Carol Moldaw

Interviewed by Olivia Burnett

Your website bio describes you as an “American lyric poet.” What draws you to writing lyric poetry, and how do you see yourself engaging with the lyric tradition?

Lyric poetry draws me to it by its crystalline beauty, by the way it can be a sound chamber, a still point, fireworks: both arresting and in motion; moving in ways that can’t be paraphrased. It can, through sonics and image and voice, distill mysteries as well as clarities. Its lucidity is not superficial and not explanatory. The lyric tradition, to the degree that I know it through a lifetime of reading, has shaped and guided me. In that sense, I’m in conversation with it, in conversation with Sappho (in many translations!) and Louise Bogan, to name two poets whose sensibilities have shaped mine.

I particularly loved your poem “Painter and Model (II)” from this issue of Subtropics. Do you have any experience with the visual arts? Are there specific visual artists who have influenced your writing?

I don’t have experience as a practitioner of the visual arts (I draw like a not particularly gifted three-year-old) but engaging with art is meaningful to me—thought-provoking, emotionally-charged, and awe-inspiring—and has been for as long as I can remember. I have vivid memories from girlhood of the roomful of Clyfford Still paintings at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art when the museum was on the fourth floor of the War Memorial Building. They were so powerful and mysterious, without precedent in my life. The poem “Painter and Model (II)” was influenced by thinking about the writings of the British painter, Celia Paul, whose body of work I greatly admire. Its companion poem, “Painter and Model (I),” is more of an ekphrastic, examining Lucien Freud’s “Painter and Model,” after having read Celia Paul’s first memoir, Self-Portrait. Other specific poems of mine have been influenced by different works, such as Walter De Maria’s land artwork, The Lightning Field, which inspired my sequence “The Lightning Field.” I don’t think any one single artist has had an outsize influence on me, but certain artists and pieces resonate with me. I’m thrilled that a watercolor and pastel piece by Cecily Brown will grace the cover of Go Figure.

In the same poem, you describe “solitude [and] self-denial” as “integral to [the artist’s] calling.” What would you say is the poet’s version of these qualities? What is integral to the poet’s calling? 

Actually, in “Painter and Model (II),” I mean to be noting that Celia Paul herself seems to consider “solitude and self-denial” as integral to her calling and, also, to be contrasting that to my own temperament and circumstances. A certain amount of solitude is integral to any artist’s work, I would think; it’s just a matter of the amount one needs or has available. I value solitude enormously but find that I do best when it is balanced within the context of friends and family. I’d say that importantly a poet needs to be able to observe both inner and outer phenomenon, to listen, to hear into silence, to conceptualize—find words and images for—the inchoate as well as the palpable. Obviously, a poet needs to have a love of language, though not a blind love. A poet needs always to be interrogating language. Curiosity, perseverance, self-sufficiency, a love for the art itself.

I love that you say poets “cast our muses sidelong looks.” How much discretion do you feel is necessary when writing a poem? How much of a separation do you tend to place between yourself and your speakers?

After reading Celia Paul’s Letters to Gwen John, I started to think about the difference between the way artists put their subjects in a pose, but poets gather their materials from what they perceive in the course of life. They create their own freeze frames. A painter might have someone pose for hours, week after week, and a poet might take just as long constructing their material, not necessarily surreptitiously but sort of on the sly, without (one hopes) anyone aware of being watched.

While I’ve written persona poems, in general the “I” in my poems is a version, a portion, of myself. I thought a lot about discretion when I was writing the poem “Beauty, Refracted,” in which I tried to record—in order to understand—a version of events my family experienced when our daughter was young. I knew that it wasn’t even primarily my experience and I tried to be respectful of that. I also wanted to preserve a sense of what had occurred, or at least my understanding of it, for my daughter.

I think where I ran up against this the most was in my novella, The Widening. It has been misread as a memoir and even as a series of diary entries, but I think it falls more under autobiographical fiction. It’s in the third person and there are subtle layers between the character and the narrator’s perspectives, understandings. Some of it is pure fiction, and it wasn’t until later that I realized, with pain, that I’d done a disservice to people who would see themselves in characters and see themselves portrayed doing things they hadn’t done, and perhaps also to people who saw themselves portrayed rather rawly. I would think twice about that today.

Moving onto “Keisaku Palm,” I’m interested in the fact that the speaker has this everyday experience that immediately triggers something else in her mind. As a writer, do you tend to find yourself making immediate connections like this and shaping a poem around them, or do you tend to find those connections through the writing process itself?

Those immediate connections are very rare, though I have to say that having a large palm frond fall on my head didn’t seem to me an everyday experience! A poem of mine that comes to mind in this regard is “The Butterfly.” When I sat for an hour or so with a butterfly on my finger, I knew immediately that the feeling it gave me was something I had to try to capture in words. It took me a long time, years, to be able to surrender to the poem itself. It had to wait for information I didn’t have at the time of the experience, the notion of the God having “secret names.” Once I heard about that, the poem coalesced and found its form.

Sometimes an occurrence will bring up the sense of connecting to a deeper or larger meaning immediately, but even then, the process of writing gives it body and uncovers unexpected connections, resonances. So, the answer to your question is that both occur, the immediate connection and then what is uncovered, made manifest, in the writing. I find it satisfying when I’m able, through the writing and shaping, to express something that moved me profoundly but that, at first, I almost had no words for. Writing is always an exploration and a discovery, in the course of which, something new is created.

Your seventh book, Go Figure, comes out next year. How different has the writing process been for this book compared to your previous books? Do you have any advice for newer poets when it comes to putting together a collection of poetry?

From the very beginning, even though I didn’t know what the unwritten poems would be like, I wanted this book to move from poem to poem in one sweep, without sections. Of all my books, only my first one, Taken from the River, which was shorter, didn’t have sections. I knew that I wanted it to have an internal flow and build that was beyond logic, beyond “subject,” beyond chronology. I wanted images and ideas to come and go and reappear with an organic intrinsic rhythm and for resonances to accrue as the book went on. As poems accumulated, I placed them in clusters and the clusters kept shifting and growing and then eventually met at the edges.

My advice to newer poets is probably too old-fashioned to be useful unless the cycle of fashion changes. I like to see where a poem leads, to let the poems take the lead, to write poem to poem, to let themes reveal themselves, to the extent that I pay attention to themes at all. I find that if I state intentions to myself too consciously and too early then I stymie myself. I like things, ideas, to rise to the surface and unfold. The intentionality comes in the shaping of elements as they start to appear and even that shaping has a lot of unconscious energy. So my advice to newer poets is to let those things happen and then to choreograph the elements that have revealed themselves.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about the poems featured in this issue?

I appreciate this opportunity to talk about my work. Your questions were thought-provoking! To the discussion about “Painter and Model (II),” I’d just add that part of what drew me to Celia Paul’s writing, besides its lyrical beauty and ability to express subtle thoughts, is her dual perspective, as a painter first and foremost, and as a muse as well, the muse of a painter with a formidable reputation (in more ways than one). This is a particularly female dual-experience. The one thing I did understand about Go Figure from the outset was that in it my experience and perspective as a woman artist were of foremost importance.

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