A New Russian Modern: Peter Daniels on translating Khodasevich

Vladislav Khodasevich: Selected Poems

Translated and edited by Peter Daniels

CWB: Vladislav Khodasevich is not as well known as many of his contemporaries: Osip Mandelstam, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Anna Akhmatova, to name just a few. Both you, in your preface to Vladislav Khodasevich: Selected Poems, and Michael Wachtel, in his introduction, cite reasons for the literary obscurity of his work, but for those without the book before them, could you speak a little on Khodasevich, his poetry in context of his times, and the reemergence of his work in the last few decades?

Daniels: His career had an awkward pattern. He reached poetic maturity not long before the Revolution; five years later, in 1922, he took the chance to leave Russia, and settled into frustrated exile. In the West, dancers, composers and painters could work internationally, but writers in Russian only had each other as an audience. In the Soviet Union he was ignored or condemned, though his work still had some presence. Since publishing the book I’ve been given copies from the 1963 Moskva magazine, which in that brief period of thaw published some of his exile poems, and I’ve also heard how the poet Slutsky was influenced by discovering his work in an old house during the Second World War. Khodasevich was only available in samizdat, but he reappeared in print in 1989 under perestroika.

CWB: Poets are more often than not such strange figures in history. Many poets have almost mythical tales associated with them. What are some of the more memorable and perhaps little-known anecdotes from Khodasevich’s life?

Daniels: The portrait on the cover, painted by his niece, is from 1915, the year he was suffering from tuberculosis of the spine. In the poem “An Episode”, he describes watching himself die, and having to decide to get back into his body. Being disembodied becomes a recurring theme in his work.

As an infant, he fell out of an upstairs window and rolled down the roof, saved from falling further by the guttering. He refers to that in the poem “Not my mother…” about his nurse, a parallel to Pushkin’s nurse; while she didn’t have a store of folk tales like Pushkin’s, it’s from her love that Khodasevich stakes his claim as a Russian poet, despite his family being not Russian but Polish. Started in early 1917, the poem was unfinished until 1922, when he suddenly wrote the second half of it. That day, buying galoshes that were too big, he stuffed the poem inside so he could wear them; it turned up in the galoshes next year when he was in Berlin – though he had already memorized it (Russians do memorize their poems).

The vital link for us is Nina Berberova, with whom he started a relationship in his last months in Russia. They stayed together a number of years in exile until she found him too impossible, but she broke up with him very carefully (he was always on the verge of suicide) and she still cared deeply about him. In 1950, she left Paris for America where she became known for her own writing. She kept an archive of his manuscripts which is now at Yale.

CWB: Many English language readers familiar with Khodasevich’s name recognize it in relation to Vladimir Nabokov and his various comments and lectures on Russian literature. Nabokov gives very high praise to Khodasevich’s poetry as well as Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg. Wachtel observes in his introduction that Nabokov’s novel The Gift is, in part, inspired by the life of Khodasevich. These two authors, Khodasevich and Bely, are so little known in the common canon of English language readers, and yet Nabokov’s name is large enough to carry them both into our awareness. What do you think it was about them that so spoke to Nabokov?

Daniels: He grew up with their literary world. Khodasevich and Nabokov both considered themselves continuing the tradition of Pushkin, and Nabokov wanted to champion him as an émigré, ignored by both Westerners and Soviets. Nabokov had the advantage that he could write in English and become noticed on his own merits.

CWB: Khodasevich was a loner in style and innovation during his time. While he plodded along with traditional forms, groups that sought to break all expectation of poetic forms were in emergence. A group that exemplifies this radical--though, for the time, more common--poetic practice is the Russian Futurist Poets. The more extreme examples of Futurist verse can be found in Alexei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov’s poetry, wherein the poets attempt to make meaning out of a pure language. Khlebnikov sought, for example, to render the songs of birds into verse, not through a known vocabulary, but rather through vowels and consonants arranged to resemble the language of birds. In the face of this decadent turn in style, Khodasevich must have seemed rather old-fashioned. Still, there is something starkly modern about Khodasevich. How, while clinging to form, was Khodasevich a pioneer of poetry in his age and language? Was he indeed a pioneer?

Daniels: “Plodded along” and “clinging to form” are rather loaded terms! The Futurists made much of breaking verse form and reinventing it, and writing “beyond meaning,” which draws attention, as the avant garde usually does. Khodasevich didn’t want to be beyond meaning – answering the Futurists, he says paradoxically about language, “I love its rigorous freedom, / I love its twisting laws...” Tsvetaeva worked on changing the form of Russian verse in a truly remarkable way, creating her own twisting laws, but also wrote standard rhyming quatrains, as Mandelstam, Pasternak and Akhmatova did. Mayakovsky’s “staircase” layout looks maybe like W.C. Williams, but it’s still rhyming verse spread across the page.

Khodasevich was a modernist, and recognized the brokenness that is the modernist subject. By the Revolution, he was a mature poet who understood Pushkin’s magical way with Russian verse and could use it himself to make some sense of the brokenness around him. Around 1918, he wrote several great poems in blank verse, so perhaps he was thinking of a future without rhyme; blank verse is unusual in Russian, though Pushkin wrote some. One poem, “2nd November,” is about the immediate aftermath of the Revolution in Moscow, and does all those things that 20th-century modernism considered essential – no ideas but in things, telling it slant.

He didn’t have Pound to instruct him in the primacy of the image, he just got it. He was a friend of Viktor Shklovsky, who formulated the theory of art as “making strange” and “making the stone stony,” and in its own way, Khodasevich’s work embodies that, despite not being self-consciously strange like the Futurists’.

CWB: Tonally, that is in cadence and temperament, I found Khodasevich’s poetry to be closest to Osip Mandelstam’s when considering his contemporaries. Khodasevich, I would say, prefers the metropolitan, while Mandelstam prefers to draw on the rural for materials, but otherwise they speak to a certain spiritual essence of the everyday. I find this theme becomes, for both of them, more predominant as their poetry develops.

My personal wonder, when I consider their similar backgrounds as political misfits (in relation to their times), is whether or not a taste for daily life is a sort of crutch for the dislocated. Similar poets, to my mind, include Ovid, Cesar Vallejo, and George Seferis. Is this thought of mine gibberish? As a scholar of Russian language poetry, do you find that I am off my mark when I compare Mandelstam and Khodasevich?

Daniels: Everyday detail is vital to Khodasevich – in “2nd November” he gives you the world-shattering event through the small facts of a day in the ruins of Moscow. The everyday is a crutch for the dislocated, but it represents the dislocation itself when the details no longer match your world. In exile, the poems he wrote about Berlin, Sorrento and Paris are about that.

As well as other differences from Western poets, the Russians’ experience of the Revolution and its aftermath makes comparisons harder. Even a shattering event like the First World War doesn’t make Wilfred Owen or Edward Thomas comparable, though there are similarities. There is something like Robert Frost in the way he uses form and everyday detail very naturally, but of course their lives are vastly different. I’m sure there are also similarities with Ovid, Vallejo and Seferis, though I don’t know them deeply enough to say anything meaningful.

I have to say by the way that I’m really not a scholar, especially not of Russian poetry. I had the chance to study Russian at high school and I followed it up again later, visited some friends of friends in Russia, and took the A Level exam (that’s university entrance level) when I was nearly 30. Then I got distracted by other things and let it slide for a long time.

CWB: When did you first feel drawn to Khodasevich’s poetry?

Daniels: When I revived the Russian. I’d stopped writing – I finished a creative writing masters in 2003, which rather burnt me out, and then I started a busy job. But I needed something and I started going to poetry translation workshops at the Poetry School in London, working from a number of languages that didn’t include Russian, but it made me want to revive the language. I was unexpectedly invited to take up a Hawthornden Fellowship at the end of 2009, four weeks in a Scottish castle undisturbed. I was reading Michael Wachtel’s book The Development of Russian Verse, where he used some Khodasevich examples. “The Dactyls” immediately made me want to work on this poet, and I found that he was very little translated. So those four weeks gave me a good momentum, and I just carried on.

CWB: How long was the process of translating Selected Poems? Did you seek feedback during the translation process and, if so, from who?

Daniels: It took about three years – not continuously, in bursts (I’d already left the busy job and was freelancing). My mentor has been Masha Karp, a former editor for the BBC Russian Service. I’d get a version together with the dictionary, she’d show me the idioms, nuances and cultural references I’d missed, and then I had something reliable to work on as an English poem.

CWB: Are you currently working on any new translations? Who, as a scholar, would you be eager to see better known among Russian poets in the English speaking world?

Daniels: Finishing the Khodasevich book, I felt I should work on someone else, especially as my knowledge of other Russian poets is sketchy in comparison. I have attempted a couple of famous poems of Lermontov and Pasternak, and one Khlebnikov poem, which was good fun (not his most birdlike, though). I’ve looked at Mikhail Kuzmin, who hasn’t yet grabbed me the way Khodasevich did; Nikolai Kliuev is another possibility. It might need another retreat like the four weeks at Hawthornden to let me get on with another project like that.

CWB: You are not just a translator, but a distinguished poet. What are your current poetic endeavors? Do you have a new collection or project that you are currently at work on?

Daniels: I’m sorting out a lot of poems I’d forgotten about, to see whether they are any good, and improve and send them out for publication. I noticed that my computer folder called “Working On” contained about 200 – far too many, and a lot of dross, but enough worth attention. I’m still writing new ones, and there are others I like that didn’t fit the 2012 book Counting Eggs, so somewhere in this heap there might be a reasonable book.

CWB: As the majority of our readers are Americans, what contemporary English poets and publications would you recommend? And considering contemporary English and American poetry, what are some differences that you see between the two?

Daniels: I probably most admire the Northern Irish poet Michael Longley, whose versions of classical poets like Homer and Ovid bring his own world and theirs into a wonderful relationship, and he’s a great nature poet. Sinead Morrissey (another Northern Irish poet) has just deservedly won the big T.S. Eliot prize – she has a wonderful scope, a way of giving a poem a lovely arc of meaning. David Morley brings a scientist’s eye to nature and is linguistically very lively. Publications: Poetry London, Magma, Poetry Review, The Dark Horse, New Walk.

Online I like Ink Sweat and Tears, but I haven’t gone overboard for poems online, I like to get away from the screen to read.

Differences: America is bigger, so Americans get on with their own thing, and having invented various kinds of modern poetry they tend to concentrate on what that’s about. But the internet is making huge differences to the natural divide. Online submissions can happen anywhere, and judging from Facebook, Americans and Brits mingle more, share blogs and so on. We still have “innovative” and “mainstream” schools, but that seems to get less important, especially to younger poets who like to mix it. I don’t know how true that is in America.

CWB: What are some of your more notable habits when drafting a poem or translation? Do you keep notes in a notebook or does new work just pour out? How many times do you draft a poem before considering it for a manuscript or literary submission?

Daniels: I work away from the computer at first. Translation happens with a copy of the original that I scribble vocabulary on, and then start looking for ways in for an English version. One reason for those forgotten poems is because I write longhand in the early morning, with a few random triggers. Roughly monthly I type up what’s in the notebook, then usually forget that monthly output for as much as a year, though there’s no pattern to it. It often seems written by someone else, and I spend a while looking at what it means, reordering it, checking sound patterns, reading it aloud. If it’s a serious contender, I take it to a workshop group, but that’s only once a month and I could do with more of those – I like to know how a poem looks to a few readers. I also attend another group where a subject or a form is set as homework. A reasonable hit-rate from those. This sounds rather mechanical and formulaic, doesn’t it! But revising is what counts, and I do take years over some of them, though not all.

CWB: What are you currently reading? Are there any forthcoming publications in 2014 that you are eagerly awaiting?

Daniels: I’ve been giving myself stuff I feel resistant to. Anne Carson’s Red Doc> was worth the read. I’m now getting down to J.H. Prynne, who has a big mystique around him, which I think is unfortunate. I’m looking forward to the new Penguin Russian Poetry from Pushkin to Brodsky.

Vladislav Felitsianovich Khodasevich (1886–1939) was born and grew up in Moscow to a Polish-Lithuanian and partly Jewish family, although he was Russified by his education and gained a deep knowledge and love of Russian poetry. Younger than the Symbolists like Blok and Bely, he published in his early twenties but took some time to find his own style, coming to maturity as a poet around the time of the Revolution in 1917, when had turned thirty. He left Russia in 1922 with his partner Nina Berberova, at first to join Gorky in Berlin, but they eventually settled in Paris, working in the exasperating Russian émigré literary world. Khodasevich wrote less and less poetry in exile, but was considered by Nabokov to be the finest Russian poet of the 20th century. He died in June 1939, little known in the West and deleted from history by the Soviet authorities, but he has now become much appreciated in Russia.

Peter Daniels has won first prize in a number of poetry competitions including the Ledbury (2002), Arvon (2008) and TLS (2010), and has twice been a winner of the Poetry Business pamphlet competition. He published his first full collection Counting Eggs with Mulfran Press in 2012, but also has a number of chapbooks since 1992 including three from Smith/Doorstop, Mr Luczinski Makes a Move (HappenStance, 2011) and the historically obscene Ballad of Captain Rigby (Personal Pronoun, 2013) based on court records at London Metropolitan Archives. He has Masters degrees in Writing from Sheffield Hallam University, and in Modern Literatures in English from Birkbeck College, London. During a Hawthornden Fellowship he began his translations of Vladislav Khodasevich, now published by Angel Classics (UK) and Ardis/Overlook (USA).

Vladislav Khodasevich: Selected Poems Cover Image
By Vladislav Khodasevich, Peter Daniels (Translator), Michael Wachtel (Introduction by)
ISBN: 9781468308105
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Published: Overlook Press - January 9th, 2014

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Translating Northern Lights: Collected Works interviews Malena Mörling

CWB: Your latest book, The Star By My Head, is an anthology of Swedish poetry from, roughly, the last hundred years. You translated these eight poets with Jonas Ellerström who, as you have told me, worked on a good deal of the poems side by side with yourself. Can you tell us a little bit about this shared process of translating, what it looked like, and what you learned?

Mörling: A few summers ago in Sweden, Jonas and I worked quite productively together selecting poems and creating first drafts of many of the poems in the anthology. We essentially sat around and talked our way through the poems, stopping to discuss the phrasing or a difficult passage. After having created a first draft this way, we took turns working individually to refine the translations and sent the poems back and forth over email. I translated the Tomas Tranströmer poems separately, some I had translated many years earlier while I was still in graduate school for the collection For the Living and the Dead: Poems and a Memoir that came out from Ecco Press in 1995. And I began to translate Gunnar Ekelöf even before that, also while in graduate school. Many of those poems we in a sense, retranslated for this book. Jonas was instrumental in selecting some of the poems we, translated but basically, I believe it is possible to say that we translated the poems that we love the most by each of the poets and of course the poems that for some reason lent themselves to being translated.

CWB: When you are translating a poem what, for you, are key elements that you hope to transfer from one language to the next?

Mörling: Hopefully something of the urgency and or spirit of the poem—maybe it is some element of its music or perhaps the pace of it or the clarity of its images or maybe its cosmic visual scope or even in the sheer off chance, the entire meaning of the thing.

CWB: The Star By My Head is published through Milkweed Editions press, but you also received support from the Poetry Foundation. My question is, how did these partnerships arise? Did you, or you and Ellerström, approach Milkweed and or the Poetry Foundation, or was it the other way around?

Mörling: It was the other way around. It was Ilya Kaminsky of The Harriet Monroe Institute at the Poetry Foundation who started the whole thing—he contacted me and asked to see some translations and then presented the translations to Daniel Slager, editor of Milkweed Editions. That led us to assemble the anthology and it becoming a part of The Poets in the World, for which he is series editor. It is a tremendous project, involving fifteen poetry anthologies published by various and stellar poetry presses from around the country in conjunction with the Poetry Foundation. It is a beautiful and invigorating contribution, anthologies of poets from Africa, China, Latin America, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

CWB: Edith Södergran is the first poet to appear in the pages of The Star By My Head and you also put out a translation of her poems through Marick Press in 2012.  Unlike Gunnar Ekelöf and Tomas Tranströmer, who also appear in The Star By My Head, Sodergran's was a name and body of work I hadn't been familiar with.  Can you tell us about her, maybe about an episode from her life that has intrigued you?

Mörling: Yes, even though she has been translated into nearly thirty languages, and into English by a few people, she is not as well known as she ought to be which is in part why I felt compelled to translate her. But mainly, I was drawn to translate her because I wanted to get to know and understand her work better. She was such an incredibly interesting person, a genius really. She lived and wrote with great intensity due to, I believe, having been diagnosed with tuberculosis as a teenager and became understandably obsessed with her own mortality and the spontaneous and infinite depths of her experience of being alive. She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia where she studied at a German school. Before beginning to write poems in Swedish, her mother tongue, her parents were both Swedish, she wrote over 200 poems in German in her school notebook. She also wrote briefly in Russian, before beginning to write in Swedish. All in all, by the time she died at age 31, she knew seven languages. Some of the languages she learned -like English and Italian- while recuperating at a sanatorium in Switzerland. But she ended up living in the Swedish speaking part of Finland near the Russian border and she is therefore a Finland-Swedish poet. She is perhaps the first Scandinavian modernist, she stopped writing in traditional forms which was unheard of in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century. There is an element of freedom in her work that is exhilarating. Her influence on 20th and 21st century Scandinavian poetry is unrivaled.    

CWB: Are there any Swedish poets not included in this collection that you feel ought to be better known or, had you been able, that you would have included in this anthology?

Mörling: Yes, Ragnar Thoursie is one—he should be better known. He was an incredible Swedish twentieth century modernist poet—he worked as a social worker his whole life as well as wrote poems. He was a great influence on Tomas Tranströmer’s work among others.

CWB: You do so much more than translation. You are also a teacher and a well-recognized poet. Your own books of verse are Astoria and Ocean Avenue and they have been highly regarded pretty much across the board. Are you currently at work on a new collection of your own poetry? If so, what can we expect from your third book of original verse?

Mörling: I am writing new poems that I hope will become a manuscript soon. It is hard for me to know or tell you what you can expect from it, since part of the process of writing for me is a strong element of not knowing what I am doing. Writing my poems is an intuitive process, I never know what I will write until it is written. Even then, I am not always sure of what I have just written or how it may fit with whatever else I have been writing. So it takes time to understand what it is—at this point I have a bunch of poems that have not yet quite presented themselves as a manuscript.

CWB: When you are at work on a poem, what does your drafting process look like? Do you use an iPad, an old fashioned notebook, or a computer? Do you keep notes towards poems or do their initial seeds just sprout from the page when a particular mood strikes you?

Mörling: I usually begin by writing in my notebook, usually a composition notebook or on a yellow writing pad. Although recently, for the first time in my life, I acquired a smaller Moleskine notebook and hopefully it will work. My handwriting is ridiculously ugly and large and because of that, I think I have always been a bit intimidated by such beautiful and high-end notebooks. In either case, I always carry paper and pens with me and always sleep with paper and pens next to me. I have many, many composition notebooks filled with possible notes for poems and often when I am writing a poem and when I wonder what turn the poem will take next, I randomly flip through the notebooks hoping that something perfect and unforeseen will jump out. This is one good way to create leaps in a poem or to create unlikely combinations. I write multiple drafts of my poems, I write them by hand over and over again until I feel that I am getting close to having a more or less complete poem. It is only at this point that I begin to type it on my computer and see how the lines look, how the form of it will take shape, etc.

CWB: What habits are good for aspiring poets to learn? Do you advise them to simply read, read, read? To write on city buses or at a desk? What are some points of advice that you have given along the lines of practice and habit?

Mörling: I think that maybe the most important thing is to write all the time. I think it was at the point when I realized that all I was doing was writing basically 24/7, if I was not writing, I was reading and thinking of writing, that I, in sense, realized that I was a writer. When I realized that everything else in my life was arranged around the writing—grocery shopping with a notebook, going to the dentist with a notebook, writing while driving a car, walking down the street, etc,. So I guess my advice is to allow yourself to be consumed by it, to allow it to occupy your experience no matter what it is.

CWB: What have been some of your long term influences as a poet? Are there places, pieces of music, works of art, or books that you find yourself drawn to over and over again, not for personal preference, but for poetic resource?

Mörling: The fleetingness and the strangeness of life and our mortality in general has me sitting down writing. Also music—classical composers such as Bach and Paganini influence me. And so many different poets from all over the world really—it is overwhelming to even begin to mention names, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Elisabeth Bishop, Federico Garcia Lorca, Jorge Luis Borges, Yannis Ritsos, Jean Follain, Wislawa Szymborska, etc,. Also looking at paintings and photographs and, of course, watching films.

CWB: Finally, what are you reading right now and what, if you know of something, are you looking forward to in poetry publications for 2014?

Mörling: I am reading Joan Kane’s exquisite new book Hyperboreal. I am looking forward to Jane Mead’s new book of poems coming out this spring from Alice James Books.

Malena Mörling was born in Stockholm in 1965 and grew up in southern Sweden. She is the author of two books of poetry: Ocean Avenue and Astoria. She has also published translations together with Jonas Ellerström of the Finland-Swedish poet Edith Södergran, On Foot I Wandered Through the Solar Systems, 1933 by Philip Levine into Swedish, work by Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer and most recently they have edited and translated the anthology The Star By My Head, Poets From Sweden just out from Milkweed Editions. In 2007, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 2010 a Lannan Literary Fellowship. In addition to being Core-Faculty in The Low-Residency MFA program at New England College, she is an Associate Professor at University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

Interviewee: Christopher J. Johnson


Malena Mörling reads poems in their original Swedish.
The Star by My Head: Poets from Sweden Cover Image
By Malena Morling (Translator), Jonas Ellerstom (Translator)
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Published: Milkweed Editions - January 14th, 2014

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Published: Marick Press - October 30th, 2012

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Published: University of Pittsburgh Press - February 28th, 2006

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Published: New Issues Poetry & Prose - March 1st, 1999

Collected Works interviews Stephen Massimilla

CWB: In your latest collection of poetry, The Plague Doctor In His Hull-Shaped Hat, you seem to take the reader on a journey across Italy. The book’s cover is evocative of this also. Could you tell us a little about the inspiration for this aspect of the book?

SM: Well, I was on a mission to recover a manuscript that I’d lost upon returning from a trip to and through Italy, my ancestral and literary “homeland.” It’s still possible to lose a manuscript if you work in hard copy and travel recklessly. Besides, as the titular reference to the “Hull-Shaped Hat” implies, the book is, in a sense, about traveling—not only from Capri to Venice, but from New England to the Tropics, and from Ithaca to Never Never Land. I wanted to pay homage to something that went wrong, all the more because it went wrong. Themes such as loss, alienation, obsession, schizophrenia, suicide, memory, and self-realization are explored in and through metaphors about travel. The book is also about searching—in a quasi-Buddhistic way—for freedom from self and place.

CWB: Your poems are evocative, in my mind, of a number of poetic traditions. The early twentieth-century Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti comes to mind, but also French Symbolist and Imagist poets like Tristan Corbiere and Jules Laforgue. Now, I could be way off the mark; would you share some of your inspirations in regard to poets and poetic schools?

SM: Sure, les poètes maudits Corbiere, LaForgue, Ungaretti: they’re worth defending against a disorderly genius such as Shakespeare. But I’ve spent more of my life poring over, for example, Dante, or the oeuvres of the British Romantics. Among the heirs of the Symbolists and the Imagists, a lot of my teaching and critical writing has centered on the High Modernists from Yeats to Eliot to Lawrence and their local American “enemies” from William Carlos Williams to James Schuyler. I’m also drawn to the so-called “confessional” poets, and, for different reasons, to poets of the Harlem Renaissance, of Black Mountain, and of other movements or schools. Still, I’ve often been even more captivated by those working outside the Anglo-French paradigm—Rilke, Lorca, Mayakovsky, Tsvetaeva, Milosz, Szymborska, Hikmet, Soyinka, etc. And does Dickinson, Roethke, or Kunitz belong to a “school”? To bring my answer down to earth, I should add that my favorite poets are not all “weighty.” I’m an astropotomus* fan of that inquisitive and delicate psychologist, Dean Young, for instance, and of Heather McHugh. In the end, our sensibilities have a bigger effect on what we do than all the poets who happen to inspire us, so I may appear to be more of a Symbolist than I understand myself to be.

CWB: Your poems owe a debt to color, image, and metaphor. You also utilize a very distinguished use of enjambment (or, in laymen’s terms, line break) that I am tempted to call Massimillian; thus, my question is, how do you work your poems? In your drafting process, do you write out your poetic lines in a longer form and then break them? Or, does your use of metaphor, enjambment, etc. fall out naturally in the fashion we (the reader) engage with in the final draft?

SM: Though the Muse sometimes dictates these matters from the start, it is often only when a poem tells me where it wants the line breaks to fall that I find what I need to say. I agree with Olson and Creeley that the form of a poem should be like the X-ray of its content. For me, the line-break is where the dread, the rapture, the magic happens. Enjambment is integral to the music of a poem; and it can serve so many functions, including conveying emphasis, interruption, dislocation, propulsion, and corollary signification. I sometimes read poets such as Ferlinghetti, Zukofsky, and many others just for the pleasure of re-experiencing their line breaks. In this book, my poem “Staying with the Mississippi,” which is about crossing and also permanently entering the great American river, took shape when it broke into riverine lines. In a sense, every line break marks a station of the cross, but we never know if it will be a moment of coronation, decapitation, or both. If that sounds like an odd way of summing things up, all I can do is quote E.E. Cummings: “scolds Forbid /den Stop / Must /n’t Don’t.”

CWB: Your book contains a poem entitled “Sacred Defoliation” which tell us that it was written “after Vallejo”. Cesar Vallejo is, for our readers who don’t know, one of the leading Spanish language poets of the early twentieth century. Could you tell us a little about your connection to him? Also, what is meant here by “after Vallejo”. Are we to understand that this is not a translation in the strictest sense, but rather a “transliteration,” as the poet Bill Knott would say, which is more of a bringing over of the theme of a poem than a word for word translation?

SM: In the final section of the book, we travel through the seasons in reverse, starting in the fall. The “after Vallejo” poem, which is shamelessly addressed to the autumn moon, fits in here. It expresses the tension between the sensual blood of the poet and the tragic idealism of the prophet—the real fatality of this tension. The term “after” can denote anything from a close translation to what Dryden and Lowell called an “imitation” to a radical transformation. Here, I wanted to pay homage to the original while taking necessary liberties to fashion a musically and emotively effective English version. And there was another issue. Since this poem was published in 1919, Vallejo could not have intended his verb holocaustarse to remind us of the Holocaust. It’s now impossible to read that word in a poem without making that association. Therefore, I changed Vallejo’s active, reflexive “holocaust themselves” to “are holocausted.” My grandmother’s family was killed in the Holocaust. Also, when Vallejo used the word “gypsy” to describe his heart, he wasn’t thinking of this context but of the artist as marginalized outsider, given the lack of adequate company that kept him nevertheless brave and (darkly) cheerful.

CWB: I am always interested in process and I wondering if you would share with us some of your process in the generation of poems. How do you draft your poems? Do you keep a notebook for handwritten notes or are you always working digitally from a tablet, computer or other device? How many drafts, on the average, would you say that your poems go through before they are ready to be submitted to journals or published in a book?

SM: When I write, I don’t let anyone breathe or even think in my vicinity. For someone suffering from spiritual pregnancy, self-isolation is one of the terms of instinctive sagacity. Writing poetry involves wanting the whole world to oneself. It’s an impossible, ridiculous proposition. I start with pen and paper before moving any words to that dangerous Friend, the computer. I don’t own a tablet, but I have a sketchbook that I’m always filling with drawings and drafts of poems. I sometimes even follow my old mentor Derek Walcott’s advice to compose first in pencil, as Hemingway did (Hemingway was a poet as well as a novelist). That way, early drafts never look too good to mess with. In recent years, I’ve relied on poets and friends in The Urban Range, especially Sally Dawidoff, for feedback. I revise ad inifinitum. The average poem takes about forty years to write.

CWB: Stephen, you are a poet, a scholar, and a painter. This type of “Renaissance Man” artist is more and more common. My question is twofold: is this, in your mind, related to the increase in higher education systems that offer studio practice and creative writing degrees? Do campuses like Columbia in New York and The Chicago Art Institute put students in more direct contact with the creative arts on so many levels that the young arts student is engaged with more possibilities so far as artistic creation goes? And, furthermore, is the trend for interactive, or installation based art, increasing the number of artists who “do it all”?

SM: In my experience, people are multifaceted, and creative people often work in more than one medium. Famous poet-scholars from Boccaccio to Berryman and artist-poets such as Michelangelo, Blake, Rossetti and Cummings don’t seem to reflect a single historical trend. Most writers, scholars, and artists I know also teach for a living. Anyway, my grandparents met at the Art Student’s League, and I’ve been painting for as long as I can remember. After college, I studied studio art at the Art Institute of Chicago, and I continued to paint while pursuing later degrees in writing and literature at Columbia University in New York. I’ve done the bulk of my artwork outside of university facilities, though. 

  To answer your second question, I am all in favor of the collaborative projects of the New York School. In fact, I was just rereading O’Hara’s poem “Why I Am Not a Painter.” Still, when I taught writing and literature at an art school in Manhattan, I noticed that the undergraduates were working in traditional media, whereas everything the graduate students were doing was installation-based, “out there,” and  “conceptual.” I see no reason for dividing the terrain in this way, given that so-called “traditional” painting (everything from the cave paintings of Lascaux to the work of Odd Nerdrum) has long been very “out there” in its way; and “conceptual” art (as in, everything from Zulu masks to the Anthropophagisms of Yves Klein) has never had to be exclusively installation-based. Within the literary academy, meanwhile, writing programs and literature programs have tended to be isolated from each other. Also, as Marjorie Perloff has pointed out, the very label “interdisciplinary” has lately entailed focusing on the sociopolitical at the expense of the aesthetic, as if they were separate realms. I understand why rifts such as these have formed, but I don’t see them as necessary or true to the spirit of interdisciplinarity.

CWB: What do you see as being a new avenue for poetry in its relation to other arts or public arts. How can poetry break from the page and reach out into the world? Or can it?

SM: The poet writes out of an internal abyss, creating out of his own response to the world. Over time, I become unable to endure my own work unless it reaches out beyond the page. By painting the cover for the book and writing poems influenced by Baroque, Surrealist, and Expressionist painting and sculpture, I’m already reaching out to engage different genres. I also believe in the potential of poetry to address various sociocultural, psychological, and spiritual plagues, to elevate the spirit, and to open up new possibilities. The word “doctor” is as important to the title of my book as the notion of a “plague” in our midst and the metaphor about traveling through the world.

CWB: Finally, our standard question: Some sort of apocalyptic scenario: limited resources, solitude, long silences—what books are in your survival kit?

SM: You know, that doesn’t sound half bad! I could use some more solitude…for a while. After that, I’d rely on Stendhal or the early Tolstoy for the brilliant details of a social world I’d be missing. I’ve been even more of a Dostoyevsky fan so far, but you’re talking about a game changer. There is a risk to spending too much time alone with Dostoevsky’s perverse brand of profundity. What kind of apocalyptic scenario did you have in mind? A nuclear winter might be too long even for Tolstoy. If I were going to a desert island, Vallejo’s knack for facing hardship would make him a candidate, but his heavy insistence on ecclesiastical tropes and agonies in stony places might not be suitable for the beach. I’d probably take Neruda and Lorca. Neruda knows tomorrow will be like today. And Lorca would remind me that I could always make a lot out of a little, that it takes only one miniscule ant to drink up the entire hemisphere of the midday sky reflected in the eye of one of Robinson Crusoe’s dead goats. Come to think of it, this might be a good occasion for a tablet with access to millions of books; but I’m assuming those devices wouldn’t function on a desert island. I much prefer reading in hard copy anyway.

*  "Astropotamus" means "astronomical" and also like a hippopotamus--hence, really big. No, it's not in the dictionary, but the poet June Jordan has used it. -SM

  Stephen Massimilla is a poet, critic, professor, and painter. The Plague Doctor in His Hull-Shaped Hat was selected in the Stephen F. Austin State University Press Poetry Series Prize Competition. Massimilla has received the Bordighera Poetry Prize for his book Forty Floors from Yesterday; the Grolier Prize for Later on Aiaia; a Van Rensselaer Award, selected by Kenneth Koch; an Academy of American Poets Prize; and multiple Pushcart Prize nominations. His work has appeared in hundreds of publications. Massimilla holds an M.F.A. and a Ph.D. from Columbia University and teaches at Columbia University and the New School.

For more information about Massimilla and his works visit

The Plague Doctor in His Hull-Shaped Hat Cover Image
ISBN: 9781622880072
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Published: Stephen F. Austin University Press - October 31st, 2013

Collected Works interviews Craig Morgan Teicher

CWB: Your forthcoming chapbook, Ambivalence and Other Conundrums (Omnidawn, Feb. 2014), is a collection of prose poems. Your previous collection To Keep Love Blurry contained a longer section entitled "On His Bed and No Longer Among the Living" which was also prose. Could you discuss what a prose poem is and, perhaps, talk a little bit about its place in American poetry?

CMT: This happens to be a topic I have plenty of opinions about, and I have discussed it in other interviews as well. I've also written a book of what I call fables, which I hope other people call fables, more story than poem, but sharing some traits with both forms, called Cradle Book.

Basically, my understanding of a prose poem goes back to my understanding of the differences between poetry and prose: Richard Howard, who was an important mentor for me turned dear friend, has a formulation he likes to use to explain the differences: "verse reverses and prose proceeds." I take that to mean that when you get to the end of a poem it makes you reread it. The poem sends a lightning bolt back up through its own stalk and changes its own beginning.

Prose, on the other hand, wants you to read the next word, sentence, paragraph, description, scene, or bit of dialogue. It wants to get on with itself, to make progress toward an end that is far in the distance (though a great novel will have that kind of reversal at the end, too, that turning back, a piece of poetic mechanics).

  So -and there are plenty of exceptions- I think a prose poem is prose that reverses, meaning it makes you reread it. To do that it uses poetic devices: sound, rhythm, maybe rhyme, but also uses prose sentences, ones that look ahead, ones that draw your eye onward, not so much downward. This definition gets a bit fluffy, I know, but it's the one I like and use. I hope my prose poems operate this way.   As far as how prose poetry is fixed in the landscape of contemporary American poetry, I wonder if too many poets just think of a prose poem as a poem without lines, meaning they're not being attentive to their other tools: all those poetic things I mentioned, but also strong, sinuous sentences and even paragraphs.

CWB: I have found your poetry to be constantly engaging in a variety of forms and yet, at the same time, taking up the feasibility of language as an effective device for communication as a continual theme. I might argue that the use of form implies that a meaning can not only be derived, but contained in a poetic form (as if in an equation) and that by using language to fill that form you condone its use as the proper tool to effect communication through whatever form has been chosen. Your poetry often takes a stance of contradiction to this which is, in fact, quite pleasing. Could you speak to this.

CMT: I think a very basic human tragedy, a basic frustration, is the inability to really cross the border between inner and outer lives. Language is our best bet for making that crossing, but there is so much from inside that never gets out on the backs of words. So, I agree with you: poetry, and especially formal poetry, is basically meaningful, but the form is always trying to tell us the story of what can't be said in its own words. Every poem is about what isn't in it.

And, yes, a form carries a certain amount of agreed-upon meaning, a sense that a plan can be fulfilled, which is comforting. But, form also points up what form can't communicate. Even feeling the form, things are left out. Most things probably.

CWB: To Keep Love Blurry is, I think, largely driven by coming to terms with the death of your mother and its subtext is about settling into the themes of post adolescent life such as domesticity and work. It raises the question in me, was this collection about sloughing something off, about, to borrow from D. H. Lawrence, a man who has come through?

CMT: For me To Keep Love Blurry was about assuming the responsibilities of adulthood, which, for me, means becoming a parent. It's about the difference between, or the overlaps between being a son and being a father. So it's about giving up certain fantasies, and giving over, to my children, the right to those fantasies, as it were. So lots gets left behind. I think the poem is a good metaphor for growing up, in some ways, because it's all about what isn't kept when one tries to keep some things in words.

CWB: How does Ambivalence… represent a departure from To Keep Love Blurry? Given the radical difference in overall style between To Keep Love Blurry and Ambivalence what’s next for you in your poetry?

CMT: Ambivalence was really a generative exercise for me: Rusty Morrisson of Omnidawn asked me for a chapbook, and I hadn’t written very much since To Keep Love Blurry, so I tried to figure out if I could write something about all of these big concepts: fear, fame, drinking, ambivalence.

The poems in Ambivalence, with much revision, were the results of that exercise. I also have a new manuscript that I'm finishing, which is composed of poems that are sloppy where the poems of TKLB are more formal. It's a kind of a bitter book, but it also tries to figure out what it means to have had a second child, a daughter.

CWB: What are your long term influences and what are your short term influences? What artists, poets, musicians, biologists etc. do you look to for inspiration and how does that inspiration find you? What I mean is, when something inspires you do you draw direct influence or make direct reference or does that inspiration surface in your work in more surprising ways?

CMT: A lot of what I've written has been in direct conversation with writers who are important to me: Robert Lowell, Donald Justice, Bin Ramke, Robert Frost. There so many others though, especially new writers, of whom I read a great many. And then I love jazz. I have been listening lately to a lot of Classical music also: I love music as a metaphor for thinking; a lot more gets communicated through music than by words and you can't paraphrase it.

CWB: When you are composing new poetry, what do your habits look like? Do you work from a notebook with a pen? Use an iPad? How do you draft your poems? Do you share your drafts with a circle of poets or coworkers or family members? What is your advice to aspiring poets in regards to drafting their poetry?

CMT: Lately I've been using a weird process that involves my iPad and three different word processing apps. Whatever geekery keeps it fun. And I've come to be very fascinated with the potential of dictation, now that everyone with a smartphone can talk into a word processor. I do that a lot now, though I get mixed results with it. I tend to show everything first to my wife, the poet Brenda Shaughnessy, but lately, after years of just showing things to her, I felt the need to expand my early readers so I've shown the new poems to some other friends as well, which has been really fun.


PLEASE NOTE THAT Ambivalence and Other Conundrums IS NOT AVAILABLE UNTIL FEB. 2014


  Craig Morgan Teicher is a poet, critic, and freelance writer.  His first book of poems, Brenda Is In The Room And Other Poems, was chosen by Paul Hoover as winner of the 2007 Colorado Prize for Poetry and was published by the Center for Literary Publishing.  His collection of short stories and fables, called Cradle Book, was published in spring 2010 by BOA Editions Ltd.  To Keep Love Blurry was published by BOA in September 2012.
He is Director of Digital Operations and Poetry Reviews Editor of Publishers Weekly, a poetry editor of The Literary Review, a contributing editor of Pleiades, and a Vice President of the National Book Critics Circle.  He also teaches at The New School and New York University and lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and children.


Interviewer: Christopher J. Johnson


To Keep Love Blurry Cover Image
ISBN: 9781934414934
Availability: Available to Ship - Est. Delivery in 8-13 Business Days
Published: BOA Editions - August 21st, 2012

To Keep Love Blurry Cover Image
ISBN: 9781934414934
Availability: Available to Ship - Est. Delivery in 8-13 Business Days
Published: BOA Editions - August 21st, 2012

Collected Works Bookstore interviews poet Michael Davidson

CWB: Your latest book is a collection entitled Bleed Through and it is a collection of new and selected poems. To have such a volume issued is a high honor. How long have you been publishing poetry and, what were your earliest publications? Were they chap books or book-length manuscripts? What advice do you have for aspiring poets who wish to publish their works?

MD: My first chapbook, Exchanges, appeared in 1972 and there were a number of small pamphlets during this period. My first “real” book, The Mutabilities, appeared from Sand Dollar Press in 1976. Since then there have been four other books and now Bleed Through which collects poems from all of these. My advice for aspiring poets would be to establish community by participating in workshops, reading groups, blogs, little magazines or on-line forums. Start a reading series, publish an on-line journal, go to poetry readings. Despite our romantic picture of the solitary poet, we create poems, as Jack Spicer said, through our “bartalk, our fuss and fury with each other.” Poetry is often written in response to something—a quotation, a slight, an argument—that provides the poem with a kind of silent interlocutor. The more the emerging poet engages with the art in all of its varieties the more he/she engages with the world from which poetry emerges.

CWB: Your poetry is, to my mind, very experimental. You seem often to take up the subject of language in of itself and the limits and capabilities of language in regards to understanding? Can you speak a little to this theme?

MD: I try not to use the term “experimental” or “innovative” since such terms tend to pigeonhole the work and make it unavailable to the curious reader. I do push language into odd corners, often changing direction mid-sentence, but I do try to maintain the lyric possibilities of “sight, sound, and intellection.” If one is patient enough, one will see that there is always a narrative hiding beneath the surface, one that is constantly under siege by asides and distractions. I try to keep the narrative running like a subterranean stream while remaining open to inevitable associations with certain words or registers. And yes, because I don’t believe in language as unmediated access to experience, it (language) often becomes the subject of the poem. But this, to my mind, is not the same as art-pour-art, language for its own sake, but rather a focus on the material means of expression.

CWB: From the context of your poems in Bleed Through you seem very familiar with a wide range of literature, both in poetry and in other mediums of writing. Do you draw a good deal of your inspiration from contact with other books. It has been suggested that literature is, rather than something new and fresh every time, a dialogue with its self. That is that literature, whether poetry or philosophy or fiction or anything else, is a response to the history of literature. The painter Delacroix defined genius as realizing that, “All subjects have been handled before, genius finds just a little bit more to say about them” and goes on to use the metaphor of a wheel that travels down a rut in the road and, by passing through that well traveled rut, ads more to our understanding of a well-worn topic. How does this idea find you?

MD: Well, I’m a teacher of literature, so it’s not surprising that cultural references will pop up. Literature is a dialogue with itself—its traditions, genres, cultural meanings—but it’s no less a dialogue with the world it engages. Or rather, writing engages the so-called “outside” world only through an aesthetic frame. We can’t see the political without a narrative that has, to some extent, been prepared for us by some other form. I’m not saying that in order to recognize evil in political leaders, we must first read Richard III or Macbeth, but we often use such sources to reinforce or recognize ethical crises. When I say “aesthetic frame” I’m speaking about any organization of the senses through a medium, not some alternate world to the quotidian. It’s what makes the quotidian visible.

Now as for Delacroix’s statement: it presumes that there is a topic that remains continuous and “well-
worn.” But of course this belies the emergence of new topics that couldn’t have been imagined in an earlier era (Black people are human; women should vote; humans derive from apes; space is variable). Genius could also mean the ability to see that something is fundamentally different. I think the “rut” paradigm he invokes is useful for an era of horse-drawn wagons, but to see the contemporary “information highway” as an extension of that metaphor rather obscures the difference between them. Gertrude Stein’s paraphrase of Picasso might be appropriate: someone complained that his portrait of Stein did not resemble her, to which he responded, “it will.”

CWB: There has been a lot of movement in arts communities to make art more public and, not only that, but to make the arts more compatible so that by putting together different mediums in art (i.e. painting/ sculpture/ poetry) art is not only more publicly oriented, but more accessible. How do you see poetry moving beyond the page and out into other places? Can it do so effectively? What kinds of projects, if any, would you like to see poetry entangled with and evolving into?

MD: This is an important issue since funding for the arts in education has been drastically cut at the same time that global capitalism is reducing the cultural sphere to the bottom line. But poets and artists and musicians are making good use of the excrescences of capitalism by crossing genres, moving out of the museum and into the street, off the page and into the pixilated screen, out of the studio and into collaboration. I’m not sure that this hasn’t been the situation since the mid-19thcrisis in an era when if it can’t make money it isn’t necessary.

I would agree with critics that poetry is becoming more inaccessible to the general public, but that is not because the poetry is more difficult but that the audience is not being taught how to read. Rap, hip-hop, slams, and open-mic events are creating a vital new audience for poetry, an audience that probably doesn’t read John Ashbery but which is becoming attuned to the sounds and rhythms of urban constituencies. That’s all to the good. And many people otherwise alienated from the publishing world can now publish their work in on-line venues, contribute to chat groups, and create new work in a virtual community. So while the cultural value of poetry has been diminished in the official venues of cultural authority (universities, funding agencies, journalism) it has been revitalized within the unofficial venues of our information society.

CWB: You have suffered from hearing loss and, I feel, some of the newer poems in your book address that subject. How has the lose of your hearing effected you as a poet? How do hearing and poetry move along together? How can they be separated?

MD: I realize that most people speak of losing hearing as “suffering a loss,” but I prefer to see it as a gain since it has given me an entirely new purchase on the senses—and on embodiment generally. As a consequence of anticipating deafness, my family and I learned ASL (American Sign Language), and I began to write about Deaf poets and performers. The result was a new appreciation of the rich cultural world of Deaf persons but also of new possibilities for poetry when it is enlarged to include poems “written” on the body, signed in space. With continued moments of hearing loss, I try to write out of that experience, registering the sense of frustration and anger that often attends the experience. But I also try to “hear” what it is I’m not hearing so that I can better adjust my language to a new sensorium. My work in disability studies that resulted in the book, Concerto for the Left Hand, is a direct consequence of this experience.

CWB: What does the future hold for you and your poetry?

MD: The immediate future includes my retirement from teaching. I’m hoping that this will give me more time and occasion to write poetry.

CWB: Finally, what is on your coffee table right now? What are you reading and drawing inspiration from and what have been some of your favorite literary sources of inspiration in the past?

MD: that’s a great question. Right now on my coffee table are the following: The Disability Studies Reader (4th ed.); J.M. Bernstein’s great book on Kant’s aesthetics, The Fate of Art; Andrea Brady’s poems in Vacation of a Lifetime; Jeremy Prynne’s Poems; Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall; Eileen Myles, Inferno. How’s that for specificity?

Favorite sources of inspiration in the past? Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, George Oppen, Jane Austen, John Ashbery, Beethoven’s late quartets, Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, the paintings of Poussin and Manet, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project, almost anything by Samuel Beckett.

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ISBN: 9781566893398
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Published: Coffee House Press - December 3rd, 2013

Collected Works Interviews Teresa Bruce, author of The Other Mother

Collected Works Interviews Teresa Bruce, author of The Other Mother

Interviewer: Christopher J. Johnson

CJJ: First off, what should people know about you and your connection to the story in The Other Mother? How, for those who do not know, are you connected to Byrne, Alison, and Duncan. What role do they play in your life, both as a citizen of the world (to borrow from Goldsmith) and as a writer. Furthermore, how can these two magnetic personalities play a role in the lives of your readers?

TB:  I consider myself to be one of Byrne and Duncan Miller’s collected children and Byrne to be my other mother. I’m not the only one – there are still people alive in Santa Fe and on reservations in Arizona and New Mexico that are my siblings-by-Byrne. I never set out to replace my own mother – I was a 22-year-old reporter when I met this 82-year-old former burlesque dancer. I was assigned to “cover” her husband’s fight for experimental Alzheimer’s treatments. But she pulled me onto her stage when I really needed to know that an honest, respectful relationship between a man and a woman was possible. At the time I thought of their love as a fairy-tale. It was years before I saw that part of it was choreographed, by Byrne, to protect her husband.

It was through writing the memoir that I realized how much of a role I played in Byrne’s life too. Her daughter Alison had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 40s and she chose very unconventional ways to hold her family together. By “collecting” children like me – she was able to pass along her dreams and talents without pressuring Alison to be someone she couldn’t.

It’s been so much fun to find out how Byrne and Duncan are impacting readers who never knew them in person. Byrne’s “womenisms” are great conversation starters and provoke vigorous disagreements. Younger people are infatuated with the Miller’s bohemian love story, as I was. But older readers are drawn to Byrne’s strength of character and the reality that we all need and cherish the love of other mothers.

CJJ: Before we get into the book, tell our readers a little about yourself. How did you come into the practice of writing and, always a popular subject, do you have any habits as a writer which you have cultivated to improve your craft?

TB: I started as a journalist – first print and then broadcast – and I found my voice writing long-form documentary films like “God’s Gonna Trouble the Waters.” I really credit the creative constraints of reporting for being able to ask the right questions. There’s a discipline to reporting too – we’re used to deadlines and to being edited, brutally at times. But still I had to ditch any vestiges of my documentary style when it came to this book. My editor, Susan Kammeraad Campbell gave me great advice. She made me come up with a list of defining moments in my life. She called them pearls. I thought of them as scenes.

Then she had me do the same with Byrne’s life. At first that seemed impossible, her story began almost fifty years before I was born, but in the end it gave structure and form to the years of research and interviews. The book is really a dance in two movements, mine and Byrne’s, and Susan strung together the “pearls” into the rememoir.

CJJ: Byrne Miller came to Santa Fe and found an easy in with the community. She taught at St. John’s College and at the Institute for American Indian Arts (IAIA). Today, for a new resident coming into town, these would be near impossible feats. In that regard, can you explain a little why Byrne was so easily accepted as faculty to these two prestigious schools and, what did she teach at them?

TB: Byrne had a whim of iron and she rejected rejection. One of my favorite “womenisms” that she used to tell her collected children was that “there is not a contract on earth that cannot be re-written.” It was undeniably ballsy, the way she waltzed into 1960s Santa Fe society and demanded validity. I’m not sure either institute had ever had a modern dance or labanotation expert to compare to Byrne so they accepted her even without academic credentials. It helped that St. John’s was brand new, still inventing itself and that dance has always been deeply valued in the American Indian community.

And remember, too, that Byrne picked Santa Fe because it had a reputation of supporting emerging artists. The Santa Fe Writer’s colony thrived from the 20s through the 40s, and Byrne wanted her novelist husband to follow the likes of Willa Cather and D.H. Lawrence. A major influence in Byrne’s own dance career, Martha Graham, attended parties and soirees in Santa Fe at the time. It was a place where artists supported and celebrated each other. The Museum of New Mexico held un-juried exhibitions for local artists – a marked departure from the artistic establishment Byrne had known in New York. No wonder she gravitated to Santa Fe and fit right in.

CJJ: How did the Santa Fe community (circa 1965) respond to Duncan and Byrne. Those who live in Santa Fe know that it can be a hard community to engage with and find a place within. Was that so of the middle 1960’s?

TB:  It’s hard to say how much of Byrne and Duncan’s success in Santa Fe was the town’s openness or Byrne’s bull-headedness. But within a year of arriving, she managed to snag Duncan a job writing and directing the Fiesta Melodrama so they quickly associated with other artists and writers. She mingled across age groups too, cocktail parties with established writers one night and rehearsals with young actors and dancers the next. When she opened her dance studio on Canyon Road, it was still a dirt road dotted with mostly hand-built homes of other artists. A gallery owner I interviewed while researching the book said that where Byrne and Duncan lived they would have heard gunfights spilling out of bars on a regular basis.

CJJ: At the time of their (Duncan and Byrne’s) arrival in Santa Fe the State Capitol that we all know was quite new. Duncan and Byrne got to play a very imaginative, yet crucial role in its initiation into Santa Fe society. Could you talk a little about that unique role?

TB:  Again it’s hard to imagine essentially two expats in their own country, waltzing into Santa Fe and criticizing its controversial attempt to integrate native design into the state’s architectural identity. How Yankee of them! I cringed, a little, reading the subtitle of Duncan’s fiesta melodrama satire “the sinister secret of the sawdust sepulcher.” But they were nothing if not confident in their own opinions and without that artistic intensity I doubt Byrne would have made as much of an impact as she did. It was a harbinger, when you think of it, of the audacity of a Jewish, former burlesque dancer from New York introducing modern dance to the public schools in Beaufort, South Carolina – her next move after Santa Fe.

CJJ: During their time in Santa Fe Duncan and Byrne witnessed an annual event that, at that time, was relatively new to the Santa Fe community. I am speaking, of course, about Zozobra. The pair found something in the ritual of Zozobra that spoke to them, that seemed, if you will, to inform or mimic their own lives; what was that?

TB:  Zozobra couldn’t have been more personally meaningful to the Miller pair. The idea of burning regrets to start anew resonated, especially since Byrne Miller was beginning to understand that her husband’s mental and emotional state was on a collision course with literary success. She found Santa Fe freeing and exultant and it’s no accident that it was here that she reinvented herself and founded the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre. It was in Santa Fe, also, that she let go of the idea that she could reverse her daughter Alison’s schizophrenia. I chose to juxtapose Zozobra with that revelation in this passage:

“As the embers of Old Man Gloom swirled around the feet of the fire spirit dancers, Byrne wondered if Alison’s absence as the reason she felt lighter. She looked to the sky and instead of a foreboding darkness, she saw only a lack of color. When she shuffled into the inner patio of her adobe house the next morning with a cup of tea, the sky that greeted her upturned eyes was not the heavy blue of expectation and disappointment but the brilliant blue of peace and purpose.”

CJJ: In Santa Fe, in 1969, Byrne and Duncan were involved in an accident. What happened to them is something that continues to be an endemic problem in Santa Fe and the State of New Mexico at large. This occurrence separated the creative pair in a major way. What was it that occurred, how did it affect their lives, and what residual effects did it have?

TB:  Byrne and Duncan’s lives were ripped apart not once, but twice, by rural highways and drunk drivers. The first was the accident in Santa Fe that put Duncan in the hospital for months and the second was in Colorado and resulted in the death of Jane, the Miller’s younger daughter. I didn’t even realize the full significance of the Santa Fe accident until another “collected” sibling filled me in. He said that after it, Duncan was never the same again. So when they received a major settlement, Byrne used it to buy a cottage on the river in Beaufort, SC in part so that Duncan could recuperate near the water. But Byrne always wondered if leaving the artistic fulcrum that was Santa Fe killed Duncan’s chances at literary success. In South Carolina he felt abandoned in “an unanswering sea” without like-minded, driven artists all around him.

CJJ: For those living in Santa Fe and engaging with your book, is there any place (i.e. museum or archive) that a Santa Fe or Northern New Mexico resident could go to further engage with Duncan and Byrne’s legacy?

TB:  In spirit, yes, among the fire dancers at Zozobra’s feet, in the rhythms of the jazz festival on the campus of St. Johns College and in the beauty of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. But Byrne’s papers were donated to the District Collection of the Beaufort County Library after she died, so historians and interested readers would have to come out here to see the beautiful photographs taken from Byrne’s time in Santa Fe. Ironically the same photographer who made those images is the curator of probably the last surviving copy of Duncan Miller’s Fiesta Melodrama – Robert Nugent. It’d make a fascinating research paper – I hope the book ignites more interest in the artistic nomads that have contributed to Santa Fe’s legacy.

CJJ: Finally, I have focused on questions that deal with Santa Fe and New Mexico, but that is a very small portion of the book. What else would you like our readers to know?

TB:  We don’t get to Santa Fe until 278 pages into the book but hang in there! Santa Fe is so pivotal to the book, mostly because it was here that Byrne began her life as an “other mother.” Her first collected son was a Navajo dancer at St. John’s College named Ben Barney, who went on to a distinguished career as an educator and cultural preservationist. What I found fascinating about her relationship with Ben is that she wasn’t very good at othermothering, at first. She was a determined woman who didn’t take the time to understand his cultural misgivings about dance as performance. In Ben’s tribe, dance is reserved only for those chosen at birth to use as a form of healing and yet she bulldozed him into performing at the Great Hall of St. John’s College. I don’t suppose she was the first transplant to arrive in Santa Fe and think she knew best. In the end, though, I think Ben’s dance was a healing ceremony – for Byrne Miller. It was a transformation for Byrne that couldn’t have taken place anywhere but Santa Fe and by the time she collected me, decades later, she had become the wise, supportive, championing mother that showed me who I was meant to be.

CJJ: You use very descriptive scenes such as Alison's (I think) hand as it coasted in the wind out the car window on the way to CO. These would seem to me to add a fictional element to your story, or rather something other than hard-nosed journalism or history. I think, for my part, that that makes for better more even reading. I am curious about your style.

TB: You’ve hit on why the book is subtitled a “rememoir.”It’s the truth as I remember it or as Byrne shared with me. And since I’m also a screenwriter I think in visual scenes, imagining how a director would film the characters and events on any given page. So when Byrne told me of her journey west, to Santa Fe, with her troubled, recalcitrant daughter – I could picture Alison’s ambivalence and unease. I visualized her as a young woman, scared and sulking, buffeted by forces beyond her control like a hand surfing in the currents of a rolled-down window. It must have worked, or you wouldn’t have remembered that scene!

I’m actually not a fan of memoir, at least not the kind written by celebrities. I miss the creativity of fiction when a story is recounted and spelled out for me so I wanted to give my readers a different experience. I’m actually thrilled when men (and it’s usually male readers, for some reason) don’t realize that “The Other Mother: a rememoir” is non-fiction until they hit the photographs that ground and connect it all. There will always be a place for traditional memoir and biography, and they are art forms in their own right. But in this age of instant access to information, I think we crave human stories that show rather than tell.



The Other Mother: A Rememoir Cover Image
ISBN: 9780984107391
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Published: Joggling Board Press - November 5th, 2013

William Shakespeare & Others: Collaberative Plays

William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays

Edited by Johnathan Bate

and Eric Rasmussen

Shakespeare’s Apocrypha hasn’t been around for awhile, one-hundred and five years to my bookman’s memory, but its contents -that is the characters in its plays- haven’t grown old.

The plays included in Shakespeare & Others are comparable to Middleton, Webster, and the dramas of Fletcher & Beaumont and, at worst, Greene; their focus, humanity. The plays of the period are rich, certainly, with wordplay, war, love and many other fine devices, but their driving force is pathos.

Arden of Faversham is a play of dubious authorship. Often credited to Anonymous, the play focuses on the murder of a rural landowner by his wife. Its plot was drawn from a real-life murder committed in 1551 (on Feb. 14th!), which makes it unique among plays of the period. Arden, his wife Alice, Alice’s lover Mosby and the absolutely unforgettable Black Will were real people of a middle and lower-class bearing; they are wholly different from characters like Richard III, Julius Caesar, or, even, Henry VIII -all figures known to a vast populace due to their socio-historical importance. The intrigue that Arden of Faversham, to my mind, has over any other play of the period is that it dwells in the real world; there are no king’s courts here, no mystical forests or islands. It is a domestic drama played out in a way that many can easily understand. Perhaps we don’t devolve to murder often, but we do express our discontent and argue and mope and fight within our households. We feel underloved and neglected. Arden has all these themes and they read as freshly today as they did in the late 16th century.

Edward III is a masterpiece. It follows Edward during his bloody campaign in France. The battle scenes in the play are on a par with Macbeth; there is a swirling sense of action throughout. Even the monologues take place in a world of action, as opposed to a bedchamber, a court, a garden, etc. Edward himself is an intensely strong figure who, ill-fated as he is, is the model of leadership and kinghood.

New to the Shakespeare Apocrypha is Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. In its own time, this play was enormously popular and, over its long stage career, experienced many rewrites. Dramas of the period were frequently reworked. If a director noticed heads nodding off during a scene, pensive faces during a scene that went too long, those scenes would be rewritten and, often, by a different playwright than the original. Sound strange? Plays were a chief form of entertainment during this time period, comparable to television today. If something didn’t work, new authors, new actors, new stages were brought in to reboot a popular, but not perfect work; of course we see this today with newspapers, comic books, sitcoms and other forms of media. The possibility that Shakespeare did rewrites to The Spanish Tragedy is great. It is likely that Shakespeare began his career as a playwright (do not forget that he was also an actor), reworking passages of plays that seemed to sag in performance.

All that aside, The Spanish Tragedy contains many elements that are found in Shakespeare’s masterpiece Hamlet: a ghost who reveals a hidden truth, a play within a play, family and lineage issues and, of course, good old-fashioned revenge.

William Shakespeare and Others is a very welcome publication. Any fan of Shakespeare will be delighted to add this edition to their shelves. The ancillary material provided on subjects like authorship, stage performance, and a discussion of other works (not included in the current volume) that have variously been attributed to Shakespeare. These sections are highly researched and well worth the time of even those with a passing interest in Shakespeare or plays of his period.

The quality of the volume is without reproach, and the price is fair for a half-a-year’s worth of reading.

For the right reader, this is the most exciting publication of 2013.

-Christopher J. Johnson

William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays Cover Image
ISBN: 9781137271440
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Published: Palgrave - November 12th, 2013

Collected Works Interviews Eleni Sikelianos

Interviewee: Eleni Sikelianos

Interviewer: Christopher J. Johnson

CJJ: Your latest book The Loving Detail of the Living and the Dead seems to me to be a continuous cycle of poems similar to Ezra Pounds Cantos. Lines that appear in poems reappear as single lines later in the book. Themes reoccur as well as personas. It is obvious that you took time composing not only the poems as individual pieces, but also that you put a focus on the cohesiveness of the book as a whole. Tell us a little about your process in putting this book together; did you have any themes in mind from the start? Or, was this material that you yourself were startled to find in your work?

ES:  Although there is a coherence in the whole of the book, I was actually trying to resist making a single project out of these poems.  My last books have been to greater or lesser degrees project-based, and I sometimes feel that all of contemporary post-modern poetry is serial or a project, so I was siding with the individual poem as well as the collective here.  At the same time, experience imposes itself, and there were a number of things arising death, shadows, and life, for example.

I am not against the cycle its an important manifestation but I wanted to have a different temporal relationship in these poems.  I don't want to take my relationship to time for granted, and I sense at back of our obsession with poetic cycles and serials a kind of chronophobia, a fear of allowing something to be finished or whole.  I'd like to keep that gesture of extensive time while also allowing an object (the poem) to arise on its own terms within that.

CJJ: Among the reoccurring themes in your book there is one character in particular who is mentioned repeatedly by name. Charlene, in the context of the poems, often seems like someone either very young or someone very innocent or both. Is this a portrayal of your daughter and, if so, does she represent renewal in your book as the dead, death, and dying as have their place in the text as well?

ES:  Charlene is someone I knew as a child, my best friend when I was about 11, so there is definitely innocence in her character.  She appears in the poems because I began to dream about her, and in those dreams she took on a variety of roles, one of which was prophetic, but prophecy in its purest simplicity, which might mean represented in seeming opposites shadow and light, life and death, greed and giving up of greed, sleep and day, closed rooms and open fields.

I am hard pressed to say words or characters represent one thing in my poems, because poems for me are iterations of the complexities of the world, but I think Charlene does embody some kind of pure figure the  figure of hope, maybe.

CJJ: You are a teacher of poetry at Naropa in Boulder, CO and the University of Denver. Have you found any preconceptions or misnomers common to first-time poetry students that you must, for lack of a better term, shuck away upon their arrival at college? For instance, while working with high school students in public schools on the craft of poetry I often hear something along these lines, I dont rework any of my writings. To rework my poetry would be the same as to betray the original motivation/emotion that I put into it.

ES: I'm fortunate to work with students who have mostly already dedicated their lives to this art form.  But I do sometimes have to convince undergraduate students that a poet is engaged in a highly skilled activity that requires training just in the way that playing basketball and practicing medicine do.  In such cases I might remind them that they wouldn't expect to step into a surgical theater with a scalpel and know what to do!

CJJ: Do you have any advice to give young writers who are thinking of going to college to further their poetic craft?

ES: Well, I think college is an important rite of passage, but it's definitely not the only (or even the) place to become a poet.  Being in a community of poets and artists and thinkers is the most valuable education you can give yourself and that means with living people, but also with the dead: reading, looking, thinking.  Bobbie Louise Hawkins likes to say "Put yourself adjacent to the most interesting, smartest people you can find."  And, as the poet Bernadette Mayer likes to say, "Work your ass off to change the language."

CJJ: Many American readers may not know it, but your grandfather was also a poet. Angelos Sikelianos was a famous Greek Modernist poet who is often compared to W. B.Yeats in regards to his influence on twentieth century Greek poetry. The Nobel Prize winning poet George Seferis, for instance, cites him as a major influence. What should American poetry readers know about Angelos? Was having such a figure in your family history a main motivating factor in your own pursuit of poetry?

ES: He is notoriously difficult to translate, though there is a Princeton U. Press Selected, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherard.  Most moving to me is my great grandfather's vision of a utopian community, which he sought, along with my great grandmother, the theater director Eva Palmer, to enact in Delphi.  They were visionaries, not afraid to live a life dedicated to their vision, however eccentric it seemed.

These things didn't play any conscious role in my taking up the path of poetry there have been great ruptures in my family line, so I wasn't that aware of this history growing up but when I remember to meditate on their utopian impulses, and what they made manifest in that pursuit, I draw inspiration from it.

CJJ: A left field question; does poetry have a place in the collaborative arts such as art installation? Frank OHara, for instance, often worked with visual artists in a collaborative process. More recently, the poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge has collaborated with artist Kiki Smith on a volume of poetry. Also, poetry has been appearing in unexpected places like on the New York City transit system, where one can read poems by Mary Ruefle on the walls of a subway tram. What are some ideal ways for poetry, in your mind, to break away from its more traditional boundaries? Have you ever used poetry towards a collaborative project?

ES: I am a big fan of bringing poetry out of its traditional boundaries, in all kinds of ways.  I've worked with visual artists (an installation with Peter Cole, poems for the artist Mel Chin's dictionary project, collaborative hand-painted books with two French painters, and for my book-length work The California Poem, a number of artists made work to go with the poem), musicians (including nyckelharpa player Sandra Wong and composer Philip Glass), as well as filmmaker Ed Bowes, to name a few.  For me, such cross-disciplinary work brings vibrancy to and increases the breadth of the possible conversation.

CJJ: Finally, Collected Works continual closing question; what are you reading right now?

ES:  I am reading Mei-mei's new book, Hello, the Roses, as well as Trois femmes puissantes (Three Powerful Women) by the French novelist Marie Ndiaye, and Telling Our Way to the Sea, by my friend Aaron Hirsch, which takes on the state of our oceans by talking about various species in them.  I've been reading, for class, American Women Poets in the 20th Century, and land artist Robert Smithson's fabulous essays.  Of recent chapbooks, I really loved Simone White's Unrest from Ugly Duckling Presse.

The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead Cover Image
ISBN: 9781566893244
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Published: Coffee House Press - April 30th, 2013

The California Poem Cover Image
ISBN: 9781566891622
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Published: Coffee House Press - October 1st, 2004

Body Clock Cover Image
ISBN: 9781566892193
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Published: Coffee House Press - October 1st, 2008

Collected Works Interviews Shaun T. Griffin


Interviewee: Shaun T. Griffin

Interviewer: Christopher J. Johnson

CJJ:  You have been called, “Nevada’s best poet”. How do you feel about this distinction?

STG:  As to comparisons, there are many fine poets in Nevada—north, south, and rural—and I am honored to be among them.  But one of the beauties of living in this place is the lack of competition, of ego, of striving among this same group.  It is refreshing, particularly as a poet who grew up in a city where the notion of community is so hard to foster.  It does us no good to compare ourselves to others; we are all artists at work and the work is far more difficult than any notion of mastery will permit.

CJJ:  Your poems follow many themes, but I find these to be predominate: family, rural life, and community. You strengthen these themes by addressing an often ambiguous “you.” This “you” signifies both different individuals and, it seems to me, sometimes a larger more wide-ranging persona, a “you” that could be anyone reading along or listening to your work. Bearing that latter, wider “you” in mind, what is the social function of poetry? How, do you feel, does it speak to a community, a place, a way of life, etc.?


 STG:  With respect to my themes, there are at least three:  family, landscape, and work for justice in the larger world.  I just finished editing a book about Hayden Carruth.  In it, he talks about poetry having a social utility—in fact the very thing that drew him to poetry was the idea that he could change the world with his words.  Of course, it is not that simple but I believe we write for more than ourselves.  When I put down words, it is in this larger context, the context that I wake up to everyday—the incredible sense of both despair and hope that permeates our existence.  I would be foolish to think otherwise and consequently the “you” of address in my poetry hearkens to that frontier of imagination that wants more from this world than what we settle for.  

  Imagine peace—what an idea—and why can’t it be something that hearkens across the great tradition of poetry?  Or the absence of hunger?  Am I so naïve to propose such in a poem?  Or farther still—what about the love poem as yet unwritten, to some person or thing—a leaf, a tree, a star?  Neruda made a history of this infinite attention to detail and Lorca, like him, a history  of his people in words that transcended that time and place.  That is something that I remember every day as I return to the page:  what will this poem really mean?  How will I finally do justice to the landscape, to those I love, to the metallic taste in my mouth from the ore being driven from the nearby mine?  

CJJ:  A rather large section of your overall work deals with hunting, fishing, being an outdoors person. Though rural literature is a long-standing tradition, very few poets have made such sports a focus of their works. Would it be fair to say that such activities inspire you? Do you draw a lot of your poetic ore from your time in nature?


STG:  Regarding outdoor activities, because I am a watercolorist, I see things in colors.  When a landscape is burnished like the one I live in, it is representative of a feeling, a tone, and a moral and physical sense of place.  I carry that sense with me to these activities but they are only the beginnings of poems.  A place to start.  I am a pacifist; I do not hunt but it was a bad boyhood experience with hunting that led me here.  What I want to write is a poem that is larger than any one experience, a poem that might push the reader beyond the comfort of a physical act like fishing to consider what is not said or heard, but felt.  That is the hardest poem to write—the poem of inference—to name the very thing that has been unnamed.  Since the time of Lucretius we have struggled to get this right.  

  Landscape is similarly inviting and difficult to redress which is why I am so attracted to it.  Particularly the landscape of the Southwest—Nevada and New Mexico have much in common:  the colors, the light, the openness and there we are, small, little creatures in the middle of all this land.  What to say, what to do?  To take a real risk in this place is to try and represent something so beautiful in a poem.

CJJ: You are also a scholar. Most recently you’ve written a book about the poet Hayden Carruth who, as I see it, shares many qualities as a poet with your work. You have also translated some of the poetry of Emma Sepulveda. My question to you is, what is the difference in your mindset when you are working on a poem or a translation or a book of scholarship? Do these works all come from the same place inside of you or are they separate places?

STG:  Whether I’m translating, editing, or writing a poem—it emanates from my desire to know something more than I did before I began.  I have always considered myself a novice—still do—it’s just that I’m too stubborn to stop writing.  Translation is especially rewarding because you must make the poem sing in another language.  It is the greatest challenge for me—to find the language to bring it into the realm of music, the cadence, the nuance, the slippery divide of words that cannot be found and yet must be chosen.  But in truth, all literary work requires exquisite attention, concentration, and for a lack of a better word, prayerful dedication.  Nothing comes easily except, perhaps, that hundredth time you’ve tried to say one simple line.  This devotion to the ephemeral work of the mind requires faith—and not just a faith of belief but of action.  I cannot assent to the words without fully embracing the task.  And then I am consumed—which is what it takes.  Ken Kesey said writing is a corrosive process… so I have to remember to step back when the edge is near.  I have a busy job, a family, although grown, and a woman with whom I’ve lived for more than half of my life.  These, too, must be embraced for the words to return.

CJJ:  When you are working on new material, how do you keep notes or do your drafts? Do you have any reoccurring habits that you have found helpful in your literary career in regards to keeping a notebook? Or do you use some other system entirely?

STG:  When I’m working on something new, I typically write in longhand, although if I’m not able, I will write wherever and however it is possible and then revise the subsequent drafts on the computer.  I write almost all of my poetry in longhand and keep the drafts in journals so that I can revisit them when I have had some distance on the poems.  It’s very important that I know where the poems came from—physically—where I was at the time, what I was doing, so that I can recreate the moment from which it came.  
Prose is different.  I’m comfortable writing first drafts in both longhand and on the computer but it takes much longer to find the clarity and depth of a well-made sentence.  I’m sure that’s because I’m used to the poetic form; I want the snap of a line or stanza that is infrequent in prose.  Of course, many drafts—whether prose or poetry—never get typed because I know when I have completed them that they are frail and so I use the time I have to push the drafts that seem like they are possible further.  There are also many drafts that have died because of my unwillingness to resurrect them.  A Faustian bargain that I cannot reconcile.

CJJ:  What should the reader of poetry know about Hayden Carruth and his contribution to American poetry? What drew you to his work? Also, do you have a favorite poem by Carruth or collection of poetry?

Hayden Carruth

STG:  Hayden Carruth’s love of jazz and rural Vermont formed the core of much of his poetry.  He created multiple new poetic forms including the “Paragraph,” a highly evolved fifteen-line sonnet, which he used to write his book-length meditation on love, The Sleeping Beauty, which many feel was his strongest work.  But the poems from Brothers, I Loved You All, captured his humanity, his abiding concern for the values of his fellow “cowshit” farmers—thrift, community, labor, and sacrifice for one another when it was needed.  These values finally drew me to him and the more I read the more I wanted to tell his story.  He was neglected by many in the literary world but his closest friends, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Wendell Berry, Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Jim Harrison, Carolyn Kizer, and many more thought of him as someone who made poetry new.  They respected his desire to live far from the literary mainstream and yet make such an impact on literature.  He is perhaps most widely known as the editor of the anthology, The Voice that Is Great Within Us.  My favorite poem by Hayden Carruth is Paragraph 25 from Brothers… with these haunting lines:

Reading myself, old poems, their inside truth that was

(is, is!) crucial, tree stark in lightning glimpse, hidden

mostly by the storm:  complexities

modes, names, manners,         words laden

with terror.  What true voice?  Where?  Humiliated, in throes

of vacillation, roundhead to cavalier to ivy league to smartass—

never who I was.  Say it plain….

CJJ:  What should readers of poetry know about Emma Sepulveda? What kinship have you felt towards her work, and can you speak a little on the art of translation?

STG:  Emma Sepúlveda is a Chilean exile that came to this country when Salvador Allende was assassinated in 1973.  She has been a tireless human rights activist since immigrating as a college student.  She is a photographer, journalist, poet, and prose writer.  She has written numerous books and co-authored books with and about other Latin American writers.  I met her when I was editing the anthology of Nevada poetry, Desert Wood.  I knew immediately I wanted her in the book and yet, had never translated a poem.  I suggested we try and nearly three years later, we finished her book, Muerte del silencio, (Death to Silence) which Arte Público Press, published in 1997.  This led to several collaborations on translations of Latin American poets and prose writers for three books edited by Marjorie Agosín.

  What I admire most about her poetry and art is her unrelenting desire to tell the truth about her homeland and the consequences of Pinochet’s dictatorship.  I learned immensely from her example and had to teach myself so much about Latin American history and specifically, Chilean writers, to be a part of her artistic conversation.  Translation, as I have said, is deeply rewarding and if I had more time, I would translate often but—the poet has to speak to me for the translation to be fully realized.  I have tried to translate some Spanish poets and it has not gone well.  I try and write poems in Spanish but imagine they are limited in their reach.  Emma and I also translated a volume of poems by children of the disappeared, From Nowhere We Shall Pass, for which we have not found a publisher.  Those poems are heroic and beautiful and need to be recorded in the history of Chile’s long struggle for independence.

CJJ:  Having read your book This is What the Desert Surrenders a few time now, the poems in the section entitled “Winter in Pediatrics” continually strike me. The poems there haunt the back of my mind and sometimes remind me of Miguel Hernandez and his poetry dealing with the loss of a child. These poems are charged and that charge is fueled, I find, by both hope and sorrow. If you feel comfortable, can you tell us a little about these poems, their motivating factors, and their after effects (if any) on you as a poet?

STG:  The poems from Winter in Pediatrics (from The Harvest of Lesser Burdens:  Art in the Fields of Medicine) were written during a two-year residency at what was then Washoe Medical Center in Reno as part of their Healing Arts Program.  I was one of three artists—a photographer, Stephen Davis, a painter, Sharon Maczko, and myself—who spent time in the various parts of the hospital to record the journeys of the patients.  Our cumulative experiences resulted in that book (The Harvest…).  I worked in Pediatrics and Pediatric ICU.  It was one of the most profoundly moving experiences I have had.  Every week I spent a morning in the hospital and when I left I tried to record what happened.  Some days I wrote a journal entry but could not write any more.  Some days the sorrow was overwhelming.  On other days, I got lucky and wrote a poem.  I always asked if I could share their experiences and became very close to several of the patients and their families.  I have the highest regard for the nurses in that unit.  Over time, they let me sit in on their rounds.  Their humanity was unlike any I had seen—over and over again, they returned to the bedside and the family to administer care—whatever the circumstance.  More often than not, they brought the family through the long period of suffering.  They, like the young patients, were equally resilient.  Few people have so much on the line when they walk into work everyday.  Perhaps the poems are acute because there was nothing imagined save the fear that was everywhere and could not be spoken.

CJJ:  Finally, what are you reading right now?

STG:  I’m trying to read for pleasure again.  After so long on the Carruth book and other books, I have thoroughly enjoyed returning to fiction for joy.  I just finished McCarthy’s The Road—years later I know—and I am about to start on a biography of Robert Laxalt:  The Story of a Storyteller.  A friend gave me The Boat by Nam Le and I may swerve to get to that one first.  The choices are endless even as I read manuscripts like Stephen Liu’s Entering the Valley of Peach Blossoms, another excellent book looking for a home.

Halloween continues with Wilke Collins' Dream Woman

I want to tell you about “The Dream Woman,” an 1855 horror story by the English novelist Wilkie Collins, but first I need to tell you about something that happened to my friend's cousin's friend's girlfriend:

A teenage girl who worked at the mall in town was closing her store for the night. She cashed out her register, set the alarm for the evening and walked into the parking lot, which was empty except for her car.

She was unlocking her car door when she was approached by an old woman wearing a floral print dress and a fancy hat. The old woman, who was clearly upset, told her that she had missed the last bus leaving from the mall and she was afraid to walk home. Could she get a ride? Her house was in a rural area outside of town, but it wasn’t too far of a drive. She promised to give the girl gas money.

The girl took her up on the offer, but started getting a strange feeling about the old woman as they drove away from town. Without saying a word the girl quickly pulled into a gas station parking lot and ran to a payphone. She called the police. 

The police arrived to find the girl's passenger door hanging open. There was no trace of the old woman anywhere near the gas station. When they asked the girl why she called she told them that, as the car passed under a streetlight, she saw that the “old woman” had hairy knuckles, a thick, tattooed forearm and that she was reaching into her shopping bag for a meat cleaver.

Tell your friends about this story because this madman hasn't been caught or even identified by the authorities. He could still be dressed as an old woman. He could still be hunting for potential victims in malls across the country. Who can tell?

Urban legends like this one scare me more than most horror stories because they sell a plausible worldview of ambiguity and cosmic indifference. They tell me that at any moment the city I live in could cough up a faceless killer like the one mentioned above. This person is a murderous cipher. His past is unknown. He can't be explained or exterminated. He is void. His whole being is a set of grisly motives armed with a sharp object. 

Urban legend pyschos are rarely caught by the police. If the protagonist is lucky enough to escape them, the killers sink back beneath the murk of urban life, lost to the authorities and our quaint ideas of justice. The audience to an urban legend is denied a positive resolution. These stories suspend the audience in unresolved horror, compelling them to place themselves in the roles of potential victims. One of these killers could be watching you from across the street as you read this. There's no sure way to protect yourself. You must be on your guard. Forever. 

“The Dream Woman,” specifically a shorter edit of the story available in ghost story collections like Edward Gorey's The Haunted Looking Glass, resonates with the same kind of horror found in modern urban legends. A doctor visiting a remote inn in the country wants to put his horse up for the night, but he finds the inn's ostler sleeping in the stable. Sleep, however, isn't really an accurate way to describe what the ostler is going through: He's soaked in sweat, screaming as though he's afraid for his life, pleading with someone in his dream to leave him alone. 

As the ostler's night terrors continue in the background, the innkeeper tells the doctor how he came to be that way. Many years ago the ostler had a horrible dream, or vision, or visitation; it's hard to say for sure. 

About a year after the nightmare the ostler meets a distraught woman on the streets of his home town. Collins presents this woman as someone who is dark and attractive, but he bleaches out most of her troubled past, telling us there's no need to go into detail about it. You've already read dozens of stories like hers in the saddest kinds of news reports. 

This woman could be anyone. 

This woman is no one. 

The ostler marries this woman against the wishes of his longsuffering mother. As for what happens next, I'll only say there's a reason why urban legends warn you not to adopt pets you find while vacationing in foreign countries. 

Longer edits of “The Dream Woman” focus more on the story's fate and occult aspects. But although Collins turns these versions into perfect circles of iron block determinism he sacrifices much of the ambiguity that I feel is so important in horror. Fate, even if it moves toward a nightmarish end, is still a plan and plans imply safety. The length of these versions also give Collins more time to dwell on his outdated attitudes toward women and that's best avoided. 

Try to have a fun Halloween this year. Collins wants you to know that the city you live in is murky and deep. You're being hunted by monsters. Check every piece of candy for razors. Never start your car at night without looking in the back seat first.

Bill Rodgers lives in Santa Fe. He writes weird horror-comedy on Twitter as @SleepawayChamp.

The Haunted Looking Glass Cover Image
By Edward Gorey, Edward Gorey (Introduction by)
ISBN: 9780940322684
Availability: Backordered
Published: New York Review of Books - February 28th, 2001


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