Landscape Featuring Oklahoma: A Conversation with Letitia Trent
Editor’s Note: Okla Elliott is the author of From the Crooked Timber, a collection of short fiction. Letitia Trent is the author of One Perfect Bird, a collection of poetry. They corresponded by email.
Okla Elliott:You’ve recently gotten into Martha Wainwright, and I know that music is a pretty serious interest of yours. How has music influenced your poetry? What have you taken from your favorite songs into the best poems you’ve written?
Letitia Trent: I do not come from a big music family: they mostly listen to radio country music. I listened to pop and rock radio constantly as a kid, from ages seven to eleven (I listened to the entirety of Kasey’s Top 40every Saturday, for example, so my knowledge of late 80’s, early 90’s pop music is alarming), and later was one of those teenagers who was obsessive about finding new bands and discovering the webs of musical connections between musicians and genres of music. I read lyrics and liner notes carefully and read every music review I could find, even if it was for music I didn’t know. If I had any musical ability, I probably would be a singer-songwriter.
So, early on, music was a way to connect to the outside world of people who created things. It was more accessible than books and poetry, which were pretty rare for me, as I grew up in a house without many booksand without much access to public libraries. When I realized that I wanted to be a writer, I took those big anthologies from my English class and read the entire poetry sections and re-wrote the poems that I loved in my own notebooks so I could keep them with me: that was the only way I could read poetry. I wanted more of it, and music was a way to get some of that immediate lyric and narrative energy and electricity. Music was free and easy to hear, particularly if you were willing to construct complex mega-antennas for your crappy Colby radio using wire hangers to get that alternative or college station to come in.
I remember very distinctly my first connection between poetry and music. When I was about 13, I found a tape by The Smiths, I think it was a singles compilation, at a flea market where my parents had set up a booth. I popped it in and heard the following lines:
on a hillside, desolate
will nature make a man of me yet?
I remember having a physical reaction of joy from this: this is what language can do! I thought. I could see that sad, impotent bicycle and understood how it connected to the narrative that followed. It was like magic. I’d read poetry before that, and had enjoyed it, but something about that image (probably because I, too, felt deflated and was waiting around for something to change) resonated for me. This isn’t my favorite song, but it’s a song that flipped a switch for me. Any humor I manage to squeak into my poetry (not much) is probably of the half-ironic, self-deprecating kind that I learned from Morrissey. In addition, I’m pretty sure my obsession with violence done to bodies was influence by Hole’s Live Through This and Belly’s Star, two albums I listened to obsessively during my formative years. Now, I’d say that Neko Case’s threatening, death-haunted, weather-ravaged rural landscapes are a big influence.
OE:You mentioned your family background a bit in the previous answer. Could you tell us a bit about your journey from the world of rural Oklahoma to graduate school in poetry and now to Israel? What instigated the moves? What facilitated them? What do you think you bring with you mentally, emotionally, and aesthetically from your background and the various moves toward where you are today?
LT:Wow, what a question. I’m not sure if I can do it justice. I had a very unusual upbringing. I spent my first thirteen years mostly in rural Vermont, on ten acres of mostly woods. I lived in a very rural part of Southeastern Oklahoma from 13 to 17 (Latimer county, a place between towns, so I’m not even sure what town I lived in officially). Wherever we lived, we were very isolated, both physically and psychologically, as my mother had (and has) a great deal of anxiety and paranoia about people, which extended to the way she parented me. I can count on one hand the amount of times I went to a friend’s house between the ages of five and thirteen, for example. So, I think that isolation made me live in my head. I spent a lot of time thinking, and reading in our yard, particularly in the summers, which was both a desperate time and a really beautiful one, because I was so alone and so isolated but also completely free to roam around in my head, to read as much as I could, and be in nature. I still feel a vague dread when the summer starts, which I trace back to those days. Isolation is a theme for me, as well as the inability to connect with people and the shame of that.
As a kid and young teen, I absorbed the class values of the people I went to school with, and since I was in gifted and talented programs in in higher-level classes throughout my elementary and middle school years, I spent a lot of time thinking a about how I was different from these kids, and lesser, in their estimation. The kids I went to school with had largely gone to private elementary schools, could afford to buy lunch instead of eating the free lunches (there were two lines—one for buying your own lunch and one for the free lunch, something that seems so obviously a bad idea to me now, but somehow in Vermont, as much as people like to think they are progressive, nobody thought to change this), and could go to the hospital when they were sick. I remember once missing two weeks straight of school because I had a severe respiratory infection of some type (I remembering going in and out of consciousness, curled up on the floor by the woodstove for days). When I got back, a girl that sat in front of me in English class asked why I had to be absent for weeks just for a cold. “I got bronchitis once,” she told me, “and I just went to the doctor and it went away”. I think some of these things show up in the first two sections of the book: the isolation, nature, class comparisons, and both physical and mental illness, things that were with me throughout my childhood years.
Moving to Oklahoma was a culture shock. In Vermont, I was building a sense of the kind of culture I wanted to surround myself with—I moved to Oklahoma in 1994, right when I started to seriously listen to music and read adult books, philosophy, art, theatre, and film. I read through film books at the library in my middle school and wrote down the movies I thought I needed to watch because they were “important”. I remember some of them, how just the names of them made me excited about this bigger life of film and literature and culture that I would be entering as soon as I got out of school: Taxi Driver, Nosferatu, A Clockwork Orange, 8 ½. I had a sense that I was ready to start building my mind. And then, we moved to rural, Southern Oklahoma, where everything was turned upside down. Nothing I was interested in was “cool” there. Teachers did not seem particularly interested in me or encouraging (though there were a couple of exceptions to that). I had always thought of teachers as my allies, since I could not trust anyone at home, but I was horrified by my new school.
I’m trying to think of how Oklahoma affected my writing. I think it drove me even more inward and made me fiercely determined to figure out what mattered to me. In a way, I was lucky—I did not have a social life until about the last year of high school. I missed out on a lot of the coming-of-age things that other people did because, being kind of a snob and a bit of an asshole, I thought I would be wasting my time with these people. I recognize that this was not a particularly good way to feel about other people, but it saved me—I had a fierce independence and separateness that kept both the craziness at home and the lack of connection at school from getting to me. In writing his book, Oklahoma wasn’t quite far enough from me for me to fully process it (at the time of writing the poems—most are at least five or six years old), so I’m not sure how much it shows much, but it might be useful to know that my first title for this book was “Landscape Featuring Oklahoma”. In the end, though, Vermont is far more present than Oklahoma, and it’s more about the landscapes and scenes in my head than any real places, because sometimes it feels like I hardly really lived in those places at all.
I went to a Southern Baptist college for my undergrad, which was both miserable and wonderful. I learned that I wanted to be a poet there, due to many encouraging professors. I was shocked to get into grad school at Ohio State—I applied to sixteen places because I was sure I wouldn’t get into any of them. I remember sitting in workshops and thinking sometimes that I didn’t really belong there, that I’ve somehow fooled people into reading my poems. I began to see how much I had internalized these ideas about who deserves to succeed and who doesn’t. Luckily, I had very encouraging peers and professors. Grad school taught me how to put some of these things into writing, finally. I wasn’t able to write about my mother until I started to read about OULIPO methods and applied them to the Reader’s Digest Guide poems by using that guide as a source text (that was one of the few books she owned, and we went to it almost daily to figure out what strange plant or animal we suddenly had in our yard). I have no idea how much of what I imagine the poems are about comes across in how they are read.
Israel was an interesting experience all around, but I think I need much more distance before I can know what will come of it. I’ve never been a particularly “in the moment” kind of writer. Years after something happens, years after I leave a place, I am struck with an image or scene, but very rarely do I write about anything as it happens. I spent most of my time there bewildered, which might be a useful emotion for a writer.
OE:Since we were just discussing place and the culture of place, as well as the effect these things have had on your writing, I want to zoom the camera out a bit and talk about being a writer in the age of globalization. Obviously, as your time in Israel attests, we can travel around the world today with an ease most writers over the millennia could only dream of, and with the internet, we have access to information and literature from all over the world as well. Which foreign literatures or foreign writers have most influenced your work? What do you think it means to be a writer today in such an interconnected world?
LT:This is a great question, and in trying to answer it, I realize how little I read outside of English-language writing, and I think that this is a great failing of mine as a reader. One of my goals is to read more widely and of literature from different cultures and languages. One barrio is that I am no longer a fluent reader in even one other language and I often find translations to be missing that essential voice that I can so easily hold onto when I’m reading something in English. I hope that I can devote more of my life to learning languages and reading deeply in those languages, but I have not yet made that a priority.
I was a French minor as an undergrad, and one of my courses was in French poetry. Reading Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Mallarme, and Rimbaud in both French and various English translations, was some of my first intensive poetry reading: I really did not consider myself a poet, or really seriously educate myself about poetry, until this class and after experiencing the ease I felt when reading poetry, even poetry I did not “understand”. I think the French symbolist and surrealist poets made me realize how much more interested I am in internal landscapes and subjective experience than external landscapes and objective experience. Not that the two are unrelated or that there is even a clear line between them, but my tendency is to start inside, with internal imagery, and work my way out.
In this very interconnected world, I think it is the responsibility of writers to seek out work that challenges their perspectives and linguistic expectations. It is so easy to find good writing now, and easier than ever to read translations. It makes me ashamed of myself that I don’t do this enough.
OE:Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about genre. Your current book is a collection of poetry, but I know you work in other genres as well, especially fiction. Could you tell us a bit about what it’s like to switch between genres? What joys do you find in each of them and why? What unique difficulties do the various genres present? Etc, etc.
LT:I love writing in every genre, though some do not come easily to me. I am always trying to write a novel and most of the time failing at it. Short stories can be beautiful, but I am terrible at writing them. I love the essay in all of its various forms. As a kid, I first wrote stories, little novels. I started to write poetry at about seventeen. I don’t think I wrote prose again until about 2004, around the time I started graduate school. Writing prose still feels like cheating on poetry.
Usually, the form of a particular project comes naturally with the content and I don’t question it. I have had only one project that could have been either a poem or piece of prose. It ended up as something in the middle, which is probably the place where I’m most comfortable anyway.
I am most at ease in poetry–it’s a language that feels natural to me. My habit of looking carefully at the word, line, and sentence that comes from writing poetry sometimes means that I miss larger problems when working in prose–so, for example, I’ll have a character finish her soup in one paragraph but continue sipping her soup a page later. Perhaps I can’t blame poetry for that, as I am generally disorganized and slapdash in any genre, but I do know that I probably loved both of those sentences about the soup and didn’t catch the error because I don’t think very logically when it comes to writing.
Ultimately, my own writing in every genre comes down to restlessness and my love of everything written. There are almost no genres of writing I haven’t tried to do because there are almost no genres of writing that I don’t love, at least a little bit–and I’m talking here both about genre in general and as in “genre writing” versus “literary writing”. I even went through a phase (when I was twelve or so) of reading comedy writing–cheesy things like Erma Bombeck and Dave Barry. When I read a Lester Bangs anthology of criticism I wanted to be a rock critic, when I read Pauline Kael, I wanted to be a movie critic, and when I read MFK Fisher I tried my hand at food writing, which I am terrible at–a person who lives off of granola bars and yogurt and guacamole has no business trying to write about food.
OE:I’m going end on an unorthodox question, if you don’t mind. We all have regrets or ideas of how we could have better turned ourselves into the writers/thinkers we believe we ought to have become. And most of us have found ways to attempt to correct these things. What would you have done differently on your path to become a writer? Or what things did you overlook that you are now correcting or making up for? And, perhaps most importantly (since I believe errors are hugely productive), which “mistakes” did you make that you now consider important, perhaps useful even, to your development as a writer?
LT: This is a great question: it made me think about regret in general and my relationship to my writing. After taking a week to think about it, all I can think to say is that I don’t regret a single thing or think that I’ve made any writing mistakes. I have not written as much as I’d like, or read as widely as I’d like, but I still (I hope) have time to do those things. I have produced a lot of bad writing, but I don’t much mind, as it is useful to see it as bad in retrospect. Writing is what I love to do. I’d be doing it no matter the circumstances, no matter the response, no matter if I never published a single thing anywhere. It’s like anything else I do because I love: regretting something about my writing would be like regretting something about watching movies or reading books or walking around in the woods (other things I love to do). I don’t think of my writing as a line to somewhere that that I’ve fucked up along the way and have to make up for in order to reach that point, but as simply what I do, and therefore it’s hard to regret anything about it.