Interviewed by Jason Gordy Walker
Your poem “1900” opens with “[a]n old cuss in a MAGA mask.” As the poem progresses, you touch upon the speaker’s personal history, which seems at odds with the political climate(s) it references. I also found the grandmother’s history to be especially moving. During your drafting process, did you consciously know that you wanted to cover so much ground? Did you set out to write a sweeping political poem, or did the poem lead you to, well, itself?
My poem “1900” just showed up. While shopping at our local supermarket chain, Hannaford, on July 29, a Tuesday, the opening line “an old cuss in a Trump mask” started to repeat in my mind. (The word “Trump” would be revised to “MAGA” during the Suptropics editorial process.) By August 6 the poem was done. Here’s how I described the experience in my journal: “I finished ‘1900’ yesterday afternoon…it arrived in one big swoop—a poem engine that after few lines took on its own logic. It was actually fun to write, and I felt so grateful to be given such a poem after so long of a dry spell.”
Though my poems are threaded through with my experience, thoughts, and feelings (and why wouldn’t they be, I am the one writing them down!) I do consider myself in the tradition which places the source of the poem outsideof the poet’s ego. Thus writing a poem feels very much akin to—as both Rilke and Jack Spicer called it—dictation. When the poem arrived I was spending a lot of time with the three women, all born in 1900, that are referred to throughout. I was reading Natalie Sarraute’s memoir Enfance (Childhood) in the mornings. I was working on a libretto about Helen Gahagan Douglas. And my grandmother, well, I had been having these haunting waking visions of the house my mother grew up in (which I’d only seen in photographs). I would move throughout the house and see my grandmother, but only obliquely. She’d be slipping up a stairwell, or through a door, almost as if she were Lewis Carroll’s white rabbit daring me to follow her. I felt that she wanted something, but what? So, that was, as Spicer would say, the “furniture in the room” when my Muse showed up with that first line and started to rearrange it.
As an artist I’ve never been comfortable with the mandate that one must address contemporary issues in order to be relevant. But I live in the present, and cannot be of any other time. Except through books. When we first went into lockdown, I couldn’t write. So I joined an online book group—curated by the novelist Yiyun Li via A Public Space—to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It was the perfect book to read at that moment. I’m certain Tolstoy’s narrative, which validates the inner life of individuals while chronicling the seemingly irrational forces of history, helped my Muse see a way forward.
I appreciate how openly you speak about your Muse and how you work “in the tradition which places the source of the poem outside of the poet’s ego.” Considering the current landscape of American poetry—where ego takes the place of craft in so many cases—what advice would you give to poets looking to get in touch with a Muse? I’m intrigued by your idiosyncratic sense of humor, too, which often feels well-timed and well-placed, despite its riskiness. The speaker-poet tells her partner that “‘The internet knows more / about my grandmother than I do,” a sad statement that charms with its absurdity. Steve replies that it should be the poem’s first line, but the speaker says it’s “[t]oo late”—of course, the reader already knows the poem’s real first line. This is just one example among many of sharp humor at work in your poem. How do you manage to balance laughter with such serious subject matter?
How to get in touch with your muse…hmm, this is a difficult question, insofar as this may be a very personal thing that is different for every writer. So, I will answer for myself, and anecdotally about others. My muse does not like assignments or mandates, and needs space. My muse is Orphic insofar as they (my muse sometimes feels female, other times male) are often in conversation with the dead; this may be through memories or reading. Reading is key. As is enough boredom and silence so that the interior life may listen for cues. I believe that inspiration most often yields great art when a carefully cultivated ground is prepared for its arrival. In other words, if the muse shows up and you haven’t been doing the work of deep reading, contemplating, considering, and psychological self-examination, what will there be to work with? I’ve gone through a series of intense passions for the work of certain writers which inevitably provoke a feeling that they are speaking to me from beyond the grave. This is also a form of muse-inspired creation.
Some years ago I started to notice that many of my poetry students would report having begun writing their poems while driving or in the shower. It occurred to me that these are two places that one can’t easily be on a computer or phone (which is really just a little computer). Perhaps when the mind can wander, when questions can linger (without immediately googling them), when friends can be thought of without immediately contacting them, the poem has a chance to begin forming…this is what I mean by silence and boredom. I remember how, as a kid, I spent so many hours just staring out of car windows imaging other lives, so many hours staring up at the sky. I believe that my youthful wallowing or loafing (as Whitman called it) was a passive invitation to creative inspiration.
As for my “idiosyncratic sense of humor,” well, first of all, thank you, I take that as a compliment! Humor is connected to form for me. This is not original. Poetry in the west has had a long tradition of associating comic tones with certain forms or meters. For example, in Latin poetry, the iambic strophe is often reserved for “low” or comic themes. Epigrams are a form that’s often funny and cutting. Mostly I write free-verse lyrics which either gesture toward traditional English prosody or are heavily indebted to the poetic rhythms of the New American poetry. When I write in those forms, my poems are more likely to be serious or melancholy in tone. I believe that the first time I started to realize that I had the ability to be funny was in writing my memoir, The Middle Room. Something about working in prose and especially narrative allowed this to happen. Since “1900” is a narrative poem, the humor came out. The form of “1900” and its rambling digressive narrative owes much to the poet James Schuyler. I love his long chatty poems such as “The Morning of the Poem” and “A Few Days.” He is a genius at mixing humor with pathos against the backdrop of banal quotidian existence. It also occurs to me that the address in my long narrative poems is often more akin to the address one might adopt in a personal letter: funny, gossipy, exasperated. This is so unlike the personal lyric’s intimate triangulated address, where we often feel the quietness surrounding the poem as we listen in.
“1900” is quite a long poem, stretching across several pages, but it has a strong sense of momentum. The lines, short as they are, have integrity and musicality. Can you talk more about how writing sentences in prose helps you compose lines of poetry?
Reading your fascinating question I found myself curious about that oh-so-very-Latinate word “momentum.” So I did a little sleuthing. This is the OED definition I found most helpful: “The effect of inertia in the continuance of motion after the force has ceased; impetus gained by movement.” The passage cited is from the Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, a book that happens to be a favorite of mine: “If the bird wished to descend, the wings were for a moment collapsed; and then when again expanded with an altered inclination, the momentum gained by the rapid descent seemed to urge the bird upwards.” The noun momentum in Latin can mean both “movement” and “a brief space of time.” It’s almost as if when “moments” pile one atop the other but never turn into an “expanse” we get momentum. Which might help understand the dialectic between grammatical sentence and poetic line. The line breaks the expanse of the sentence into “moments,” which take up less space, as you observe (“the lines, short as they are”). We would not tolerate a person breaking up their sentences as they spoke, but in the poem we don’t have to wait for the next bit, our eyes move down the page with ease. We do not process the poetic line as a break (even though we call them line breaks!).
As for how writing prose helped me write poetic lines, I would say not a bit! Rather, writing prose helped me with sentences, upon which I then grafted my very comfortable and happy relationship to the poetic line. My memoir was a painful apprenticeship to the sentence, during which I tried out all kinds of them. Sometimes they become so very long and digressive I had to prune them back. Other times I essayed a brief formula such as “The days and weeks went by.” But without recourse to the line, I did feel very at sea. Precisely, I now suspect, because I didn’t as yet know how to create momentum without a line break. Of course, many poems have sentences in them (yes, I’m afraid it’s true). A narrative poem that dispenses with the traditional sonic and rhythmic devices of the poetic line (end rhyme, meter, etc.), must create momentum through syntax and line break alone. The poet must collapse her wings for a moment, descend, then expand them in another direction to urge the poem upward. Perhaps my poem’s swoops down into memory and shifts from the contemporary setting to the past, as well as its full-stop mid-poem questionings, may be creating that sense of momentum…But of course, that’s just a conjecture.