Heather Christle is the poet behind The Difficult Farm (Octopus Books), The Seaside! (Minutes Books), and most recently, The Trees The Trees (Octopus, 2011). You can read my review of The Trees The Trees here. In between teaching and reading poems over the phone, she carved out some time for an interview.
I’m interested in your use of form in The Trees The Trees. Your previous books, The Difficult Farm and The Seaside!, use more traditional line breaks. What made you decide to write in this quasi-prose poem form?
Well the poems in The Seaside! were actually written after the poems from The Trees The Trees, and their form (mostly unpunctuated smashed together sentences) grew out of the work I did with the line in The Trees The Trees. After I had finished writing the poems for The Difficult Farm I wasn’t quite sure for a little while what was going to happen next. I wrote a lot of fourteen-line poems, but was dissatisfied with the way I kept skirting the question of the line. What is it? It kept eluding me. Then I found that as I was writing new poems (by hand, on single unlined sheets of paper) these long white spaces kept appearing mid-line. My hand just kept drifting, making these visual caesuras. So at first the poems contained both line breaks and these blank spots. But the line still seemed wrong to me; if it’s a unit of breath, a signaling of air pressure, then the poems as I had them were leaking, gasping, all drafty.
Finally, after months of messing around, it came to me that the air pressure might remain constant if I were to give the poems a circumscribed space to inhabit. The fully justified block! And suddenly I found the right form staring back at me: tight, full, and with a scattering of air pockets.
Sadly perhaps, this form and I have now parted ways. I’m now having flings with all kinds of other lines.
This collection ruminates on several heavy subjects (death, love, solitude, to name a few). These are fraught topics, which easily lend themselves to bad, clichéd poetry, but you avoid this. How do you go after something as abstract and unwieldy as love or dying (often times in the same breath)?
I am not going after them; they are coming after me! Truly, I think I am writing about prepositions or hands or a microwave and then suddenly: mortality! All these nouns, the big and the small, they all live in the world with us. If you blindfold yourself and fumble your way through language, you can’t help but run into them all.
Your writing has been described as playful. I’ve tended to think all poetry by its nature is made for playing – language being the poet’s playground, after all. When writing, how do you engage language? And what is play for you?
Perhaps more than anything else I’ve written, The Trees The Trees begins with thinking of the raw material of language. As I was writing it I was reading around in linguistics and cognitive poetics, and I became increasingly interested in bending idioms, in turning phrases inside out to reveal their hidden conceptual metaphors. “Play” seems apt, the kind of play where you see a child taking something apart and then putting it back together in a slightly misshapen way.
There are plenty of opportunities for play in life as well as poetry, of course! A recent favorite game of mine has been to dance with a particular phrase in mind. My husband is getting really good at recognizing the phrase. A couple weeks ago I was dancing “flamingo Rockette,” and he guessed “Broadway stork.” Another game I like to to imagine that whenever people say “like” they are actually beginning an amazing simile. Or to pretend that the visible movement of trees is generated by the trees themselves, not the wind. Or hiding is also pretty good.
What do you think poetry’s function is? What should a poem do, if anything. Does the poem/poet have a responsibility beyond herself/itself?
It’s impossible to think of one thing that all poems should do. I sometimes like to think of poems as organisms. They’ve gone through this long process of evolution and have gone through adaptations along the way, ones that help them survive. But in the same way that you don’t grow your hands in order to be able to drive, I think a poem’s “function” (if it has one) develops happenstance.
What excites you with regard to contemporary poetry/poets?
That it and they exist. I’m not incredibly interested in looking at our contemporary moment in particular. Where would it end? I like that contemporary poetry grows out of a long history of people uttering language. It’s probably my favorite human behavior.
Your poetry is incredibly sincere and explicit. Whereas other poets may obfuscate their emotions, writing at a distance from the reader, your poetry wants to engage its audience bluntly, e.g. “I want you to look where I say.” These poems have (and tell me if I’m projecting here) a strong desire for connection; they’re seeking a relationship with something, whether it’s “you” or a tree or their own self. But once they achieve their desire, the speakers are often overwhelmed by what’s underneath. What seems attractive at face value reveals a confusing and complicated world. What relationship do you think your poems want to have with their reader? Is a poem a conversation or an interrogation or something else entirely?
I think there are a lot of poets who want to engage an audience directly, but yes, I suppose I do as well. I’m not sure why. Sometimes I think of a poem as a social event, with poet as host. Will the host be there? Will the guests? Who are the guests? What is the occasion? Will the party suddenly become a funeral? Will the food run out? A conversation might occur. I suppose an interrogation might, though I try to avoid that for the most part. Mostly the poems just want the reader to read them. For even that to occur seems like some kind of miracle.