“Sometimes beauty is something I'm accused of.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
I like to start by asking people how old the oldest poems in their books are, but I'm especially interested about this in the case of You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior because I feel like this is a first book that's been buzzed about for a long time. Do you want to talk a little about how long it's been in the pipes?
Sure. I would say that some of the oldest poems in here are pretty old. Some are over ten years old. I think that's an indication that the book itself has been written over a long period of time. When I was writing those early poems I wasn't thinking of them as part of a book. But when I gathered the poems together they got along. So they fit together.
I'm looking through the book to see what the oldest poem is. Because right now, in my mind, it is the very first poem in the book, "Something Brighter than Pity."
Yeah, yeah—"Pale / Glyph of a dog."
Mhm. But "Dulia, Winter" is just as old. I think I wrote that when I was in Lucie Brock-Broido's workshop. Which must have been in 2001. It was around that time.
Wow. So fifteen years old. She teaches at Columbia, right?
She's at Columbia, but I met her originally in 1999 at Skidmore College. She used to teach in the summertime there. So she decided to invite me to her private workshop—she had one in New York City, where she lives in her apartment, and she had another in Cambridge, where her house is—and that was a lot of fun.
Are they hour-long sessions?
I think she still might be having them, but I'm not sure. They are about an hour or an hour-and-a-half long. They're very casual. We sit around her large table. There are people there who've been with her for a very long time. And we drink wine. Some people bring food. Everything smells of hyacinth.
I just imagine her smoking a whole pack of cigarettes in the span of that hour.
Haha. Some of that would happen, too.
Haha. That's awesome. The point is that this book has been gestating for a decade and a half, which is super uncommon these days, especially for a first book like this. I think it's remarkable.
Well, I think that I'm a slow writer. And though I've been publishing poems for a while now, the concept of a book and the ambitions behind publishing a book—those ambitions didn't really kick in until I did my MFA. I graduated in 2012. And even applying to an MFA program didn't occur to me until much later. I didn't think that I needed it, but then I thought, "Wait. There are going to be people who pay me to write poetry for a couple years." So that seemed wonderful and necessary.
Yeah. That was absolutely my thinking, too. Like, I thought of getting a Ph.D. as a way to insulate myself from the big kid world of actually having to get a real job. It was a way to make writing my job. It seems like a real luxury.
It really is a luxury. We're so lucky.
Yeah! My academic workload tops out at twenty hours a week and the rest of the week is just mine to be a poet. I don't think I'll ever have that in the professional world. So it's this real green pasture. I've read something where you talked about how a lot of the poems in the book were written during your time at the Michener Center, right?
Yes, I did have a productive time there. I wrote a lot of poems in a shorter amount of time, which partly has to do with the structure of deadlines at such a place. But also, the new disciplines I learned—which I think I've forgotten—helped with my productivity. Like the discipline of daily writing. That habit. I'd really like to get back to that. I'm trying.
It's interesting because a lot of the poems seem very mature. There's a lot of play with sound and rhyme that I don't necessarily associate with young poets' work. There's an obvious familiarity with the canon and with received forms in your poems. I think that maybe this speaks to the fact that a lot of your education happened sort of autodidactically. You know, prior to and separate from your actual MFA experience.
I would say that that is very insightful. Yes, I think that that's true. Except, I can’t say I identify with being an autodidact. It seems like a sparkling crown that isn’t mine. I’ve always put my trust in poetry teachers, taking part in classes or workshops like Lucie’s. My writing life has felt to me like a big ship where having someone else at the helm has been important. But, yes, I’m attracted to older forms and older poets. And rhyme comes naturally to me.
I have a quote from your interview with the journal Memorious, in which you talk specifically about rhyme. You say, "As a mother to a son with autism, rhyme has been a kind of echolocation to find my way to him." This speaks directly to part of the long poem in the book, the "homo ludens" part, which makes that rhyme game explicit. Where you have that call and response relationship. And I love when form feels like an extension of an actual experiential utility. I feel like that's an uncommon thing.
Yes, that is part of the longer sequence, "Veronicas of a Matador."
I remember carrying a notebook when Patrick and I would walk around in our Austin neighborhood and we would do this rhyming game. It was a way to engage him.
And for the readers who don't have this poem in front of them—the game is that you say a word, and he answers back with a rhyming word.
Right. And that is a kind of proto-conversation, I suppose. I was trying to teach him a back-and-forth—I will say something, and he has to listen to what I say and respond. And in some way answer my call. And I would do the same for him. He would say a word, and I would try to find a rhyme for it. And just now, as you and I were talking, I wrote the word "conversation" down and I see the smaller word "verse" in it. And I know “verse” means “to turn.” To verse, to reverse. Implicit in a line of verse itself is this idea of a kind of volley forward and back. I think the functions of poetry are more present in my life, in the everyday, than I give them credit for.
Right. And I think one of the things about received form that both makes it fun and makes it sort of hokey is that its artifice is on its sleeve. You know, no one speaks in villanelle. Because it wears its artifice so baldly, it allows for these new layers of irony and all these other things. But when there can be something organic about the presence of a received form, or rhyme, or something that we usually associate as being artificial, when there is something that tethers it to actual organic experience, I think that can be really charged and really powerful.
That's really well said. But now all I want to do is speak in villanelle!
Haha. I just think it's really cool. We can talk about the whole long poem, too. I don't know if you wrote these poems separately and then they aggregated into a single piece, or if you conceived of it as a long poem and wrote the parts with that knowledge in mind. It's one of my favorite parts of the book, you know, "Adulthood has come to feel rather / like a mantle."
I gave myself permission to section these off and write small pieces that could be moved around and that could invite other pieces in. I used to think of these little pieces as discards, or smaller fragments that would languish in a notebook. Or they just wait, they’re like little ladies in waiting and they'll be called upon sometimes to service the queen—as in the greater more cohesive poem.
I’m not sure how to talk about my writing. I can say that I have a pesky voice at my shoulder who tells me fragments are lazy, that there should be more connective tissue between lines. I can also say that I’ve learned to mute that voice. I started reading poets who were great models for what I ultimately wanted to do—for this poem especially. Like Fanny Howe, Lorine Niedecker. Oh, and Kate Greenstreet, who makes these little squares of poetry and feels the freedom to simply move the squares around, and who really trusts in the power of juxtaposition. And it was Dean Young who gave me the idea for the title of this poem. He said that these poems are like a matador’s veronicas, light and buoyant in that same way the matador’s red cape twirls and spins, but that underneath all that movement there’s a weapon that will kill the animal.
I love that. And that's so cool too with the content of the poems—the series begins with, "After a diagnosis," and then it ends with "My most / magnificent self, she runs / through a grass, / larkly." So there's a way that this poem is moving from a threat into a new sort of life. There's the language of metamorphosis in this poem. I really like the idea that the poem is sort of hiding the threat, but then the motion of the poem—I think there's this way that time and illness both move us from health toward sickness, and this poem sort of reverses that order. It begins with the illness and moves us toward "My most / magnificent self."
Yeah, that's a really good reading of it.
I know it's a single poem, but it feels like a chapbook. It's interesting too that you talk about Greenstreet's square poems, because it reminded me immediately of your poem, "Punctum: Transom," where you say, "There is a quality about the rectangular shape of a stanza that is suggestive of a window pane." And then you end with, "Can I say it out loud? The poem is that window and you, the reader, the beautiful friend looking out." And I'm getting literal goose bumps having just read the beginning and end of that poem. It's so beautiful and lovely. I think that my favorite part of it is the question, "Can I say it out loud?" The reticence to explicate what might already be felt, you know?
I'm so interested in photography. But in the idea of photography more than actually taking pictures. I don't take pictures. It's a skill that doesn't come organically to me the way that it does to some people. Some people just have a way of making their phone, or whatever apparatus they're using, an extension of their eye. They can capture such beautiful things. Well, I say in that poem that the windowpane has the rectangular quality of a stanza. And we are lucky to use that Italian word "stanza," which means a “room.” To think of the physical space of a stanza as being something that one can enter is a really fruitful idea when either reading or writing a poem. The dimensions of the poem can then change because then you find yourself walking from room to room. Even though you're working with the flatness of the page. A room can be a very safe space. You can keep things in it. You can hide. You know, I’ve been thinking about the word "hide" a lot, in fact, if you could see my office, I have “hide” written on my chalkboard where I take important notes. Right now it's the working title of my next book. So, yes, I've been thinking of the word "hide" and how a room or a stanza of a poem can be a place where one can do that.
Where my brain sort of went to—and this is maybe the most tangentially related thing—our cells were named because the first guy who saw them, Robert Hooke, was a monk and he was like, "Oh, these are like the cells in my monastery" (EDITOR'S NOTE: This is only kind of true). And so even compositionally, we're working from this place where we're made up of these little rooms. And I like that there's an analog to that in the things that we, as poets, make. Our rooms can make more rooms in this different dimension. It's almost like mitosis, where we're sort of replicating ourselves into this new dimension.
Well, to think of biological matter and its connections to our writing life and writing practices—another reason why I'm in love with the word "hide" is related to how animal skins have been used throughout our civilization. I knew that young animals were killed for their skins and that that's how vellum was created—out of calfskins. What I didn't know was that they were often harvested from their utero spaces because that kind of skin is the most translucent, the least hairy, and the most prized and beautiful.
I think of just a bay of cows all pregnant. Those poor calves being harvested.
I'd never heard that before, but I do love that valence of the word “hide.” I think some of my favorite lines of this book live in the poem, "Anniversary." Like, "He woke to the thought of lilacs." That is one of the best mouth-feel lines of the book. It's just so gorgeous and lush. I could say it a hundred times. I know Brigit Pegeen Kelly is an influence to you, and this poem feels like how some of her poems work—there's the topical narrative talking about one thing, but there's this sort of soft doom lurking under the beautiful descriptions of stuff. Like when you write, "The work of grief is perennial," or "Tell me the city doesn’t glimmer with broken glass." The near ghazal-iness of the poem gives it this obsessive quality. And I feel like so many of the poems in this collection work like that. The language is gorgeous and lush and replete in ways, but then there are these charged silences, or there are these subtexts that push it into a much more foreboding space. I've said a lot. Do you want to talk about it?
Well, I think sometimes beauty is something I'm accused of.
Haha! I love that.
I remember one teacher—the poet Lynne McMahon. She would say, "You know, this poem needs a pickup truck." And she’s right! I suppose right now, though, the pickup truck as symbol of groundedness has bad connotations in my head, in the way that people say that "real America" is in the middle of the country. I don't trust it right now. But I do understand. Sometimes I find that I need to rein it in because the language becomes too beautiful, too intoxicating. It risks being empty and so perfumed that the reader would just fall asleep in a kind of haze.
Sure, like an Elysian Fields sort of deal.
Exactly. And I remember my friend saying of Louise Glück's poetry, "No one is ever just eating a sandwich in her poems.” And I love her!
So at least I know I'm not alone is this.
I think a way that I tip-toe into the beautiful is by omission. By having stretches of silence. And I don't know what causes the foreboding, but I imagine it has something to do with silence.
Yeah, totally. That's very well said. There are poems in this book that address ways that populations become silenced. And these poems work to amplify those silences. I'm thinking of the poem, "Dear Bystander," where you're talking about a people that have been erased and so there is a silence in the world. You do an amazing job putting that silence in this poem while still honoring and acknowledging that silence. There are lines in here that are just devastating, "wives will bring a widow's grief / now as their paraphernalia / to second marriages." And you even say, "It blunts / the mind." It's this almost inconceivably sad thing, but it's another way of making space for silence in a collection. I wonder if you might talk about the ambition to include not just sonic silence or visual silence, but also the social silence.
I think it partly has to do with me not knowing how to talk about these complicated histories and almost resisting poetry as a way to address these matters. I think I'm always grappling between more narrative and discursive writing, whether that be explicit prose like, "Here I am writing an essay," or—I don't know what to call the other. I don't know why I'm putting them in a dichotomy to begin with.
No, I think that that's the spectrum.
Yeah. Well, poetic speech, which to me is—wait, this is where I'm treading really dangerous ground. I mean, I'm thinking of Frank O'Hara all of the sudden. His poetic speech is very conversational. In the few poems I read of yours this morning, there is a kind of narrative. Right now, though, poetic speech in my head is equal to almost an inability to speak. There's a pathology to it. Even as I am now, there's a kind of inarticulate articulation of a certain urgent matter being said.
Oh, I love that. I think that's super well said. I'll personally say that since the election, and I don't mean for this to be a conversation about the election, but since the election I've found that what I've been able to write has been pushed far more toward the discursive than is my norm. I could meander on the reasons why that might be for a long time, but it just struck me as being relevant.
But do you think that you are writing poetry? I don't even know if that concern enters your head.
I mean, I do oscillate between the feeling that my life's work, which is to live in service of poetry, is totally impotent against this great new horror that's descended upon us, and the feeling that turning to poetry is the only practical thing for a sane person to do. Sometimes I'll be able to feel both of those things intensely at the same moment. I don't know. We're only a little bit more than a month out of the election. I feel like it's going to take a long, long time for me to shake out how I really feel. How about you?
I don’t know how to begin to talk about the election. Poetry is older than this country, poetry is older than capitalism, Republican ideology, neoliberalism. It’s the ancient art. And a future one, too, as long as there are people. I can sense all the poems yet to come in response to this rupture.
Election day was so disappointing. Those words, to call it "disappointing," does not at all describe what happened to most of us who thought that the day was going one way and then it went completely another way.
Totally, totally. I was literally—I went to the county fair with Paige and a couple of our friends. And we turned our phones off because we just wanted a moment of celebration. It was as cartoonish of a premature celebration as I can imagine. We were just so happy that we would be done with this awful election cycle, thinking that the forces of good would ultimately prevail. We left the fair at 9 PM and turned our phones back on and we were just like, "Oh shit." We had this moment where we all saw the same thing at the same time, looked at each other, and wordlessly drove to my house to watch CNN. It was awful.
Yeah. It's important to honor that kind of wordlessness. Or if its prosy rambling that's coming out, then I think that's important, too. And, like you, I too have a lot of ideas in my writing that I want to unfold, to make articulate, rather than to erase the connections between things, which is my natural mode. And I think that's why I'm turning to different forms like essays rather than poetry. Or maybe the hybrid between them. I don't know if I'm leading us in another direction, I probably am, but trust that it's all related. Recently the artist Pauline Oliveros died. She made very strange music, like highly experimental sound recordings and electronic music. And she recently came to Naropa University this past summer for the Summer Writing Program. And as is the way with celebrity deaths, or artist deaths, we turn to their work again in that wake. I've been reading her book, Deep Listening: A Composer's Sound Practice and it's filled with all of these—I honestly don't know whether or not to call them poems—they're like writing prompts, but not just a mere utility. This one prompt is called "Ear piece," and it's thirteen questions. I won't read them all, but I'll read a couple.
She touches upon the dichotomy between listening and hearing—how one informs the other, but how they are distinct. So one of the questions is, "What causes you to listen?" And another question is, "Do you hear yourself in your daily life?" "What sound is meaningful to you?" Oh, these two questions really get me, "Do you remember the last sound you heard before this question?" and "What will you hear in the near future?"
Haha. I love that.
Yeah. So your original question was about silences. And throughout this whole conversation we've been talking about listening to silences. And how silences are very loud and full of different kinds of noises and of people erased. Oliveros seems relevant right now as so many in our poetry community are being told to "listen." So we’ve been reading these—Jeff, Patrick and I—and we'll ask each other, "What are you listening to now?"
And then we'll all be quiet and we'll name all the sounds we hear just in a room. And usually it's made up of cars driving by, or whatever room noise is being made. And, I don't know, I'm just so in love with this question, "Do you hear yourself in your daily life?" And so often the answer is, "No, I don't." But I'm really trying to.
What will you hear in the near future?
Unfortunately, it's probably something like the ding of my email, but that's not what I want for my life. What I would want to hear would be—gosh, the first thing that comes into my head is wanting to hear a recorded poem by Raúl Zurita. Because he's on my mind.
Could you make that a reality?
I can, yes.
If you message me the poem, I'll listen to it, too.
Interview Posted: February 6, 2017
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