Lending a Mineral Cast to the Words: An Interview with Elizabeth Arnold
Her poem, “Iraqi Boy” which appeared in the September 2008 issue of Poetry, is an important landmark in mapping the development of her aesthetic. Although it does not feature quite the same strong enjambments as her newest poems, “Iraqi Boy” creates a similar effect to poems in Life through the delay and discovery of unfolding syntax. It also has motifs central to Arnold’s work: motion and stillness, amputation and recovery, and revealing the forces that move us. Effacement, her third book, explores these themes through accounts of World War I soldiers who were wounded in the face and who then went through some of the earliest forms of plastic surgery. Her newest book Life investigates similar themes of recovery, but with a personal lens that can somehow also be a telescope and microscope. These poems persist as life persists, under a volcano, amidst emotional upheaval, trying to keep a balance on continents that slide, on a spinning ball of water and rock whipped around the sun.
I feel indebted to have studied under Dr. Arnold, and through her, to have read and been influenced by many of the authors and texts central to this interview, which, besides her own poems, are namely James McMichael, George Oppen, and Manuel DeLanda. In my time as her student, she unlocked these writers, and I like to think, some of her own thoughts that became the poems in Life. This interview was conducted over the summer of 2014 via email, telepathy, bookshelves, and time-zones. The wind, too, was part of the process.
– Karl Zuehlke
Karl Zuehlke (KZ): My first experience reading your book Life was a little disorienting in the best way, I found myself following the minutiae of syntax as it created tension against the line-breaks. After finishing the book and rereading it, I feel more familiar with the tension, and I imagine each of your lines and strophes capturing a millisecond of progress as in Eadweard Muybridge’s “The Horse in Motion.” To begin, would you talk a little about your process as a poet, how it has developed particularly in regard to your lines and line breaks? I love the space in the poems in Life, as it allows for a great clarity too. I get the sensation of being very close to a surface, and yet still a million miles away from it, and I think the lines are involved in creating this effect. Am I on to something?
Elizabeth Arnold (EA): At first, when I started writing, even through my first book, I didn’t handle line breaks very well. I just didn’t use them to make things happen the way I try to do now, and my enjambed lines in those earlier poems almost always feel off to me. I think reading George Oppen led me to expose my lines more, and taught me how even the tiniest move in a poem had the potential to jolt the reader into some new way of perceiving, feeling. I think this led me to put more pressure on my line breaks, creating a kind of hyper-focus, always the potential for an explosive event there. I love your mention of Muybridge. I do want to slow things down, show more of what is happening in time. I used to do it primarily with an extended syntax, and although I still like to play with syntax, now the line breaks have a greater role in directing attention. I wonder what you mean by “space” (white space?) and “a million miles away”?
KZ: I did mean “white space” but I also meant spatial arrangement of the presented objects. Oppen in “The Building of a Skyscraper” writes, “We look back / Three hundred years and see bare land. / And suffer vertigo.” You look for the potential to “jolt the reader,” and your new poems are electrified. Maybe that is what is causing a little of my vertigo?
I also was trying to describe the scope your poems include. Often you juxtapose massive objects and elemental forces against the smallest details, and this results in a kind of disorientation for me. For instance, the first poem in Life, “Right Whales Off Race Point” focuses on the sprayed breath from these massive animals, that rises from their “density.” This poem is wonderfully tactile, and yet I am not sure how far away these whales are. The zoom on the lens of this poem is powerful enough to catch what is “more like vapor,” and by contrast the size of a Right Whale. Then there is a moment where the whales seem to be cloud-sized.
The cover of your book gives me this sensation too—although it resembles a coastline, ocean and landmass shot from a satellite, it is in fact an extreme closeup of a rock, maybe a kind of agate?
EA: I love that moment in Oppen’s poem, “The Building of a Skyscraper,” how he dramatizes changes in the landscape over time, how he lets us feel the difference between how things look now and how they looked 300 years ago. And it happens, that realization of 300 years going by, in an instant in his poem, another source of the disorientation he’s going for there.
I saw the right whales from a beach in Provincetown, though they weren’t too far out. Still, I didn’t have binoculars and I could see the contrast of their size and color as vs. the spray from their blowholes. The spray had a timeless quality. Its movement didn’t seem of this world—maybe because the water there is like vapor. But no scientific explanation satisfies when I think of what I saw.
The cover of Life is an aerial shot of a lava field around a crater lake, but I’ve always thought it also looks like ganglia. That’s what the poems in this book keep coming back to, how we are the land—we
’re made out of it—and the land itself is alive.
KZ: When I was your student five odd years ago, I remember that you had a copy of Ezra Pound’s “Notes for CXVII et seq.” taped up to the wall in your office. What poems are up on the wall in your office now?
EA: The Pound is still there! I should add the first poem of Oppen’s first book, Discrete Series, another one that’s changed and continues to change me.
KZ: That Oppen poem really lasts too. I could say so much about it as to derail the interview, so instead I will ask about your poems “Gone” and “Hope” that were published in the literary journal The Account. You write,
“But in these poems the movement is a little bit jerky, with phrases divided by periods instead of commas, for example. This happens, I think, because the experience I try to depict in these poems is new, and less benign.”
How often do you find your poems’ forms depicting, or even imitating, moods by their rhythm and lines, when you sit down to write them? The movement of “Hope” is ominous, ending, “never a jerked / blooming’s // dying on the stem.” How does the tension in the poem work with the disjointed form?
EA: When I sit down to write, I have NO IDEA what’s going to happen, but I hope that form and content, mood, tone, etc., work together as much as possible. Form speaks. So much happens by way of a poem’s rhythm and lines. And the texture of sound—that is, rhyme in the largest sense.
The ending of “Hope” is complicated by the syntax that precedes it. In any case, hope doesn’t really mean hope. In this circumstance, it’s a short-lived sentiment. Thus the complex syntax, making it hard to see that that last image is supposed to be–is literally, in the logic of the sentence–positive. But it doesn’t sound very positive, the emphasis being on what the time-lapsed camera does even though there’s a negative, “never,” right there to tell you I’m talking about what the time-lapsed camera doesn’t do. What’s happening, what’s being described in the poem, is described as free of the mechanism of the camera. But to end with that image, those sounds—this tells a very different story than what the speaker wishes for, or even claims to be saying. The reader gets what’s underground, what the speaker can’t face, can’t say openly.
That the last phrase (“dying on the stem”) coincides with its line, that the line contains it, AND that it is a headless iambic trimeter line—these encourage the reader to misinterpret the sentence. The resolution there reminds me of the rare use of a period by Emily Dickinson: “The World is not Conclusion.” Is that irony? Yes, if irony is the bubbling up through the shiny surface of false hope covering truths we’d rather ignore.
That “blooming’s” is on one line—there’s a tiny moment of hope there, luxurious in its elongation, its literal and sonic opening after the clipped, disjointed movement of “never a jerked” in the preceding line.
The choice of “never”—although it’s the negative that supposedly frees the speaker from the bondage of the time-lapsed camera—actually imparts a sense of doom.
“Hope” is a poem about hope that isn’t very hopeful on the face of it, and yet its commitment to truth is liberating.
KZ: Thank you for unpacking the form in those poems. Your lines harness so much energy between tension and resolution. The new poems are challenging, but the reward at least to this reader, is almost like sculpture, in that they seem made of compact, dense material. My metaphor doesn’t quite work because the material of the poems, form and content, move.
Your poem “Trees” for instance, demonstrates what I am trying to describe, although it happens elsewhere in your book too. I hope I don’t oversimplify by saying the poem tracks the growth of a tree. I really enjoy that the line and strophe break “their bent branches so far down // —and some did break,” coincide with the breaking of the branches, as well as the kink in the syntax. The limbs that are bent down, yet growing back up, reveal what the poem begins with, almost on a note of astonishment, “Trees know which way is up” and which returns and concludes, “I guess isn’t so surprising.” Maybe that framework is what allows the poem fresh access to the growth of a tree? I mean, you write a poem about a tree and it works. That does not seem like an easy task, given the number of tree poems, and the number of those that are hackneyed?
Also, to return to disorientation, you write that trees experience “vertigo from the inside.” Could you talk a little about how you arrived at this poem?
EA: I’ve planted almost all the trees in my yard, which was pretty bare when I moved here. The tree in this poem was one of the last. I feel an almost maternal relation to these trees, and yet their presence nurtures me too. The day my husband left the house for good almost three years ago, I walked out into the backyard thinking I’ve got to sell the house. But then I saw the trees! I knew I couldn’t leave. Did you know that the columns of ancient Greek temples were meant to reproduce the experience of standing in a grove? There’s a lot of power there.
So when the two blizzards that occurred within a week wiped out this young tree, a tree I’d planted, I paid attention. It tried to grow back, but didn’t quite make it. Maybe that’s why I make it cry, but also because it’s painful, it’s a struggle, to try to survive from almost nothing. The “vertigo on the inside” is simply whatever it is in a tree that makes it grow against gravity toward the sun that feeds it. The poem’s about survival, how the tree is built from the inside for survival, but also it is about accident. How long does any one thing (including a person, a couple, a civilization, a species, a genus, etc.) continue to survive? The “vertigo from the inside” makes survival more likely, makes the tree seem at least more self-sufficient. Just as the glowworm’s light comes from inside (“Gone”). Self-sufficiency is something I’m struggling with behind the scenes in this book.
KZ: I am not the biggest fan of labels, and “minimalism” seems to carry a kind of stigma for some. Do you care to define where your work falls in comparison to other poets? “Influence” also is a loaded term. I think there is something very much Elizabeth Arnold about your poems, and yet every poem is composed of other poems, in the end. Right? How do you prefer to be considered in a taxonomy of poetry?
EA: I studied modernist poetry in college and graduate school. My first term at the University of Chicago, I took Bob (Robert) von Hallberg’s seminar on the Cantos. Before that, I loved Eliot the most, couldn’t get hold of what Pound was doing, couldn’t hear it. That course unlocked Pound for me. Which led to Oppen, then Gluck—another poet I couldn’t appreciate except through the lens of Oppen. I read Bunting at Chicago, a poet I’d never heard of. I think if I’m anything I’m some kind of a post-Objectivist (as vs. postmodernist, i.e. L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E, theory-y) poet. But there’s such variety there, no one kind of objectivist. I’ve never cracked Zukofsky, for example—I think he stuck too much to what he thought he knew, which w
as a lot, but it was so cerebral, bloodless, not enough happening by way of his exquisite sense of music, not enough of what’s in the heart there, no discoveries really there for me by way of the music.
I feel so bound by the physicality of language, always trying to play the ultra-dense against the more melodic, for example. I’m a big fan of James McMichael’s poems, which are incredibly rich musically—there’s such a wide range. I’m continually amazed by what’s happening in his poems, which I think are possibly the most beautiful poems written in the last 50 years, and the most original. Frank Bidart’s way up there too.
I’ll only say I wish the poetry being written now had more substance—I mean that literally, vis-a-vis the physicality of the language. Too many poems I read in magazines seem flimsy sound-wise, and therefore just flimsy period since what’s happening musically is so important. It’s really almost everything. It’s what makes poems poems.
KZ: I must say, you unlocked Pound and Oppen for me. Hearing the music there changed the way I heard many other poems.
How about other kinds of music, do you find substance in any composers or musicians?
EA: What fascinates me about music is how its rhythm resembles the effects of quantity in poetry. And the pull of syncopation against the dominant beat, which resembles the pull of heavily stressed unaccented syllables against the iambic norm—which happens in free verse from time to time, and something related happens even in free verse that doesn’t approach and veer from the iambic. I think listening to music and learning about it, about what you’re hearing or, even better, playing an instrument or singing, helps your poetry. I’ve even considered suggesting we require a course in music in our MFA program.
I haven’t really answered your question. I was raised on classical music, played the piano. While living in Chicago in the eighties, I hung out with a bunch of blues musicians, came to love country blues especially. I heard bluegrass a lot when I was growing up in North Florida, still like it. I love bebop, and 12-tone classical (Schoenberg).
I was just reading George Packer’s book about his time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo in the 1980s, and there’s this passage where the people of the village where Packer is living are required to celebrate some absurd accomplishment of the country’s tyrannical leader and they are dancing, robotically at first, but then the music begins to move them and the dance becomes real. Music is a powerful phenomenon. It reaches deep inside us. I think this is why I’m still writing poems.
KZ: I know several poets that find a great deal of inspiration in reading nonfiction, as well as classics. You mention John Muir in your poem “DDT,” and a number of your poems take epigraphs from a number of sources. How does this differ from “influence” poem to poem? Is it more like Ekphrasis when working from non-fiction and classics?
EA: It’s more like ekphrasis, a place to step off from, material for your own words to interact with. I studied with McMichael at Warren Wilson and he told me he keeps two journals, one for thoughts, one for quotations. I’ve done this ever since. When I can’t write, I sometimes go for the quotation journal and almost always find something there that gets me writing. It’s a mine really, packed with treasure. Just as you do when responding to a painting in a poem, your choices of who and what to quote are determined by your state of mind, by who you are, what’s just happened or what happened in your childhood. In that sense they’re yours, the words of others. Though of course we’ve inherited them all.
KZ: In several poems, you use the device of the title reading into the syntax of the first line, and in addition, the title poem of the collection “Life,” has an epigraph from Paul Celan. Is this a device you are borrowing from Celan, or other European traditions? I am curious what you make of this device?
EA: I do that because I don’t really like titles, struggle with them always. My first book has only two titles, for the first and last poems, and they’re generic (“Introit” and “Envoi”), borrowed from Roy Fisher‘s A Furnace, a great book. My third book has very few titles.
I was reading Clayton Eshleman’s translation of Celan’s Breathturn (Atemwende) as I began the sequence of poems that ended up consuming my first book. He’s another of those poets who can be obscure, but there is a suggestiveness in Celan’s sequence that changed me, helped me make something new, taught me how to make a sequence work, not close down, not become over-determined.
I like the porousness of movement from one untitled poem to the next. I like that fluidity. One of my teachers, Ellen Bryant Voigt, told me my poems are “all middles.” I think that’s very often the case. “The World is not Conclusion.”
KZ: Your poem “Heart Valve” which appeared in Poetry conflates the anatomical characteristics of the heart with the metaphorical, emotional, aspects attributed to that muscle. Could you talk a little about this poem, and the motif in your book of “the heart” as well as your approach to using it?
EA: It’s a tricky one, the heart being so commonly used as a metaphor for love. What I do to combat this too easy association is to be very clinical, as well as to tie the heart, the flesh of it, to land, geography. In “Heart Valve,” the specificity of the title helps lead the reader away from the romantic love association, so that the first line, “They told me there’d be pain,” can allude to physical and psychological pain simultaneously. (I’ll admit, titles can be useful sometimes…) Standing alone, the latter kind of pain is less likely to be thought of in this context, but in the context of the book, Life, and in particular the section where “Heart Valve” appears, there is a recurring incidence of lost love, thereby extending the figure of the heart’s reach beyond the purely material, the mechanical, the actual.
As Pound said, the natural object is adequate symbol. This is very important to my poetics. I try as much as possible to charge impersonal-seeming details with intense emotional energy. I like the challenge of that, and it helps me to avoid sentimentality. The distance between the object conveying the emotion and expectations about both its ability to be expressive and about a particular emotional state—I think this distance, the unlikelihood of a certain object and a certain emotion to be fused, and then to fuse them, charges particular moments more fully, gives them more pop. It’s an intuitive thing, picked up from poets I consider past and present masters—Pound, Bunting, Oppen, Niedecker, McMichael, Gluck.
But back to “Heart Valve,” it has an emotional force apart from any association with romantic love—and yet its last word is “love”! So love is there explicitly, right in the poem, but still it isn’t primary I think. This force derives from our fascination with our own mortality. Though terrified of it, spending huge amounts of time and money to postpone it (we can’t avoid it), we’re excited by the prospect of death. The fear and the excitement are blurred at the end of “Heart Valve.” The physical event that reveals the brute inevitability of death comes about halfway through: “plain
sparrows / bathing in the cube-shaped fountain // so violently they drain it . . . .” That’s my favorite moment of the poem, “so violently they drain it.” It has a bald-faced honesty, a kind of hard-nosed truth-telling I find very hard to come by but respect more than just about anything. It reminds me of a moment in Yusef Komunyakaa’s great poem, “Facing It”—“Names [on the Vietnam War Memorial] shimmer on a woman’s blouse / but when she walks away / the names stay on the wall.”
To bring into a poem the inevitability of death with that kind of toughness—this is required to affect the reader. To live, we must hide that truth from ourselves. But if we hide it (or hide from it) completely, we will go mad. It takes a lot of force to punch through that magnitude of resistance.
KZ: I am very curious about the two long poems in your book, “Like Water Flowing” which appeared in Kenyon Review and “The Mountain” an excerpt of which was published in the journal Body. Could you talk about working in a long, serial form, and also working on short poems? Is there an advantage in your mind that the two forms offer that is not available in the other?
EA: I like writing sequences for some reason. My first and third books were book-length sequences. I like how the music doesn’t stop. It’s as if the pedal’s held down between poems, one section almost seamlessly continuing into the next. There’s an openness of association that’s sustained—definitely for the poet, and I hope for the reader.
“Like Water Flowing” started out as a very short sequence about a love affair I had while stuck in southern Egypt during the first revolution (2011). When in the interior of Egypt, you’re either in the Sahara or on the Nile. Where I was staying there was very little farmland between the desert and the river. In some places, there was none. So that these two dominant features of Egypt came together. The sequence started one way, with a quite narrow focus, then all of Egypt intruded, the land, the movement of the water, civilizations past and present. Both desert and river were central means of expressing human feeling. They were my medium. But I tried to interweave the less directly personal sections, sections focusing their attention on the land or temples, temple carvings and paintings, with sections more directly about my emotional experience. I also try to balance long and short sections in these sequences, the shorter sections punctuating, zeroing in on, a detail, a feeling, before opening up to a wider landscape or narrative.
“The Mountain” was more challenging, less personal—there is really no little story around which its sections move. It began as a poem about a volcano, and anything that’s expressed about what it is to be human comes by way of the materiality of the volcano and little else. There are some stories (none of which are my stories), such as that of the women hanging their laundry out to dry next to the lava, and the final story of how groups of men attempted to steer the lava away from their own towns. Just as “Like Water Flowing” needs the narrower story to resonate off of, “The Mountain,” probably more than any poem I’ve written, needs the rest of the book to resonate off of. Otherwise it won’t make sense. The stories in this case aren’t enough to carry it. The poem was much longer. I kept shortening it, rearranging the sections (for a long time it had no sections), adding humanizing sections—the ones with first person pronouns. But more than anything I’ve written, the drama belongs to stone and fire, swelling and flowing land, overflowing seas. The life is in the land. This was my challenge to myself. To write a poem that almost uniformly belongs to the land, the Earth.
McMichael turned me on to an essay called “Nonorganic Life.” It’s been ages since I read it but its influence has been huge and continuing. I am just now realizing that this essay has a lot to do with my fascination with Mount Etna, and the way “The Mountain” (which is what the locals call it) turned out. “Land’s alive. I don’t mean / teeming. Breathing—Etna swells!” And continuing these lines, its interaction with us: “—as well as changing // shape, height, / filling in a bay so that the castle’s stranded.” And then there’s the futility of our position in nature, our attempts to control it, as shown when the men of Paterno “take up arms against Pappalardo and his men [of Catania], / against the lava” [emphasis added] . . . .” As if the lava could be defeated. We may soon find a way to control it. But what about the stars? The galaxy? The universe? And whatever’s beyond the universe? Will we control that too?
This takes me back to a poem in the second section of Life, whose ending is connected to our ultimate powerlessness, our (too much of the time) misdirected attention. The poem is “Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi,” named after Bernini’s “Fountain of Four Rivers” in Rome. I focus on the depiction of the Nile in that statue, whose face (all four rivers are depicted as men) is barely visible inside a hood, “the idea being // to represent the river’s unknown source.” Then I go on to say:“But even if they’d found it by that time, the Europeans, // they wouldn’t have.”
KZ: The essay you mention by Manuel DeLanda, “Nonorganic Life,” is quite the dense read, and written in academic prose. Yet it is fascinating. One of the central arguments that might apply to “The Mountain” is, “that, ultimately, we too are flows of matter and energy (sunlight, oxygen, water, protein and so on)” (153). Delanda gives any number of examples of natural mechanisms that give rise to unexpected, non-linear, effects. He connects the microscopic chemical reactions to life arising. I was thrilled by “The Mountain” because you have a poetic method and music that accesses this kind of thought, in a poem. Maybe you could connect this to an idea in one of your previous books, that Pound thought that the gods were the landscape?
EA: I think this idea is everywhere in my writing. I think I believed it in a vague way even before Jim [McMichael] recommended the DeLanda essay, before I was blown away by Niedecker’s dramatization, in “Wintergreen Ridge” I think, that copper flows through our veins. Copper—a metal! This, along with her link of butterflies to rock, observing “simply butterflies are quicker than rock,” made the commonplace fact of metal in the blood—copper, iron—astonishing. What’s alive, then? What isn’t?
Movement of thought seems to be born of the movement of the Earth—not just as it’s spinning and traveling around the sun, but also that the sun itself is moving at the same time and the Earth with it, and the galaxy is moving (see the end of “Envoi” of The Reef). The heart’s pulse can be described as “thready” (“Daddy” of Civilization). Skin grafts “look like ridges, one like a bluff” in “XIV” of Effacement. The relationship between the material universe and whatever it is that we are continues to be a compelling source of discovery for me. It’s not a conscious decision; I just go there, I gravitate in that direction.
You mentioned music. That’s got to be happening, lending a mine
ral cast to the words, the syllables, sounds. I love that moment in Oppen’s “Sara in Her Father’s Arms,” where he describes the infant’s eyes as “little seed eyes,” repeating the words more than one would in normal speech, breaking through the sweet sentiment that’s adhered to the idea of babies at least since the 19th century. I think that’s a place where the sheer materiality of a living person comes through in large part by way of sound. It’s a disturbing depiction but comes as a relief, just as any truth does, no matter how horrible, especially if the actual comes into view after decades of repression. Punches into view. Such change takes tremendous force. This is what poetry is for, to break those oppressive habits of perception, so as to give us (including us writers) the experience of the joy of liberation.
KZ: I know you grew up around the Jacksonville FL area, and I myself grew up in North Florida. Any number of Modernists, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane—to name only a few—wrote about Florida. The State appears several times in Life, as well as your other books of poems. How does it measure in your work and thought?
EA: Place is very important for me, as it is for any writer. Especially the place one was born and grew up in. It’s like the mother tongue. Both are so powerful and interconnected. And being from the South, I speak a little differently, draw out some vowel sounds as if they were dipthongs, pronounce words differently than northeasterners for example. This must affect how I hear.
I happened to live back home for a few years in my thirties. I wrote my first book, The Reef, there. The world of my hometown is very much stamped into that book. I lived on the street my father grew up on. And the St. Johns River’s at the end of that street, just four blocks or so from the house where I was living then. That river had a huge impact on my childhood, as I grew up in a house right on the river, and my bedroom facing it. It’s a wide river, almost like a sea—three miles wide where I lived. Storms crossed it slowly. Blue heron and Osprey, bald eagles were all around. Twelve-foot alligators cruised by. Sea cows floated like balloons when the water was glassy calm.
Travel far from home has also become a source of inspiration for me. Coming into contact with different cultures is sparking all kinds of reverberations. Of course you can travel via books—reading the Iliad, for example. Physically moving around the world is nearly as transforming, or can be.
KZ: What was the least expected discovery in writing the poems in Life?
EA: The overall style of it, the feeling of its lines—fewer poems end with a clipped feeling. There’s a new openness. In my second book, Civilization, I quote Vallejo at the end of a poem: “the feeling of how ‘water sails in oceans.’” I think for the most part Life moves the way water sails in oceans. And although it isn’t a book-length sequence, its parts add up. It’s larger than I thought it would be.
KZ: You have been taking about four years between books for the last three. I always like to ask about the next project, and maybe you could talk a little about your process. Do you find you need time away from writing, or do new poems evolve at a constant rate?
EA: I suffer when I’m not writing, and I’ve been stalled months until just lately. I’m almost always turning my experience into poems, or trying. At this point, I have no idea what my next book will be, though I know I’ve written maybe ten poems that will be in it. Life was an opening up for me. There seems to be a new kind of give there, a giving. And I’ve begun to write some longer individual poems that seem to be stepping off from that, developing that openness in a new direction. These new longer poems feel rangy to me. I didn’t think they were poems at all at first. It’s an odd thing, how we make these things, “out of a mouthful of air.” Who knows where they will lead? If you think you know, you’re lost.
Elizabeth Arnold is the author of four books of poems, The Reef, Civilization, Effacement, and Life.