Her poem “our aptitude for perishing” appears in the eighteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poem “our aptitude for perishing.”
A: a pleasure to talk with you about poems thru an email interview process: epistolary, in the sense that each question comes, and feels special in its arrival (i love getting postal letters!). as with all epistolary forms, the interval of time between ask and answer allows each to resonate more suggestively, and allows me to consider it as a singular and fragile missive passing across the ether between us. the poem “our aptitude for perishing” is in my mind as i say this, since it is the sense of each thing in my life disappearing so soon, which initiated the poem. the phrase comes from maurice blanchot, who suggests that it is, in part, “our aptitude for perishing” that we humans have to offer. it is a valuable gift...
Q: How does this compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: this is a poem from a series with a form that i created (seven-syllable segments; but each poem ends with single syllable word; no punctuation in the poems). in all these poems, i’ve wanted to write about limits. but i haven’t wanted to just write 'about' limitation, i’ve wanted to ‘live inside limitation’ in the work and then see how i handle it. i want each poem, as i write it, to be an opportunity to experience limitation (as an event, as what’s happening to me as i write the poem). the poems do talk about experiences i’ve had in my life, or that i’m having in my life. but i want more than that. i want the poem to have for me the surprise and challenge of living in an event, not just a story, not just aftermath. ann lauterbach points out that the “convergence of subject matter with form releases content.” i’ve found that the form of these poems is a challenge! and i end up revising and revising to create seven syllable segments that don’t break up words at the syllable break. this often causes a contentiousness in my use of syntax that forces me to diverge from my more expected trajectories of thought, and so it exposes a content with more contextual resources than i’d thought i’d had access to. a poem might go through 15, 20, more revisions. at that point, if things are going well, the material surprises me as it changes, as i give up saying something i’d been trying to fit in the form, and i find the poem breaks wildly, and in the rupture i find a new dimension of understanding. if things aren’t going well, then i have to let the whole of it collapse. learning to face collapse, and work to not fear it, and then realize that i do fear it, and that i need to let that be ok, too. then, sometimes, even if i’m experiencing collapse, i keep awake to what might be possible, and some glimmer of realization slips in and changes everything, if i am lucky, the poem comes alive for me in new ways(sometimes!). these are some of the challenges and thrills that this work has offered me...
Q: Is form your usual place from which to begin?
A: poems begin for me in ways that are difficult to explain. an energy... a flavor... a sudden experience that tempts and tantilizes, sometimes the sensation reaches all the way back decades. i begin to write, and if i am lucky, the energies of the poem open me to the form the work seeks. i work in series, so sometimes the form is mutating radically as poems come, but then something in the work says “yes” and the form begins to settle, but form-mutation can still occur as i work with the energies and more of the poems in the series come, and as i deep-revise what i have. any change of one poem impacts all of them.
Q: How did you get to this point in your writing? What writers or writing have influenced your current thinking on putting together a poem, or grouping of poems?
A: does a writer every actually know what is behind her/their/his thinking about the work? i can list names of some of the authors whom i revere—who shocked and sharpened my directions, as their works expanded my sense of the dimensions that writing/sensing in the world can mean. i remember the incision into my reality of the act of reading them, which changed me:
brenda hillman’s death tractates, reading jane hirshfield’s nine gates, reading hopkin’s journals and papers, reading agamben’s profanations … there are many other works that i keep close, and open at random, still.
but this is not “thinking,” exactly, or at least it’s not a development of logic-inscribed strategy that has evolved in my work. these are the sharp sudden fingernails that scratch open a scar in me; often it’s a scar i hadn’t known had healed-over hard&thick to hide the origin of a suffering and that produced a numbness of my sentience as a result.
i read, and suddenly an old wound is struck by the language on the page, it is a wound thick with denial, which then bleeds back to sensitivity. i write to allow, to enact a new healing that is will allow my skin to become more supple with breath and flow—painful as that process often is. the pain is the thrill/shock of sensation returning, sometimes it is sensation that i lost decades past.
Q: After a half dozen chapbooks and full-length poetry titles over the past fifteen years or so, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: it’s interesting & challenging to attempt to assess over-arching developments in my trajectory as a writer. i think it would take too long to discuss the many subject matters (and each one’s intimate relationship to the formal strategies i used in each work). but whatever the subject matters and their concomitant forms, i wanted (and still want) to allow past learning that i accrued from the work of previous books to infuse each new work’s crises, curiosities, and demands. and i want to continue to risk what most fiercely and abundantly surprises me. i see a writer’s trajectory as a spiral, as a widening spherical shape; not linear. your question allows for that—and for my saying that i’m heading into the next turning curve of what’s unknown to me.
Q: Has your work as a publisher provided any shifts in the ways in which you think about writing generally, or, more specifically, your own work?
A: as an editor of writers who risk courageously, and who draw readers with them in their journeys, i am very lucky. it’s my role to bring another pair of eyes to their work, and if, and as i can, to offer my sense of the ways that i hear each writer’s writing speaking to me and to the writer. we work as a triad of sensitivity and sensate attention: the writing, the writer, and myself.
this kind of dynamic exchange gives me the opportunity to see the writer’s courage. each of us are different as writers, as people. still, there are qualities of energy (some part courage, and some part openness, and some part candor, and more), which i see, and then feel more able to bring to my own work.
there is always a risk – if one allows one’s self (selves) to engage in the willingness that makes one able to listen beyond the frame of one’s normal expectations of, and for, the work. as i see/sense writers risk this, i can find myself eager (still, with some healthy trepidation!) to do this for myself. oppen said something like: when you fear the word you’ve written, you’ve begun.
shifts come in increments and in bursts. they are the work’s ways of speaking to me. i am lucky to have allies in this unknowable seeking of new outlier paths, as i engage with the depths of new directions, the heights, the spiral-ings.
Q: What factors have influenced your most recent shifts? Was there a particular author or work that prompted some of the direction you’ve been headed lately?
A: when i wrote the poem you published, “our aptitude for perishing” (a title that i repeat in the series that this poem is a part of), i was reading so many excellent poets whose works continue to impact me in subtle but important ways. i know it's not useful to just list some names— but i don’t think that is what you’re after, in asking this smart question.
always a tough choice: to choose one writer’s work to speak to. but that will let me ‘think on paper”; and pursue a meaningful answer.
one book i’d like to share is cole swensen’s noise that stays noise. the essays in this collection of essays allow me to consider the form of this poem of mine as a kind of noise.
here’s a small sense of one of her engaging ideas; she notes
“the paradigm of self-organization from noise, borrowed from the biological and information sciences, ... suggests a way that language-arts practices that are initially impenetrable to a given reader can become recognized by that reader as powerful in their own right while also enlarging the field of the sayable, and thus of the thinkable, the imaginable...”the form of this poem’s seven syllable segments (with no hyphenation-cheating, and no periods or caps or commas) force a kind of noise into my experience-- the noise of challenge, of frustration with limits. this kind of emotional noise infuses the content for me. maybe for a reader, too.
i expect the reader feels the noise of a challenging reading experience...since she/they/he will have to read without any help from the expected norm of punctuation, of syntactic pause. the seeming consistency of the form might feel to the reader like a wall of noise, a barrier. but, as one reads, i’m hoping a reader will slip inside that space (behind the wall of noise) with me, and the noise becomes a frame we are inside, together.
this is one way that i hope the poem offers, as cole suggests, something “initially impenetrable” that might “enlarg[e] the field of the....thinkable” maybe even of “the imaginable...”
that’s a lot for me to hope for!
it suddenly feels risky, embarrassing, for me to share my hopes for the poem. but i’ll leave this in my reply to you. i realize that what i want is to keep thinking, and sensing, and bringing insight into the ways i work, and in that i want to have the courage to hope for what the poem might manage. i can’t say whether my end result has managed any of this, or not. but maybe the ‘hoping’ can help me keep risking, in the task of writing, and in some way or other, maybe the hope can help me see where i’ve failed the work and thus keep me attuned to what more i might discover.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: since there are so many writers whom i re-read, i’ll limit my answer by looking at the short stack on my desk this morning and pulling out the five books that i’ve been rereading for more than 10 years. and i’ll make a ‘medley’ of lines from these books. two lines/sentences from each, all mixed in together.
see if you can tell who’s who? (the five author’s names are list below, but not in order):
“Let’s see now. The idea of reverse seeing”the authors are:
“Try to write the worst and you will see that the worst will turn against you and, treacherously, will try to veil the worst”
“NOISE// surrounds the painting on the right side it is//
cracked the hair color changed dried paint altered the hand”
“I wanted narrative to be / The proportion in her hair”
“Those who know that the approach to anything is done gradually and painfully –and includes as well passing through the opposite of what is being approached”
“I do not wish to judge or to dawdle”
“The long ribs or girders were as rollers / across the wind, not in it, but across them there lay fine grass-ends, sided off down the perspective, as if locks of vapour blown free from the main ribs down the wind”
“Not the private bucket, not the 7,000 griefs in the bucket of each cold clammy word”
“The Luminous // patches of it// on the lettuce a geography
on the trucks brilliant noise”
“that death did not subtract, it added something”
“the question is why. Perhaps in perfect stillness it would not but the air breathing it aside entangles it with itself”
gerard manley hopkins: journals
heléne cixous: three steps on the ladder of writing
brenda hillman: death tractates
lisa robertson: r’s boat
barbara guest: if so, tell me
this was a pleasure to do for me! thanks for asking a question that lit a wick inside me.