Jehanne Dubrow

Interviewed by Taylor Johnson

Dear Geryon—,” “Dear Glass—,” “Dear Camera—,” and “Dear Cat’s Eye Marble—” all embody the form of a right-aligned sonnet. Could you share a little bit about how you employed form and formal structures when crafting these poems? How did the writing process shape or reflect their content?

These four poems come out of a series of Anne Carson-inspired pieces. So, even though these are rather traditional sonnets, I was also asking myself: how would Anne Carson engage with the page, if these were hers. Carson is so thoughtful about white space. And I thought that the right-hand alignment might be a choice she would make. The poems—the fact that they’re epistolary sonnets—is also inspired by a move Carson makes in her 2015 translation of Antigone, which she titles Antigonick. In Carson’s translation, the play contains a similar epistolary moment, in which the poet addresses Antigone in a very intimate, direct fashion, almost as if they’re friends. I find this moment really moving and wanted to express myself in a similar way, speaking to moments (as well as characters and objects) in Carson’s writing.

It appears that Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red was a significant touchstone in the creation of these poems. How has Carson’s work influenced you?

For a while now, I’ve been working on a very long essay about Autobiography of Red, tentatively titled “Red Monsters.” The essay is about queerness and the queering of form: hybridity. There were prose poems I wrote in the voice of Geryon (I imagined Geryon attending a Zoom meeting with students in a creative writing class and answering their questions about his relationship to Carson’s writings). And there was a sequence of these sonnets. I also wrote an epic poem about Arachne, entirely in Sapphics! It was a bisexual retelling of how Arachne is transformed into a spider, and maybe the poem will never see the light of day. But, together, these pieces form something of a weird and perhaps unpublishable manuscript.

Reading Carson’s work has given me permission to bend genre, to be strange, to play with allusion and intertextuality. I don’t know if I always succeed in following her model. But I’m certainly grateful for the permission her work has given me to experiment with form and to queer genre.

When working so closely with another writer’s work, how did you distinguish your voice and personal style from that of your subject? What were some of the highlights or challenges you faced when writing this series of poems?

Hopefully, when working on any project, form and content become inseparable. I think these poems still sound like me, like sonnets I would always write. But the landscape of the poems is certainly informed by Carson’s work. The biggest challenge of writing these pieces was to make sure they could stand on their own, without prior knowledge of Autobiography of Red or “The Glass Essay.” I want readers of Carson’s poetry to feel that spark of recognition when they read my sonnets. But I hope the poems also function without additional context.

In “Dear Geryon—,” I was quite drawn to the speaker’s “own magenta wings,” and later, in “Dear Glass—,” to the description of a glass splinter lodged into the speaker’s hand. Such images seem to emphasize some of the themes that recur throughout this series of poems—beauty, pain, and artifice. Would you discuss the craft behind these themes? Does your body of work share these themes with Carson, or are they part of this project alone?

My writing is grounded in the body. I’m drawn to images that are connected to sensory experience, especially when those images also speak to psychological trauma. Carson is so skilled at constructing images that engage with the body. When Geryon meets (and falls in love with) Herakles, Carson writes: “They were two superior eels / at the bottom of the tank and they recognized each other like italics.” Later, when the two teenagers fight, Carson says they are like “two cuts” that “lie parallel in the same flesh.” I love the physicality of this language.

I’ve always believed that poems should contain lots of big ideas. But the poets I love always conceal abstractions within images. These poets understand that ideas, in themselves, may not be compelling until they’re given flesh, a beating heart. Perhaps, this is why I return to Carson again and again—because she understands how to root ideas, how to anchor them in bodily sensation.

Beyond Carson, what are some poems that haunt you?

Some of my touchstone poems: Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas,” Louise Glück’s “The Wild Iris” (that whole collection, really), Natasha Trethewey’s “Incident,” Anthony Hecht’s “The Book of Yolek,” Marilyn Hacker’s book-length sonnet sequence, Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge” (especially the Felstiner translation), Charles Baudelaire’s “L’Albatros”(one of my favorite ars poeticas), Rita Dove’s “Adolescence II,” Robert Pinksy’s “The Unseen,” Tarfia Faizullah’s “The Interviewer Acknowledges Shame,” Czesław Miłosz’s “Encounter” (“Spotkanie,” which is even lovelier in the original Polish), and Beth Bachmann’s “Paternoster.” The Odyssey (hard to pick a favorite translation, but I love the Lattimore, the Fagles, and the Wilson versions). Oh, and I’m pretty passionate about Eduardo Galeano’s The Book of Embraces. That whole book is a haunting.

Do you have any advice for new and emerging poets?

I’m going to say the same thing that everyone seems to say. Read. Read more. Read across centuries. Read across continents. Avoid trends. Don’t worry about what’s in fashion. Just read what interests you, what terrifies you, what distresses you, what perplexes you. Don’t read solely what you like or what validates your opinions. Yes, reading can be a comfort, a kind of mirror, reflecting one’s own understanding of the world. But it can also be something that destabilizes us, in all the best ways. We can read to be enlarged by reading beyond our comforts. We can be pushed beyond our small, narrow selves.

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