Lending a Mineral Cast to the Words: An Interview with Elizabeth Arnold

Interview Conducted by Karl Zuehlke

Elizabeth Arnold has received numerous awards including the Amy Lowell scholarship, a Whiting award, and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Fine Arts Work Center, Yaddo, and MacDowell.  Her poems regularly appear in major poetry publications such as Poetry magazine and The Kenyon Review.  In addition to Life, Arnold has published three books of poems, The Reef, Civilization, and Effacement. She is on the MFA faculty at the University of Maryland.

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