Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Christle’s book What is Amazing (Wesleyan University Press). Recorded July 7, 2012. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Can we discuss the history of how this book came together, and how that history gets traced in the three separate sections? Some early pieces seem familiar, from The Seaside! Do all poems from the first section come from that same period of writing? Does that phase now feel far from you? I ask because this reads like a collected “Early Works.”
Heather Christle: I didn’t mean to arrange the book in chronological order, but that’s what ended up happening. I wrote all sections fairly close together in time. The first section comes mostly from The Seaside!. I do feel quite far from that chapbook now, probably because I haven’t written in that form for a while. From writing the poems of my first book, The Difficult Farm, to writing my second book, to this, I think form has propelled me to a certain extent. Other concerns do as well. But I’ll invent some formal problem to investigate then write poems until I’ve reached, for myself, some kind of answer. I won’t ever decide to stop writing in a particular way. Though once I’ve figured out how to do it, then I’ll need to set up a new problem.
AF: I should clarify that when I’d asked if certain poems felt far, I don’t mean they seem less developed or something, just that you show a great diversity within this single book, working with what feel separate phases almost.
HC: These phases do overlap somewhat. Once I get toward the end of something, I’ll start to experiment with another form. So the second section’s poems do overlap chronologically with some poems from the first.
AF: Did you conceive of the separate sections as stand-alone, self-sufficient units, or did you envision them placed side-by-side, perhaps to demonstrate your process of thinking through a poetic form, here by presenting three different takes?
HC: I hope that, even though the book does present these separate formal concerns, it also contains overlapping ideas about questioning where is the self and where is the world, and how does one differentiate between the two. Love appears throughout many of the sections.
AF: Could you start describing those different sections, so we can address how certain motifs circulate throughout?
HC: The first section’s lines feel smashed together, with somewhat irregular capitalization and a lack of punctuation (other than exclamation points). This comes across as somewhat breathless or intense, energetic. It’s kind of hard to describe one’s own work.
AF: Yeah for me section one gets characterized, as you say, by short, tightly sprung syntax, plus a lot of paratactic clauses. “And” keeps coming up, with few logic-steering conjunctions like “but” or “yet.” It’s more “and and and and and.” Emphatic repetitions. Quick, clipped lines that turn like Frank O’Hara’s. O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency or Lunch Poems (I never can remember the title) opens with this poem “To the Harbor Master,” which seemed maybe echoed in your opening poem, “The Seaside!” Then throughout the short, absurdist narratives feed on themselves. Again, somewhat O’Hara-esque, but with less of a documentarian bent than O’Hara. More playful, freely constructing scenarios. Lots of definitional poems about an “I” or an object, which produce plot-driven examinations almost like parables. You’ll give the allegorical without the allegory. Dickinson’s and Kafka’s fabular qualities come to mind, filtered through Mayakovsky and Walser.
HC: Well Frank O’Hara’s a poet I’ve thought about a lot. I tend to associate him with my first book, but perhaps he’s stayed with me the way your parents remain always with you even if you think of friends more frequently. Though it’s funny: I hadn’t thought at all of him with that first poem, “The Seaside!,” but that makes quite a bit of sense. For me, in terms of literary connections, I always imagined Persuasion and Jane Austen and that fall from the seawall there. Of course this poem doesn’t literally engage Austen’s narrative. It borrows some scenery. I’ve also realized another funny connection—my father is in the Merchant Marines, and soon will start sailing as captain, though that was not on my mind when I wrote this poem. When I worked on the poem, I really was writing through a rhythm, through rhythm and color and beauty and rage at being a human, the difficulty of being a person and trying to understand why one exists, why one sees the things one sees, or gets cast one’s lot in life. Then, at this poem’s end, Hans Christian Anderson’s little mermaid seems to surface. She turns into foam at his fairy tale’s conclusion. Here my speaker decides that’s not her lot.
AF: In terms of fairy tale, this section appears to provide a copious, meticulous use of compression. Instead of plot development, disparate details end up side-by-side and the logic comes from that final ordering. The sleek, polished surface pushes us someplace unexpected.
HC: Actually, I’m not a very careful editor. I am, I hope, in selecting which poems I publish. But in terms of composing individual poems, I do a lot of preparing ahead of time, thinking about rhythm and language and linguistics and how sentences get formed, though when I sit down finally to work, I pretty much write without planning ahead. Preparation comes in strengthening the muscles and flexibility rather than in choosing content. I’ll sit down and the content comes and I tend to revise fairly little. I do hope the poems’ causality or logic seems tight, even if different from how causality tends to work in what we think of as “the physical world.” I read some Marshall McLuhan today (I’ve been reading him a lot lately) and came across this passage quoting Ruskin, about the grotesque: “A fine grotesque is the expression, in a moment, by a series of symbols thrown together in bold and fearless connection, of truths which it would have taken a long time to express in any verbal way, and of which the connection is left for the beholder to work out for himself; the gaps left or overleaped by the haste of the imagination, forming the grotesque character.” That made me really happy. It’s always reassuring to find justification for something you’ve done.
AF: Your rhythms allow us to absorb events quickly. Repetition helps, also. The poem “Way out in the Country” ends, “It was painful I thought / I would be surrounded I thought I had thought.” That’s where Dickinson came to mind: “and then I could not see to see.” Short, clipped anaphoric repetition or recycling of certain sentence-constructs provides some glue.
HC: Yeah, and to realize anaphora does not only repeat, but creates interiority within itself, so that there isn’t a flatness of repetition (though that interests me as well). By gluing together repetitions you create between them a space of strangeness, a defamiliarization of an idiom that you thought you’d understood.
AF:Comedy also seems important here, as do opening and concluding lines. They sound very bold, very snappy. Room seems to be cleared for engaged audience responses. What’s your relation to audience experience? Do you sculpt an experience for the audience which includes productive pauses, gaps, time to respond?
HC: I don’t know if it includes time for them to respond, but it certainly encourages their responding. These poems perhaps move too fast to leave time for someone. But they believe whoever reads them is capable of keeping up and happy to do so. I’ve been thinking about this question: how does the poem position its reader? How does the reader then rise either to sit in the seat the poem has prepared, or to resist that seat? My poems tend to imagine decent, intelligent readers who won’t mind if my lines seem smashed together to produce energy—rather than easily followable from one moment to the next. When I first began writing, I often would imagine my sister as my reader. She’s a writer as well. She’s absolutely fantastic. When we speak we’ll get very involved in play, so even when we talk about death we know that we’re using language to talk about death, that we can begin to turn sentences inside-out and throw them back-and-forth. That attitude extends to these poems I hope.
AF: When you mention how fast the poems move I think of aphorisms. Part of using language is using the pauses and gaps. Since we’ll so quickly reach the end of one of your poems…that’s where it feels there’s room for the reader to respond, amid that rest which follows.
HC: That’s not something I construct on purpose. You can consider the line as a unit of breath, but the poem also is a unit of breath. And I seem to have stunted lungs or something. I sometimes become uneasy about this and then try not to become too uneasy. I try to understand I’m still at the beginning of my writing, and perhaps these lungs will change as I get older.
AF: With this question of lungs still in mind, should we move to the second section?
HC: Sounds lovely.
AF: By section two (and like you say, it’s not a seamless break), though section two does bring conspicuous changes in tone and form. Gaps appear amid the solid, prose-like blocks. Less regular line breaks occur. Room opens for rhyme and rumination and reflection. We still find comedic, idiomatic usages of “go,” “like,” “which,” but less Surrealist slapstick plot. Surprises that arise seem more linguistically inflected, rather than action-oriented. Repeated refrains such as “This always happens” seem to hint, then maybe don’t, at more personal, less playful impulses. Is this all my projection? Did you explore different moods? Different authors?
HC: Certainly I explored different moods. I don’t think it comes necessarily from reading different authors. My reading tends to be an ongoing process. I’ll fall for someone and stick with them a while. There’s a bit more Mayakovsky in the second section. “The Angry Faun” is very much indebted to Aleksandr Vvedensky. That poem grew out of an obsession with his “Rug/Hydrangea,” which obsessively repeats whole groups of lines. It’s crazy. I have, on various occasions, charted that Vvedensky poem, mapped its repetitions, made spatial representations. Once, I tried transcribing his form exactly into my own poem and it sounded so bad.
AF: So where some readers might scan a poem for rhythmic schemes, you tracked other types of patterning?
HC: I tracked A-type lines and B-type lines. Many lines begin with “I regret,” but other phrases repeat as well. Variations occur. I developed this complicated system for charting it and substituting my own lines, which turned out awful. Then a week or two later I wrote “The Angry Faun” in Vvedensky’s spirit but not his exact form. The Surrealist stuff does still happen here: “I bitch-slap the house / and my head falls apart.”
AF: You’re right. I’m not explaining well what seems different.
HC: I think there’s much more of a recognizable world overlapping with Surrealist elements. The second section’s opening poem presents this shark leaving phone messages, and that feels very much, I think, of the first section. But once you enter the next poem, “The Small Husband,” section two transitions into not exactly a normal relationship, but there is a spouse, and a spouse stays there through the whole poem, and a series of actions suggest how one might talk to this spouse. Many poems move into that domestic sphere. There is “Journeying through our apartment.” Someone attends a party. Someone else explores every part of our home. Then you climb up to the roof, which seems a less familiar space.
AF: Yet still the house as metaphor for a spatial continuity, an overall environment, with us exploring different components.
HC: That makes sense. I think ideally something stays stable in a poem, so that its changing parts become more apparent.
AF: I’m still drawn towards your Vvedensky experiment.
HC: I just recently tried a new visual representation of it, because I’m thinking about patterning this play I’m writing on it.
AF: On that same poem?
HC: Yeah. I’m really excited. I’ve never written a play before. But I saw tUnE-yArDs perform a couple weeks ago, which got me thinking about what you can do with looping, and how a domestic space has so much repetition, and that you say the same thing over and over to people you live with. So how could you condense and show that kind of absurdity of repetition? How could you keep a stable environment, within an apartment, even as things change and become unfamiliar?
AF: While we’re discussing these expansive, elastic structures: “What is Amazing” is the first of this book’s two longer poetic sequences. Given your brevity elsewhere, given the state of your stunted lungs, did any particular questions motivate these more modulated, tonally diverse sequences? What can you do here that you can’t do elsewhere?
HC: “What is Amazing” actually is a much earlier poem. It almost went into The Difficult Farm. I’ll have to go back very far to remember what it was like to write this. I know it came from my…I sometimes trick myself into writing long poems. I’ll bait myself with the idea that I can write them in sections. The same thing happened with “Directly at the Sun.” I just told myself, you’ve got to go longer—you’ve got to see what happens when you leave this space. And the numbers let me do it. They allow for slight turns. These very fast turns happen in the book’s first section, even the second section. I like the energy of that. I like the dizziness. Though what can happen in these longer poems is that each part moves forward with some meandering, but mostly in the same direction. You get a chance to start again, yet moved slightly over. So there’s a more gradual feel to this turning. Again it involves some repetition, some recycling of images. Still just a change of pace, I think, is useful. I take a lot of naps. They break up my day into not vastly different parts, but enough so that something has changed. Perhaps these poems work that way too.
AF: You’ll take multiple naps in a single day? Or are you saying that many days you take a nap?
HC: Pretty much every day I take one nap. It’s rare, but has happened that I’ve taken two naps in a single day. I feel so ashamed.
AF: I’ve never eaten two apples, nor taken two naps. Though in your longer poems, waking- and dream-life do tend to flip—shifting priority over each other.
HC: You know who would eat more than one apple each day is Agatha Christie.
HC: She sort of subsisted on apples.
AF: I think Justice David Souter…no, he ate the core. I won’t put that in.
HC: Put that in. Put that in. Everybody should know as much as they can about apple consumption.
AF: I think he ate the seeds and core. This only came out after he retired.
HC: That’s perfect in terms of Agatha Christie, because you know apple seeds contain cyanide.
AF: Interesting. Now just so we get to section three: it seems to provide another distinct tonality. Punctuation gets more complex. Openings sound more dense and ambiguous. Like “Go and Play Outside” opens: “The declaration of light as read by shadows / and the leaf the wind lifts in an elegant betrayal // of the stillness the morning’d arranged— / what caterwauls, what loops the world // gives us, gives us eagles!” It took us five lines to get there. That seems different. Also abstracted parenthetical phrasings appear. “Happy and Glorious” has a couple of these parenthesis, even, again, in its opening line. I’ll sense a new type of meditative, rather than narrative, pacing. A frequent deployment of couplets hints at memory’s eternal return, here triggered by rhyme. I’m curious—you’ve already said reading doesn’t necessarily change your work, but were you reading couplets? Seeing what could be done with couplets? I’ve brought up all these male writers as influences, and don’t mean to, but Creeley came to mind, in terms of the elided, suggestive syntax, or the rhetorical undercurrent summed up in: “What I can say represents what I cannot.” Just these super-minimal formulations of what it means to write or speak at all.
HC: You’re very much onto something with Creeley. I was reading For Love a lot. I also felt that this direction made sense to travel in, both for the book and for myself. Though I only began to understand why this made sense as I put the book together. This wasn’t a book I wrote as a book. It become a book through its assembly over an extended period of time. Books feel somewhat arbitrary to me. I like books that exist as books, but still am more interested in writing a poem every day and living my life and seeing what comes of that. For me, these later poems came from a desire to slow down, to allow the gaps to seem less like space between events, and more like silence. Someone else often entering my brain during this time was Aram Saroyan. Probably I’m thinking of him because you used the word “minimal,” but I wanted to give words space in a different way. This gets reflected in the hinged lines.
AF: That’s what I’d meant when I mentioned the aphoristic tone—how a pause will end an early poem and remain implicit. But the third section frames and emphasizes those gaps or pauses.
HC: I hadn’t thought of it that way but I like it.
AF: You had mentioned working on a play. Anything you want to say about the occasional Hamlet references? “The air I breathe in was once Caesar’s” sounds like Hamlet to me. Also early in the book somewhere: “He is out / of whack with the world and it is like a crab / who walks out of its shell and that is not a metaphor / for X’s emotional life.” Does Hamlet just fit the meditative tone?
HC: Again, I hadn’t thought of that, not even a little.
AF: Does it make sense or am I…
HC: No, it totally makes sense.
AF: I’m not just juiced on apple seeds?
HC: Hamlet’s one of those apples you internalize, without even realizing why your skin turns that color, because of all the apples you’re eating.
AF: What about math? Do you like math? I’m looking at one line again, “As a child X is too small for the furniture.” That combination of math questions asked in words. Story problems, they were called.
HC: Word problems. I loved those! I saw someone on Facebook recently reinterpret word problems. It was, “What word problems looked like to me.” It asked something like “If I have two bananas and you have three ice cream cones, which area should the circle occupy?” Then the answer was, like, “Nuns, because aliens don’t believe in purple.” I never had that problem. Word problems always made a lot of sense. So there is some resonance there. I’m curious about employing logical language as a form of mathematics that happens to be expressed through words, rather than symbols.
AF: Through grammatical structures, sentence structures, or rhythms or repetition. Because syntax seems part of this mathematics—how one word or sentence sits next to others.
HC: Absolutely. Diagramming sentences was my other great pastime as a child.
AF: That’s one pastime I never got. Though one other spatialized trope throughout your book’s various tonalities is its references to sky. “You” will look to the sky for answers, measure “yourself” according to the sky, appeal to the sky as primary source of communication. What other roles does the sky play here? Again, did Baudelaire, Mayakovsky, O’Hara, Eileen Myles, help direct your glance to the sky?
HC: Yes. Although I would say not only poets look in that direction for guidance. Not to be too universal about things, but it does seem fairly typical of humans to look to the sky for a sense of life’s larger implications. It’s very large and hangs over us constantly. And so I can’t imagine not turning to it, over and over, in whichever mood occupies my body at the moment.
Heather Christle is the author of What Is Amazing (Wesleyan University Press, 2012), The Difficult Farm (Octopus Books, 2009), and The Trees The Trees (Octopus Books, 2011), which won the 2012 Believer Poetry Award. She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College, serves as Web Editor for jubilat, and coordinates lectures for the Royal Society of Hadley for Improving Natural Knowledge at Flying Object. A native of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, she lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.