Paisley Rekdal’s most recent volume of poems is Animal Eye (Pitt, 2012). Her poems “A Peacock in a Cage” and “Mortal Love” appear in the Winter 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Is there a story behind your KR poems “A Peacock in a Cage” and/or “Mortal Love”? What was the hardest part about writing one or both of them?
The idea for both poems came quickly: “A Peacock in a Cage” came from my time living in Hanoi, where I lived close to a little botanical garden that I liked to visit. The garden had a few cages with birds in them: most barely big enough to house the bird, which was the case with the peacock. “Mortal Love” came almost immediately after I attended Raul Zurita’s reading. The difficulty came in editing the poems: I’m still not happy with certain things, but I’ve just given up. I think this is a pretty common problem for me.
Your poem in KR, “A Peacock in a Cage,” is written in a somewhat aphoristic posture. How do you achieve a resonant emotional center in a poem that uses this sort of objective voice?
Almost all the lines have something in common: they are all images of something vibrant, creative, abstract—something, essentially, larger than life—trapped inside a “cage” (a body, attitude, belief or feeling) too small to quite fit it. The lines have a kind of logic to them, which I hope allows for people to feel the connection, to realize something outside of the random is at stake.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
That it is not getting any easier.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Three things: my love of research—especially in the fields of art history (in which I have no training whatsoever, just curiosity), my fascination with my colleagues’ work (anyone who complains about poets working in academia conveniently overlooks the real benefits—outside of health insurance—to being associated with a research institution: libraries, curious colleagues, interdisciplinary scholarship, constant mental stimulation, LIBRARIES), and my love of drawing.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
There really isn’t much else I could be doing, sadly.
In the 1950?s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
I have a few, but the one that I’ve been thinking about most this semester comes out of a class I’ve been teaching called “Visual Nonfictions.” We’ve been spending a lot of time examining web-based writing projects, including the web-based project I’ve been creating/curating for the past year: Mapping Salt Lake City (www.mappingslc.org). What strikes me, over and over, when approaching digital writing is that oftentimes we want to utilize all the new bells and whistles and tricks and conundrums that new technology offers us—often, even, at the expense of the information we want to convey. In the end, style and substance can counteract each other, with the result that the fanciest and most theoretically sophisticated forms can, if not considered properly, become cages. In the end, a piece of writing is only as good as what it’s trying to say. Attempting to prettify it or make it seem smarter than it is with stylistic tricks can’t replace a lack of meaning.
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
I’m working on two things: first, a series of sonnets about a group of skulls that were unearthed from the grounds of the Colorado State Mental Health Institute a few years back. It’s oddly a companion sonnet-series to my Mae West sonnet sequence. Second, a project I’m calling “Calends,” which is a series of 12 weird diorama-like poems I’m drawing/creating.