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.