Category Archives: Poetry Interviews

Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Jacques J. Rancourt

Jacques J. Rancourt is an Issue 26 contributor and winner of the Pleiades Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry. His debut collection, Novena, is a coming-of-age and a coming out. Wresting a fractured identity from the past and making of it a gift for the beloved—and for the reader—Novena seeks redemption, wholeness.

Strapped to the “[c]lutched mast” of his ship, Rancourt’s Odysseus in “Song for the Homebound Men” is restrained against the allure of naked male sirens. The tension between the boat’s orientation (the straight, homebound narrative) and the sailor’s orientation (a queer veering, homosexual) runs throughout the collection. It’s dominated by the speaker’s outdoorsman father, by a patriarchal violence the speaker feels exiled by even as he resembles and reveres it. The product of such bound longing is song, of course, “a music box the wind tips open.” But what kind of song? Faith and prayer, myth, nature, role models, and all the other “standards hitherto publish’d” (to quote Whitman)—none of it will do, yet none of it can be done without.

Novena forges a new, unsanctioned song from the materials. “Sing unto the Lord a new song,” the Psalms decree. In the first of two “Novena” cycles, the speaker prays to a drag queen Mary to “[m]ove my lips until I believe / a man can kiss a man like this.”

Can you talk about your need for and use of neologism, at least in the sense of using conventional words unconventionally? Might this be related to the speaker’s acknowledged lack of adequate language with which to say what he means? I noticed neologism especially in the “Novena” cycles, such as “a sprout clouts her cleft” or “pummel and surge coarse my throat.”

My father is Quebecois, and my early introductions to language were garbled with roughly-pronounced Franglais phrases. Even to this day, lines come to me from the occasion of mishearing bits of dialogue or misreading lines in novels. I’m intrigued by what I think I hear or see that the actual meanings of these sentences often disappoint me. This is an experience I’ve tried to replicate in my poems. It’s a way of allowing sound to drive sense, despite having a narrative backbone to most of my poems. It allows a bit of my private world into the poems.

Can you talk about your experience publishing and the journey of the first book?

Like most poets, I sent my book out too early. I felt that because the poems themselves were done that their sum meant the book was publishable. I had no sense of the book’s structure, of the story it wanted to tell, or how to tell it. The first time I sent it out, I had the weird luck of being named a finalist for a dream contest. And then for the next two years, I received nothing but a solid flow of form rejection letters. It wasn’t until after that—after I had written some better poems, took out others that I was holding onto for superficial reasons—I went back to ground zero and restructured the whole book. Only then did I finally understand what each and every poem accomplished in the greater movement of the book. I read somewhere that you know a book is done when it feels that if you were to take out or add in just one more poem, the whole structure would topple; I think that’s as good as any advice I’ve heard on the matter. It would take another three years for the book to be taken, but I knew that it was done and that if I made any more drastic edits, I would only end up dowsing its spark. I had to trust my gut—and not the contest model—that it was done and to give myself permission to keep working on the next project.

The speaker in Novena grew up in what might be called the country. Where, specifically, did you grow up, and to what degree do your neopastoral motifs come from actual experience with “nature”? Part of the reason I ask is because, as you’ve probably noticed, foxes, wolves, and horses seem to show up in everybody’s poetry these days, country or no.

Before I was born, my father built an off-the-grid cabin in western Maine, and so I spent many of my formative years on the foot of a mountain playing by myself in the Appalachian woods. When I give readings, I do sometimes feel a compulsion to clarify that once a baby fawn really did lick my hand while I was jogging through the forest, or that one winter we really did find a barred owl frozen in the rafters of our wood shed. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What does matter, for Novena, is how far removed the speaker is from an urban gay utopia. He is isolated spiritually in a dangerous pastoral that’s rife with animals and hunters. This lens is key to understanding not only Novena but also a part of the larger gay narrative that’s spoken less of these days.

There’s a different type of closeting that occurs in the rural parts of America, which feels mostly like they’re held back in the 80’s or 90’s still. The media and even the gay narrative wants to propose that we (the queers) have been pushed beyond that and assimilated fully into the fabric of the mainstream. And yet, you go into the outreaching places of the country, and more than just the fact that coming out is still a life-risking act, there’s the pervasive toxic masculine culture that prevails there. In poems such as “American Shrapnel” and “Field,” I wanted to write toward that toxicity, to the places that have been left behind, and the sharp shred of fear implanted in all the young people who grow up there. My hope was that Novena would capture both the beauty and tenderness and oppression and fear that coincides in these communities far from the cities.

Who is the Deerman? He seems somewhat demonic, satyrlike.

Part of the project of the title sequence was to recreate a mythology: I recast the Virgin Mary as a drag queen as a way of writing a love poem that would give hope to the queer outcast but highly devout kid I was as a teenager. She represents a sort of an aloof chaste compassion, merging both divisive parts of the speakers’ identity—his faith and his queerness. The Deerman serves as her foil: a brute masculine sexuality that, at one point, literally eats the speaker up.

Where do you think you’d be as a poet without your presumably Catholic upbringing?

My family wasn’t particularly literary—or in some cases, even literate—but they were deeply religious. We studied theology in lieu of studying hard history or science (a concept that scares the hell out of me now). It did, however, instill in me the weight of symbolism, the endless interpretations and literary analysis that drives theology. When I was a teen, I used to drive hours to go to the Cathedral in Portland where in its crypt they’d hold the “Dead Theologians Society.” These conversations would be as close to poetry or literary conversations I’d have until I got to college. Even now, when I scan my lines for meter or rhythm, I trace how much I learned about syntax from these religious texts or rote prayers.

Novena’s speaker seems anxious about predecessors, and in particular about his father. He struggles to claim an identity separate from him. These concerns can’t but make me think of Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence (you even kill off the father at the end). Who are the poetic parents and peers you’re split from?

I can’t help but think of Bloom’s theory as being part of a queer aesthetic. In Gay World, anxiety surrounding a rupture between generations is par for the course. Coming out has historically meant estrangement, and attempting to maintain a connection or severing that connection with family is one of the defining decisions in a gay person’s life—second only to coming out in the first place. I am interested more, though, in your question of poetic lineage, which is something I always ask my students to consider. I had a teacher who found it terribly important that a poet be able to “place themselves” in the larger conversation of who came before them. I feel a strong impulse and even obligation to recognize in the work itself those who came before and paved the way, who made the work possible in the first place. There are poems (I won’t name which) that are direct tributes to other gay poets as a way of acknowledging the path they’ve blazed and the opportunity they’ve created.

Originally from Alabama, interviewer Austin Segrest writes and teaches at Lawrence University in west-central Wisconsin, just south of Green Bay (up the north-flowing Fox). He reviews poetry for Southern Humanities Review. His poems have recently appeared in Image, Ecotone, and Grist.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Matthew Thorburn

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Matthew Thorburn’s fourth full-length collection, Dear Almost, has recently been released by Louisiana State University Press. A book-length poem broken into sections that correspond to the four seasons, it is also a love letter addressed to a daughter lost to miscarriage. The poem is vividly, beautifully awake to the world, which has been reconfigured by absence, but also by a sense of being stranded, being caught in the act of becoming. Just as the poem questions how to grieve for a child who both was and was not here, so it also struggles with the aftermath of that loss. How can someone be a parent who has never had a child? With whom can he share the strangeness and wonder of New York, if not the expected child, whose hand he will never hold? A sparrow, music from a foreign instrument, a wild creature navigating the streets of New York, a Chinese day of mourning—everything becomes a form of attention, and a kind of prayer, and everything becomes something the poem wants, desperately, to both love and share.

In addition to Dear Almost, contributor Matthew Thorburn is the author of the full-length collections This Time Tomorrow (Waywiser), Every Possible Blue (CW Books), and Subject to Change (New Issues), as well as two chapbooks, A Green River in Spring (Autumn House) and Disappears in the Rain (Parlor City). Thorburn is a former Witter Bynner fellow at the Library of Congress. His poems are widely published in journals, including Memorious 16 and 26, and his work has been recognized with fellowships from the Bronx Council on the Arts and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He writes a monthly feature for the Ploughshares blog and lives in New York City with his wife and son.

My first question has to do with form and structure in your poems. Subject to Change, your first book, was as formally inventive as any recent book—stanza forms, prose poems, experimental forms, poems in sections, a section of a poem written as a numbered list. Dear Almost is a long poem in sections, and it is formally consistent, so I was wondering about how your relationship to form has evolved since you wrote the poems in Subject to Change. 

Looking back on it, 12 years after it was published, Subject to Change seems like a lot of first books in that it’s a bit of a miscellany, put together from the poems I’d written during grad school and in the years just before and after. I was definitely interested in trying new things then (and still am, though what makes them “new” might be less obvious now). I also think in many of those poems I was maybe driven more by my interest in experimenting with language than by a desire to say some particular thing, to tell a specific story or convey a certain feeling or mood.

Dear Almost has its roots in the opposite situation: a very particular and difficult experience—the loss of an unborn child in a miscarriage—that I wanted to shape a meditative narrative around. It’s also a book that sets out to answer a question: How do you mourn for someone you never really knew, never met or saw? In a subtler way, there is a little of that experimenter’s spirit in Dear Almost too, though. The second section of the book, “The Light that Lasts All Summer,” is one continuous narrative book-ended by two haiku. Also, though the reader probably can’t tell, I wrote the whole book-length poem in bits and fragments in a completely non-linear way, then pieced it all together like a mosaic, framed by the changing seasons, from one spring to the next. So the actual writing and construction of the poem—Will it all fit together? Will this odd assembly work?— felt like a major, multi-year experiment to me.

Dear Almost is a season suite, with each section corresponding to a season. This seems to me to be a more far-eastern approach to organizing a poem, and in fact, early sections mention Shanxi Province and Qingming. I know you have traveled in China and that your wife Lillian is Chinese American, and the acknowledgements of the book reference lessons in Mandarin. Could you talk a little about Chinese language, culture, and poetry, and how (or if) they influenced the writing and the final shape of Dear Almost? 

cover“Season suite”—I love how that perfectly captures what I’d never really thought of as a form before. Something I learned from classical Chinese poetry is how poets like Meng Hao Jan and Wang Wei would write about the seasons as a way of describing their own inner weather. From what I understand, there’s almost never a first-person pronoun in Chinese poems written in that time. I talk about this a little in Dear Almost. While I didn’t try to avoid the “I” in my book, I did focus on the changing seasons as a way of amplifying or echoing emotions, and to convey the passing of time during the period of mourning the poem describes.

I want to be clear, though, that I’m not an expert, not even a student of classical Chinese poetry. I’m an amateur reader who has been moved by, and tried to learn from, certain translations of Chinese poems. What I’ve learned about Chinese poetry has come from reading books like David Hinton’s wonderful anthology, Classical Chinese Poetry (which I had a chance to write about here) and their introductory essays. I’ve also had the chance to talk with my mother-in-law, who is a great reader of Chinese poetry in Chinese, about different English versions of certain poems, and to hear which translations she likes better, and why—and to try to put into words which translations I prefer, as poems in English.

Beyond that, as you mentioned, I’ve been grateful to learn about and experience Chinese culture through my wife’s family, and to share that with Lillian and our son. Some of those experiences naturally found a place in Dear Almost. Qingming (or “Tomb-Sweeping Day”), for instance, is a time to honor ancestors and visit their graves, which found its way into the book pretty naturally. As for the language, I think I studied Chinese just enough to get a sense of how extremely difficult it can be to learn, especially for adults. I’ve picked up some words and phrases of spoken Chinese as my son advances in both languages (he’s three)—so that I can sometimes get a sense of what he and Lillian are talking about—but not enough to hold up my end of a conversation.

I know that Elizabeth Bishop is one of your touchstone poets—someone whose work you return to again and again. And it seems to me that you share her interest in writing about travel, her interest in place as an idea that can shape poems. Dear Almost looks, physically, on the page, very like some of Bishop’s poems—I’m thinking here of “At the Fishhouses” and “In the Waiting Room.” Both depend on fairly short, loosely syllabic lines and a strong rhythm. I have a two-part question about you and Bishop. The first part is what you learned from reading her work, especially what you learned about long poems and the shorter poetic line. 

You’re absolutely right: Bishop is one of my touchstones. I admire and keep coming back to many of her poems. I love her attentiveness, her way of staying with something and looking at it from different angles, and how she conveys a sense of the mind in motion, working through things on the page. Her “Poem,” which is my favorite of her poems, is a great example of this. How she studies and thinks about this little painting, carefully, meditatively, and then suddenly: “Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!” I love that moment of amazed recognition, and the way the poem takes a turn into more personal territory there. I had the thrill of seeing the actual painting that “Poem” describes in a show of Bishop’s own paintings and a few items she had owned at the Tibor de Nagy gallery here in New York some years ago.

I try to emulate that kind of attentiveness in my own poems, and something like that way of showing the mind at work. Her poems about Brazil, and the way her work embodies the possibilities that travel and cross-cultural experiences can offer for a writer, have been important to me too. There’s an affinity between the traveler and the poet: for both, everything should be new and strange, and require and reward careful study and consideration. I wasn’t conscious of emulating her use of short, syllabic lines, but it’s not surprising to suppose I might have done it without realizing it. I definitely do admire how that kind of tight, crisp line can propel the narrative in a poem like “In the Waiting Room.”

The second part is about content. She was, famously, resistant to the confessional mode of her peers. And yet her most well-known poems are her most deeply felt and personal ones—“One Art,” which tackles losing a love, “Sestina,” which seems to reference her childhood in Nova Scotia, and “In the Waiting Room,” which references places and events we know are part of her childhood. I think of her stance on autobiographical content as a kind of poise, or reticence maybe, or some sort of distillation of feeling through both craft and time. Obviously, Dear Almost is a deeply felt book, but it is also a deeply crafted book. It engages with the deeply personal in ways your previous books do not seem to. Can you discuss how you negotiated, in the writing and editing of Dear Almost, your own stance on autobiographical content, time, and craft?

I agree—I think Bishop sometimes conveys a feeling of intense, deeply felt emotion by seeming to hold most of it back, so that that restraint suggests the overwhelming emotion welling up behind her carefully chosen words. That’s not something I’ve tried to emulate very much, if at all, but I admire it in her poems.

While Dear Almost is not an especially formal poem, the frame of the four seasons—knowing from early in the writing that it would take place over the course of a year, and be shaped by that progression from one spring to the next—provided some necessary boundaries to work within and against in writing about this very personal and painful experience. As I mentioned, I drafted most of the poem in bits and pieces in my notebook, because that was the only way I could approach this experience at first, in a kind of glancing way, a few lines at a time. Then I did a lot of work to fit those pieces together into a narrative within that frame. Without that frame, or some kind of similar constraint, I could see all these lines and images just spiraling out away from me.

In addition to your full-length collections, you have published two chapbooks. One of them, Disappears in the Rain seems to be your first published very long poem, though even in Subject to Change, you have a couple of longer poems—“Three Part Constructed Form / For M. Duchamp” and “The River.” By contrast, A Green River in Spring is a collection of very short poems. What draws you to the long-form poem? What does a book-length poem afford as far as challenges and rewards in contrast to shorter poems? And specifically, at what point in the drafting process did it come to you/did you decide that Dear Almost was a book-length poem?

I sometimes daydream in the abstract about books I’d like to write—a book of prose poems, for instance, or a book of 26 poems named after objects that runs from A to Z. So I had had the idea for a while of a book-length poem that follows the seasons over the course of a year, though with no idea what it would be “about.” This was a couple years before we experienced the loss Dear Almost centers around. On the other hand, I truly don’t remember exactly when I started writing about this loss, addressing lines and images to our “almost girl.” I just remember being in the midst of it. Once I got going, though, it seemed clear pretty quickly that this could be a long poem—and that the thinking I’d already done about what a book-length poem might look like, the shape it might take, could suddenly be very helpful. I wasn’t sure for quite a while whether this thing I was writing would work as a book, or even as a poem, but I could see that what I was doing would at least be book-length.

Because I had never written a book-length poem before, in some ways Dear Almost is also about writing a book-length poem, and includes some references to its own writing within the narrative. While the loss at the center of the poem was difficult to keep facing up to, the actual work of writing and revising, of shaping the poem into a four-part narrative, was something I really enjoyed. I would carry a print-out of the manuscript in my briefcase when I went to work each day, so I could re-read it and mark up line edits on my commute, and during my lunch hour. I liked the steady work of this long poem, of being able to just stay in it for so long, to live with it and within it, and keep trying to make it better. I also enjoyed figuring out how all the different pieces of the poem could work together—for instance, how variations and repetitions of certain images or phrases could create connections between different parts of the narrative.

One of the things I love about epistolary poems is that they willfully exclude the reader, putting audience on the outside of a kind of a conversation, of a deep intimacy. We are meant to overhear, to learn from overhearing, from being an audience. In this, epistolary poems seem to be closer to theatre than other kinds of poems. Epistolary poems afford access to drama, to a kind of withholding and release of information. And again, a two-part question: When did you know Dear Almost would be addressed to this lost child? Did the choice arise organically, or did you, at some point, decide to make the book an epistle? 

Leslie, that is a wonderful way to think about epistolary poems, as being like theatrical performances. Some of the earliest lines I wrote for Dear Almost addressed our lost child as “you.” I don’t think I thought about it objectively at the time—I just started writing and that was how I wrote. It felt natural to me. What I wanted most of all was to have some kind of contact with this person I had imagined and looked forward to, but would now know only in my imagining. This was my way of trying to deal with my feelings of grief and heartache over this sudden, staggering loss. I wanted to talk to our lost child, to be with her in the only way I could—in words. I knew of course it was just imagining, and possibly not a “healthy” way to deal with grief, but this was my way of holding on. Even in the short time we had been expecting, it seemed like we had imagined so much of what our life together would be like, and I wanted to keep imagining a little longer. The book is, as you suggest, very much a letter, starting with its title, which the reader gets to read over my shoulder.

Leslie Harrison is the author of The Book of Endings (Akron) and Displacement (Mariner). Recent poems have appeared in The Bennington Review, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Baltimore. 

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Carolina Ebeid

authorCarolina Ebeid’s debut poetry collection, You Ask Me To Talk About The Interior, continually draws the reader in, addressing her several times throughout the book and using luscious imagery to evoke a sense of intimacy and familiarity. There are the usual topics—love, death, God—but they exist in a world of violence that continually bursts out of the book’s pages. A meditation on language pivots around a picture of a man throwing a rock. Biblical language is twisted in on itself. Metaphors become machines that produce more metaphors. Writing about the everyday things of life in “Small Hall of Symphony”—the wonder of a telephone, the Doppler effect as heard in an ambulance’s siren—Ebeid says they “describe an idea of us to us,” and the same could be said of this collection, which manages to find connections between seemingly disparate ideas. Throughout, it is the simultaneously playful and sincere nature of Ebeid’s writing that carries the reader through and fulfills the book’s promise of intimacy.

Carolina Ebeid’s work has appeared widely in many journals, including Issue 8 of Memorious, as well as The Kenyon Review, Crazyhorse, jubilat, Gulf Coast, Poetry, and many others. She holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers, and has won awards and fellowships from the Stadler Center for Poetry, CantoMundo, The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Academy of American Poets. She was granted an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry for 2015. You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior was published this year by Noemi Press as part of their Akrilica Series. Below, she discusses the poetic “I,” her thoughts on rhyme, and how to balance different kinds of poetry.

I want to start by asking about form: You Ask Me To Talk About the Interior uses many different forms, including several prose poems and a ghazal. How do you approach form when you start writing? How does form influence your work in general, even when not writing in a standard or received form?

I have a deep admiration for poets who try working in received forms—especially older or more obscure traditions. It makes use of one’s mathematical mind, that kind of attention to music. I guess what I like about the poems of say Katy Didden or James Arthur, is how the poem glows with that antique patina, all while renovations to the chosen form are taking place. I unnameddon’t often look to traditional forms, however, when I begin writing a poem. I can imagine how much less anxiety I would experience over a poem (should I end here? how do I know when the poem is finished? how should it look on the page?) if a certain number of syllables and lines were already prescribed to me. Like most poets writing alongside me, I write in free verse trying to find an “organic” form for the given poem. I know I don’t have a full understanding of how the idea of form influences my work. The image that comes to mind is that of a small fire I am trying to control with a container like a lantern. The poem needs a form so that it does not fizzle out or burn the place down. I resist Robert Frost’s dictum about writing in free verse being as ludicrous as playing tennis with the net taken down. I prefer that other concept he draws in “The Figure a Poem Makes.” He said, “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” I’m in team ice-cube.

There are a lot of recurring ideas throughout the collection, from the “Punctum” prose poems to references to Shakespeare’s Juliet to your use of grammar as simile or metaphor —a la “Punctum / Metaphora” and your phrase “tangle of syntax.” What about these ideas kept drawing you back to them again and again? Were there other “Punctum” poems that you cut or other ideas you liked that had to be removed to keep the collection from overflowing with ideas?

The “Punctum” poems, for the most part, belonged to the essay I wrote as introduction to my MFA thesis. These puncta definitely went through a distillation process to become poems, though I thought each should keep the structure of prose. And you are right; these pieces do make references to grammar and speech, and the important concept of metaphor does appear again and again. The original piece was a personal essay about language, about metaphor, about my parents and their exile-hood and immigrant-hood. It’s an essay I am always writing. But in You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior, I am more attracted to the figure of the “punctum” than I am to the idea of it. The hole, puncture, wound. My book considers a photo (which I don’t include, only describe) of a man fighting the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank. He throws a rock. If I perform an emotional reading of the photo as Roland Barthes instructs in Camera Lucida then that hand-holding-the-rock becomes the punctum for me, the detail that pierces through to reach and forever wound me. I wanted this figure to recur throughout the work without my having to draw any conclusions about it.

You use a lot of religious imagery throughout in a way that is neither wholly irreverent or entirely devotional, twisting Biblical passages into a mirror-image of themselves, as in the  lines “she runs / through a grass, / larkly” in “Veronicas of a Matador.” How do religious ideas or language influence your work more broadly?

Maybe that’s exactly where to find me: between irreverence and devotion. There is something about the ancient rhythms of Scripture, as it comes to us through translation, that I find intoxicating. The repetitions, all that anaphora and epistrophe, all those instances of “and” or “shall.” The Bible is a collection of incomplete texts made of songs, stories, laws, all of which describe an idea of us to us, an expansive idea full of holes, and hives, and strange fields that we can’t fully apprehend. It describes a world while making a world. That’s what poetry is like to me.

How do you balance moments of insight in your poetry—“I continue to believe poetry has revolutionary power” in “Punctum / Sawing a Woman in Half”—with the need to have clear, strong images?

Ezra Pound identifies three kinds of poetry: melopoeia (led by music/emotion), phanopoeia (led by image/imagination), and logopoeia (led by the intellect). I’m happiest when I can keep these three birds in the same cage. Logopoeia escapes nimbly to some far off airport in someone else’s poem. At the moment, in my work, I’m feeling a distinct lack of balance (especially) between assertion and image. I tend to keep a notebook (a physical one and an electronic one) where I collect words, phrases, discarded lines, and right now, almost all of these work in the service of images. When I was younger, a friend told me that my poem was being crushed by the weight of too many nouns! I have no ambitions to work with images the way a photographer does. No, my chosen material is language, it is language (all its gears) that will call up those mental pictures in the head.

Can you talk a little about the “I,” especially in regards to “Soul out of a Magician’s Hat”? What are your feelings about the “I” in poetry today? How is your own playful use of the “I” informed by that?

My feelings about the “I” in poetry today: The I in Mallarmé’s “elocutionary disappearance of the poet,” the delicate I of Sappho, the I’s cabinet of wonders, the I’s blabbering Whitmania, the I at the end of a street or a century of colonial rule, the “supposed person” of Dickinson’s I, the I as a Japanese death poem, the collective I of cattle, the immigrant I, the June bride I, the inmate I, the I’s inside the Great American Songbook, the “extraordinary flower” of Césaire’s I, the I as a painted mask, the I as Keats’s chameleon, the I as my most naked and awkward self, the I I was on Tuesday, the silent Troy of Darwish’s I, the I as yo, the I as tú, the I as el y ella—

About “Soul out of a Magician’s Hat”: I opened my book to the poem you reference and remember the word I originally had quotation marks around it instead of appearing in italics, so that the last couplet read: “So perishably lovely / the ‘I’ unpetaled.” Also, the poem had the line: “the pistil & stamen of the ‘I’” because I thought once that “I” resembled the sexual parts of a flower, a pictograph. I had trouble convincing anyone else of this.

Throughout this collection, your use of internal rhyme and half-rhymes—“leaving” and “loving” in “Errata”; “no reason” and “no right season” in “Havoc Yonder World”—gives your poems a driving energy that helps pull the reader along. How do you handle the push and pull between using sound and avoiding the kind of cloying rhyme that can often push away a contemporary poetry audience?

I have been staring at this question for 37 minutes while typing out the three words, “I love rhyme” before erasing them. Rather than using these three words, I’ll offer three separate thoughts.

1. Rhyme—end rhyme, internal rhyme, slant rhyme—has been chiming nearby throughout my life. As a child, I wrote poems because I liked the sounds of words and I found it fun to rhyme ocean with notion. As a mother to a son with autism, rhyme has been a kind of echolocation to find my way to him. When he was diagnosed at 4, he had little “functional speech,” meaning he would repeat what you had said, or speak in the borrowed sentences of books and movie scripts as he tried to enter conversation. In the year that followed, we would play a rhyming game where I would say a word and he would echo back another: fall/call, city/kitty. Something opened, not simply inside him, but between us. We built a window and we met there through that verbal playfulness.

2. Something about play, playing. That’s where poetry begins, no? Rhyme equals play. I remember the late Brigit Pegeen Kelly telling us in class that she’d come across a gloss on this Genesis line: “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” She’d read that an alternate translation for “to move” could be “to play” so that the Spirit of God played on the face of the waters, which in turn made the world.

3. If you substitute “the Lord” for “rhyming”: the good Reverend Brown says it best in this 13 second YouTube clip from Coming to America (1988).

Interviewer Todd Osborne’s writings have appeared or are forthcoming in The Missouri Review, The Collapsar, Arc Poetry Magazine, Juked, and Storm Cellar, among others. He holds an MFA in poetry from Oklahoma State University, and he is currently pursuing a PhD in poetry at the University of Southern Mississippi.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Catherine Pierce


In Catherine Pierce’s third collection, The Tornado is the World, fantasies of escape and the inescapability of natural forces, the everyday domestic and the apocalyptic, compete with and complicate one another. Characters fantasize about imaginary vacations or contemplate leaving town forever, and also experience small, daily moments of joy, guilt, and gratitude. But through the entire collection, the tornado looms, either as an impending disaster or one they have (or haven’t) survived.

The tornado is much more than an event in these poems; it exists not only as a force that changes those it encounters, but also as a character in its own right. Pierce humanizes the tornado, but humanizing it makes it that much more frightening, adding intelligence and desire to the tornado’s destruction. In “The Tornado Collects the Animals,” the tornado poems reach perhaps their strongest melding of tenderness and terror in the final stanza: “The tornado will wrap them tight,/ It will make sure the poor things/ know what it is to be held.” The human world is at the heart of these poems—people go about their lives both before and after the tornado cuts its path through them—but the poems remind us that a world in which tornadoes exist is a complicated, fraught place. As Pierce writes in “Holy Shit,” “We mean we know this place/ is profane. We mean/ we know it’s sacred.” The Tornado is the World grapples with the question of how to embrace the beauty of the world in the knowledge of how heartbreakingly fragile that world really is—and how to live our everyday lives without becoming paralyzed by that knowledge.

Catherine Pierce is the author of three books of poems: The Tornado Is the World (forthcoming in December from Saturnalia Books), The Girls of Peculiar (Saturnalia 2012), winner of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Poetry Prize, and Famous Last Words (Saturnalia 2008), winner of the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. Her chapbook, Animals of Habit (Kent State University Press), was published in 2004. Her poems have appeared in a number of magazines, including Issue 22 of Memorious, and have been included in The Best American Poetry in 2015 and 2011. She generously answered questions about getting into the mind of a tornado, working within a series, and changing as a writer over time.

There’s an interesting tension in The Tornado Is the World between daily, domestic life and the destruction of that life by the tornado. The tension seems to come to a head in “An Apologia for Taking Things for Granted” as it confronts the impossibility of constant, ecstatic appreciation of the world. How do you see this collection balancing these ideas of the quotidian and the underlying awareness that the everyday is really finite?

When it comes down to it, there’s nothing at all quotidian about the quotidian, of course, and that’s part of what this collection is trying to get at. In other words—what a total miracle, that these things happen daily. That every day, if we’re lucky, we wake up, get dressed, maybe go to work, maybe wrangle kids into eating breakfast, maybe pet a dog, maybe drive past some skyscrapers or cornfields or vistas, have some conversations, and then go to sleep and do it all again. And it’s always, of course, when that everyday gets interrupted, or is threatened to be interrupted, that we cherish it most and really see it for what it is. That’s the tension at the core of this book, I think—that awareness of how flimsy everything we take for granted really is, but also the awareness that if we don’t take some of it for granted, it’s possible to be paralyzed—by fear, by gratitude, or, most likely, by both.

The book is sectioned, with the bulk of the tornado poems sandwiched in the middle (although they also spill over into the first and echo a bit through the third). What was your guiding principle of organizing this collection? 

I ordered and re-ordered this book so many times. At first I tried spacing the tornado poems throughout the book, but that detracted from the narrative arc I was trying to construct. Then I had the book in nine short sections, alternating between tornado poems and non-tornado poems, and that was just really fussy. Finally, I stepped back and tried to think about the most natural way of structuring things. Once I accepted that the tornado poems—the ones that tell the story of the town—all needed to be together, it was easier to structure the rest of the book. The poems in Section I are the ones that felt somehow “pre-tornado” to me—or maybe “pre-disaster”—and the ones in the third section are the ones that felt like the speaker had come through something and was on the other side of it now. Tornadoes show up a bit in both the first and third sections, but there I hope they function more as foreshadowing or aftershock than as part of the actual story of the middle section.

So much of the collection is also based in the idea of escape: the vacation poems, the checkout clerk thinking of leaving town, another speaker trying to outrun a linear narrative. How does the idea of escape interact with poems rooted in place in a town beset by a tornado? What is it about escape that makes it so attractive?

One of the things that makes a tornado so terrifying is that it’s really hard to escape it. Even if you’re able and willing to get the hell out of Dodge, by the time you get a warning, it’s too late. Once the sirens are going off, it’s on the ground. And even if you’re a weather-watcher and see a full day in advance that things are likely to get hairy, you can’t outrun it—tornadoes are usually spun off by big, wide weather systems, and if you start driving, odds are decent that you’ll get yourself into a worse situation rather than a better one. In a way this echoes other parts of our lives—this idea that escape, however appealing it might be, isn’t always possible. So the book, as you point out, includes poems about vacations, tourism, running away, and in most of those poems, those potential escapes are also, essentially, failures. In the “Imaginary Vacation Scenario” poems, the “you” does get to experience the relief of escape, but that relief is always undermined by the premise of the poems—the “imaginary” that’s right there in the title. The Unabashed Tourist poems are playing on this same idea—here you’ve got this narrator whose quest for change through adventure leaves her wanting again and again, and whose blustery confidence in her guidebook-level understanding of place is at best absurd and at worst potentially tragic, as when she wishes a tornado on herself and her fellow diner patrons. So it made sense to me to have these threads weave together in the book—there’s plenty to want to escape, but actually enacting that escape is never easy.

Some of my favorite poems in the collection are from the point of view of the tornado; these poems combine a kind of terrifying tenderness with unbridled need/desire. Why was it important to make the tornado a character rather just an event for this collection? How does one get into the mind of a tornado?

The tornado-as-character actually came before any of the rest of this book. I’ve long thought of tornadoes as essentially sentient—unlike hurricanes or blizzards, they’re these singular, discreet entities, and to me that’s what’s most frightening, how it always feels like they’re making decisions about where they want to go and what they want to wreck or spare. So I started trying to figure out what might fuel something—or someone—like a tornado, what might motivate it to that kind of destruction.

Many of your poems are part of a series of poems (tornado poems, vacation scenarios, etc.). Do you set out to write in series, or is it more the result of recurring obsessions? What does working in series add to your writing that’s different from writing poems that stand on their own?

I do really love writing in series—for me it’s about the chance to explore multiple dimensions of a larger idea, to really burrow into something deeply but also to stay rooted in the lyric poem. The shorter series in the book—the vacation scenarios, the Unabashed Tourist—were a chance to play with a premise in a sustained way. Because in the tornado poems that comprise the second section I was telling an extended story, working with recurring characters, narrative arc, etc., I think of those poems less as a series than as a small book on their own, albeit one that’s supported and textured by the poems in the first and last sections. I had no idea how long that section was going to be when I first started writing those poems—at first I did conceive of them as a relatively short series, but as I kept being compelled by the tornado and the town, I realized that my exploration of this was going to be bigger than my original conception.

“The Mother Warns the Tornado” was turned into a short film for Motionpoems last year. What is it like to see a poem come to life that way? What surprised you about the experience?

Oh, it was amazing. Isaac Ravishankara, the director, made such a harrowing, beautiful film. I think what surprised me most was how emotionally affected I was by the film—I mean, I’d written the poem, so it wasn’t like I didn’t know what was going to happen. But the film completely caught me up in its tension and urgency, and I felt my own heart beating faster as I waited to see how it was going to end. (He also managed to work in some truly remarkable special effects, which is not something we poets get a lot of…)

The voice of this book is significantly different from your last collection, The Girls of Peculiar—more adult, looking outward or forward instead of backward. It made me think of how Louise Glück has said she “swears off” ways of writing after finishing a collection. Are you consciously changing the way you’re writing, or is it more of an organic change? In what ways have you changed as a writer through the course of three collections of poems?

I’d say the change has been organic, but not unconscious. I wrote the book I wanted to write, and while I wasn’t intentionally setting out to change the way I was writing, I was aware of that difference as I was working, and was glad for it. This book’s subjects are different from my other books, and so the voice is different, too (though I do think there’s some overlap there).

Not surprisingly, the ways I’ve changed as a writer over the course of the books dovetail with the ways I’ve changed as a person. I’ve followed my obsessions and fears and loves and ways of thinking, as I think most writers do, and the poems have followed from that. I’m glad I wrote The Girls of Peculiar when I did, because I’m not convinced I’d be able to write it now. Same with Famous Last Words, and especially with The Tornado Is the World. It’s just coming out now, but I started writing it in 2011, not long after my first son was born, and there’s a rawness in the book that was completely organic and that I couldn’t manufacture if I tried.

And finally, what are you working on now? What is the next project for you?

I’m working on my fourth collection, which is maybe currently called The Bravery Convention, or possibly Here in the Future We Are Always Watching Ourselves. I wrote out a pretty academic description of what the book is doing, but it felt too stilted for this interview, so I’ll say that it’s currently about language and desire and love and greed and how place can function as both escape and excuse, and how words can solidify into power. Also Makeout Point.

In short: I’m still following my obsessions, and trusting they’ll lead to something.

Interviewer Christina Rothenbeck is an English instructor at Louisiana State University. She is the author of the chapbook Girls in Art (Dancing Girl Press 2012). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Sugar House ReviewBone Bouquet, and Reunion: The Dallas Review, among other places. She holds a PhD from The University of Southern Mississippi and an MFA from West Virginia University.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Dana Levin

Dana Levin’s fourth book, Banana Palace, has recently been released by Copper Canyon Press. The collection rings with immediacy, drawing readers in with poems that float through nearly apocalyptic landscapes, then zoom in to rest on the bodies within, grounding readers in living, breathing imagery. Levin explores a world after “the bees collapsed and the seas rose up” to speak to us. A world full of hunger, consumption, destruction. But also hope. These striking poems call for us to listen, to look, to see again—before it’s too late.

In addition to Banana Palace, contributor Dana Levin is the author of Wedding Day (Copper Canyon), Sky Burial (Copper Canyon), and In the Surgical Theatre, which won the APR/Honickman Award in 1999. Levin’s poetry and essays have appeared in many anthologies and magazines, including The Best American Poetry 2015, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Poetry magazine, Memoriousand The Paris Review. Her fellowships and awards include those from the National Endowment for the Arts, PEN, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and Guggenheim Foundation. A teacher of poetry for over twenty years, Levin splits her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Maryville University in St. Louis, where she serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence.

The poems in this collection are futuristic and yet grounded in the familiarity of contemporary society. They explore a world in which bee colonies have collapsed, ice has melted, oceans have risen, and where lack of food is a big fear—environmental topics that are particularly timely. How does ecology play a role in this collection?

Well, I do think climate change poses the most profound threat to civilization as we know it; we’re already seeing its effects in terms of drought, flood, storm surge, sea rise, animal and plant migration: it’s happening. And I’m a pessimist in this regard: I don’t think humanity has it in it to put aside greed, will to power, love of convenience, and tribalism in order to make a unified and resourced effort against the industrial practices (global and local, from factory to household) that have heated up Earth.

But this is an analytical response. More intrinsic to Banana Palace is that, in the wake of my parents and sister dying between 2002-2006, something in me broke open to feeling this ecological change. I’d find myself standing on my back deck, weeping in grief for my loved ones, and then suddenly I’d be weeping for the trees, feeling the stress of drought and climate change upon them. Perhaps this was just a projected feeling, but I felt it nonetheless; this feeling drove a lot of the poems in the book.

Some of the poems even feel prophetic in a sense. The haunting opening poem of the third section, “Fortune Cookie” reads as a statement of fact, but holds an eerie feeling of being about more than fact, something akin to prophecy. The title poem, too, has moments that read oracular. Is poetry a type of prophecy? And if so, in what ways is poetry similar to prophecy and the poet to a type of prophesier?

I love Ginsberg’s answer to this question, in a 1965 Paris Review interview. He says prophecy is not knowing such and such a thing will happen on such and such a date, but rather feeling into the future. “HOWL” presents us with the damage mid-20th century American norms inflicted on artists, gays, eccentric thinkers, men who didn’t want to put on a suit and tie and go to work for IBM; Ginsberg offers in this poem, published in 1956, a cure that won’t become a cultural movement for another 15 years: love. Love the one you’re with, love your brother (physically, spiritually). This to me is poetry as prophecy. Pound says poets are the antenna of the (human) race: I think if you’re open to the Muse, messages sometimes arrive that are transpersonal, atemporal, and can seem, in hindsight, quite prescient.

There is play between the mind/body connection and the desire for a disconnection between body and mind in poems such as “Dmitry Itskov: A Cento” and “Across the Sea.”  In the latter poem, the speaker wonders, “Was that the soul, wishing // we would invent the body / out of existence.” And then there are poems like “Murray, My” which feels very embodied in its motions and preoccupations. How do you see the role of the body and mind—and the mind versus the body—in your work? Can we have one without the other?

The birth of art and religion begins with the first human confronting the first dead body: where did that person, or animal, go? Something animating used to be inside that sack of flesh; now the flesh is left but the spirit is gone. This is the beginning of knowing that flesh and spirit are separate in some mysterious way, yet irrevocably joined in order to be what we call “alive.”

We can’t have one without the other, as yet, though some try, like the Russian billionaire Itskov. To me, this drive is the very reason why the planet is in such dire trouble: if you can’t stand your own body, if you don’t want to tend it, if you feel outraged by the reality of aging and death, why would you be concerned with tending any bodies? You wouldn’t. You’d want to trash the whole body thing altogether, or let its appetites rampage with impunity.

I’m at peace now with being embodied, in a way I really wasn’t as a younger person. My body was such a source a physical discomfort, shame, and humiliation, a lot of it due to the internalized fat-shame, female-shame, generated by media and cultural norms. I lived from the neck up. It’s taken a concerted effort, and the help of some amazing body workers, and aging, for me to find this peace.

Hunger, consumption, and destruction are irrevocably linked in this collection. The speaker of “At the End of My Hours” is aware of this when she comments on “the wheel of appetite” and the cycle of “eating to live to kill to eat.” In a way, poetry is a hunger which may result in consumption and destruction. Can you discuss the relation of hunger and destruction in poetry? What did you consume while writing this collection? Was anything destroyed in the process?

Wow, what an interesting question! Well, I sure consumed a lot of chocolate and coffee while writing Banana Palace; I’m a slave to the bean.

Space seems to be a major component of this collection, in the sense of time and otherworldliness, but also in the formal aspects of the poems. Many of the poems look as if they could float off the page with the spaces between lines, indentations, and even the spaces between sections within the longer poems. The forms are visually appealing, adding another layer to the complex connections of images, sight, and sound working in individual poems as well as across the collection. How does form play a role in your work?

White space is a pregnant space, a place of drama: emphatic pause, the violence of being silenced by feeling or experience, lives there. It serves as a proxy for water and air. It’s a pool of non-verbal response. It’s the sea out which written expression arises and recedes. It’s as important to me as text. It gets bigger and more prominent in each book I write.

What are you working on now?

A fraught question! I would lament: Nothing! But my sister would say: That’s a lie. Ideas for essays assail me. Let’s see if I write them.

Interviewer Anastasia Stelse is a PhD student in creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Fairy Tale Review, (parenthetical), and Meniscus, among others.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Eamon Grennan

In his new book, There Now (Graywolf Press), contributor Eamon Grennan gives us a collection of single sentence poems that examine, in intricate cadence and syntax, landscapes as various as a sea cliff in Connemara, a Manhattan street, post-Katrina New Orleans, a Middle East marketplace, and the poet’s back garden. The eye that observes these scenes finds their common shapes while allowing the reader to discern the emotional tenor that unites or divides them. The result is a poetry that reminds us of both the joys and responsibilities of looking, as in “winter city food market,” where we gorge on the sight of “Croakers snappers silver trout striped bass” while, in the same glance, taking in the “homeless / huddle of rags (astride the steam vent on the corner” outside the shop. In between, a woman checks “her own /thereness in…the market’s window.” The poems in the collection lead us to this interstice between beauty and need with a sureness that is both unerring and kind, as we confront where we are in time, space, and self.

Grennan, a Dubliner, taught for many years at Vassar College. He has also taught in Graduate Writing programs of Columbia and NYU. Recent collections are Out of Sight: New & Selected Poems (Graywolf), and But the Body (Gallery, Ireland). His volume, Still Life with Waterfall (Graywolf) won the Lenore Marshall Prize. He has translated the poems of Leopardi (winner of the PEN award in translation) and co-translated (with his partner, Rachel Kitzinger) Oedipus at Colonus (Oxford). He has also written a book of critical essays: Facing the Music: Irish Poetry in the 20th Century.  His latest volume is There Now (published in Ireland in summer 2015, and by Graywolf in Autumn 2016). In the past few years, he has been writing and directing “plays for voices” for a small Irish theatre group—Curlew Theatre Company. He lives in Poughkeepsie and in Connemara.

I’ll start with the obvious by observing that this is a book composed entirely of single-sentence poems. You’ve used this form before for individual poems, of course, and to great effect, but an entire collection of them is a prodigious feat. I found that I needed to read the poems aloud in order to make sure that I caught all of the syntactical twists and turns. For me, the single sentence emphasized temporality—the moment-by-moment-ness of each poem, but also each moment’s place in a much larger and longer chronology, like beads on an invisible string. I’m wondering how the collection came into being, and what you were hoping to evoke with its form.

I can’t really recall the “how” of choosing the single sentence structure, nor “how” the book came into being. I suppose it grew in part out of my interest in speeding up the sense in a reader of so much data in any single observation and/or thought. I have another book in which all the poems are ten-liners, and formally I guess this was in my mind, and I tried or intended to give myself a bit more of a challenge, or a slightly different one this time. As you probably remember, I was always, in teaching, interested in the relationship of sentence to line, and the dance between the two. Cutting out punctuation almost entirely was to increase in a small way the speed, maybe the intensity of presentation. In ways too I guess I was just trying to do something a little differently. Since my range of “subjects” is quite small, I seek variety in shifting a bit the formal energy, the nerve-sense of the poem. And as you note, there’s an interest in the shaping of syntax, which is something I find in so many poets I admire. And I like your image of “beads on an invisible string.” Nice.

Continuing in a similar vein, I noticed very few, if any, commas in the book. (This reminded me of a moment years ago in workshop in which you declared that semicolons really were “disgusting,” weren’t they, and that we should all try to avoid using them. I’ve long treasured this advice!) Beyond affecting the speed at which we read the poems, the lack of pauses distills the action in each, as if everything in the poem is happening at once. Can you talk about your use of tempo within the poems and how it connects to your subjects?

I think your question sort of answers itself, doesn’t it? Fact is, I think (in a certain mood) that punctuation can be a bit artificial at times (though of course it can be a lovely presence too—think Henry James, John Donne). Yeats famously hadn’t a clue about punctuation.  But he knew rhythm absolutely, and so his editors worked it out—or that’s the story. And I always think a semi-colon in a poem is—what?—well not necessarily disgusting (did I say that, lord!), but it suggests too much calculation, or something. And as you justly say, the speed and notion of simultaneity are affected by the absence of those pauses created by punctuation. Back, so, to rhythm. And I used, far as I could without creating blur, only colons (here and there) or dashes—both of which (to me) suggest an on-going, not a halt.

The landscape of Renvyle and elsewhere, and the flora and fauna within each landscape, feel central to the book—the poems often take an image of a bird or plant as a focal point. However, I kept coming across almost antiphonal moments between animals and humans in the poems, suggesting a narrative, or at least connection. For instance, in “sand martins departing,” we see the birds disappearing into the “chambering vacancies in the cliff-face,” and then the poem on the facing page, “gone,” opens with the line “the little house grows quiet now she’s gone from it.” What is the relationship, as you see it, between the natural world and the human in the poems?

Your lovely observations here (“almost antiphonal moments” and others) is likely enough. I can’t add much really. I like such things to be discovered and held up for inspection about what’s going on a poem. You notice what I suppose is there, but maybe as much by happy accident as anything else. Though, yes, at the centre of what I do is something about our ways of relating to the natural world. And I live out here in Renvyle where the natural world of weather, landscape of mountains, rocks, fields, sea is always pressing. I suppose there’s a sort of philosophic tendency, or meditative anyway, in the poems, their habits.  That’s a way to enlarge and deepen the descriptive tendency.  It’s why I love certain painters.

I found myself paying attention to your pronouns as I read. Many of the poems employ a “you” that feels quite intimate—the poet speaking to himself—perhaps more intimate than the “I,” which is more declarative: “I’m thinking of…” or “What I’m hearing is…” (from “flower” and “body,” respectively). There are also many poems in the third person that describe a “he” and “she,” and in places the book shifts from “you” to “he/she” to “I” in the space of as many poems. Why did you employ these differing perspectives?

 It is a funny thing, isn’t it, the way the pronouns adjust somehow the reader’s response to the material, to what’s being said. I find sometimes I use an “I” then change it to a “you” or a “he”—and they’ll all be rooted in the same observing and thing or source. But the use of one or other pronoun shifts our sense of what’s being seen and said. Sometimes things seem too subjective, so then I distance it a bit.  Nothing very profound about that. Again it’s trying to get at a right sense of “how will this work” when received by another. That imagined dialogue between reader and writer.

There are other memorable figures in the book, namely the many artists—Gauguin, Giacometti, Serra, Manet, Bonnard, others—to whom you respond. This creates a mirroring, and perhaps distancing, effect, as you observe another artist observing. What is your sense of how these ekphrastic poems correspond with the rest of the book?

Another good, testing question! Well first the ekphrastic poems are just my little hommages to the artists. Also they are attempts to capture some of their flavour and feel in the way I respond, and to get something of that into the language. Or more simply the painting has triggered something in me, in me as responder, that I want in some way to (sort of) dramatise in the poem. Sometimes it’s just that the emotional content of a painting or piece of art strikes a recognisable chord in me, in my feelings—I feel something for what’s going on in the paintings. As you can see, most of my painters are in one way or another to a greater or lesser degree representational. But I also love paintings where the abstract and the representational hover about each other. But I’m not sure how one would get that into a poem.

The title of the collection, there now, strikes me as particularly apt, both in the sense of pointing to something—a moment, an image—and as an expression of comfort. Are you hoping to comfort us in some way with this book?

No, I don’t think I’m really trying to “comfort.” I think poems are going about some other business—maybe coaxing toward realisation, or something like that. But as for the phrase, yes. I think of it as hovering between an assertion of what’s there (space) now (time).  Suggesting fleetingness, but affirming presence too. And then the comfort thing, yes.  And it’s a common enough phrase in Ireland—meaning, among other things, “well, just look at that will you…”)  It’s also, as Billy Collins reminded me, what a bar-man may say as he plants down your pint on the counter, “There now.” And I like titles, especially book titles, to look in more than one direction.

We have a tradition in this interview series of asking our interviewees for their poetic lineages. In your poem in memoriam to Seamus Heaney, “sudden dark,” you write, of his loss, that you “still have to take the pressing heft and ponder of it to heart.” How did Heaney influence you, and who else is in your poetry family tree?

Of course I admire and have always admired Heaney’s work. Its generosity of spirit, depth of responsiveness, tactility of engagement with the world of nature and things, its responsible and courageous way with vexed political matter. And of course I’d find myself attached to poets like Kavanagh, Mahon, Longley, Montague, Ni Chuilleanáin and lots of others in the Irish context, whom I wouldn’t think I am in any sort of line with, of course. Similarly my admiration for, and feeling of having learnt from poets like Bishop, Kinnell, Plath, Hass, and others in recent American context. But then there’s the mighty ones way back—Yeats, Stevens, Williams, Berryman and so on and so on.  Aside from that there are the forefathers—Herbert, Donne, Hopkins, Whitman, Dickinson, Keats, Wordsworth—the usual nourishers. Lineage is hard to determine, that’s all. One is nourished, and one is grateful.

Interviewer Anna Ross is the author of If a Storm (Anhinga Press) and the chapbooks Figuring (Bull City Press) and Hawk Weather (Finishing Line Press). She teaches in the Writing, Literature & Publishing program at Emerson College.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor David Rivard

RivardContributor David Rivard’s sixth collection of poems, Standoff, has just been released by Graywolf Press. David Rivard is also the author of Otherwise Elsewhere; Sugartown; Bewitched Playground; Wise Poison; winner of the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award; and Torque, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. His poems and essays appear regularly in the American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, Tin House, Poetry London, Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Prize, and other magazines and anthologies. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, as well as the 2006 O. B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Jerome J. Shestack Prize from the American Poetry Review. He teaches in the MFA Program in Writing at the University of New Hampshire. He graciously answered these questions from Memorious editor Rebecca Morgan Frank about Standoff.

Three of the poems from Standoff, “Don’t Doubt it,” “Here We Go,” and “Iron Rising out of Iron,” first appeared in Memorious. Can you tell us a little bit about these poems?

“Don’t Doubt It” and “Iron Rising Out of Iron” were among the earliest written for Standoff—when I read them now they feel as if they emerge out of some of the impulses that govern my previous book, Otherwise Elsewhere: there’s a certain density of sonic effect and perception, and a voice that’s recognizably a person but without totally admitting to the autobiographical. A voice that’s singular, but common?  Shared?  The person who’s being addressed in both poems has a sense of solitude and loneliness about him—a distant cousin to hopelessness. The narrator doesn’t exactly identify with this “you”—he (or is it she?) is conscious of a wider horizon line than the “you” is. She knows about the strange, slightly bewitched randomness of the daily world. She’s very gently putting her hand against the back of “your” head and redirecting “your” attention.

9781555977450“Here We Go” was written a couple of years later, under the influence of Michael O’Brien’s poems, and maybe the aphoristic prose of Pierre-Albert Jourdan and Antonio Porchia. It’s quite fragmented (to state the obvious), each set of images being almost haiku-like. The movement within and between fragments in associative. The associations are reinforced either syntactically or mechanically in the last line of each unit, so that the final line folds into the first line of the next fragment in some way. It’s basic cubist form, but the prosodic effect might be more obvious when read out loud. I wrote a lot of fragments, then cut back, and arranged and rearranged to create the associations through juxtaposition and parallelism. My mind is associative by nature, and I’m drawn to non-linear logic—I’m pretty intuitive about all this. I like the way the poem funnels down to birth date—mine as a matter of fact. Then the speaker is fully present all of a sudden, and the “story” feels as though it’s on the verge of starting up again. I feel like I may have been 3-5 years ahead of myself when I wrote this.

Much of this collection seems elegiac—from the loss of your father, to a daughter leaving into adulthood, to the passing of Mike Mazur. But rather than a direct focus on grieving in this collection, there’s a sense of a speaker continually trying to find his ground in the changing order of the world. In “Arriving from a Destination” the speaker says “my father­–/do I know him at all?” and later “What is it my daughter sees me as?” To this reader, the result seems to be a book that is partially steeped in memory and partially sees the world with new eyes. Did you have a sense of this collection, your sixth, being different than previous ones, being shaped by the changes in your own life, and if so, how so?

Well, yes, my father’s death in particular, I would say—though factually he died toward the very end of the time when I was writing it. The book registers in all sorts of indirect ways his decline, but I don’t feel that I was aware of that exactly when I write it. The approach of his death, my awareness of its coming nearer, and the mix of emotional vulnerability, vibrancy, physical frailty, and willfulness that he seemed possessed by in his late 80’s, early 90’s—those things are all in the book, but not always visible. They’re hiding in plain sight. So, yes, the tone is elegiac in one sense, but it seems to open onto new, unexpected views at every instance. It’s not just a closing down. At moments like this, in anyone’s life, you’re being shown your losses with a clarifying intensity. But the grief can be bracing. You’re really awake in those moments, whether you want to be or not.

I want to say something about the aesthetics of all this. I’m not trying to record or report the details of my life “as it happened.” I’m not an autobiographical poet in that sense. I want simply that the writing of the poem be engaged with my thinking and feeling, entangled with my life as it occurs to me moment to moment. I want the form of the poem to be as close to the actual way I think and feel as it can be, an experience of such. On a day-to-day level, I don’t experience grief—or longing, or anxiety, or political outrage, or love—as if it had the shapeliness of an essay or story. My feeling and thinking is rarely insightful and almost always arrives in non-linear ways. It’s full of blank spots and inarticulate intuitions, prone to baffling surges and leaps, and often open to memory only through random, fragmented images. All of that stuff is going on constantly, along with a voice that seems to be narrating and giving it shape in my head from moment to moment. My poems are chasing after the sensation of that voice.

I have to ask about the poem “That Year,” which begins, “I meet Margaret Mead that year….” Is this autobiographical: did you really meet Margaret Mead? And study anthropology? How has that study shaped your work?

I did meet Margaret Mead, pretty much under the circumstances related in the poem: I was hired by one of my professors in the grad school of anthropology at Princeton to make slides of the Balinese shadow puppets that Mead and Gregory Bateson had collected in Bali thirty or forty years earlier. I was 23, and stayed in the program for only a year—during which time, as the poem also makes clear, I was doing things other than studying as well: i.e., selling weed and acid in the “eating clubs” at Princeton. I left school because I wanted to write poems, and sensed that becoming a professional anthropologist wouldn’t allow it. I had been showing my poems to the late Ted Weiss, who taught at Princeton then, and Ted encouraged me. He also made very clear the demands involved in being a writer. I’ve always felt grateful to him for both things. He was a fine teacher and good man.

I left the Ph.D. program, and crushed my parents really—I was the first person in my working class family to go to college, and they loved that I was at Princeton, and thought I was nuts to give up the opportunity. There was a sadness in that for me, but also freedom, and clarity—I was forced to recognize what I was giving up, and it made me take writing seriously. I highly recommend that kind of moment to anyone who wants to write!

I was drawn to anthropology because it required a “watchfulness,” and that was something I could sense very strongly in myself. It’s as much an art as a science—it requires a willingness to be baffled and clueless about what’s going on, openness to patterns that don’t make immediate sense and are often shifting. Malinowski says that the anthropologist’s job involves “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”  A good anthropologist has some of the same sense of “play” that an artist or writer has.

The title poem begins, “I like reality, I like Rome….” And to me this captures a sense of this being a very urban book, set in, well, “reality.” I can imagine many of these poems beginning through observations on the streets, out in the world. What so you see as the role of the city in your work? And where do your poems tend to begin?

I’ve lived in cities all my life, and I love the simultaneous intimacy and anonymity of them. Also, that feeling that anything could happen as you drift through them, and that almost anything you see—no matter how ordinary (like a plateful of sausages on a handcart, or a woman joggling her baby while ordering a coffee, or a book left on a bench)—could come to seem as if it has some secret meaning. You know, some revelation is always about to occur in the city. I love walking in cities, drifting—some of the rapidity of changes in image and tone in my poems comes from that walking, I think.

My poems begin usually with some compressed sort of musical phrase. Whether it’s image or statement, I like it to sound springy—like the thought or image has been compelled by the music, called into being by it—so that I have the feeling of a thing leaping out of the background, as I do when I’m walking, leaping into some interior space, where it starts to transform itself into other thoughts, feelings, “things.”

Also, the images at the beginnings of my poems are often “abstracted” in odd ways—they’re playing with how recognizable the image is, almost as if I want the thing to seem a bit strange, unfamiliar. Philip Guston said once that he was trying to paint a book in such a way that it would convey what a book felt like to a blind man. I find that enormously appealing—as an idea about process.

This collection is populated with writers and artists; Zbigniew Herbert appears a few times and Transtromer has a poem as well. Are these two poets ones who have been particularly influential, overall, or for this collection? And who else were you reading over the course of this book?

Transtromer, yes, he’s certainly one of the most important long-term presences for me, maybe the most important. I can remember reading his long poem “Baltics” in a Tucson book store in 1979, and being completely floored. I’m working on an essay about his work—in particular, recent translations by Patty Crane and Michael McGriff and Mikaela Grassi. It’s shocking to think of how long his work has remained important, relevant—he represents a sort of endurance test. He’s a profoundly political poet in many ways, but his work possesses an interiority, a transformative vision rooted in metaphor and perception, and as such it poses a challenge to the current embrace of documentary poetics in relation to the political.

Herbert was also an early influence, along with a number of other Central European poets: Milosz, Szymborska, Zagajewski, Salamun, Debeljak. But I think I have more arguments with Herbert’s way of perceiving the world, history in particular. You know, like that moment in “What’s It to You?” in Standoff, in which I sample his idea there are too few souls to go around—as an explanation for evil, for greed and maliciousness and obliviousness, it seems kind of shrewish, too easy. His greatness it’s clear, but after awhile it’s a little like reading Robinson Jeffers—the approach becomes a little predictable, even if powerful.

And to take that question a little further, to a bit of a regular question for these spotlights has become this one: if you were to think about your poetic lineage, who would make it on to your family tree?

My grandparents would be W.C. Williams and Frost and Dickinson (it’s a ménage a trois in the mode of Jules et Jim). If I were to state it as a formula, it would be: perception as idiom + narrational voice/tonal flux + phrasal compression/speed.

My parents would be Adrienne Rich and W.S. Merwin, because they were the first two people I heard read poetry, both within a week of each other. I’ve always felt that they “imprinted” themselves on me—I hadn’t even written any poetry when I heard them. They made me want to write, and they made me aware that poetry was both social and private, public and internal—if it has a purpose (which I doubt), it’s to be both those things simultaneously.

My cousins are numerous. I’ve always read and loved a lot of work in translation—Jean Follain, Rimbaud, Adelia Prado, Patrizia Cavalli, Gottfried Benn, and others, were important to me in writing Standoff. Also, a lot of writers oriented to a more “open field”/improvisational approach: all of the NY School poets, and mid-60’s Snyder, Objectivists (especially Oppen and Niedecker), and Black Mountain types like Creeley, Levertov, Blackburn, Dorn. I would make Creeley’s selected poems one of my five “desert island” books, for sure.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on altering the sense of time in my poems—not just pacing, but the plotting of time, how it composes the poem. I’m also trying to see how much explanation and rhetorical language I can strip out of the poems.

I hope that’s abstract enough to allow me not to have to talk about what the poems are “about,” because (as I think Williams says) when you know what the poems are about you’ve reached the end of your means. Anyway, really, maybe mine have always only ever been about some sweet and sour taste I got from licking something I probably shouldn’t have licked but am happy that I had the chance to and did. Lord knows, maybe that’s all anyone’s poems are ever really “about.”

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