own. I need to add a further complication. In a chapbook I co-wrote with Rebecca Hazelton, No Girls No Telephones, we took a number of Berryman’s Dream Songs and wrote their opposites. Then wrote opposites of those opposites. The title itself is a phrase from one of Berryman’s poems but also plays on the idea of literary telephone, the half-remembered and bastardized ideas that wind their way into our work. That project had a particular goal for me when I began it—Berryman is my favorite poet, and yet I struggle to find depictions of unobjectified women in his work. This is an issue I make myself ignore, because there is nothing in the world like the syntax and wordplay of a Berryman line: “marriages lashed & languished, anguished, dearth of group / and what else had been; // the splendour & the lose grew all the same.” I wanted a little bit of that power for myself, and also I wanted to reimagine Berryman’s Henry as a Henrietta, and also I wondered what it would be like to translate Berryman into English and then into English again. And, at that point, I’d grown tired of ignoring his woman issue. So I started writing opposites of his work, phrase by phrase and word by word, and the voice is both mine and his, but that was always my intention anyway. I’d consider those poems a failure if they sounded more wholly like my poems. And maybe that’s where the lines between voice and imitation blur, at least for me.

EP: When I reread Girl-King the other day, I couldn’t get over that poem “Poem with First Two Lines from Paracelsus” in which the speaker says something like “At the party, / we behaved.” I think it might be my favorite poem in the book, in large part for what it doesn’t reveal. This line makes me think: How might they not have behaved? What were the usual state of affairs? Classic “Tell it slant,” it seems to me. Talk to me a little bit about how you reveal by not revealing.

BC: I’ve always been interested in things that are simultaneously real and not real. It might be a symptom of having been a bookish child—the world becomes a palimpsest. My thoughts are written so brightly that I can’t see the life beneath them. The story I’m reading is the real one, the only one, and yet it’s not real at all. There’s a line from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated: “Love me, because love doesn’t exist, and I have tried everything that does.” The paucity of what the world can offer and the ache for what it can’t—all of this is to say that, as much as I love narrative (and I do), in my poems I’m oftentimes reluctant to tell a story as such because stories aren’t enough. The world isn’t enough. So what then? Exposition, backstory, description—these are all things I think are immensely important for a poem, and so I leave them out. Since it’s the very end of spring here in Wisconsin, I’ve been thinking of Mark Twain: “It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want—oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!” I always want ‘it.’ Sometimes I even know what ‘it’ is. But I’d rather not have it. In my writing, I sketch in all the colors around it in an attempt to highlight its absence.

Corey Van Landingham*: 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?

BC: This question becomes more complicated by the fact that I’m a fiction writer and children’s author as well as a poet. Sometimes those identities comfortably overlap, and sometimes it feels like one negates the other. Those are the days I usually watch a lot of Netflix. I’m very lucky right now to be in a position where I’m writing full-time, and it’s the first point in my life where I’ve really had to declare that I’m a writer, because I am. I’m not anything else right now, even if some days I wish I was, if just to take some of the pressure off. It’s deeply uncomfortable to call writing your profession, because it links your financial success to your creative ability. For some reason, I’ve never been comfortable with the typical follow-up questions to the declaration that I write ‘for a living.’ (And that’s my fault more than anyone else’s.) That said, I’m comfortable describing myself as such to other practitioners, because they know the score, but if the guy next to me on an airplane asks what I do, I usually tell him I’m a consultant, then ask about his Yankees cap.

EP: Now, Bri, provide us with a question for our next interviewee.

BC: What is your most recent obsession? Has it found its way into your work?

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: http://emiliaphillips.com.

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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: http://emiliaphillips.com.

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Chloe Honum was born in Santa Monica, California, and was raised in Auckland, New Zealand. She is the author of The Tulip-Flame, selected by Tracy K. Smith as winner of the 2013 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize. Her honors include a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, as well residency fellowships […]

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James Arthur is the author of Charms Against Lightning (Copper Canyon Press 2012). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Poetry, The New York Review of Books, and The American Poetry Review. He has received a Hodder Fellowship, a Stegner Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Travelling Poetry Scholarship, and a Discovery/The Nation […]

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I (Deborah) had the pleasure of interviewing Matt O’Donnell via email about the From the Fishouse website. I’ve always admired people who started unique web projects related to poetry— No Tell Motel, Anti-, Verse Daily, CellPoems, etc. 1. What led you to start Fishousepoems.org? Fishouse started entirely by accident. It started as a way for […]

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