An Interview with Larissa Szporluk

Larissa Szporluk is the author of four collections of poetry: Dark Sky Question (winner of the Barnard Poetry Prize), Isolato (winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize), The Wind, Master Cherry, the Wind, and Embryos & Idiots. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Poetry (1991 and 2001) and New American Voices amongst others. In 2003, she was the recipient of an NEA grant. Additionally, in 2005 she was a visiting professor at Cornell University. She earned her BA from the University of Michigan and her MFA from the University of Virginia where she was a Henry Hoyns Fellow. Currently, she’s an associate professor of Creative Writing and Literature at Bowling Green State University where she teaches both undergraduate and graduate-level courses. I first met Larissa as an MFA student at Bowling Green in 2003. This interview was conducted over e-mail in the middle of November 2008.

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In Embryos & Idiots you appropriate and re-imagine the myth of the fall. Yet your myth, to me, doesn’t seem to want primacy, or doesn’t want to lay claim to being an organizing myth. Often, myth either structures society, as in religion, or legitimizes/ repudiates political power, as Virgil was doing in the Aeneid or even Milton, in part, in Paradise Lost. This doesn’t seem to be your intent, however. Could you discuss what you sought to accomplish by using myth in Embryos & Idiots?

My goal was really simple—I just wanted to be in control of the story line. After my creative difficulty writing about Pinocchio in The Wind, Master Cherry, the Wind, I decided that I had much to learn about narrative. In the end, I discovered that all good narratives, especially myth, come with phantom layers composed of those necessary excisions and alterations (the things that are sacrificed for the symmetry of the finished product), as well as the extraneous life they breathe into a reader. If I ever approach another great work like The Adventures of Pinocchio, I will speak to the phantoms, never to what is obviously there.

A common criticism of work that is non-representational and functions on a more symbolic level is that it’s somehow removed, and therefore, less honest than work that is more confessional or literal. Yet in your work that’s certainly not the case. In fact, I would argue that the execution of your poems allows you to get at a rawness few poets do. This comes into particular relief in section two of Embryos & Idiots with your “mediations.” How does technique allow you to get at these insights and emotions?

I’ve always enjoyed dramatic monologue and I was especially liberated, as you rightly detect, by the fact that the speakers are all in Limbo, a place/condition I identify with only too well. But my own spiritual and moral problems are so common, so pedestrian, that I jumped like a tick at the opportunity to be George Bush, for example, in “Cuckoo,” or a man in the electric chair in “Stars & Marrow,” or even an oedipal god figure in “Celestial Militia,” as they are personae whose utterances have more consequence. In the past, I have relied on imagery to give my voice more dynamism; in E & I, I wanted to test how narrative context could inspire more variety of expression and rhythm. In general, I am worried by how little I have to say. Dramatic monologue allows me to travel.

Your poems, not only in Embryos & Idiots but in all your books, deal with the political, but usually as an abstract, or as a whole as opposed to critiquing specific people or incidents. What is your reason for approaching the political in this manner?

A bit of cowardice, I suppose, but it’s also an aesthetic choice. When one reader learned that I’d been working with a George Bush voice in “Cuckoo,” she was really disappointed. It practically ruined the poem for her. I think it would have ruined it for me too! So I like the layering—the more worlds packed into one, the more excited I get as I try to satisfy the multiple demands. As a cuckoo bird, both a living one and a mechanical clock one, he became more ominous, and that was exciting for the poem. In short, I think abstracting the political inevitably develops it in surprising ways, and therefore, a poet can learn beyond his or her preconceptions. I got an uncanny feeling writing that poem—that logic can be wound up to a high point of illogical tension.

In your book, there’s a progression of subjects that starts with a third person omniscient narrator, to a straightforward third-person persona, to the communal we and us and finally ending on the first-person I. What was your purpose in doing this?

Exactly what I discussed above—to see how much poetic “weight” (like moss) I could gather by the book’s end. In “Terminus,” I’m just me—plain me. In “Satan at Length,” I’m a weary, even impotent devil impersonator; in both of those poems the speaker is the true one, the voice that is underneath the entire collection—in other words, what’s left when the whole Anoton conceit is peeled away. A scarecrow and a lousy little grass snake. How could they have sustained an entire volume? They only become interesting when they’re exposed for what they are (or aren’t).

Artists have always asked themselves what the merits of their art are in relation to society, and I think it’s a particularly interesting question to ask of poetry today as poetry becomes more entrenched in the academy. What does it mean to be a poet today? What should poetry “do” today?

I’m completely at loss to answer those questions in any meaningful or informed way, although I think about them all the time. To be a poet today means to dedicate yourself to something so beautiful and so marginal that it’s like that Horton elephant with his little dandelion seed world or whatever it was. You have to be willing to protect this thing that very few people will ever “see” and treat it like a whole world, a world comparable to the one in which you physically dwell—so the best answer I have to that first question is: it means only what it means to you. As for the second one, I think poetry should do what it’s always done and that “today” is just another “day”: it should alarm, seduce, haunt, and change. I really think a great poem can change a reader, just as it changed the poet who wrote it. When that sense of transformation gets transferred from the poet to the reader, the most magnificent little zing goes off in the brain and suddenly everything is worth it. That’s when “society” steps in and the academy leaves off. But it’s not a relationship that can be forced. It has to happen naturally—by chance, word-of-mouth, etc. If someone “needs” a poem, I believe they will find it. Our job is to keep writing work that supplies that need (which of course we can’t plan for or predict; we can only trust that our emotions and ideas have universal value. That’s the hard part: the trust).

While I personally feel that my MFA was a formative and invaluable experience for me as a writer, many see that the incorporation of poetry into the academy is a dangerous thing. Others worry that undergraduate and MFA programs standardize poetic aesthetic. As a professor in Bowling Green State University’s MFA program, what do you feel are the benefits, and downsides, of MFA programs?

This is another question I’m obsessed with and for which I have no definite answer. I agree that there are dangers of the type you describe, but there are “dangers” everywhere, in every decision an artist has to make. My sense is that, should an MFA experience go awry, it is still erring on the side of caution. You “lose” two years—but do you? There’s no way to gauge that having taken the job at the aviary would have been better for your poetry. Plus, you’re not a prisoner. You can simply leave. On the flipside, the MFA can provide the very conditions that a writer needs to affirm his or her commitment: the support, the challenge of having to defend and master your aesthetic, the inevitable intellectual and creative growth that takes place—to “risk” your poetry being potentially standardized for a two-year period sounds like an innocuous risk considering the potential benefits. It’s important to bear in mind that an MFA program is a place, a situation, like any other on Earth. The power you let it lord over you—that’s up to you.

I’ve had the benefit of taking your workshop. I’ll never forget the workshop where we burnt our poems or the one where we drew the shape our respective poems made. What was the most memorable workshop you’ve ever taught, or what is the most beneficial workshop activity that you do with your students?

The burning of the poems was Byron Kanoti’s idea, if you recall, and I went along with it because I knew that his feelings at the time were important: he was disgusted and frustrated by the sense that the workshop poems were heading straight out the door to journals—that the workshop was becoming a “preview” editorial board. He was longing for the poem that was written for itself only—hence the burning, to represent its return to “nothingness” as opposed to the self-conscious publication. I remember the group had a mixed and somewhat terrified response, especially those who had written “publishable” poems. But of course the whole activity was drama—nothing “binding,” and as far as I was concerned, it was good to experience. For some of us, it forced important revisions. I’m always in favor of establishing new relationships with one’s work and that is where the benefit of the group comes in—people can suggest things that we would never think of doing on our own. It’s important to shed some of that purist thinking—purity in an artist can quickly lead to sterility. A group is always more dynamic, even if problematic!

As for part two of your question, there is no single best activity because every group is so different. I’ve learned that it’s risky to repeat a successful exercise—it can take on a hollow quality that I abhor. That’s the hardest part of teaching: assessing the general mood/needs of the group and trying to tailor them effectively to maximize the challenge. In general though, the assignments that push a more flexible relationship to the poem are the best: to get a student to see how one image affects an entire poem, how a change of title transforms the perception of the body, how interruption can serve to provide a glimpse into the “under” poem—in other words, any activity that emphasizes the volatile nature of a poem is a good one.

I apologize for asking this question, yet I still think it’s an important one. Who are you reading right now, and/or what contemporary poets influence your work? Also, who are some emerging poets who you think are doing something “new” or whose aesthetics are interesting?

Right now, it being mid-semester, I am mainly reading student work, which I consider to be important “emerging” work—the distance between that first book that classifies poets as officially emerging and the work they’re doing right now is often minimal. So I am continually challenged and excited when students are branching out, experimenting with weird and wonderful ideas. One student has more or less “disappeared” into an investigation of a flat world and we can’t wait for her to “come back” and tell us what she’s learned. I tend to stay very attracted and committed to the same poets over long periods—Jane Mead, Olena Kalytiak Davis, Alice Fulton, Miroslav Holub, Tony Tost, Maurice Manning, Franz Wright, Linda Gregg, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, William Blake, Philip Larkin, to name a few—but whenever I come across something that registers as “new,” I’m ready to reel it in for a look. It’s important not to build a fortress of resistance. I appreciated reading The Man-Suit by Zachary Schomberg, which you recommended, if you recall. I completely respect his energy and determination to spin the world anew. Sometimes I feel that getting older involves a fidelity to comfort that is a real danger to the craft. Poets like Schomberg help me to recall my vow against complacency. I believe that every book should be written as both a first and last book (and even more idealistically, every poem as well!). Only problem is: so much easier said than done. But it can hang there as a banner nevertheless.

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