“A Single Step Over and Over: An Interview with Chloe Honum” by Emilia Phillips

James ArthurChloe 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 from the MacDowell Colony, the Kerouac House, and Djerassi. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. Find her online at www.chloehonum.com

Emilia Phillips, Prose Editor: First of all, I’d like to congratulate you on the recent publication of your first volume of poetry, The Tulip Flame. It’s a fine collection, and one I want to discuss with you throughout this interview. But let’s start, however, with some of your approaches to making and how your background as a dancer has—or, as the case may be, has not—influenced your poetry, not so much with subject matter, but with the way you make poems, their form and pacing. I’m quick to desire connections between acts of making, acts of art, but I realize that sometimes we compartmentalize our lives and that we must keep these acts of making autonomous. So, talk to me a little bit about how you see those two art forms as foils, as symbiotic gestures, as complications of one another.

Chloe Honum: Thanks so much, Emilia. Ballet definitely influences the way I write. While writing the poems in The Tulip-Flame, I got into the habit of waking at 3 or 4am, working for a few hours, then going back to sleep. When I was fourteen and beginning to seriously study ballet, I did the same thing. (Only instead of going back to sleep afterward, I’d go off to school.) Those pre-dawn hours were very important. I learned to embrace solitude, and to work on a single step over and over.

I see overlaps in terms of aesthetics, too. As in ballet, in poetry I’m drawn to precision, strength, and music.

EP: You spoke of solitude, and it caused me to think of how each of us always experiences poetry—like death—alone, regardless of whether we sit among an audience or read a book that others have read. While all poetry brings us closer to the voices, consciences, and experiences of others—the great point for its continued relevancy, at least in how I present it to students—lyric poetry like yours, no matter the identified point of view, seems to situate a reader as a kind of mirror in which the poem reflects and therefore allows for all a mirror’s inherent work of skewing—through frame, angle, polish, intensity of light. One could say that narrative poetry, however, asks readers to witness rather than reflect. The reader is invited into a narrative poem, whereas a lyric’s invited into the reader. The poem is the place in which a narrative happens, but the reader is the place in which a lyric exists.

In both cases, however, neither acts as a direct dialogue between the poet and the reader, as the reader never assumes, unlike the zealous fan at a hearthrob’s concert, that the poem’s directed at or dedicated to that specific reader, regardless of the implied “eye contact” in writing for an audience, and the poet cannot receive a reader’s response in the same form as the initial gesture, the poem. For me, poetry depends upon an alchemy of language rather than balanced communication; it morphs a poem into something else that we, as readers, still refer to as “the poem” although it’s really one’s unique experience of the poem, a different substance altogether.

Perhaps I’m all wrapped up in the imagery of the first poem that I encountered of yours, as it appeared in Poetry in 2009. Here are the final lines of “Spring”:

All that falls is caught. Unless

it doesn’t stop, like moonlight,
which has no pace to speak of,
falling through the cedar limbs,
falling through the rock.

Aren’t lyric poems like the moonlight here? Moving through the tangible, moving past barriers, into us?

CH: Yes, I find that lyric poetry has a way of taking my guard down. I’m listening to the music, absorbing the imagery, not concerning myself with my logical reactions, and meanwhile the poem is carving a deep path.

You mentioned that each of us experiences poetry alone. That concept brings me back to when I first started writing. The workshop leader was talking about the traditional workshop format, in which the author is silent while his or her work is being discussed, and she said: you know, when you publish a poem, it goes on without you. I found that at once terrifying and liberating. You do all you can on the page, then you set it free.

EP: Rereading your poem “Fever” I find an idea of aloneness, something that’s rooted in the presence/absence of another: “Alone, which has grown to mean without you.” The work of The Tulip-Flame seems so intimate that I wonder if there isn’t a gesture of apostrophe through the collection. Sometimes it’s overt, as in this poem, and other times a “you” or “us” never enters the poem.

As an undergraduate, my prof told me that all of his poems are addressed to someone, regardless of whether or not there’s an identifiable or anonymous “you” pronoun. He said that it helped him discover what he wanted to say. The idea, I guess, is that if he’s addressing his wife, it’s much different than addressing the couple who were ahead of him in line at the café. Do you think that poetry should have a person in mind when it’s written? Is every poem, in some way, an apostrophe?

CH: There’s a poem called “P.S.” by Franz Wright that ends:

I’m writing to you
all the time, I am writing,

with both hands
day and night.

Those lines really resonate with me. While writing The Tulip-Flame, there was always a “you” involved, someone I longed to reach. Most often, I wrote to my mother. Sometimes I wrote to a certain lost love, and sometimes to the reader, whom I imagined as a kind of unknown friend. In all instances, my longing was rooted in the distance or absence of the other, in reaching out from a place of solitude.

EP: I’m interested in this idea that the reader is a kind of “unknown friend” to you, as I fear that some writers see the reader as a kind of necessary evil, a potential critic or a potential idiot who won’t understand one’s genius. Of course, this is ego—but it’s also fear. In teaching, I find that many of my students are most hesitant to enter into a workshop setting because they don’t trust their readers yet. Thinking on it now, it must have been a great leap of faith for me to share my work with others, and sometimes I still am anxious about sending my work out into the world. Has your trust in readers been unwavering, or do you have to continually cultivate it?

CH: I imagine the reader as someone turning to poetry because he or she wants to (not out of any obligation). So from the start we have something important in common. Certainly not everyone looks to poetry, but I think those who do want to be moved in some way. This helps me go deeper in my writing. I imagine the reader as someone who welcomes the kind of intimacy that poetry can give.

EP: Your thoughts about readers have got me thinking about the roles we play in the poetry community. Often we start out as readers and have an intimate relationship with the work of poets we admire. Later, we might get to hear those poets read or, in the best cases, we get to know them a little bit. What’s it like transitioning from reader to listener of poems?

And going off of that, what’s it like to transition from reader to a friend of a poet? Are we supposed to keep those roles separate? Do the roles inform one another when it comes to our appreciation of the work?

CH: I feel very lucky to count some amazing writers as close friends. We share work, and we talk about our writing obsessions alongside the daily stuff of our lives. I learn a lot from these friendships, but what they remind me most often is that writing is hard work, for everyone. It takes so much, on so many levels, to write lasting sentences.

EP: Are there any sentences that have stayed with you for a long time? From novels or poems or what have you? Do you ever write imitations based simply on syntax?

CH: There are sentences that have found a kind of forever place in my mind. They rotate with the season and with what I’m working on. For example, I’m writing some nonfiction at the moment, and I keep thinking of Nabokov’s sentence, at the end of the opening passage of Lolita: “Look at this tangle of thorns.”

I think often of the end of Marie Howe’s poem “The Dream.”

Sometimes the island wavers and shimmers underfoot,
but the bridge appears when you walk across it—that’s

how it works, right? There’s no end to this.

I’ve just moved to the Berkshires, in the middle of a very snowy winter. I rarely look at falling snow without thinking of Plath— “The snow has no voice.”

These sentences—there are many others—that stay in my mind are very dear to me. I never want to be without them.

To answer the second part of your question, imitating syntax is something I often do in revision. When I’m stuck in a poem, I find it hard to pull myself away. It becomes a kind of staring contest between the poem and me. In those times, I turn to books I love for help, particularly in matters of syntax and rhythm.

EP: In this contest between the poem and you, does the poem take on a kind of personified existence? How so? What is inherently “human” about a poem?

CH: Sometimes I feel as though I’m trying to get the language to trust me, to come nearer out of the silence. And when it does come it’s a very pleasurable feeling. I don’t know if I’d characterize the relationship as “human,” but there is certainly something vital about it, and something very mysterious, too.

James Arthur*: What are you working on right now, and why that in particular?

CH: I’m trying to widen my experience with form. I just completed a lyric essay—a series of prose poems that incorporate scene and dialogue. For many years, I worked on only one poem at a time, with absolutely no plan as to what might appear on the page. Now, though, I’m intrigued by how theme and narrative function in poetry, and how those elements can sustain a longer piece.

EP: Now, Chloe, provide us with a question to ask our next interviewee.

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

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.