An Interview with Linda Gregerson

Linda Gregerson’s books of poetry include the 2007 National Book Award-nominated Magnetic North; Waterborne, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep, a finalist for both The Poet’s Prize and the Lenore Marshall Award; and Fire in the Conservatory. Her poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry as well as in the Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, Ploughshares, The Yale Review, TriQuarterly, and numerous other publications.  She is also the author of literary criticism, including Negative Capability: Contemporary American Poetry and The Reformation of the Subject: Spenser, Milton, and the English Protestant Epic.

Her many awards and honors include the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine, the Consuelo Ford Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Isabel MacCaffrey Award from the Spenser Society of America, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, three Pushcart Prizes, and a Kingsley Tufts Award. She is Caroline Walker Bynum Distinguished University Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she teaches creative writing and Renaissance literature and lives with her husband and two daughters.

The following conversation took place over email during the summer of 2009.

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You mentioned that you’re currently working on completing your next manuscript, and I wanted to ask if you could you say a little bit about the ways you perceive Magnetic North departs from Waterborne, and in turn, if you might say a few words about this manuscript that’s currently coming into shape and its place in the evolution of your poems’ concerns.

After Waterborne, I knew I had to make a formal break. I’d based that book, and the one before, almost exclusively on a tercet I had developed in the ’90s. It saved my life, that tercet, but I was beginning to know it too well. I was frightened to death, frankly, about making the change; it was like learning to walk again.

The writing in which I have been most at home relies on several kinds of syncopation: multiple voicing, interrupted syntax, an editorializing consciousness, maximum tension between syntax and poetic line. But the new book began with a sequence I wrote as part of a collaboration with composer Susan Botti: seven poems in the voice of Dido. Because the lyrics in performance will belong to a single voice, I had to aim for something much more linear and limpid than I am used to, something that can achieve both tonal and ethical complexity without resorting to an overwrought surface. I’m not sure how well I have succeeded, but I came to be enthralled with the process, and enthralled to discover the extent to which form followed function: the more transparent voice and consciousness produced a more transparent prosody.

I don’t think of myself as writing dramatic monologues, for the most part, but the assumed persona was a way of tricking myself into a change of method. We’ll see how well I can make it outlive its triggering occasion.

I understand that you’re currently co-editing a book with Susan Juster called Religion and Empire in the Early Modern Atlantic World. Could you say a bit about why you were drawn to that particular project?

My colleague Susan Juster and I taught a graduate course together on Religion and Empire a couple of years ago and followed that up with a conference and then this volume. Sue is a wonderful historian who works on religious violence in 17th and 18th century America. My own scholarly work has always focused on the stress fractures we refer to as the English Reformation. So the topic was a natural for us. We’re both very wary of the ways in which religion, especially early modern Christianity, has so often been addressed by historians and literary scholars: as a species of false consciousness or craven alibi on the one hand, or a credo in need of “rescue,” on the other. We’re interested in the fuller range of interweavings and transformations, the dynamic expansion, fragmentation, and dispersal of religious communities, ideas, and material cultures that begin in the 16th century. We’ve gathered essays by literary scholars, historians, and anthropologists, by scholars of the English-, French-, German- and Spanish-speaking peoples of early modern Atlantic world. We’re very excited about the results.

Given your work and deep interest in sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century British poetry, I’m curious what your relationship is to post-1950s British poetry. And do you have any opinions as to why, generally speaking, American poets are as unaware as they often are (outside of Heaney, Hughes, Muldoon, etc.) of what has been going on in British poetry over the last fifty to sixty years?

Oh dear, it’s telling, isn’t it, that when we reach for British poetry we so often come up with Irish instead. Heaney and Muldoon loom very large, of course, as do Eavan Boland and any number of other wonderful Irish poets. But I read contemporary British poets with great pleasure and admiration too: Don Paterson, John Burnside, Alice Oswald, Pauline Stainer, and Robin Robertson are particularly high on my list. Kathleen Jamie. Jackie Kaye. Ruth Padel. And it’s probably no accident that Scottish poets figure so prominently.

But I recognize of course the divide you’re talking about. British and American poetry diverged quite a bit in the course of the twentieth century: I think we were following quite different imperatives for the most part, and stopped being able to read one another well. Except for a stalwart few (including real luminaries like Wilbur and Merrill), American poets turned away from traditional form after the 1950s; most British poets found a way to stay in touch with it. Rhyme is the great litmus test: it’s simply part of the competence for many British poets (as for their Irish peers), whereas that hasn’t been true in the US for ages. It’s always tricky to speak about form too breezily, as though we all knew what we meant by the term. Let us, for the moment, construe form not in its broadest sense (no verse is perfectly “free”) but in the sense of conspicuous contract with reiterative or restrictive patterning of one sort or another. In this sense, American poets have been coming back to form in large numbers. Coming back with a difference, of course, and generally with a preference for found or invented form rather than received form. But I’m not sure that this alone will bridge the Atlantic divide. When my students turn to the poetry of other cultures, they’re likelier to turn to the poets of Poland or Lebanon or Argentina or South Africa than to the poets of England. Anglophone poetry has so many manifestations now: I think if British poetry and American poetry enter a phase of more robust engagement, as I hope they will, it will be as part of a larger whole.

Why do you think it is that formal influences are coming back into American poetry at this particular time?

Poetry always seeks the tensile strength of formal propositions. Received forms seemed to many American poets to have lost that tensile strength for a while: we want to choose our strictures and arbitrary subjections rather than inherit them by default. Or perhaps we simply want to fool ourselves. In any case, I think form of all kinds feels like a choice again.

Something I’m interested in right now is the influence upon poets of art peripheral to their writing. What I have in mind are those films, paintings, folk crafts, symphonies, etc., which are extremely important to the way the poet thinks, or to the technique of the poet’s work, or even to the poet personally, or in any way that those works don’t actually become the subject of a given poem. For example, I imagine a poet who greatly values and who has been impressed upon by the work of Wong Kar-Wei, Bunuel, Hitchcock, Fassbinder or some other director’s work, and yet whose poetry would leave the average reader largely unaware of this relationship. Could you speak to this phenomenon as it applies to you? I’d be particularly fascinated to hear you speak to cinema that is important to you, but if there is another medium you’d prefer to address, run with it.

For me the crucial medium, apart from poetry, is the theatre. I’m devoted to it; I go as often as I can; I think it’s really the foundational form of human imagination, even closer to the core of things than picture-making. We learn to be human by practicing the gestures and tones of voice we behold around us: watch any child in the first two years of her life. Shall I name names? I was deeply impressed in the 1970s by the work of Polish directors Jerzy Grotowski, Tadeusz Kantor, and Jozef Szajna. My life was changed when I saw Peter Brook’s production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. More recently, Chen Shi-Zheng, Katie Mitchell, Robert Wilson, Robert Lepage: they’re all doing transformative work in the contemporary theatre. As is a wonderful, somewhat ephemeral site-specific theatre group in London called Angels in the Architecture.

Remember what Emily Dickinson said about poetry? I know it’s the real thing when it takes the top of my head off. That’s how I’ve felt about Chen Shi-Zheng’s Forgiveness, Katie Mitchell’s Some Trace of Her, Robert Lepage’s Lipsynch, the Cologne section of Robert Wilson’s the CIVIL warS. I weep, I laugh, I walk on air when I see work like this. And my ways of seeing are forever changed. Take the CIVIL warS: Wilson saturates the stage with so much magic – aural, visual, narrative, non-narrative, mimetic, non-mimetic, textual, musical – that each member of the audience is transformed into an active collaborator. One must choose which paths to follow, one cannot possibly follow them all. Nor is it a cluttered field, never: it is exquisitely choreographed, performed with impeccable discipline, so one encounters, as is almost never the case in life, a field of superabundance with no dilution, no scrambling, no muddiness. Just this fabulous accession of plenitude: one follows first this thread, then another, keeping one or two or, fleetingly, three others in mind; then one lets it go to pick up another. And none of the paths is wrong; everywhere one turns is right. Right, then right again. And of course, each performance, for each audience member as also for the aggregate, is different. It’s like discovering one can fly.

Katie Mitchell has been generating a similar effect with her recent dazzling experiments in live performance/real-time video montage. She’s done three of these hybrid productions to date – The Waves, Some Trace of Her, and After Dido – of which, in my judgment, the second is far and away the most successful. And yet she is also capable of great simplicity.

Simplicity – conceptual simplicity – was also the keynote of the legendary Midsummer Night’s Dream Peter Brooks directed at Stratford in 1970. He set the play in a white box with circus trappings: Oberon on a trapeze, Puck with a spinning plate, Helena become a hurtling gymnast – flattened, boardlike, horizontal – to prevent Demetrius’ escape through a doorway. The radical insight – and the genius – of the production was the lightness with which is wore its conceit: no belabored effort to make the circus an allegory for Athenian conquest or generational strife, no pretence at finding the deeper key to the sexual politics of the play, just a single, joyous, What If. And the ordinary wonder of the juggler and people in flight, albeit with the aid of wires and swings, was allowed to work its magic, which was very much in keeping with Shakespeare’s play.

Lepage: He’s a master of stage image – absolutely haunting images, they flame forever in one’s memory — and he also has a very generous, almost childlike, interest in storytelling. Lepage does not condescend, either to his materials or his audience. So his powers of enchantment are intact.

I’ve learned an immense amount from each of these theatre artists, especially about poetic structure.

Something I noticed about Chen Shi-Zheng’s Forgiveness is that it seems particularly concerned with bringing together and presenting multiple influences and stories without letting any single one become swallowed up by another. Rather Chen Shi-Zheng is telling the multi-faceted narrative in a fractured manner. Many of your poems, to my mind, manage this same achievement. Can you say something about why you find this approach particularly important?

There is an absolutely stunning moment in Forgiveness when, amidst the instrumental and vocal lines from Peking opera, Noh drama, and classical Korean dance, Western audience members could swear they are hallucinating the more familiar sounds of “Danny Boy.” This cannot be, we think. And then the melodic line becomes undeniable. How brilliant, I thought: in a play about the modern history of violence and persecution among three of Asia’s ancient civilizations, the director has interpolated an Irish song, to remind us of our own history of violence and persecution in the West. So imagine my astonishment when Chen Shi-Zheng, during a post-performance Q & A, explained that “Danny Boy” had been a favored song among the Korean “comfort women” during World War II and had therefore been banned by their Japanese captors.

Stories are haunted by other stories, voices by other voices. Poetry can make of this a major resource.

Something I was struck by in reading about the CIVIL warS, and in reading what you had to say about the play, is the idea of the audience members as collaborators, which I also think applies to Lepage’s Lipsynch. The work of art is always implicitly recreated in the eyes and mind of the viewer, but in cases of collaboration the work is now directly susceptible to the influences of outside forces, and yet the playwright or director is still ultimately responsible for what is expressed by the evolving and finished work. In addition to the implied joint moral responsibility, the collaboration certainly calls into question ideas of the artist’s “ownership” of the work. I wonder if you have any thoughts on this.

You put your finger on a very interesting crux. How can a work of art be both rigorous and open? The answer has to lie in a combination of structure and plenitude, I think. The writer or designer or director can devise a structure or field of vision that merits and rewards multiple “readerly” paths. This does not mean that indeterminacy reigns. Quite the contrary. And you’re right, of course, about the moral dimension.

I’m particularly taken with Mitchell’s approach to the classics, and so I wonder, why do you think some critics and theatre-goers are so disturbed by Mitchell’s reconfiguration of (classical) texts, or as one critic phrased it her “smashing up the classics”?

I think true fidelity sometimes calls for smashing up. Take the Greek chorus, a device that’s almost impossible to manage on the modern stage. A bunch of people start speaking in unison, or distributing speeches according to some compromised logic of psychological or social plausibility, and everyone in the audience gets embarrassed. At best, we “make allowances” and prepare to admire a kind of antiquarian re-enactment. I saw the very best of this genre in a recent staging of Oedipus at the National Theatre. But in her 2004 production of Iphegenia at Aulis, Mitchell decided to aggravate rather than ameliorate the coercive powers of convention. Her chorus was summoned into speech, and to an automaton version of ballroom dancing, by the cranking up of forties big band music on a gramophone. The choreography was gorgeous; the artifice was both sensuously and intellectually fascinating: a provocative take on the imperatives that make for community consensus and authorized interpretation in a world at the mercy of quarreling and arbitrary gods. Judging by the number of platitudes he assigns them, Euripides meant his chorus to have an edge.

I can’t speak for the people who object to this. I think they must construe allegiance differently than I do.

In the work of Chen, Mitchell, Lepage, etc. there is a very purposeful and important use of contemporary pop culture, and also of multimedia and advanced technology. This seems in turn to reconfigure our concept of the “rules” of theatrical illusion. What does it add that wasn’t there in theatre before?

That’s a very astute formulation, Adam; I couldn’t possible say it better: by means of these experimental inclusions, these director/dramatists renew and reconfigure the proposition of theatrical illusion. Theatre has never been about fooling the audience into seamless credulity: the Greeks cranked gods down from a machine; the three people required to animate a puppet in Bunraku are always fully visible. These are key sites for the collaborative nature of the art, which we were talking about earlier. The point is not to add something that wasn’t there before, but to keep the durable genius of the medium fresh.

Lepage’s Lipsynch was intentionally premiered as a work in progress, so that it was, theoretically, different from one performance to the next, and it morphed from a four hour to a nine hour production over the course of its development. Considering the expectations of publishers and readers, is there room in poetry for the presentation of works in progress, and/or for works which collaborate with the audience (rather than another poet)? I wonder what a successful attempt at this would look like.

Surely cyberspace is the logical place to look? Poetry requires both structure, or stricture, and unfolding possibility. I expect the most exhilarating new forms will take some insights from computer games.

Something I think I’ve been getting at with these questions about collaboration, about the use of film and technology in theatre, about the presentation of works in progress, has to do with the plasticity of theatre, its ability to capture experience that cannot be translated into linguistic code. How can poets express what cannot be translated into linguistic code?

Different media have different virtues and limitations; I wouldn’t want to push the analogies too far. The theatre is conspicuous for its amplitude. I’m drawn to the lyric because of its powers of distillation. But I think poetry is always about what eludes us. Words resonate with what cannot be said.

Both inside and outside of academia there is often quite a divide between those scholars and creative writers (perhaps the language poets most prominently come to mind) who place a high value on the theory of literature (i.e. Western, post-nineteenth century theory) as opposed to those scholars and creative writers who largely avoid it and/or see it as anathema. In turn, even among those poets who do more warmly embrace theory, often Barthes, Benjamin and Bachelard are valued above say, Latour, Foucault, Ranciere, etc. I wonder if you could mention a few literary theorists who, as a poet, you find particularly compelling and engaging.

I think anything that’s good for the mind is good for poetry. And I’m especially grateful to those thinkers who turn the familiar world on its axis a bit and offer us an alternative account of its deep formal logic. I don’t really distinguish between the overtly “literary” theorists and the others. So: Freud, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan.

Could you talk more about how/why these particular thinkers (or just one or two of them) are important to you?

Well, let me stay resolutely superficial here – I’ve already gone on and on about the theatre. But essentially, these four thinkers have thrilled me and refreshed my understanding of the world because they are all such brilliant readers. No one is more penetrating than Freud on the structures of symbolic meaning – inversions, elisions, composites, metonymy – his work might be a kind of Poet’s Primer. Foucault is particularly powerful on the structures of embodied thought: the disciplinary enforcements that have been so thoroughly internalized they require no outward shows of force; the psychological or philosophical propositions that manifest themselves in architecture or personal hygiene. Derrida’s explications of enabling contradictions at the heart of Rousseau and Plato address that foundational place where philosophical and political systems begin, where human aspiration and human fearfulness struggle to assume coherent shape. Lacan, well Lacan: imagine proposing that subjectivity begins with a mistake! His description of the mirror stage is an inherently theatrical insight, I believe: we get a self by practicing the gestures of self. Shakespeare proposes something very similar.

What role did art play in your parents’ lives, and in your life growing up?

If you mean the kind that comes in books or is hung on museum walls or played in concert halls, it featured very little in my parents’ lives when I was growing up. These were luxuries they chiefly did without. In later life, my mother has seized every opportunity to hear music, see paintings, savor books. I was given piano lessons when I was a child; I discovered drawing and painting in school. Theatre was the main revelation. And remains so.

What would the average Gregerson family photo have looked like when you were a child? I’m thinking of what the average family photo manages to reveal about relationships between those pictured, about place, about class, about atmosphere, about historical era, etc.

Well, let’s see. Something like this: my mother in a sundress, my father in a freshly ironed blue cotton shirt, blue jeans (the real kind, lots of pockets and loops for tools) and work boots, my sister with a halo of impossible-to-discipline blond curls, Linda with good posture, very long braids, and an artificial smile. I was not an easy-going child. Uncles and aunts and cousins all round, some card tables (tablecloths, also freshly ironed) and kitchen chairs on the lawn. Plates of chicken and sweet corn. The photo black and white and square.

Often, when reading your poems, I have the sense that the speaker/s, and often the characters, are beings who have sense of themselves as authentic, who despite knowing some darkness, are content with their own company, and so I wonder if you feel that same kind of comfort in your own skin?

That kind of comfort must be the most enviable thing on earth. I don’t think I’d recognize it if it settled in and took over the guest bedroom. Hence that unconvincing smile in childhood photographs.

There was a fourteen year gap between you first book, Fire in the Conservatory, and your second book, The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep, and I’m curious if you could say something about what happened to your conception of poetry, and about how your poetry evolved, during that gap between the two volumes.

Ah, I keep hoping no one will have noticed that gap, it’s rather mortifying to me. Those years were chiefly occupied with the clamorous business of daily life and with other kinds of writing, chiefly scholarly. Our two children were born and that, of course, changed everything. As it turns out, I don’t think there was anything better I could have done for my poetry: I knew nothing before those children were in the world to tell me what really matters.

The first poems that made me feel I was actually at work on a second book, the first that weren’t a bit of a leftover from the earlier momentum, were “Safe” and “The Bad Physician,” both elegies. I didn’t know how to speak about death, and my lack of knowing put pressure on the poems. They forced me to find a new form.

Could you cite a few younger poets whose work you find particularly compelling?

Gladly! Let’s see: I’ve just read page proofs of Karyna McGlynn’s fabulous first book, I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, which is about to appear from Sarabande. Nick Lantz’s brilliant first book, We Don’t Know We Don’t Know , is about to appear from Graywolf. I’ve long admired the work of Suji Kwock Kim and Victoria Chang, whose poems are so powerfully inflected by the history of twentieth century violence and displacement, who are able to integrate, with extraordinary tact and penetration, both the personal and the political. Matthew Dickman is a joy. Tung-Hui Hu makes magic of anything he takes in hand, whether it’s architectural theory or cyberspace or poetry; he’s published two books already and I expect to hear much, much more from him. Dan Chiasson is a gift to all of us, a superb poet and critic too. I’m longing to see new books by Susan Hutton and Catherine Barnett – they’re both geniuses of distillation. I’m eager for every new poem by Davis McCombs. The future of American poetry looks very bright.

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