March 18, 2016
Do you imagine an ideal reader?
The ideal reader is someone who, upon reading a poem, goes immediately to find someone, another ideal reader, and she says, “Listen to this!” and reads the poem aloud as if she herself had written it. I grew up with parents who said often, “Listen to this!” And I listened. Maybe I’m someone’s ideal reader—I hope so!
Do you imagine different readers for different poems?
I used to imagine a much more congenial reader, someone who was easily moved. Someone with a nice fat heart line on her palm. But that stopped working for me; it became too easy to satisfy that reader – the moves felt a bit routine. And then it took me awhile to re-imagine a reader. Who did I need to say “Listen to this!” and mean it? What I needed to think about was the kind of poem I wanted to write, and then I could imagine this new reader. I was ready for my wriing to grow and change and one thing I needed for that to happen was a new reader. I still wanted her to leap up and say to someone else, “Listen,” but I needed her to leap for new reasons. Okay, so what reasons? A higher density and at the same time a greater aridity, more porousness. Imagine screwing down a lid and the jar turning into a net. That’s what I wanted. So a reader who tolerates both battening and loosening.
Your new book, Ventriloquy, contains four poem sequences. What’s the appeal of a poem sequence?
A poem sequence can be built in different ways. My first book is all fibonaccis—so it’s really a sequence of formally similar poems, and then the poems themselves are arranged in a sort of spiral way, so the first poem pairs with the last, the second with the penultimate poem, and so forth. Maybe you can see in that a bit of the obsessive—so a sequence can satisfy the obsessive in a poet.
In Ventriloquy, three of the sequences are formally similar, and all three forms are nonce forms. The first sequence, “Garden of Tongues, Garden of Eyes,” uses the subject matter of flowers to explore the human condition, or the other way around, depending on your point of view, I guess. What was fun about writing these poems was diving into the “character” of flowers—lilies, zinnias, frangipanies, etc. The challenge was to find a new way in to each flower, to make each poem unique, despite the formal similarities, just as flowers have formal similarities but are unique. In the second sequence, “Divination,” all the poems are three quatrains—and there are all sorts of delights in that contrast of three with four that I won’t address here. The poems ask whether it’s possible to capture a person’s character or essence through an action, and each one poses this question in a different sort of way. So that sequence wrestled with a proposition. The last sequence in the book—again, a nonce form—is called “Still Life with Universe.” These poems are arranged on the page in perfect rectangles—like paintings. Each one describes an imaginary painting while also pointing beyond the painting in different sorts of ways—and that was the fun of the sequence, to let my imagination run and to explore ways that still lifes point beyond themselves. The third sequence in the book is not formally unified, but it is tonally unified, and each poem is about an imaginary saint. Once I got started writing these I just had so much fun thinking about the various ways we venerate things and qualities: plastic, efficiency, barbed wire, and so on. So, there’s an attraction of the sequence: fun!
You grew up in rural Minnesota and then moved around for several decades—Chicago; Austin, TX; Oxford, MS; New Orleans; Guanajuato, Mexico; Roskilde, Denmark—and now you’re back in rural Minnesota. Has travel influenced your poetry? Has it made any difference?
You forgot Sydney, Australia—or more precisely, Kirribilli, a neighborhood right across the harbor from downtown Sydney—where I lived for a year in high school! So I’ve been extremely lucky to have experienced all these places. What travel does for most writers, I think, is upset our notions of what’s normal and give us nouns, which are the nourishment of the writer’s world.
In addition I discovered writers I might not otherwise have found: Kari Hulme, Inger Christensen, Jaime Sabines, Larry Brown, Ann Fisher-Wirth, and others. And of course I was exposed to culture—history, language, art, music—in all of these places in an immersive way.
But also, and this is perhaps somewhat intangible, I learned some things about how to be or how to know. In New Orleans I learned to be present in opposites, in life and death, in abundance and scarcity, in wealth and poverty. In Oxford, because I was a Yankee, a stranger in my own country, I learned to be skeptical about my roots. In Mexico I learned the value of myth and the power of noise. In Denmark I learned about how silence is born from long light followed by long dark. All of these things, I hope, come into my poetry.
Is outsider status any part of your artist identity?
First, let me thank my daughter for this interesting question. My gut response, when she asked was, not at all. And then I thought about it a little more.
The first poem I learned by heart was by Emily Dickinson: “I’m nobody, who are you? / Are you nobody too? / . . . How dreary to be somebody / how public like a frog / to tell one’s name the livelong day / to an admiring bog.” And now we’re public like really big frogs, in ways Dickinson couldn’t have imagined, with social media and Twitter and Instagram, etc. Memoirs are wildly popular and everyone’s writing them, forty-year-olds with three memoirs already. And while talk shows have faded, “reality” shows are still big. It’s as if there are big neon signs glowing on everyone’s periphery: Me, Me, Me. I’m as enamored of myself as the next person, but I’m less anxious to put myself out there, to tweet my name the livelong day. But really, who wants to hear from a middle-aged white straight woman living a life of privilege? You can hear in that list some insider stuff – straight, white, privileged – but you can hear some slightly outsider stuff – middle-aged woman. Unless you built a big readership in your 20s and 30s, you’re likely to disappear in your 50s and 60s. So, I’d prefer not to disappear. Add to that list Midwestern and rural and you get a little more outsider.
But what really matters to me is having an inside life that’s all my own, an outsider mind that doesn’t fit in 140-character chunks, that wouldn’t look good on a reality show. Inside, I’m somebody, and that’s where I try to write from, that inside outsider place.
I hear you play the piano. Does that influence your writing?
I used to think that poetry with a strong musical quality could only have been written by a poet with musical abilities. Then I met poets with no musical skills other than, perhaps, being good listeners, who write musical poetry. So I was forced to abandon my notion. And that meant also abandoning whatever smug feeling I had that my own piano playing affected my writing – at least as far as the sound of my poetry.
However, there is one thing my piano playing does for me. If I am in the middle of revising a poem and I get stuck because the poem is just not bending to my will—or the other way around—then I go to the piano and play Bach. Bach is best. The Romantics, who I love, or Mozart or Beethoven – none of their music compares to the music of Bach for revision efficacy. Why that is I can only guess, and my guessing will reveal me is a rank amateur as a musician and a pure idiot as far as neuroscience goes. I think, first, that Bach requires your total attention—cerebral attention. Your brain can’t wander. Of course this is true of all music, but I think Bach requires that you tune in every frequency. And then your brain gets distracted for awhile. Second, Bach is equally physical in both hands and the hands must answer one another equally, particularly if you play fugues, and playing fugues works magic for revising. I think it works because synapses in the brain get to firing that don’t fire when you’re at your desk. You sit there thinking, “the, no, a, no, the, no, a” and currents zing in your skull, but when you are crossing your hands to chase melodies up and down the keyboard, other currents zing. Then when I return to my desk after practicing a good while, I find I can solve the problem that was giving me the fantods.
What amazes you about poetry?
One good poem can provide solace and wonder and challenge for a life time. That’s amazing.
You are taking a chance with a new publisher. Why?
My first and second books were published by Red Dragonfly Press – a unique and devoted press that publishes almost exclusively poetry. Red Dragonfly Press is an independent press based in Minnesota, with one person at the wheel—Scott King, a man who is devoted to poetry, beauty, the natural world, and the beauty of the book. And Nodin Press, another independent Minnesota Press, published my third book. Norton Stillman, the publisher, is a man who values the voices of Minnesota. So I’m incredibly honored to have books with these two presses.
When Molly Sutton Kiefer, the publisher of Tinderbox Editions, wrote to ask if I had a manuscript of poems—an amazing thing to be asked—it was sheer good luck that I’d just put together Ventriloquy. And the opportunity to support a new independent press run by a woman, and not just any woman, but a woman who has been thinking about and loving poetry for a long time, was something I could not turn down.
The poetry reading audience, as we all know, is small. But so what? Tinderbox Editions is poised to build that audience. I wanted to be in on that project.
What is it about words?
When you put words in your mouth things happen. Some words slip and slide against your tongue, your teeth, even try to sneak out between your lips: susurrus. Some words, when you bite down on them, shatter into glass splinters: chopsticks. Some are chalky and after you swallow them you need a gulp of water or gin quick: self-determination, extrude. Some you hold on your tongue and they melt: Pamplona, burble. Some explode: jiggery-pokery. (Thanks to Antonin Scalia for that one.) Some you want to grab by the tail and throw against the wall: dialoguing, engagement.
How would you describe the desk where you work?
A tidepool. A shelf at a Salvation Army store. There’s beauty in there, you just have to look.