2007 National Book Award Poetry Finalist Interview With Ellen Bryant Voigt

Ellen Bryant Voigt

Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006

W. W. Norton & Company

Interview conducted by Craig Morgan Teicher.

Photo © Barry Goldstein

CMT: What was it like going over all of your books to compile a “Selected Poems”?

EBV: It was strange in ways that I was not prepared for. It was difficult in ways I didn’t expect, and the things I thought would be hard were easy. My main concern was about having sufficient new poems for the book to be a “New and Selected.” And I write very, very slowly, so I had been focusing on that and thought, “once those are done, I can go back. How hard can it be?” I worried over what to do about my poem Kyrie, which is a book-length sequence. But after I made my little list of four or five from the first book and six or seven from the second, what I found was that those little groups of poems didn’t always inform one another nicely, for different reasons. I also then discovered that I wanted this to be a whole book, the same way the individual book had been, and not just a kind of anthology. So what that meant was really dismantling six books and then looking to see how to make a new larger one. I ended up not included some poems that I had initially thought I would.

CMT: Your poems seem to have a mythic quality to them, a kind of ominous, mysterious feeling. How do you achieve that?

EBV: I would almost put it the opposite way, in terms of trying to look hard enough, that you defamiliarize yourself with what you see every day. One of the things with poetry that I love, both as a writer and as a reader, is that you sit there longer, look at the things harder, until you begin to see their strangeness, and I mean the strangeness of the things we think of as ordinary. I think those things are, in the main, layered and strange and mysterious. My notion is to get to that by way of more realistic presentation. I feel that it is deeply strange and mysterious. To cope, we tend to turn away from strangeness. Otherwise, if we deal with the significance of everything that crosses our paths, we go mad.

CMT: The new poems especially seem to deal with a number of hard, though not necessarily biographical, life events. To what extent do you use poetry as a way of working through crisis or tragedy?

EBV: I don’t know that I use poetry to deal with things. I think that there’s just a kind of pressure that builds up around various subjects or occasions, and when the pressure is sufficient, then that tends to drive poems for me. Sometime they’re autobiographical circumstances, sometimes they’re not. Or sometimes they’re autobiographical circumstances that are veiled. I’m not sure a reader would be able to pick out which ones are which. Some of what feel to me like the most personally revelatory poems I’ve ever written have been oblique, sort of like Elizabeth Bishop writing through the voice of Robinson Crusoe. Others might speak from within an experience that I actually didn’t live through, I just had occasion to imagine them.

Craig Morgan Teicher's poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in many publications, including, The Paris Review, The Yale Review, Bookforum, and Poets & Writers. His first book, Brenda Is In The Room And Other Poems won the 2007 Colorado Prize for Poetry and is due out this November. He works as an editor at Publishers Weekly.