Alice Fulton is the author of six books of poetry, including Cascade Experiment: Selected Poems, Felt, Sensual Math, and Powers of Congress. She is also the author of a collection of essays, Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry. Over the course of her career, she has received extensive recognition for her poetry, including fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the National Endowment of the Arts. Her most recent book, The Nightingales of Troy, was a remarkable departure for a poet at the height of her career. Rather than following her 2004 book, Cascade Experiment: Selected Poems with the expected—a seventh book of poetry—the current Anne S. Bowers Professor of English at Cornell University published her first collection of linked stories. That collection garnered starred reviews from both Kirkus Reviews and Booklist, as well praise from critics at The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Seattle Times, and The New York Times Book Review.
The following interview is taken from a sprawling conversation that took place in May of 2010 at a small café a block from the University of Cincinnati, where she was the 2010 Elliston Poet-in-Residence. As we spoke, the conversation was interrupted by a sudden, fleeting Midwest thunderstorm with heavy rain and jagged lightning strikes.
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Your most recent longer work was the collection of linked short stories, The Nightingales of Troy, which received considerable critical attention. Why did you make that move to fiction?
As I say to students, try to write the kind of book you love to read. I’ve always loved to read fiction as well as poetry, so I thought it would be wonderful to tell a story and have people engage with it. I felt I might reach a new group of readers who wouldn’t read poetry.
Early on, I wrote some narrative poems, but I lost interest in doing that, thinking it’s not what poetry does best, and it’s not what I want to do with poetry. But I still wanted to create narrative and characters, and fiction gave me a way to do it that felt absolutely right.
The way small medical details, like insulin in “Dorothy Loves Maleman” and opiates in “Happy Dust,” set the stories within particular times and places was one of the remarkable aspects of The Nightingales of Troy. How did you choose those details?
When I’m teaching fiction, I sometimes advise students to start with just one real fact and then imagine their way backwards from it, asking how could this have happened? I started “Happy Dust” with the ending. The end was: a farmwife in 1909 will give birth alone. The birth will be very difficult. I began imagining the events that might have led to this predicament. How did the character get into such a fix and how will she get through it?
For me, the question was how to make it interesting. The interesting part was the danger. My grandmother, who was a midwife and worked with a doctor, did give birth alone, on a farm. I knew that was dangerous, especially in 1909. But how could I hold the reader’s interest?
While researching the time period, I became interested in two drugs of the period: opiates and Bayer heroin. During the first decade of the 20th century, the Bayer Company, which now sells aspirin, sold heroin as an over-the-counter drug. You could go into a store and buy it, maybe order it through the Sears Catalogue. So I decided to have this farmwife character, a very sensible woman, use Bayer heroin. I also thought it might be interesting to have one of the nuns at the orphanage near the farm grow poppies and have a little business selling opium. I went with these notions and let the story unfold. I started with the real.
In “Dorothy Loves Maleman,” the 1940’s story, Dorothy is diagnosed as a schizophrenic. I used The American Journal of Psychiatry from the ’40s as a primary source. I knew about insulin therapy and was looking specifically for case histories. When I found those accounts, they turned out to be very sad reading, but I learned the details of exactly how insulin comas were induced, what instruments were used, etc. Then I was able to create a fictional character who’d been subjected to this terrible trauma.
Why did you choose to have linked stories rather than a “traditional” collection of short stories?
Early on, I was calling The Nightingales of Troy a novel-in-stories and planning to write one story set in each decade of the twentieth century. I thought it could be interesting to show the same characters across a big slice of time, at widely different ages and cultural moments. That structure was reassuring. It gave me a focus. I didn’t have to wonder how the book would cohere. I could get on with the writing and the research needed to create the spirit and texture of the decades. I also hoped to offer a sense of how language changes over time. I wanted the first story, “Happy Dust,” to have a 19th-century quality, like works of popular fiction written around that time—Anne of Green Gables or The Wizard of Oz. Tales. A sense of an oral tradition in the telling.
The 1920’s story, “A Shadow Table,” is very different. It’s the most minimalist story in the book and probably the most poetic. Its spareness might have been influenced by the imagist movement in poetics, which left the 19th century behind. The 1930’s story has a kind of WPA feel; the 1960’s story is psychedelic—funny and bright. To some small degree, I tried to get the prose to jive with the spirit of each decade, an intention that kept me interested.
Was the experience good enough that you’re planning to write more fiction?
I might like to try a novel instead of short fiction. Short fiction required a lot of stopping and starting. The research also took a long time. I’d work on a story set in the ’20s, switch to poems or essays, and then begin a story set in the ’30s. With a novel, I wouldn’t have that process of stopping and starting all over again. It could be a more continuous structure.
A novel is very different from short fiction, which I didn’t fully realize. I thought I was going to learn how to write a novel by writing short stories, but at some point I realized I’d learned to write—short stories. Of course, short fiction and novels have many things in common, but writing a novel would be a different experience for me. I think it might be a little easier because a novel is roomier, baggier than the short story. You don’t have to press on so quickly. For me, the short story was the hardest form I’ve tried. It was harder than poetry.
Yes. For one thing, you don’t need narrative tension in a poem. Poems have other sorts of tension, but there’s no conflict or “story problem.” Writing short fiction was hard because I had to make something happen and then end it. Of course, some stories were completely fun to write. At times I felt transported. The process often was deeply satisfying and that pleasure got me hooked.
How does your sense of language when you write poetry differ from when you write fiction?
I’ve been writing poetry for so long my sense of poetics is completely embedded. I don’t have to think about metaphor or trope, for instance. They just happen; they’re just there. I also don’t think about freshness or technique. But I do think intensely about language and lineation; language and the line are in the foreground. That’s all I consider. And content, of course.
When writing fiction, I had to think about many things that were new to me: character, tension, scene, dialogue, pace, and setting. I don’t think about any of that when writing poetry. I brought linguistic experience to fiction, but I had no experience with narrative tension. Now I know that narrative tension can take many forms: for instance, there can be conflict between characters; a rift between a character’s speech and thoughts; friction between a character and a place. But when I began writing fiction, creating narrative tension was the hardest part.
I think poetry did help me to imagine voices for certain characters. My book Palladium contains some dramatic monologues, so creating characters through voice was nothing new. The short story is such a compressed form, and I was used to tight structures, but it was still hard because I had to focus on and include the necessary elements of fiction. Poetry places such emphasis on each word. I was used to looking for the best and most economical way to say something, which is helpful when writing short fiction. Unfortunately, though, I started writing stories at the pace of poems. I’d write one paragraph and stop. That would be my day’s work. I’d go back the next day and change a sentence in that paragraph, change a word. That’s how I write poetry. I worried about losing all narrative momentum but took heart from other fiction writers who compose in a meticulous way.
So that’s what you took from poetry to fiction. Do you think you’re taking anything back to poetry from fiction?
A desire to return to it. I’ve been punished long enough! [Laughs] No, I’m kidding. Fiction did make me miss poetry. It made me want to go back for the things poetry is good at doing that fiction doesn’t care to do. With poetry, you don’t have to think about character, narrative tension, scene, or dialogue. Fiction made me love poetry more because I saw that poetry does so much without those requirements. Verse really is free. I felt liberated upon returning to poetry.
In your essay “Screens: An Alchemical Scrapbook,” you write that you “have a vested interest in the aesthetics of science.” As we’ve already talked about, that’s something you can see in your fiction, but it’s also in your essays and poetry .Why are you interested in the “aesthetics of science”? How does that interest affect your poetry?
The aesthetics of science surround us, especially if we include technology and engineering. Many objects that we see and use every day seem to have been designed by people whose strengths are not the strengths of artists. I guess I wish “science,” and it’s a huge term, had a more informed sense of aesthetics so that the objects we use (computers, for instance, even a gas fireplace) might be more visually interesting. Technology usually concentrates on function at the expense of aesthetics.
I’m interested in scientific language, which is part of the aesthetics of science, because it’s foreign to poetic diction. When I first started to draw upon scientific diction, it wasn’t being used very much in poetry. Now it is, but when I first became interested in scientific terms, they offered a new means of ruffling, upsetting, enriching, and complicating the poem’s tonal range. Scientists don’t analyze language and say “that’s a cliché,” yet they sometimes come up with wonderfully fresh terminology. In addition to new words, science gave me ways of thinking that were not eroded by use.
Also, science was alien. I didn’t care for science in high school. It didn’t interest me at all. Later, as a Fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows, I was surrounded by people who weren’t in the humanities, and I was influenced by their ideas. In fact, I met one of my best friends, John H. Holland, in the Michigan Society of Fellows. John is a brilliant scientist who works on complexity theory, so he knows a lot about physics, math, engineering, and artificial intelligence. We got together frequently and talked for hours. Having John as a friend led me to works I might not have read—or written—otherwise. If I had a question about any aspect of science, he could provide a good answer. He was interested in metaphor, so I could give him a poet’s take on that subject.
John also has a wonderful sense of play and fun. Once he suggested an assignment for both of us to try. He thought it would be interesting if we both wrote about an orchid that had evolved to look like a bee. He wanted to see the different approaches we’d take toward the same subject. I wrote a sequence of poems called “My Last TV Campaign,” which became a section of my book Sensual Math, and John wrote an essay that was published in Scientific American. In “My Last TV Campaign,” I used cross dressing and transvestism as a figure for genetic crossover, TV being an abbreviation of transvestite as well as television. When I spoke with John last week, he told me he was shocked by the sequence when he first read it. I understand, though I was a little shocked that he was shocked. The sequence, the cultural, gender analogy must have seemed really off the wall to him, not what he expected when he suggested the mutual assignment. But he said he now uses the metaphor himself when talking about the bee orchid.
Another thing you did in Sensual Math, which aligns with ideas of science, is you invented your own punctuation mark. You’ve called that punctuation mark “the bride” or “the sign of immersion.” How did you invent “==”?
I began experimenting with the double equal around 1992. I think I first used it in a poem in 1993, while working on Sensual Math. I became interested in lace making. I had some library books on the craft, and in the diagrams, the background threads that held the lace together looked like two equal signs. I learned that those background threads are called brides. This struck a chord with me; it resonated since I was interested in the background rather than foreground. In gendered terms, women, historically, have been part of the background. I wondered whether the bride sign “==” could signal a recessive space that holds everything together. The glyph itself is unignorable on the page—both present and silent. I liked that about it.
Because those little threads in lace are called brides, I began thinking about matrilineage and how visibility, in most cultures, comes through patriarchy. Naming comes through patrilineage rather than through the female line. The double equal sign “==” was a way to make such effacements visible on the page.
I also was interested in devising a punctuation mark that could have content without having a firm denotation or definition. And I thought the sign could signal syntactical deletion. That aspect was suggested by Dickinson. In one poem, I called the sign “dash to the max,” “dash to the second power—because it’ a double equal.” Then, too, I was influenced by A.R. Ammons’s use of the colon. Ammons didn’t devise a new punctuation mark, but his poems are riddled with colons that become more than punctuation marks. He forces you to interpret the colon. You begin to think, “Why are there so many of them? What do they mean—or how do they affect meaning?” Likewise, I knew that if I put this glyph in poems, people would say, “What does it mean?” And I either could offer definitions or let the poems define the sign. I also felt the double equal could do a lot of expository work for me. So it was many things: reticent yet visible, a sign that did away with explication. In fact, the initial impulse was to create a sign that suggested a specific exposition (most broadly the power of the background) without resorting to words. As I used it in poems, the glyph became self-defining. It also changed over the years. In Felt, the second book to make use of the double equal, it has a different syntactical effect.
Even in Sensual Math it changes. For example, in the poem, “==” it changes itself and offers visual images like with the bride from lace making and tire tracks.
That’s right. It could be a visual glyph. It could stand for something mimetically like a pictograph. In early languages, rock paintings, for instance, the ideographs were pictures, resembling what they signified. You can see the signified physical object in the glyph. Similarly, I thought that I might make a little picture on the page. The double equal “==” looks like the mortar between the bricks. [She points to the brick wall in the café]. Right here. You can see that. It’s a little picture of the background, the stuff that holds stuff together.
In addition to the sign of immersion, you have poems that that use justified right margins and poems with multiple indentations. How do you think of the page as space?
The page in poetry gives us opportunities to make visual meanings. Just by indenting, you can tell readers you’re switching registers or going to a different place. You don’t have to explain. Again, it’s about reticence. Poetry allows us to make meaning without words, whether it’s through a glyph like the double equal, or by using the page as a visual field. Every time you indent, you might be saying, for instance, “I’m returning to that register of diction” or “Remember this trope? This trope is flush left. That other thing I’m doing is flush right.”
I began using the page in this way during the late 1980s. My 1990 book Powers of Congress contained at least one poem, “Silencer,” with a right-justified margin. It’s a poem about suicide, and for that reason, I wanted the line breaks to hit a firm blank wall. The right-justified lines seem abruptly clipped by the white margin; the lines end very suddenly, and this visual effect seemed right for the subject.
Shortly after I’d written that poem, I submitted it as part of an NEA grant application. I didn’t get the grant, and I asked for the panel’s comments, which you could do at the time. In those days, around 1988, the climate of poetry was so conservative that the judges objected to the right-justified margin. It was too “experimental,” hard as that is to believe today. That’s where American poetry was at the time.
I think it’s important to place poems within the historical moment in which they were written. When I first used a right-justified margin, I couldn’t think of another poet who’d done it. But years later, I found the poet Robert Kelley had written an interesting book in 1979, The Cruise of the Pnyx, with right-justified margins. If you look back, you often find that someone else tried a particular effect you thought you invented. When innovation takes place, it’s often by accident. We think we’re imitating, but change enters, and the work mutates into something new. Something quirky happens, and the poem becomes innovative rather than imitative.
You’ve written a lot about complexity theory and notions that come from chaos theory, so how much of a role does chance play in your poetry?
It’s played an intermittent role. Now and then I become interested in a chance structure and begin playing with it. I recently wanted to do an English-to-English “translation” of Dickinson because her poems have so many unspoken subtexts. Any attempt to translate her results in a new poem. Well, I love her work so much I didn’t know where to begin. Because Dickinson’s poems are numbered, I decided to use a random number generator and let the computer choose one of her poems for me to work with. The computer selected #1200—“Because my brook is fluent.” As the gods of chance would have it, that poem worked well with my book in progress, which was engaged with censorship, fluency, and the repression of speech. That focus is a continuation of the interests that led to the double equal sign, a fascination with negative space, reticence, the background rather than foreground. I also was reading about Abu Ghraib, torture, waterboarding, and how speech and silence are politically controlled. So the selection of that Dickinson poem, which is little more than a fragment, seemed a lucky accident. Plus, we have a brook in our backyard.
Could I ask you a little bit more about the nascent book you’re working on? You’re writing poems. Chance is an element in at least one of them. What else is going on?
This is hard because I haven’t talked about the book yet. At the moment, I’ve got various threads and tropes—all in file folders. When I write a poem that seems to fit a particular theme, I put it in the relevant folder. Censorship is one focus. There might be poems that consider political torture—the worst kind of suffering. And I’ve begun a series on what I think of as compulsory celebrations or obligatory festivals. It began with a poem suggested by the Suicide Prevention Festival in Ithaca. I thought, “What a strange celebration that is. What a concept.” The day it was supposed to take place, it rained, and they had to cancel it. After meditating on that, I wrote a poem called “Active Night.” Then I began to write about other festivities and rituals, connecting some of them to environmental tropes.
I’ve been thinking about the ocean, nuclear waste that’s been dumped in the Baltic—the ways that the environment is being despoiled. The uranium at the bottom of the ocean, from nuclear powered submarines, is not going anywhere, ever. I seem to be engaging with the big lyric subjects of time and death, recontextualizing them within frames of cultural greed, power, cruelty, and fear. The suicide prevention poem, “Active Night,” considers these things in an oblique way.
I also have a poem in progress called “A Tongue Tie of Vet Wrap,” which meditates on cruelty and torture. Racehorses’ tongues are tied down with vet wrap. For the horses, it’s a literal tongue-tie, but the poem extends that visceral image into the violations of human rights and the political repression of speech. We think about freedom of speech, but torture also takes away freedom of silence: people are forced to confess and to bear false witness.
This nascent collection seems very political. What, in your view, constitutes political and what constitutes polemical? How do you avoid the latter?
The poems are so oblique that they don’t seem highly political. They’re lyric poems—with an undertow of grit and the real. Poetry is inherently unpolemical because it leaves so much unsaid. A didactic poem is a failed poem, as I see it. If the poet builds in complexity, linguistic layers that make the poem rich and interesting, the problem of potential didacticism is solved. You can’t do all that and be pedantic at the same time. You can’t have depth and also have a t-shirt slogan. A poem beautifully, seductively, and partially resists the reader. Without some resistance, it’s not a poem. When poetry resists successfully, it sends you back up the page as much as it sends you forward. It’s recursive. Prose, in contrast, has an ineluctable verticality; it pulls you down the page. The poems I’m describing are political, but the politics are nuanced and subtle, just like any other content in poetry.
How does that relate to your notion of fractal poetics?
A fractal poem might splice a complex, dense passage to a flat or transparent line. The friction between the two registers of diction can create an uncanny dissonance. In this way, didactic lines can be part of a larger oblique structure. The context, the surrounding dictions and tones, changes the transparent lines, which in turn affect the denser lines. For example, there’s a line in one of my old poems—“Southbound in a Northbound Lane”—that someone said was like a line from a country song. It’s “If you can’t love me, let me down gently. / If you can’t love me, don’t touch me.” These transparent, potentially cheesy lines are embedded in a structure that includes other, more demanding sorts of language—lyrical, technical, satirical. A fractal poem sets plain language in a linguistic surround that skews—and charges—the plainness. Various textures and tones are spliced, and something happens in the fissures between the dictions. A poem like this could include a flat political slogan, if the poet built enough complexity around it.
For your notion of fractal poetics to work, does that mean the poem has to shift through a variety of registers or can you imagine instances where just one sustained register would be considered fractal?
One sustained register would be the opposite of fractal. Sudden shifts of diction—and what happens between them—are the heart of this poetics. The poem’s surface must fracture. Pound advised poets to “break the pentameter” in free verse, to fracture the rhythm. Fractal poetry breaks the “poem plane,” the surface of language, which is analogous to the picture plane in painting. It makes use of linguistic cracks rather than trying for a homogenous plane of language. Instead of creating a unified voice or tone, a fractal poem breaks the poem plane by means of disparate inclusions. Something unpredictable can surface when various levels of diction bump up against each other and the surface fractures. The unbidden, untoward, comes bubbling up through the linguistic cracks.
You’ve updated that notion of fractal poetics in a couple of essays. A few years after you last wrote about it, have your ideas about fractal poetics changed?
I haven’t been thinking about it lately. What I’m thinking about now is how to write a political poem that’s interesting to me—and so might interest a reader. I’ve also been intrigued by invented languages lately.
There’s a line of Esperanto in one of my new poems, but I’ve been looking at other invented languages more than that one. There are so many! I’m interested in devising a language that people can read without having to learn it. A pidgin dialect, I suppose. I thought of this after I found a card I’d written to a boyfriend in the early ’70s. This may sound stupid, but it made me think about language. You see, the note was written in a deviant, funny dialect. It was the language we sometimes spoke and wrote in.
What struck me was—this was a language of our own and it was funny. I was crying and laughing as I read it, thinking, “Oh my God. You two people.” It brought home the emotional power of invented speech —how you could evoke or express untoward emotions by means of a skewed, private language and how that might connect to the repression of speech. People who can’t speak freely in a standard, culturally sanctioned language invent their own ways of speaking. Could there be a person who was unable to speak English because there were no words in English for what she or he wanted to say? When there are no words, people begin stretching the language and inventing. They find their own language to express what’s happening. If what happens is traumatic—torture, for instance—there are no words for it; it’s beyond words. Could I write a poem based on English that included parts of other languages? Russian stem words, German, Yiddish cognates. Also nonce English, neologisms.
The idea makes me think of Blade Runner and the way the language in that film is utterly pidgin. It’s different from the viewers’ expectations and comes from a variety of different places.
Right. To various degrees, every poet invents a new language. Emily Dickinson writes English as a foreign language. When you read her aloud, you feel like you’re speaking a pidgin dialect. It sounds so fragmented and syntactically wrong. Joyce is another great example. In Ulysses, Joyce creates a language. I think it’s one of the most powerful things a writer can do.
Emily Dickinson is clearly a strong influence on your work. References to her work appear in poems like “Close” and “Maidenhead” in Felt, and you also use loose repetons from other poets, like Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore.
You know, I didn’t think of Stevens.
You wouldn’t think of Stevens as an influence?
Stevens was never that important to me. Maybe he comes to me in a mediated way through Ammons because Ammons might be more in the Stevensonian mode. I do love some of Stevens’s poems, but I don’t love all of them. I’m passionate about Dickinson. I’m not that passionate about Stevens.
With Dickinson or Moore, you would enjoy any poem?
No. But somehow I’m more engaged with the work of those writers. It took me quite awhile to warm up to Marianne Moore, but I loved Dickinson the minute I read her poems, in grade school. For a long time, I found Moore a little prim and schoolmarmish in tone. But now I deeply admire, really adore, her early work: “In the Days of Prismatic Color” and “The Steeple-Jack,” that period. I don’t like the work she wrote in the ’40s and ’50s as much. As for Dickinson, I agree with scholars that her great period was the early 1860s. Toward the end of her life, in the early 1880s, the poems become knottier and more cryptic. I don’t find those poems as rewarding, but I love her so much I read everything with care.
Isn’t that one of the marvelous things about Dickinson—that you can read a broad swath, and every once in a while you’ll find something that’s one of the most amazing things you’ve ever read?
Right, and it’s somehow wonderful that you have to go through all the others to get there. She’s not like Elizabeth Bishop, where almost everything seems perfected. Dickinson’s poems can seem quite raw, but their imperfections somehow make them better when they’re really working.
That points to your idea of different registers juxtaposed and rubbing against each other to create that experience.
Interesting! That gives me hope. As I’m talking about Dickinson and Ammons—two of my favorite poets—they were courageous enough to let it all out, the raw and the cooked. (Though Dickinson didn’t publish, of course.) With me, everything seems to be more perfected. It’s my nature, so what you say about fractal poetry gives me courage and hope: it’s a means of letting raw stuff—parts that aren’t polished, finished, beautiful—into the poem. It’s almost like letting in failure.
You’ve mentioned Ammons, Moore, and Dickinson. Is there anyone else you’d like to mention—perhaps someone less obvious—who has been a profound influence on your work?
Well, Shakespeare. I love Shakespeare, and again, it’s the linguistic surface, the language. And then there’s Whitman. I never liked him until recently. Until a few years ago, I found Whitman to be blustering, hyperbolic, grandiose, sentimental. To my mind, his poems lacked reticence, the subtlety of deletion or syntactical complexity. With Whitman, it’s all right there.
Then I had a conversion experience. As I was preparing a talk about him and other poets, I read his work and was suddenly really moved. I began to see the power of his rhetoric and content. It was exciting to discover a great poet who was never great for me. Now, what will happen? I don’t know. I hope I get time to make something of that little epiphany.
Was it a particular poem, like “Out of the Cradle Gently Rocking,” that led to that “conversion experience”?
It was Section 8 of “Enfans d’Adam.” I was moved by the lines at the end of that section: “O you shunned persons! I at least do not shun you, / I come forthwith in your midst—I will be your poet, / I will be more to you than to any of the rest.” That was so in tune with what I’d like to be in the world. Those lines gave Whitman to me. The beginning of the section is about orgies: “I am for those who believe in loose delights—I share the midnight orgies of young men, /I dance with the dancers, and drink with the drinkers.” Then the final three lines turn and turn into something else.
Are there any other poets you’d like to mention?
I wrote an essay about the 17th century poet and writer Margaret Cavendish. She’s someone who’s seldom mentioned, a neglected writer. I found some of her poems to be very poignant. To me, reading Cavendish is like reading Whitman. Her poetry is rough but often so heartfelt. It isn’t elegant. Her meters are kind of awkward. She was a 17th-century poet writing in a way that feels a bit like John Clare, in that hers was an untutored poetics. She wasn’t naïve—she was very intelligent—but her poetry wasn’t studied or polished, and its rough edge is one with its charm. She also was very interested in science. I love her poem “A Dialogue of Birds,” where she writes from the perspective of birds who are hunted and trapped. Her work is uneven, but her attitude toward animals and feminism is very brave and compassionate. I value those qualities because they’re hard to find.
I did want to ask you about other types of influence. We tend to think of “influence” as a relatively simple 1-to-1 correlation between a more established poet and a “novice” poet. I think that such a view of influence oversimplifies the way a particular poet actually encounters the world in her work. Do you feel like any other artists or thinkers have influenced your poetry?
Well, my husband, Hank De Leo, a visual artist, has affected the way I think about the page. Conversations with him made me interested in using the margins. In some of his paintings, Hank wanted to get away from the rectangular canvas. He created paintings with more than four corners, so he’d have more chances to work on those areas. He also wanted to decentralize the image, a notion that’s in sync with my aesthetic. In my book Powers of Congress, there’s a poem called “Point of Purchase” that includes handwritten marginalia. It was an attempt to create polyphony, a fugue of voices that argue with the central text and undermine its authority. That poem might have been influenced by my husband’s thinking about art.
Also, over the years, I’ve become interested in emotions such as revulsion or disgust, which are not part of the lyric repertoire. At one point, I saw some unsettling installations by the artist Kiki Smith—work that’s purposefully grotesque and disturbing. It evokes some unsettling emotions, feelings we usually repress. My poem “About Music for Bone and Membrane Instrument ==,” which appears in Felt, is a composite of strange erotics, including fetishism. Exploring unsanctioned, repressed emotions was part of my intention there.
Critical theory and thinking has also influenced me, though I’m not reading a lot of it at the moment. Marjorie Garber’s book, Vested Interests, was important to “My Last TV Campaign,” the sequence mentioned earlier, which inscribes the bee orchid as a crossdresser. Some scholarly work about affect and feeling has been helpful, such as Adela Pinch’s Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen and Rei Terada’s Feeling in Theory: Emotion after the “Death of the Subject.” And I’ll always love Cristanne Miller’s classic book on Emily Dickinson, A Poet’s Grammar. In that book, Miller offered some new terms, such as “syntactic doubling,” which made an important contribution to the discussion of poetics. And her important book on Marianne Moore, Questions of Authority, made me think more deeply about the ways that gender and race can be subtly inscribed in a poem. Lynn Keller’s Forms of Expansion helped me warm up to some poets whose work I might not have appreciated otherwise. Her approach was generous and eclectic, as well as deeply informed.
What about music?
In high school, all I did was sit in my room and listen to popular (and some unpopular) music. I listened to everything I could find. After graduation, I began working as an announcer at a college radio station, and soon, I had my own show. It was open format radio—you could play just about anything as long as it wasn’t the only thing you played. This experience led to a couple of real, paying jobs—as a “progressive rock” DJ at a commercial FM station, and another as an all night jazz DJ on the local NPR station. And after staying up all night playing jazz, I’d begin the classical programming in the morning. I listened to an enormous amount of music at that time; the record companies sent all the new albums, and every morning I’d spend two hours auditioning records for my show. I aired some pretty obscure music, as well as some favorites.
Music continues to be an influence. The title “About Music for Bone and Membrane Instrument” was stolen from one of my favorite contemporary composers, Joseph Klein. And Bach’s fugues, with their structures of repetition and variation, affected my thinking about fractal poetics. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with some stellar composers—such as Enid Sutherland, Joseph Klein, Anthony Cornicello, and William Bolcom. I’m slightly in awe of musicians and composers, perhaps because poetry aspires to music. It’s musical without actually being music. Lyric poetry, especially, is song stripped of its notes. It follows that music can be a transfusion for poetry: it can empower and reinvigorate verse with its generative energy.