Interview with Lucie Brock-Broido, 2013 National Book Award Finalist, Poetry
Alfred A. Knopf
Interview by Shara Lessley
Shara Lessley: ‘Poetry is a cold art,’ you recently said, ‘with a big heart of all heat.’ How does this tension play out in Stay, Illusion, your much-anticipated fourth collection?
Lucie Brock-Broido: In its first blush, a new poem is not cold at all—in fact, whatever has troubled that poem into mind has come straight from the warm-blooded, mammalian heart. The steely, more ruthless self is the Editorial Self, the self that seizes back the excesses and the wildernesses and the confections of the earliest drafts. It’s akin to what Wallace Stevens, in my opinion, was discussing when he wrote ‘Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.’ The first soliloquy of a poem is—in the initial rush—all heat, indulgence. You let the poem Have Its Way with You. The big heart is in that translucency of how a poem happens into being. You admit a series of initiating realities, truths—but not yet told slant. After a long period of incubation, you muster the courage to become hard on yourself, on the poem itself. You keep it on a tight leash as you edit the thing. You yank the choke-chain harder. The final soliloquy, many, many drafts later, is the poem after it’s been raked and scarified and held tight. Then, finally, you let yourself Have Your Way with the poem.
The tensions play out in this new book like that: I wanted to write about things that generate much heat in me—large-scale ideas (my own life in Blue America—with no real sense of how the Red America can sleep at night—capital punishment, the way we treat humans, the way we treat all creatures) played out—but spoken only through Blake’s ‘minute particulars.’ All require a big heart, a permeable one. The cold art is in the surgeries (thoracic cavity carved open)—the tackling of such subjects without the indulgences of sentimentality. Instead: invoking the odd marriage between real Sentiment ever-so-slightly comingled with (necessary!) Dementia. I strive for that: it’s what my friend, Liam Rector, called ‘Sentimentia.’
SL: Where do poems begin for you—with an image, a fact, a phrase? Take ‘For a Snow Leopard in October,’ for instance. How did it come into being?
LBB: ‘For a Snow Leopard in October’ is pure elegy. In fact, it was caused into being by having to put down a kitten—a blue Maine Coon; I called him Timothy and I was in love with him. The poem closes: Stay here / In our clouded bed of wind and timothy with me. / Lie here with me in snow. There’s a kind of wild grass called “timothy,” and so, from a slightly oblique angle I sneaked his name in.
And for many years, I’d wanted to write a poem about the festival held each autumn at St. John the Divine called ‘The Blessing of the Animals.’ People from all over the world bring their creatures there: the menagerie is spectacular, and moving. There are goats and mourning doves and borzoi dogs, camels and cockatoos. In the poem, I married the two impulses, the two triggers—the despair of euthanasia and the blessing of the pageantry in the festival of St John.
As for your first question—other ‘triggers’ for poems—All of the above! An image. A series of facts. A long-held idea.
An image: in the gritty 1961 film (Marilyn Monroe’s last—with Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift), The Misfits—wild horses are hunted down by lassoing heavy ropes with tires on them, thrown down from a helicopter. Once caught, the creatures run until they can no longer move from the weight and its hindrance. Eventually, they surrender; they lie down on the plains. Their bodies are sold for meat, their hooves for glue, their manes…
Or, a fact: there is such a phenomenon we call ‘humane farming.’ To my mind, there is no such thing. Or, a series of facts: the many grotesque cases of capital punishments in America that continue to be botched. The fact that in our own country, we still cling to the institution of the death penalty.
A phrase: years ago, I found myself in Canterbury Cathedral, where Edward, Price of Aquitaine, was buried in 1376. Around his effigy this epitaph was inscribed:
Such as thou art, sometime I was.
Such as I am, such shalt thou be.
Those lines stood my hair on end. I’ve carried them with me for decades. Someday, they may generate a poem, one that I’m (so thankfully) not quite ready to tangle with yet.
SL: Your titles are often as inventive as the contents they frame—‘Currying the Fallow-Colored Horse,’ ‘Scarinish, Minginish, Griminish,’ ‘Father, in Drawer,’ ‘Considering the Possible Music of Your Hair.’ How do you go about the act of naming?
LBB: Naming is a form of adoring. And possessing. There’s not been a beloved or belover in my life whom I’ve not renamed. And renamed and renamed. This is a fact in my life; I’m not romanticizing. The longer and harder you love something, the more names you have for it.
I keep a leather-bound journal that I’ve had for eons with lists of names and titles in it. This book I call my Grimoire, a term which means: ‘a little book of spells and incantations.’ Many of these bits and scraps I keep for years. Sometimes these titles are so delicious (and I can say that, because many are not my own, but are quotes stolen from all manner of places and peoples and things) that I use a title to spawn a poem. For instance, from Stevens: ‘The Halo that Would Not Light.’ Or, ‘Still Life with Aspirin.’ Or, a picture-postcard of a place called ‘Funk Island, Newfoundland’—how many poems could that generate? Or, floating, lifted lines from German and Spanish Surrealist poets.
Sometimes, I just place a title at the top of the undisturbed, blank page and that name becomes something like a piece of sand that happened into the delicate flesh of an oyster, blank itself and closed off from the world. The oyster is irritated by the rude discomfort of the arrival of something foreign from an outside world. Therefore, to be quit of the disquiet of the interruption, the scratchiness, it begins to build a gem, layer by layer, smoothly, around that disturbance. The result, eventually, is a pearl. Beauty: composed of endless nacreous mantles to ward off and cloak and contain the original provocation.
‘Currying the Fallow-Colored Horse,’ for example, is a medieval idiom for dissembling, not quite telling the truth, making up tales. It became a poem with a place to tell some good lies. When I was writing ‘Scarinish, Minginish, Griminish,’ I was, indeed, casting a dark spell. It’s a giddy, wild, vengeful little piece of work. I felt enormously harmed, once, in the long-ago, by a particular person in my life. I decided to condemn him to a poem. I was researching (for some reason) tiny, obscure Scottish islands, place-names that seemed quite funny to me, almost with a Lewis Carroll jabberwockish musicality. Then I took him and, through various machinations, turned him into a starfish (two arms lopped off!). I invented a character named Fearghas, a little boy in Dingwall, who scooped up that starfish and took it home to possess and decorate him, colorfully. Many of the color-names I chose are names of crayons that have been ‘retired’ from the Crayola Canon of Crayons!
The title ‘A Cage Goes in Search of a Bird’ came from an entry in one of Kafka’s journals. I first found that line in 1979. To me—it’s the most extraordinary—concise—short story ever composed. A whole world is contained in it.
SL: End rhyme binds vigil, will, and still in the final lines of ‘Little Industry of Ghosts.’ For me, the sonic cluster captures much of the book’s preoccupation both with mourning and devotion. Can you talk a bit about what vigilance, stillness, and will (in its many forms) have to do with loss or grief?
LBB: Your question contains my answer in it! Mourning and devotion, yes: I keep vigil over both of these, and all the time. Stillness: is all that has been taken away from the page. Will: is the world I will myself to live in. Willfulness: my DNA, my donnée, my given. As for loss and grief—in real life— my heart has never been still for one waking moment. Stillness: not even in sleep.
SL: ‘Infinite Riches in the Smallest Room’—the title of the book’s first poem—strikes me as a tender and pragmatic phrase one might use to characterize the stanza. Although Stay, Illusion puts a variety of structures to use, you return time and again to one-line stanzas. How do you decide if a phrase, sentence, or cluster of fragments has enough integrity to stand alone?
LBB: Exactly. A stanza is, after all, merely a room. A poem could be a room—of its own. But a book—itself—perhaps a Room with a View. Many views! My title itself is ‘refracted’ from a line in ‘As You Like It.’ Then Marlowe came along and wrote a riff in ‘The Jew of Malta’ in conversation with that line. My own ‘Infinite Riches in the Smallest Room’ has a sibling much later in the book called ‘Great Reckoning in a Little Room.’
About lineation, in the years between books, I give myself the space and time to re-invent how my poems inhabit my mind, my voice, then—eventually, the page itself. In particular poems, I wanted each line to be capable of supporting itself as its own free-standing room. First, I called these ‘clothespin’ poems. That seemed inaccurate; I tried on the term ‘clothesline’ poems. Each ‘onelette’ would be a hemp rope stretched across two fixed posts. The images in the lines would be the garments, pinned down, hard and fast, drying through the wind. If I can pull a line taut enough, and it does not break against that wind, then it gets to stand alone.
SL: I’m curious about juxtaposition in ‘Of Tookie Williams;’ particularly, the moment the poem turns from the execution chamber (‘...it’s only salt that stops // the heart—you know—that simple’) to animals ‘haltered in // or bled out broad by day.’ Did this shift surprise you?
LBB: Yes. I had no idea while writing about Tookie Williams (the founder of the Crips in south central LA in the ‘70’s) during my research on the subject, what would happen or where it would lead me. I knew only how unfair and horrific his execution had been. That is one of the mysteries of writing, the strange connections, the leaps, the not-knowing-yet. I had no idea that a string of images would then lead me to the subject of the willful killing of creatures other than human. The poem must have been, originally, instead of, say, thirty lines, well over a hundred lines.
Editing really is a high-wire act. You have to jettison so much—
How do you carve an elephant? You take away everything that is not the elephant.
You can bewilder, or astonish a series of images by taking out all the didactic mumble-speak that once (you thought) was connecting things. But in the end, the poem was about human vengeance, and I believe we ‘put down’ our own kind in the same way that we (with skewed malice aforethought) take the lives of animals, meting out our punishments, shamefully.
SL: Of Stanley Kunitz you write, ‘In the small illuminations of his work, he tamed the owl...’ What of the lyric have you mastered? What in your poetry refuses to be restrained?
LBB: I don’t think I could claim that I’ve ‘mastered’ any aspect of lyric poetry. If I have done so, I should quit while I’m ahead! That journey toward mastery must go on for a whole lifetime. I do know, though, in many concrete ways, that I now know where I stand, more firmly, on the page. Perhaps even more so, I now know how to traffic in the unspeakable, and I keeping finding new ways to speak of it. I’ve become more demanding of the work I do. More commanding and hell-bent. With each book (and this is only my fourth in 30 years of writing), my desire has been for each new collection to contain a re-invention of my style, my station, my obsessions, choreographies, my fears and passions, my way of speaking of and to the world. Roughly every seven years, we grow a new skin. A new book, for me, takes about that long.
What refuses to be restrained? In truth—everything. There is no stopping this. Blake’s lithograph: I want! I want! I want! I’ve coaxed myself to allow my feral instincts to run wilder still. To have less self-consciousness. Then I chisel down into my own odd, extravagant habit of what I call violent concision. Meanwhile, I try hard to contain the coveting that governs my every move: the idea that I want nothing, nothing (ever) to change. I have no instinct, no gift for hankering after (or even embracing) change, in what Kunitz called ‘the fullness of time.’ I really do yearn for every illusion to stay.
Shara Lessley is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. Her awards include an Artist Fellowship from the State of North Carolina, the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, Colgate University’s O’Connor Fellowship, The Gilman School’s Tickner Fellowship, and a “Discovery” / The Nation prize. A recent resident of the Middle East, Shara is the 2014 Mary Wood Fellow at Washington College.