In his monthly poetry podcast, Radio Free Albion, Tony Trigilio interviews poets about their recently released or forthcoming books. Always informal, each interview is a conversation—two poets talking about the work and play of the creative process and showcasing some of the most innovative new work in contemporary poetry. Transcription by Cameron Decker.
Tony Trigilio: Hi CM, how are you doing?
CM Burroughs: Hi Tony, I’m great. You can’t see me, but I’m sitting up a little straighter in my chair for this interview.
TT: You can’t see me, but I put on my sneakers for this interview, so that I can feel like I’m out in the world professionally. People don’t know that I do these interviews only with audio, so all I can see are people’s Skype icons. But I’m wearing shoes, definitely. I should let everybody know that CM was one of the first people I talked to about doing an interview on this show, way back when I hardly had any audio equipment, and the podcast was just some impossible idea I had in my head. So I’m glad we’re finally doing this.
CMB: Yeah, me too. I’ve always thought about the radio as a great space. I love listening to it, so why not, you know?
TT: I think the podcast idea comes from being a kid, and how really late at night I used to listen to talk radio. Not like the crazy talk radio we have today, but just late-night people in far-flung cities talking about books and music. I thought: “Wow, there are people out there. I’d like to do this.”
CMB: I wish we could get back to that.
TT: Podcasts, in their best incarnations, can do that, I think, and I hope this one does that. Let’s talk about The Vital System. When you think of your ideal reader for this book, what would you want the reader to know about you as a person or as a writer or both, before they jump into the book?
CMB: I like to think about the reader as being very open. I’d like the reader to know that what is in the book, for me, is very true, and so if they can walk into the book feeling “OK, I’m entering something that’s completely honest right now in how I experience it”—to just be with some kind of openness. That’s what I really appreciate from a reader.
TT: I love that idea, that I’m coming as a reader into a space of openness and truth, and at the same time we know that we might be lying all the time in our poems. But it’s like a kind of emotional honesty. Is that what you’re getting at?
CMB: Definitely. With experimental poetry, there’s so much architecture happening. We create with a certain kind of honesty too, but it’s certainly the stories that might be most overtly trying for honesty in this book.
TT: There are so many ways to think of what an experimental poem is, and so many contending definitions. To start off with saying “an experimental poem is a place where there is so much architecture happening”—that’s true. In a poem that’s a little more, for lack of a better word, “mainstream,” you’re in a place where you kind of know where all the rooms are and what they look like and what the structure looks like. But in an avant-garde poem, you have no idea how low the ceilings are going to be or what room you’re going to turn to next.
CMB: Right. I think folks sometimes underestimate what lyric poetry can do and does accomplish in its best forms, only because there are so many decisions that have to be made when we’re not occupying the conventional forms. And so we are coming up with rules and philosophies behind what it is that we’re doing. And I try to teach students who are writing lyrically to have these rules and philosophies behind the choices they make, as small as “When will I use a comma” and “In what cases can I change how that usage happens.” That’s important.
TT: And I think it’s important for the reader to have that kind of faith, that the poet has a set of rules for when they’re going to use a comma, as you were saying, and then also a set of rules for when to pull the rug out from under the reader who says, “I turned the corner, and the lights were off! I thought the lights were going to be on there.” It’s something that Julie Carr had said about the serial poem. You come into a new room in the serial poem, and it’s like a room with the lights off, and you turn them on and it’s an entirely different kind of room. And I think that works really well for the serial poem, but I think for a lot of experimental work too. I’m thinking more specifically about the book. The poem “Dear Incubator,” is a real touchstone for the book. It seems to me like everything else in the book emanates from what this poem is doing.
CMB: The wild thing is that I wrote “Dear Incubator,” last, really. My friend and reader Douglas Kearney, who is also a poet, he read my book several times in its different iterations. As it was coming to its final self, or something like it, he said that he felt something was missing. It was something that put the body forward—put a mythology about the body forward that the other poems responded to and responded from. It didn’t take me but a moment, while he was speaking, to think of my premature birth and the figure of the incubator. I had always wanted to write about it, but somehow the idea and the moment and the opportunity don’t all come together until these unexpected moments. So I finally had this way to write about the incubator that made complete and utter sense to me.
TT: One of the things I love about the poem is that the incubator is a machine. Of course, it’s not something cold—it kept you alive. As a reader we’re experiencing it as a machine, but it’s just so intimate. It’s as intimate as the body in the poem.
CMB: This will be some experiential information that I’ve never shared before but, when I was young, and I’m talking a young kid up until my teen years, I would have these moments where I was going to sleep at night and the environment would seem to grow larger around me. And it really didn’t matter if my eyes were open or closed—it was just this visceral sensibility that I was either growing smaller or the air around me was growing larger. I’ve always equated that back to the incubator, because the sense of it was actually really frightening when it would happen. That’s important. That must be it. What other small space did I occupy? [laughs]
TT: That was one of the questions I wanted to ask: How palpable are your memories of the incubator? And you’re kind of getting at that right now. They’re coming to you in these palpable fragments. Or they came to you in palpable fragments when you were younger.
CMB: I remember distinctly one time I cried because of this experience of feeling something looming around me and not being able to stop that sense. It’s interesting now how contentious my relationship with the incubator is, in that there is love for that other womb, but it also is a very frightening space to be quarantined or secluded.
TT: It’s this terrifying, frightening space. It’s also pre-verbal too—yet there it is, rendered in language.
CMB: Yeah. My parents actually had tapes recorded of their voices and jazz and everything, and they played those while they weren’t at the hospital with me.
TT: Now this is a stretch, but do you have any memories of warm human voices or jazz at all in that terrifying space, or is that too much to ask of your memory?
CMB: Actually I do not, which is how I found out. I asked my parents, “What did you do? Were you always there? When you weren’t there, what was happening?” and so they did tell me about the recordings they would make.
TT: How did that feel? I mean they’re talking about you and your earliest days on the planet, and you don’t remember any of this. Did it feel like they were really talking about you, or did it feel like they were almost talking about someone else?
CMB: Someone else, actually. My parents, they’re very factual about my birth. And I’m sure, at the time, I was dangerously close to death a couple of times, so I’m sure they were highly emotional and just trying to understand how to keep me alive and how the doctors would do it. And so when they relay information to me now, it’s all very “Yes, we played these tapes for you,” but it’s not any more connected with an emotional intimacy or something that’s fraught like it might have been back then in 1981.
TT: You knew they were feeling it then, and now they’re just giving you the “Here’s what happened, here’s what we did, here’s what occurred” sort of thing.
TT: As you talk now about your parents filling in the gaps about what went on in those early days, have they had any significant response to this poem over any of the others in the book?
CMB: No, no. My parents enjoy that I’m a poet, and they appreciate that I write, but we don’t honestly get into the poems as specific spaces of dialogue.
TT: That was sort of my experiences with my folks. One time I did a reading and afterward my father said, “That was really good!” For a half-second I thought, “Wow, are we going to have a dialogue about the poems? That would be pretty cool.” And after that pause he said, “You’re a very good public speaker!”
TT: It was really sweet. I said, “Well, that’s my job,” and he said, “I know, and you do it well.” And I said, “Well, thank you very much, dad.” And it was great. You were talking about how “Dear Incubator,” establishes a kind of mythology about the body in the book, and how the body is vital to the book. How would you describe what the mythology of the body is in the book?
CMB: It starts with the incubator. There’s this incredible amount of tension roaming throughout the book, and it really comes from a place of desire and want. I just wrote an essay about this, actually, for Joshua Marie Wilkinson and The Volta. I can’t understand or explain that level of want but can say it must be the want to be alive enough to experience everything that comes in the text. And so you have the body that one desires to be, and then the body that desires to experience itself in relationships and being gendered and sexed, etc.
TT: Yeah, it’s a desired body and a desiring body at the same time. In literary-critical circles we usually just talk about desire, but I like when I’m in a situation where I’m reading a book of poems and I feel the role of the body is both desired and desiring. It feels more fully human to me. As you’re talking about that openness of the body (I know somebody else had mentioned there is a vulnerability of the body, and you talk about that in the poems too), it’s also a fragility. The body is fragile in the book, but the fragility is part of what makes the body one of the vital systems. The fragility is vital rather than bringing the body down. Can you talk a little bit about the title poem, “The Vital System,” and its importance to the book?
CMB: Sure. You talk about this vulnerability, which is definitely part of the whole text, but there’s a moment in “Dear Incubator,” where I think about the skin, my skin, and it was translucent skin. My viscera was able to be seen when I was premature in that incubator. And so I think of how bare, vulnerable, subject to the outside something like that is and say, “Well, why not carry it through the other poems, let that body speak through the other poems?” “Dear Incubator,” was, again, the origin story that actually was the last poem to be written, and so who knows if, in part of myself, I knew that the whole time. But it certainly seemed to be a poem that gave reason to the need for speech in all the other poems in the book. This notion of memory, of fear, of appreciation, of needing to articulate something about a state or states of being.
TT: That moment that you mention in “Dear Incubator,” where you talk about the skin being translucent: I’m looking at the book right now—”My skin was translucent,” and then that next moment, “anyone could see me working.” It’s just that vulnerability, but the body’s working! Anyone could see me working, keeping myself alive under really terrifying circumstances. That does seem part of the vulnerability that’s also really powerful in the book. I want us to hear a poem in a second, but before we do that, can you say something a bit more about the poem “The Vital System”? Does that extend what we’ve been saying about the body, or do you feel like it takes what we’ve been saying in a different direction?
CMB: It extends it. That’s a strange little poem, I have to admit. It’s so vastly experimental, I feel that it’s not one that I read all the time. I have to read it very slowly for people to occupy it, I think. It is about the body, but it turns very much toward the female body (in that this is how it was created), and possibly that notion of the origin story again, but also in states of subjugation. I might say, “The Vital System” articulates that body politic.
TT: From the state of subjugation?
TT: I like thinking about it that way, from that state of subjugation, and I also feel as a reader there are some sharp edges there. Like you said, you have to read it very slowly to let people occupy it at readings, and I think, yeah, if people aren’t careful, they could get kind of cut on those sharp edges. Which I think is also good. I like to get cut on the sharp edges of a poem. I can fix the wound—it’s a good wound from reading. Let’s hear a poem either from the book or a new poem.
CMB: Do you want to hear “Dear Incubator,”?
TT: I’m going to speak for the millions of people listening to this podcast all over the world and say, “Yes, why not?” [laughs]
At six months’ gestation, I am a fabrication born far too soon. My body, a stone in a steaming
I remember you.
—A black kaleidoscope. Turn. Turn. The dangerous loom of the loom of you. Patterns pressing
upon—me inside. Nothing luminous as my mother’s womb. This second attempt at formation; a turn.
The nurse slides her wedding band past my hand, beyond my elbow and over my shoulder. I am
1lb. 12oz. and already feminine. Knowing nothing of it. I am trying to be clear—
I was first fascinated then afraid of the shapes’ rise from your darkness. And their growth toward me. I wailed under their weight. My eyes were shuttered by lids. My skin was translucent; anyone could see me working.
How can I ask you from inside the poem—what senses did I have so early… So unformed.
I was tangled in tubes (that kept my hear pumping; that kept my lungs from collapsing; food to the body; oxygen to the brain).
You are everything and nothing.
A surrogate. A packaging of half-made sensory detail; a past.
I have scars on my belly in shapes of fish…Where sensors tore thin skin. What a tragedy to be powerless. And yet, I controlled the choreography of everyone around me (the check of vitals; arms through the arm ports; my parents’ speech; also, there were surgeons).
I am trying to tell you something important. About after they opened you and took me out. I was infected. Could command nothing of my legs. For years.
The surgeons, thin blades shining into nothing. Imagine the cuts—blood spread along the lips of
each, spilling as my skin parts. Someone bringing cotton to catch it.
Is it your fault? I don’t know. I was in a state, I’ve explained. I don’t know what you let in…Perhaps. Do you know lovers ask about these scars. Touch these raised scars.
So much has happened. I’m black. I have a dead sister. I love you, but, and believe this,
I mostly want to talk.
TT: At the end of the poem, “Is it your fault, incubator?” (I’ll add “incubator”): “I don’t know. I was in a state, I’ve explained. I don’t know what you let in…” What did the incubator let in? The question is so abstract; I don’t mean it to be ridiculously abstract. I’m thinking like, for a reader, what should a reader be thinking the incubator let in?
CMB: I could say “let in,” and I can also think about what does it keep in. If, let’s say, the body is trapped in there with all things that made it and are currently making it, then that vulnerability is definitely one of those parts coming in, staying in, being let to stay in.
TT: The book is so physical in the ways we were just talking about, the ways we’ve been talking about the architecture of all the poems in the book. It’s such a physical book, but I don’t want to neglect also that your poems are sonic. They tell the reader, “Listen to the sounds—it’s worth it, there’s music here.” What’s the relationship, for you, between writing and sound, or writing and music?
CMB: Anecdote: When I was a kid, let’s say nine years old, I remember riding in my mother’s van. It was a bunch of other kids my age, these popular girls. I was always a bit of a geek. I’m so proud of that now. Some song by Naughty by Nature had come on the radio, and what was happening is I started tapping my foot, but I wasn’t tapping my foot to the beat of the song. There was no movement on the beat. It was to the words of the song, which is something I’d always done without thinking about it. I only noticed it that day because around the van the girls started whispering to one another and pointing and teasing me.
CMB: Right? I’m like, “You don’t have anything better to do.” But it was the beginning of my realizing “Oh, I do this thing, and it’s not just this time, but I’m always tapping my foot to words.” I do it now, even. And so there’s something about music—and maybe this goes back to my parents playing music for me while I was in the incubator, so there’s some innate understanding about how sound and melody can work—but it’s maybe this notion of how can I create words in such a way that they will allow me to tap my foot to them. And I’m not exclusively talking about meter, but in terms of assonance and alliteration and hidden sounds. What can we do there? I really appreciate music, and there being not only a narrative of the poem, but a narrative of the sounds of the poem.
TT: And like you said, the hidden sounds too. I know what you’re describing. It would be very easy to say, “Oh, she’s talking about meter.” I know that’s not what you’re not saying, right? You are talking about that, but you said it’s also the hidden sounds of a poem. Those are things we can sort of figuratively and sometimes literally tap our feet to. I love the story. It’s like “Where do poets come from? Well, we sit in a car, and we do this thing all the time that nobody else is doing, and people look at us and point.”
CMB: I was so upset.
TT: Earlier you talked about your friend, the fellow poet Douglas Kearney. I wanted to focus on something he said about your work that I kept coming back to while I was reading the book. He described your work this way: “The narrator of these poems seems to come apart before my eyes; yet she never disintegrates—she teems. Here is vivid grief, livid vulnerability, and bristling sensuality.” I returned to this a lot throughout the book, but especially when I was reading some of the poems toward the end, like “Black Memorabilia” and “In the Personal Camp, Eroticism.”
CMB: I appreciate Doug, in every possible way. He’s an astounding person and poet. But I have to say: The image that is always in my mind when I think of this notion of coming apart but not disintegrating, as Doug says, is a trembling wire. That trembling wire represents my work. It’s pulled tight, but not tightly enough to stop the quivering, but it’s still wire—it’s still a strong material. And he’s right. The characters of the book refuse to be hurt in such a way that causes them not to be anymore.
TT: They refuse to be hurt in a way that causes them not to be?
TT: And they do that while also being open and vulnerable. When I do interviews, I don’t always want to talk about teaching, because not every poet teaches, and we shouldn’t always think of it that way, but I’m thinking of that moment when our students are, for lack of a better phrase, developing a voice for the first time. Sometimes in that empowering moment, they’ll feel like, “I can’t be vulnerable. I have to just be strong and stick my face out there.” It’s understandable why we’d want to do that, but sometimes that strength can come from being really vulnerable too—being on that wire, like you were saying.
CMB: I actually think I live in that way, if that makes sense, in that I am not a large person by any means; I’m rather petite. So I know in the world I am vulnerable. What makes up my armor is a vulnerable thing. Truthfully, I always hold my chin a bit upwards, so that I think I’m taller than I am. I always see myself in photographs (I’m 5’4”, 109 pounds) and I look so much smaller than I conceive myself to be.
TT: I’m afraid I’m going to sound like we’re shamans around a fire, which is not what I want the podcast to sound like—but I do think that’s where the poems come from. We don’t erase that vulnerability from our lives. We know we have to pay bills and stop at a red light, but we have to wear our nerves on the outside sometimes.
CMB: That wire is something that returns to me countless numbers of times. Even in the classroom. Last semester, one of my students said, “What do you mean when you say, ‘There has to be something at stake?'”
TT: [laughs] Yes, that phrase.
CMB: Immediately this trembling wire touched into my mind, and I explained that first, but then I also said “There’s something in the poem that has the ability to be lost, and there’s a fighting for that thing, whatever that might be.”
TT: I’m thinking of all the times in class when I’m asked that same question: “Tony, why do you always say ‘What’s at stake in the poem?'” And then I laugh and say, “God, I know, we always say that, don’t we? But there is something at stake here. I want to think that when I read this poem, I’m going to be a little different when I’m done reading it. And that means there was something at stake, and it was communicated to me.”
CMB: I think it’s something that’s said, but it’s so important and so real.
TT: Yeah, something that’s said that’s so real that the reader can’t avoid it or the reader has to absorb it, or something like that?
CMB: The thing is, when that question was asked, I was so surprised! I just had to pause for a second, because I was never asked that question before, and I think I took it for granted and thought, “Well of course, everyone knows what this means—’There’s something at stake.'” But perhaps not, right?
TT: I love those moments in the classroom. The first time it was said to me, I just found my way for that to make sense to me. But then there were like ten other things that made sense to my fellow classmates that I had to ask about. So as an instructor, I’m like, “OK, I’ve got to really answer this. This is really good. I’m glad I’m being put on the spot.”
CMB: That’s the thing though. We might have had a very innate understanding of what it means to have something at stake, but that’s not always going to come internally for everyone. So not only was I surprised at it being asked of me, I was surprised at having to come up with a reasonable, clear answer for it.
TT: Yeah, it’s that other part. Now I have to answer it reasonably clearly. [laughs] I said earlier how I feel about teaching and poetry—it’s not that different from what a lot of other people feel: Teaching and poetry go together well, and it’s a really great job for poets to have. I think it makes the poetry better, and being a poet makes the teaching better. But at the same time, it’s not always what we do as poets, and I’m always interested in the other ways we’ve supported ourselves outside the regular route of teaching. I’m wondering, what’s the strangest or weirdest job you’ve ever had?
CMB: I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with my masters in 2007. I had no money, really, and I needed a job to sort of subsist until I started teaching, which happened the next fall. So I sold eyeglasses. I was a salesperson in an eyeglass boutique, in the mall, no less. Every morning I would drive like 45 minutes outside of Pittsburgh-proper to go sell eyeglasses. And I had nightmares about this gig, because it was known that I was there short term—it was known that I was a poet and a teacher, and I used that to sort of forge connections with some of the clientele when I talked to them about glasses. Reading and things. And so it was as if I was trying to reinforce, through the drudgery of being on my feet all day and trying to bear the techno music, that this (poetry) is what I do; let me not forget; don’t you forget. Buy these glasses.
TT: [laughs] Don’t you forget, you need these glasses to read the poems I’m reading. I drove 45 minutes out of Pittsburgh to sell eyeglasses, and I was still an ambassador for poetry. It’s great.
CMB: I say this because I’m wearing a brand new pair of glasses. I love them. I can see very sharply now.
TT: It’s funny, as you were saying that I was thinking: “In about three weeks I’ve got new glasses coming, and I can’t wait to see them. When I’m taking them out of the store, they better look as good as I thought they did when I purchased them.” We spend so much money on these important things. Well, let’s hear another poem.
CMB: I’ll read the last one in the book. This poem references what “Dear Incubator,” does briefly in saying, “I have a dead sister,” after “so much has happened.” This poem took years to arrive, or I took years to arrive to this poem—in that my sister died in 1998, and in the years following I attempted to write several poems about my sister’s dying. It was always from the perspective of grieving, of course. That’s what I go through to get to the expression of it. But I was free-writing one day and somehow I thought, “Well, let me write a poem from the perspective of looking at my dead sister, of her speaking, of her having to make a choice.” And so this poem came from that.
A Young Girl and a Hooded Attendant
You must have in your muscles your threshold of pain.
Said, when the light, hole or gracious hand appeared, Yes.
First looked behind you to the macramé of tubers, rigs
and your body’s openings, that were made openings,
through which slender metal mouths sucked or spewed,
all the black-black, the sterilized tears, the life and life-
lessness of that place.
Must have looked on all it amounted, surveyed the
wilt, rot, measurable ravage, and looked away. What
Rather—what is in front of you answers how the water
and the wood bridge leading to the water signify a freedom
only felt when going under: Count backward from 100.
100,99,98…It doesn’t take what you think it takes
to leave the body. What it requires is that you admit
yourself, the bleak shelter of your body against
the calm…92,91, of what impresses your optic nerve:
Yourself, woundless. And saturating that desire
further corrected colors.
CM Burroughs serves as Assistant Professor of Poetry at Columbia College Chicago. Burroughs has been awarded fellowships and grants from Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Cave Canem Foundation. Burroughs is a graduate of Sweet Briar College and the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh. Her debut collection of poetry is The Vital System. She is Co-Editor for Court Green and a Senior Editor for Tupelo Quarterly.