by Heather Lang
While privy to discussions about STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) versus STEAM (all of the latter plus art), I’ve noticed an intriguing parallel. Alexander Pschera, author of the nonfiction book Animal Internet, criticizes postmodernist efforts to return to nature. Certainly, in a culture where hiking trails are riddled with signs stating, “Do Not Touch,” and on a planet suffering from climate change, urban sprawl, and pollution, Pschera makes an important point. “What may well be possible, however, is that emergence of a new image of nature—an image that is concrete and stimulates the senses, that breaks through the abstraction,” writes Pschera (as translated by Elisabeth Lauffer). Perhaps we can apply this logic not only to our view of nature but to the arts, as well. In Local Extinctions, Mary Quade demonstrates how poetry can and will continue to thrive.
Mary Quade’s second full-length poetry collection, Local Extinctions, exemplifies a contemporary intersection between the natural world and poetry. Her poem, “Stinging Things,” for example, is “after shootings in a Cleveland public high school.” The poem itself does not mention students, schools, or guns – at least it does not reference them literally. Rather, the lines explore a person who is pruning a tree being stung “on the ear, as if to say to its pliant softness, Now hear this.” In the second and final stanza of this poem, we discover that just above hangs a wasp or perhaps a hornet nest (these “Stinging Things” are never named). Quade describes the nest as “a child’s head, wrapped in bandages, / disembodied, and the warnings / brimming from the mouth.” She closes the poem with the following: “Inside, chambers and chambers of flightless / angers – substance but not yet shape.” Certainly, this piece is an exploration of the school shooting, not a traditional nature poem. Quade projects urgent and tangible contemporary problems onto this symbolic narrative. Nevertheless, the poem, like the collection, has some roots in the natural world.
Local Extinctions also acknowledges our disconnection from, our misunderstandings of, nature. In “Killing Songbirds the Compassionate Way,” we’re asked to witness a bird flying into a window. The effects, for the bird, are crippling: “broken wings,” “worm-filled wounds,” and “crumpled” bones. We bring them into the house and pretend “that the eye dropper / of sugared water / you slip inside their beaks / doesn’t drown them” even though the “bubbles / click on their tongues.” In the end, the poem closes by asking us to imagine that these songbirds saw us through the window, our “lids nictating,” our “plumage unpreened,” and they “tried, suicidal, / to revive you, / to keep you, / (suffering) alive.” This twist at the end of the poem not only prevents the piece from becoming didactic about our ignorance of the natural world, but it connects us to these birds in a more thought-provoking way, a way that – if I might be so bold – could only be both explored and, ultimately, articulated through poetry.
Instead of trying to turn back time, poets are embracing our contemporary world, and their work is increasingly relevant. H. L. Hix’s American Anger (Etruscan Press, 2016) fiercely explores politics and national identity. Liu Xia’s Empty Chairs (Greywolf Press, 2015), as translated by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern, passionately contemplates the poet’s experience as the wife of an imprisoned dissenter in contemporary China. Similarly, in the most lyrical, imagistic, and ultimately artful way, Mary Quade’s Local Extinctions demonstrates the imperative nature of the green humanities. Local Extinctions is a collection of poetry that should be read in Science, Civics, and Literature classes alike.
Heather Lang is a poet, literary critic, and adjunct professor. Nevada’s NPR member radio station has twice interviewed her this year about her writing, and in June she served as the Las Vegas Poets Organization’s featured poet. Her writing process is currently on exhibit at the Nevada Humanities Program Gallery. Heather’s poetry and prose have been published by or are forthcoming with HOOT, The Normal School, Paper Darts, Pleiades, and Whiskey Island, among others. Heather holds an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University, and she serves as an editor with The Literary Review.
by Heather Lang
Do you remember the first time that you played pin the tail on the donkey? I do. I was blindfolded and had to trust my guide, my spinner, who twirled me around until I barely knew the ground from the ceiling, much less the location of that construction-paper donkey. It’s interesting what we can notice during these disorienting experiences. This was the moment that I first observed the soft-floral perfume of my mother’s best friend, and I discovered that my elementary-school crush giggled like Alvin, the chipmunk. I was the “lucky” one who could peek beneath my hand-towel blindfold, but I was disappointed to find that no matter how far back I tilted my head, I could only see my light-up high tops and the patch of chocolate-brown carpet beneath them. I remember hoping that the birthday cake would be vanilla.
These are the types of memories that come to mind as I read Jennifer Willoughby’s Beautiful Zero. In this debut poetry collection, Willoughby writes about all-of-the-things, or so it seems, but she does not write about pin the tail on the donkey. Rather, these poems remind me of this children’s game as they disorient me. The moment that we think we might have our feet on solid ground, she grabs us by the figurative shoulders and forces us in another direction, and it is through this disorientation that the poet can deconstruct and then reconstruct the world around us. We stumble our way through the collection gaining an appreciation for these new meanings and these deeper connections.
Beautiful Zero is a book of seemingly, but not actually, reckless juxtapositions, and this constant allows the reader to give herself over to the random sights, sounds, and feelings that are deliberately splattered throughout the collection. The title of the opening poem, “Come Close Then Back Away,” sets the tone for these connections and contrasts. Mid poem, for example, Willoughby writes, “My knee-socks nestle at my feet. / Then we create an adult situation.” The line containing these knee-socks, a clothing accessory that reminds me of my grade-school uniform, is pressed up against the more scandalous sentence, “Then we create an adult situation.” Despite the youthful tenor being pushed against a much more grownup matter, the pieces are glued together. They are not random because, combined, the lines suggests pre-coital clothing loss. With Willoughby as our guide, however, we’ll never head in one direction for more than a moment, oftentimes one line, and this is a great pleasure of Beautiful Zero. The poem moves on to the “record player [that] is skipping in the distance,” “a column of oxygen,” and trees which treat the speaker “like fire.” Within the context of the poem, together it all somehow makes sense.
Another part of Beautiful Zero’s disorientation tactic is relabeling. In “Do Not Be Broken By The Day,” Willoughby writes:
Take it from me, Caroline, a crisis of faith
is not as interesting as a dead pigeon
in the cistern after a long winter.
The world doesn’t want to see you
on your knees for more than a minute
when it could be inspecting a music
box that knew how to fly.
Although the poet does not literally state that this being “on your knees” is an act of prayer, the “faith” within the first line lends this suggestion. There are the more violent connotations of this image, as well. The command, “take it,” even within the context of giving advice, quietly hints at a violence, maybe even a sexual violence, as I ponder the image of a woman on her knees. This act of being “on your knees,” something that could clearly represent one thing, prayer; or another, a fall; or another, a sexual act, might be ever-so-subtly redefined each time that we read this complex and ambitious poem.
Another example of this relabeling, a literary device of sorts, falls within these same lines. Willoughby redefines the “dead pigeon” as a “music / box that knew how to fly.” Certainly, this sheds a new light on the pigeon, a species of bird that many consider to be an urban pest. As these lines are all tangled up within sentiments of prayer and brokenness, a hope for the rebirth of even the most shattered and downtrodden hearts comes to fruition. If this dirty creature might have been something so delicate and lovely as a music box, surely we can find hope in and for ourselves, as well.
Within the middle of the fifty-one-page collection, the reader will find ten poems titled “Kaiser Variation” followed by a number, 1 through 10. Each of these poems is set within Kaiser Permanente, but each one tackles a different ailment, sometimes literally. In “Kaiser Variations 3,” Willoughby employs an extended metaphor as she writes, “It was the fourth quarter of the Badger-Buckeye / game and I smashed the neutrality rule eleven / times in the psych ward at Kaiser Permanente.” Using humor, the poet disorients us, as “Vivian,” a member of the counseling session, is “defeated by a group hug.” The counselor says that the “speaking is easy but the feeling / is hard,” and the poem, as well as the football metaphor, continues:
I was stuck in throes of accuracy, unplugging
my childhood of unimproved love. Man down!
Man down on the field, Bucky oompa’s a cute
tuba player […]
This blend of tragedy, as the speaker contemplates how “emotions were cocaine,” with comedy, like the flirtatious badger mascot, distances the psych ward scene from its gravid reality. This gift of humor allows us to more fully contemplate these important narratives because we’re less likely to simply turn away. Moreover, the illness changes within each Kaiser variation, so we’re never forced to linger on any one tragedy for too long. This is a kindness, one that allows the reader to embrace the critical catastrophes, such as both the literal and the figurative broken hearts, of Beautiful Zero.
Beautiful Zero is strange, and it is important. If I had to liken this collection of poetry to a children’s game, I might suggest pin the tail on the unicorn, for its magic, or pin the tail on the mermaid, for its nod toward humanity. More likely, however, I’d hope that we might choose some bizarre-yet-real-life creature, perhaps a species that we have yet to discover. And, when the time comes to look for this striking new beast, I would only hope that we might find a guide who is as gracious and as wise as Milkweed Editions’ new poet, Jennifer Willoughby.
Milkweed Editions (2015): $16.00
Heather Lang is a poet, literary critic, and adjunct professor. Her work has been published by or is forthcoming in diode, Pleiades, The Normal School, and Whiskey Island among other publications. Recently, she was awarded the Spain 2015 Murphy Writing Scholarship and the Fairleigh Dickinson University Baumeister Award. Heather, an FDU MFA graduate, is an editor for both The Literary Review and Petite Hound Press, and she will serve as an AWP16 moderator/panelist. http://www.heatherlangwrites.com
Heather Lang: You open your conversation with Patricia Smith on her book, Blood Dazzler, with an observation: “The metaphoric correlation between woman and weather is introduced in the first poem (‘every woman begins as weather’) and revisited regularly throughout the book.” Can you talk a bit about some of the themes that reoccur throughout the eighty interviews conducted within Uncoverage: Asking After Recent Poetry? Which reoccurrences did you anticipate, and which were less expected?
H.L. Hix: I was trying to address each poet with respect for her/his individuality, and to ask after each book with attention to its uniqueness, not to ask uniform questions; and the poets were being interviewed separately, so they weren’t consciously working together. In that sense, all the recurring themes were unanticipated! Maybe their being unplanned makes them even more revealing. In any case, there they all are.
So, for example, in that same Patricia Smith interview, she gives concise and forceful formulation of a capacity poetry has, that I think many of us want to draw on. “Throughout the book,” she says about Blood Dazzler, “I try not to put those affected directly and those not affected directly into different camps; in a tragedy as far-reaching as Katrina, no experience can be discounted.” Smith’s statement reminds me of Wisława Szymborska’s declaration, near the end of her Nobel acceptance speech, that “… in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.” A number of the interviewees explicitly make that same recognition: that heightened attention inclines, and inclines us, toward equality and respect and justice.
HL: In your interview with Mark Nowak on his Shut Up Shut Down, you mention that the “juxtaposition of voices in these poems, as represented graphically by contrasting bold, italic and plain text, creates a kind of dialogue.” This observation is intriguing to me particularly within the context of Uncoverage, a collection of interviews. May we explore the larger dialogue within your new book? In other words, what can we learn from the juxtapositions between these diverse conversations?
HLH: Thank you for asking that. It’s exactly my hope: that, although each conversation occurred on its own, putting them together, which each reader will do for herself, creates a conversation.
The juxtapositions themselves are accidental, in the sense that the interviews are arranged alphabetically, rather than by an “intentional” ordering principle such as perceived thematic commonality. Yet the juxtapositions create spark after spark of illumination. For instance, if I reflect on your question by looking at the Nowak interview along with the one that follows it, the interview of dg nanouk okpik, I notice that both Nowak and okpik are concerned to speak of and with a people, without speaking for them. Nowak declares that working people “are always front and center in my work, as well as the first audiences for its reception. Their voices are writ in bold (literally).” To me, that resonates quite richly with okpik’s will to “lend witness to the existence of my family and what changes are happening on the earth today,” her sense that “I cannot speak for my people, but I can document one account as if it is a voice from many views.”
I hope that the larger dialogue you observe in the book does indicate, even though of course it can’t replicate, the scale and breadth of the capacious conversation that is contemporary poetry.
HL: Within the genre of interview, what can we learn from what has gone unspoken?
HLH: What a beautiful and important question! To me, one element of the interview’s force is its capacity for doubling the unspoken, for matching the unspoken in the questions with the unspoken in the answers. And that element itself has a double aspect. Something might be unspoken because it is shared already by interviewer and interviewee, or it might be unspoken because it is not being shared by one with the other. In either case, though, the unspoken animates the interview.
The poets in Uncoverage seem to me consistently alert to the unspoken. I think of such moments as Jennifer Moxley’s insight that “lyric makes real the response to the social conversation for which there is no space or permission; it is the voice of the silenced interlocutor.” Or Andrew Joron’s description of sound and silence as “locked in a mutually conditioning embrace.”
HL: In your conversation with Shane Book on Ceiling of Sticks, you ask, “What is the difference for you between a first-person narrator speaking from an essentially public space (a space more others’ than his own) and such a narrator speaking from an essentially private space?” Can you talk a bit about Uncoverage in this context of public versus private spaces? Within which do you feel these interviews were conducted, and did this change from interview to interview?
HLH: In response to this question I’ll cheat, and try to have it both ways. I’m working at this very moment on an essay that takes issue with Peter Singer’s influential article “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” in which he tries to argue by analogy from an instance of private responsibility (saving a drowning child) to one of public responsibility (ending a famine such as the 1971 Bengal famine that was occurring when he was writing his article). I’m arguing that reconciling public space and private space takes more work than Singer recognizes: he falls for a mistake neoliberalism pushes us toward, a mistake Wendy Brown calls “depoliticization.” I hope that Uncoverage does not fall for that mistake. There are plenty of parties who seek from poetry an Eden of depoliticization, but the poets I speak with in Uncoverage are working hard to construct and sustain a more salubrious relationship between public and private spaces.
HL: At what point did you realize that these conversations would become a collection, and how did you know when the collection was complete?
HLH: I knew from the start that I wanted them to become a collection, and I knew the approximate scale, because the project had a very particular starting point and framing question.
The very first sentence of the foreword to the first edition of Richard Howard’s essay collection Alone with America, first published in 1969, makes an astonishing claim: “In the forty-one studies which follow,” Howard says, “an accounting is made of [all] American poets who, with the publication of at least two volumes, have come into a characteristic and—as I see it—consequential identity since the time, say, of the Korean War.” Howard purported to survey contemporary American poetry comprehensively. Since Howard’s moment, though, enough has changed that no one attentive to contemporary poetry could believe that, of the countless poets at work today, 41 and only 41 are “consequential.” We know we can’t survey poetry today in the way Howard clearly thought he could survey it then. So what can we do now, about poetry? What should we do? That’s what the collection as a whole tries to ask.
Alone with America vividly manifests certain premises of a poetic world now long gone: it projects a perceived transparency about and continuity within a singular tradition, implies a sense of clarity about uniform standards of quality applicable to all poetry, and assumes uncompromised correspondence between the quality of a body of work and the mechanisms that establish a poet’s reputation (prestige of publisher and of university affiliation, connection to others with similarly prestigious publishers and universities, prizes and awards received, and so on). It contains not a single name of a poet who was not at the time widely represented in anthologies and by reviews. Those features make the book into a period piece, by today’s standards wrong in the most obvious ways: e.g., its table of contents includes 41 poets, of whom 35 are male, and all 41 white.
Howard thought it possible to identify and consider all the poets who were poets in his time and place: “these poets,” he says in his foreword, “are, simply, what is there.” Poetry for him is a strictly limited domain, so a survey incorporates everything in that domain. Now, though, it is impossible even to identify, much less to consider, all the poets who are poets, so any attempt to survey the landscape in our poetic world has to be on different terms than Howard’s survey. Howard thought he could complete the survey; he thought he had completed it. Now one must recognize that it is not possible to complete the task.
Uncoverage is after an approach to the survey that acknowledges a plurality Howard didn’t recognize. So I have contrasted this project to Alone with America in at least two ways. To signify that Uncoverage is an inquiry rather than an exposition, it is composed of interviews rather than essays: rather than delivering my words in regard to the poetry discussed here, I have asked the poets for theirs. To signify the limitlessness of the field, Uncoverage approximates a doubling of Howard’s number of subjects, 80 in place of his 41. The doubling does not achieve coverage of all the “consequential” work being done: instead, it symbolizes the impossibility of covering all the consequential work being done. The work about which these interviews were conducted is all of it consequential, but (far from exhausting the consequential poetry being written today) it only suggests how much consequential work there is, how inexhaustibly rich is the domain of contemporary poetry.
HL: I have to ask. What was your most self-indulgent interview or question?
HLH: If we were conducting this interview face-to-face, rather than by email, the transcription of my response would begin with [laughter] in brackets. Guilty laughter: I’ve been caught out! But as a form of self-justification, let me start with an anecdote.
My long friendship with the artist Adriane Herman began when we were both teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute. Once, when she and I were both in a student crit, I challenged the student with a question about whether some aspect or other of his work was self-indulgent, in response to which, rather than waiting for the student’s response, Adriane challenged me right back: “What’s wrong with self-indulgence?” Her question exposed me then, but now I’ll take cover under it. In an important sense, the whole project of Uncoverage is self-indulgent: I got to have virtual conversations with a bunch of very smart people about a bunch of profoundly consequential books. It’s almost like getting to live out Socrates’ fantasy, at the end of the Apology, of the afterlife as an endless conversation with those he admires. What could be more self-indulgent?
That said, let me fess up in the way your question means to make me. One of the interviews that comes immediately to mind for me as blatantly self-indulgent on my part is the interview of Chelsey Minnis. Her book Poemland (like the one that preceded it, Bad Bad), expresses, as my opening question to her confesses, a lot of things that “I would say about poetry and life, except that I’m too chicken.” But Chelsey wasn’t too chicken to say them, so the interview gives me a way to tag along behind her, even without my having mustered the same courage she did.
HL: Which interviews inspired you in your own poetry? For example, were there any interviews after which you rushed back to your own creative work in a moment of sudden insight or discovery?
HLH: I would describe the kind of inspiration I find in the book not so much “local” as “global.” By that I just mean that what has happened is not primarily that a few of the interviews gave me ideas for particular poems, but that the whole collection, all the interviews together, issues a reminder about the range of poetry. These poets show vividly that poetry can do many different things, not only one thing, so they give me reason to ask myself (and they suggest ways to ask myself) whether my poetry is doing what it wants to do rather than what someone else wants it to do.
HL: Looking outside of Uncoverage, which interviewers do you follow or enjoy? How have they inspired you, and what have you learned from them?
HLH: My love of the interview started early. In grad school I happened on a used copy of William Packard’s collection of “craft interviews” from the New York Quarterly: it was dated even then, but it was very exciting to me. As were the old Paris Review interviews. Terribly mainstream and old-school in comparison to my current interests, but I wasn’t in a creative writing program, so in poetry I was having to find things on my own, and everything felt like a revelation.
Nowadays, I follow interviewers who lead me to work I didn’t know about before, and who create openings for me into that work. The editor who nurtured Uncoverage into print, Andy Fitch, is a colleague here where I teach, and a dynamo who does a lot of things, but one of those things is interviewing. He’s done a huge collection of interviews called Sixty Morning Talks, and co-edited a collection called The Letter Machine Book of Interviews. He’s got a quirky sensibility that leads him to pose interesting questions that elicit interesting responses from his interviewees, and he’s looking around: his interviews have drawn my attention to a lot of poets whose work I might not have known to read otherwise. Another friend, Philip Metres, is also an interviewer I follow, for some of the same reasons. He, too, is looking around, taking me to work I might not have learned about if he hadn’t shown it to me.
In addition to following certain interviewers, I also follow certain venues for interviews. The website called The Conversant, for example, consistently posts interesting interviews of interesting writers, faster than I can keep up. Jacket2 also hosts interviews that I make a point of attending to, though there, too, I can’t keep up. I’m plenty ambivalent about digital technology, but one glory of the internet is that the number of sites for interviews is endless. Women’s Quarterly Conversation, Mosaic, and on and on.
And of course one very important such venue is the publisher of Uncoverage, Essay Press. In their series of free digital books and chapbooks, they’re creating an extensive and probing conversation around contemporary poetry.
HL: You’re a prolific writer and curator of literature. On top of your commitments with both the University of Wyoming and Fairleigh Dickinson University, how do you decide where to dedicate your time and energies? How do you choose your literary projects, and what’s next?
HLH: As a stay against the supersaturation by “information” with which we (each and all) are threatened, I believe in the importance of the curatorial role, though I find the role of curator much more exhausting than the role of writer. And I wish I were smarter and more efficient in that decision-making process you ask about. In both roles, I’m too much the “kid in a candy store,” flitting after whatever catches my attention, with the result that I waste a lot of time starting things I never finish because I get distracted by some tempting new project. If I would actually completed everything I started, then I would be prolific!
Thanks for the chance, though, to mention what’s next. I’ve just started looking for a publisher for the latest curatorial project, called Counterclaims. In it, poets and scholars from various points of view take issue with the now-overly-familiar claims that “poetry makes nothing happen” and that there is “no poetry after Auschwitz,” proposing other ways of thinking about poetry and its purposes and powers.
My next writing project is a poetry book called American Anger, due out in February 2016. It tries to think through (sing through? shout down?) the belligerence that stands at the origin, and pervades the history, of the U.S. Readers will decide for themselves whether it has any weight, but the writing of it certainly felt urgent and necessary.
Heather Lang is a poet, literary critic, essayist, and adjunct professor. She serves as an editor for The Literary Review and for Petite Hound Press. www.heatherlangwrites.com