In episode 14 of Phoned-In, Heather Christle reads from her book The Difficult Farm and from her chapbook The Seaside!.
Luke Degnan What’s your relationship to the idea of a farm?
Heather Christle I never lived on a real one. People have been asking me that so it’s good that you say the idea of a farm. When I was little, one of my favorite toys to play with was this bag of little miniature farm houses and animals. Some were plastic. Some were wood. They were all out of proportion to each other. They were great. I loved arranging them and playing with them. It’s definitely related to the imagination for me. I have fantasies, like a lot of people around my age do, of moving into the country or even living in the city and having some chickens and things, but it’s not something I’ve been able to manage. So even the more real versions of a farm are kind of a fantasy for me. I love the idea of a farm. I really do. Especially since they’re so full of animals, and animals really get my imagination going.
LD I asked this same question to Zachary Schomburg, but I thought I’d ask you as well. Why is our generation obsessed with animals and critters?
HC It’s a good question right? It’s not just in poetry. It’s in music, it’s in art, it’s everywhere. Someone, when I was on tour, had just seen Zach read and had no idea that we had anything to do with each other. He started talking to me about Zach and about animals and our generation. I think he had a theory that we have a desire to get back into narrative and a kind of imaginary coherence to the world. That there was a naivete to what we’re doing. Which I think is perhaps the case to some extent. Perhaps it’s a form of resistance to the machines that we see all the time. If our field of vision is populated with so many machines, perhaps it helps to populate our minds with more animals just to balance things out a little bit. There’s a general interest in the woods too and woodland animals.
I think that a lot of that energy can be traced back to fairy tales and that kind of thing. They feel like really basic images and ideas to work with, which is helpful because then you can make the poem be about the arrangement of images and the logic of how they’re arranged. We don’t get too distracted by the animal or by the trees because they’re so basic. I’m not really thinking of real trees or real animals. They’re these kind of basic forms that are just there to be manipulated or to manipulate me. That happens too.
LD It seems like our generation is obsessed with critters and the forest in a way that’s not so obvious to the people doing it.
HC That happens all the time, not just with animals. You think that you have a great idea that’s really authentic to yourself and then you find out that Vice has already written an article about it or something. It’s a tricky thing too because I’ve become more and more aware of those tendencies in my own work to the point where I’m trying to back away from them a little bit and do some other things. It can become awfully predictable too. You participate in these patterns sometimes without realizing it. It’s good, probably, to become aware if it becomes a tic or something. There’s one poem in The Difficult Farm that I read called “Acorn Duly Crushed”, and I totally didn’t realize when I wrote it that there are all these “Dear …” poems out there. It had been brought up to me by someone who suggested that I maybe change that. I felt like I couldn’t change that poem. I couldn’t take away all of those dears. They seemed pretty significant to how it was all working. I hope that it broke the pattern enough as it wasn’t a particularly loving address to the forest. It is at some points friendly, but it’s also kind of insulting. The danger of writing the “Dear …” poem is that it gets awfully twee. I think that what’s interesting about the patterns that you see happening is that they’re very often authentic to a great number of people. If there’s enough of something in the air, people start responding to it independently of one another. Authenticity is a tricky goal. I’m always riddled with doubt about my own authenticity and find myself wondering if it’s something that can be consciously pursued. It’s the kind of thing that you can only reach, if it’s reachable at all, by not trying to get there.
LD Perhaps also by not worrying about what other people have done?
HC There’s a quote that I’ve talked about before, that is really pretty significant to me, by the painter Phillip Guston who talks about how when he first goes into his studio to paint, there are all of these noisy voices in there with him of his contemporaries, of the critics, and if he’s lucky, one by one as he’s painting, they’ll all disappear, and if he’s really lucky then he disappears too. That’s just so perfect. That’s really the best feeling that I have when I’m making something. I’m just not there. I go away. In those moments I guess I am capable of feeling authentic in those moments when I’m not there. Those feelings can only really last while you’re making the thing and then they kind of disintegrate.
Heather Christle is the author of The Difficult Farm (Octopus Books), and a chapbook, The Seaside! (Minutes Books). Some new poems have recently appeared in The Believer, Fence, and Skein. Born in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, she now lives in Atlanta, and teaches poetry at Emory University. She is also the web editor for jubilat. More information is at heatherchristle.blogspot.comi>.
Luke Degnan is an audio engineer, a poet, and a musician. He has received countless accolades from highly respected institutions.