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
Rusty Morrison: It is such a pleasure to see this book at this stage in the publication process! I remember meeting you at an Omnidawn reading in NY, and talking, and have the presentiment that the work you were sending us would thrill me. And it did!
I remember reading the first poem’s lines and feeling as though that “black finch” was irrevocably altering my relationship to “the brutalities of speculation,” to any easy understandings of the positioning of observer and observed.
I find these lines particularly alive to the paradox of presence:
He proposes himself as the first form
dressed in weight, sunken into the seen
while beyond his edge the subtle goes on unclaimed.
“[A] black finch” is, in some sense, an icon for the elements of craft that govern this book’s trajectories. Can you talk about this first poem and its relationship to the work as a whole?
You are so aware of the ‘blur’ and its necessity. We do, humanly, err and think in terms of categories and likenesses, and these poems are alive to that err and its aftermath; you do not try to make simple clarities of this complexity. I’d love to hear you talk about the crafting and the challenges of a book that begins with such a powerful figure.
Andrea Baker: Each Thing Unblurred is Broken was written from the time I was trying to perfect my being through submission through the time I recognized that as a bum strategy and turned instead to self-care and Theravada Buddhist teachings and meditation.
My initial idea was that my submission equaled some spiritual release, only I wasn’t good enough. I was being outmatched, and I needed to try harder. Let go more.
But ideas tend to come from somewhere, and my ideas about submission were coming from my, by the end of the book ex, husband who was uncomfortable with me having relationships to people other than him, having my own wallet, having my own keys to the house, etc.
“[T]he brutalities of speculation,” is about the brutality of abstract thought—about being in thought instead of reality. It’s failure to grasp the tangible.
The poem was written a couple years in advance of the crisis that precipitated my getting a grasp on the facts of my own life (and a divorce), but I was already learning about the three personality types emphasized by Western Theravada teachings: greedy, aversive, and speculative.
Basically, the theory is that we are all busy avoiding reality and there are three main strategies by which we do so. The greedy lose presence to their wants; the aversive lose presence to their dissatisfactions; the speculative lose presence to their own thoughts. While I didn’t grasp how problematic my reality was, I did grasp that speculation was my primary avoidance strategy. Writing and crafting are, to me, tools. They are tools for navigating, for uncovering, and for a sort of visceral play with and within my own being.
This is how I see that poor finch: All he cares about is finding soothing, which he is unable to provide for himself. He wants to escape, he fantasizes about being the Platonic form of something, an abstraction dropped into reality rather than a reality. But here he is, perched, and contemplating. Until he so limits himself that he decides he doesn’t even exist, he’s just a shape that joins another shape—a black finch blurred into a black branch— his presence disappears into camouflage. He ceases to exist. And he ceases to exist because he decided, through speculative thought, that he doesn’t exist. But there is some sort of bright rage on the horizon, which will either kill him or bring him to light.
I can’t say that I understood my connection to the finch consciously, but the poem’s urgency and issues were something I felt. The book is ordered with the finch upfront because his predicament, being lost—to thought and to environment—is the predicament the book speaks to (while also coming into a disclosing of the present). The book is about learning to come into contact with reality.
RM: Your title, Each Thing Unblurred Is Broken, asks a reader to pause, to come into a more clairvoyant kind of listening than is usually called for in our lives. I wonder how a powerful, multifaceted meditation as title comes to a writer. Were there other titles you’d had in mind before you came to this one? Did you need to effect/experience the process that the title describes, in your coming to it?
AB: I think my favorite writers write their own psychic process. My writing practice consists of crafting something out of resonate bits of image and thought. It isn’t linear. I have globs, and the reason to bring them together is to sculpt a frame to hold the globs. And once it’s held, I get to see what shape was made. I can only know the shape by making the shape. And I need to know the shape, so I write.
So, yes, I needed the process.
The line came up years ago. I was doing a small writing workshop with Matthew Henriksen, Julia Cohen, Keith Newton, Phil Cordelli, and with guest appearance by Jennifer Bartlett and Mathias Svalina. This would have been shortly before I wrote the first poem about the black finch. The line had been in a poem about leaves rotting in a lake and as the group talked about it I figured out how much it meant to me–it felt just at the cusp of my understanding. As I thought about it I knew it would be the title of my next book, well before the book existed.
I can’t even imagine the book without the title. It’s the book’s process, while also being its realization.
RM: One of the most engaging, evocative, provocative characters in the book is Gilda. Will you talk about her presence in this text? Her emergence? Her evolution? What challenges did you face in your relationship with her figure? Were there some especially challenging and/or rewarding poems that she inhabits?
In the beginning I would have said that my challenge was letting her go. She’s a hold over from my first book, like wind loves a window, but I’m now very grateful for her presence here.
She’s histrionic, communicating via performance. She also isn’t a steady entity, she stands for something that gets swept around. I can do anything with her. It’s like playing with a doll.
My work on her is obsessive—I’ve entertained myself many-a-day by inserting and removing an article, or changing a tense back and forth. But that’s a by-product of my easy absorption in her sections.
I will say, though, that her real defining moment is when she wonders out of her sections and comes into contact with the color of grass. She doesn’t last long before flitting away, but she did step outside.
RM: Could you talk about any writers &/or artists &/or thinkers who have influenced you in this work? (in what direct or indirect ways have you felt this occur?) And/or could you talk about who are you reading currently? With whom do you feel a kinship or a provocation or…?
AB: During the writing of this book, I was reading, as mainstays, Rainer Maria Rilke, Wallace Stevens, and Theodore Roethke. All serious and penetrating writers. When I read them it feels like they are exhausting themselves by writing.
I was also very influenced by Theravada Buddhist teachings, particularly as they overlap with western psychology. Talks by meditation teachers Tara Brach and Josh Korda were often on my ipod. Both are practitioners with strong ties to western therapeutic practice.
Intensity, an intellectual knowledge of the foibles of intensity, and an understanding that the path is to come further into contact with the present are the emotional and philosophical underpinnings of the book.
RM: Would you tell me a bit about yourself? Anything you are willing to share that might not be in your short bio that is published in the book?
AB: I text myself. I love restoring art. Gratitude is important to me. There’s no place like bed. Coffee is good. Shoes are uncomfortable. Wool socks and umbrellas are both deep comforts. I like my life. I’m an auctioneer in training—I take the podium 15 minutes a month. I like my cities gritty. I’m fascinated by memoir. Everything I learn about, I fall in love with. I once had only clothes I’d found in the trash. Once I decided I could only bear to wear white. Lately, I prefer to dress like a member of the band or a princess—especially an ice princess, with a snowball white fur hat, even though I am a long time vegan. And I’m comfortable with the contradiction—it’s really warm. Better than wearing a wool sock on my head.
RM: You were instrumental in the selection of the image that is used in the cover design for this book. Would you describe your considerations in your arrival at the choice for this cover image? How does this cover align with your intentions for the book?
AB: This book is about attempts at realizing vague images from the periphery, which it also enacts. I had less conscious or, rather, linguistic, understanding of what the book was about before selecting a cover. The process included communicating with the Omnidawn team about what I thought might be appropriate.
I didn’t have an intention before I looked for a physical match. It was more a matter of feeling around in the dark among the candidates. I found the process difficult.
Then it dawned on me that I am friendly with a number of art advisors. I sent out a description of the book and asked if any contemporary artists came to mind. In short, I got frustrated so I drew on resources.
One advisor, Diana Ewer, came back with an image by printmaker, Katsutoshi Yuasa, the artist whose work I chose. I was drawn to the sense of shimmering understanding in Yuasa’s work. I’ve been looking at his prints, of course, but only now googled him. I just watched a video of him talking about his process and technique. I kept pausing it and wrinkling my brow. For one thing, he makes woodcuts from photographs and found images. A big part of my creative practice over the last handful of years has been making cut-outs out of photographs and found images. I had no idea we had this in common until I looked him up to answer this question. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence. He talks about his woodcuts as how he tries to understand the world. He talks about how trying to understand has more meaning than the elusive object. And about how the difference between the two is the object of his mediation, the process of which is making his woodcuts. He talks about meticulous technique and ritualistic refinement, about expression, and about the introspection of image and image recreation—about the flux at the edge of the visible . . . turns out he and I are thinking about a lot of the same things.
I’m very happy with how the cover turned out.
Andrea Baker is the author of Famous Rapes (Water Street Press, 2015), a paper and packing tape constructed not-quite-graphic-novel about the depiction of sexual assault from Mesopotamia to the present day. She has been a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellow, and in 2005 she was awarded the Slope Editions Book Prize for Like Wind Loves a Window. Her recent work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Fence, Pleiades, The Rumpus, Tin House, and Typo. It has also been anthologized in Family Resemblance: An Anthology of Eight Hybrid Literary Genres (Rose Metal Press, 2015), Verse Daily, and Broken Land: Poems of Brooklyn (New York University Press, 2007). In addition to her work on the page, she is a subject in the documentary A Rubberband is an Unlikely Instrument. She works as an appraiser of arts and antiques in New York City.