Where did you get the idea for your book From the Belly?
I realized that I was amassing poems about food, physical experiences like sex, disease, pregnancy, and abortion, and ekphrastic poetry about visual representations of the human body. The word “belly” was coming up as a common semantic thread in many of these poems and also seemed to speak to the figurative registers of my obsessions. The “belly” suggests that poetry comes from “the gut,” among other things, and I certainly strive to write “gutsy” work that provokes questions about gender, power, identity, family, etc. There are other kinds of poems in the book too, but because of my visceral need to write them, as well as intellectual, I decided this book had come From the Belly.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your poetic characters in a movie rendition?
First of all, I know there are poets and filmmakers collaborating on mutually inspired work that ranges from representational enactments to abstract impressions—and I’m excited about these projects. See, for example, the 1:28 minute film of Bill Yarrow’s poem “Need” at The Poetry Storehouse.
But in a Hollywood sense, I would also love to see actors play characters in my poems. For example, in From the Belly, the poem “The Workshop” is about a boy who pretends to be pregnant by stuffing toys or a bowl under his shirt. I picture Phillip Seymour Hoffman playing a man who sleeps with pillows under his t-shirt, remembering or imagining that he was that boy (forgive me if this reference seems insensitive, given Hoffman’s recent death).
I can see Rooney Mara cutting up impressionist paintings into fragments, as in my poem “Art History,” or simply sorting and stacking spoons, as in my poetic imitation of George Oppen, “Open Spoon.” I imagine anonymous extras walking barefoot in a park, stopping to pick broken glass from their feet, as described in my attempt at an English-language ghazal, “Wherever.”
How does your background as a college teacher and your academic training influence your poetic practice?
Recently I’ve been re-reading a “classic” of American critical theory, Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1987) and realizing how much her ideas have influenced my thinking AND how important her ideas are to the 21st Century, not just the 20th. One of her arguments is that although pain eludes language, the attempt to represent pain figuratively can be an important political act (this is an over-simplification, of course—you have to read her book!). Maybe the same goes for pleasure, or even for those corporeal sensations that exist at the nexus of pleasure and pain. But poetry is a vehicle we can use to call attention to, and to make more visible, the corporeal experiences of humans in particular social, historical, and political contexts. Some of the poems in From the Belly strive to make a contribution in this direction, poems like “Whore’s Spaghetti,” “Girl Learning to Read,” or “Skinned Mammals.”
What about your experience as a teacher?
My experience in the classroom forces me to read more deeply, not just because I have to prepare for class, but because the students invariably see things and come up with ideas that had not occurred to me. Last year, I taught Russell Edson’s brilliant poem “Ape.” I was prepared to make all sorts of argument and explanations for the use of the surreal or absurd, but the class came up with the insight that hearing an argument between parents at the dinner table as an argument about eating an “ape” is just the sort of skewed memory and perspective a child might have. So, we began class by identifying the narrator of the poem as omniscient, but ended up thinking of the narrator as the child-witness in the scene.
They also had great insight into A.E. Stallings’ poem “First love: A Quiz,” from its mythological references to its radical appropriation of the “quiz” genre found in magazines for teenage girls and young women. They had challenging debates about whether the image in the following line is one of impending violence or one of titillation and pleasure: “c. he placed his hand in the small of my back and I felt the / tread of honeybees.”
Will you name a few poets that inspired you to write this book?
When I began reading poetry regularly and hungrily, I was drawn to poems like Rita Dove’s “After Reading Mickey in the Night Kitchen for the Third Time Before Bed” or Galway Kinnell’s “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps.” Both of these poems offer glimpses into parenthood and childhood by putting the body in the forefront as the site of experience, memory, doubt, curiosity, and connection to the world and others. I used this sort of poem as a model, unconsciously at first I suppose. I also quickly began to explore ekphrasis and other less autobiographical angles for the poetic exploration of parenthood and childhood.
I have also been deeply inspired by the long, essayistic poetry of Anne Carson. Her poem “The Glass Essay,” for example, is 38 pages long, divided into 9 sections, and composed of alternating tercets and quatrains. The language is often deceptively plain and lines often end-stopped, but the diction is rich in sound pattern and layered meaning. Listen to this introduction to the speaker’s mother: “She lives on a moor in the north. / She lives alone. / Spring opens like a blade there. / I travel all day on trains […]” My favorite word choice in that quatrain is “blade” because of its numerous referents and connotations, visual, tactile, beautiful, sharp, and dangerous. The poem goes on to speak directly about reading Emily Brontë, among other things, and as I read it, I feel as if I am walking in what I imagine to be moors. The form enacts the intertextual references that well.
What poetic projects are you working on now?
I’m currently moving away from confessional poetry—or at least from what appears to be confessional—and experimenting with more overtly fictional voices and personae. I’m also experimenting with the prose poem form instead of the lyric. I’m excited about a series I’m writing called “Obits for Persons Who May Still Be Alive,” an experimental take on the elegy in which I appropriate the genre of the one-paragraph newspaper obituary. I started writing these about old friends who may have died, but then moved on to writing them about fictional characters.
Are there any other projects you’d like to mention?
I’ve become obsessed with reading documentary and historiographic collections of poetry, such as Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, Rita Dove’s Sonata Mulaticca, Kevin Young’s Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, C. D. Wright’s One With Others, Tony Trigilio’s Historic Diary, etc. In an attempt to write in this vein, I’ve been researching the lives of relatively obscure figures in the history of women and girls in the labor movement in Chicago circa 1900. The most interesting and challenging part of this process is lifting actual words and phrases from archival sources and pasting them into the collage of my own poems.
Do you ever listen to music while you write?
Not usually. But a few months ago I fell in love with Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Sometimes that’s the only song that calms me down and takes me away from the mundane world of chores and To Do lists. I’m also starting to be inspired by the music of Bon Iver, especially Coeur de Pirate’s cover of the song “Flume.”
What was your favorite AWP moment in Seattle this year?
Besides meeting Wendy Chin-Tanner at Bryan Borland’s offsite dive bar Sibling Rivalry Press reading (complete with disco ball), besides a walk to the water in sunny 40-50 degree weather (I live in Chicagoland!), besides RHINO Poetry’s excellent neighbors at the Book Fair (and Jan Bottiglier’s live tweets), besides sighting Mark Doty on my airplane, besides great dinner conversations with friends, I’d have to say it was hearing Elizabeth Alexander and Frank Bidart read each other’s poems. The trade made both of their poems come particularly alive. Alexander explained why she loved the Bidart poem she had chosen to read and then said something to the effect that she wanted to feel it in her own mouth. I loved that comment. When I’m reading and come across a poem that holds me, sometimes I stop and read it out loud just to feel it in my own mouth.