“Maybe I am afraid that the dead won’t let me in, that there won’t be room for me.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
With some of your previous book releases, you did a Dial-A-Poem thing where you would read people a poem if they called a certain number on a certain day.
I called for both The Trees The Trees and What is Amazing, I think. Did you do it for both of those?
Actually, just The Trees The Trees, and then last summer I did it again just to celebrate getting a certain number of followers on my Tumblr.
That’s right, that’s what it was.
So I’ve talked with you before, then!
Yep, we’ve talked twice. I remembered calling twice, but I couldn’t remember exactly which books or which events were being celebrated with the calls.
When I did it for The Trees The Trees, it was because there were so many phones in that book, it was a way of bringing the poems to life. It wouldn’t have really made sense for What is Amazing because that was a different kind of context.
That makes sense. I don’t think you knew this, but one of the times you read to me, you were actually reading to the entire front of house staff of a restaurant where I was working at the time.
(Laughing) Oh, no way!
Yeah! You regaled maybe a half-dozen people who had otherwise been very bored.
Oh, I love that!
It was wonderful. Everyone was thoroughly charmed.
I used to be a waitress and there were these little moments where I could snatch a little time to write, you know, after getting everything set up but before we opened. It makes me happy to think of the poems going back into that kind of situation.
For sure. It was great! I teach now, but I really loved being a waiter, working that kind of job. My body was just automated, in autopilot, and I could be off wherever I wanted to be in my higher brain, you know?
Yeah, absolutely. I sometimes fantasize about working as a mail person, delivering mail. I think that would be the best sort of job in the world.
Hah. Bukowski famously sat behind the slots where the mail was organized and just did that all day.
It’s kind of strange talking about Bukowski in one of these interviews.
It’s actually funny, I had never made that connection before, that my fantasy is basically just being Bukowski (laughing). Although for me, it’s really about the walking, the walking to deliver the mail.
Sure. I don’t know enough about Bukowski to know if he ever actually did the delivery part of it. It doesn’t seem like he would be well-suited for that.
Haha. Probably not.
Okay, so with the Dial-A-Poem thing, are you planning to do that again for Heliopause?
No, I think even more so than with What is Amazing, this book wouldn’t really be quite suited to that. I think it’s much more of a book to sit down and read. That’s how it feels to me, anyway. There’s a lot of visual stuff going on and it’s a little quieter. It’s maybe a little more suited for an audience of one, perhaps.
That absolutely makes sense. That’s something I wanted to talk about, too. These poems are definitely a little more… I don’t want to say “serious” because that implies that the last books were “unserious.” But I do think, as you’ve progressed from The Difficult Farm, each book has gotten a little more tonally… I keep wanting to say “serious” but then “unserious” seems pejorative, even though I don’t mean it to be.
(Laughing) No, it’s funny. People could criticize the move in tone as being “solemn,” and “solemn” seems pejorative as well. I think no matter how you’re describing tone, it’s possible for it to sound pejorative. If you’re describing tone, I don’t think it has to have judgment attached to it. There’s maybe more overt darkness that comes in. I mean, there’s darkness in all the books, but maybe in Heliopause there’s a shifting of the light. The shadows are longer.
That’s exactly it. I do think that’s something I’ve always been fascinated by in your books. In the early ones, in The Difficult Farm, you have these whimsical tales, but even then there was a kind of creeping paranoia, a danger lurking behind the lines. I think in that way, those earlier poems were tied to a lineage of Edson and Tate, you know? Like Tate, too, you were interested in taking apart clichés and idiomatic language, maybe moreso in the earlier books.
The poems seem very much in conversation with Tate’s, with Edson’s. Tate was one of your teachers, right?
Yes, he was. And, you know, I avidly read his work before I studied with him too. He’s definitely been an important figure in my life, for sure.
Are you still in contact with him?
Yeah! I mean, I moved to Ohio about a year and a half ago, now, almost two years. So, we’re not living in close proximity anymore. He’s still in Massachusetts and I’m here. But every now and then we’ll visit Massachusetts. He’s someone I’m glad to know and have learned from. He’s still writing like mad and hanging out with his cat.
He was a big evangelist for Edson’s work, too.
Yeah! I still can’t believe Edson is gone. He was fantastic. I really enjoy in Edson the absurdity and violence and grotesqueries and cartoonishness of it all.
Tate said, “You’ve got to be a really bad poet and stupid to be influenced by Russell Edson, because he’s totally himself.”
Edson’s little fables seem so effortless. He just writes, “This is what happened.” They seem like such feats of imagination rather than enactments of practiced poetry techniques, but then you try to write something like an Edson poem and it falls apart.
Yeah, he has a very singular voice in American poetry. Though, I think you can find people who have a similar interest in violence and absurdity, going back to the Russian Oberiu writers. That’s another vein that has influenced me as a poet.
There are contemporary poets, too, who do this. I just read Zachary Schomburg’s Book of Joshua, which seemed very much in the same vein. The sort of thing Edson would have written maybe two stanzas about, Schomburg riffs on for the length of a book.
It’s been interesting. Zach and I went on a little mini-book tour a couple years ago, just a quick week-long thing. I remember having a conversation about change, about realizing that I was more interested in changing what I was up to from book to book, changing more dramatically. Zach has a real sense of what it is he wants to happen for him as a poet, for his poems. My grasp on things is a little less certain, a little more interested in shifting around.
Each one of your four collections is very different, formally, and we’ve talked about the tonal evolution—in Heliopause especially. Each of the past three books has had a sort of unified visual presentation, the poems tended to look similar on the page within the context of each book. That’s not to say a poem from The Difficult Farm looked like a poem from What is Amazing; but, within each book, the poems tended to have similar formal conceits. That’s much less true for Heliopause. You go from “Where No Light Can Harm You,” a poem that’s maybe twenty or thirty words, into “How Long is the Heliopause,” which is four pages. It’s a gorgeous poem, by the way. You quote, among other things, a box of corn flakes?
(Laughing) I think they’re called Heritage Flakes.
Ahh. So you go from a poem that’s twenty or thirty words to a poem that spans four pages. There aren’t really gestures like that in your previous collections.
Right, I feel like there are two kinds of elements in Heliopause. There are the longer poems and then there are these shorter poems, the sort of actors in between the longer pieces. There is definitely more variation. But, they feel to me like they come out of the same kind of thinking, in a way that is difficult to put into a language. The poems’ form and plot have a lot to do with each other. They seem of the same kingdom.
There’s definitely cohesiveness. You have the poems like “As if No Light Could Warm You,” and then you have the entire “Dear Seth” collection. If you were to try to summarize those pieces, they’d seem fairly disparate. But, reading them in this collection, they feel much more connected.
I hope this doesn’t sound too ridiculous, but I think that much of Heliopause is concerned with letters, whether we’re talking about letters that you might send through the mail, or the letters of the alphabet. A lot of my wondering about poetry and language over these past couple years has been about letters, and about how these technologies we have allow some form of correspondence between the dead and the living, between the present and the absent, between earth and other solar systems.
I think when I was little, I mixed the ideas of heaven and outer space. I don’t think I’m quite over that yet.
That ties into the title of the book, which is something I wanted to ask about—the definition I found for “heliopause” is “the boundary between the heliosphere and the interstellar medium outside the solar system. As the solar wind approaches the heliopause, it slows suddenly, forming a shock wave called the ‘termination shock of the solar wind.’” Can you talk about why that term works as a title?
Sure. I didn’t know “Heliopause” was going to be the title until quite late in putting the book together. I find titling whole collections of poetry pretty nightmarish. I love titling individual poems, but titling books just makes me go insane. When I realized that the “heliopause” came up in a few different poems and thought about why that might be, it began to feel like an appropriate title for things.
I was writing these poems as I was pregnant with my daughter and the heliopause was showing up in the news quite a bit. Voyager 1 had just recently crossed the heliopause, so we had this man-made object suddenly going where no man had ever been before. Or woman. (Laughing) Or baby.
What fascinated me about it is that we didn’t actually know that crossing had occurred until after it had already happened. Because I tend to think metaphorically most of the time, that seemed like a pretty great way of understanding waiting for birth. There are many many things about my daughter that were determined already that we couldn’t know until she was born.
She had completed that voyage, you know? And then, I also found myself thinking about death. There’s an elegy to Neil Armstrong in there, there’s the poem for my friend Bill Cassidy, who died four years ago. I found myself thinking about the divide between the living and the dead and how long it might take for information or data or messages to reach them, or to get back to us from them. It turned out that Neil Armstrong died the same day Voyager crossed the heliopause.
Right, right. Wild.
It made me feel like the world was kind of telling me the title, because I had already written that elegy for Neil Armstrong, and I had already mentioned the heliopause in the poems, so for those things to correspond in that way made it easier. I didn’t have so much of a choice. Sometimes choice can make you very unhappy.
It seems like the title was kind of given to you in this case.
Yeah, I think so.
I saw an early version of that Neil Armstrong poem where you could see the book that you had done the erasure from, but then as the version appears in Heliopause, the original text isn’t back there anymore. Can you talk about that decision?
Sure. It’s not the most interesting decision, really. It’s more of a function of permissions and production and that kind of thing. I couldn’t figure out who to get permissions from, who to go to for that. On top of that, I couldn’t figure out how to make it look good on paper. The erasure, the original, was actually an erasure I made on a screen, I used Photoshop.
I think it might have just looked kind of shitty on the page. Perhaps that’s something for when I know more about technology, or when I can hire someone to produce these sorts of things for me (laughing). Maybe if there’s a “Selected,” I’ll be able to get it in there.
There you go. When you’re selling out Madison Square Garden with your poetry readings in twenty years, you can hire someone to do it.
You were recommended by Oprah, even, right?
Oh, not by Oprah! It was Deborah Landau, a wonderful poet—she had a poem in the New Yorker a couple weeks ago.
The one with the pool.
Right, yeah! I really loved it. So Oprah.com asked a few different people asked people to recommend poems. I can’t remember exactly what it was, maybe “life-affirming poems” or something like that (laughing). It’s funny, that phrase always makes me think of the Tao Lin poem from his first book, “book reviewers always praise books as ‘life-affirming’ because the more humans there are on earth the better.” (Laughing) It’s silly.
There are poets who could, and maybe will some day, gather huge audiences in Madison Square Garden. But, I’m a little shy. It’s been a strange experience, publishing quite a few books early and quickly, though this latest one was a bit slower. I try not to pay too much attention to anything to do with numbers and readers because it can make me feel really self-conscious and shy and worried.
There’s been a couple of little things about people anticipating this book, and there’s part of me that thinks, “Oh, that’s wonderful, how great for people to think that,” and then there’s probably a larger part of me that thinks, “Oh, fuck.” (Laughing) You know what I mean?
Not many poets have to deal with that problem—
I know, and I sound like such an asshole saying this.
No, no, that’s not what I meant—I just think it’s not something poets are generally prepared to handle. I’d imagine it could become very problematic, given a certain temperament.
Yeah. After The Difficult Farm came out, I felt really shy. It’s just strange, going from sharing poems with your beloveds and fellow poets who are close to you to suddenly feeling like you’re more public with your work. I had already written The Trees The Trees.
You’d already written it when The Difficult Farm came out?
Before it came out, yeah. So they were created within that still-private space. But then once The Difficult Farm was out in the public world I started writing these poems that were just for me. I think I showed them a little bit to Chris, my husband. It felt really important to have a private space, for a while.
And those poems have still never been published?
Right, they’re nowhere. They’re in a box in my house.
That’s awesome. I don’t know how many poets do that.
Oh, I feel like a lot probably do. Couldn’t you imagine Mary Ruefle keeping some for herself?
Sure, yeah. I guess it’s more that the spirit of the act is at odds with the publish-or-perish academic grind than it is at odds with the actual spirit of the poet.
Right, right. I felt nervous, too, about publishing this book because there were a couple of people in the press who came out and said, “Why does she write so much?! BLAAARHHH!” (Laughing) I don’t know how you’re going to transcribe that…
Hah. It’ll be fun.
But part of me wanted to say, “No, I’m really not publishing everything, believe me!” But anyway, I shouldn’t get worked up about things like that. I should learn to ignore them.
How often do you write? Are you an every day writer?
I was, and then I had a baby. Now things are a little strange. But I’m also working on something really different now, too. We were talking about differences between books, and this is definitely the most different one yet.
You’re talking about the crying book?
Yeah. So, the way my time takes shape with that book is really different. For years, my process was to wake up, drink a bunch of coffee, read, write a poem, revise it on the spot, and then be done. I just did that every day and then eventually put the poems into books. But this book is much longer, the process involves a lot of research, there’s lots of revising. So, when I get into it, I spend a longer period of time of the day on it, but then there are longer intervals in between those sessions too.
I’m hoping, somehow, to get money together so I can get childcare, and/or a residency type thing. I’d love to have time to write more right now. I feel like when I sit down to write, now, I don’t need that time of staring at the blank page or reading or clicking around. It’s already in my head; it’s all ready to go.
You have the poem “Aesthetics of Crying” in Heliopause, which seems like a bridge to the crying book.
Yeah, I wrote that early on, before I knew I was writing a whole book about crying. I think I thought I was just going to be writing an essay, and the poem was supposed to go with that.
It has that line, “I have cried so long at times that I have moved the activity in front of the mirror,” which I really really love, for a lot of reasons. It’s a distinctly…Christle-ian…line? Is that the right term?
(Laughing) Umm, can we say Christle-ish?
Sure! It’s a distinctly Christle-ish line. It’s weird, it’s funny, it’s about crying and about the speaker—but it’s also this great little moment the poet enacting what a poet does. The poet is doing what should be impossible, this act of simultaneously participating in an event and observing the event as it occurs to them. It’s like a little ars poetica.
Oh, I hadn’t thought of it that way! I like that quite a bit.
Yeah, I love that moment in the book, and I like thinking about it as a sort of bridge to anticipating the crying collection. Not anticipating in any way that should make you nervous, of course.
Hah. More and more, I feel like things lead into each other. Even though there may be changes in form or thinking about content, I’m doing it all at once. I’m writing these poems and I’m writing this book about crying and I’m living in a strange new place and I’m having to eat constantly because I’m breastfeeding, and all of these experiences relate to each other. Inevitably, there are going to be wormholes from one book to another.
I love the idea of wormholes from one book to another. Very in keeping with the spirit of the new collection.
Yeah—and not just between my books, but between my books and the books that I’m reading. Think about that Daniel Dennett line, “A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library.”
Oh, I’ve never heard that before, but that’s fantastic.
Yeah, I love it too. And I feel like you can replace “scholar” with “poet” and it holds up pretty well. It feels quite true to me in that I often sense it is the words and the letters and the books that are directing me, rather than the other way around. It helps me feel, too, that there’s not much difference between the work that I’m writing and the work that I’m reading. Whatever that force is, that’s in control. Maybe that comes back to thinking about titles—I like to feel like I’m not the one making decisions so much of the time.
I’m trying to think now of other wormholes in your between your own books. One of my favorite of your lines is, “one time this actual moon was trying to arrest me… was like, listen you slice of / the future you can cry but you can’t make me / change.” It’s exactly what you do best, the moon’s direct address, this moment than can be turned to catch the light in all these different ways. There can never really be an adequate summary of what’s happening, what’s meant. It’s like the Mona Lisa or something, following you around the room.
It’s a funny thing, because as I gain distance from the poems, as I become a slice of the future, I’m able to see more of those different angles. Often I sort of explain the poems to myself or to a friend, but those explanations are so banal! (Laughing) They’re so incredibly banal. Because I like to turn my ear toward idiom and grammar, that attention is what flips the banal into something that has more possibility. Though, I do think the banal can be quite lovely and important as well.
Absolutely, and you do a good job of elevating idiom, giving it new life.
Well, thank you. You know, I’m walking around right now on the campus of Antioch, and I’m really enjoying it because the campus is sort of overgrown. Right now I’m on this path that has asphalt on it, but is really about sixty-percent moss. Moss makes me incredibly happy. (Laughing) It’s wonderful to be chatting with you and to reach this point in my wandering.
Hah. I’m happy you can be in such a happy moss-filled spot. Now when this comes out, you’ll get people coming to your readings with potted moss. Is that even a thing?
Yeah, it is! I would be so happy if I had a bunch of moss. I can’t tell you—it makes me so happy! You know how you have dream houses when you’re a kid?
My dream house was a hole in the ground that was covered in moss.
Haha. That should be the title of a chapter of your autobiography.
(Laughing) Sure, yeah. Hopefully I won’t have to write that for some time. Doesn’t that sound nice, though? Wouldn’t you love to take a nap in there?
Absolutely, it sounds lovely. It’s like an earthy hyperbaric chamber.
This is maybe silly, but it reminds me of one of the poems in the collection, “Not Much More Room in the Cemetery.” I don’t remember where I saw this, but at some point I read you discussing how you wanted to name a poem, “The Grave Was Too Small So We Had to Take the Horse Out.”
Oh, yeah! A long time ago, someone at a party was trying to figure out a title for a poem and people were trying to come up with possibilities for it, and that was the one I came up with. I really like the title, but I’ve never been able to write a poem for it—but then my friend Lisa Olstein did it, so she’s got it taken care of.
The title of the poem “Not Much More Room in the Cemetery” seemed like it was kind of getting to that horse-grave title without actually using it.
Oh! I hadn’t even thought of that. Oh, yeah, that’s a really good point! It’s funny, if you think about the number of people living and the number of people dead and the number of people buried, it does keep getting bigger, but we’re kind of working with limited real estate. Maybe I am afraid that the dead won’t let me in, that there won’t be room for me.
This book definitely has a preoccupation with the dead. You talk about how, when you were younger, you’d conflated the ideas of space and heaven. This book seems to be interested in death, at least more explicitly, than any of your previous works. It’s certainly more interested in the political and cultural consequences of mortality. You have the opening piece, “The Disintegration Loop,” about 9/11. You have the elegy to Neil Armstrong and the elegy to Bill Cassidy. “Some Glamorous Country” has the line “we saw Batman at / a matinee because who / would bother to shoot / so few early in the day.” It seems like you were more willing to write about these kinds of current events.
Yeah. I’m not sure it was something I made a conscious decision about, but I found myself wanting to move beyond the things I already knew how to do. I felt like I had already figured out how to write from the imagination, and so it seemed like I had not yet allowed myself to be so straightforward in incorporating… reality events? Maybe it began with the loss of Bill, I’m not sure. It’s hard for me to say where things began, but at some point they did begin and I noticed. They just began to take shape in this less-fictional space, and I felt grateful for that. You can get pretty bored with yourself. For a while, focusing more on imagination and absurdity was a way for me to be less bored by myself. But then, I wanted to take a vacation from my imagination for a while. I wanted to break away to reality, not that it’s the most comforting place.
You inverted the typical experience of vacationing from reality into the imagination.
It’s just something that started happening. It’s something that seems to be sticking for a bit, too. This book about crying involves so much research, and it feels strange and urgent to be making something at the same time that events are unfolding. The town right by here, Beavercreek, is where John Crawford III was shot. He was an unarmed black man who was shot at Wal-Mart for carrying a toy gun. And, you know, I can’t stop thinking about those photographs of Michael Brown’s parents, who were crying at his funeral.
I saw one of his dad. It was terrible.
Yeah. So I’ve been writing this book about crying, and this summer, there was so much to cry over. I feel compelled right now to write and to research and respond to that which actually occurring around me. There’s a feeling of urgency to incorporating my understanding and grieving into this work.
It sounds like the crying book was conceived as a more esoteric kind of project, before the horrors of the past year came in and provided all these nationwide occasions for grief.
Right, and I had to pay attention. In a way, it’s still sort of an act of imagination as well. In my previous books, I tended to move by association, whether by image or language or idiom or whatever it was. Right now, the way I’m writing is to still make those imaginative leaps, what I hope are unexpected leaps. They just happen to be between events in reality.
I’d like to talk about the book's final poem, an elegy for your friend, Bill Cassidy. You talk about the collection having to do with letters, and this poem is both epistolary, a note to Bill, and then there’s also that line, “Hey Bill, where are you? Do you see letters?” It seems very tied to the central theme of the work.
Maybe I should start by saying that I think Bill would be making fun of me for nearly everything I’ve said so far, and perhaps everything I’m about to say, but here goes.
Inevitably, to be a writer is to associate yourself with the dead. You’re putting words on paper, on a screen, whatever, in order that they will remain when you’re gone. On the other hand, a reader always has to be alive. So, I very much associate writing with death and reading with life.
Reading gave Bill such great pleasure. We used email each other all the time, even when we lived in the same place. We also wrote together, we read together, so one of the stranger forms our separation has taken for me is that I get to continue writing, and his poems continue to mark him as a writer, but I don’t think he has been able to continue reading. I’m sad for him, for that. The poem, “Poem for Bill Cassidy,” is a space where I could set aside that sadness for a moment, and maybe be hopeful that his reading could go on. Maybe he’s in some realm of outer space with a bunch of stars and letters.
I also don’t entirely understand how time works, in terms of the sending of messages through pages. So, the book ends with wondering about the possibility of transition, about the possibility of reaching.
In that way it ties into the whole swoop of your catalog, this idea of “what is amazing” or “what is wonderful,” literally, “full of wonder, full of wondering.” You end on this note of wondering about your friend. It ties everything together. From the micro, the focus on the letters: “Already I have confessed the whole alphabet…” But then, at the macro, too—it communicates with your whole body of work. It’s remarkable.
Well, thanks. I sometimes wonder what would happen if you would confess the alphabet. You know, the alphabet contains everything we might want to write. It’s just a matter of rearranging those letters.
Yeah! That’s always been fascinating to me, that if I put some combination of these twenty-six weird little runes together, I could write Ulysses or “The Waste Land” or something. I can just be sitting here at my laptop and if I moved my fingers in a certain sequence, I could draft a letter of such confounding beauty that Obama would read it on TV tonight, you know? There’s some hidden sequence totally available to me.
Hah, right! It’s amazing. It’s completely amazing and strange and a little frightening too. I mean, people talk about how most of language is useless, how it doesn’t make anything occur, but we’re constantly making things occur. Even if it’s only getting neurons going in someone else’s brain, that’s still a physical action occurring. That we can do that by carving out these lines and letters, it’s totally wild.
Yeah. It’s alchemical. We can turn these sequences keystrokes or movements of a pen into little hieroglyphs that can have immediate effects on a reader’s psychology, on the actual physiology of their brains.
And think about making physical actions occur in someone’s body, and then having that person die. In some small way, as they disintegrate, you wonder what happens to those actions. Where do they go?
Yeah! I’m getting literal goosebumps talking about this.
(Laughing) Literal goosebumps are great. I think literal goosebumps are probably better than figurative goosebumps.
Definitely. Okay, we’ve been going for a while, but before we finish up, I do want to talk about how you’ve embarked on this new adventure of motherhood. When I think about contemporary poetry about motherhood, I think about Alice Notley, definitely unsentimental. I loved Rachel Zucker’s The Pedestrians from last year, too. It was a book about motherhood, but those poems were also aggressively unsentimental, focused more on the loss of temporal resources and those anxieties. Have you been writing much about the experience?
Well, you know I’m writing a book about crying! Inevitably the motherhood stuff is creeping in. It’s been interesting. I think I’m glad that at this particular moment, I’m moving associatively between actual events of my life, because it seems pretty interesting to me right now. There’s been this wonderful opportunity for research, too—why do babies cry? Before she was born, I might have imagined I would be incorporating her tears into the book, but it’s really been more of my own that have leaked onto the pages.
It’s hard work! It’s really hard work, being a mother. And when one is tired, one is much closer to crying at any given moment. I’m curious to see how that continues to move forward and change. Zucker is a great person to look toward, or Notley. I don’t know if you’ve read much of Catherine Wagner?
No, not really.
One of my favorite things she’s written is Macular Hole.
I think I’ve seen one about vines inside the body?
“look at / the inside of our bag! It’s all vines.”?
Yeah—it’s a deeply unsentimental look at motherhood. It gets very gross in some kind of nice ways. It gets angry, too. I’m very grateful for the presence of those voices that made me feel it was okay to write unsentimentally about it. Or sentimentally too. I have not felt worried about not being taken seriously in writing about motherhood, though I understand that has occurred for other people. I will probably continue to be surprised when I am taken unseriously or treated differently in my life, but not too often. I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised by the world.
Interview Posted: March 2, 2015
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