Catherine Imbriglio’s book Intimacy won the 2013 Colorado Prize in Poetry. Here Stephen Burt, that year’s contest judge, discusses the book with her.
Stephen Burt: “Birds of a feather not always good at social-mirroring, turn taking” (“Blue in Green Intimacy”). Is there a story about the genesis of this book, or a story about its unity, or a story about where you found its models, that you want readers to know going in?
Catherine Imbriglio: Yes, there are stories for all these things. I knew I wanted to attempt a unified book, but one that had a different kind of “glue” than my first. The earlier one used the Roman Catholic Mass as a unifying structural device; in the new book the titles of the poems all contain the word “intimacy” with different modifiers. “Intimacy” as a recurring word does some of the work of connecting the poems to one another. There are internal connections too: one of the main ones is the frequent appearance of an iconoclastic clown figure (though not necessarily the same figure) in many of the poems.
Another backstory is that I chose “intimacy” as a subject partially in response to an essay I was reading with my incoming freshmen, in an “introduction to academic writing” class. The essay, excerpted from a book written by Jeffrey Rosen in 2004, is critical of the way digital media entices us to give up private information in order to gain social acceptance. The essay is a bit outdated, but many of Rosen’s pragmatic concerns remain legitimate. We do need to learn how to be internet savvy, especially since the digital game keeps changing rapidly on so many levels. However, one of the claims Rosen makes is that “there is no such thing as public intimacy.” I don’t agree with the rationale for his argument, which is partly that “intimacy can be achieved only with those who know us, and strangers cannot know us; they can only have information about us or impressions of us. To offer up personal information that has been taken out of context, in an effort to create the illusion of emotional connection with strangers, requires us to homogenize and standardize the very qualities that made the information personal in the first place.”
Leaving aside the question of who can know us, never mind the implicit assumption that there is a stable identity to “know” or the assumption that performing a self requires homogenization, Rosen’s claim “there is no such thing as public intimacy” generated a chain reaction for me. Contrarian that I am, I started seeking examples of intimate moments in public that do not have to do with sharing personal information—in fact, that do not have to do with any kind of overt communication at all. For me, moments of silence, at a Red Sox ball game for example, resonate with intimacy. Silent communal prayer is intimate. Witnessing the last seconds of life for the men and women who jumped from the 9/11 burning towers is an excruciating intimacy, as one of my students, Alex Ronan, a New Yorker who was 10 years old at the time of the attacks, demonstrated in an essay she wrote last year. First-person accounts from soldiers demonstrate that war imposes unsought intimacies in battle and in preparation for battle.
On a more mundane level, we do give up private information to perfect strangers, on planes or trains for example—often telling these people something about ourselves that we don’t tell the folks we call intimates. In relation to the grand cosmic scale, everything we do with or to one another could be considered intimate, and my book attempts to respect that perspective a little, even as it acknowledges that on the day-to-day level we need to figure out how to negotiate our ever changing relational boundaries. Rosen is right that digital media exacerbates the problem of boundaries. Another of my students, Ellora Vilkin, is investigating this issue in her senior thesis. She is writing on the question of what intimacy might mean in an age where social media encourages us to “perform” intimacy publically, the way an actor might do on the stage. As her thesis notes, the movie Her is part of our zeitgeist. What are the implications for intimacy, given that movie’s premise? My book didn’t/couldn’t even begin to go there.
In terms of poetic models, one of my favorite “go-to” writers is Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. I obsessively read and re-read almost everything she’s written. In her later work, the sentence functions as a stanza, and I am always startled by how beautifully crafted those sentences are—how deftly she is able to juxtapose abstraction and concrete imagery, especially visual and tactile imagery, often in long, cumulative sentences whose phrasal or clausal subjects are not obviously related but become so, compositionally. She is able to manage such juxtapositions effectively because she has a finely-tuned aesthetic sense for employing disjunction within and between sentences, freeing herself from limitations of the conventional line break. As a result, her work pushes at perceptual boundaries on a larger scale than most poets are able to develop, in effect stretching our relational imaginations into new fields of comprehension, almost as if we have momentarily gotten past the biological linguistic barriers so many poets long to cross. The effect is philosophical, but with an associative logic that philosophy would never approve of. It is exquisite, compelling writing. I should also mention that Wayne Koestenbaum’s and Anne Carson’s lyric essays are sources of inspiration for me as well.
SB: Tell us about the role of The Purchase of Intimacy, by the sociologist V. A. Zelizer, or about the role of the social sciences, and the language of social science, in your work more generally.
CI: Once I settled on intimacy as a question I wanted to pursue, I began reading Zelizer’s book. I did this partly because I wanted to use language outside my head and outside perspectives familiar to me. (Normally, in preparation for writing, I read general-audience texts about physics, mathematics or neuroscience, not the social sciences.) Zelizer’s argument is that much of what we term intimacy is inextricably connected to economic exchange (medical care, child care, elder care, sex work, house work, marriage, courtship, etc., all with legal ramifications), despite the pervasive belief that an economic connection diminishes or taints our idealized notions of what intimacy is or should be. I liked using pieces of sociological discourse as a way to expand the ways I could think about intimacy inside poetry, but I didn’t engage with her argument. Instead, I played with her terms, using some of her language verbatim and mixing it with some of my own. I did this primarily in “Resumption Intimacy,” one of the earliest poems of the book, though her words appear in other poems as well.
SB: To what extent are you using that language to undermine or question assumptions associated with the literary (e.g., that the most concrete language is the most evocative, that all experiences should be one of a kind, that loved ones are categorically different from strangers)?
CI: To the greatest possible extent. Categories of all sorts are useful and perhaps necessary, but should be interrogated whenever they start to take too much charge, do too much narrowing. I should be upfront though and admit that it took me longer than it should have to learn this. So yes, in my work I am trying to use language to upend conventional notions of what can be included in texts aspiring to be literary, especially notions informing the poems I grew up with and loved. And still love. And weirdly, despite my “experimental” poetic allegiances, I still read and appreciate poems that do work within conventional frameworks (whatever that means, since “conventions” change).
Even more weirdly, perhaps, I find that I don’t have to deliberately push alien words or phrases into a poem just to make a point about inclusion. I happen to experience many abstract words and phrases, scientific ones especially, as musical, once I slow down and start to listen to their meanings and sounds. There are so many wonderful, strange words in the dictionary that would normally be excluded by some folks because they are not concrete, sensory, or do not belong to the current “official” discourse of poetry. But put those words in a lyric context, outside their normal, discursive home, and they and the words around them come alive. Sitting with the dictionary, or as Harryette Mullen would have it, sleeping with it, can energize one’s poetry and one’s relationship to poetry.
SB: “I accept that as condition of the sentence inside words will be infiltrated by a surrounding blank” (“Inside Out Intimacy”). You write in long almost-prose monostich lines, in block paragraphs and in “traditional” (shorter than page width) stichic free verse. Do you feel a difference in purpose, or in affect, among these formats? Have you ever started a poem in one of them and transferred it, during revision, to one of the others?
CI: These formats do feel different, especially in terms of units of energy and poetic charge, and yes, I have started in one format and changed it, when the initial attempt(s) didn’t feel right. For the most part, the poems in monostich lines were written last, so I suppose you could say that the book grew into them. I like the way the single line stanzas feel riskier, more exposed than the lines in the other forms. The “surrounding blank” contributes to this sort of riskiness.
SB: “Only grief has the right to expect so much of you” (“Do No Harm Intimacy”). Reginald Shepherd is named in some poems and seems important to others. What do you want your readers to know about him, about his presence in the book? To what extent are his memory, or his ideas about poetry and poetics, a spirit hovering over the book as a whole?
CI: Both of my books wouldn’t exist without Reginald. He was the person who relentlessly kept after me to write, kept sending me names of places to submit poems. He included some of my work in his first anthology, did some crucial behind-the-scenes poetic networking for me, etc. His generosity was exemplary; his friendship was sustaining—complex and thoroughly life-changing. I used to tease him that he was managing two poetic careers, although in truth, he did a great deal to support the careers of many emerging writers. He, in turn, teased me mercilessly about being “avant.” While our projects are entirely different—so different we couldn’t give much useful feedback on individual poems—we were appreciative readers of one another’s work.
Neither of us trafficked much in irony. We both loved Wallace Stevens, though we disagreed on Ashbery. We disagreed about a lot of things, come to think of it, poetic and nonpoetic. His work is brilliant and beautiful and one could learn a great deal about poetics from closely reading both his poetry and his prose collections. He has some smart things to say about the internecine debates constantly muddying up the poetry landscape.
While I admired Reginald’s technical acumen, I didn’t want to produce it, though I particularly love the way he introduces pieces of language and then turns them back on themselves later on in a poem. He has amazing voltas, in other words. His poems are deceptive. To many folks they look more conservative than they actually are. He was a voracious reader, and he pulled material from everywhere into his poems—linguistics, music, pop culture, Adorno, mythology, geology, you name it. “What I value most in poetry,” he wrote, “is passion, a passion that manifests itself most immediately in the words which are the poem’s body and its soul” (his italics). I think his poetry lives up to that standard and even raises the bar: beginning at the level of the word, his poems are emotionally and intellectually charged. The source for the sentence you quoted, by the way, is an essay by Mark Greif on Stanley Cavell. I am grateful to you for associating it with Reginald. My grief for him has the right to expect much from me.
SB: Several poems (starting with “Larghetto Intimacy”) consider the experience (or, at least, take up language that considers the experience) of people with social-interaction or autism-spectrum disorders. Do you have precedents for that sort of poetic goal? (I am thinking in particular about the poetry of Aaron Kunin.)
CI: No literary precedents, but thank you for guiding me to Aaron Kunin, someone I am not familiar with. Ben Lerner, a gifted young writer I admire very much, has talked about some of his linework in terms of stutters, a kind of fracturing of language in response to our cultural overload. How does one speak authentically if we seem to be always already preempted by packaged discourse? I find myself drawn to reading about autism and social and communicative disorders, for the ways they shed light on language operations as well as on my own private problems with language and social interaction. Right now I’m reading the book Quiet by Susan Cain, in conjunction with The Information, by James Gleick—the latter because I’m interested in the science and math underlying mass communication, what got us to where we are now. There was a wonderful article recently in The New York Times by Ron Suskind, “Reaching my Autistic Son Through Disney.”
I should also mention that when my mother had a stroke, she was afflicted with aphasia and lost many of her language skills. When I told this to my mentor the poet Michael Harper, he said that you’ll find your own ways to communicate with one another. He was right. We watched Disney animations. We played rhyming games. We made up our own nonsensical, ritualized scripts. We sang a lot. For me, learning about the biological, chemical and physical properties that structurally underlie our linguistic and social abilities deepens my understanding of poetic and nonpoetic (real-world) limitations for myself and others.
Your question also makes me think of hearing Susan Howe’s stunning reading of “Frolic Architecture,” a section from her book That This. Visually her method of cutting and pasting archival material gives us linguistic over¬lays fascinating in their own right, but when Howe reads “Frolic” aloud, we hear (heart)broken language, sometimes recognizable as phrases, sometimes recognizable only as consonant or vowel sounds. The effect is haunting, an indirect means for Howe to express profound grief at the loss of her husband. There are recordings available on the web for those who would like to hear Howe read “Frolic Architecture.”
SB: “Lately I’ve been ‘caught up in things'” (“Thing Intimacy”). Sometimes I think of poems primarily as made things, like needles or statues; sometimes I think of them instead primarily as kinds of speech, as events in time. Does that binary make sense to you? Do you, too, flip back and forth, within a poem? Among poems? Are your poems single “things,” or are they more like speeches, or more like collections?
CI: That binary makes so much sense. It is a source (I hope) of productive tension for me. I do think of a poem as composition (in the Steinian sense) and as a made artifact. But then: something else is also at work, pressuring the artifact, infiltrating it or squeezing it—other voices, collaged from so many different places, so the thing won’t really sit still. It won’t be “well-made.” The semantic content is secondary to the semiotic. That is, I still think of the formal components of the poem first, but as a kind of music, so yes, it is also an event in time.
SB: “The expressive ice does not coincide with the remembering ice” (“On Your Side Intimacy”). What should we know about your life, or about the outline of your life, before you began writing this book, in order to get the most out of this book?
CI: I think people should know that I’m a late bloomer. Also that I crave solitude, probably way more than I should. Jenny Boully’s The Book of Beginnings and Endings is a book I wish that I had written. It is probably helpful to know that I work in the Nonfiction Writing Program at Brown, where I teach courses in the lyric and hybrid essay, cultural criticism for general audiences, as well as an introduction to the academic essay course for first-year students. Reading artful nonfiction (including comics, such as Alison Bechdel’s wonderful Fun Home) has completely changed the ways I think about poetry and genre expectations in general. Encountering John D’Agata’s reflections on the essay as art was a breakthrough for me. I think his ideas about genre are invigorating. He’s made me realize how poetry can also be up for renewal. Intimacy has quite a bit of poetic essaying going on, however one defines poetic essaying.
SB: “Is it transgressive to try on the trope of another life, viz. what is its size, how does it fit, when do I wear it, do I feel foolish. yes and then some” (“Chateau Noir Intimacy”). Is the poem a version of you, or an expression by you, or an alternative to being you, or all these things, or none of them?
CI: Part of this poem was inspired by G. C. Waldrep’s Archicembalo, another book I love. I was imitating some of his interrogatory moves and rhythms, which partly descend from Stein. So in terms of form, the poem is me and not me. The same is true for the expressive aspects of the poem. Some are me, some are not me, and which is which becomes harder to say, in retrospect. The main alternate persona that I am trying on in the poems comes in the figure of the clown or the fool, varying aspects of which run through much of the book. Sometimes the clown is me, but sometimes it is a force outside of me, though I’m not sure how separable these things are. Often the clown is a condition, as well as an identity, I’m trying to escape to, as well as escape from. Hence the question, “do I feel foolish.” The clown is also there to irritate the daylights out of me, to undercut my tendency to be overly serious, to underscore the nonsense value of the fool.
“Is it transgressive” is also partly an ethical question writers face about using other people’s lives as material. In this poem, I allude to a former colleague who was killed by his mentally ill son. The victim’s wife, also a colleague, was badly injured in the same attack. I am reminding myself how ruthless writers are. Which do you pick, in responding to someone else’s sorrow: “I can imagine how awful you must feel,” or “I can’t imagine how awful…”? The poem, whether it chooses to imagine or deny the possibility of imagining someone else’s heartache, is still using the allusion for its own benefit. Part of me is appalled that when I’m writing the composition comes first, ethical considerations second. Another part of me is appalled that I am appalled.
SB: Do you feel that all of your poems have been written by the same person, or do you feel as if different people had written them, from one poem to another, or (even) within the same poem?
CI: I’m a Gemini. I have multiple persons inside me. Some of these persons I’m quite afraid of, some of them I’m embarrassed about, some of them I should cherish more, some of them I try to repress, etc. I think Pessoa had the right idea about trying on different people, but I’m afraid I would get lost in there. One has real-world obligations. I’m also trying to pull in other voices, very different from mine, ones I’m incapable of imagining or knowing on my own. Sometimes I try to mimic those voices, poetic or otherwise. I like your suggestion that different persons have written what appears to be a single composition. I think I need to be braver about this.
SB: “The Puritans were champions at text messaging” (“On Your Mark Intimacy”). Do you have any pre-modernist (pre-1910) precursors or models? Any that you want your readers to read?
CI: Gerard Manley Hopkins. John Donne. Edward Taylor. Sidney. Spenser. Dickinson, of course. Coleridge. And Pope. I need to go back and read more of them myself! But it is sustaining to know that they are there. Wayne Koestenbaum said in a lecture/reading that he liked to think of critical positions he takes in his work as more of a wish than an argument, but I like these folks because they were taking positions—they were arguing (“quarreling”), and not just with themselves, pace Yeats, but with others. I never, ever thought that I would want to return to Pope, by the way. But now that I am thinking along the lines of how one might “essay” in poetry, inspired by John D’Agata’s championing of the essay as art, I’m finding Pope intriguing. For his wit as well as for his criticism.
SB: Going back to question 2, and what seems to me the stylistic heart of the book: “Tacit street codes requiring vigilance for controlling emotional / display frequencies limit what she can see through to, white on green fleur-de-lis / patterns in the terra-cotta” (“Street Intimacy”). You pivot sharply between very abstract language (often the language of psychology, cognitive science and sociology) and very specific description. Can you talk about those effects? Are you consciously seeking them?
CI: Yes, I’m trying to pull in material from other sources as matter of inquiry into things I don’t know—to get beyond the limitations of not knowing. So while my poems are explorations of poetic form, they are also an investigation into other discourses and fields with which I am not familiar. But usually the specific descriptions go in a different direction than the original text. One has to ground the abstractions, but you don’t have to ground them with examples common to that discourse. The line you quoted, for example, gloms two unrelated ideas together, upending semantic logic, partly to create an associative logic. This poem, by the way, gave me fits. It has material from multiple sources and I revised it many times. The poem started partly as an investigation into public intimacy, which Jeffrey Rosen says can’t happen. The “street” is outside my comfort zone, but it is a source of vitality and energy and one can learn much from those who know how to negotiate it. Which forces me to acknowledge that this poem is too intellectual and serious for its own good.
SB: “Departing beachgoers pull on their clothes… Before winter, take time to walk the sea” (“Inside Out Intimacy”). Much of the book (it seems to me) reflects the intellectual ambience (and the named dedicatees) of Brown University, but at least as much of it reflects a location in Providence, Rhode Island, almost surrounded by beaches, the tides and the sea. Is the whole book a seaside book, a tidal book, a liminal beach-scape book? Can you talk about the role of the coast in your work?
CI: I hope it’s not a beach escape book! But it is true, the coast has been an integral part of my being. For most of my life, I’ve lived on the “East Bay” side of Rhode Island. (It’s that little leg of land attached to Massachusetts.) I lived in Providence for about 12 years, and recently moved to a tiny cottage on Bullock’s Cove in East Providence. The cove leads out to the Providence River, which merges into Narragansett Bay, and then the ocean. One of my worst fears is that some morning I’ll wake up and find that I’ve landed in Kansas.
SB: Can you name one novel or work of prose fiction, one song or musical composition, and one work of visual art that you especially want your readers to see, hear or read?
CI: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers; “Blue in Green” from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue; Sabin Point, Narragansett Bay, by Edward Bannister. Mostly though, I’m more concerned with getting people to re-see, re-hear or re-read, something which you also seem concerned with in the introduction to your book Close Calls with Nonsense. I’m fascinated with the problem of what makes things worth going back to. What is it about Stevens or Gerard Manley Hopkins that rewards you when you do return, that keeps yielding up more than when you first started? What kinds of challenges does that present to a writer facing the blank page? Yikes.
Catherine Imbriglio is the author of two books of poetry, Parts of the Mass, which received the 2008 Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America, and Intimacy, which received the 2013 Colorado Prize in Poetry.