Interviewed by Stephen de Búrca
Something that stands out in your five “Anonymous” pieces is how careful and precise the speaker is in establishing the scene for the reader, as if to avoid affecting the scenes. Had you a particular series of photographs in mind while writing the five poems? What was the motive for this precision? And could you speak a little to how the speaker asserts her voice in the final section?
Yeah, that sounds right—“as if to avoid affecting the scenes,” though I didn’t aim for that deliberately. These poems are rooted in an anonymous photo album I bought years ago, in a junk shop in Brooklyn, and much later they grew out of a slightly inexplicable but strict procedure I came up with. The album contains 98 small snapshots of a group of girlfriends, in maybe their late teens, probably around 1910, and there’s no identifying text or captions. I’d spent a lot of time, over the years, staring at these photos and feeling this hopeless, trite, hopeless longing to know more about the people in them. So the procedure I devised—which I think drives the precision you mention—was an attempt to articulate that longing, which is so resistant to articulation, precisely because it is so universal or generic. The procedure involved rephotographing each snapshot, enlarging it on my computer, cropping it (in various ways, depending on the image), describing the section I’d cut in very clear, neutral prose, and then (months later, once all this was done) relying on only the prose (no peeking, etc.) to write a poem about what was no longer in each picture. I think the idea behind all this compulsive activity was: When so much of an artifact’s meaning is gone, why not remove more? Is it possible, in this way, to give the severed object some sense of a backstory, some connection to a past? I found myself using the series to generate a voice that stuck to the page while avoiding “style,” the devices I usually manipulate to make a poem sticky. So when the first person crept in near the end of the series it felt intrepid—it’s my first-person, my own thought unspooling, but as I wrote those lines I felt myself watching it happen in a very third-person way, my voice stripped of “poetry” yet generating a poem.
You said in a previous interview that English was the third language you learned, after Czech and German. (As someone who was raised speaking English and Irish, I feel it gives me a detachment from language that allows one to poke around at a language’s nooks and crannies.) What has your experience, as a poet, with this been? Do you feel this gives you a more objective relationship to a language as a mode of expression, rather than expression itself?
I don’t think I’m more objective regarding language (probably the opposite?), but yes, I feel that having this visceral bond with a very different language like Czech gives me a friendly skepticism about what English, or any language, can do. It sharpens my appetite for playing with language. And then I tend to be easily bored by “expression itself.” I care much less what a poem is saying than how it goes about saying it—or it’s more like I think how a poem says something is what it is saying. But this conviction seems to arise not so much from my detachment from English (which you mention, and I also feel!) as from my totally immersed love of it.
Your second collection, No Matter, is set to be published in July by Tim Duggan Books. Congratulations! I’ve heard many poets speak of feeling a sort of freedom (whether it’s in terms of voice or style, or even subject, that is more in line with how they might view themselves as poets) once their first collection is published. Was this your experience? Was your approach to No Matter different from your first collection, The After Party? And can you give us a sneak peak of what to expect from No Matter?
Thank you! I don’t know about feeling free (I wish I had!)… I think because experimentation and instability of voice/self are some of the things nearest to me as a poet, when I finished The After Party I just felt crazily eager to embark on the next thing, with a new set of parameters and problems. And I was lucky to have gotten a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, which gave me nine months to focus on the next book just when I needed it. (I’d had a baby three weeks after The After Party came out…) The result is that No Matter feels like a more focused, compacted object than my first book—it contains as much formal variety, I think, but its themes are more relentlessly interconnected. Actually the first things I started working on, after The After Party was finished in 2015, were these “Anonymous” poems. And then once I got to Radcliffe they became the kernel of the new manuscript. The impulse to “cut back” in a situation that’s already hopelessly austere—which I think is a very human, all too human impulse—ended up being a central theme in No Matter, a cognate of the temptation to be stoic, to retreat into oneself, in difficult times. A lot of the poems in this new book orbit around questions of how we deal with suffering and how a society is different from just a group of individuals, and what an individual can expect from her fellow individuals, and how damaging it might be if everybody truly believed in the virtue of self-reliance—if nobody asked anything of anyone.
And finally, when writing poetry, what are your reading habits like? Do you read poetry or do you read other genres? Who/what do you read? Any guilty pleasures?
While I was writing No Matter last year I assigned myself a pretty specific reading list, which isn’t how I usually proceed but it seemed right for this book—Greek and Roman Stoic philosophy, and truly weird medieval travelogues, and Spenser’s translations of Joachim du Bellay’s sonnets on the ruins of Rome, and pastoral poetry and scholarly texts on pastoral poetry. Basically stuff to get me in the mood to ponder the end times. Lately on the subway I’ve read novels by Margaret Drabble, Danielle Dutton, Natalia Ginzburg, and Yuko Tsushima, and various poets and biographies in between. I feel sort of embarrassed to say I don’t have guilty pleasures as a reader, because I instantly get bored if the stuff is not firing on all cylinders. But I have a weakness for British TV. I watched all of Gavin & Stacey a few weeks ago, and almost felt compelled to write an essay about its bizarre homophobic subplot (involving the Rob Brydon character) and about the conservative streak in a certain kind of comedy. Instead I found another British show to watch.