March 26th, 2012 / 1:46 pmGuest Post: Tony Leuzzi
The Birds’ Ulterior Motives Get Them Killed: An Interview with Craig Morgan Teicher
Congratulations on Cradle Book, published by BOA in 2010. It is a lovely book of what I thought were fable-like prose poems. But BOA has listed the book as fiction. Do you see it as a work of fiction?
Sort of. It’s certainly not poetry. I wrote it in part because I had always wanted to write fiction but don’t have anything resembling the patience for it, so I thought I could write little stories about archetypal characters and animals that die when things that fall on their heads. But, no, it’s not fiction, in the sense that Hemingway wrote fiction or Anne Patchett writes fiction with characters we’re supposed to fall in love with and hate. It is prose—and something separate from poetry, a different material from poetry.
This distinction seems important to you.
People are always trying to call these fables prose poems, and I resist that characterization, not because I have any haughty sense that I’ve written great fiction here, but because I think there’s a lot of sloppy thinking about the differences between poetry and prose.
Can you elaborate?
Poetry is self-conscious language, words that refer to themselves. Reading a poem, one is meant to be conscious of the materiality of the poem—the fact that it is made of words with meanings that shift every time they are read or spoken; words are like boxes that are packed and repacked with associations. One should never quite lose oneself in a poem the way one does in a great movie or novel. One is always participating in poetry by being conscious of how one’s own past affects how one defines the words. Poetry is about words first and what they refer to second; it’s about the phenomenon of referring, the mechanics of words. And this isn’t just some mental exercise—it’s a deep emotional one. All that allows people to feel less alone, less trapped in the prison of their own incommunicable perceptions, is language, whether verbal or visual or tactile. Poetry is where we attend to the mechanics of language, hence poetry is all and always about loneliness, about the extent to which one is more or less alone because one’s words do or don’t carry one’s perceptions across the divide between the self and others.
Prose is very different. At a basic level—and there are all kinds of exceptions in literary writing; in fact, all literary writers, to some degree, create exceptions within their prose to what I’m about to say—prose refers not to words but to the things the words refer to. Prose is about what it’s about; it pretends to be transparent. In a description of a house, you are meant to imagine a house rather than attend to the words used to describe it.
The way you explain how one reads poetic language sounds a lot like my experiences reading certain novelists, such as Joyce and Proust.
Of course there are tons of exceptions. But we’re talking here about the ideas of these materials, the reference points we have for them: what is poetry versus what is prose, and how do we delineate. It’s not just that poetry has lines and rhymes and prose has sentences and paragraphs. They are different materials. Poetry puts words under a microscope by referring to the world in such a way that we can’t help but notice it’s being misrepresented; prose puts the world under a microscope by, with a much lighter touch, pressing it into words such that we see, to some extent, the world as the writer wants us to see it.
So, what’s all of this have to do with fables? Well, first let me explain what I think a prose poem is: in a prose poem, the line is the absence of the line. We are meant to be thinking, “there are no lines in this poem,” whereas in traditional prose, we are not meant to notice the way the sentences fall on the page at all. The line in prose poetry is the absence of the line. We are meant to be conscious of the lack of lines. Many poets write what they call prose poems but what are actually nonsensical prose pieces in which neither the tools of poetry—lineation (or the conscious absence of the line), word sounds, rhythm—nor the tools of prose—reference, description, sentences—are being carefully utilized. This sounds snobbish, but it’s what I think.
My intention in Cradle Book was to write pieces made of prose, meaning pieces that refer to the world, in which a reader is not meant to pay much attention to the words and why they mean what they mean. But, the form of the fable borrows some of poetry’s self-consciousness. It sends readers back up to the top of the fable once they hit the bottom. It’s circular in terms of how one is meant to read it. But it’s not poetry—there are no lines, nor is there the absence of lines. There aren’t metaphors, there are, to borrow from Emerson, representative men, or representative animals who are meant to stand in for real kinds of people, or at least people in the world that readers will recognize.
On your “Acknowledgments” page you write, “Thanks to Richard Howard—it’s prose, not prose poetry, I swear, though may it be prose that reverses.”
Richard Howard has this little maxim that he says sometimes, which is “Verse reverses and prose proceeds.” It’s something I use a lot when I teach. With a poem, when you reach the end of it, it shoots you back up into the body of the poem. You should not only read the poem again but the end should sort of refer to all other parts of the poem. So verse, meaning writing that does take advantage of the kinds of tools I mention above, and writing that is, at some level, about its own ability to communicate, is always sending you backward, whereas in prose you’re meant to keep advancing, to take in one sentence and then the next and then the next and then you’re meant to sort of proceed through the descriptions and the subjects, whatever it is the prose is about. You’re meant to think about the subject matter at least as much as, if not much more than, the substance of the writing itself. So I guess I was hoping these pieces are prose, that they are meant to take you along the narrative and the characters of the piece, but that they also make you look back at the beginning and the middle of the piece the way a poem does. I don’t want readers too focused on the substance of the writing in these fables, but I do want them to be aware of the piece as figurative, as about itself and its ability to communicate, as about the ways fables pass on morality or fail to do so.
So what I was hoping when I wrote the book was that readers could see these as stories that borrow some of the tools of poetry, but are not prose poems, because they are not made out of poetry, but out of prose. Anyway, I think prose poetry is generally misunderstood and that many poets simply say they’re writing prose poetry in order to disguise the fact that they’re simply not willing to pay attention to their lines, whether because they haven’t thought enough about what lines are or because they’re rushing and don’t care. The line is one of the main things that distinguishes a poem from other forms of writing: the line says “this packet of thought is important” both on its own and in relation to the other packets of thought grouped as lines in a particular poem. A poet’s line is like his or her fingerprint.
The distinction I’m really making here is about the substance of poetry versus the substance of prose. Poetry is conscious of itself, whereas prose is conscious of the things it refers to. In Cradle Book, I hope you’ll read about birds fighting over a crust of bread and think of birds fighting over a crust of bread. If I write the word “bird” in a poem, I’m hoping you’ll think, in an unconscious blink, of all of the associations you have with the word “bird”: birds of prey, bird seed, flipping the bird, etc. A poet wants the reader to stop and stumble over the words a bit. A prose writer wants the reader to think about the things the words refer to.
So, the pieces in Cradle Book aren’t “fiction,” in the sense that they’re not long, developed pieces in which characters grow and change and have profound relationships. But they are prose, referring to their scenes and characters. They’re not poetry, meaning their principal subject is not the words of which they are made.
So there’s a kind of circularity that you see in the poem.
Yes, and I was hoping to capture some of that in these prose pieces.
What compelled you to write the kind of pieces you did in Cradle Book, namely prose pieces that resemble fable?
I was at the MacDowell Writing Colony while my wife was pregnant with our son. So, on the one hand, there was something I was feeling about the big life change that was going to happen to us in a few months. And then, at a used bookstore in town there, I came across a copy of W. S. Merwin’s Houses and Travelers, one of two books of fables he wrote in the late 70s. I just started reading it and I thought, “Oh, shit, I could do this.” MacDowell is this place where you get a little cabin in the middle of the woods and you watch squirrels eating the leaves outside of your window and you’re just prancing around, so it was this place where there was so suddenly all this material to write about and all this subject matter to work with.
So the environment was conducive to the fable?
Yeah, there was a bunch of imagery right there. And that with reading Merwin I thought, “Here’s my chance to write the closet thing to fiction I’m likely to pull off.” Over the weeks I was there, I think I wrote twenty. I spent almost all my time writing fables. I kept doing it for the next year when I got home and that ended up being the book.
Merwin’s pieces in Houses and Travelers are certainly in the fable vein, but they strike me as a lot more self-consciously ironic and existentialist, very much in the tradition of Kafka. Yours, on the other hand, seem tonally different. Can you elaborate on the difference?
I think to some extent, Merwin was improvising. In each one of his prose pieces he started with a line or little idea and let it cascade. What I was doing was trying to cover a series of bases, trying to write a story about gods, a story about country people, etc. After reading Merwin I went back and read up on Aesop, the Grimm’s fairy tales, and some folk tales from Africa and Italy. I was looking closely at the source material and trying to find a contemporary way of telling a timeless story. I wanted to retell timeless tales in a way that translated to the contemporary moment, or that somehow would be useful as morality pieces about the contemporary moment. And then also about that feeling I was having as my life was changing very much in anticipation of my son’s birth. I wanted to write things that got at this sense of feeling old and young at the same time. I wanted to write stories about the childhood imagination.
Do you see this as a book for your son?
It’s a book about my first response to becoming a parent. For example, many of the pieces are evocative of some of the fears one has as a child, which, anticipating parenthood, I was suddenly feeling again, this extreme uncertainty about how I was going to do it, how was I going to live, how was I going to be a better person who was able to guide a child through life. Or such were my thoughts at the time.
With a lot of books of fables, there is an uncertainty as to when it may have been written. A certain timelessness to the language that seems archaic and fresh at the same time. But with Cradle Book, the diction and rhythms seem very contemporary. What are some influences that have helped you draw upon folk tales without merely reproducing them?
Certainly Kafka. He was using elements of folk tale to talk about utterly contemporary things, such as the pressures of living in an increasingly industrialized world, the pressures of war, the pressures of bureaucratic government, but he was also talking about, or thinking about, how it was and how it must have been to be a human being over many centuries. The other thing I did at MacDowell was buy Kafka’s Collected Stories—I hadn’t brought mine—and so I read that and tried to borrow some of whatever it is that allows Kafka to reach so broadly across time.
The other thing about the pieces in Cradle Book is that they are accusatory toward their speaker and their reader in a way that is fairly new, a way that’s more self-conscious, that assumes readers already know the ways traditional fables moralize and are inclined to write them off; I’m trying to pull the reader (and, to my way of thinking, the writer is always a metaphor for the reader—as he or she writes, the writer is also reading the text for the first time) back into a sense of culpability. Traditional fables essentially try to put the fear of God into man so man won’t do something bad. I think my pieces presume that we’re doing something bad and have a twentieth-century guilt about that, and kind of proceed from there, sort of asking, “what’s the moral way to live your life after you’ve done something unforgivable, say, tortured somebody or been mean to your wife, both of which happen in Cradle Book. How do you keep going when you’ve already done something bad? It’s an old idea, going back to the Garden. But some of this guilt recalls what I felt, and what I think lots of people felt, as a teenager in the 1990s. It was a time of feeling very bad and guilty and not knowing why. I mean, the bands of the 90s were Nirvana and Radiohead, both of whom expressed this vague but powerful angst and pain, but there wasn’t a source. I think, too, about the Iraq war and this sense that we shouldn’t have been there, but that sense wasn’t nearly as poignant as how it must have felt to have been young during Vietnam. And there was this other big piece, the AIDS crisis, where we hit puberty being told that sex was something obviously unsafe to do, but it wasn’t pointed as it was at the end of the 80s. Things felt blunted. So you felt scared and guilty but you didn’t know why. Or you didn’t have a specific thing to rail against, and I think that’s where, at some level, the attitude of the book comes from. The fables in Cradle Book were written by a guy in the process of assuming his adulthood, coming out of that strange moment of the 90s.
The book has a three-part structure, which itself is classic. Parts I and III, “The Book of Silence” and “The Book of Sleep,” are titles one would naturally associate with a collection called Cradle Book. But Part II is called “The Book of Fear,” which is rather jarring by comparison.
Sleep and fear have always been closely related to me. What is scarier than sleeping? Who knows what somebody will do to you while you’re sleeping? Or what you will do to yourself while dreaming. Oh—sleep is the scariest thing in the world. It’s like we die every day. To me, silence, fear and sleep are pretty much the same thing.
In one sense the book is very consistent in its tone and its subject, yet you create a lot of subtle variations on these things.
Assuming a sort of impossible omniscience is a really big part of the magic trick that makes fables sink or swim. That’s the first thing you have to do. I was trying to figure out a way to talk like a god a bit, but to talk like a god who was guilty in a very contemporary and mortal way. So, I think that on the one hand, I was trying very hard to keep that impossible moralizing tone that I think of fables as having, and you know that Aesop has—it’s sort of there from the beginning. At the same time, as I would get into the midst of each piece and figure out what feelings were in it, the speaker would turn on himself a little bit, get a little angry at himself, get a little angry that he is in fact human, and so fallible and probably not very nice. I think that’s what happens in the book.
Let’s talk about a few of the pieces more particularly. “The Virtues of Birds” is clever reinvention of Buridan’s Paradox.
I am an only-child, or I was until my step-siblings came into my life when I was 17, but I grew up alone a lot. My wife, on the other hand, has a younger sister, and she’s always telling me how the two of them played that annoying sibling game, “Stop Copying Me,” which is really an ingenious power struggle, where my wife would say something and then her sister would repeat it and my wife would get all annoyed and say, “stop copying me!” and then her sister would repeat, “stop copying me” and it would go on like that until somebody yelled “MOM!” That was sort of in the back of my head. And I think, too, it’s this idea of what’s really behind politeness and decorum, which can both be very passive aggressive ways of trying to manipulate or exclude people. When we’re being polite maybe we have a whole other goal in mind, and in that piece the birds’ ulterior motives get them killed.
“The Monk and the Stump” is one of the more horrifying pieces in the collection. It moves along in a fairly expectant way until the penultimate paragraph, where the rather gory image of the stump roots coiling like snakes around the monk and pulling him into the ground. That paragraph is followed by a very terse, two sentence paragraph.
I think one of the things I was thinking of over and over again when I was writing these is the idea of the little morals at the end of the Aesop stories, which I think were tacked on over many generations by other voices. I really like, for example, “The Tortoise and the Hare” story. The moral is “Slow and steady wins the race,” but that’s not really the moral of that story. The moral is, “Don’t take a fucking nap.” And more deeply than that, “Don’t be so arrogant.” In a piece like “The Monk and the Stump” what’s the moral? “Don’t sit on a stump”? “Nobody gets what they want”? I was amused by the idea that you could move along towards a story’s conclusion and not get to place that was very useful. No matter what the moral in “The Monk and the Stump” that man crossed the path of that stump pretty much when he was going to die. He doesn’t die the way he wants to die. There are just some consequences you can’t avoid, even if you don’t really commit the actions that lead to them, some choices you make because you don’t really have a choice.
I like the way in which you deconstruct the way morals were used in the Aesop fables. The morals you cite seem to question the viability of moralizing. In “Shadow,” which is about a dog named Shadow, you write: “For as surely as many strange things happen—things, which, because they are too unlikely to be believed—it is not given to us to know their meaning. Though someone must know—someone or something must. Mustn’t that be true?” This conclusion doesn’t sum up as much as it complicates the issues.
Yes, it concludes not with certainty but doubt. Again, I think this is the difference between trying to write a fable in the contemporary world versus trying to write a fable in the pre-Modern world. The old fables were more utilitarian; they were meant to help you memorize what not to do, to commit to memory a cultural sense of right and wrong. I think right now we live in such an information-saturated world (which is also something that I’m very interested in—I cover book news and write a lot about the internet) where as soon as you say something is true another piece of information is shot at you that contradicts that truth. I thought, “How can you write morality tales in an age when no morality is fixed?”
So, in a word, Cradle Book is really a book about uncertainty.
Though I should interject that the best of what I just called “pre-modern” fables are deeply complex and morally ambiguous. Even Aesop. Penguin Classics publishes collections of translated folk tales from all over the world, and if you dip into those books anywhere chances are you’ll find something deeply strange and anything but simple. Truthfully, I don’t think our lives are any more morally ambiguous than lives in the past, there’s just a lot more feedback available to us via the Internet and TV; we share each others’ moral ambiguity on a global scale in a way we, meaning everyone on Earth, never did before. In fact, I do think it’s worth noting that this is the first time in history when, in some cases, we can accurately apply the word “we” to a vast portion of the world’s population.
Are you a skeptic or a pessimist?
I don’t know. I think of things in terms of endings, you know? But I consider myself a fairly happy, optimistic person. But I think I have to think of things in terms of endings, and certainly writing is the place where I deal with that aspect of myself so I don’t have to deal with that as much in my relationships, so I don’t have to sit there and think, “we’re all going to die!” I can wail about that on paper. Writing is a place where I can let my demons graze. It’s a way of saying, “Here’s your corral. Do whatever the fuck you want in here. Let me hang out with my family and my friends the rest of the time.”
In the last sentences of “The Luck of the Nameless,” the man in pursuit of a name remains nameless and is, in fact, lucky, for “There was at least one humiliation he would not have to suffer: no one can hide beneath a name forever.” Though the language is rather prosaic, it refers to something horrible, and this horror is not because one man remains nameless but that eventually all of us will lose our names.
Yes, and that things that are being organized within the box of the names we have for them are eventually going to get out of that box. When the name changes, the whole use of the thing changes. It’s a prose piece about language, which is more self-conscious than a traditional fable is.
In many ways, this is a book of fables, but those fables are in quotation marks.
Yes, but without having to hold the quotations up, to do this without appearing to be doing it.
And still reveling in the pleasures of the genre.
Right, and just having fun. Folk tales, for instance, are full of opportunities for jokes and slapstick, full of opportunities for the pleasure of the cartoon.
In this sense of writing traditional folk tales that aren’t really traditional folk tales, your pieces remind me a bit of some of Italo Calvino’s work.
I’ve read his book Baron in the Trees and he edited Italian Folktales, a giant, incredible book, which was a major source for me when writing Cradle Book. So many of them end so badly! “And then the princess’s head was chopped off. The end.” Terrible, terrible endings. They were cautionary tales of such extreme hyperbole that you couldn’t leave without being terrified of what you might do. And that’s something else that interests me: the idea of what we might do, the fear of what we’re capable of. I think folktales often try to warn people about their own capabilities so that they don’t commit horrendous acts when they stop controlling their actions. That fear is at the heart of a lot of the prose pieces in Cradle Book and it’s at the heart of a lot of my poems, too.
Your first book, Brenda is in the Room, won the Colorado Prize for Poetry in 2007. I got a real sense of Wallace Stevens’s influence in that book, especially his poem, “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” which like many of the poems in Brenda, is a kind of theme and variations poem in serial structure.
Yeah. Certainly Stevens is heavily there. I was reading him a lot at that time. Like Cradle Book, Brenda came during a kind of seizure, over about a year or year-and-a-half, in the time leading up to when my wife and I got married. The title poem was one of the last ones written. Again, it was about the anxiety of coming up against a huge change, and what that would mean to my imagination. And what it would mean for my day-to-day life. I was reading some of Stevens’s longer poems, like “Owl’s Clover,” which is this incredible sprawling poem where he looks at a series of statues. Some of Stevens’s most beautiful writing. I was thinking in terms of how he was able to use a serial structure, not to tell a story but to create a kind of vamp or circular poem that is always coming back to itself. Not “this happened and then that happened,” but rather, “this thought and then that thought talking back to one another, changing order in the midst of one’s reading, again a circular motion.
Another Stevens-esque poem in Brenda is “The Tower of London,” a poem in eleven parts where the Tower of London is only mentioned once. Once again, it is a serial piece with some remarkable meditative passages that border on the philosophical, though never at the expense of imagery.
It’s certainly got Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” in the back of its mind, though, really, what poem doesn’t? It’s an elegy for my childhood dog, whose name was Frisky. She was a white Bijon Frise. My mother died when I was 14, which was an extremely traumatic event for me and set in motion extended grieving that became incorporated into my sense of myself, and certainly a major subject, the major subject of my writing life. My next book, To Keep Love Blurry, which is poetry again, mostly poetry is rhymed forms, is very much obsessed with the changing face of that grief, with how becoming a parent myself has changed my relationship to my memory of my own mother, to whom I was painfully attached when she was alive, and to whose death I’ve been almost as attached since she died. Anyway, back to Frisky: the dog was talismanic. It was my mother’s and as long as Frisky was alive there was some aspect of my mother still alive. And when she and my mother were both alive I think I thought of her (Frisky) as one of my mother’s protector’s, which is something we often do with domestic animals—like a witch’s familiar: the animal becomes an extension of its owner, a kind of external homunculus. The poem is about projecting your needs and wishes into other things, as though the dog could protect the house. Poetry’s all about projecting the inner life on the outer life, of course. At some level, all poetry is confessional—all poems tell their writers’ secrets, whether the writers know it or not, simply by putting writers’ habits of mind on show, the kinds of sentences they tend to write, the kinds of images and words they use. Those things tell a lot about us. To Keep Love Blurry is very much obsessed with the nature of confession—of what, for what reason, and to whom—in poetry as well.
Many Stevens poems have stunning moments of rhetorical flourish, but the language in the poems in Brenda are decidedly spare.
Stevens was a far better writer than I can ever hope to be. He was one of the best writers, ever, certainly in English. I have very little capacity for that kind of flourish in my writing at all, though it’s wonderful to read. I wish my sense of language was much more musical than it is.
Capacity or desire?
I think it’s more than anything capacity. I think of other writers like Timothy Donnelly who have a much more beautiful sense of how words bang against each other, whereas I think much more in terms of spoken language. Or my wife Brenda Shaughnessy: her mind puts words together in such stunning ways, where there are echoes and rhymes in the middles of words, lines, where very Latinate language butts up against very Germanic language. She just thinks that way, in terns of the sounds of the words.
And yet in a poem like “A Thing Defined,” there’s this wonderful, satirical allusion to Pound’s “In a Station at the Metro” in the penultimate stanza: The apparition of these raindrops outside; / flakes of dead skin resettling atop live skin.” That’s beautiful and funny.
I did comedy in college and that was an important part of my life. I think poetry is the last vestige of that for me. So, the ideas of jokes and punchlines are very important to my intentions with poetry. A poem and a joke are very much the same thing. The joke sets up an expectation and then subverts it using language. With a joke your object is to get laughter out of an audience. With a poem your object is something a little less concrete: maybe it’s to get someone to go “Hmmmmm.” But you’re still hoping that a turn of language will cause someone to reinterpret the setup, so that is something I’m always thinking about. It’s funny: we think of poetry as this holy thing but actually it’s kind of the think tank for all kinds of linguistic trickery. Poetry is also something most people don’t care about—a subculture within a subculture with all sorts of inside jokes.” With a poem you have to surprise the reader. There has to be a moment where the reader thinks he knows what’s going on, but he doesn’t. And then when he knows what’s going on again, the experience they have is making that link between knowing and not knowing.
But poetry is actually just the place where we study the linguistic structures—jokes, symbols, icons, comparisons—that are essential to all forms of daily communication. I’m not somebody who thinks everyone in the world needs to read poetry, though I think it’s available to all who want it, but I do feel surprised by the ways people characterize poetry as deeply obscure, as though it was literally all written in a different language. People—all people—talk in poetry all the time. All words are poems: boxes stuffed with images and associations. What’s willfully obscure is the subculture around poetry.
And some of this surprise must in fact surprise you, the writer, while you’re writing it. But the way you explain it, it sounds as if much of the surprise is engineered.
Right. You’re having a conversation. But of course, unlike a normal conversation, you’re doing it alone, so you have to anticipate the response of this imaginary conversation partner while at the same engendering that response. You have to make them have the response that you imagine that they will have, while at the same time you know you can’t control how they are going to respond. You have to leave enough room for them to figure it out. Writing poetry involves an imaginary collaborator who, in the best case, in which a poem is actually published and read by a human being, resembles your real collaborator.
Many beginning readers of poetry think the author is trying to trick them, trying to withhold information from them and deliberately confuse them. You’re using the word trick quite differently.
Yes, it’s also like a joke where a comedian’s real power derives from the audience’s laughter. If they stop laughing he’s dead. The audience actually has all the power, in the same way the reader has all the power. But the job of comedian is to be entertaining enough but also seem powerful enough that the audience forgets for the moment that they have all the power: they could always walk out. It’s thrilling to feel in somebody else’s thrall. The poem is trying to trick you into thinking that it has confidence in itself when in fact if nobody reads the book the poems don’t exist.
In this sense, poems are like pagan gods!
Yes, and the gods die when people forget about them or stop worshipping them.
Do you think, then, that the poem has any intrinsic value beyond what the reader pulls from it?
I don’t think there is any value in a poem beyond the imaginary act of conversation it engenders. We write poems because we don’t want to be alone. We write poems to have the conversations that there’s no one around to have them with.
There’s only a poem if you have a community of readers?
No, there’s only a poem if you can imagine a community of readers. Let’s face it, with poetry these days there aren’t going to be many real readers. Or chances are you actually know many of them.
So when writing a poem there has to be an awareness of an audience, though not necessarily an actual audience.
Right. I mean the act of writing poetry is the act of somebody imagining someone else listening to them thinking.
Emily Dickinson would be the perfect example for your theory.
She was speaking to the largest possible audience ever in the most intimate way, and she knew that. And that’s the power of the poems. She was somebody who had an intelligence that was super-subtly engaged with the world, that I don’t imagine her friends could tolerate. There was a great biography called White Heat, by Brenda Wineapple, a couple of years ago, about Dickinson’s relationship with Higginson. He wrote in a letter to a friend that she was so intense—he’d met her twice—that he couldn’t stand to be around her for more than a few minutes, because she had such a personal intensity. He was far less sympathetic to her and her writing than she imagined him to be. What does someone like that do? She had to exorcise that intensity constantly, and it comes out in the unending conversations in her poems.
Tell me about your upcoming book.
Reading is very important to how I write. My next book, To Keep Love Blurry, is very much based on Robert Lowell’s Life Studies and the later sonnets that he wrote. In fact, I actually steal the four-part structure of Life Studies for the first half of the book. Up until his last books he spent a long time writing these crazy sonnets and then rewriting them and then publishing them in Notebook, History, For Lizzie and Harriet. Many of those poems are very conversational, which interests me. They’re also all over the place, many of them unsuccessful. I’m also interested in how those poems are trying to take this high sense of authority at the same time. The one thing about Lowell he was supremely confident, even when he was tearing himself and his loved ones to shreds. In those poems he desperately hurts people with absolute relish…he feels guilt but enjoys the guilt. I’m interested in how that is possible. How do you write about real people in a way that could be dangerous for them and for you? Or not. How do you bring real experience into literary writing? So the book uses certain autobiographical details—the death of my mother, things about my father, my marriage, the birth of my son, the loss of a job—and then bends them, intensifies them, turns them into untruths out of which something hopefully truthful emerges. I also got really obsessed with rhyming and sort of taught myself to write in rhyme, so there’s lots of unhip rhymey and villanelles and silly things like that. And there’s some prose. Writing criticism or reviewing are big parts of my literary life, so I brought some of that kind of writing into this book—there’s a long autobiographical essays wrapped around a reading of W.G. Sebald. Sounds fun, right?
It’s so interesting that Lowell was using sonnets to do that because one usually associates that form with affirmations of love, not tearing others down.
But love poems are some of the most vicious poems in the world. Some of the best loved poems—Neruda writes all these terribly fierce love poems in which he’s making the beloved into himself, it’s a digestion of the beloved. I mean, a love poem is about taking a real beloved and shoving her into your imagination, turning her into a projection of your feelings. Love poems, when they’re really good, are cruel. But it’s that thrill of being in someone else’s thrall.
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Craig Morgan Teicher is a poet, critic, and freelance writer. His first book of poems, BRENDA IS IN THE ROOM AND OTHER POEMS, wasthe winner of the 2007 Colorado Prize for Poetry. His collection of short stories and fables, CRADLE BOOK, was published by BOA Editions in spring 2010. BOA will also be publishing his next book, TO MAKE LOVE BLURRY, in fall 2012.
Tony Leuzzi is a teacher and writer whose second book of poems, RADIANT LOSSES, won the New Sins Press Editors’ prize in 2009. His next book of poems, FAKE BOOK, had a limited print release in the UK in 2011, and is under consideration in the US. BOA Editions will release PASSWORDS PRIMEVAL, his collection of interviews with 20 American poets, in fall 2012.