New Interviews

Interviews, New Interviews

Jennifer Moxley

Jennifer Moxley

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.

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Interviews, New Interviews

Laurence O’Dwyer

Laurence O’Dwyer

Interviewed by Janice Whang

One of the primary pleasures of this essay was how it obsessed over and revered the “back-end” processes and tools of creating, challenging notions of labor and treasure. This essay is a polished “front-end” product that the reader gets to enjoy. Could you speak on one of the mundane, industrial, dirty yet exquisite steps of creating this essay? 

I think of its ending—leaving the lab, which is also a workshop, a garage—cycling from the door of my old home in the Netherlands down to the Mediterranean, stopping by the house of my collaborator along the way. That journey was a useful counterweight to the thousands of hours we spent staring at code on a screen. I arrived at my friend’s house, tired and dirty, but mostly happy. There were apocalyptic floods through the north of France. Engineers were worried about bridges over the Seine. I had been cycling, in theory at least, by the Saône—the road often disappeared under water. I too disappeared into wind and rain and mud. Once I reached the valley of the Rhône, it felt like the beginning of the Roman empire: vineyards, yellow houses, columns of sunlight. The rains had passed. I saw a lizard and thought: I am now in the south. None of this is ordered or polished—it is the opposite of what I was trying to achieve in the essay—but I think it has something to do with the garage-end, the wires and gears of any story or adventure.

The structure of this essay reminded me of holding a precious stone in my hand and slowly turning it to see how different facets caught the light, the way it methodically explored the manifestations of single patterns in different settings—the jewelry atelier, patch-clamp lab, computer programming lab, etc.. The poem which this essay is named after, “Piedra de Sol,” also has an interesting structure. Could you speak on how the architecture of the poem “Piedra de Sol” and this essay relate to each other? 

“Piedra de Sol” is a poem of 584 lines; this number corresponds with the synodic period of Venus. The first six lines are repeated in the last six lines, so it wheels back to the beginning, creating an infinite loop. I was unaware of its structure when I first listened to Octavio Paz reading it. The poem simply seduced me; the words are sensual, almost corrupt in their beauty—listening to it you can feel yourself drowning in sunlight. The pleasure of the poem is not dependent on any knowledge of its structure. Likewise, you don’t need to know anything about the art of diamond cutting to appreciate a precious stone. Looking at the craftsmanship of the poem after repeated reading and listening, the hendecasyllabic—eleven syllable—lines, which give “Piedra de Sol” its current and flow, seemed comparable to the jewels that I had seen in the workshop that I have tried to describe in the essay. Each line in the poem is a jewel with eleven facets. Remembering the tools in the  workshop—the burin, the chisel, the cast-iron disc—I wonder how Octavio Paz labored over this poem. How did he distil his experiences into such a tightly controlled dream? The dream gives no hint of a blueprint; it is simply light-in-a-word—a thing to behold, floating and shimmering in the heat. The essay tries to tease out the links between this effortless flow and the discipline that is needed to hammer out works of art that appear to be perfect and flawless.

Related to this, the way certain principles and patterns reappeared throughout gave me the sense that these tactile tools and repetitive tasks were connected to something vast and universal. What first prompted your desire to blur the lines between surfaces and depths? 

Biology. Butterflies often use dishonest signals, called Batesian mimicry, whereby a species that is not poisonous mimics a poisonous species, without having to invest in making the toxins that the “honest” butterfly makes. Depth and surface are a serious business. Butterflies are engaged in chemical warfare. Even for one who has studied these things very carefully, for example a bird, it can be very difficult to distinguish between these honest and dishonest signals.

I was also very happy when I found some evolutionary papers that point to the possible origin of our preference for glittering objects. Precious stones remind us of light shimmering on the surface of flowing water and flowing water is more likely to be free of bacteria and pathogens than stagnant water. So our innate attraction to precious stones may stem, in part, from our origins as sweaty, thirsty animals, keen to find a water source that will not give us diarrhea or dysentery.

The base-pairs of DNA offer yet more keys and open still more trapdoors to windings stairs that descend to who knows what depths. Those base-pairs also bring to mind the even simpler binary code of the internet.

I was admiring how quiet, soothing, and marveling the tone of this essay was when I came across the line “True works of art are almost always discreet and unobtrusive” in a section describing Prince Boris as “an international swindler.” How would you describe the relationship between tone and authenticity in this piece? 

Boris is ostentatious; he is employing a form of Batesian mimicry—his signaling is dishonest. Is this innate? Would he have been a swindler without the chaos of the Russian revolution? As a chancer he knows that anything can happen; chance is capricious and unsystematic, but that not very profound insight also leads him to test the hypothesis (perhaps not unreasonable) that if he clicks his fingers he can become Prince Boris I of Andorra. He likes playing at this roulette wheel. Conversely, most of the artisans and scientists that I deal with have little interest in deception. They are like children playing a game. They rarely cheat because they take the game very seriously. You can see it in their eyes; they are genuinely immersed in their work. They study openings and endings exhaustively. They usually abide by the rules. Ultimately, a game played in this way is more beautiful and also more fun.

I would love to have a drink with Boris. Would he be a funny character or a bore? I like to think that he would be entertaining. At the end of his life, after many incredible adventures (it is impossible to know how many were invented) he found himself in the remarkably quiet and peaceful village of Boppard on the banks of the Rhine. After I finished the essay, I found a note in which he calls himself at this last stage of his life a “100% petit rentier”—i.e., someone who lives on an income derived from property and investments; no doubt, imaginary property, imaginary investments. I like to think that this is one last wink before he disappears.

Reading about your different professional experiences makes me wonder how else your career outside of writing has influenced your art. What is the importance of the non-artistic pressures, challenges, and joys in a writer’s life?  

A writer can invent any world; he or she can simply make it all up. Unfortunately I don’t have the imaginative power to invent the world of neuroscience, which can sometimes be unbelievable. The world of mountaineering and alpinism is equally fantastic. Neither of these worlds is often called artistic, but I consider certain alpinists and neuroscientists to be artists of the first rank. I think of Bruno Brunod who set a speed record on the Matterhorn in 1995. On a summer day, he climbed to the summit of that mountain as though it was an Escher diagram. Going up looked like going down. He seemed to be utilizing an impossible geometry. An analogue of this kind of geometry can be found in music when a scale climbs continuously and is complete at the point when it begins to descend. Any mistake would have been potentially fatal. He was functioning at an absolute limit of physiology, physics and geometry. I’m not an alpinist but I’ve spent enough time in the mountains to have learned something about this tribe.

There is an echo of this gravity and grace in the best neuroscience, though obviously the consequences of failure are less severe. The pressure of the scientific method can create unusually beautiful results, results that often stray into the hinterland of art and poetry. Almost in a comical way, this can happen despite every effort on the part of the scientist to make the work as dry and desolate as possible. Conversely, I’ve listened on occasion to licensed poets discussing their experiments, and have had the urge to say: Herr Professor! Frau Professor! Look here; there seems to be a crack in your theory. Your discussion bears little resemblance to the results you have shown me. Scientists are wary of making a holy show of themselves, and are distressed when they see others doing so. Alpinists with a tendency towards extravagance or hyperbole usually don’t live to tell the tale. As I see it, the weakness of artists is that they can say things that can’t be proven. Clearly, this is also a strength. Experience in the lab and the mountains underlines the fact that this freedom is a privilege that should be treated with respect.

You also have four poems in this issue of Subtropics! How would you describe the conversation between your poems and this essay? 

Two of the poems are straightforward efforts at lyric poetry. One of them might have been an essay. The odd one out is a scrawny fellow that might be a failed short story. In the prologue to In Praise of Darkness, Jorge Luis Borges says that prose and poetry can coexist without discord. He goes further, saying that the differences between prose and poetry are minimal. I agree with him, but only in so far as the prose pieces in that collection never extend much beyond a page. At that length there is still the possibility of concision; the lines can withstand the pressure needed to turn them into poetry. That doesn’t work beyond five or so pages. Perhaps the poems, or at least the lyric poems, are attempts to describe singular experiences that are distilled under pressure, whereas the essay contains all the averaging, error-bars and regression lines that are common and even obligatory for a scientific paper. There may be thousands of points in a scatter plot and I have to carefully choose a statistical model that will draw an idealized—fictional— line through all those points. This brings to mind a funny story. After reading a miniature report that I’d written which attempted to describe my first undergraduate experiments with the (admittedly difficult) patch-clamp technique, a professor asked me why there were no error-bars or standard deviations in any of my graphs. The reason was embarrassingly simple: I had only managed one successful recording. Statistics were impossible because n was equal to one. There was a single datum—I couldn’t even use the word data. I improved a little over the years but it makes me think that a singular experience is not very useful for an essay. After all the word essay is related to a test or a trial. We can generally only trust trials that have a good number of experiments averaged out with the right models. Longitudinal studies are even better and usually more complex. A singular experience is probably only of use for a poem.

I hope that common to both the prose and the poetry there is no intention to convince or persuade. I am not a merchant trying to sell you something. My Argentine friend says that our opinions are the least interesting things about us. I agree but again with a qualification. I’m troubled by the obvious fact that he seems to have formulated an interesting opinion.

A trusted mentor gave me honest advice about where I might draw the line between poetry and prose. He told me that I had stories to tell and that I needed to make decisions about narrative tales and lyric poetry. His advice was useful, and also a little ominous. I don’t think I should outline it here.

After a long journey, I find myself on an island, working by lamplight—so he seems to have been correct. Technique may be everything—“one dies for stress, not from it”—but what I remember now is a moment (neither poetry nor prose) when I was waiting for a lift by the side of a road. The sun was blazing like a hydrogen bomb. I don’t think I had a single professional thought in my head. That moment must have been perfect.

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Interviews, New Interviews

Natanya Biskar

Natanya Biskar

Interviewed by Payal Nagpal

You write about the independent school your narrator works at with a great deal of fondness and a touch of cynicism. I was wondering how your own experience working at independent schools influences your writing—your experiences have obviously served as fodder for some great content, but beyond that, has working with children influenced your use of language?

That is such an interesting idea, and the short answer is that I don’t know if working with children has influenced my prose. I do know that children tend to show up in my stories, whether those stories are set at a school or not. I enjoy writing about children, not in a kids-say-the-darndest-things way, but rather because I think kids bring out interesting vulnerabilities in adults. For one, kids are often excellent adult observers, and their perception can be unsteadying. They also have an unfiltered, self-serving logic that is so rational it circles all the way back around to being absurd. Their logic is also revelatory: it can locate the seams in all the little rationalizations we grown-ups use every day so we don’t burst into tears. Most of all, I think what draws me to write about kids is how powerless they are, how they have little say about most of the things that happen to them. In the real world, adults tend to forget the powerlessness of kids. We forget what it is like to have other people in charge of our decisions.

When I used to go to teacher conferences, I’d be exhausted by the end of the day because I was so unused to having my minutes and hours regimented by someone else. It made me cranky! Kids exist with very little control, so of course they’re going to grab it where they can. They are going to squirrel away pencils and wear the same rain boots five days in a row and lie about strange things. I think my grown-up characters relate to kids through that shared sense of powerlessness, whether they realize it or not. Before I began my MFA program, I had the privilege of working for two wonderful independent schools. All of the fondness that you perceived in how I write about the fictional school in this story comes directly from my experiences as a teacher at those organizations. The cynicism is just my natural state.

Neve is described as lamb-like in your story, and the narrator’s mother is represented through a snake. What sort of animal do you think your narrator would be?

I love this question! I think she believes herself to be a moray eel. She would like others to think of her as something mysterious and self-possessed, like an albatross or a giant squid. Her true animal self, though, is a possum. She is clever and misunderstood, protective and resourceful. She can be vicious, but only as a mask for her vulnerability. Did you know that possums cannot control when they play dead? I just learned this about possums. Playing dead is their automatic, reflexive response to stress, which seems to me like a pretty great metaphor for the narrator’s defense mechanisms. Are we all secretly possums? I suppose the fact that I am wondering this is pretty revealing, so I’ll stop there.

I’ve always found the phrase “I’m hungry if you are” fascinating—it embodies both passivity and unexpected empathy, something that seems to be characteristic of your narrator’s relationship with her mother. I was wondering if you could talk more about your choice of title?

Passivity and empathy—that’s it, exactly! Years ago, a good friend told me that whenever she offered her mother food, her mother would respond, “I’m hungry if you are.” The anecdote stuck with me, and it showed up in this piece, not by design. The phrase is fascinating to me, too. It has back-seat-driver energy. Again, I think it goes back to power, which is something I am interested in. (Sidebar: I heard somewhere that every conflict in fiction can be reduced to one of two questions: Who’s in charge? How much do you love me? I think my stories veer towards the former question, though obviously there is overlap.) To say “I’m hungry if you are” as a parent to a child is especially fraught. The parent who says “I’m hungry if you are” is pretending to be easy, but really they are saying, “Take care of me, please.” They are saying, “Tell me your needs so I don’t have to share mine.” So there is also a self-protective aspect to it, a deflection of vulnerability, while at the same time the subtext points to the speaker’s buried desire for care.

If you had to choose any artist—living or dead—to illustrate your story, who would you pick and why?

It would have to be someone who is good at illustrating kids, so my initial instinct is Edward Gorey, who draws children wonderfully. I also love the work of Amy Cutler, though I think this story isn’t fabulist enough to warrant her talents (I want Amy Cutler to illustrate the stories of Kelly Link or Helen Oyeyemi or Amelia Gray). The energy and humor of Yuko Shimizu’s work would be fun to see as an interpretation. I feel like she would do great things with the scene with the dryer lipstick. And the intimate strangeness of Nicole Wargon’s women would be fabulous, too. She also has several illustrations of women with snakes already.

What are you working on right now?

I have several short stories in various states of hot-messiness. (Now I feel bad, like I am talking about my stories behind their back.) I am also in the very early stages of a novel about sound art, oysters, and female friendship.

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Sylvie Baumgartel

Sylvie Baumgartel

Interviewed by Olivia Ivings

Something I noticed about your poems that are appearing in Subtropics is that they explore the relationship between religion, colonialism, culture, and violence. These ideas seem to be particularly noticeable in “The Mission Bell” when the speaker guides the reader through an account of a Christian church plopped on a “Native settlement” that eventually becomes a place where deaf children are sexually abused. I found these themes useful in understanding how the poems are somewhat tethered together and how the narrators might view these institutions. What are your thoughts on the connections between these ideas, and does your work ever focus on one of them, or is recognizing the overlap necessary?

I believe all of those themes are intricately connected and often you can’t have one without the other or others. Violence is intrinsic in both religion and colonialism. And every beautiful, historic building has some dark underbelly (like the San Miguel Mission): whether built by slaves, or by very low-paid labor—power and injustice are always at play. Especially with religion and religious architecture. And even more so in colonies or former colonies. New Mexico, as all of the US, is full of histories and cultures overlapping—sometimes peacefully, but more often than not with overt and covert violence.

There seem to be two kinds of religious exploration in your poems. One is scrutinizing how religion treats those inside the institution, and another is observing how people on the outside are exploited and brutalized. How do you think these different perspectives operate in the poems?

I don’t know how to answer this. So I will instead tell you about my relationship to religion. I grew up with atheist parents and we never went to church and I went to secular schools. But since I was in preschool, I have been fascinated by religion, especially Christianity— but that’s what I did have some access to— as it’s the dominant religion in our culture. Power, the divine, control, eternity, devotion, worship, beauty, philosophy, myth, meaning, purpose— these are all things I am interested in and religion is a great source of all of them. I am not at all religious— just intrigued by it, interested in it, appalled by it, affected by it.

What kind of role do death and terror play in your work? These themes are often present, but I wonder to what extent you build your work around them. I’m especially interested in the effective way these poems end in concrete examples of violence or death.

I think about death and terror a lot. Not in a dark way, or at least not entirely so, but out of interest, fascination. I believe that having one’s death constantly present in mind is incredibly powerful for living a rich life. Death gives life meaning. Though it’s the only certainty, I believe that we are eternal beings (not in a religious sense) so actually fear of death is unnecessary. But I still have it.

When I was little, my mother said to me that life is about two things: sex and death. That stuck with me.

 Something that seems evident in these poems is how carefully the speaker establishes scenes. While the details create the space in which the poem takes place, for me as a reader, they don’t make me feel as though I must feel a specific way. What was the motivation for this?

I don’t want to make you feel one way or another. Or is that true? I sometimes want people to feel uncomfortable. And I like it when art makes me feel uncomfortable. There are a lot of difficult subjects in the world that are pushed away, denied, ignored, and I do want to shine a light on difficult, neglected and forgotten things. On the shadows. To have my poems be witnesses.  

Despite your work’s historical settings and philosophical implications, it resonates for readers in a contemporary age. How do you confront issues and ideas in the past while maintaining a foothold in the modern reader’s mind?

Perhaps only because that is life—part history, part present.

What are you reading this spring? Are there any current writing projects you’d like to share with us?

On my bedside table are: Dante’s Inferno, Songs of Mihyar the Damascene by Adonis, Sappho, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, St. Mawr by D. H Lawrence, The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, The Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa, Origin by Dan Brown, Me & Other Writing by Marguerite Duras, The Complete Works of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Jack Spicer’s Book of Magazine Verse, and Calvin and Hobbes. I am homeschooling my son this year, and some of these books are ones we are reading together.

I am working on two things right now: one is a long poem—eleven-thousand words or so—about love and death in Italy. The other is a collection of poetic essays about Santa Fe. I’ve never been able to write about Santa Fe before. “The Mission Bell” was the first poem I wrote about my hometown. I was supposed to be in Italy this year on poetry fellowships, but Covid has kept me here, and I felt like this is a good opportunity to look at right where I am. I have a complex relationship with Santa Fe and it has never inspired me before. But being stuck here like this has forced me to look at it and find ways to write about it. Luckily there’s a lot of violence, colonialism, death and art for me here to use as inspiration. J

Though much of what I write is difficult and dark, I find much joy in my life and in my work.

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Matthew Buckley Smith

Matthew Buckley Smith

Interviewed by Ashley Kim

“The Octonauts” and “The Quick” both have fairly short lines that reminded me of imagistic William Carlos Williams lines. Each line carries the right amount of weight. When writing, how do you go about striking that balance on a line level?

Both of those poems were originally written in fairly straightforward, metrically regular lines. In the ear, “The Octonauts” is a sonnet, and “The Quick” is two quatrains. But something I’ve done a little bit—Josh Mehigan started doing it several years ago, Maryann Corbett and Stephen Kampa talked about it—is taking a finished poem and then rebreaking the lines. Just after finishing up at Hopkins— I wrote almost exclusively free verse before going there, and I was so stubborn it took me another year or two before I started really writing in form. It’s been fun returning to what sort of function as free-verse lines, although the words themselves hold to a pretty rigorous metrical contract. The lines are very strictly prescribed, and then in terms of the typography on the page, I play with them from draft to draft and just see how it feels. Often, the ends of the lines will still be the ends of these shorter lines, but sometimes I bury them a little bit. I try not to fight against the original form but let it get a little bit submerged in the new rhythm. My inclination is to think of the typographical appearance of a poem as being sort of whimsical, like an artifact of our particular moment’s style or type of presentation. The poem itself really is an object of sound, so I don’t feel bad about adulterating the form by playing with how it appears on the page, because that is less important, finally, than how it sounds. That’s my prejudice I guess.

That’s an interesting point that you mentioned sound. I was just reading something on sense over sound, and the argument was that poetry did start as an oral tradition, but over the years, with the invention of the printing press and typed books and text, sense is beginning to have, or maybe hold, more importance. What are your thoughts on that?

Especially when I think about teaching, I often divide my understanding of poems into two major categories, basically, the translatable and the untranslatable. I find that it’s a lot easier to teach the parts of poetry that are translatable. I taught a class for a while, where the only textbook was the Odes of Horace, the wonderful David Ferry translation. He has a great ear, but the sound has very little relationship to the original. Yet the order of the images and the argument make for a pretty powerful formula. It comes across, even if we don’t get to hear all of the peculiarities of Latin sound or syntax. There’s a whole lot of poetry that is translatable, and that is really powerful, but I think that if you take sense over sound entirely you lose not just music or rhyme but you miss all of the weird, blurry alchemy that comes out of language.

I read a couple of your poems that I could find online and the line that stuck with me in “Swan Song“ is the line, “honest love is not lost ardor.” It’s one of those sentences that I love, partly because I said, “Oh yeah that’s true,” even though it’s still hard for me to unpack quite what it means, but it sounds exactly right because of the assonance. It’s the alternation between these very similar but slightly different vowel sounds, and you get a little bit of consonance with “honest” and “lost.” It sounds perfectly true, and it is a simple and direct and emotionally poignant statement that we need at that moment of the poem because, otherwise, the feet begin to lift off the ground. I think about Donne’s “Batter my heart,” and he has this dense, thorny, thematically but also grammatically challenging poem. Then in the middle of it, he says, “yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain.” It’s an extremely simple, straightforward statement that you couldn’t put at the beginning of the poem because it would be boring and wouldn’t have any impact, but at that moment it’s not as simple. The music of it is nice. It’s also the simplicity of the sound, the directness, the familiarity of it. To take sense over sound is fine, but if you need a tidy definition of prose, that’s it. That’s one of the wonderful things about prose; you can translate it.

I wanted to comment on the formal aspects in some of these poems. “Survey of Love” is in the more expected sonnet form, and very fittingly so. “Chez Bovary” alternates between trimeter and hexameter and also employs a fairly intricate rhyme scheme. It reminds me of Erica Dawson and the New Formalism movement and less directly, Greg Williamson’s double exposure form—the line lengths were so different that I felt like I could almost read every other line and get a different kind of reading from that as well. Was that poem an invented form and, if so, how did you decide what that structure should be?

You bring up Erica Dawson and Greg, and I’ve spent a lot of time reading both of them and admire them a lot. I’m definitely very familiar with Greg’s double exposures, and even when he’s not doing strict double exposure, he plays with the superimposition of meaning. It’s a particular kind of irony that’s hard for me to quite identify because it’s not strictly verbal irony. Like in his poem “The River Merchant’s Wife, a Letter,” which is obviously a sort of pseudo- translation of Ezra Pound—there’s a country girl from Tennessee who’s giving the same argument as the speaker in Pound’s poem. By being a sort of copy it ends up presenting itself, and then the opposite of itself. His New Year’s poem—it’s the very last poem in the fifth edition of the Norton—doesn’t contrast opposites, but by sort of taking a screen print and flipping it over, you end up getting something else: “We were all there. At the start…” “We were all there at the start.” That’s certainly in my head when I write. I’m definitely not doing anything as clever there [in “Chez Bovary”].

I have an ongoing slow-motion project I do sometimes. In the best poems, sound and sense or form and content begin to be inextricable from each other. In trying to confront the problem of making the form of a poem perfectly suited to its content, I came to the conclusion that I’m not usually very good at planning it all ahead of time. A device I’ve used is choosing a form or shape and just writing as quickly as I can, 30 poems in that form. I throw away almost all of them, but in a few, the form and the content seem to match up. The more I write the same form, the easier it begins to feel working with it. I’ve done it a number of times with sonnets, blank verse monologues, most recently, and then with these little Sapphic-shaped songs: ABAB, with a very short fourth line, a 5-5-5-2. I figured that next I should do 3-6-3-6-3-6, so that was where that particular shape came from. And then I just try to come up with a rhyme scheme that feels novel or fun.

A follow up question to that is, more generally, what is your relationship to form and meter, and who are some of your formal influences?

My relationship to form is I like it, I enjoy it. I’m not very good at having what people tend to mean when they talk about a poetics or a philosophy of poetry, but mostly my philosophy is I like things that sound beautiful to me and ring true and move me or make me laugh, make me feel something. That’s really all I try to write: things that sound good and that might make me feel something if I were a stranger. That’s about as sophisticated as it gets, and form suits my purposes because it both sounds good and, as plenty of other people have observed, it maybe requires less invention. It’s funny because I think there’s an expectation that formal poems are more staid or conservative or uncreative, which is true in one respect in that the lines are less spontaneous. But being forced to fill out a line in a certain way or to find a certain rhyme is a way of aerating my word hoard. It cross indexes my vocabulary; words are linked to each other that wouldn’t be otherwise, and I end up pulling in associations that I would never come up with on my own in free verse. If you truly have a more generative mind, then it may be that you don’t need that, but I find it very helpful. As far as influences, I have very boring taste. There’s obviously all the old guys and gals that everybody reads. I have a special fondness for Horace—though I don’t really know Latin so that’s not a formal influence. I think he has a wonderful sense of rhetorical form. I don’t know—I love Yeats, Wyatt, Larkin, Housman, Justice.

“The Quick” deftly conflates multiple meanings of the word in both its noun form, as in the living, and as the adjective, as it’s describing the lives of these people as quick, and the poem itself is very short. The noun form is most commonly known in the phrase, “quick and the dead,” from the Christian Apostles’ Creed. “Survey of Love” also mentioned a couple of other faith traditions and weaves them all together. How does religion play into these poems or into your poetry as a whole?

I was raised in a pretty devout Irish Catholic family and community. Most of my family, which was very big, all lived in the same place, so I was surrounded by that. I went to Catholic school and everybody I knew was Catholic for a long time. I don’t go to church and I don’t believe in God now, but it’s pretty obvious it’s cooked in as a way of thinking and looking at the world, spending so many years listening to sermons and thinking about everything in terms of the many-layered nature of reality, where everything has a correspondence to something abstract or something spiritual. Most of my Jewish friends are atheists, but they also deeply identify with their tradition. Being Irish Catholic is in my blood, and I can’t change that nor would I. That’s certainly a big part of it.

As far as the “Survey of Love,” a lot of it was reading stories and trying to retell stories to my daughters. We got a wonderful set of the D’Aulaires’ myths. One of them is a collection of Greek myths, a lot of which are borrowed from Ovid, and the other one is a collection of Norse myths which are just a retelling of the Edda and they’re wild. We’re not raising our daughters religious, but I also I went to high school with a lot of kids who were raised with no religion and didn’t know who Adam and Eve were. They were completely uprooted from a tradition that I want my daughters to have some understanding of. I try to just flood them with gods so that they are very aware of a multitude of meanings and deities and stories and traditions. We’re talking about all these different traditions, and when we hear thunder, maybe that’s just Thor or, actually, maybe it’s Hephaestus and the Cyclopes. [“Survey of Love”] was probably a byproduct of reading a lot of this stuff to my daughters.

All four poems are very invested in philosophical questions of life and death and love. Young children and girls also appear in a couple of these, and you mentioned your daughters—how has this impacted, or perhaps changed, your outlook on these types of matters?

Before having kids, I would have found it easier to speculate about whether one should bring children into this world and how things are going to look once they’re here. Now, it’s more like, well do we have enough diapers to get through the night, did we run out of toaster waffles, or did we remember to brush our teeth, and it’s just humbling on a daily basis. It’s a physically and emotionally demanding job. Days last a really long time but years fly by. It’s strange to introduce my seven-year-old daughter [to you tonight, because] I’m like, “Oh shit, I had a daughter seven years ago.” If anything, I think a lot less about philosophy than I used to. [Having kids] has made it harder to invest deeply in purely abstract questions, but my daughter asks a lot of questions about life and death and meaning. I think it’s pretty common. It was easier for me to think about those questions before, probably more rigorously in some ways, but also less responsibly, because I could just think about them as sort of mathematical objects I was manipulating in my mind; whereas with my daughters, the questions have an emotional value that’s really immediate. I think of the Larkin poem “Talking in Bed”— I think that’s my general rule with them is that I try to find things to say that are not untrue and not unkind. Beyond that it’s hard for me to think very deep thoughts about big questions I guess. It’s a mess and it’s exhausting, but it’s also just a total wonder and a joy.

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