Shenandoah, Winter 2006
Claudia Emerson, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, is the author of three books of poems, all from Louisiana State University Press: Pharaoh, Pharaoh; Pinion: An Elegy; and Late Wife. She has received numerous other awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Virginia Commission for the Arts fellowship, and, most recently, the Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress. Claudia Emerson is currently the Arrington Distinguished Chair in Poetry at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where she lives with her husband, the musician Kent Ippolito.
SK: Many of your poems have a strong narrative component. Could you discuss the relationship between the two poles of story and lyric in your poems?
CE: While I am compelled to deliver some parts of a narrative, even plot-driven prose fiction doesn’t interest me all that much. “What happened” often pales when I can ponder how something happened and to whom. Ellen Bryant Voigt, in her book The Flexible Lyric, sums it up this way: “Poet and novelist Stephen Dobyns has said that every lyric poem implies a narrative.... But the lyric poet might just as easily say that every narrative obscures a lyric.” I agree and find that, particularly when writing in sequence, I have been far more drawn to the object or event where I can find the metaphor that will transcend, or suspend, the narrative.
Even when I tackled the long poem in my second book Pinion, the narrative of what happened to that family was not the point of the poem; its sections and voices were explorations of circumstance, place and character.
In “History Lesson,” one of my new poems included in this issue of Shenandoah, I used the brief narrative about Herbert Hoover and his trout fishing camp as one of the metaphoric doors opening on the subject of how girls are educated, “tamed” so to speak. It was interesting to try and showcase the girls’ refusal to “school” through their inability to forget the story that won’t be “on the test.”
SK: Most of your poems run about one to two pages in length. Is this compression vital to the sort of narrative you write?
CE: I think it was William Butler Yeats who said something like “within restraint lies great intensity,” and I am a firm believer in this stance. The fruitful tension between line and sentence is extremely important to me in my work and in others’. The sentence still rules in my poetry, but I work hard to craft lines with formal integrity, so the line itself will have what Mary Kinzie calls “half meaning.” The poem can only be so long and maintain that kind of intensity; as a stand-alone thing; in sequence, though, the linked or recurring images create the longer poetic experience, whether long poem or shapely volume.
In “The Admirer” from Pinion, for example, the unmarried, overworked caretaker of her family, known only as “Sister,” is given a sack of doves as a gift from an admirer. When conceiving this part of the poem, I was interested in showing Sister preparing the doves in a fairly graphic manner. A reader would be unable, I hoped, to forget the connotations of the dove, but unable also to look away from the tedious work of preparing the doves to share with the unwelcome suitor. In four stanzas of ten lines each, I crafted the lines in loose blank verse, and enjambed most, as well as every stanza, in an effort to maintain rapid movement down the page. The challenge, once again, was in the extended metaphor; after all, not much was going to happen besides getting some doves ready for the oven. I made seven lines of the final sentence:
Even with the birds still baking, yet to be
eaten, with still the biscuits to stir up
and gravy yet to make from the meager fat
with a strait hour to pass before he would
lean back from the table to pick his teeth and sigh
I had decided he should have left the doves
their beloved sky, for I would not be won.
Four of the lines enjambed, I didn’t make much use of internal caesura after the first two, hoping to create a formal breathlessness to match the work she’s doing. I paused the reader, though, pretty harshly with those dashes, for breath, and to give more power to last comma, when she’s made her decision. Most parts of Pinion center on what could be considered an ordinary, or even mundane activity with stark relevance to the speaker’s interior concerns, and compression proved necessary to sustainability.
SK: What constitutes “form” is one of the points of contention in contemporary American poetries. When do you decide or discover what shape and rhythm or meter a poem is going to take?
CE: So far in my writing, the subjects have suggested the forms, or the broader notion of “structures.” In my first two books, loose blank verse was very appealing and appropriate to me. The iambic pentameter line has, after all, been around a long time and I think that’s so because it’s about the optimal amount the eye and ear can take in and accept as a unit. I was doing lots of persona, monologue-type poems in the first book, and that line worked well and then in the long poem, I stayed with it, for the most part. Also, in writing a long poem, I was keenly aware of the connotations, or what Miller Williams calls the “ghosts” of form, and the long poem on some level insists that domestic metaphors are worthy of “epic” attention, as are people who worked on small farms all their lives.
When I began to write Late Wife, aware of all the obvious risks I took in drafting letters to my husband whose first wife had died from lung cancer, I felt that I needed restraint in all matters of the heart and of the vehicle of my expression. The sonnet offered the connotations I found necessary, and even though I took great liberties with the form, I still followed the essential characteristics of sonnet. Here is the first of the sequence:
For three years you lived in your house
just as it was before she died: your wedding
portrait on the mantel, her clothes hanging
in the closet, her hair still in the brush.
You have told me you gave it all away
then, sold the house, keeping the confirmation
cross she wore, her name in cursive chased
on the gold underside, your ring in the same
box, those photographs you still avoid,
and the quilt you spread on your borrowed bed
small things. Months after we met, you told me she had
made it, after we had slept already beneath its loft
and thinning, raveled pattern, as though beneath
her shadow, moving with us, that dark, that soft.
The octave implies or offers outright much of the narrative: what was and what is. I then enjambed the octave to place the “box” (a recurring image in the poems) as the first word of the sestet. In my imagination, the sestet opens the box with the “small things” that are, of course, not small. Comparing the quilt to her shadow as the poem’s resolution I meant to be quiet but also disturbing, since we have to have physical selves to cast literal shadows and the artifacts, things left behind after someone’s disappearance often take on that kind of power to invoke the body. Even though the rhymes are very slant (“house”/ “brush”; “wedding” / “hanging”), I do for most of the sonnets employ some kind of rhyme scheme, reminiscent of traditional, more rigid requirements for end-rhyme.
The poems that came to make up the first part of the book, however, although epistolary as well, I crafted in a variety of couplets and tercets, often staggering the lines and using some fairly harsh enjambments. While I hoped those verse paragraphs, modeled somewhat after William Carlos Williams’ triadic line, would have integrity, the appeal was also in their visual instability. The tercet always feels that it’s searching for its missing line, pulling the eye down with urgency, and that imbalance seemed appropriate to poems about dissolution.
SK: Was the choice of the sonnet for some of the Late Wife poems a project you are continuing to make use of?
CE: I think I will return to sonnet, or some variations on it in the future, but right now I am writing another sequence in couplets, all slant rhymes. More about that later.
SK: The poems of Late Wife are, as you have mentioned, very personal, often based on autobiographical incidents. What strategies rhetorical, metaphorical or formal do you use to render the raw material of your life into poems?
CE: “Render” is a really good word to use! My renderings have changed over time; early on, I would have told you I was writing strict persona, that there was little of my biography in the poems. Now I look back and see that my life was very much in those “other” voices. In Late Wife, while the poems are not strictly autobiographical, I looked obviously to the personal to create the sequence. The epistle can be, of course, an intimate address and at the same time I am very aware that a reader might be likely to join me in the first person, addressing the “you” or she might position herself as the “you” and experience the poems that way. My hope was that I was able to transcend my particular situation and touch on the broader human concerns of solitude within a relationship and the more satisfying (if complicated) reciprocal relationship. Also, because I employed the I/you construction in the first and third sections, it was extremely important that the reader understand immediately that the “you” had utterly changed by the third so the move formally from couplets and tercets to sonnets was meant to reflect that great change as well.
The first husband “you” in the opening section is, among other things, an amateur archeologist, looking for American Indian artifacts. The end of the poem “Surface Hunting” reads:
. . . You lined bookshelves
and end tables with them; obsidian,
quartz, flint, they measured the hours
you’d spent with your head down, searching
for others, and also the hours
of my own solitude collected,
prized, saved alongside those
artifacts for so long lost.
Visually quite different, the poem nevertheless became in my imagination a companion of sorts to the sonnet above in dealing with the idea of artifacts as metaphor and also linking the “tangible past” with the intangible, in this poem the “hours of my own solitude.”
SK: Looking back at your three books, do you see a developing or evolving set of interests or subjects?
CE: I think the three books are different, but I have an ongoing obsession with birds, landscape, the body the archetypal pairing of body and house and I continue to think about people being place bound, gender bound, or bound to the past. I return always to the natural world for metaphor, and think I must have been a biologist in some other life. In graduate school, I was accused of attributing too much “nobility” to animals and I still do! We are, as Maxine Kumin says, not just “of” the world, but “in” it, and I find all sorts of valuable, applicable lessons in paying very close attention to animal life.
SK: I have heard you say that you tend to think in terms of “whole-book” when you conceive a writing project. Could you describe how the shapes of your three books, particularly Pinion: An Elegy, which reads almost as a book-length poem for several voices, were realized?
CE: Turning to the long poem was a poetry- and life-saving undertaking. I was working as an adjunct teacher in two different schools at the time, and I thought that conceiving a sequence with a particular architecture would give me something to keep my imagination going during long days with two commutes. Living poem to poem made me nervous; I was afraid I’d be too distracted ever to write another poem! Also, the Preacher character, written in his entirety before Sister, was simply too big for one poem.
It was only after writing all the parts of the long poem that I realized with a couple of astute readers’ help that a prose introduction might be helpful to guide the reader into the poem. The idea to make the younger sister Rose into the speaker of the introduction and overarching narrator came with this realization; until close to the end of writing the poem, Rose was a voiceless character.
SK: Two terms, “accessibility” and “difficulty,” crop up in discussions of current poetry so frequently that it sometimes seems that a poet can be only one of these. What are your thoughts about the issue of accessibility and the potential readerships of contemporary poetry?
CE: One of my first loves in poetry was Robert Frost, and I was inspired early on by his deceptive simplicity. Instead of “accessibility,” we might also aspire for “clarity” and then strive for, instead of “difficulty,” “complexity.” If we care about readers at all (and not just those in the academy), we have to give them a way into the poem. And I think we need to remember that clarity does not preclude depth. If our language is precise, our imagery clear, our metaphors original and well crafted, then we can indeed create poems that will reward a listener on being heard for the first time and also repay the astute close reader. I am willing to work pretty hard at a poem but only one that eventually repays my rigorous attention to it.
Poetry can be particularly vulnerable to the kind of experiment that deliberately sacrifices meaning, for one example, to explore language as unstable and untrustworthy; the poetry then proves that but of course such poetry’s continued existence needs its accompanying criticism (or dissertation or panel presentation) and I would suggest that the criticism (or the “explanation”) becomes too essential a part of the poetry since without it, certain kinds of poems are bells with no tongues. Any art that blatantly markets itself as experimental and worth more just because of its rebellion, I find suspect, particularly when a specific movement or school insists that other forms of the genre or medium are somehow now completely outdated and utterly conventional. I agree with Miller Williams, who says in the introduction to his Patterns of Poetry that”... the successful rebel often becomes the new arbiter of behavior, establishment replaces establishment, and the new dispensation becomes as proscriptive as the old. We live in a time of putative freedom to write, and to dress, more or less as one likes, but if there is a social and ultimately political pressure to express that freedom in a certain way, it is no longer freedom.” And wasn’t it Paul Verlaine who asserted that “everything changes except the avant-garde”?
I like to think less about movements and schools the politics or business of poetry, which can be what Ellen Bryant Voigt has called “snappish sibling rivalry” and more essentially about poetry and measure not meter, but measure. We measure what we care about, and if meaning matters in this world, then we have an opportunity to measure language in order to make meaning. Poetry is a medium that will reward such attention to measure, so why forfeit that? And whether looking at freer or more formal verse, for me, careful measure includes a well-crafted sentence, a poetic line with meaningful integrity, ambiguity that is fruitful if complex, instructive metaphors, and language that is beautiful even when the subjects might be quite difficult and dark.
SK: The South was considered throughout the twentieth century to be a region with a distinct literary mode and locution, as well as subject matter, in American letters. Do you think a recognizably “Southern” literature still exists in the twenty-first century?
CE: As long as there are discernible regions, then literatures rise out of those regions. The South, along with the rest of the country, is becoming more and more urban, and of course there are writers living in the South who are to a lesser degree influenced by the landscape and its history. Still, much of the South’s economy is agriculturally based, and not everyone has moved to the big cities. All you have to do is get off the Interstate now and again, and you’ll be on a winding, two-lane road that will take you to a town or community where there’s a volunteer fire department with bingo every Friday night, and the convenience stores sell live bait and serve as checking stations during hunting season.
I think Flannery O’Connor said that the South was a good vehicle for writing literature that deals with all sorts of human concerns religion, race, gender, our interaction with the natural world because much is still so apparent in the region, and easily recognized and described. The trick is getting people in other parts of the country (and world) to see that racism and sexism are also still issues in places other than the South. Most writers, after all, work hard to invoke the particular in order to transcend it.
SK: Do you consider yourself a “Southern” writer? What does such a designation mean to you?
CE: Since I have spent all of my life in the South much of it in the county surrounding the town where I grew up I do consider myself a Southern writer. While the South is changing, it has continuing, defining characteristics that have influenced my poetry. My hometown in Southside Virginia, for example, is in many ways much the way it was when I was a girl. The commercial aspect of the downtown has, like a lot of small towns, been negatively affected by nearby Wal-Marts, Kmarts, etc., but since the town is the county seat, there are still lawyers, dentists and all the county government offices. The courthouse and the Confederate Dead statue are the same. The town is still mostly segregated; even though the public schools were integrated in the ‘60s, the “white flight” private school that began in response still educates the majority of middle and upper-class white children, and the neighborhoods and churches are still primarily segregated. (At forty-nine now, I recall when white children joined the Children of the Confederacy right along with the church choir and the Girl Scouts. As long as certain cultural practices remain the norm, then even an older, supposedly displaced code of manners can have more strength even than the law.)
Also of extreme importance to my practices as a writer, the wealth of imagery I continue to find in the natural world is a direct result of living many years in the country among people who still make their living directly from the land people for whom the weather defines far more than their weekend plans.
In high school, I was inspired mightily by other Southern writers Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren and James Dickey among them who gave me permission to write about my own familiar landscape and the people in my rural community.
SK: What are the roles of metaphor and image as meaning-generating elements in your poems?
CE: Metaphor and image are extremely important to me. Because I do write often in sequence, the recurring image is also a key element in building extended metaphors.
While I don’t go through my daily life scrounging for the next metaphor, I am an attentive person, one not easily bored. (I was raised by a mother who disallowed “bored” from my vocabulary. She said my being bored said more about me....) Last summer, my husband and I hiked down to Camp Rapidan in the Shenandoah National Park, and that’s where I encountered what became central to “History Lesson”: learning that Herbert Hoover fed beef hearts to the trout he caught. The gentile cruelty of the scene seemed perfect to me for the “All Girls School” sequence, so I built it into their history lesson. I certainly didn’t think that hike would yield anything to do with my poetry project, but the “stuff” of poetry the significant detail that is part of what gives any poem authenticity and credibility is all around.
SK: Would you like to discuss your current project?
CE: I felt that I needed a break from the first person singular, and from writing so close to my life. I’d had an idea years ago to write somehow about a girls’ boarding school something I have a lot of firsthand experience with but a subject that doesn’t engage my personal emotions. So I conceived a lyric, surreal sequence featuring girls in a boarding school, and then a second, less neatly sequenced group of poems exploring women figures in isolation. The girls are all told in third person, but in the second section, I’m using the first person plural narrator, reminiscent of some of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poems. I’m exploring how a community perceives an individual who is enough outside the town or neighborhood to be if great interest, and also how little they might know that figure and still be obsessed with him or her Boo Radley or Miss Emily Grierson for famous examples.
I’m also looking pretty hard at how girls are taught to be girls and all the many ongoing contradictions women experience in whatever “school” they find themselves. Sexism is alive and well in this world, and I’m fascinated and horrified by its acceptance even among quite privileged and educated people.
I chose slant-rhymed couplets for the sequence in part because they look so deliberately “made,” almost an artifice to them and that seemed appropriate for poems that deal with something as constructed as education.
SK: Speaking of education, you, as a faculty member at a small university, must teach undergraduate creative writing regularly. What teaching strategies do you use to help your students find their own ways, without sacrificing your own aesthetic principles, of writing poems?
CE: On the first day I inform my students that even though I am a member of the academy, poetry is not academic to me; I am a practitioner for whom the genre has become an essential part of my identity. My commitment to producing my own work gives me the credibility and authority to teach them. I am, after all, not asking them to do anything I’m not also doing. I also tell them that I see my writing as an appointment with myself, and I want them to experience the course as an opportunity not just to be “enrolled” in a class, but as a chance actually to be a writer.
Still, a large part of what informs my teaching is the knowledge that out of a year’s worth of undergraduates, only one or two might go on to graduate school in writing, and fewer than that will actually have a profession in writing, so I design the course around my affirmed belief that a student of poetry becomes a better reader simply because of the effort to write. Students in workshop are able to get fully inside the genre, through their own work and their classmates’, and experience it not as a fixed thing for their analysis, but as a draft filled with choice and possibility. I evaluate their poems and their participation in the workshop along with a reflective essay that details what they learned about poetry through their efforts. It is possible, then, for a student to have a positive experience in the class, even if their final portfolio remains uneven. After all, if they were students of guitar, I would be insisting similarly that they learn guitar, not just a song or two.
I also designed guidelines for evaluating their poems that stress issues of craft. I got tired years ago of arguing with students about punctuation, for example; many of them still walk in the door with the awful assumption that poetry is just about throwing out all of the “rules” of Standard English. This opinion is based, of course, on a high school experience with e.e. cummings and still not having learned how to use a semicolon properly. They need to demonstrate some mastery of the craft, and I detail what determines mastery for the sake of a 300-level writing class: line and stanza integrity; effective enjambment; believable and consistent voice; appropriate diction and tone; vivid, concrete imagery; original metaphor or other figures of speech; careful, deliberate (if surprising) word choice; and rich sound. We also spend a great deal of class time considering what makes a subject compelling, and how we might achieve both clarity and complexity.
I remind them that you need to know how to play the guitar before you smash it to pieces on stage. If you can’t actually play, you’re just a vandal.
About the Author
Sarah Kennedy is the author of four collections of poetry, including Consider the Lilies (David Robert Books, 2004), and is the recipient of a 2005 NEA Fellowship in Poetry. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Virginia Quarterly Review and The Southern Review. She teaches at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia.
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