Rusty Morrison’s After Urgency won Tupelo’s Dorset Prize; the true keeps calm biding its story won Academy of American Poet’s James Laughlin Award and Ahsahta’s Sawtooth Prize. Whethering won the Colorado Prize for Poetry. She is Omnidawn’s copublisher. Her essay “‘She Encouraged the Separation’–Poetry and Gravity” was published in the Spring 2012 issue of KR.
Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
I’d begun to ask myself why I have such need for poetry—why must I buy every book that sounds exciting to me, why must I carry a new and an old favorite poetry book with me whenever I leave the house, even for simple errands. An interest in reading poems is, of course, common for poets, but somehow my need seemed to me to border on obsession. In meditating repeatedly with this question in mind, I was most surprised by images that came back to me from my childhood—images of times I’d spent with my mother when she was most erratic and unreliable. The safety I find in carrying these books with me began to seem tied to frightening experiences that I thought I’d left far behind. This made a kind of intuitive sense, but I had to write myself toward an understanding of it; my essay in Kenyon Review is the result. Everything about the process was enormously challenging and often exhausting. But as I finished the final revisions of the essay, I felt new energy and new enthusiasm come into my reading and my writing life.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
A few years ago, I became interested in the writings of Michel Serres. His phrase—that “every form is draped in an infinity of adherences”—began to haunt my process as soon as I read it. Whenever I was finding my way forward in a poem’s language, I couldn’t forget that an infinity of adherences were present, even though only some were apparent as directly shaping the form of the poem. Of course, there’s nothing new in considering the fact that any choice made in a poem excludes all the similar—as well as contrasting—alternatives. But Serres made me think of these choices as adherences draping the motion of the work. How was this draping making more or less visible the most useful, more provocative aspects of the form’s shape, which existed beneath them? What adherences had I focused upon too soon, too easily? What might happen if I worked in early revisions to undrape a form, exposing to myself more layers of adherence than I normally perceive? How might I draw a sentence out beyond the first ‘adherences’ that would too easily layer, or too soon drape, its possibilities? I’ve learned over the past few years that asking questions like these will yield my most enlivening work, and will suggest trajectories I couldn’t otherwise have imagined.
Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
A Public Space, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Lana Turner, Pleiades, Volt come first to my mind, and I list them in alpha order so as not to suggest any value hierarchy here. Why these? I continue to be startled and re-started by the work I find in them.
Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write? Would you amend Larkin’s stages?
To speak about my writing process, I need to say how radically it changed after both my parents’ deaths. I have written more extensively about this elsewhere, but the core issue is this: I came to a changed relationship to silence after spending time with both of their bodies in the rooms where each died. I knew viscerally that the body before me was dead, yet it seemed to amplify the silence that surrounded me, that suffused every object in the room. After those experiences I felt silence enlarge, whenever I was alone, especially in natural environments. Cultivating that silence began to influence the way I listened, whenever I sat down to write. And as I’ve continued to cultivate it, I’ve come to call it a sense of amplification. Now, as I write, I listen for a sense of amplification in the arriving language, and I follow it. I don’t, or certainly don’t always, as Larkin suggests, sit down to pursue an emotional concept I’ve already experienced. I often enter the writing process in a state of silence, with the intention of seeking in that silence an arriving force, an amplification, and then I follow it with my words. This can lead me to experiences I have had. But not always.
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 on the practice of writing? What core beliefs do you have regarding literature and books?
My credo is that in each new writing project I seek a form and method that will allow me to question the credos that became sacrosanct for me in my previous writing project. This doesn’t mean I must disavow the past credos in the process. Rather, I want to see them again, in new contexts, so as to ask myself anew what remains truly of use. Giorgio Agamben has a wonderful essay titled “Profanations” in his book by the same name. In it, he suggests the value of play, of profaning the dictums we hold sacred and thus unexamined. Keeping this in mind has been invaluable to me.
Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
After I was a secondary level English teacher for 19 years, I went back to graduate school for an MFA in poetry. The one poet whom I most wanted to have as my teacher was Brenda Hillman. Her work has been, and continues to be, catalyst and canticle for me. I name her in this answer because my experiences in working with her in the MFA program at Saint Mary’s College, Moraga CA, resulted in my making a midlife career path change. I devoted myself to becoming a poet, essayist, editor, and publisher. It was one of the most significant and rewarding changes I have undergone in my life. And, in so many ways, I have Brenda Hillman to thank for this.
The teacher I listen for daily, as I write, is an echo. As I read my lines back to myself, I listen to see if they echo with a quality of attention, with a sense of amplification, that gives back to me what I perceive as being most true, most of use, in the work. Then, I can move forward with the poem. If not, then I will revise until I can hear that kind of echo. But, sometimes, no matter what I try, I only find a closed silence, not a resonant one, a silence without echo. Then I must sit and wait, and remember that even this closed silence is a teacher. To wait in the silence may mean that no writing goes forward. But this waiting may be invoking more than I, as yet, have words for.