Interviewed by Kayla Beth Moore
You’ve got two very different laundry poems in this issue. How would you describe the role of domestic labor in each of these pieces? Is it background music, the thing that’s happening while the speaker explores another domain in her mind, or is it more intrinsic to the poem or consciousness of the speaker than that?
Ha, I didn’t even notice that connection when I sent the poems off! They were just the most recent poems I’d finished. Mostly I think just enjoyed how different they are, format-wise, paired together. In fact they came from very different places. “A Monkey Thing” wasn’t called “A Monkey Thing” until quite recently, and had a lot of different formats and settings and intersections of material over several years during which I returned to my high-school-band-at-the-laundry material. “Chorus Line” happened rather quickly; I’d been looking through an art book called Madam and Eve: Women Portraying Women and, as an exercise, writing a single quick sentence about 50 paintings each in turn. There was a painting of somebody’s tights on a rooftop clothesline. I took the sentence I wrote about that one, and started messing around with it.
But here’s the thing: Laundry has been a big deal in my life for the last half-decade or so, because first my dryer broke (so I was hanging wet clothes—including tights!—on the line in my tiny back courtyard, as well as in the shower, over the railings, on the radiators, etc.) and then my washer broke a couple years ago, and I couldn’t afford to buy new ones, so I was going to the laundromat around the corner all the time. And while I don’t think of my poems as autobiographical in the sense that I am trying to tell people literally what-happened-to-me-plus-metaphors (after all, I think of “I” as a performance and a strategy, not as myself), certainly whatever I am spending a lot of time on, in my life, is likely to get into my poems. I don’t mind domestic labor, and sometimes enjoy it, although like most women (people?) who also work a more or less full time load, plus act as the frontal lobe for their household, I feel a bit peeved about it at times. I should add that I did finally buy new appliances recently, and in fact, in retrospect I’m pretty sure that coincided with my finishing both of those poems. Hmm. Direct relationship between convenience and productivity? I may be finished with laundry for thematic content for awhile, anyway.
What does prose poetry afford you that other forms don’t? Do you even care for the distinction of “prose poetry” as a form, opposed to more traditional, enjambed things?
I’ve written only four prose poems in my life that I’ve published, so it is hard for me to speak with any expertise about the format (none of the four started out as prose, although occasionally a poem of mine which is lineated in its final form started out as prose). Naturally, my inexperience with purposefully making prose poems hasn’t stopped me from developing a craft class I’ll teach this July at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers (where I’m faculty) about prose poems. I want to figure out more about it: what makes a prose poem work? But I’m not particularly interested in genre distinctions. I mean, shrug. I do love this little thing by Harold Nemerov:
BECAUSE YOU ASKED ABOUT THE LINE BETWEEN PROSE AND POETRY
Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned into pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.
Then came a moment that you couldn’t tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.
And I like Gertrude Stein’s “What is poetry and if you know what poetry is what is prose…” (Quoted from memory but that’s the gist.)
But ultimately what interests me with any piece of writing is what makes it tick, what’s its logic, from the inside out. Why does the format the writer has selected for it, or arrived at, become necessary to the thematic content? So my two questions for myself and for my class (and I try to teach classes mainly where I don’t have the answers) for any poems we will be looking at will be: 1) What makes it good? and 2) Why does it need to be in prose? That is, why does this piece of writing need to give up the power of the line?
“A Monkey Thing” took many forms over several years, most of them lineated. (One of the things I do quite often when I’m looking for the poem in the material is to change lineation: short to long, even to jaggedy, lines to prose to lines, etc.) At one point, under a different name, it was trying to be a sonnet sequence! When I switched into prose, I loosened up some of the language, which in turn suggested other rhythms and syntaxes available to me, when also seemed to dose the poem with badly-needed oxygen, and allow me to meander in ways that felt natural rather than excessively mannered—which is how my digressions in the lineated format(s) were feeling to me. The baboons only arrived in the poem once I started in with the prose. I don’t really know why. They seem to me (at least the ones at the Paris Zoo) chaotic animals that don’t do well in the cage of my line breaks…
So maybe my aesthetic metaphor here, with this particular poem anyway, is Free the Baboons!
Your poem “A Monkey Thing” begins in a laundromat and ends with the speaker’s memory of a Paris zoo. It’s lovely and it called to mind for me Baudelaire’s introduction to Le Spleen de Paris where he says that poetic prose is something of a miracle, that it’s “musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple enough and jarring enough to be adapted to the soul’s lyrical movements […] to the twists and turns that consciousness takes.” Do you agree with this idea, would you amend it?
I’m so in love with that Baudelaire passage. Thank you for reminding me of it! “Supple and jarring enough.” You can substitute that for my explanation of why I turned “A Monkey Thing” into prose: because prose was supple and jarring enough to get from the laundromat at 9th and Christian Streets in Philadelphia to the Paris zoo, not to mention back into the speaker’s teenage past when she awkwardly propositioned a grownup volleyball player! (What was she thinking!?)
You’re a great poet of people-watching. Has this always been an inspiration or interest of yours?
I live in Philadelphia where the people-watching is good: lots of people out and about, lots of character and variety here. My husband and I have always people-watched together. We love sitting in cafes wherever we are, and drinking coffee or beer and scribbling or reading and looking at people and talking. So much evidence passing by. I’m just remembering we used to have this thing where we’d take the bus to NYC for the day (Philly is 90 miles south of NY), and before doing whatever else we had planned, we’d go to the first Starbucks we found near the bus station and sit in the window and drink coffee and count how many passersby actually looked happy, and it was like 1 in 10 in midtown Manhattan. But I mean, yeah, doesn’t everyone write novels in their heads about people they see? Doesn’t everyone look for evidence that other people are doing it right or wrong or differently? I also learn a lot about language from eavesdropping—what’s really idiomatic as opposed to what do authors like to pretend is idiomatic? How do people reveal or evade or withhold themselves by what they say and how they say it? The thing about putting other people in your poems: they kind of disrupt the fixed authority of your “I,” right? They reflect something about the speaker (what I say about somebody else is not only about that person but also about me), but also they don’t let the speaker get away with as much lyric supremacy. They allow the speaker to be embarrassed or hesitant or even shitty in ways that are hard for a lonely “I” to reveal convincingly about herself.
You have a book called Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice. You spend the whole of the book playing with the idea of a “women’s poetry” and teasing strands away from the concept. I’m curious whether you think there is such a thing, or rather, if there is a specifically female consciousness that exists in the poetry women are writing these days.
Re: the title of that book: I mean it with complete sincerity and with perfect irony. The book’s title poem starts by ventriloquizing Marianne Moore’s famous poem “Poetry”: “I too dislike it.” The great thing about that line is that it makes liking or not liking poetry a non-issue while also telling us what’s important about poetry. We don’t say “I like” or “I dislike” about breathing, or love. So why say it about poetry either? The statement is also literally true: I don’t like women’s poetry or men’s poetry or anyone in particular’s poetry. I only like individual poems. I need poetry. Women’s poetry, of course, does and doesn’t exist. It’s like a car (the title poem is about a pimped-out car). It might have purple lights underneath, or outrageous hubcaps, or an enormous spoiler jutting off the back, but underneath it’s still a car.
It does occur to me to ask, at this moment when the visibility of trans and gender-fluid poets and poems and politics is high, whether the question about “specific female consciousness” is the same as it was when I wrote that poem and that book. I mean, it is for me—I only can write out of my own experience. One of my students, whose pronoun is “they,” was writing about femininity, and I realized that I think I have much less of a sense of what that might mean than they did, maybe because I’ve never particularly had to ask myself what my gender was. I’m like, I’m a female, so if I do it, it’s feminine. Is my female experience (cisgendered het married middle-aged mom) different from the student poet’s? But isn’t it also different from all the other cisgendered het married middle-aged moms of my acquaintance? Really, as with the question of genre and prose poems, the question of gender and poems is less interesting than the specifics of each poem. But that—as my undergrads say—is just me.
What are you reading this summer? Any current writing projects you’d like to share with us?
I’ve been reading around for my prose poem class—I’ve been particularly interested recently in Bhanu Kapil’s Ban in Banlieu, Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women, Donna Stonecipher’s book about the prose poem, Prose Poetry and the City, and Kate Colby’s Dream of the Trenches (which is billed as “Essays” but I dunno.) These aren’t really discrete narrative or lyric or dream sequence prose performances, but rather fragments of things rubbing up against and building on each other—and I think that’s one of the things that’s interesting me about them. How do you get incompleteness to perform? I thought Jeffrey Yang’s Hey Marfa was fascinating, one of last year’s best books, written in all kinds of formats collaged together—plus paintings and drawings by Rackstraw Downes—as a way of thinking about place and colonization and history and art and violence.
I’m also very much liking Connie Voisine’s The Bower, not prose poetry, but a book-length personal/political travelogue in couplets, divided into shorter sections, having to do with the city of Belfast and its conflicts and music and stories, with growing up American and working class, with mothering, with reading. Connie is compassionate and steely, lyric and thinky, and I love those combinations. And I’m reading Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady again, third time through, I think. A book I love.
I’m working on my fourth book of poetry, poem by poem. (I don’t write project books; I just write poems that start to link up when there’s a whole bunch of them that are good enough.) I’ve got about three-quarters of a manuscript, I think. An ongoing project, meanwhile, is that of selecting the poems for Scoundrel Time, the online literary resistance journal, where we’re building an archive of responses to the current political climate. One feels so helpless just now, but this feels like creating space for humanity and attention in the midst of everything working against those things.