The Conversant republishes excerpts from HER KIND, a digital literary community powered by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. An earlier version of this present conversation can be found here.
HER KIND: Thank you Dara and Gillian for being a part of the Conversation! We love having your voices here, your metaphorical frames of mind. Let’s begin: Gloria Anzaldúa asks in the foreword to the second edition of This Bridge Called My Back: ¿Qué hacer de aquí y cómo? (What to do from here and how?). As a woman and writer, what are the bridges you’ve had to cross, burn, and forge? What came of those experiences?
Dara Wier: What to do from here and how it sounds like a good title for something. I’m really happy to be having this chance to converse in writing with Gillian, and I’m glad we’ve been given bridges as our jumping off place. A bridge is an awesome accomplishment—a verb, a noun, a conjunction, a preposition, a thing, a metaphor, a marvel of agency and desire (or necessity). There have been plank bridges across ditches in my life, highway bridges over canals, bridges over the Mississippi at New Orleans (the funny sign on one that says huba huba), draw bridges. I love bridges. The thrill of contemplating and then possibly crossing a bridge is galvanizing.
Gillian Conoley: Hi Dara, so nice to be talking. Portals to possibility are bridges, like the chance to talk to you in writing. I love that Gloria Anzaldúa puts the bridge in the body. She’s over on the other side, rest her soul, but she left the bridge. The spine: pliable, capable. A suspension bridge. I live 12 miles from the Golden Gate, 75 years old last month. The cables that sweep tower to tower on it literally stretched and stretching.
When they had the 50th birthday, there were so many cars the bridge started to dip down and bend and wobble, which is what it is supposed to do, but it scared everyone, so this year, no cars. This bridge is alive, I think every time I cross it.
Many other bridges I have loved: that New Orleans one you mention, covered bridges in New England and most especially one of the first bridges I knew—a rusty, rickety wooden plank one that crossed the San Gabriel River snaking between Taylor and Georgetown, Texas. It was magnificent. You could hear the planks slap up and down as you crossed, and the bridge was so decayed it seemed part of the unkept land around it. It was scary as hell.
DW: Maybe I think what’s bracing about thinking about bridges is that any bridge instantaneously throws us into a metaphorical frame of mind. We don’t have to try.
That’s what that word already is.
Almost every word associated with bridge can be/could be as richly deeply widely understood as, as we say, meaningfully understood to apply to almost all aspects of our lives. Okay. I can do that.
I don’t mind. But before I get in too far with the words of bridge life I have to say Hart Crane’s The Bridge was probably my first bridge across unadulterated, innocent, romantic love of poetry into a public conscious awareness of poetry and how it sometimes is viewed in the world.
I confess. For two decades at least my relationship to poetry was so private, that is, between me and all poetry I could find, the idea that poetry had other lives than the very private one me and it enjoyed. . .that was lost on me. And that was okay. I was just 5 and 10 and 17 and 19. I can be forgiven for not knowing. But then came The Bridge. (It taught me how to iron shirts while listening to Bolero.) Truth be told, in college for money I took on odd jobs, like assisting with typing and index-making, and one of those jobs, well two of them were:
(1) Typing up something about Pound’s ABC of Reading—I was told I was supposed to like that book, but I hated it then when I didn’t know its recent (we’re doing “recent” as the past 100 years here) significance. I thought, what a pompous ass. Who talks to us that way? Well, okay, now I know who. I guess I could say I burned that bridge. And
(2) Typing up a piece about THE BRIDGE, and because I was typing this essay I thought maybe I would read the book that the essay was about, and I did, and I loved it, and I still do. And this bridge, I can say, helped forge an already deep love of poetry already long in the works.
So there’s all that.
GC: My favorite bridge position is how people like to stand right in the middle of one and look over it, contemplatively, neither here nor there, closest we get to flying.
I grew up in a house that actually had poetry in it. It was already there when we moved in. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases full of old books the aging brothers before us had left in the house, along with a lot of furniture and ghostly lore, no heirs, all of which an anomaly in small town Texas.
Twain, Thurber, Dickinson and a lot of low-brow sort of book-of-the-month club kind of things from the ’30s and ’40s, ancient Greeks, haphazard, miscellaneous. And these brothers, the Stiles brothers, had written in the books! Marginalia. Proof that people actually thought about what they read. I sampled around in all this in between growing up, which I did heartily. I was not a “bookish” child, but I had this private world.
Still it was fiction first and Southern fiction by female writers: Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Flannery O’Connor is one of the most important writers to me; I love her wit, her meanness, her intelligence, her violence and the Catholicism so complexly active. And Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms. Those books were my autobiography. They spoke my language and lived my landscape. I had people all around me who were their characters. When the house burned down, my sister and I grown and gone, no one killed, up in smoke went all those books, another story.
But for poetry, it was Dickinson. The book that was in the house was Bolts Of Melody, this the one made in the 1940’s from the early texts prepared by Mabel Loomis Todd and her daughter before we get the Johnson one with dashes replaced and more fidelity.
That someone could live in the brain like that. Fearlessly. Infinity in the yard and in the brain.
DW: ED: “Faith—is the Pierless Bridge / supporting what We see / Unto the Scene that We do not—”
She’s such a poet, oh my god.
But, you know, I didn’t really come to love her until Jim (James Tate) gave me a set of her letters. Then I was smitten. Then I could read the poems with more, much more, human contact.
Did you see the big news that Natasha Trethewey (mfa U Mass Amherst) has just been named poet laureate? That’s so cool.
Okay, back to bridges. Maybe I will take the metaphor bait and list for us:
bridges crossed, bridges burned, bridges built, bridges jumped from, bridges avoided, bridges lived on, and so on and so forth forever.
Have you ever watched the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse video? Always makes me think of how a poorly constructed intention will fail.
GC: Yes it will. Natasha Trethewey, good. I already did bridges crossed. I don’t burn bridges but I have been on some flaming ones. Impulse to build bridges always good though other side might not be willing. Bridges lived on is also a good title.
DW: Oh well. I think I have to think about cantilevers now. Or something else, this bridge thing, lovely as it is, has to stop.
GC: I am off the bridge. But just when I seem to be walking another direction, here comes another one.
DW: What about the transit of Venus? That name has attracted a decent amount of attention.
GC: I couldn’t resist looking into the sun that day. It was so amazing driving around in the shadows. A David Lynch palette was cast onto everything, deep blues and blue-black reds. And then these little half-moons appeared on the sidewalks like bread crusts to paradise.
DW: I wrote a poem yesterday called “Extremely Expensive Mystical Experiences for Astronauts,” and while I love the title it may be an over-bearing one that is almost a deal breaker.
GC: You should keep that title. The political implications of it with the deliciousness.
DW: I do want to go back to what to do from here and how. That’s decently broad and it is about the future so that’s good. Mostly that’s what language is all about, by which I mean what it is up to, what it is doing, it is almost always (there will have to be exceptions) (but even STOP says go and YES says, maybe, context) implying something is being materialized or idealized or made, let’s just say, made, or how about, something is coming into being.
GC: Language is future. It’s fun to go trace things in the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) but even more to imagine where words may go in the future. Wish I could time travel there, just to hear how people will talk.
DW: Even if what one is doing is in some way gesturing toward or re-enacting or building up something about the past, I remember is such a rampantly necessary thing, right?
GC: Memory. Recall. To call it back. But just not to get sloppy about it. People show affection for each other this way: remember when that happened? And in the moment it’s alive again. Nostalgia is another thing, a dangerous thing.
DW: I realized the other day that maybe I’ve spent my entire life feeling apologetic for being mortal. Ha.
GC: Ha indeed. That’s when you know you have to put the “Gone Fishing” sign up on the door. I think Gertrude Stein could use a bridge right about now. Lots of people seem to be throwing her a rope—Marjorie Perloff, Charles Bernstein. Surely she won’t end out with such a stained reputation as the aforementioned Pound, but she won’t have the mental breakdown issues to blame it on like he has. She seems just about the most sane person. I wish I could have heard her laugh. What do you think about that? What are we supposed to do with this information that she had a Nazi protector, and worse, that there was an orphanage for girls not far from her and Alice’s abode—all the girls carted off one day to a camp? She had to have known about that. But how can we even begin to imagine what being alive and Jewish and a lesbian in that horrific time was?
And back to the infinity of language as you say. Yes. Endless. Poetry is language’s most pliable, suitable art. It grounds and flies. You were saying the other day that you didn’t think poetry much cared what anyone did to it. I think that’s true. It just wants to go. Continue. Not be contained, restricted, though it seems to admire a good cage.
I wrote a poem today called “Where the page was, do we walk” I’m thinking the page is in major transit. And I want to try to go there.
DW: That’s a good title. Can you remember when you first knew you would write?
GC: I can. Well, one of them was really early. I have this verdant thinly lit memory of the first time I experienced my imagination. I was around five or so, in a garden I had to run through to get to my best friend’s house. I sat down and just fully experienced this garden that was huge, a very large backyard a man had completely transformed to deal with the death of his wife. Things that one usually found planted next to other things were not there. His garden was more like garlic next to chrysanthemums. It was art, my first experience of art. The other revelations were incremental: stories, letters, poems from an early age. It was always something I could do. And there were teachers who would pull me aside. An old friend from elementary school told me she remembered our third grade teacher telling me and the whole class I was a writer. It’s funny but I don’t remember that, but I remember all the other teachers. When did you know?
DW: I think it was when I first saw or understood that I was seeing a lot of words on a page that didn’t look like other ways I’d seen words on pages. It might have been when I was four or five when my father was at Loyola at the behest of my mother going to college. You know how little kids like to see what their adults are up to. . .I liked how poems looked on their pages. I’ve always said how lucky I am to have thought of poetry writing as one of the most natural things in the world to do because I started doing it with such innocence (and ignorance!) and love for it. And there were teachers, some in high school, good radical nuns who praised my writing (which is what we need) and the fact of my writing and who gave me good things to read. Can you remember ever feeling after your daughter was born that your writing would change? (It would change, yes, no matter what.) I remember sometimes thinking it is a good thing I have a daughter and a son—I’ve needed what they have taught me, all along, from their baby days to their young adult days.
GC: Oh God yes, the writing changed. My whole psyche deepened. I loved being pregnant, never had I been closer to life and to death than that. And patience. I am still trying to learn patience from having a daughter. And letting things go: She is brilliant at that. They are such different creatures, offspring—you hardly know them and yet they are so close. It’s like an Introduction to the Unknown, having a child.
DW: We lived our young lives in the lower middle parts of the country, you in Taylor, Texas, me south of New Orleans. We’ve gone far from there but in opposite directions. I wonder what being where we’ve been has done. I know it’s done a lot, I don’t know that I can say much about this in particular aside from obvious things. And since you spent several years where I am now in western Massachusetts, I think you know more than I do about the differences. I’ve never lived on the West Coast.
GC: Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to live and write now on the East Coast, I imagine it is pretty different from when I was there (1980-83). I loved living in Western Mass. My first apartment was a block or so down from Emily Dickinson’s, and so I walked by her house every day. And now when I come back to visit that’s the first place I want to go. I don’t have to go into the house anymore. I just want to walk by and stand on the sidewalk for awhile. I started writing poetry in Texas in the mid-70s and the poets who were important to me at the time were John Ashbery, James Tate, Russell Edson, Lorca, Neruda, the French surrealists. The women I loved were dead: Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton, Emily Dickinson. I remember feeling very very lonely for more women poets. Still, at the same time, I didn’t feel like the male work excluded me. Why that is I don’t know, because I’m sure if I had looked closer it would have. But the important thing is that I didn’t feel that way. Maybe because I loved my father? Or I was in massive denial. Who knows why? Anyway, to answer your question: New England in particular was very, very exotic to me. I got a very strong sense of Robert Lowell, Marianne Moore (and Bishop, too), John Berryman and of course Dickinson from having the opportunity to live there. I used to go to Smith College all the time and look at Plath’s manuscripts they have: Her poems on the back of that Smith stationery. Pink. It was a God-send to get out of Texas. And to be near Dickinson, that was amazing. I remember looking at an apartment when I first got there that had a window from which one could see the cemetery where she’s buried, maybe even her grave! “Called back.” But that was too much for me. I just couldn’t rent it.
I love living on West Coast and in particular the San Francisco Bay Area. The flora and the fauna and the light and just the sense of the West are all agreeable to me. And poetry here is wide open. I don’t experience the “in the scene”/”out of the scene” kind of thing some people complain about; it’s just too big and ever-shifting. There are all sorts of poets here. Many monkeys in the trees. Whenever I’ve lived somewhere where there weren’t many poets, I didn’t like the freakish feeling I felt. The “kangaroo among the beauties,” as Dickinson puts it.
Still, I’m awfully glad I got to live on the East Coast for awhile. So it’s a combinatorium—the East Coast mixed in with the West Coast poets I love and feel honored to live among: Oppen, Spicer, Duncan, Barbara Guest (bi-coastal, really, I know), Lyn Hejinian, Norma Cole, Michael Palmer, so many. One can still very much sense the Objectivist movement as a haunting thread here. Language poetry dead and gone but transmogrified into a concern with materials and lyric stripped of itself then put back together again, which makes another music. And that the whole country in it’s shame has to recognize that it’s part of the globe: This is good for writers. Old regions die out and new ones come in. Apparently a lot of people predict that Japan will soon (relatively speaking, soon) be completely taken by other cultures. I don’t know if this is true in New York as well, but so many people complain about Language poetry as though it still existed. And they seem to lump all sorts of things into that rubric. I see it as an interesting moment that catapulted further interesting moments. It had its own death sewn into its overcoat.
DW: Ha. I know. It’s weird when anyone talks about Language poetry as separate from its discrete history, and there have been several histories of it written by now. Here are a few of the women who wrote books that I would count as giving me the courage to keep doing what I wanted to be doing: Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath, Meridel LeSeur, Caroline Knox, St. Teresa of Avila! I know I’m not remembering some really important women.
GC: Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Dorothea Tanning, H.D., Lorene Neidecker, Gail Scott, Jeanette Winterson, Marguerite Duras.
DW: And come to think of it a few women who exist as characters in writing attributed to men, especially Penelope. I am in love with Penelope. Oh and Ariadne I like a lot, and of course respect with incredible awe: Athena.
Remember in New Orleans all the streets in a row named after the Muses? I loved that when I was a kid: Erato, Calliope. Melpomene, Terpsichore, Thalia, Clio. I liked to be by those streets. The idea of muse has always accompanied poetry, and I’m sure the power of why this is so still agrees with us.
GC: Sappho. The other day I was reading Tender Buttons and then I picked up Mary Barnard’s translation of Sappho, which is my favorite. No one does light and joy and heartbreak like Sappho. She is a painter of that. Stein got the light and joy, but she hides the heartbreak.
DW: And let’s say the names of singers and songwriters who have voices I cannot do without. (Funny, one night a man said to me, I can’t stand to listen to women singers, and he meant it, and he wasn’t ashamed of saying so. I felt pretty bad for him, what a terrible loss. That’s what prejudice so often is, a loss so great it leaves a very empty vacant bleak hole in one’s soul.) Anyway, here are some of the women whose names I want to say: Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Eva Cassidy, Norah Jones, Beyoncé, Peaches, Stevie Nicks, Sade, Erika Baduh, Björk, Cyndi Lauper, Gillian Welch, Freakwater, Sinead O’Connor, Laurie Anderson, JoAnna Newsom, Julie Cruise. There. I’ve got that down, once again not remembering some names I’ll be really sorry I forgot to mention.
GC: Nikki Minaj. Sister Rosetta Thorpe. Marianne Faithful. Patti Smith. Joan Jett. Eartha Kitt. Tina Turner. Carla Thomas.
DW: There are so many on-fire women putting out their first and second books right now. Here are a few names in this category: Laura Solomon, Ish Klein, Dorothea Lasky, Lauren Ireland, Heather Christle, Carrie St. George Comer, Michelle Taransky, Rachel Glaser, Bianca Stone, Caroline Cabrera, Anne Holmes, Gail Thompson, Caryl Pagel, Natalie Lyalin, Liz Hughey and Arisa White (who kindly invited us to have this conversation for HER KIND), Emily Pettit (my daughter), to say just a few. Please add to this rollcall. Help me out now. . .
GC: Dawn Lundy Martin, Kate Pringle, Andrea Rexilius, giovanni singleton, Lisa Fishman. There’s a poet named Jenny Ray who, if you haven’t read, you should get the most recent Volt and read right now.
DW: I will do this. I love to get a good long list of books to stack on the table and start reading them. That’s so great.
Oh, also I wanted to say some things I’ve been that I believe have stood me well: a farmer, a pain in the ass, a farmstand attendant, a cook’s assistant, a side-kick in crime, a housekeeper, a gardener, a teacher, mother, friend, spy, investigator, detective, poet. I’d like to see your list.
GC: Tour guide, lifeguard, newspaper reporter, radio announcer, waitress, house painter, cook, housekeeper, magazine editor, dance instructor, swimmer, trouble-maker, teacher, mother, driver, sister, sister-in-law, yogi, actress, friend, poet.
DW: I’m thinking to call my next book, a book of stories, The Camouflage of Marriage. Seems to be, as they say, rich with suggestions. Problem is perhaps this is giving away some secret no one should have to deal with, at least not here, right now. What’s coming up with you?
GC: Oh. That’s a rich and loaded title! Just finished or think I just finished my new book Peace. I know that’s some title, but that’s what it is. The book is political and airy. There is some new capacious feeling gong on. Some very long poems and some very short ones. So now I am gearing up again into the new. Meanwhile am working on a project I’ve had for a long time: the translation of some never brought into English Henri Michaux texts, in which he explores his lifelong obsession with the blur between the visual and the verbal. What is reading? What is seeing? And what do we do with language, with marks and drawing? All of it, really, how do we brave consciousness—how do we get to the infinite?
Gillian Conoley was born in Austin Texas, where, within its rural outskirts, her father and mother owned and operated a radio station. She is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Peace (forthcoming with Omnidawn in 2014), The Plot Genie, Profane Halo, Lovers In The Used World and Tall Stranger, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her work has received many prizes, including the Jerome J. Shestack Poetry Prize from The American Poetry Review, a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Fund for Poetry Award. Her translations of Henri Michaux, three books not brought into English before, will be out with City Lights Pocket Poets series in 2014. Editor and founder of Volt magazine, she teaches at Sonoma State University.
Dara Wier’s new book, You Good Thing, is just out from Wave Books. She teaches workshops and form & theory seminars for the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. With Emily Pettit and Guy Pettit she edits and publishes for Factory Hollow Press. She’s a member of Flying Object.