Interview conducted by Stevie Edwards
Melissa Kwasny is the author of five books of poetry: Pictograph, The Nine Senses, Reading Novalis in Montana (all from Milkweed Editions), Thistle (Lost Horse Press), and The Archival Birds (Bear Star Press). Reading Novalis in Montana was named in The Huffington Post as one of the top ten books of 2009, and Thistle won the Idaho Prize. Her collection of essays, Earth Recitals: Essays on Image and Vision, was published by Lynx House Press in 2013. Kwasny also has made substantial contributions to the field as the editor of the anthology Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry 1800-1950 (Wesleyan University Press) and co-editor, with M.L. Smoker of an anthology of poems in defense of human rights, I Go to the Ruined Place.
Kwasny’s poetry shows exceptional formal range and mastery. While the tightly controlled lines of her early collections demonstrate a keen knowledge of craft, her latest two collections, The Nine Senses and Pictograph, take on a more fluid prose form. This push against the traditional boundaries of the poetic line provides her a wider canvas to explore the ideas held within her dazzling imagery. It’s hard to imagine a writer more gifted with imagery than Kwasny, who deftly immerses readers within the physicality of her poems and then invites us to look around from many angles. Her poems manage to be both gorgeously visceral and intellectually curious, even philosophical, achieving a sophisticated balance between what is felt and what is thought. With Pictograph, Kwasny turns toward the etched images in caves (our earliest recordings of written language) to help open fundamental questions about what it means to be human, how we relate to those who have come before us, and how we relate to land and place.
Much of Kwasny’s place-driven writing is inextricably linked to the landscape, peoples, and histories that make up Montana, where she is a resident. Kwasny teaches at Carroll College in Helena, Montana, and is currently a visiting writer in the University of Montana’s MFA program. We were very lucky to have Kwasny take the time to visit the University of North Texas this March as a part of our Visiting Writers Series.
Stevie Edwards: In your most recent poetry collection, Pictograph (and also, in your second-most recent collection, The Nine Senses), you’ve chosen to write each piece as a prose poem. Can you talk a bit about why you were drawn to that form? Did you set out to write a book of prose poems, or did something in the process draw you toward the form?
Melissa Kwasny: In my third book of poems, Reading Novalis in Montana, I began experimenting with a line longer and freer than I had used in my two previous books, The Archival Birds and Thistle, which were written in tightly controlled, Imagist-influenced couplets, tercets, and quatrains. Although I do believe that, as Pound wrote, the image should be enough, I was seeking a form that would allow me ample room for images and ideas, many of them gleaned from my reading in the history, philosophy, and poetics of the human-nature relationship.
Specifically, I was exploring what has led us to our current way of regarding, or disregarding, the non-human world. I was reading the Romantics, including Novalis, as well as works from American Indian writers.
Gradually, my lines became longer, less strict—I needed more fluidity, to be able to move between the natural images I encountered and statements generated by, not interpreted from, them. The longer line helped, but I still felt the images weren’t able to breathe fully. They seemed too dense, cornered, unconnected. I wanted my consciousness to be able to grow with them; I wanted the images to cluster within the matrix of my understanding, to dialogue with the world, not just my world but through me the world they inhabit. I wanted to be able to move from image to statement organically, not necessarily rationally, and then to proceed to the next image or statement without the artificial stop of a line break. I hope this makes sense. I needed a more associative form.
I was thrilled when I discovered the prose poems of René Char, which were doing just what I was searching for. Char is a poet who is both grounded in the real and particular and the visionary, the super real (as Breton defined surrealism), the supernatural, in other words. Char trusts the invisible connective tissue of consciousness. One, of course, has to then construct the poem in an entirely new way. One concentrates on the rhythm between sentences, on the movement rather than the stops the line break determines.
SE: As the book title suggests, you’ve written a series of poems engaging with pictographs (the earliest known forms of writing, in which a pictorial image represents a word or phrase). What first interested you in this subject matter?
MK: To have gathered from the air a live tradition: this line from Pound’s Cantos struck me the first time I read it. I am sure he was speaking of the languages he heard on the streets of Europe where he was living and at the same time, the language of the dead who surrounded him—including Dante, Virgil, the Provencal troubadours, whom he translated—language which was echoed in the speech of the public square. That the voices of the dead are actually heard in our speech is something I became aware of in reading Robert Pogue Harrison’s Dominion of the Dead; whether we hear them in the phrases we learned from our direct ancestors or in the inherited speech of our language itself, it is one way that the dead speak to us.
In Montana, where I live, many of the indigenous languages are gone (although there is an ongoing heroic effort to bring them back). Yet there is the sense of a very live tradition in the air, especially at sacred sites, such as pictograph and petroglyph sites, that I am deeply interested in. The most ancient voices in America belong, of course, to the indigenous people who lived here, who have a history of continuous occupation and intimate knowledge of this earth-place for tens of thousands of years. What can we learn from them?
The graves of those before us are everywhere. And, if one knows where to look, the rocks and creeks and prairies are marked with the presence of a distinctive past. In an essay that appeared in my book Earth Recitals: Essays on Image and Vision, entitled “The Imaginal Book of Cave Paintings,” I quote N. Scott Momaday, who says, when asked for a definition of sacred land, that it is land made sacred by human ceremony. It is a land ceremonialized. These sites still resonate, whether they are former buffalo jumps, caves and outcroppings where visions were sought, or sweat lodge circles. I believe that the pictographs, which can be found in almost every one of the states in this country, can lead us back to an alternate knowledge of what America is, and we, if we are attentive, can draw that past into our lives.
SE: Within poems like “Pictograph: The Red Deer Place” and “Invisible Petroglyph,” you seem to be turning to the ancient and natural worlds to make sense of a very personal grief. How did these threads come together for you as a writer?
MK: Regarding the difference between personal and collective grief, the question seems to be how much can we bear? I mean, how narrow do we draw our circles? I was just thinking about this today, about personal grief and collective grief. Certainly the history of America, if one is truthful, contains enormous amounts of collective grief: the legacy of slavery and indigenous genocide is something one cannot help but see and feel. The rivers and trees and mountains have absorbed it, as our bodies do. Native people, as well as descendants of slaves, suffer historical trauma. Many people have written about this. But whether or not your ancestors were traumatized in the past, if you are sensitive, you will feel that collective grief, too, as an American.
Then, there is the violence we perpetuate on the earth and our newly felt grief about it. In a poem, “Ground for a New Goddess,” in The Nine Senses, I write:
If we were born to say goodbye to the earth, as we know it, to wrap and cleanse the body. If we were born to the intersection, in the crossing. Smile on this world, old goddess of blue and green. Pain so deep it rags the seaweed. Puddling as we do in our lonely huts, in our sewers and low spots where the refuge floats. After-image of blue in the once sky.
We are, of course, all born to say goodbye to the earth. However, with the rapid extinction of species, degradation of water, polluting of air, it comes to mean something more tragic. As George Oppen wrote in his notebooks—I am paraphrasing—no one would be able to live if we thought the earth wouldn’t continue without us.
All this the grief of living, of suffering, of loss, of time, of violence, collective and otherwise. I, of course, have my personal losses as everyone does—of people I love and of the earth and its animals and plants that I love, as most people do. All these threads come together on their own when one focuses on the dead. The rocks, the natives say, are the oldest beings on earth. Often, pictograph and petroglyphs are made as if the images are coming out of a crack in the cliff or cave face. I suppose, because they are not on this side, we might call them spirits.
SE: Something I admire in Pictograph is that you seem to acknowledge both the human capacity to change nature (often destructively) and the capacity of nature to change us. These poems seem deeply personal and felt for what might be clumsily categorized as “nature poetry.” At the risk of asking too broad of a question, how and why do you approach the natural world in your writing?
MK: It is a broad question. I think I have tried to answer the second question (why) in the above question. The first one, “how,” is a practice that has evolved for me. It begins always with attentiveness. Again, this is a practice, by which I mean one isn’t born with a capacity for it; one trains oneself. Focus, attention, is the natural prayer of the soul, Paul Celan said. It is also how one expresses one’s love. As people who deeply love know, to attend, to give all one’s attention to someone or something, to listen, opens up doors that are ordinarily closed. The door between us and the other forms of nature that want to live opens. I am not doing the talking but the listening, which is what one must do if one wants to learn anything.
Part of this is granting the object of our attention its personhood, whether a rock, a tree, a mountain, a cloud. I also usually ask permission to hold the conversation in the first place, albeit in my own idiosyncratic ways. From there, I watch for a dialogue begins, which may take the form of image, event, thought, dream. It might take months. Sometimes it takes years. For me, because I am a poet, the most important way I engage the forms is through writing. Coleridge, when defining organic form, speaks of form as proceeding. He differentiates it from shape as superinduced, as in deciding beforehand what will come. I think of the process of coming to form as part of the organics of it. The chickadees, for instance, have landed on my hat, climbed up my shoulder, but they have not spoken yet.
SE: What are you working on now? What are some of the subjects, themes, forms, and ways of looking that are present in your current project?
MK: I am in between projects actually. Having just finished two major projects—a new book of poems and full-length non-fiction book—I am waiting patiently for the next to evolve. I would like to talk about those two projects, if you don’t mind.
A book of poems Where Outside the Body is the Soul Today will be out this fall in the University of Washington’s Poets of the Pacific Northwest series. The poems in it came out of questions initiated in the writing of Pictograph: if the visions are still alive, there must be a soul that produced them, created them, i.e. a deeper part of us that survives death, a concept all cultures have believed in. Soul in this sense is different from spirit in that it dies as anything of earth, anything cellular, dies and becomes something else. When I began to explore cultural ideas about the soul, I kept coming back to the body. I realized that to be able to see the soul we had to be able to see it in others.
The inspiration for the book came from reading Christopher Howell—a deeply soulful poet, one of my favorites—particularly his poem “Another Letter to the Soul.” How obvious, I thought, if one is to find it, one must address it. As in a letter. As he did. So, I thought I would try. The poems in the book comprise two series interspersed throughout the book. The letters continue my exploration of the prose poem form—naturally letters would be written in prose—and the other is a series of what I call the “people” poems, lined and strophic patterns that seek to address the soul in others: animals, rocks, water. Hence, there are poems entitled “The Deer People,” “The Wind People,” etc.
The non-fiction book Putting on the Dog: Animals and Our Clothing will be out next year from Trinity University Press. It is a heavily researched look at something we don’t ordinarily think about, something we take for granted. It is also an examination and widely wandering reflection on what the culture and history of clothes making says about how we see animals and ourselves. The book involved a lot of travel. For instance, I spent a month in Japan visiting silk worm farms and kimono shops. It is, as is obvious, an extension of my interests in human-natural relations.
SE: In addition to being a prolific poet, you’ve also made substantial contributions as an editor, particularly as co-editor of I Go To the Ruined Place: Contemporary Poets in Defense of Global Human Rights. Does editing feed you in a similar way as writing poetry, or do they do different things for you?
MK: Editing is something I do, as I like to say, for the enterprise of poetry, at least as far as the editing—which is essentially choosing, compiling, framing—I did for I Go to the Ruined Place and my anthology of poetics, Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry 1800-1950. It is a giving back to the gift that poetry has given me. It also teaches me what is out there; I love to read, and I love to learn, I have been fortunate to work with brilliant collaborators, like M.L. Smoker, so, yes, it does feed me. But it is nothing like the writing of poetry, which, as I said before, is a practice integral to my life.
SE: Let’s say an undergraduate student who is very excited about writing poems about the great outdoors comes to you for advice. What would you tell them? Are there any big pitfalls you’d want to steer them around?
MK: One of my touchstone poets, H.D., who was known as the first Imagist, at a time when Pound, as the self-appointed spokesperson for Modernism, was saying that the Image should stand on its own without “emotional slither” admitted that “Image was not enough.” What I think she meant was that a poem, to be alive, to move, must not be merely descriptive but must engage with the poet. The image cannot simply be static object. As Breton would say later, who wants the description of the furniture in the room? “When one ceases to feel, I am of the opinion one should keep quiet,” he says in his Manifesto of Surrealism. When I say the object must not be static, that it should be allowed its life, I am not talking about personification. I am talking about allowing for something more than mere description to come through.
My first piece of advice would be to spend time outdoors. Many people consider themselves “eco-poets” or nature poets or at least environmentally concerned, even elegists. This is natural in this time of the anthropocene. But if we have no contact with nature outside our own minds, it is artificial; it is not a dialogue. Aim for encounters, as my critic-friend Robert Baker says. Aim to be changed.
SE: You live in Montana, which is a place that I have always been curious about but have never had the occasion to visit. Would you say that residing in Montana has shaped your writing? If so, how?
MK: I have been extremely fortunate to have met, worked with, and known Native American people from the seven reservations that are located in Montana, and that shapes and has shaped my thinking and my poetry in unspeakable ways. The works of James Welch, Debra Earling, Jennifer Greene, Henry Real Bird, M.L. Smoker, Lois Red Elk, William Yellow Robe, to mention just a few Montana writers, are central to my understanding of the West. But more importantly, my relationships with Native individuals here, who have been unstintingly generous in their sharing of their lives, families, concerns, and culture, have granted me a perspective that I try to honor in my work.