New Interviews

Interviews, New Interviews

Jehanne Dubrow

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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Interviews, New Interviews

Nicholas Friedman

Nicholas Friedman

Interviewed by Chloe Cook

Could we begin with location? “Ampersand,” like other poems in your collection Petty Theft, is grounded in the Northeast where you currently live. (For example, “Cozy Cottages…” is set in Cape Cod.) What is your connection to the Northeast, and how does regionality inform your work?

I appreciate the soft pitch to get me started. I was born and raised in Syracuse, NY, a city most people associate with snow and lack of sunlight. In this, they’re not wrong. But Syracuse is where I’ve imprinted, so to speak, and where I’ve returned with my wife to raise a son. That’s the biographical element.

Getting to what I think you’re really asking, I would say regionality informs my work the way it does most other writers: it’s the familiar against which I judge the unfamiliar. The hemlock in my backyard isn’t a palm tree, and that’s partly how I understand it.

Of course, the familiar has a way of becoming invisible over time, and it takes a departure and a return to really see it again. Because of that, I suspect most writers are willfully prodigal in some sense. I certainly have been. We go away and return, sometimes chastened, with a refreshed sense of our origins.

Even though the eponymous peak in “Ampersand” isn’t terribly far from my home, the poem’s trajectory roughly fits the pattern of departure and return. It’s an out-and-back hike, for one. Then there’s “the small town where we’ll spend the night,” a proxy for home that appears changed in light of a distressing moment. I’ll spare you dissection of the frog beyond that.

 “Ampersand” discusses the history of the beloved icon—it doubles as a mountain and a punctuation mark (though was once a letter and a phrase). The final lines (“everything we’ve traveled for / receding, already, to a symbol”) seem to symbolize (forgive me!) memory. It’s as if the speaker is saying, “This moment has already become part of my history.” What do you think is the relationship between memory and poetry—do they form some sort of sticky web? Is the past the only tense of poetry? Can we reconcile poetry with the present?

I love this question. I think what you’re sensing is the way the poem records the moment of its formation. “Ampersand” has clear narrative elements, but it’s basically a lyric poem. Like other lyrics, it feels like a moment elongated, inspected, and somehow suspended in time. A fly in the amber. I hope the poem creates tension between the present and past, experience and recollection.

To read a lyric poem is to see movement in the inert; presence in what’s obviously past; and elegy for the living (or poetically revived). What recedes to symbol in “Ampersand” is the pair’s experience of their environment and of each other-an experience that dulls in some places and brightens in others as it becomes poetry. The moment captured by a lyric poem has passed before it hits the page, but it’s also in a perpetual present. Like a flea circus, it’s much more alive than one might think on first inspection.

There’s another, less self-reflexively literary sense of recession toward symbol in “Ampersand,” but I hope that meaning will come through without more coaxing.

 “Ampersand” is written in unrhymed tetrameter (and many poems in Petty Theft do rhyme). What draws you to more formal styles of poetry? Perhaps tradition[DL1] , or the joy of using your wit to approach tricky commands? Do you think it’s important for aspiring poets to learn about formalism?

I think it’s crucial for aspiring poets to learn about formalism in the sense that the vast majority of poetry written to date, the last hundred years or so notwithstanding, contains elements of traditional form. That said, the idea of “formalism” has about as much appeal to me as a smoking jacket. I’m concerned with execution. As a reader, I’ve simply noticed that a lot of the poems I find most moving and surprising are formal in some way-though not always obviously so. My desire to better understand those poems-and to write similarly moving poems with similar tools-is the only sustained interest I have in form.

Getting back to our discussion of place, I would say that many poems get their evocative and intellectual force by moving away from something. “Verse,” of course, has its etymological roots in “turn.” There are innumerable ways for a poem to turn or return, whether formally (as in a sonnet), emotionally, or narratively. Form is especially useful here in that its regularity offers a baseline for change.

Of course, many bad metrical poems clunk along like a boot in a clothes dryer. Others let the music of natural speech overlay the felt metrical pulse of the poem. “We enjoy the straight crookedness of a good walking stick.” That’s Frost, a poet much maligned by readers with presumptions of his fustiness. In reality, Frost is a semantically slippery, metrically irregular poet. “The Wood-Pile” is a perfect example, both for its metrical oddity in some lines and soldierly order in others, as well as for its interest in how being “far from home” simultaneously confuses and clarifies.

Do you believe the contemporary poetic landscape is open to formal-leaning poets? Has “craft” become secondary to content (or even sentimentality)?

This question is something of a bear trap, but I’ll step into it. Frankly, I think that a great deal of contemporary poetry is self-obsessed. Now, I want to be careful to distinguish between the impulse to draw on personal experience-no harm there-and the assumption that enumeration of one’s griefs and harms done is a sufficient condition for poetry. In my view, contemporary poetry has become a cult of the individual poet. We’ve turned away from poetry as the primary concern. You might argue there’s more originality to be found in contributor notes than in most contemporary poetry.

I think the elevation of the poet above their work comes with unfortunate consequences for formal poetry in particular. In a good formal poem, the poet is often harder to see. Poets who use form of any variety know just how magically useful it can be in helping to get out of your own way when you’re writing. I suspect this makes formal poetry less interesting to a readership that wants to see the poet suffering through some kind of lived reality. More engagement with form might be the antidote we need for a poetic landscape dominated by poets instead of poetry.

Who are the poets who haunt you? Are there any collections you find yourself reaching for in periods of creative drought?

Larkin. The Whitsun Weddings.

Lastly, give us a sneak peek! What are you working on now?

My second collection, Paradise Is Burning, is slated for publication with Able Muse Press, so mainly I’ve been editing poems in preparation for that. To be honest, though, I haven’t written more than a handful of pages in the last year and a half. Since defecting from academia, I’ve spent most of my free time raising my son, fly fishing small streams, and-much more recently-painting with acrylics. I suspect I’ll find my way home again, but it’s been a great joy getting lost.

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Interviews, New Interviews

Carol Moldaw

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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