“It’s about girlhood surviving manhood.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
You were born in Michigan City, right?
I taught high school there for one semester. I taught Creative Writing at LaPorte High School.
Well, the strange thing is that I know almost nothing about Michigan City. That was the closest hospital for my parents. They lived in Three Oaks, Michigan, a tiny place without a hospital, so they had to drive across the Michigan-Indiana border to Michigan City. Maybe one reason borders are interesting to me. My mom was in labor, but they stopped and got coffee and smoked cigarettes. They took it easy on the way to St. Anthony’s—a Catholic hospital. We’re not Catholic, but I was born into the hands of nuns. My mother tells me it was a foggy night on Lake Michigan, and she pulled out half her hair.
That’s a great birth story. That’s a very Midwestern birth—them stopping to have coffee and smoke a couple of cigarettes on the way across the state line. The places that you write about almost become the focal point of your poems, and then the characters that people them are almost accouterments, or elements, of the places you’re describing. Is that a function of your having moved around a lot? It just seems like you have a high sensitivity of geography and place.
That’s a great question. We didn’t move around a lot. I lived in Three Oaks and then Edwardsburg, Michigan, which is even smaller. It was a literal village. When I was a kid I think the main drag was dirt. It was very archetypal. On the dirt main street were the pharmacy, the soda fountain, the funeral home, and my grandpa’s barber shop. I’m not young like you, you little whippersnapper, so when I was a kid there was no media to speak of. We maybe had two T.V. channels and no computers, of course, or any of that. So the place you lived was your playground and your Bible. We lived next to the cemetery, which became my little playground, and in front of a bog, a spooky bog. We caught frogs and put them in jars. Listened to bullfrogs, and crickets, and cicadas at night. When that is your music and landscape, your senses get attuned to it. Also, my father was sick from the time I was two years old and then died when I was seven. So my landscape was also formed by illness and its accoutrements—back braces, pills, incisions. The waning body.
After my dad died my mom went to college, which she hadn’t had the opportunity to do before, and that’s when odd books came into our house. Virginia Woolf. Keats. Joyce. She couldn’t afford babysitters, so I was alone a lot with the provocation of books and landscape. Many of the poems in Four-Legged Girl take place in a version of New York City, so they are not in the least rural, but I still related to New York as a hick, that is, with a high attention to small details and an intense identification with my location. Place is especially important in my second book, Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open . It's apparent from the get go, from the first poem, that the book’s theology emerges from the land and the village as reflected in its inhabitants. In Four-Legged Girl I move into magical realism, or surrealism, but the source of the images is still place rather than, for instance, the mind.
You said twelve different things just then that I want to talk about, but what you said about relating to New York as a hick reminded me of one of my favorite poems in Four-Legged Girl, "It wasn't a dream, I knew William Burroughs," where you tell this wild story of a woman who writes these porn novels, and works these crazy jobs, and suffers these absurd relationships. There’s that line, “Beneath it all I was a farm girl watching locusts devour / the crops,” and that speaks directly to what you’re talking about. There is this crazy bustling booming metropolis doing its wild thing around you, but you’re still coming from the perspective of this Midwestern girl watching the locusts eat the fields.
Brilliant insight, Kaveh. Even though I was in an urban environment, I related to that environment like a rural person relates to environment, with wariness and absorption. I often stood back and observed. That whole scene with Burroughs—I was such a witness, not a player. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Howard Brookner, the director? He was making a documentary about Burroughs, and my boyfriend at the time did sound and camera work for him. They were all in film school at NYU at the same time. I was completely marginal to the pop culture scene unfolding in front of me. I was a girl from Michigan working as a secretary. A nobody. I moved to New York to be a poet because, you know, that’s what you do. But what I ended up doing was typing, writing porn and romances, and feeding my boyfriend’s drug habit.
So that bit was real?
Yeah, that was real. My life is more interesting than my imagination.
Yeah. I was on the margins of that scene, usually watching rather than creating. The art scene in general in the East Village in the 70s was often sexist and racist, too. If you were a woman, unless you were Patti Smith, you were kind of on the outside. She got in, maybe because she didn’t have boobies to speak of. Hopefully she won’t read this.
I always was on the sidelines, but I was storing root vegetables for winter—I got a lot of material from that rather demeaning time. It took me a long while to work with it because living it nearly killed me, but luckily I got out alive and it became the hub of Four-Legged Girl.
When you say “living it” nearly killed you, what do you mean by that? Literally?
Literally. I was madly in love the way you are the first time you’re madly in love. Have you been madly in love?
I have been, yes!
Unfortunately, it was with an addict that I didn’t quite realize was an addict when I fell in love, and his habit got worse and worse. As you know, addicts lose who they are, and then the addiction is who they are. He was violent at times. The thing that got me to leave was when he bought a gun. He called me and said, "Meet me at the Veselka," which is a little Ukrainian diner in the East Village. Great borscht. So I did. He was holding the revolver under the table. He, too, seemed shaken by its presence. He asked me to feel it, so my first experience of it was by touch. I got cold—a coldness I explore in Four-Legged Girl—and I said, "Who do you plan to kill—me, or yourself, or your father?" He said, "I don’t know." It became very clear the jury was still out. So I took the gun, and I walked through what was called Alphabet City, Avenues A, B, C, D, which was dangerous then and gentrified now. I walked all the way to the East River and threw the gun into the water.
Then I started planning how to get out.
That’s a horrifying story. It’s so strange to have the experience of knowing one person and then seeing that physical person in front of you, but knowing it’s the desiccated husk of the actual person that you fell in love with.
Yes, exactly. I think I judged him at the time because of his behavior as an addict, but now that I look back, and I hope this comes through, especially in "I can’t listen to music, especially 'Lush Life,'" I see that I was an addict, too. I was addicted to him. And there’s no escaping those patterns. Even when I left and thought I'd turned a page, I found myself with a son who has serious addiction problems. So we play out our patterns until we get them right, I guess. At least as right as we can get them.
Yeah, and that’s the tragic cycle of addiction. It perpetuates itself no matter how far along in recovery you are or aren’t. It has a way of mirroring itself or fractal-ing itself.
Yes, it’s a powerful disease, or curse, or whatever you want to call it. It’s had an immense impact on my life, and I didn’t want it to. That was not something that I was interested in. But too bad, Diane.
Haha. If they got to choose, I don’t think many people would choose to have it be a part of their life.
True. But New York was a conglomeration of things. It was also really great seeing the art, meeting Warhol in Soho, and encountering Lou Reed in the audience at CBGB's, or David Byrne at a Lounge Lizards concert with ten people in the audience at Max’s Kansas City, or sitting in a folding chair at Sonny Rollins’ feet at The Bottom Line. Meeting Ginsberg. It was a time of the Beats and the bohemians and the punks, and I really hope this comes through in Four-Legged Girl, both in the Burroughs poem, and maybe especially in the "Lush Life" poem. There was really no comfortable space for me there. I’d go to CBGB's and inevitably start my period. I wasn’t tough. Life has made me stronger, but I can’t say I’m tough. I’m not tough because I was raised with the milkweed pods, the little soft seedlings coming out and flying. With softness. And I wasn’t hard enough for that situation. A lot of women weren’t. A lot of women got impaled on it.
That poem, "I can't listen to music, especially 'Lush Life,'" is one of the really triumphant achievements of the book, and it’s one of the poems that I direct people to most often. One of the signature moments is when the speaker is really done up, with the white dress, the lace up bodice, the fingernails painted like pearls, and then she bleeds through the dress.
Yes. The white dress is all over that book. I didn’t realize it until I started putting the manuscript together. Wedding dresses populate Wolf Lake, so I guess I’m hung up on that image. I did have a white dress in New York. It wasn’t as awesome as it sounds in the poem, but I’d get a lot of attention walking down the street. I mean, I was pretty hot back then, but in a less posed or jaded way, maybe, than a lot of people in the city. I remember one time walking down the street wearing that dress and getting some attention. I was with my boyfriend, and he said something like, "You’re such a slut." It was a kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t moment. I was feeling sort of liberated by the city, but also chastised. I think it's in one of the poems, my boyfriend said to me once, "You’re like an orchid on the street." I did feel like something that could be trampled, and was trampled. And I was very open, erotically open, in a way that I probably haven’t been since, at least until recently. I transferred that libido and openness to the page.
One of the ways that your poetry is so singular is that it’s so sensually generous. I don’t know if that’s a phrase that makes any sense, but it’s so replete. I’ve heard people talk about how there’s a hyper abundance of images, but it seems so sensually replete. There’s not just images, but things that correspond to all five senses, or six, or eight, or however many senses we have. There’s not a lot of abstraction, but you’re also not just cataloging either.
I’m aware of the danger of cataloging. In that book, and maybe also in the one before, there’s definitely a tendency to gush. Or to be gushy aesthetically. I was interested in excess. That may be changing. My next book is a bit less gushy-lush.
There have been a couple of reviews that have critiqued that aspect of my work. It feels like the language of the poems is mimicking sensual overload, or overstimulation. Also, perhaps it’s a push-back against minimalism. I’m not particularly elliptical in my process, or I’m not that interested in veering away from meaning. I like some poems that veer, but in my own work I’m interested in building meaning, or exposing meaning. I need to construct at least some kind of movement in the situation that feels like it gives me, when I’m writing it, and hopefully readers, when they’re reading it, something to have made it through the poem for.
That makes total sense. You’re interested in telling stories, and a good storyteller makes you feel as though you’re in the moment. You do that with the tiny details. You've evoked Gerald Stern as a model, and one of the things he’s known for is being a master storyteller. The details of his stories feel so replete and perfectly suited for the stories that he’s telling.
Yes, and even when his poems run short, like they have in his most recent books, it’s like you’re getting the DNA of a novel.
I write, or have written, longer than that, but I still go for that tension between lushness and compression. Many of the poems, such as "I'm moved by her, that big-nippled girl," or "Oh four-legged girl, it's either you or the ossuary," and even "Jump rope song," are not veering as far into narrative or storytelling as something like the Burroughs poem, in which I felt that what was really interesting here is the situation, and this girl, and her positionality in that world. Also, I wanted the space to get a little bitchy about the world of hipster patriarchal writers, like Burroughs, who did a lot of damage and often get pedestalized. As I said in the poem, he’s the first person who stuck the needle in my boyfriend’s arm. I don’t forgive him for that, and for a lot of damage he did. And for a lot of damage that aesthetic did. I wouldn’t pick on him if he didn’t also represent the whole movement.
I think he was a seminal figure for the romanticization of drug culture for generations of young men.
Yes, and where were the girls? That’s kind of a big part of Four-Legged Girl. That’s why it’s called "girl." It’s about girlhood surviving manhood. Anyway, getting back to those poems like "I'm moved by her, that big-nippled girl," or "Beauty is over," which take place more in mythic space than in reality. I felt that there were some subjects that were best served by narrative, and others that needed to be told by a sort of heroic/absurd voice-iness. "She doesn't want anyone's / love. She’s post-love; she's post-love's poster child." The poems that come in the second half of the book expose a voice that has emerged from all the stuff that the beginning of the book walks through.
And I think that some of the poems we’ve brought up have this element of surprise, at the narrative level, but also at the syntactical level, that becomes a huge part of what the poems are up to and the way that they bring delight to the reader. I know that I go to poetry to be delighted. I think most people that read poetry do, right? And to be delighted by surprising language. In "I'm moved by her, that big-nippled girl," "Sometimes when I wipe / after peeing I say the phrase 'cow lips' out loud," is such a strange line. And then in "Lush Life" there’s the line, "brown-Eyed Susan’s / dark mound wreathed by gold petals like a nipple / bitten black." That has to be one of my favorite similes of the year.
I think that a writer comes to an image—like a nipple bitten black, or cow lips—in two ways. One is through not caving to the current conventions, so that you’re following language’s lead instinctively, and you're also aware of the danger of being habitual. Two is through being honest at the expense of your own persona.
I love that.
Poets can fall into the archetype of gorgeousness, the sort of “look at my cascading golden hair” poem. Or, "don’t you want to fuck me?” Toward the end of Four-Legged Girl, the speaker demystifies beauty, or dismantles it, as life has dismantled it. She's not beautifying herself for the camera, but saying things that are so demystifying that they may be shocking and even repellant.
That’s a great way to articulate that sentiment, "so demystifying that they may be shocking." That’s a really really great way to say that. Charles Simic has this line where he says the secret desire of poetry is to seduce. And I’ve read multiple interviews with him where, when he's been asked why he became a poet, he says, "because I want every girl to fall in love with me."
Oh, shall we dish, honey? I think that especially with that generation of man poets, manly poets, there was a lot of seduction that went on both on the page, and in the readings—in reality. I don’t know if that’s true of Charles, I don’t know him, but it's true of a lot of his comrades. And, actually, it’s something I want to write about, though probably as a piece of nonfiction. I want to write about how the poetry world, for a girl coming up in the 60s and 70s, was a dangerous place. Many man-poets got a hazardous power from the mystique of being a poet and from what they conjured on the page. Well, we all can do that, most of us want a degree of celebrity, and all of us can fall under the spell of the power of a persona. It can be used for evil as well as good.
My hope is to not use any kind of notoriety for evil purposes. We all have the power to seduce. It’s a power you can use to save whatever the fuck the thing is, or to destroy people. I’ve done my share of seducing on the page, so I dug the experience of writing poems that demystify that persona. A woman who’s been through menopause is going to be demystified anyway, so you might as well take it into your own hands. Shatter the motherfucker. It was a very difficult thing to come up as a girl in that world. And I am white. There were virtually no non-white people in that world to speak of, no overt queer presence, as you know. I was at least visible enough to be fucked with.
The way that certain members of that generation of male poets sort of weaponized their potential for seduction in a mercenary way, you sort of weaponize your demystification of your own powers of seduction.
Thank you. That’s the most brilliant thing I’ve ever heard. God damn it.
It is true. I loved it when you said they weaponized their potential for seduction. And they really did. So you have to have a counterbalance, a counter argument, or you’re either destroyed or swept up in it. I could tell you stories, honey.
I mean, you’re welcome to.
It’s hard when some of these dudes die and everybody talks about how wonderful they were. And I’m sitting back remembering. I sort of have the urge to out them, but at the same time I’m not sure that’s really the most healthy or gracious response, so I’m more interested in raising the diction to the level of rhetoric and thinking about what that time was like. How the strands of it might be more well-hidden now, but are still in place. They’ve transmogrified into how the poetry world works now.
Yeah, it’s still here. Just more convoluted maybe. Less illegal. There was a lot of sexual violence. I know women whose lives were destroyed by some of those dudes. Whose writing careers were destroyed. How do we work with that knowledge? A lot of us have been pretty quiet about it so far. I don’t know where that will go, but it’s part of our history. It must be excised.
I did want to talk a little about Lucille Clifton, how you quote her to open the collection. I’ve always loved her saying, “Things don’t fall apart. Things hold. Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept.” And that just seems so perfectly in keeping with the spirit of this collection.
Clifton also appears in "Beauty is over.” Maybe what Kali was to her, she is to my work. Clifton was born with six fingers on each hand, the sign of a mystic. They were removed. "Her bad / kidneys, bad teeth and bad breasts, her bad hair"—I guess one thing that felt important to me about invoking her was that she writes on behalf of, not just as a representative of herself, her speaker. “There is nothing you will not bear for this woman’s sake,” she writes of her mother, in “Fury.” I feel very strongly about writing for the sake of my mother, my sister, my people, which you’ll see even more in the next book. Rural people, single mommies, small town barbers, small town people. People without a voice on the page like I have the privilege to have been allowed. And I think that was very much Clifton’s project, and also her humanity.
I reference Clifton’s collection Two-Headed Woman in my book’s title. Obviously, this two-headedness, or four-leggedness, or being an occupant of what Gloria Anzaldúa calls "the borderlands"—being queer, freak, brown, female, ugly, wrong—is very authoritative if you can lasso it. Clifton also aimed toward accessibility, and not being trapped in academic language, in the highfalutin aspect of the poetry world. Her speaking from the margins without trying to do otherwise, and her accessibility, and her own kind of empowerment of the female as iconoclast, as powerful freak, really helped me come to that central image in the book. I reference her with gratitude and humility, I hope.
That’s wonderful and I think you just articulated it well. It felt like the perfect invocation of the muse at the start, and now it feels doubly so.
You talked about your new collection, is that done now, or is it something you're working on?
It’s done, aside from getting my editor, Jeff Shotts', comments, which will be invaluable.
So it’ll be out with Graywolf?
Yes, in 2018.
I know, I’m so happy about it. Composing it was such a different experience than anything I’ve written before. It’s called Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl. A lot of it emerges out of painting, especially still life painting. I also explore the gaze of the painter and the experience of the person in the frame, who is often female. And then it expands to include the delightful power of art, and the kind of gated community that it represents to so many people, some of them my people. The speaker, as she develops in this book, is very ambivalent about where to position herself in relation to the Eden of art, in relation to her rural, working poor, matriarchal family and the people of her town. So the poems take on the tension between fine art, and class, and rurality.
That sounds terrific.
I’m so excited. It was the most exhilarating, expansive, writing period in my life. It was incredibly sorrowful and beautiful.
Interview Posted: June 20, 2016
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