Joanne Diaz is the author of the poetry collections, My Favorite Tyrants (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), winner of the 2013 Brittingham Prize in Poetry, and The Lessons (Silverfish Review Press, 2011), winner of the 2009 Gerald Cable Book Award. She is the recipient of grants from the NEA and Illinois Arts Council. She is an Associate Professor of English at Illinois Wesleyan University where she teaches courses in early modern literature and creative writing. She grew up north of Boston in Billerica, Massachusetts and has degrees from Tufts University, New York University, and Northwestern University. With Ian Morris, she has co-edited The Little Magazine in Contemporary America forthcoming from University of Chicago Press in 2015. Her poem “Little Terror” appeared in Issue 19 of Memorious.
Talusan: In My Favorite Tyrants, poems about Stalin, Lenin, and Castro stand alongside poems about your friends, neighbors, family, and even me. Did the theme of tyranny emerge over time, or did you one day wake up and find yourself surrounded by tyrants? Is tyranny inextricable from love? What else do you want to say about tyrants that are not in the collection?
Diaz: Years ago, I was part of a book group in which we discussed Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, which examines the cultural history of pain, terror, torture, and illness in all of its complexity. One of the readers in the group was horrified by one chapter that focuses on state-sanctioned methods of torture that are used in many countries, including the United States. The reader said, “I just can’t believe how much evil there is in the world!” For me, I’m surprised that there isn’t more, considering how willing many of us are to be bystanders to—and participants in—atrocities of all kinds. In fact, my reaction to that reader’s comment back in 2006 was the starting point for my second book of poems. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now.
Ann Hudson, a terrific poet and friend, was the one who suggested My Favorite Tyrants as a title for my book. As soon as she uttered the phrase—a phrase which appears in my poem “a la Turka”—I knew that it was the right organizing principle. The book doesn’t try to suggest that tyranny is a black-and-white category; in fact, it does the opposite. In “Little Terror,” I try to capture a young Josef Stalin as he meditates beneath the stars in his native Georgia, years before he would become a horrific butcher of men. In the more personal poems, I try to offer some complexity to difficult characters; for example, in “Two Emergencies,” I consider my mother’s response to 9/11, which originally made me bristle. In the poem, I am able to see that her response wasn’t meant to ignore the horrors of that day; in fact, her response revealed an awareness of atrocity that I found compelling after the fact. Above all, I want the reader to understand that the speaker of the poems, like most people, often behaves badly, and is complicit in the world’s tyranny. There’s lot of gray in this book, and very little black and white.
Talusan: You quote the poet and critic Stephen Burt in your poem, “Pyrrhic,” with the line, “Art can make war look wrong.” Speaking of Burt, recently, I watched a TED Talk that Burt gave and he says, “We’re all going to die — and poems can help us live with that.” What do you think of that?
Diaz: Oh yes, I completely agree! In fact, I’m convinced that that’s all that poetry can do—either resurrect the dead or forestall the inevitability of death. I’m not the first to suggest this, but it’s absolutely true: most poems are about remembering an irretrievable past or preserving someone or something that is about to die. Perhaps some might think that sounds grim, but I disagree. It’s exciting to think that words—just black etchings on a blank page—can have that rhetorical power, and can actually do something.
Talusan: You lost your mother suddenly several years ago. Your grief comes through every one of these poems. You inhabit perspectives that must have been incredibly painful to imagine.
In “Purgatory Blues,” the mother sings the blues about her funeral arrangements: “You ignored all of my wishes/though I’d rehearsed them one by one.” In “Adamantine,” the mother says, “have me cremated/so that I don’t have to lie there like a goddamned fool.” In “The Nurse,” the speaker wonders about the nurse who assesses her mother’s corpse for possible organ donation. The nurse studies the mother and thinks, “skin, so easily flayed/from the body, a drape that, once released, could hang/on anyone.” Your mother gets the last word in the collection (Surely there’s something beyond this.)
How did you think about the poetic structures that can manage grief?
Diaz: My mother’s death gave me a great deal of insight into the rituals surrounding death, especially in the United States. You referred to “Adamantine,” in which the speaker listens to the funeral director talk about burial options. Anyone who has gone through that experience must have some of the responses that I had, which were ones of disbelief. It costs how much to do what? And you’re going to do what to the body? And where? And when? It’s that disbelief that I wanted to capture, as well as my mother’s voice. For weeks after her death, I was convinced that she was still alive. For a few months, it was actually quite easy to channel her strong voice in the poems.
In “Purgatory Blues,” I use the traditional blues form to manage the difficulty of what I imagined to be my mother’s anger after her sudden death. The blues has a rawness and authenticity that is very compelling to me, and I knew that it was the right vehicle for the tenor of my mother’s anger as soon as I worked with the form for a little while. In many ways, that poem was remarkably easy to write, even if the material was difficult to explore.
Talusan: In “Erasure,” you used text from Michel de Montaigne’s essay, “Of Sadness,” erasing words until this poem emerged. This poem communicates the acute pain of your mother’s death, but I am also intrigued by your process of making it. All of us eventually are erased. Can you tell us about your process of writing “Erasure?” What did making the poem teach you about poetry, about reading, about text, about life?
Diaz: In “writing” this erasure, I was inspired by a number of contemporary poets who use this procedural constraint in fascinating ways. Jen Bervin’s Nets featured erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets that, with their combination of gray scale and black ink, take on a palimpsest-like quality; Mary Ruefle uses good old-fashioned Wite-Out to erase her poems in A Little White Shadow; and for decades, Tom Phillips has been erasing and altering a Victorian book called A Humument. Erasure provides poets with a constraint that is playfully attentive to the material properties of text and the voices of other writers. Strangely, though, the poet’s voice rises to the surface, even if he/she is using the words of another writer. It’s a remarkable thing.
Michel de Montaigne was a great innovator of the essay form. His essay collection includes musings on a wide variety of subjects, including friendship, political theory, military strategy, cannibalism, and, as you note, sadness. He was a brilliant Stoic who held a skeptical view on most worldly matters, especially when France was being torn apart by the horrors of religious wars. For Montaigne, these essays functioned as thesauri, or store-houses, for his memory, or lack of it. Throughout his essays, he reiterates how important it is for him to write his thoughts down alongside the thoughts of others, so that he can remember all of his attitudes and experiences and have evidence that other great thinkers had experienced them, too. I have a similar fear of forgetting important thoughts and feelings, so Montaigne’s anxiety resonated with me, especially as I erased “Of Sadness.”
For me, erasure was part of my process of closely reading Montaigne; it was also a way for me to remember what I had read. I would rip the pages from his book of essays (sounds violent, I know, but I’m rather irreverent in my treatment of books), tape them into my notebook, and then, with a black pen, scratch words out until the most compelling words rose to the surface. I then transcribed the results into a Word document and tried to maintain the integrity of the words as they had originally appeared on the page (though I modified it a bit so that it would be aesthetically pleasing, too).
Talusan: We’ve known each other since we were fourteen years old. As editor of Queens Head & Artichoke, the college literary magazine, you published my first short stories. For those two years that we lived together after college, we hosted literary salons. Although we haven’t lived in the same city since then, we’ve continued to share our writing. When I write, I often think of you as my reader.
After we had moved away from each other, you told me a story about poets and friends, Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin. Before a writing session, one would telephone the other. They would rest the receivers on their desks and keep the line open, hearing each other scribble and occasionally shout out to each other while they wrote at their respective desks. I like to imagine that we are connected to each other this way online.
While we have a friendship that goes well beyond writing, I am curious about that aspect here. How important do you think literary friendships are? What about literary friendships between women? Do you think online social networks have changed the nature of literary friendships?
Diaz: Grace, you have many qualities, but above all, I love your fantastic memory! You’ve recalled some very happy stories from our past.
I think literary friendships are essential, especially among women writers. Women’s authorship is a very different enterprise from men’s, in large part because historically, women’s writing has, at various points in history, been deemed inferior or unworthy of serious consideration. Really, for much of literary history, a women writers were often a “problem,” unless they were writing in appropriate genres about appropriate subject matter. To this day, women’s writing either bears tremendous amounts of scrutiny or is ignored altogether. This is true even for contemporary poets of distinction. For example, when I studied with Sharon Olds at NYU, I remember her saying that when she published her early work, there were some critics who didn’t even think it counted as poetry. It seems impossible that critics could miss what she was up to (especially if one has ever read Tony Hoagland’s essay “The Unarrestable Development of Sharon Olds” in from the January 2009 issue of The American Poetry Review), but they did. Critics also have a tendency to ignore women writers altogether. According to statistics compiled by VIDA, women writers do not have their work reviewed with the same frequency as male writers. Though this situation has improved enormously in recent years, it’s still a serious problem for women writers in all genres.
If you look at the acknowledgments in the front matter of My Favorite Tyrants, it’s no coincidence that all of the thank-yous go to my fellow women writers who have helped me so much over the years. You’re there, as is Katy Didden, Jane Lin, Laura Van Prooyen, and several others. Every writer needs good readers, and I’m no exception. If it weren’t for your honest, consistent feedback and support, especially in those early years after college, I probably would have stopped writing altogether.
Talusan: Given your forthcoming book, edited with Ian Morris, on the history of literary magazines, The Little Magazine in Contemporary America (University of Chicago Press forthcoming April 2015), what roles have editors, readers, and the larger literary community played in writers’ lives and how do you think the nature of these relationships has changed over time? For example, I heard that in the past editors were much more influential in writers’ lives, but now their role is more to acquire and market books. I may be really wrong here though. Perhaps you can talk about publishing your collections and the role of editors there.
I think it depends on which kind of publishing you’re talking about. So, for example: I think that little magazine editors are doing much of the same work that Harriet Monroe was doing for Poetry magazine one hundred years ago. She was an editor who privileged an avant-garde Modernist aesthetic, to be sure, but when I read her early commentary on the process of editing a little magazine, her observations feel very current and relevant. She wanted to create something new; she was working on a shoestring budget; she wanted to have the very highest standards and publish only the best work in a beautiful periodical. If you read some of the statements that Rebecca Morgan Frank makes in her essay in our forthcoming book, you’ll see that she articulates that same sort of mandate Memorious. You also see it in Jonathan Farmer’s essay on At Length magazine and Charles Henry Rowell’s essay on Callaloo. These editors see an urgent need to champion good work, and their passion for their work is absolutely astonishing.
In small book press publishing, too, there seems to be an impulse to champion good work, regardless of the financial bottom line. Rodger Moody at Silverfish Review Press published my first book, and was in charge of every detail from beginning to end. He has an almost impressionistic style. I remember him saying that when he chose my manuscript as the winner of the Gerald Cable First Book Award, he read the whole manuscript aloud, from beginning to end, to ensure that it had the energy he was looking for. I thought that was remarkable! Ron Wallace, the series editor for the Brittingham and Pollak Prizes, is also very personally invested in his work. The University of Wisconsin Press is a larger enterprise, and copyeditors and proofreaders were more involved with the book’s minutiae, but I admire Ron’s passion for what he does.
Talusan: I was so moved by your poem, “77 Porter Street,” the address of our first apartment after college. The speaker of the poem addresses me directly and asks, “When, as bodies do, ours break down to mere traces/of life; when our experience includes no more than a circle two feet/from ourselves; when our struggle to wake each day is the perimeter/of our pleasure, will you remember those days of fire,/ when we burned to touch and be touched by all things?”
Now, I feel like Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney on Saturday Night Live.
“Remember when you wrote a poem about when we lived together after college? That was awesome. And, do you remember when you wrote a book of poems called, My Favorite Tyrants? That book is awesome.”
I have no real question here. Thank you for your poems. I hope to always remember our days of fire.
Grace Talusan’s work has appeared in such places as Creative Nonfiction, Colorlines, and Boston Magazine. She is a lecturer at Tufts University, teaches at Grub Street, and she will be a Fulbright Scholar in the Philippines in 2015.
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