July 31, 2010
Most of your poems are metrical and rhymed. Why? Do you see 21st-century metrical verse as a rejection of Modernism?
No, I don’t see using meter and rhyme as a rejection of anything. The opposite, in fact. It’s an affirmation of what drew me to poetry as a reader when I was young—the love of poems that lend themselves to being memorized, for example. I started writing verses for pleasure when I was 12 or 13, and it seemed natural to use the verse techniques of the poets I loved to read—Dickinson, Frost, Yeats and Millay were poets I fell for early and hard. Hopkins and Auden a few years later. I wrote bad imitations of all of them, too. But that’s part of learning to write poems and finding what you have to say.
One of the biggest advantages of rhyme for a poet is the way it brings randomness (via the arbitrary similarity of sounds) into the writing process. I often surprise myself, looking for rhymes, by coming up with an image or metaphor I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise or having a poem take a turn I couldn’t have predicted. Creative constraints can be freeing. But the short answer is that I write in rhyme and meter because doing so gives me pleasure. It’s not part of any program of opposition—to modernism or postmodernism or feminism or any other ism.
But why would a woman poet in 2010 want to use old-fashioned, patriarchal forms like the sonnet? Why not make up your own?
Forms don’t belong to anybody. Why cede a long-lived, flexible form like the sonnet to men? Or to Caucasians, or Christians, or Europeans? Take them and make them your own, I say. And sometimes I do invent my own forms. “Experimental” verse isn’t necessarily free verse.
Do you ever write free verse?
A poet I know who uses meter and rhyme exclusively says that he tried to write free verse once, and it nearly gave him a nervous breakdown. (Maybe he should be featured here.) I’m not quite as extreme as that, but to write free verse I seem to need a model or template of some kind. I’m paralyzed by total freedom, where every line can be broken anywhere. A few years ago I wrote a free verse poem that borrowed the basic structure and some of the rhetorical devices of “My Cat Geoffrey” by Christopher Smart. That poem, which is about Guinea Worm Disease of all things, originally was in an elaborate stanza form. It lay dead on the page until rereading Smart showed me what I needed to do—two or three years after I put the draft in a drawer.
Who are some of your poetic loves and influences?
Loves and influences aren’t necessarily the same thing. I love Whitman, but I don’t think his poems have influenced mine much. I love the Metaphysical poets, especially Herbert and Donne. I used to think that Dickinson wasn’t much of an influence, but as I’ve gotten more and more interested in verse riddles and in shorter meters than iambic pentameter, I think she’s there. Frost, Wilbur, and Larkin, definitely. Christina Rossetti, Elinor Wylie, and Louise Bogan, too, though I discovered them later than the others.
Among contemporary poets, I’ve been lucky to have generous mentors who encouraged and challenged me to do my best work, both directly and by example—among them Dick Davis, Carl Dennis, Rhina Espaillat, Dana Gioia, Sam (R.S.) Gwynn, and Timothy Steele. Among poets of my own generation, I feel an especially deep affinity with Joshua Mehigan, A.E. Stallings, and Greg Williamson, all of whom I admire and have influenced me.
It can be misleading to talk about poets as influences, though. More often it’s individual poems influencing other poems. And poets influence themselves, too, if only in the effort to avoid repeating themselves.
The main thing is to read deeply and widely and not worry too much about influences. In graduate school, I once invited a poet in the MFA program for coffee. I was thinking then of switching from the Ph.D. to the MFA program, mainly because reading literary theory was making me miserable. She seemed like (and was) a nice person, and I was eager to talk poetry, so I asked her which poets she read for pleasure. She named one contemporary American poet, and then said, “But I don’t like to read much poetry. I don’t want to be over-influenced.” I was stunned into silence. I doubt her attitude was typical—at least I hope it wasn’t. But I decided to finish my Ph.D.
Say a little about “Aubade.” What inspired it?
It came out of the experience of new motherhood. Those first weeks and months are so all-consuming, and you sleepwalk through them in a haze of sleep deprivation, a sort of timeless time. You’re up crazy hours, and the days and nights blur together. We were living in Brooklyn then, and I’d run into other mothers at the park with their toddlers or older kids, and often they’d say, “Oh, it seems like you’ll never forget the time when they’re tiny babies, but you do.” I remember vaguely thinking there might be a poem in that (everything I thought was vague at the time!). And of course my daughter wouldn’t remember any of what we did together in those early days—that struck me too. I scribbled one line from what became the poem in a notebook when she was a few months old—“You will remember none of this.” That’s where it stayed for… well, I didn’t get the poem on paper until the form finally revealed itself, about six years later.
That’s the way it feels—that the poem discovers its form. You have to be very patient sometimes, or you force it into being before it’s ready and ruin it. On the other hand, you can’t give up on the failed drafts and partial drafts if you think they have potential. You have to exhume the bodies now and then and check them for signs of life.
What’s the form of “Aubade”?
It’s in 8-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter, each stanza having two rhyme-endings, with the seventh and eighth lines identical to the first and third.
Never heard of that.
I made it up—at least I think I did. But the form was inspired by a Louis MacNeice poem called “Meeting Point,” about two people having a love affair who share the illusion that their love can make time stop. That poem, also tetrameter, uses five-line stanzas in which the last line repeats the first. It’s a wonderful poem. I’d come across it a long time before, in college maybe, and then a few years ago I encountered it again and was fascinated with the music it made. I memorized it and carried it around for awhile. And that one little line of my own germinated.
Why the generic title? Isn’t it like calling a villanelle “Villanelle”?
Not quite, I think. A bigger strike against it is that Larkin used it for one of his greatest poems. But titling it “Aubade” let me frame the poem as a conversation with the many other poets who have written aubades, in various cultures and over centuries. I could participate in that tradition in my own way. That early, all-consuming bond between a mother and an infant is like the early stages of a love affair, and even as you suffer sleeplessness and mood swings and feel completely overwhelmed, like someone in love you want that time to last forever. And you know that it can’t. I could say a lot with the title without having to say it outright.
Is it typical for you to take years to finish a poem?
Unfortunately, yes. It seems to take me ten years, more or less, to collect enough poems for a book.
So we can expect the next one in 2014?
Maybe. If I’m as lucky with finding a publisher as I was the last time, which is a big if.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing or working (or taking your daughter to play rehearsals and softball practice)?
My husband and I just finished watching an excellent Brit TV series called Foyle’s War, about a police detective (played by Michael Kitchen) investigating murders in Hastings during World War II. We felt bereft when we’d watched the last one. Another of our recent enthusiasms is Breaking Bad. Right now our recommendations on Netflix are divided into two categories: “Understated British Dramas” and “Critically-acclaimed, Violent TV Shows.”
I started studying piano a year and a half ago. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. Getting your hands to do different things simultaneously is not an easy skill for a middle-aged person to pick up, so I have to be patient with myself. My favorite genre is blues, which sounds good even when arranged for a beginner. I take lessons every other week, and my piano teacher and I exchange “words of the day” at the end of each one. My word of the day last week was “opsimath”—somebody who learns something new later in life.
Why have you been putting off doing this interview for months? Why have you stood me up and screened my calls?
I don’t know. Sorry! I couldn’t sit down and do it until the deadline was bearing down on me. I guess I have a horror of coming off as self-centered and self-indulgent.
But you’re a poet!
Right. It comes with the territory! Might as well embrace it.
Anything else you’d like to say?
That I’m really jazzed about being featured on TNB, especially now that I’m done with this interview. Please tell Uche thanks!