From the category archives:

Interviews with Poets

Shane McCrae is the author of four books of poetry: The Animal Too Big to Kill (Persea Books, 2015), winner of the 2014 Lexi Rudnitsky/Editor’s Choice Award; Forgiveness Forgiveness (Factory Hollow Press, 2014); Blood (Noemi Press, 2013); and Mule (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011). He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. He teaches at Oberlin College and lives in Oberlin, Ohio.

Cate Lycurgus, Interviews Editor: At the risk of being obvious, I’ll begin with your latest collection and its title poem, “The Animal Too Big to Kill.” The poem remixes the dynamics of agency and faith, speaking both as a one who has the power to refuse to participate in killing and also as a “creature that requires signs Lord from You” with the subsequent suggestion that “killing the animal too big to kill would be a sign.” Can you speak to some of the animals “too big to kill” and, in absence of that sign, how the poems offer a way to live with them, tackle them, tame them, swallow them?

Shane McCrae: I was thinking, at the time, about how the body of every carnivore is a walking graveyard—which sounds dramatic, I know—and about what an animal made of all the animals I’ve ever eaten would look like, since traces, or traces of traces, of those animals are inside of and also constitute my body. The animal would certainly be much larger than I am, and I imagine larger than any animal that has ever lived, and I carry its ghost and possibility with me. I don’t know that the poems offer ways to swallow such animals, or to tame them, or even to tackle them, but I hope the poems are examples of efforts to live with them. One cannot choose but to live with them, and one cannot write without them even if one doesn’t acknowledge them—they are in the blood that feeds the brain and body and therefore in every word the brain and body make. If I say “Hello” to you, I speak the animals that made me. Hopefully, the way the poems offer to live with them is this: One lives with them by living—they are not a problem to be overcome or accommodated; they are one’s own being.

CL: Hello! “Whatever you speak you owe to destruction”—I can’t help remember that Celan epigraph at the beginning of Blood. I’ve had a similar thought regarding the trash I produce—what sort of flotilla of shopping carts would I have to pull around carrying all the waste I’ve made over the course of my life? Whether our consumption comes at the expense of animals, or natural resources, or other people, this “animal too big to kill” suggests that continuing to live requires some degree of predation and violence. “The death in us is bigger than the life in us,” you write in Blood, which also speaks to duende and somehow honoring death to make song. If we can’t choose but to live with these deaths, what are the claims our hungers make upon us? How (or) do these demands affect the forms of fracture/fissure/slash that you employ?

SM: I almost prefaced this answer with, “If I may be melodramatic for a moment,” and then I remembered who I am. So: For those of us who are to at least some extent economically privileged and live in the United States, our hungers are the meek in us, inheriting us, and we need never acknowledge their implications. But I think we abdicate our responsibilities to each other when we don’t acknowledge the implications of our own hungers. It is not so much that our hungers make claims upon us, but that love does, and if we are to love each other we must reckon with our hungers, because our hungers are strong enough to interfere with our love, and, indeed, to override it. Most of my work, I sometimes think, is an effort to arrive at more love, even though I suspect it doesn’t often seem that way. For me, a lot of my feelings begin with or through music and the “forms of fracture/fissure/slash” you mention are mostly musical devices. Since I don’t use conventional punctuation—or haven’t used conventional punctuation in most of my books, at least (my new manuscript might have some periods and commas and dashes) I utilize slashes and small bursts of white space along with traditional meter (usually—my new manuscript might have some prose), line breaks, and stanza breaks to regulate my music, such as it is.

CL: An effort to arrive at more love. I can’t get past the music this impulse creates—you have deep-throated hearts-to-heart. In Mule you write “you/Will recognize yourself in the singing      you/Will not recognize yourself in the songs.” Can you elaborate some on how you see punctuation (or the lack thereof) as regulating these songs, and how that intersects with the identity of the one who speaks them?

SM: In a way, my decision to abandon punctuation (I don’t think of the slash as punctuation, although I know other people do, and I imagine it, strictly speaking, probably is punctuation) was somewhat arbitrary. Before I started writing the poems in Mule, my poems were over-punctuated, and at the end of every line I had to remind myself that I didn’t need to add a comma. When I abandoned punctuation—and with it free verse and, at the time, regular use of conventional syntax—I felt like I suddenly discovered my own voice, or maybe “sound” would be a better word, and so I think more of me is in every poem I write now than had been the case ten years ago. I feel I have more freedom with regard to tone of voice and modulation when I don’t use punctuation—commas are so heavy! Question marks are so heavy!—and I also both hope and believe the lack of punctuation creates more space for the reader to enter the poem. The reader has to determine, at every moment, what tone of voice the poem’s speaker is using, and whether what was just said was a question, etc. Hopefully, that helps the reader maintain his or her engagement with the poem. Also, most of my poems are dramatic monologues, and I like to think the lack of punctuation signals a speaking voice. Finally, when I don’t use punctuation I feel it is easier for me to utilize the rhythms of speech and the rhythms of thought, and I like to place them beside each other in poems, as parallel musics.

CL: Part of the wonder of your poems is exactly how those rhythms of speech and thought allow readers near painful or wondrous inconsistencies and know them both as true. The raw splits do open a space for readers to enter the marriage and divorce poems of Mule, or slave narratives of Blood, though these are far from the experience of many. The epigraph of the newest book is from Hebrews—Paul’s ultimate call to the Hebrews for empathy. How do you see empathy as functioning in poetry, and how does your use of “we” work in that vein?

SM: Generally, I’ve tried to avoid “we”—in fact, I just searched through The Animal Too Big to Kill, and was, despite my efforts, surprised to discover I didn’t use “we” in it even once. But I did use it a lot in Mule, and somewhat less in Blood. And I used it in ways that make me uncomfortable now, and I’m not really comfortable reading those poems anymore. I don’t feel qualified to speak for anybody at all, not even myself, really—I think this discomfort has something to do with empathy. But when I was writing Mule, my use of “we” also had something to do with empathy. Mule arrived in the wake of a lot of wounded, angry, accusatory break-up poems, none of which made it into the book. And in the poems in Mule, I used “we” in an effort to empathize with my ex—I was trying to acknowledge that both of us had been in the marriage, and both of us had ended it. I was trying to acknowledge that although I felt like I was the only former participant in the relationship with valid feelings about it, my ex no doubt felt the same way. But I no longer feel comfortable assuming even that much about other people.

CL: Fascinating. And embarrassing, on my part! For me as a reader to internalize a ‘we’ where it does not exist is a testament to how close the spaces of the poem allow readers to come. Or maybe this stems from my own tendency toward “we,” not out of any confidence that I can speak for anyone, but with the wild hope that we can be a we, more like an “are you with me, are we in this, y’all?” I guess it’s a tall order. It’s interesting that you don’t feel comfortable with those poems and the speaker’s authority, as though one must have credentials for the self-discovery so many of your poems fracture toward. Here I’m thinking of the second section of “How You are Owned”:

when you at 14 for the first
time break a bone/ You    when the doctor shows you
The x-ray think it looks
more real than you are
In the middle of a black void Lord you see

a broken white bone glowing

I’m interested in the way that, both within and across collections, your speakers evolve and identity complicates. Can we ever escape or re-make our identities? What role do poems play in this?

SM: Oh, gee! You shouldn’t feel embarrassed at all, and I hope I didn’t come across, you know, like a jerk. I’ve used “we” in the past and I’m sure I’ll use it again, and you had no way of knowing I don’t currently feel comfortable using it in poems. Now, in response to your questions: It depends on what we (see?) mean by “identity.” I think we can re-make our identities in a surface way, though I don’t know that we can ever escape our identities. And I think it’s in the struggle to re-make ourselves toward goodness—assuming we’re trying to do so—that we’re our best selves; even if we can’t achieve goodness, I would say we must try. That sounds a little abstract and off-topic, I know, but I just mean that in attempting to become a better person, I am attempting to re-make my identity. But I guess I would also say that almost any degree of self-consciousness compels one to try to escape one’s identity, even if only in little ways—I think efforts to escape one’s identity are often involuntary, whereas efforts to re-make one’s identity are almost always voluntary, and escape hardly requires actual self-consciousness at all. And as for the role poems play: I don’t know what it is. But I can say I think I am at my smartest and best when writing poems, and I hope poem by poem the act of writing itself is dragging me toward becoming a better person.

CL: If not re-making identity, maybe it’s a sort of confession of identity:

Growing up black white trash Lord even now
I wasn’t sure which
parts of whiteness I could claim

If the writing is dragging toward becoming a better person, I think they complicate what “better” means. Could one strive to be “better” than Christ? I ask because so many of these pieces incorporate or address the Lord, and double in my mind as confessional and devotional, somehow. How do use see these modes interacting?

SM: I can answer the first question in several different ways: One can of course strive to become “better” (whatever that means) than Christ—one can strive to do anything. But whether one believes it is possible for a human being to become better than Jesus depends on who and what one thinks Jesus was and is. I, personally, do not think it is possible to become better than Jesus, even though we haven’t pinned “better” down yet. I guess I should pin it down, because I do believe one could become a better power-lifter, and probably even a better carpenter, than Jesus was. But I do not believe one could become a better person (unless one ranks people according to their power-lifting abilities)—and so I think I’m using “better” to mean something like “morally better” but also “kinder” but also “more loving” but also “more self-sacrificing,” etc.

I think the devotional is inextricably confessional, but that is partly because I believe in a God who made and maintains the universe and every being in it, and any measure of mortal devotion to that God must necessarily confess the separation of the self from that God. But I do not think the confessional is always devotional. Now, specifically with regard to confessional poetry: As a person of color living in the United States of America, I have a complicated relationship with confessional poetry. I do not think it is possible, strictly speaking, for a person of color to be a confessional poet in America. The condition of the confessional poet assumes a fall from grace, but only whites occupy the initial position vis-à-vis grace from which the confessional poet must fall—people of color are always already (ugh—I hate that formulation) fallen. But I also love a lot of confessional poems and poets, and sometimes I wish I could write as they wrote.

CL: By that token, or maybe by my own belief, a white person could not be “unfallen,” either—we’re all as in need of grace or as guilty of separation as the next. And perhaps that’s where other associations with the confessional, as some sort of absolution for guilt, come across as self-indulgent, or hubristic, because unlike the devotional poem, confession can exist without an object “of” and assume a certain blindness. Your poems do feel confessional, to me, but relational as well. What would you advise contemporary poets as far as writing from our moments in history? Especially given the ethics you mentioned earlier, of speaking for anyone but yourself?

SM: Well, first let me clarify: In a theological sense, everybody has access to grace; but I meant grace in a cultural sense—in America, only whites enjoy cultural (in the broadest sense of the word) grace, and so only whites can fall from it. According to this way of thinking, the confessional in the cultural sense is available to them, and them only. As for advice—I don’t know that I have any useful advice. Despite my discomfort with the pronoun “we,” as you point out, I have often spoken through historical personae—and I’m not sure how to square my willingness to do so with my aversion for speaking for others. I suppose maybe I square that circle this way: When I am speaking through historical personae, there’s a record that can—and hopefully will—be consulted by the reader, and by comparing the poem to the record the reader can determine what liberties I’ve taken. But when I’m using “we” to include people with whom I have personal relationships, there usually isn’t a record, and when there isn’t a record to consult I feel uncomfortable speaking for anybody but myself. Anyway, back to the advice: I still don’t have any—and I think that’s partly because I myself am no good at writing directly from (and I am including “about” in that “from”) the present moment. But when I am writing about historical events that can be read as being indirectly “about” the present moment, I find it helps to keep in mind that the actors in those events, about whom I am writing, were human just as I am—both those behaving well and those behaving poorly—and that, had I been among them, I would have been the worst among them.

CL: This humility surfaces across all your collections. And I think some of this relates to the way the poems feel like uncensored entreaty, or lament, or discovery. For me, a poem is rarely that simple or ready-made though, so I’m curious—what is your writing process like?

SM: At the moment, I’m experiencing a crisis of confidence, and so I don’t know what my writing process is like—I feel uncertain about everything having to do with my writing. But I think I remember what it was like. I feel, at least, like I’m always writing—what I think is actually happening is that I am always laying the groundwork for future poems. However, a few days ago I finished a poem I had been trying to finish on and off for about two years, and I noticed that as soon as it was done—as soon as I felt the spark I feel when I finish a poem (which is not to say, not at all, that my poems generate sparks for anyone but me, nor even to say that they consistently generate sparks for me, but I do feel a particular burst of energy when I’ve finished a poem)—I felt as if a very tiny, painless but irritating sliver had been removed from my mind, and I realized that sliver had been there since I finished the first draft of the poem, which seemed complete but wasn’t good, two years ago. So poems—both poems to come and poems I’m working on—are always taking up space in my mind. But, despite this, I don’t know how I ever manage to get a poem started, though I can certainly locate the sources for at least a few of my poems—most of the time, in fact, I feel suspended between the impossibility of starting the next poem and the necessity of writing it. That said, when I actually do write, I’m completely absorbed by what I’m doing and I feel incredibly happy, and usually I’m thinking about sound and meter, in part to distract myself from thinking too much about what I want to say, which I can always see, nevertheless, just beneath the thoughts about sound and meter, just out of reach, thank goodness.

CL: I wonder if the sliver in your mind results from the essential discovery a poem, or the act that writing poetry instigates? As Eliot describes the poet as a catalyst, present for the poem to take place, but not the art itself, I do feel changed in having received a poem and don’t stop enough to offer gratitude for what poetry has done for and in me. Especially since it is probably more than whatever those poems have offered to the world. What has poetry, or the writing of it done for you? What powers do you think it has?

SM: Oh gosh. I would feel embarrassed listing the things poetry has done for me. Poetry has given me my entire life. For one thing, I would never have met my partner, Melissa, if not for poetry, nor would I have any of my children. I certainly wouldn’t have my job, nor would I love to read as much as I do. And I wouldn’t have my mind; I wouldn’t have my self. And I’m so happy to be a part of the family I’m a part of, and to work the job I work, as the person I am. Poetry has made me perceive the world the way I perceive it. Poetry’s power is both local and limitless—it happens person by person, but it often reverberates in and through each person in such a way that the people poetry happens with (it’s always with, never to) become new people, and whatever they do next and forever they do as new people. Poetry is a revolutionary force, because it is a force for renewal.

CL: A power as both local and limitless—not unlike the “Think Globally, Act Locally” calling for so many environmental movements. It sounds revolutionary, but really, local is all we can do, the self all we have to go on. And I wonder about just that, how poetry in particular provides a way onward, “forever as new people.” Last week I heard Jane Hirshfield speak of how poetry cuts against fundamentalism because it requires complexity, nuance, subtlety. She said that when “a person is confronted with an unchangeable outer circumstance, one thing the poem gives you is the sense that there’s always, still, a changeability, a malleability of inner circumstance, which is the beginning of freedom.” In light of the new poems you have in Gulf Coast, perhaps, what are your thoughts on this?

SM: The poems in Gulf Coast are from my fifth book, In the Language of My Captor, which Wesleyan will publish in February of 2017. There are several sequences in the book—and I do think the book as a whole is about freedom, or at least aimed toward freedom—from the perspective of a person living in a human zoo in the United States of America in the early part of the 20th century. He is physically a captive, but he is also in some sense free, or as free as one can be and still be in captivity—his mind is as free as it can be—because he understands both himself and his captor, his “keeper” in the poems, in ways his captor cannot. But his freedom is, of course, problematized by a great many things, and one problem with the idea of a free mind in a captive body is that the mind and its freedom are in large measure determined by the circumstances of the body. Even though the book is about freedom, it is not a book that believes freedom is possible for anybody in America at the present moment—ableism, homophobia, racism, sexism, transphobia, and the other bigotries under which we all suffer imprison us all. But the book seems to believe that freedom is becoming possible, that with each generation children are being taught more freedom.

CL: The idea that we must teach freedom is a strange one, especially in this country ostensibly founded on it. But the nation was also founded on the backs of bondage, and I wonder about this in the context of poetry as teacher. It seems freedom often requires the opposite—being un-free—either through an experience itself or capacity to imagine what it means to be constrained. In its construction, poetry is all about constraints, so—how does poetry teach freedom? How might it even teach justice? Or recast our conceptions of ‘poetic’ justice?

SM: My first instinct is to say “I don’t know.” I don’t know. I don’t know that poetry does teach freedom, but to confess that would seem to be to confess that I am not a part of making the coming freedom my book seems to believe in. I think my problem is that even before I begin to think of an answer, I re-formulate the question somewhat, so that it becomes “How do poems teach freedom?” And that’s the wrong way to look at things. I don’t think poems themselves teach the freedom necessary to any particular moment. But poems do, under the right circumstances, incline their readers toward further engagement with poetry, so that those readers then read more poems, and sometimes even write their own poems. And reading and writing teach freedom. When a person is reading most actively, his or her mind strains to push beyond the boundaries of the world it knows and understands—static knowledge is a kind of prison, and static knowledge about many things is many prisons. Similarly, the act of writing a poem is a struggle toward the momentary freedom ideal for the writing of poems—a struggle which, I believe, occasionally achieves its goal. And maybe I’m being too optimistic, and maybe I should only speak for myself, but I believe the more often a person achieves that freedom, that wide-open-mindedness, the more a person wishes others might also achieve it, whatever their routes to it might be—the act of writing helps a person to appreciate openness and freedom. But that awareness, if it can be called that, must be tempered with an awareness that the freedom of the individual, as the individual understands it, is always conditioned and limited by the unfreedom of their unfree contemporaries.

CL: Can you elaborate some on that moment of freedom for you, as you’re either reading or writing? What instigates or perpetuates it? What does it look like on the page?

SM: I don’t know that I ever achieve that freedom through reading—reading is a struggle toward it, and I think that struggle cannot be transcended. But very occasionally, when I’m writing or trying to write, somehow my mind becomes open enough, as I try to steer it away from thinking it knows anything at all, that I feel a little free. So I suppose what I’m talking about when I talk about freedom is receptivity, and that really is a kind of Medieval notion of what freedom is—not, as we now conceive it, the power to achieve one’s will, but rather the fulfillment of one’s particular nature, which folks in ye olde days thought of as being inclined toward the good. I think the beginning of this kind of freedom might very well be increased receptivity. Another way to look at it is: I am most free when I’m writing because I am a writer—when I’m writing, I am most who I am, and therefore I’m most free. I think writing can help everyone be more free, however, even folks who are not writers, insofar as it helps them to be more receptive, both to themselves and others.

CL: Since “freedom” is in part exemption from external control or regulation or restraint, it’s interesting you find this in writing, so invested in form or structure, and on a broader scale language, its attempt to define or claim. In your poem “Claiming Language” you write “I want a different language           Lord/not a claiming language           /I want a language//like the language           Lord/ our bodies use to free each other.” Which poets write in that sort of language, or inspire that sort of escape from knowing? If you encountered someone with no previous experience of poetry, (or maybe an experience of poetic constraint) what one poem would you share with him or her?

SM: I feel like I’m starting a lot of my answers with “I don’t know!” I’m sorry! But also: I don’t know—I don’t know that any poet writes in that sort of language, nor am I sure it’s possible to write in that sort of language. But, even though I would love to be able to write in that way, I don’t feel unhappily disadvantaged because I can’t—poetry has its own consolations. As for a poem I would show a person with no experience of poetry—that’s a tough one. It really depends on the person. For me, the poem that did it was “Lady Lazarus.” That was the first poem I really heard. I don’t think there’s a universal first poem, nor do I think there’s even a poem that would work for most people as their first poem. Maybe something like “We Real Cool,” or “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening?” I think when people first hear those poems they first think “That’s pretty neat,” and then they might feel inclined to read other poems. And then find the poem they need.

CL: As I found yours. Thank you so much!

Cate Lycurgus’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Third Coast, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. A 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship Finalist, she has also received scholarships from Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. Cate currently lives and teaches south of San Francisco, California; for more information, visit


Carmen Giménez Smith is the author of the memoir Bring Down the Little Birds and four poetry collections: Milk and Filth, Goodbye, Flicker, The City She Was, and Odalisque in Pieces. Milk and Filth was a finalist for the NBCC Award in Poetry. She is the recipient of a 2011 American Book Award, the 2011 Juniper Prize for Poetry, and a 2011-2012 fellowship in creative nonfiction from the Howard Foundation. She recently co-edited the anthology Angels of the Americplyse: New Latin@ Writing (Counterpath, 2014). A CantoMundo Fellow, and she is the publisher of Noemi Press. She teaches in the creative writing MFA program at New Mexico State University.

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor: In your long numbered poem “Parts of an Autobiography” from your most recent collection Milk and Filth, you write: “My mouths don’t speak the same language.” I’m compelled by the idea that there’s a kind of untranslatability within all of us, between our thoughts and actions, our motives and our excuses, the language we first experienced as children and the language we now speak. Would you mind talking a little bit about this poem? Also, do you see yourself as having more than one means to speak? What are these languages, literal and figurative?

Carmen Giménez Smith: In Tongue Ties: Logo-Eroticism in Anglo-Hispanic Literature, Gustavo Perez Firmat (h/t Rosa Alcalá) distinguishes Spanish for the bilingual speaker, as lengua, idioma, or lenguaje. The differences he describes are both political and personal. He writes, for example, “Whereas a speaker possesses his tongue entirely, an idioma, no matter how native, is possessed incompletely.” I have intimacy with Spanish, my mother tongue, which is the language for most of my emotional life. I also know English through Spanish; I see the etymological, and thus historical, relationships and implications that Latinate words. For a long time, English was a mountain I had to conquer. Add to that the ideas regarding inscribing the female body that I learned in college, and you’ve got a cacophony of discourses that, as a poet, I attempt to synthesize and illustrate. “Parts of an Autobiography” is a poem that tries to integrate these discourses into a singular lyric voice, whose historical backdrop is the confessional poetry of second wave feminists. Poets like Anne Sexton or Adrienne Rich were willing to write about how their private lives were shaped under the dominion of patriarchy, and both of them were hugely formative poets for me. Add to that the complex class-based dictions we use in the U.S. as currency—the language of the academy, the language of the intellectual—and how I, a daughter of immigrants, integrates and resists them playfully and deliberately, and there you have my various languages. I grew up seeing (a very specific type of) English as a key that opened doors my parents were unable to open, but as a poet I can play with how I inscribe myself, which is a big part of the poem’s ambition: the autobiography of my feminism.

EP: The idea of an autobiography of belief is compelling. For me, language itself is a kind of belief system, in that it’s based on habit. Repetition, however, has the potential to anesthetize the meaning of the action. Have you ever done anything to shake up your language before starting a new poem? Listened to records backwards or read earlier incarnations of language? How important is it for poets to constantly reposition themselves in their relationship with words?

CGS: I constantly try to re-position my relationship with language, so for example, I try to imagine the directions that syntax can take, especially if I use it as music. I teach a lesson (that appears in the Wingbeats II book published by Dos Gatos Press), in which I write a poem backwards, thinking in part of Emily Dickinson who said: “Did you ever read one of her Poems backward, because the plunge from the front overturned you?” Bringing basic syntactical order consumes my frittery brain and in the meanwhile my subconscious constructs a tentative logic. An image system might be reversed, which can be interesting. I get excellent raw material this way. Lately I’ve been working on poems that approach the lyric subject using spoken word and testimonio as models.

EP: Could you tell me a little bit more about how spoken word and testimonio influence these new poems? How do you go about writing them? Do you find the lyric subject morphing under this approach?

CGS: When “literary” poetry talks about spoken word they often elide over the politics, particularly the identity politics, which underlie it. I did that a lot too, although I knew there was something about the bearing witness part of it that always drew me to the music and rhythm of a lot of this work. My thinking about this was very diffuse for a long, and then I went to the CantoMundo Conference in Austin, which brings together a wide range of Latino poets together—all of whom have very different aesthetics— to write and talk about poetry for a few days. I hadn’t ever had an experience like that, which is why I keep returning. Besides meeting and spending time with enormous talents, I also got to hear some amazing spoken word artists like Leticia Hernandez, Denice Frohman, Peggy Sue Robles, Urayoan Noel, and Elizabeth Acevedo. I felt like there was something more electric in those readings, a charge that I tried to bring to my own reading of poems that suddenly felt a little stale, a little stuffy. Along with my desire to really investigate and create new pressures for the lyric self, I used the influence of these poets and also the idea of testimonio—community, orality, and history—to write poetry that might possibly speak to and/or respond to crisis and trauma. The lyric is an oral tradition, after all, and we’ve lost touch with how the texture and proximity of the human voice is exactly what poetry needs to be a tool for change.

EP: There’s an idea floating around that most contemporary poets write for the page rather than the voice. When you start writing, do you go with a bit of language—sound—or a shape on the page? Or at what point do you negotiate form with sound in your poems?

CGS: Form for me is driven by syntax, by the length of a sentence, so I suppose I don’t often write for the page. White space makes me nervous, and I like the clutter of a dense poem. I do think that I determine different stanza lengths and shapes as the rhetoric of the poem becomes clearer through revision. The very first outburst is often a strongly-worded claim or image that I examine and put into different contexts and settings. I aspire to write bold shifts and so there seems to be an inherent amount of establishing fertile ground for them (the shifts) as a poem progresses. And I also imagine there’s a certain measure of time and sound when leaving the poem, so sometimes I’ll write XXXXXXX, which means I don’t have the words yet, but I can sense the pace.

I’ve tried being a thinkier poet, a poet with more air and clouds and logic, but I love chaos and not-knowing in poetry. I’m rooted in the body, so I write for a human voice.

EP: Does your rooting in the body play into the use of persona?

CGS: Absolutely. I think the (Latina) body is a persona in Milk & Filth; its eros, temperature, topography, and becoming are depicted in complex and sometimes problematic frames that I contest in several of the poems. It’s also a reckoning with myself. Like many women, I struggle with what my body looks like in the world, and as a feminist, that struggle is also political. The body could be the final and most difficult sites for feminist revision, so I don’t think I’m done working through the body.

EP: I can’t help but think about one’s “body of work” and how we personify our writing when we talk about it. We “get to know” a piece. We talk about the “conversations” between texts. I know writers who talk to their writing during the drafting process. A poem might “insist” something to the poet. It wanders. It comes back to us. Do you see your poetry as having a separate personality, its own life? Is a poem a kind of body?

CGS: I sometimes think about poetry being a place in flux, with both light and no light, and the actual work of poetry is charting that place, of which we (hopefully) know little about. Negative capability is where the light goes out and the poet has to navigate through her other senses, and it’s where the very best moments of a poem are. BTW, I’m thinking about both the narrow Keatsian NC centered around the epiphany, and also those moments of acquiescence during which a writer/artist/what-have-you gets past the urges of her own will. In this way, my does have its own life, and its own force insofar that I let it capacious because that’s always to my advantage. I sometimes like reading a poem in order to deduce where the poet experienced negative capability, where she responded to a counter-logical insistence.

EP: When you read a poem that is really working for you, how does it make you feel? Does it get you like a good beat in a song? Does it take over your emotional state?

CGS: There’s this (probably made up by Wikipedia) state called autonomous sensory meridian response, which people often experience through music, although it could be felt in lots of contexts. It happens when I listen to Whitney Houston, for example. I get goosebumps and I’m washed over by this tingle that tells me I’m confronting otherworldly goodness. I get it from poetry too. Many poetry books take over my emotional state, but I’m a pretty willing accomplice. I’m very evangelical about what a great poem (the word great is shitty, but I didn’t want to say transcendent) can generate, so when I read a great poem, I’m also immediately looking behind the curtain to determine how the poet did what she did. Since I was a kid, every word has looked to me like what it represents, so reading is very visceral, it absolutely consumes me. When I was an undergraduate at San Jose State University, I saw Lucille Clifton read her Shapeshifter Poems, and the room was like a church and several people were weeping, including me. I thought, yes, (only) language can do this.

EP: What’s your (current) favorite poem you’ve ever written? Mind reproducing it in part here and taking us through the poem? Why do you like it? What does this poem offer you that nothing else can in your life?

CGS: I think the most proximal and most vexing poem to any poet is the favorite because it keeps us interested, busy. Right now I’m finishing work (if that can happen) on a long poem called “Post-Identity” that started a few years ago as an exercise in anger and lyric, but has become more complicated. I wanted to see how much syntax I could pull out of the lyric to get at the music and see how much subjectivity comes through. That might just be a fancy way of saying it’s a repetitive poem, but I do like the idea of incantation and insistence. I’ve also opened myself to a wider field of influence: poets like Edwin Torres, Urayoan Noel, and Lety Hernandez Linares who engage with performance and culture in ways that seduce me, frankly. I’ve really had to push myself out of a certain affect that feels attained and rewarding, but attained and rewarding sounds like retirement. I’m an impulsive and restless person, and although that hasn’t always served me well in life, it certainly has helped me push myself as a poet, and this series is very different for me. I’m always going to be a lyric poet, so I felt like I wanted to see what was possible. I hope I get to get to do that for a long time. Here’s a little bit of it the poem, which appeared in VOLT:

Am I just a brown-winged dove    and can you modify your art
to accommodate my precious otherness    I can do that too even
outside of chicanery   and yes we’re friends tho I’m possibly that friend
you tally on your list of goodwill thank you when you domesticate my
otherness btw     but when we do integrate take it to the next level and
stop pretending that your gesture isn’t wan phoned-in slightly scared
of its potential to offend the august king    those other ones pretend
since they’re still false hope and Woodstock  and bobo  hocked our asses
for universe colonization a fountain of youth into nostalgia with somebody
else’s bootstraps and blood but lamenting with zombie bags of flesh even
gated communities can’t keep out what can I surrender and in return
when do I pierce my daughter’s ears that mutilation I privilege

So I hate questions in poems, but I wanted to understand that hate, and I realized that questioning rhetorically is boring but interrogation, insistence had power and momentum. The trick was I didn’t want to use punctuation because that’s a kind of rhetoric too (going back to dismantling the syntactical rhetoric of the lyric), so I had to create little fragments that were discrete but also could handle the sequence. And finally, I had to balance my desire to talk about my beef with American racial and class politics. My parents left a country that sounds a lot like the country this is becoming.

Oliver Bendorf*: A messenger owl is on its way to you right now. Who sent it and what does it bring?

CGS: I’m fairly certain my grandmother is in a level of purgatory that’s like a cozy Catholic lady’s sitting room with a TV playing Star Trek and In Search Of (because of her love of Leonard Nimoy) and over the last twenty years she’s written down all the amazing stories about all her suitors, and her grief, and her family’s complex European roots (maybe because I’m reading Valerie Mejer’s This Blue Novel and admiring how she mines family mythologies), as well as the little jade Buddha on a chain she wore all her life wrapped in one of her housedresses from K-Mart.

EP: Thank you, Carmen, for making my last interview at 32 Poems such an incredible experience, and thanks also to all of our readers who have followed this interview series since 2013!

Emilia Phillips, Poet, 2015. Photo by Tracy Tanner.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.

Note: This is our final interview installment with prose editor Emilia Phillips. To view all of the interviews Emilia conducted February 2013–February 2016, please visit the “Interviews with Emilia Phillips” blog category page. With Emilia’s departure, Cate Lycurgus will step up as the new interviews editor. Stay tuned for new prose features, including interviews, right here on the 32 Poems blog.


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 […]


Diane Seuss’s most recent collection is Four-Legged Girl (2015, Graywolf Press). She is also the author of It Blows You Hollow (New Issues Press) and Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open, which won the Juniper Prize. Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl is forthcoming in 2018 from Graywolf Press. Seuss was raised […]

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Rebecca Gayle Howell is the author of Render /An Apocalypse (CSU, 2013), which was selected by Nick Flynn for the Cleveland State University First Book Prize and was a 2014 finalist for ForeWord Review’s Book of the Year. She is also the translator of Amal al-Jubouri’s Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation (Alice James […]

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