Small-press publishers have the lucky opportunity to talk candidly with authors about the downturns and updrafts of the creative process which brought them to the moment of completion that we call a book. As Omnidawn’s co-publisher and senior poetry editor, I’ve had that great good fortune. It finally occurred to me that the readers and reviewers of these books might enjoy hearing some of this talk, too. Of course, a book of poetry needs no introduction or liner notes. But I’m always interested in any stories about how and where authors’ intentions and the actual creative work tangle together. So I started asking each of our authors a few questions in writing, and then enclosing these “interviews” with our advance/review copies. When the book is published, I post the interview on the book’s web page. The Conversant’s editors have asked if they might select some of those interviews to publish. It is my pleasure to say yes! –Rusty Morrison
This interview focuses on Bogue Hartigan’s forthcoming Omnidawn book Pool [5 choruses].
Rusty Morrison: Can you speak to the title and how it resonates through the poems in this collection?
Endi Bogue Hartigan: “Pool” in the title acts as a verb, and I’m drawn to that sense of suspended liquid action. I think of these poems in movement. And I think of the collection as a whole as seeking, not to answer but, to enact certain movements: movements between the collective intimacies which form an individual and a choral collective; reflection and the unstill leaf-catching surface by which it’s perceived; the reports of our nation’s wars and actions and our implicit (and explicit) participation in those actions. There are five sections to the book, and while I refer to them in the title as “5 choruses,” the number 5 is kind of the tip of the iceberg in numeration, and the act of identifying or acting out where voices begin and end was part of the allure in writing these poems. If I count them, the counting changes: Sometimes I see the chorus as one chorus interwoven or spectrally diffused; sometimes innumerable; in some poems can’t be counted because they are fragmented and bent; sometimes absent. The word “pool” also picks up from one of the epigraphs, which is an excerpt from the poem “Balcón” by Federico García Lorca, and there are several poems in the book which take off from this image of a girl, Lola, looking at her reflection in a pool. It’s a very simple image, but the fact that she returns over and over, her singing of saetas and a sense of this local ritualistic action, the orientation or disorientation suggested in her returning to the pool, resonated for me.
RM: I was delighted when Cole Swensen chose your book to win our open-book contest. Your use of language is so exhilarating. There’s humor here, but never cynicism. Some of your reversals and repetitions are especially delighting and demanding. Can you speak to the formal variety in this book and how you envision the whole?
EBH: I was incredibly honored that Cole Swensen, whose work I very much admire, chose the manuscript. From the start, I felt that this was an explorative project, but not like formal research—it was more like the fascination of a blackout, exploring a dark room with your hands to find your way, except you suddenly don’t know what the room is, or what your hands are made of. I had never played with multiple voices, for one, but found myself in a place in which I felt that I needed to. Years ago I was enchanted with the chorus of classical literature (the scolding or commenting choruses of Sophocles, Euripides), but in this project the chorus came into my work through a slanted surprising challenge to myself. I felt that the sometimes official public sounds around me (the reported “voices” of wars and elections and terrorism and counterterrorism and economic woes) and the everyday more intimate touch-points were mixing, willfully or not. I started writing within that sense of public noise by listening for differentiations in sound and noise, and the listening was from both within and without. Things changed almost immediately. The choruses became multiple; the singularities became choruses; there were interstices and privacies and missiles and birds. When I entered this writing, I had to enter from a different stage every time in order to enter it, and this is where the formal variety came from.
I think I enjoy writing most when I am writing at the edge of my own knowing; where the explorations occur simultaneously and unexpectedly across liminal and linguistic and intuitive and emotional planes. I have been working with repetition for a while now as a way of moving. I don’t actually think of repetition as a thing in itself in the course of the poems. It’s like one organ among all the other interconnected organs of sounds and sense—which move together as one animal, as if it is living. I like how repetition can move me through a series of orientations; it can calibrate and recalibrate a meaning or phrase subtly in different contexts. If it’s a human animal, maybe repetition is its gait.
RM: In thinking about this text as a chorus, can you speak about which voices were the most difficult to hear and translate upon the page? Were there any voices that would not allow you to bring them to fruition? Which poems/pages do you recall as being the most vexing to complete? Were there any poems that surprised you, as you found your way through the formal process? Were some truly experiments? In what ways?
EBH: I like that you ask what I “hear and translate” on the page, because my process in writing this book was definitely a process of listening. One poem that surprised me in this regard was “chorus inventing lilies” in that the italicized choral voices emerged from listening. I started out writing lines surrounding what I sensed as an overlapping starkness of lilies and poverty and determination and devotion. I have never written fiction because, in part, I am terrible at writing dialogue, but this dialogue came in by surprise. With each of my entries in this poem, I found myself adding these short, parceled-out elucidations and commands, and I realized it was a different voice. The chorus kind of talked back. Overall, I think one of the most challenging and surprising aspects of writing this book was that it was a kind of tug of conscience for me to enter from a new place formally with each poem, in order to necessarily do justice to my hearing, as well as to what I didn’t hear. The choruses gave me new ways in which voices emerge and differentiate and interstice and expand, but I didn’t want its force to be the force of a crowd. I had to find a way for language to be able to reference actual lives in the context of what is not referenced, too—to mention things unspeakably embedded and complex in actual lives, with actual camellia bushes and layoffs and children and hopes and the 9/11 “anniversary,” for which I didn’t want to merely report in stillness or claim an unfounded authority of report. I felt the danger of both over-speaking and under-speaking, and as a result the particular entrance point for lyric felt like a very tenuous, easily slipping place. There is a series of poems necklaced throughout the book that explore this idea of “slippage,” which were especially challenging to write because I was writing towards and from that point at the same time.
I think one reason the chorus allowed me to navigate here is that, although the chorus is active, it is distinct from the actors. The chorus is there beside the actors while in the same viewer space. It is more like the consciousness of a river flowing through a town and catching its garbage and its paper boats and sun. It lives in both a liminal spirit space and an actual stage space, and fluctuates. It absorbs and acts out of absorbance, and speaks in a sort of molecular way to what we have absorbed. The poems that truly direct the reader in scores with two or more voices, such as “Running sentences,” were definitely experiments for me. I had to rely on my own sense of hearing the voices and their sometimes very slight differentiations or locations on layered planes. One thing that helped me tremendously was reading these poems in public, and having friends help me read them at various performances, including a 2010 Portland Polyvocal Poetry Festival, organized by Spare Room.
Probably the most vexing element for me (which took hard listening) was the sequencing of the poems in the book, the overall architecture. I had to listen to them inter-web and talk amongst each other over time, and keep working with the book carefully, before seeing it ultimately crystallize in this sequence and these five sections. It took me a long time to figure out that the poems in “yellow yellow yellow,” which I had written concurrently and had held separately on my desk, were actually in conversation here. Adding that allowed me to think in terms of sections, which then fell into place.
RM: Would you tell me a bit about yourself? Anything about you that is not in the bio printed in the book, and that might give insight into your more personal relationship to this text?
EBH: For my work, for the last 10 years, I have worked in a public policy environment in communications and project support for the state university system in Oregon. So I have been exposed to, and in fact have written and edited, much report language—thick with data, category, numeration. As part of my work I also have looked up news clips on the universities, by searching the daily news of many papers every day, and in the process have been exposed to a voluminous flow of media headlines and the kinds of news that makes headlines, often violent. I think that the sense of public noise and the questions of identification in this book were probably influenced by that exposure. I am interested in how the reports that we hear (and even those we tell of ourselves) play on or into our kind of liquid beings. At the same time, for several years I have been exploring Quakerism and its silent form of prayer. I don’t want to over-interpret this connection. It’s probably best left loosely near, but the possibilities of silence certainly interest me on numerous levels. I entered this manuscript with a sense of wanting to write with a consciousness of both noise and silence, a fairytale of reconstituting sound space around me.
I have lived all but two years of my adult life on the West Coast, and my childhood primarily on the Big Island of Hawai’i. I think about how these landscapes play out in my obsessions. There are images of course: ginger blossoms and surfboards and sand. But beyond that, I look at these sometimes half-formed, emerging, shifting choruses—at my drive to somehow expand their contextual stage—and I think of those landscapes that have informed me as places where expanse dominates, and where (for better or worse) the strings of history and information are obvious in their incompletion and their frays. My landscape is also one of family—my husband Patrick and our son Jackson—and my life as a family disallows me from negating the immediate, the daily, touchable and untouched world.
RM: Who are the authors with whom you feel a kinship? Who are you reading currently?
EBH: I am currently reading Vanishing Point, the selected poems of Valerio Magrelli (translated from Italian by Jamie McCendrick), whose strange metaphysical observances are really exciting. I’m also reading the almost chemically dense When I Was a Child I Read Books, essays on faith and science and writing and culture by Marilyn Robinson, as well as Hello, the Roses by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, incredibly intricate and linguistically sensuous meditations. And before I go to bed, lately, I’ve been reading Willa Cather’s Oh Pioneers, and melting into those fields. I have felt so many kinships over the years, many with authors who are strangers or dead, but I tend to see authors as so specific in their poetics that it feels intrusive in some ways to claim a kinship. In the last couple years, some whose work has been particularly exciting to me or has prompted my own conversations include: Inger Christenson (translated by Susanna Nied), Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Dan Beachy-Quick, Anne Carson, Eleni Sikelianos, G.C. Waldrep, Amy Catanzano, John Taggart, Robert Fernandez and Mary Szybist—with whom I’ve exchanged work in development, including this manuscript. I have been married to poet Patrick Playter Hartigan for 16 years, and his formally innovative work and creative process speak continually to me. When I need to leave the contemporary, I have lately gone back to the Greek classics, as well as to Lorca and Dickinson. I’ll add that I have also been a member of a collective of poets who organize a reading series, and while I know your question is pointed more at the page, I certainly feel kinship with the community of poets here in Portland, with whom I collect every week or two to listen and learn.
RM: You chose the image that is used in the cover design for this book. Can you talk about your reasons for your choice?
EBH: I saw Betty Merken’s oil painting Ascent at Laura Russo Gallery here in Portland, and was immediately taken with it. It’s a captivating painting, with these nuanced and bottomless layers of color that are, of course, only entirely visible “in person,” on its 60-by-68 inch canvas. But I’m happy that the cover image brought out much of that complexity. Merken is based in Seattle, and I didn’t know her personally, so I asked her out of the blue to consider a painting for my book, and she was so kind to allow us to use this image and to trust my sense of connection with it. I think what I was most drawn to was the sense of the individuation and emergence of these spectral orange blocks out of the larger liquid, a numerated multitude within a greater liquid multitude, which spoke to me in the context of the book’s exploration of the individual within the collective chorus. Also, the suggestion of repetition of these orange shapes with their shimmering reflections brought up interesting echoes of the poems’ uses of repetition and Lola’s reflections in the pool. It’s a lush and uncanny image.
Endi Bogue Hartigan‘s book Pool [5 choruses] was selected by Cole Swensen for the 2012 Omnidawn Open Poetry Prize, and will be released in April, 2014. Her first book, One Sun Storm, was selected for the Colorado Prize for Poetry. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and son.