Deborah Poe is the author of the poetry collections keep (in circulation), the last will be stone, too (Stockport Flats), Elements (Stockport Flats), and Our Parenthetical Ontology (CustomWords), as well as a novella in verse, Hélène (Furniture Press). In addition, Deborah co-edited Between Worlds: An Anthology of Contemporary Fiction and Criticism (Peter Lang) and is working on finding a home for her first full-length novel. Deborah Poe is associate professor of English at Pace University, where she directs the creative writing program and founded and curates the annual Handmade/Homemade Exhibit.
Her poems “Proun (sixth)” and “Letter to B” appear in the sixth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poems “Proun (sixth)” and “Letter to B.”
A: I discovered El Lissitzky’s Proun at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University in March of 2013. The term drew me in, making me think at once of prose and noun. Proun is a term El Lissitzky’s coined, which he once defined as “the station where one changes from painting to architecture.” When I found Lissitzky’s definition, I was thrilled to think of the proun relative to memory and place. Though his definition was fairly ambiguous, it possessed a decidedly spatial quality, and the aspect of “translating” from one medium to another interested me greatly. I decided at the museum to write my fourth section of keep as “prouns,” wherein I attempted to translate the spatial—the canvas of place(s)—to language on the page.
To the extent that a poem can have a beginning (and memory of another can be imagined), I began the sixth proun about a GTMO prisoner, after viewing visual artist and poet Janet Passehl’s ironed cloth works. I had been listening to news on Democracy Now about Guantánamo Bay as well as reading a piece in Al Jazeera by detainee Moath al-Alwi, and Janet’s piece River (2010) immediately evoked both shroud and prayer cloth. The relationship between imprisonment, systems of power, and injustice—relative to our disastrous foreign policy in the Middle East—materialized in a cell on the page.
“Letter to B” takes much of its language from a 2011 email to Brandon Shimoda. I was preparing for an upcoming trip to Tucson and had started working out the relationship between my concept of the sensual infrastructure and memory. (“Letter to B” was an early piece for keep, my collection based on memory.)
Q: How do these pieces connect to your previous work?
A: In his short piece “Towards a Poetics of Monstrosity,” from Lyric Postmodernisms, edited by Reginald Shepherd, Bruce Beasley introduced me to an Italian expression that speaks to that connection.
Italians have an expression I love: rimanere in force, to “remain in perhaps,” not to know, for a while. Like Keats’ negative capability, it’s a soothing respite from the “irritable reaching’” of the intellect toward knowledge and fact. A dispossession of the experience. To stay in perhaps, to linger with the eroticized body of the temporarily or permanent unknown. (1-2)I love the openness that this Italian expression demands. I love the “placeness” held by perhaps. To pay attention to the colors, the sounds, the changes, and occurrences beyond the surface is to engage the rational and to revel too in the limitless country of the unknown. “Mind coadunates with world in memory of place,” writes philosopher Edward S. Casey.
The pieces connect to my previous work then in their preoccupation with place and with the relationship of a poem to the unknown, the latter of which I think materializes in the correspondence between the abstract and concrete language of a poem.
Q: I’ve always admired just how lyrically packed your poems are: how you manage to incorporate a great deal of information into your poems without allowing the poems to feel overpowered or overwhelmed. There is, it almost feels, such a light touch to your lines, and your sentences. When it comes to how poems are built, what poets have you been influenced by?
A: I appreciate your question and reading of my work; thank you. Milan Kundera asks at the beginning of his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “Weight or lightness?” I have thought about that question a lot—how that paradox of lightness and weight gets articulated in life and in literature. I have no doubt this is another way in which my preoccupation with belonging and freedom (home and home-lessness) manifests itself in my work. I read ferociously and across a wide aesthetic range, so there are many, many writers by whom I have been influenced. With regards to “weight or lightness” though, I think first of Bruce Beasley whose intelligence and rigor carries a great deal of information—monstrously rich concrete language—into his poems without overwhelming. Paul Celan and Emily Dickinson come to mind for their unbearable lightness of being. Orlando White and Layli Long Soldier for the simultaneous breath and sink in letter and line. Jorie Graham for her teeth-sunk interrogation into the veiled and underneath.
Q: Much of your work to date seems to exist in that convergence of translation, memory and space. What is it about engaging these elements that attracts you so deeply?
A: I’ve spoken to you elsewhere about preoccupations with place, cultural identity, and notions of belonging and home and how growing up in a military family contributed to those preoccupations. Also, I process the world emotionally very differently from my family and suspect I figured that out pretty early on. I am sure that is foundational to engaging translation, memory, and space over and over again in my writing—trying to speak the same language but knowing often we (the general we) just don’t. For a talk that I gave a year ago for the Equality State Book Festival, “Handmade/Homemade: Between Concept and Making” I spoke about my own process of writing and making books. I discussed how I consider making books as a kind of translation of text into other mediums. Just as we move across multiple grammars when we move between languages, we can move across modes of expression in transforming a text to a book object. We experience different materials and the way those materials manifest in the world. Remaining open to multiple modes of expression is like remaining open to other ways of “speaking.” Thinking about moving between genres like this pleases me greatly. But to get back to your question, I suppose my answer is kind of existential. What attracts me so deeply about engaging translation, memory, and space is how those elements animate my understanding of connection (and lack thereof). I am trying to come to more peaceful terms with that relationship between human connection and ultimately being alone. Dig far enough, I suppose, and we’ll all eventually find that our preoccupations are not unrelated to our limited time on this earth.
Q: How do you feel your work has progressed over the past decade or so, through four published books (three poetry collections and a novella in verse) and a mound of chapbooks? Where do you see your work headed?
A: Over the last ten years, I think my work has become more and more socio-politically oriented with a deeper environmental consciousness. The connections between social justice and the environment have become clearer and more urgent over the last few years. I was reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything early this summer, and this passage about the reason for social movements to exist resonated strongly:
. . . . it means continually drawing connections among these seemingly disparate struggles (my emphasis)—asserting, for instance, that the logic that would cut pensions, food stamps, and health care before increasing taxes on the rich is the same logic that would blast the bedrock of the earth to get the last vapors of gas and the last drops of oil before making the shift to renewable energy. (Part 1: Bad Timing)Over the past ten years, I have also settled into a poetics that is fairly concept-driven. My last two published books of poetry, for example, were Elements and the last will be stone, too, based on the periodic table and art about death respectively. As I mentioned before, my latest poetry collection, keep, is about memory. Another progression is my accelerated interest in prose. I view Hélène, my novella in verse, as a departure from my poetry. In it is my keen attention to language and the poetic line, but there is some semblance of a narrative arc. Last winter I finished my first novel am now seeking a home for it. As for where my work is headed, we shall see. I’m playing around with more elements this summer (there are only 39 of 118 in the Stockport Flats book). I have been awarded a sabbatical for the spring semester and have mapped out a schedule to work on two books, at least one of which will be prose.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: That is an impossible question. I just learned from Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon that the longest word to appear in an English language document was the word for an important protein, the titin protein, on the tobacco mosaic virus. I could write a list as long (and started to yesterday just for fun). The length of titin—189,819 letters—couldn’t hold all of the writers and works, old and new, which energize my work.
Lori Anderson Moseman Bruce Beasley’s Lord Brain Paul Celan
Haruki Murakami Sherman Alexie Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine
Jorie Graham’s Swarm Michael Palmer Raymond di Palma’s Works
in a Drawer Harryette Mullen Mei-mei Berssenbrugge Rikki Ducornet
Wallace Stevens William Carlos Williams Bhanu Kapil Judith Butler
Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn Laird Hunt
Jane Miller’s Wherever You Lay Your Head Edward Said Rebecca Brown
Jacques Derrida Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider James Baldwin Marilynne
Robinson’s Gilead Laynie Browne’s Mermaid’s Purse Ta-Nehisi Coates’s
Between the World and Me Anthony Doerr’s The Shell Collector Lydia Davis
Cole Swensen Junot Díaz Yoko Tawada’s Where Europe Begins Jhumpa
Lahiri Marguerite Duras Roberto Bolaño Maggie Nelson Arundhati Roy
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Elfriede Jelenik Lao Tzu Virginia Woolf
Jeannette Winterson Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories Raúl
Zurita’s Inri Cecelia Vicuña Anne Carson Bernadette Mayer Jean
Valentine Etel Adnan Arthur Sze Emily Dickinson Lucie Brock-Broido
John Ashbery Claudia Rankine Kate Greenstreet’s Case Sensitive Meredith
Stricker’s Mistake Zhang Er’s Verses on Bird Michael Ford’s Carbon Elizabeth
Willis’s Address Stéphane Mallarmé Akilah Oliver Elizabeth Bishop Lorine
Niedecker Gertrude Stein Dogen Thích Nhât Hanh Michel Foucault Suzanne
Paola’s and Brenda Miller’s Tell It Slant Suzanne Paola’s Body Toxic Xu Yuan
 Hélène Cixous, from “The Laugh of the Medusa:” “Because poetry involves gaining strength through the unconscious and because the unconscious, that other limitless country, is the place where the repressed manage to survive.”