“Contrary to popular opinion, poems go way beyond the self.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
You describe your approach to writing poetry by saying you simply put out your begging bowl and wait to see what drops in. Can you talk about what this looks like, in practice?
It's fairly simple really. This has been my method for years, this whole business of the "begging bowl" habit to start a poem. It might be a way to avoid too much self-obsession and navel-gazing, the great danger of the genre, and at least to begin in the world, the not-you, looking out to it with no agenda besides the usual wonder and puzzlement. What you find out there will bring you inward eventually, back and forth between image and idea as the poem moves toward a first line, but there's also a lot of patience involved, that wait and mystery: what will come into my head, and how will everything proceed up or down from there? Going blank -- clearing the mind to zero, no expectations or clear aims -- is crucial. Intention is worthless. And then you really do wait, or at least I do. Of course once that first line's in place, you follow it who knows where, and that's where the meticulous care begins.
The main thing is to give yourself time, a good steady empty block of it. And be there, show up. The nuns in my grade school used to warn us about "an occasion of sin" and I always loved that concept -- the "occasion" of something, for something. So you merely make sure you've set up time and a place for the poem-to-come, make the occasion for it. That's all we can do willfully anyway. But maybe I like the equation I seem to be suggesting between sin and the poem. That is -- poem as something outside, an outlaw, of sorts, done in secret, and something that changes the source, which is to say, the writer.
And then there's the months and months of revision that follow early drafts. These days I call this process my "hospital rounds" and the aim is modest: to visit with the poems, read them over and over each early morning for months and months as they gradually reveal what they really are to me -- and want to be. My job is merely to show up, a pencil in hand loose but ready.
I love this image of the poet as rogue surreptitiously adjusting her instruments, readying them for the somehow illicit arrival of a poem. I like the idea of the hospital rounds too (very relevant to your recent studies!) – is this always your process?
I've done the begging bowl thing for years, since the mid-80s at least. That willful blanking out seemed the best way to go under, to put myself into that semi-timeless state where something might really happen. Poems exist outside of time, after all, and have a nodding acquaintance with the eternal if we're lucky. Contrary to popular opinion, poems go way beyond the self. This method to start acknowledges that fact. The hospital rounds began when I finally realized how long it takes for a poem to reveal itself to me -- its shape, its meaning. Months and months really. A lot of us can write a poem that seems like a poem, it looks like one, even sounds like one. And we might even be able to do that pretty quickly. So what? Stay staring at it -- and weirder, more multiple things begin to happen.
I know now that "revision" is a very different experience for me than when I was younger. These days, I'm just spending time with poem after poem every morning, showing up, keeping them company, reading them over, revisiting them, treating them as equals with something to say I can't even imagine! And out of their coma, they might actually stir up and tell me -- what? Some small trigger toward a change in image, syntax, even punctuation that might alter everything and open my head. It's a quiet business, pretty private. But in this sense it is very much like the begging bowl approach at the very start: I just need to be there to welcome those leads, and follow them. The fact is I’m really curious, getting up each morning, about what I might think about the revisions I made yesterday on certain poems, if any of them still seem possible. It’s always a huge question until the work finally settles down.
Your book, The Glimpse Traveler, details a hitchhiking excursion across the country in the seventies. The modus operandi of such works is to mythologize these experiences, measuring the deficiencies of the present against the riches of an idealized past. However, you are cautious against glamorizing that period of your life, writing: “It’s an illusion that a thing has a beginning and an end, that something not utterly pointless runs through it. Some reason.” The tone seems more documentarian, more interested in the objects and characters coloring the journey than any truth unearthed during. What was it like writing in this mode, and how deliberate was your aversion to artificially ennobling the experience?
My friend Jane Hamilton refers to this nonfiction genre as a "me-woir" -- a term she says she remembers someone else saying first -- and I've also adopted it as very much on target: one clear speaker holding forth about something that actually happened, be it a misery me-woir or one that keeps on keeping on, as mine does.
But I've gotten a bit of flack for my attempt. "There's not enough me in this me-woir" is what some have complained. And yes, the more I consider it, the more I do think this particular book is, rather, a "we-woir," which was my intention from the start -- to be honest about what those days really were like for most us ordinary, ho-hum folk, not how that period is either ridiculed or idealized, full of idiots or heroes, which is usually the case now. It's weird to be old enough to see one's experience turn into history but the late 60s, the early 70s were a remarkable time to be wandering about clueless and curious and inarticulate as most of us are when young.
At heart, I wanted to nail that feeling, which must be universal, whatever the era. But then, in those years, to have the world literally blowing up and refigured nearly at every level, so much questioned and coming new -- that seemed important to get down on paper. Plus I had an honest-to-Zeus story to tell: succinct, a matter of 10 days or so, a journey by accident and design, a mystery, many discoveries involved. And I thought I better lay it out before I started going senile. And having my prose chops finally in order -- or in order enough -- I just began writing.
After years of poems and staying on one or two pages to go down deep for each, it was delightfully freeing to move over time and space in narrative progression, to introduce and indulge then drop out characters and their own rich worlds, nevertheless to stay put for over 77 small chapters that moved west and back, and still to come out breathing, semi-sane at the end. I like to say it was like free beer -- great fun, a kick. These were very funny times after all. But it became oddly sobering too. I discovered a lot about the nature of memory, of art, of how we know anything at all as I wrote -- relived -- this small saga that happened to me, no thanks to me. I was merely the observer on that amazing hitchhiking trip, not even a side-kick, more just a P.S., a hanger-on.
I'm still grateful for that extraordinary chance. It was a gift. Of course, I wasn't original. As I mention in the book, everyone was taking to the road by thumb then. The unsettling and riveting thing for me was what turned out to be the real reason, and what makes it a mystery, of sorts
Can you talk a little bit what getting your “prose chops in order” looked like for you? You've two craft books in addition to your memoir. How does your process differ when you're not writing in verse?
In fact, I love the paragraph. It's just another pooling of thought -- and didn't Wallace Stevens
say that thought really does that? Pools? I've always figured he meant the stanza, but it works
equally well -- and mysteriously -- for the paragraph too. At any rate, I especially love that moment when one paragraph is winding down to that delicious half pause before the leap into the next one, a shift in consciousness, really. So we mime the interior, the very shape of that, on the page.
Still, the process was similar to writing poetry. Those chapters are short, 2-5 pages usually, as befits someone at work for decades on poems, most of which don't break the "page barrier," as I call it. I was aware of things I try to be alert to in any genre -- the sound of the phrasing, a variety of syntax, shifts from private to public observation, the mix of lyric and narrative energy, the primacy of beloved particular via the hard image, a deep surprise that it happens at all. It got beyond one begging bowl, more like many bowls -- stoneware, probably never fine china -- chapter after chapter. Over real time. So there's greater attention to the world, to keeping on track -- a Wednesday and then a Thursday, a mission to find out, a moving toward. Plus the continual press of seeing things in retrospect, in an historical context -- that unnerved and rather thrilled me. I got caught up in the journey, in reliving the journey. I wanted to see what was next, to find more in what I remembered.
I could never write proper fiction though. To make it all up? No. In The Glimpse Traveler I was revisiting what in truth -- however miraculously and weirdly -- happened. That's a matter for poems too, but I'm not recounting then. In poems, no matter how familiar the material, it's all happening for the first time.
You were awarded a faculty fellowship to study a second discipline by Purdue, and used the opportunity to take a gross anatomy (dissection) medical lab. That experience eventually turned into the poems in your haunting new collection, Cadaver, Speak. What prompted your decision to focus your inquiry in this particular discipline? When did you know the experience would become poems?
Purdue does have this rare,
surprising chance for faculty in that fellowship which relieves us of our teaching for a term so we can study something completely unrelated to what we normally might work on.
I'd always wanted to apply. An important element of my plan was to take a life drawing class at the same time, in Purdue's Art and Design division. So artist Grace Benedict kindly allowed me into her course and I have a stack of bad drawings to prove that fact. Meanwhile, yes, I was also invited first and foremost to be underfoot in James Walker’s Gross Human Anatomy class -- aka the dissection lab -- a course for first-semester students in the IU Medical School's division on Purdue's campus. Taken together, the two courses seemed like five months of "bodies, living and dead" which makes me dizzy still, just to recall that double hit.
And why this subject at all? I think I wanted to scare myself, to dare myself into a new situation where I'd have no idea how to respond. Still, I'm getting older. Members of my family, and friends too, are slowly vanishing before me. And what is the old joke? I don't feel very well myself. At any rate, these worries lead to terrible mysteries, and as the body ages and deteriorates, what better time to learn about them, with a deepening sense of attention and close distance and grief?
One very freeing thing about my application was that I didn't have to promise anything specific -- like rebuilding King Tut's tomb on the head of a pin in the months to come. I only said -- in so many words -- that my begging bowl would be wide open and I'd bring every brain cell I had left to whatever I witnessed. I had no real idea what might happen though I assumed poems and essays in the offing, some way to work out on paper the small shocks I'd be getting daily from such an unthinkable enterprise.
But who knew? It turned out that my experience in the drawing class (on Tuesdays and Thursdays) and in the cadaver lab (on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays) for those months would haunt both genres, and continues to, I suppose.
There's a rich tradition of poet physicians, from titans of the canon like Keats and WC Williams to contemporary voices like Fady Joudah and C. Dale Young (fiction, too, has these figures -- Chekov, Arthur Conan Doyle, Khaled Hosseini, etc). You experienced a sort of tiny, intensive immersion into this double-mindedness – being in the “continent of ice and sleep and ruin and light.” Can you talk a bit about that duality, what it's like trying to wrap language directly around the most tangible artifacts of our species' mortality?
Yes, I think “tiny intensive immersion” is the key phrase here, as I was hanging onto the very tip of that iceberg, not anything like those poets with real medical training. (I’d add another to your list, doctor and poet Susan Okie) But there is a rich tradition between literature and medicine, I agree, and Keats has been in my head for a long time. He's one of the reasons the subject drew me in the first place. (In fact, I gave a brief presentation on Keats to the med students in that Gross Anatomy course, on his medical training at Guy's Hospital in London, just so they'd see how lucky they were to have it so good now versus, for starters, the poet's 1820 cadaver lab closed down in summer, given the stench….)
Meanwhile, this "double-mindedness" as you aptly call it, kept on. My 8th poetry collection -- Cadaver, Speak -- was completed in the UK, in Edinburgh where I was a Fulbright Professor in 2012 for 6 months, there partly because I was given access to the many medical oddities and triumphs at that city's amazing Surgeons' Hall museum and also to the surgical history collection at the University of Edinburgh itself where Conan Doyle once studied medicine and found a model for his Sherlock -- his brilliant teacher, crack diagnostician Dr. Joseph Bell. I've just written an essay on the imagination and diagnosis, using both these writers and their work. And I included Williams in that small study as well, given that he's my longtime hero in virtually all ways.
As to your last comment, it's always hard, nearly an out-of-body experience "to wrap language" around anything, but certainly human mortality is the central thorny mystery of poems, probably why we write them at all. Cadaver, Speak is a bi-valved book, whose speaker is me -- whoever that is -- in the first half before my old cadaver takes over to tell her story in the long title poem that makes up the whole second half. Poems in that first section are influenced, a few of them, by my time in the dissection lab, but mostly they stand apart except the body is also their subject -- in history, in ancient art, in personal memory.
I think about Williams' dictum that “beauty is related not to loveliness, but to a state in which reality plays a part.” I think he'd approve of Cadaver, Speak.
Maybe. I hope so. But only some playful, self-serving time on the Ouija board would confirm this!
The cadaver who would become the speaker in the book's titular poem was a woman who passed after her hundredth birthday. You write that she “wanted to argue with both self and world, to have her say, to be a point of reference between the living and the dead,” (which has to be one of the all-time great pitches for a poetry collection). What was it about her that gave you so much poetic energy, enough to build a collection?
The real person behind my invented speaker of the book's title poem was, like her three cohorts in the dissection lab, enormously generous, willfully signing over their bodies for such study by medical students. It's pure accident -- and a vast privilege for me -- that I happened in, to witness what followed in that lab. We were emphatically told nothing personal about the cadavers other than their age, roughly what took them (heart, lung); their gender the only obvious thing. I understand their privacy as important to that process wherein each became a sort of "everyman/everywoman" though it seemed they were always individuals, deeply themselves. And we were all grateful to them, that's certain. And she became my speaker -- I'm not sure why though she seemed to insist on that. I suppose she so reminded me of my own grandmother -- much beloved -- just her size and shape and blue eyes. She made me rethink so much.
And I keep learning more about her effect on me, where she led me. I've worked with others on five occasions now, doing a kind of "readers' theater" version of the title poem -- "Cadaver, Speak" -- sometimes with medical students and young poets as my co-readers, the first time with those doctors-to-be who actually worked on those dissections and with some of my MFA poets at Purdue. (A most haunting, historical version took place at the University of Edinburgh where we used the Old Anatomy Lecture Theater where Conan Doyle once watched dissections.) Most recently I asked 6 writers and artists in residency with me at Yaddo to do an informal reading, and it was extremely valuable to me, the discussion after which drew in the audience, others there for a month or two to write or make visual art or compose music. They pointed out how they felt her words came from some sort of slippery but credible nether point between worlds where she was figuring out what she once was and to get used to whatever-was-to-come, if anything -- that this spot, this point of departure and entry was an actual state of being and mind, that she was speaking out of its daunting silence.
I think that describes poetry itself -- and how unnerving and crucial the making of it -- pretty well.
Interview Posted: September 15, 2014
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