From the category archives:

Interviews with Poets

Ryan Teitman is the author of the poetry collection Litany for the City (BOA Editions, 2012), chosen by Jane Hirshfield for the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, The Southern Review, The Threepenny Review, and The Yale Review, and his awards include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship.

Emilia Phillips, Interviews Editor: In a statement accompanying your poem “Another Country” on the Academy of American Poets’s Poem-a-Day for January 9, 2014, you say that you often return to the work of Larry Levis when you need inspiration and that this poem arrived after reading his poem “The Map” from his second collection, The Afterlife. Talk to me a little bit about how reading others’ poems returns you to yours. Are you ever afraid that your subsequent poems will sound like someone else’s? Could you call these poems “imitations?”

Ryan Teitman: Strangely, I think the opposite has happened—the more I’ve imitated others, the more my own voice has asserted itself. In graduate school, I read a lot of different poets and wrote a lot of imitations. But the more I imitated others formally, the more I began to sound like myself. In writing an imitation, the most interesting moments come from the parts of yourself that you can’t cover up—the parts that break through the constraints you’ve put up in order to sound like someone else.

And, to complicate matters more, I think the question of poems “sounding like someone else’s” is an interesting—and slippery—one. If you look at W.S. Merwin’s poems now and his poems from The Moving Target, don’t they look like they were written by different people? They were, in a way. The Merwin of 50 years ago is not the same person as Merwin now. And as for me, the poems I’m writing now tend to be different from the ones in my first book. I’m happy about that. I think I’m more afraid of imitating myself than sounding like someone else.

EP: I know you’ve been working on your second book manuscript, The Dream Protects the Dreamer. Would you mind telling us how you’ve avoided imitating yourself from the first book, Litany for the City (BOA Editions, 2012). What new things are you finding in your work?

RT: In my first book, I think I was interested in the spectacle of a poem; now I seem more interested in the gestures a poem can make. My new poems are more stripped down and controlled, and I think that’s a good thing. The poems in Litany were also heavily laden with the language and cadences of Catholicism; the new poems—not so much. That impulse will always be there (and I’ve had to work to check it) but now I think it’s much more in the background.

My formal choices have been the most interesting to me. I’ve always written a lot of prose poems (and there are a fair amount of them in the new manuscript), but my interest in prose poetry has led me to writing a lot of sonnets. I feel like the sonnet and the prose poem are cousins: They both depend on the turn. A sonnet without a turn is just a configuration of rhyme and meter and a prose poem without some sort of turn in it is just a block of prose. I’m sure there’s a smarter poet than me out there who could more intelligently articulate the connection.

EP: I’d never thought about prose poems and sonnets in that way, and now I can see the link. Do you think the prose poem and the sonnets should be standard issue for the poet’s toolbox? Why or why not?

RT: I do, but in a qualified way. The sonnet is probably the most enduring received form in the English language, and some of the most interesting recent poetry is prose poetry. So I think every poet should be able to understand the nuances of those forms.

But on the other hand, I don’t think any poet should be writing a sonnet just because they think they need to write sonnets to be a poet. (The same goes for prose poems.) I’m a strong believer that the poem-in-progress has a form it wants the poet to discover, and if that form doesn’t every happen to be a sonnet (or prose poem, or sestina), then so be it. So I don’t believe that poets need to write in certain “poetic” forms, but I also think it’s crucial to have the knowledge to be open to whatever form a poem wants to take.

(I make my students write sonnets, sestinas, and prose poems in my classes, but beginning poets should be trying out everything. I wrote many bad sestinas as an undergrad.)

EP: Speaking of form, I see a lot of poets making the rules for some of their own forms, particularly when it comes to repetition of a phrase or recurrence of an image. Do you make up your own forms or rules to play by? If so, do you find that you work your way out of the form? Does it hem you in?

RT: I don’t often start a poem thinking about form. I almost always begin with an image or bit of language that’s interesting to me. I also have a tendency to start with a title first and work from there, but that often has limited success. An evocative title without something to back it up is usually a losing proposition.

EP: The title of your first collection is Litany for the City, and inside we find a number of poems that engage Philadelphia, your home town. I’ve been doing a lot of reading of literature about cities in preparation for a literature course I’m teaching next semester. I’m planning on including an excerpt of the poems in your book in our course packet. At any point in the writing process, did you see yourself as trying to reconstruct the city through poems? Are poems particularly suited to represent a place or recreate an experience of that place?

RT: At the time I was writing Litany for the City, I was living in Bloomington, and I’m pretty sure those poems were a way for me to rebuild my own little version of Philadelphia in south central Indiana. But what was most interesting was that my reconstruction wouldn’t just let itself be a reconstruction—it started pushing on those boundaries. The first half of the book is about Philadelphia, but the second half starts to become about cities in general, and what makes a city a city.

One of my favorite poems is Adam Zagajewski’s “To Go to Lvov.” But as great as the detail and language are in that poem, I don’t feel like it really gives me a sense of what Lvov was like. Certainly not in the same way that, say, Joseph Mitchell’s essays on New York City give you such a vivid feeling of life in the city. But that’s not really the point of Zagajewski’s poem.

“To Go to Lvov” is such a perfect evocation of how it feels to lose a place that it breaks my heart every time I read it. I don’t know that poems are necessarily the best way of representing a place, but they’re amazing vehicles for recreating the experience of a place.

Consider Bashō’s oft-quoted haiku (translated by the wonderful Jane Hirshfield):

In Kyoto,
hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.

Such a complex feeling in so few words! And I know that feeling very well.

Though I must admit I feel slightly differently about Bashō’s poem when I’m walking in my neighborhood in Philadelphia and a piece of garbage blows into my face.

EP: Bear with me for a minute while I wander down the path toward Metaphor. . . .

Sometimes when I think about how a poem works I picture them as gyroscope. Now, I’m no expert, so I take from this what you will, but I see poems affecting the movement of gimbals turning in different directions inside a frame. You could say one is for sound, another details, and the frame is the form and the rotor is the emotional or circumstantial motivation for writing. A gyroscope measures orientation, especially in the rotation of the earth.

Do poems help you orient yourself in the world? In your life?

RT: I like your metaphor, especially if you’re considering William Carlos Williams idea that a poem is a “machine made of words.” But if you’ll allow me, I’m going to turn it completely co-opt it.

From a craft aspect, I see the poem as gyroscope, with all of its elements keeping the whole in balance. But when thinking about your question—how poems help me orient myself in the world—it’s hard for me to think of the poem as this perfectly stable thing (even with the furious racing going on inside it).

If anything, my life is the gyroscope—trying desperately to stay in balance. So every morning I sit down and read Poetry Daily, first thing. To read and appreciate the poem, I have to really focus on it and still the other concerns (my job, the bills, the weird noise my car is making) that are spinning around in my head.

Poetry helps me still the world. Everything else slows down, and for the length of the poem, I get to have an experience with language as art.

EP: I hope it’s okay to ask about your work, because I’m always interested in the balance you speak about when poets leave academia. Would you mind talking a little bit about your job and how you balance life, a living, and poetry?

RT: It’s difficult sometimes. One of the great advantages of academia is that you (for the most part) get to set your own schedule. So I was very used to making a schedule that allowed me time to write.

It’s different now. I have an office, and—between nine and five—I have to be there. So I find other times for poetry: in the mornings on weekends, on the train ride to work. I’ve been trying to go to some of the poetry readings in Philadelphia.

Honestly, I haven’t written many poems in the last few months, but I don’t think that has anything to do with my job. I finished my second book of poems, and I’ve been sending it out to publishers. I really don’t know what to write next.

That caused me a lot of anxiety for a while. I felt like I needed a new “project.” When I mentioned that to a friend (a poet who’s much smarter than I am), he said: “Let yourself be lost.” I’ve been trying to listen to that.

EP: I suppose there’s that push-and-pull between I have time to write and I can write poetry because I have money and I’m not worrying about paying rent or buying food. Of course, these are questions all artists have, I suppose!

I was recently at a book signing event, and I found myself wedged between a popular historical nonfiction author and a novelist. Because I was in a corner, their lines blocked out anyone who was trying to have my book signed. With lower readership, poets have unique concerns when it comes to what means success for their books. What’s your idea of poetry success?

RT: It’s hard enough to get people interested in poetry without obstacles in the way! I feel like every writer I’ve talked to (not just poets) has a bunch of those stories. Doing a reading to an audience of two people. Flying to a reading with 20 copies of your book, only to fly home with those same 20 copies weighing down your suitcase. Having an elderly person tell you after a reading: “I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it eventually.”

But I think poetry success comes from finding real joy in the writing of the poems. That’s the key. And, every once in a while, someone will tell you that your poems meant something to them, or that they just enjoy your work, and that will mean everything. You’ll hold on to that.

Especially later when you get a “poison sandwich” rejection letter.

EP: After following your link to Graywolf Press editor Jeff Shotts’s article on the art of rejection, I’m thinking now of how writers, healthy writers that is, might reframe rejection as an essential element to craft, the drafting process. Do you see value to rejection? (It’s okay if you say “no!”) Perhaps I’ll tell you my thoughts after you share with us yours.

RT: No, I don’t see much value to rejection as an element of craft. I’ll explain.

Most of the time, the rejections we get don’t have any actual content to them. They’re form, or perhaps “form plus”—those rejections where an editor added a nice half sentence saying they enjoyed reading your work. (If I remember right from my editing days, that’s called “Rejection #2” in the submission manager.)

But I don’t begrudge magazines and presses for this; they’re deluged with submissions. They can’t send feedback, or else they’d never have time to actually publish anything.

I honestly think that looking at a rejection as a part of the revision process can be a little dangerous. A poem can be perfect and get rejected many times. And a poem can be awful and get published somewhere. So you just have to trust yourself, get feedback from people whose opinions your trust, and develop a critical eye for your own work.

I try to use common sense. If my manuscript gets rejected five times, that doesn’t mean it needs to be revised. But if my manuscript gets rejected 25 times, I should probably take a more critical look at it.

What do you think?

EP: I think that rejection reminds us to be humble and to not expect any success. Every time I get rejected, I return to my work with the notion that I’m going to writer an even better poem, regardless of whether or not that rejected poem is ultimately a good poem or not. I worry when writers get too comfortable in their own “voices,” whatever that means, and with their status. I often find these writers wind up being boring on the page.

But perhaps your answer has an element of self-care in it. We should have faith in our own work, and we shore ourselves up against criticism by becoming good editors for our own work.

The business of writing and the act of writing shouldn’t, I think, be intertwined. Do you feel like there’s a tendency within the community to value the business of writing more than the act of writing? Why or why not?

RT: I agree with you that the business of writing and the act of writing shouldn’t be intertwined. But your second question—about whether the business of writing is valued more than the act of writing—makes me think about every movie about writers I’ve ever seen.

Most of the time there’s a montage of someone pounding furiously at a keyboard (or typewriter, depending on the era), usually after some real life event has provoked an epiphany about the work. It makes me laugh every time. I’ve never had any epiphanies that drive me to sit down and write an entire book. I have, however, had epiphanies about whether or not I really want to use a semicolon in a particular line.

But I understand that this is how movies have to be made. They’re movies—they can’t show the writer staring for hours in silence at the screen. Or agonizingly deleting a day’s worth (or week’s worth or month’s worth) of writing. Or spending an entire afternoon trying to figure out the syntax of a single sentence.

Only with my closest friends, with whom I exchange drafts of poems, do I get a sense of their process. But with the rest of my friends, and with acquaintances in the writing community, I only see the end result—the book picked up by a press, or the poem picked up by a journal. I don’t see the quotidian victories in which they figure out just where the line break truly goes.

But is the real question you’re asking about Facebook?

EP: From a journal’s point of view, we of course use Facebook as a tool to promote the authors we feature. We want their work, their voices to have as much of an audience as possible. I’ve heard some complain about individuals using Facebook for self promotion. My thought is, I just want to keep doing what I’m doing—spending as much time as I can with poetry, as much as my brain can handle—that Facebook has become a way for me, as both a writer and an editor, to gather as much as I can about poetry and my other obsessions. I feel like a bird gathering debris for a nest or a packrat taking back shiny things to my hole.

But what are your thoughts on Facebook and writing?

RT: I can understand your viewpoint, and I have some similar feelings. I love encountering poems that my friends have shared online. Often that’s one of the few ways I have a shared experience with poets on any given day—most of the time I’m at my day job, doing day-job things with people who aren’t necessarily writers (but who do have other secret talents like musical theater and stand-up comedy).

Yet there’s a degree of candor that’s implied, but doesn’t quite exist on Facebook. It’s public (or semi-public) so people modulate themselves in different ways—and sometimes not that well—as Rebecca Makkai notes in her very astute piece. I’ve even noticed that unspoken genre conventions are starting to crop up for how you announce something good that’s happened for you, like a publication or a new job.

But I don’t begrudge people promoting their work or themselves, especially poets. Getting a book published is hard enough, let alone getting people to actually buy it and read it.

I’m terrible at Facebook. I’m a naturally timid person, and online I feel like a politician trying not to offend anyone, no matter how mundane my comments. I over-analyze; I second guess. As a poet, I need a dark corner to be weird in, and that’s what I love about poetry. I get to be playful and odd and explore language in strange ways. Social media doesn’t give me that.

Though with that in mind, I recently joined Twitter, in an effort to diversify my portfolio of social media platforms I’m bad at.

EP: Changing gears a little bit, I wonder if you’ve ever thought about poems as a kind of second brain for their writers. It might give us the opportunity to explore ideas that we might not necessarily—or, at the very least, formally—explore otherwise. Has the act of writing a poem become a part of your process of understanding and even reckoning with your own life?

RT: I love your idea of poems being a kind of second brain because, to be honest, I’ve noticed that my poems are usually much smarter than I am. When I keep my focus on simply writing the best poem that I can, and am attentive to where it wants to go, I find that the poem often makes the connections that I wouldn’t have been able to make on my own.

And that does help me reckon with my own life. By writing poems, I’ve thought in new, more productive ways about my family, about the nature of place, and about how I view the world. I’m grateful to have another way of thinking.

Brittany Cavallaro*: What is your most recent obsession? Has it found its way into your work?

RT: My current obsession is a podcast called the Slate Culture Gabfest. I listen to it religiously every Wednesday morning. The hosts are smart and funny, and their discussions are completely absorbing. I love the range—they’ll go from talking about Taylor Swift to the New York Review of Books. I’m a sucker for people who can have wide-reaching conversations about arts and culture. Since I write book reviews, I’m always trying to figure out how to be sharper and smarter with my own criticism.

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

RT: Is there a contemporary poet out there who you wish was more widely known?

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming 2016), and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poetry appears in Agni, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. For more information, visit her website: http://emiliaphillips.com

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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 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 […]

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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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