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Interview- Elizabeth Dodd

09-05-08

The Landscape, the Ruins, and the Aesthetic: An Interview with Elizabeth Dodd

                                                                                                                                                    -by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

 

 

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: I think I chose these two poems in particular from your first book, Like Memory, Caverns because I’m impressed by how equally I hold them in my mind, even though one is so much shorter than the other.  I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the long versus short poem.

 

Elizabeth Dodd:  Well, I’m going to talk about the long and short lyric poem—I think of these poems as being basically lyric in impulse, not drawing on the long tradition of epic or narrative.  At the risk of sounding too simplistic, I’d like to make a comparison to track and field.  Years ago, I ran intervals around the track as part of my training, but I didn’t compete in shorter distance races; I was a mid-distance and long-distance runner.   (I was a mediocre runner, too, never in first place, but I loved it.)  I think the short poem is like the sprint: all out, intense burst of presence.  All the attention and sensation come to bear now.  The long poem, I think, allows for shifts in rhythm, shifts in attention and perception.  You can establish a pattern, then move to a different pattern; you find a pace, then shift it; you allow for repetition with variation.  Of course, this is an inexact analogy, since poetry is not a competitive sport…

 

AMK: What can a long poem do that a short poem cannot, and vise versa?

 

ED:  A long poem allows you wide horizons in which to move.  This means the possibility of change in pitch or key (musical analogy) or time (chronology) or, or, or.  When I was in graduate school, I thought a good bit about long poems with subsections like movements in a longer musical composition.  And I wrote “Chaco Canyon, New Mexico” shortly after that time, so I suppose I was still very much caught up in the question of such movements…  And canyon country in the American Southwest is riddled and stippled with side-canyons, alcoves, lateral movement along the vertical drop of erosion-formed place.  So the material itself, the actual landscape through which I moved and from which the poem emerged, suggested that kind of prolonged sequence.  What interests me about sequenced poems is that maybe they can actually do what short poems do—the vice versa of your question might not necessarily apply.  You can have the intensity, the brevity, even the mystery, if that’s what you’re after, as well as the sustained attention. 

 

AMK: Do you think it’s important to have a mix of long and short poems in a collection of poetry?  Or does it depend on the book itself? 

 

ED:  Oh, I’m sure it depends on the book.  There’s no essential need for that kind of formal mix. 

 

AMK: Was this one of your considerations as you put this book together?

 

ED:  Well, that was years ago, now.  It’s a little hard to remember.  But yes, I think it was.  I wanted to have some formal variety, a sense of scope.  And a sense of variation in timing, in the temporal demands a poem makes on a reader.

 

AMK: Personally, I’m a big fan of poems that come at you in sections.  I like how it gives you not only a break but a space in which to think about the lines you’re reading…a compartmentalization that a large, sprawling poem often lacks.  Was this poem ever without these sections, or the idea of sections?

 

ED:  I love the way you just phrased this.  That’s it, exactly.   I just now poked around in some old files to see whether I have any actual drafts of this particular poem, but I don’t.   So all that I’m going to say now is a little suspect, my attempts to remember, which may be quite faulty.  This poem grew out of my first trip to Chaco Canyon, when I was in my late 20s.  It was all new to me—the landscape, the ruins, the aesthetic pull of that Southwestern light on stone, the way late-day shade and shadow are so different in the arid air, such suddenly cool respite.  The few days we were camped there, I walked around in a state of high exhilaration, crusted over with early summer sweat.  Back home, working on the poem, I don’t believe I consciously set out to Write a Multi-Sectional Poem, Following the Cliff Walls that Frame the Canyon, though now I recognize that’s the formal result.  But the time that the poem didn’t exist as a multi-sectional piece was very early, before I had any lines down.  But I’d been thinking about and working in other (some unpublished) sectional poems, and it quite quickly became the right feel for the piece.  Accretional.  Sustained, but with breathing space, while we all turn around and look at the next cliff side canyon.

 

AMK: Why did you choose to sectionalize “Chaco Canyon, New Mexico” the way you have here, with numbered and titled sections?  And how long did it take for you to come to this form?

 

ED:  I guess I’ve anticipated some of this question in trying to answer your previous one.  But more specifically, some sectional poems have Arabic numerals instead of Roman numerals to separate the sections; some have asterisks.  Some are subtitled, some are not.  To my mind, Roman numerals are more formal, present a kind of classicism, a stateliness, and I think that’s suggested (at least to me) by the ruins in the canyon.  A thousand years old, beautiful stone buildings, in various states of entropic collapse.  One, Pueblo Bonito, still has walls standing four stories high, with neat, square windows and doors connecting rooms far within the interior—it consists of 700 rooms or so, a monumental structure.  I wanted that formality to cast its shadow on the cataloguing of the poem, the sequential phenomena that being present yields up.  I don’t know how long it took to come to this specific layout and sequence, but I remember writing the poem, early mornings as the summer opened up, in the weeks after our trip. Certainly over a series of many days, maybe a couple of weeks, before I had a passable draft.

 

AMK: Did you ever try working that epigraph in the second section, “Threatening Rock” into the poem itself?  If so, why did it end up as an epigraph rather than as lines in the poem itself?

 

ED:  You caught me here.  There is no specific quotation in a park brochure that exactly corresponds to this epigraph.  I deliberately excerpted and edited and combined phrases from several places throughout the official pamphlet on Pueblo Bonito, but there is no sentence “Why they built so close to potential danger is not clear.”  I had a great deal of difficulty working what I considered to be important information into the poem—basic context a reader would need in order to feel as I felt, see what I saw.  The voice kept coming out wrong, very awkward and rhetorical, which frustrated me.  So I created this “introduction,” for which the formal, informational, even rhetorical voice seemed appropriate.  It did all that background work so I could just enter the place and think my thoughts, which were both aesthetic (relationship between form and content) and ecological. I hoped it would open a window for a reader, for, to my mind, Pueblo Bonito is a building dedicated to windows, many with their original stone or wood lintels in place. At the time I was working on this poem, I hadn’t yet begun to think about global climate change in any serious way, but the ozone hole was much on my mind.  The stark sunlight, my own sunburn, the roofless ruins offering no shelter from the sky—these phenomena  insisted on an undercurrent of thought and feeling that I wanted to explore in the poem along with the aesthetic issues. The aesthetic issues kept hauling modernist quotations into the poem—Eliot, E.M. Forster, Charles Olson—and the layering of petroglyphs in the canyon, ancient images and 20th century stuff, the latter often destroying or defacing the former, made me think about empire, its beauty and potential violence.   So “threat”  as I felt it isn’t just the literal rock that tumbled from the cliff, it has global proportions related to human destruction of the atmosphere.  Love and loss so often do live side-by-side, or arrive in swift sequence.

 

AMK: When we spoke last, you said you were going back to the Chaco Canyon.  What is it about this area of the world that fascinates you so?  The ancient culture?  The landscape?  The inspiration?

 

ED:  Yes, yes, yes.  All of these.  I’ve been very fortunate to experience the place in a variety of seasons now—twice in December, once in March, as well as in May and June.  (I want to see it in autumn!)   It’s pretty clear that the Canyon was a great center of culture; part of what archaeologist Stephen Lekson has called “the Chaco Meridian,” stretching along a nearly perfect north-south line from near the Colorado border south to northern Mexico.  Hundreds of miles.   Empire, maybe.  And it had its dark side as well as its glory, pretty clearly.  I think many people who are drawn to the places in the Four Corners region where the Anasazi lived for centuries are drawn both to landscape, and to the idea of a culture that had such a successful course of inhabitation.  Anglo-American society has been spectacularly poor at successful inhabitation—adapting culture to the ecology of a particular place, rather than imposing ourselves on it—and so I think for some of us the beauty of Anasazi culture is in part its longevity, finally giving way to the contemporary Puebloan peoples who still live deeply in that place.

 

AMK: This poem strikes me as fairly unique.  Do you mind discussing others’ poems that may have helped you write this one?

 

ED:  Sure.  I suppose Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is formative for many American poets working in the longer lyric tradition.  It is a marvel, how that poem grows and comes together.  “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” he says, and there you have it: the 19th century, pre-quark sense of elemental identity, the atom, which blurs individuality.  The singular unit and the larger whole.  The numbered section and the longer poem.  “I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a single spear of summer grass.”  Only much later, in sections that have traveled metaphysical distance, do the observations come into focus: “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.”  !!  I love the way what the eye falls on early in the poem gets caught in attention, rolled over on the tongue, and reappears later in different light.   At the time I was working on many of the poems in Like Memory, Caverns, Louise Glück’s fabulous poems in Descending Figure captivated me, made me think about the possibility of sustained lyric utterance.  Again, she moves from titled section to titled section, accumulating significance as she goes.  I find in those poems that the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.

 

Those two, for sure.  I know I was also first reading Charles Wright at that time, and his power of looking both outward, at landscape, and inward, at artistic or aesthetic context and response, is something I continue to value enormously in his work. 

 

AMK: “Lyric” is a beautiful poem.  I love how the short, indented lines move so quietly on the page and how the o-sounds in words like doesn’t, on, buoyant, no story to, and among create the “buoyant silence / lifting from snow cover” that is at the center of the poem.  What, do you think, is a lyric poem?

 

ED:  Thank you for your nice words!

 

It’s hard to beat Wordsworth’s definition, don’t you think?  Powerful feeling recollected in tranquility, with the sense of spontaneity somehow caught in the tenor of the language. (Okay, I didn’t quote him quite right.)   For me, a lyric poem is still a connection to some of the assumptions of the Romantics, even though we’ve traveled so far in our cultural expectations in these two centuries.  Despite our post-structural recognitions of language’s failures, shortcomings, even perhaps subterfuges, the lyric allows us to feel the power of language, rather than gaze at it sadly from a safe distance. Our hardwiring lets us feel that power, value that power. Lyric poetry speaks to that hardwiring, I think.    

 

AMK: While, technically, there isn’t a narrative in this poem, there’s sort of an “innate” instance within “Lyric” that, as a reader, I feel I have a pretty good sense of.  In short: there’s a person out in nature somewhere who is struck by it so deeply that she/he feels the need to express it. 

 

I’m wondering why you chose not to include a narrative in this poem.  Did it “come out” this way?  Did you at one time have a narrative that, as you revised, you realized wasn’t necessary?  Should we be paying closer attention to the lines, “There is no story to tell / about cause and effect”?

 

ED:  The lyric impulse, I think, is so important to human beings, regardless of cultural tradition.  Yet insistence on story at the expense of lyric utterance is all around us, everywhere in contemporary American culture—and, at the time I wrote this poem, very active in a graduate writing workshop I was taking!  This particular poem I wrote as if “Against Narrative” (so no, there was never a particular narrative that was later removed).  

 

I find it interesting that both the poems you’ve chosen for us to talk about involve the disappearance of the self, even the deliberate effacement of the self.  In “Lyric,” the disappearance takes place in the silencing of language and the visual image of forms—indistinguishable, whether human or trees.  In “Chaco Canyon, New Mexico,” the disappearance is a form of longing, what is deeply desired—to sink down into landscape, perhaps, to rise up fundamentally changed.  In either case, autobiography is expendable.

 

AMK: There’s an interesting statement made in the poem about the absence of “no one to pull / the stiff sheet of grammar / over a scattered pattern / of bark and branches.”  This instantly makes me think of creative writing workshops, but I think that’s just me.  This seems to be more a statement about language and how it works in moments like these on a more spiritual level than a linguistic one.  It also strikes me as one of those lines that the poet her/his self might not fully “understand,” one that simply strikes the proper chord…

 

Without “telling” us what this line is exactly supposed to mean (or not), I’m wondering what your thoughts are on lines like these that have a certain ambiguity to them.  Are they a risk?  Are they a necessity?

 

ED:  Well, sure, I guess they are a risk, in that you’re not fully in control: either of your own “statement,” as you say, or anyone’s interpretation. That feels psychologically risky.  But that’s part of the feeling of poetry, far more often than not: as you say, “the proper chord” sounds within you (writer, reader) and it may function on the level of the subconscious rather than the intellect.  And even though our nation seems increasingly to be an anti-intellectual culture (in any arena—politics, entertainment, you name it), the reduction of literature to its intellectual value is a skill well polished in classrooms or book groups.  I mean, I can’t believe how aesthetically impoverished some of the poems are that I see being read and championed just because they hoist an Idea high on their lineation’s scaffold, high enough that the reader has only to glance up as at a billboard and say, ah, yes, look, there’s that particular theme!  We can check that one off.  Now, quick, let’s move on and find another.  There!  Got that one, too.  With the price of gas, we need to get them all on this one outing. 

 

The risk for the writer, I think, is that you have to trust that what sounds the chord in you will similarly sound in others…and any poet knows that’s often not the case.  But look at the alternative: the billboard, the freeway.    

 

AMK: Thank you.

 

ED:  Thank you.  I’ve really enjoyed thinking with you.