Wednesday, June 5, 2019

TtD supplement #135 : seven questions for Bronwen Tate

Bronwen Tate is an assistant professor of Creative Writing and Literature at Marlboro College, a tiny radically egalitarian educational utopia usually buried in snow in southern Vermont. She is the author of seven poetry chapbooks, including Vesper Vigil (above/ground, 2016). Her poems and essays have appeared in the Journal of Modern Literature, 1111, Denver Quarterly, LIT, TYPO, and elsewhere.

Her poems “REPRODUCTIONS OF FRESCOS,” “I COULD NOT ASK OTHER FLOWERS” and “CIRCUMSTANCES LEGIBLE BEHIND THIS WINDOW” appear in the twenty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.


A: These three poems are part of a manuscript I’ve been working and reworking for years that I’ve recently started calling The Silk the Moths Ignore. The book has three different formal modes of writing in it: prose versets like these three in Touch the Donkey, little five-line poems with rhyme or slant rhyme inspired by Lorine Niedecker, and sonnets. These three poems grew out of a constraint-based practice where I read Proust in French (which I speak fairly well but not perfectly), looked for words that were at least semi-opaque to me, and then used a combination of my contextual guesses and dictionary definitions of these words to generate language and sparks of juxtaposition for poems. I was interested in what might emerge when I started from material (specific words) rather than an idea or feeling. Over time, however, many sentences, phrases, images were cut. And I wrote into what was left with feelings and ideas and pain. But these poems developed a kind of tonal range or force field from that source work that I think they’ve kept.

Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: These poems are grappling with sound and language as a material, while also trying to participate in the world of actual people and experiences. This is something I’m continuing to explore in new work. I teach creative writing across genres, so I’m constantly working with students on memoir and fiction, as well as poetry. This means that I’m always thinking about the different goals and trade-offs that happen across genre, and it pushes me to really consider what I want to prioritize or emphasize in my work. At the moment, I’m working on some poems that are deeply sound-driven and some other poems that are animated more by documenting details and events and juxtaposing them in search of insight.

Q: I’m curious about your explorations into sound. What originally prompted this, and what are you discovering?

A: I think poetry has always been about sound on some level for me, ever since I first memorized Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” for the pleasure of being able to recite it to myself when I was 8 or 9 years old. Whenever I write poetry, there’s some element of writing by ear, of repeating words or phrases back to myself and sounding my way to the next sentence or line. Sound connects to the body, to the sense that we know things in our bodies and can feel them before we fully articulate them.

Recently, I’ve been reading Gregory Orr’s A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry with a couple of tutorial students, and he discusses poetry in terms of making space for disorder and chaos and then acting on it with “the ordering powers of the imagination” and of form. I’m interested in how sound can be an ordering power—we give shape to poems through alliteration, rhyme, and other kinds of patterning—while also being a sign of chaos or disorder. Puns, homonyms, and similar forms of sound play reveal a kind of instability or anarchy of language. I'm drawn to both the patterning and the destabilizing powers of sound.

Q: With a handful of published chapbooks over the past few years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: My work as a poet has developed in conversation with my work as a scholar, a mother, and a teacher. These other forms of work often feel in competition for time with my poetry writing, but they feed it as well. Over the course of my PhD, I often worked on poems in between work on dissertation chapters in concentrated little bursts in the summer or around a concrete deadline like those of the various Dusie chapbook exchanges. Writing about Lorine Niedecker and her relationship to haiku got me writing poems in the signature five-liner form she developed from this haiku encounter (like these ones you published before). I’ve often written prose poems, and I learned something about lineation there, as well as about compression. Mothering drains me at times, but it also immerses me in the hands-on language lab of new humans learning to communicate—their strange phrasings that show the cracks in language and their joy in rhyme and word play remind me that poetry is vital and centrally human at moments when I start to think of it as a weird thing off to the side that no one cares about. And teaching is a constant reminder to listen to my own better angels. You can’t constantly urge students to commit to regular writing, trust the process, take risks, be ok with not knowing where a piece is going, look for enabling models, and so on, without internalizing some of that advice yourself.

I get frustrated sometimes because I’ve been writing poetry for a while now, but every time I sit down with a new project I feel like I’m starting all over again. Shouldn’t I know by now what a Bronwen poem does or at least how it starts? But I’m also drawn to poetry because of how open it is. I love how many different ways a poem can make meaning. I love to be surprised in my reading, and I want to be surprised in my writing. Looking forward, I want to make work that holds more, that does a better job bringing different aspects of experience together and showing how they touch each other, like Bernadette Mayer writing about Saint Augustine and chopping vegetables for soup. I want to let more in.

Q: You mention Bernadette Mayer; what other poets have helped shape the way you think about writing? What poets and works have been in your head lately, as you continue to write?

A: Yes, I recently participated in an event organized by Becca Klaver where a group of poets all wrote a collaborative homage to Mayer’s Midwinter Day (on midwinter day, naturally) that mirrored the form of the book. I also mentioned Lorine Niedecker above—she and Mayer often feel like lovely balancing impulses: mess and excess and letting it all in from Mayer and restraint and minimalism and obsessive revision from Niedecker.

Memorizing Baudelaire in French was an early enchantment as a fifteen-year-old exchange student in Switzerland. Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red were important for defining possibilities early on. The poets I wrote about in my PhD dissertation—Robert Creeley, Elizabeth Bishop, and Frank Stanford, among others—have continued to linger with me, as have teachers and mentors like C.D. Wright, Forrest Gander, and Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop. I’ve recently been engaging in a sustained way with the poems of Harryette Mullen, both as a scholar, and as participant in one of Hoa Nguyen’s fantastic long-distance workshops centered around Mullen’s work. I loved Jessica Smith’s recent How to Know the Flowers and Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, and my to-read stack at the moment includes Erika Meitner, Cynthia Arrieu-King, Vanessa Angélica Villareal, and Johannes Göransson’s book of essays on translation.

Q: You mention how time spent as a scholar, mother, and teacher has fed your writing. How do you feel each have shifted the ways in which you approach your work?

A: As a scholar, I’ve learned how to really stay with something, to reread it over and over again and look at it from different angles and within a larger context. There’s a problem-solving or method-focused way this shows up in my writing—if I’m struggling with lineation, say, I assign myself focused reading of poets I see doing interesting and intentional work with line breaks, and then I sit with their work, examining its breaks and swerves.

How many ways has being a mother shifted how I approach my work? So many ways. To describe just one, I sing to my children (3.5 and almost 7) at bedtime almost every night, and I’ve recently been struck by the questions they ask about songs. The current songs on repeat-request are Gillian Welch’s “I Dream a Highway,” “The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” and the kids ask things like “How can flowers learn?” or “Do ALL the soldiers go to graveyards?” or “How can the wagon be empty if it’s full of rattling bones?” Now this may just be bedtime stalling, but it’s also a reminder that the urge to notice details and interpret poetic texts is deep in us. I think sometimes we get out of the habit, or encounter this kind of interpretive work as alienating and forced in the high school classroom (the classic “did the author really mean to make the conch shell in Lord of the Flies a symbol of authority?” type question), but humans are fundamentally grapplers with language and meaning. I take heart from this reminder.

As a teacher, I’ve been lucky to work for the past two years at Marlboro College, a very small liberal arts college without typical disciplinary boundaries. We have biweekly faculty meeting as a full faculty, we can co-teach at will across fields, and we work closely with students on intensive capstone projects that almost always draw on methods and practices from across multiple disciplines. We also all eat lunch together in the dining hall, so any given day, I’m talking with colleagues and students about wolf dentition, forest gardening, how writing workshops differ from painting critiques, etc. In fact, I’ve just stepped in from the hallway where I was talking with Amer in Religious Studies and Jean in Theater about a quote from Rumi (the one where he talks about the self as a guest house and urges us to invite our difficult emotions in) and how it relates to theater and the healing of trauma. This ongoing dialogue pushes me to question my own assumptions about teaching and about writing. It also keeps me curious, which I see as a necessary condition for writing.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Many of the writers I’ve already mentioned are ones I read to reenergize my work. I deeply appreciate books that give a kind of permission or direct my attention towards something that language is capable of doing, like “oh yeah, that’s possible.” I might turn to Frank O’Hara or John Donne for voice, Ross Gay for syntax and ecstasy, Wallace Stevens for lushness, Lucille Clifton for embodiment, Ada Limón for intimacy, Richard Brautigan or Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit for strangeness and nostalgia, Paul Celan for starkness, Anne Boyer or Maggie Nelson or Claudia Rankine or Kate Schapira for the poem as a site of inquiry. I also love discovering new sides of poets whose work I’m familiar with when I read them with students.

I’m a big nerd when it comes to form, grammar, syntax, etymology, and I often find essays and craft talks energizing for how they articulate the challenges of writing and how people have tackled them, or shed light on some particularity of material. Recently, I’ve been enjoying Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Robert Hass’s A Little Book on Form, Mary Ruefle’s short talks in Madness, Rack and Honey, and James Longenbach’s How Poems Get Made. I love a good close reading or exploration of technique that gets me thinking about things differently.

When it comes to works I return to, many of these are prose as well, from novels by Dorothy Sayers or Robin McKinley that are like a comfy sweater and a cup of tea, to essays by MFK Fisher, Joan Didion, or Eula Biss that are like a bracing walk. I love spending time with Ursula K. Le Guin’s spirit and intelligence, whether in novels like The Dispossessed or in her essays. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping makes me want to underline every other sentence. Inspired by some of my colleagues at Marlboro (and by my friend Jillian Hess’s scholarship), I started keeping a commonplace book about a year and a half ago, and I’ve also found that to be a valuable practice that pushes me to select and copy some passages that are speaking to me and articulate what I’m getting from them. I’m hoping to have more time for this kind of slow reading this summer.

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