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Literature : Interview

Tanya Larkin on myth, Emily Dickinson, and being "a latecomer to clarity and plain speaking."

Ross Racine, Elmwood and Oaklawn, Inkjet print on archival paper, 15 3/8 × 20 1/2. Courtesy of Pierogi Flat Files.

Tanya Larkin’s poetry alternates between precise meditations and wilder, metamorphic explorations. Larkin’s “Essay on Style” poems demonstrate great focus, canny conceits, and intellectual rigor, but elsewhere her work expands to chart what Dostoevsky’s underground man called a “fever of oscillations,” spiritual agitations that lead to coursing involutions of figuration. Her work is among the best I’ve read in recent years. Her first book, My Scarlet Ways, was the winner of the 2011 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, judged by Denise Duhamel.

I’m reported missing

at the mirror when I think of you,

you suckhole of sincerity, you

glistening knob fallen from

the door.

(“The Heavenly Bodies Are Bowls of Fire”)

Gregory Lawless The first poem, “Transport,” in your beautiful debut collection, My Scarlet Ways, moves from wish to vision in what is a fascinating and complex drama of poetic inspiration. The speaker at first wants to be “nature’s one and only / wet nurse,” who “accru[es] voices” of cosmic and terrestrial testimony with her kinetic powers. Later, the speaker follows “wherever / the voices go,” which ultimately causes her to transform into a totemic, “anarchic red snake,” so in love with and “gone into [the] things” of this world that she is marshaled by others, perhaps the voices themselves, who “strap” her to the prow of a ship “for luck” (an image which is repeated in the poem “Prospects”).

This hallucinatory, Ovidian coil of leaps and metamorphoses winds up being something like the autobiography of a heretofore-ignored deity, part visionary confessional, part mythopoetic invocation. Why did you choose this poem, with such a volatile sense of identity and authorship, to begin your collection?

Tanya Larkin It is quite a myth mash say that 20 times but with a decidedly female bent, of course. I wrote most of this book while caught in the throes of pretty strong maternal urges, and I can’t help but look at this poem and see myself working out these desires with respect to the larger world and poetry. What do you do with that overwhelming urge if you don’t end up having children? How else can your body be so pleasantly used up?

I was warned against using this poem as the beginning of the collection because it was maybe too off-putting in its stridency. “Nature’s one and only / wet nurse, Tanya? Really? . . . Maybe tuck it into the middle of the manuscript.” But I think it’s kind of funny and outlandish in its outsized wish. Whitman comes to mind, his appropriation of the female body to express creative, maternal urges. Weirdly enough, I was probably borrowing from his additions to that topos; I had been teaching Song of Myself a lot at the time. Who was it that observed that many major American poets have passed through a stage in which they have enacted some sort of divinity? Interesting way to express American-ness . . . Anyway, I’m probably doing a little of that here. But it’s also a poem in which I, or the speaker, dedicates herself to love in an over-the-top, primitive, Catholic way—after all she is reduced to a relic or charm for other people’s journeys by the end of it. So many of the poems in the book engage in Catholic thought if only to dismiss or dismantle those habits of mind. I chose it as the first poem because it introduces themes that appear throughout the book, like that of the body as instrument, and it’s also full of beginnings and endings, endings at the beginning and vice versa, a perfect place to push off, I thought.

As for the volatility of identity, is there any other kind? Women apprehend this more directly than most men because their bodies change more drastically over time: as my mother is fond of saying, women have at least four bodies. What she means is that women have at least four different kinds of bodies over time. Plus ca change, plus ca change. They are more intimate with the principle of impermanence . . . but then so is anyone engaged in imaginative writing. It’s a mystical thing. Voices come, voices go, who are you? I suppose I am whatever sounds right at any given time and that’s all. I think it’s Dean Young in The Art of Recklessness who quotes Kenneth Koch as saying, “A poem is written by someone who is not the writer to someone who is not the reader.” The self is performative, not fixed. Every time I sit down to write a poem, I am (hopefully) changed by the act of writing the poem. In these poems, I use surreal composition techniques, at least some of the time. The language suggests the speaker and the speaker’s situation, but my own preoccupations prevail.

GL Your book gets its name from Dickinson’s poem, “To put this World down, like a Bundle—” and the book’s epigraph goes like this:

To put this world down, like a Bundle—

And walk steady, away,

Requires energy—possibly Agony—

‘Tis the scarlet way.

Why did you use a poem about renouncing the world to title your book? And why does your book title pluralize and personalize Dickinson’s final phrase in the first stanza? What alterations in tone and content did you want to make?

TL I realize it’s not very cool to use a Dickinson quotation to guide a book these days. It incites the mob—my Emily Dickinson, no no my Emily . . . even to say, "No, not Dickinson again," is engaging in a territorial pissing contest. I don’t care. I love Emily—she drives the deepest, and I owe my deepest life to her. Without her, I wouldn’t be a poet. I arrived at the title after admiring the seductive, straight-shooting title of Errol Flynn’s autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways. Once I found the ED poem, I understood what I had to do, as they say. For ED, the scarlet way is Jesus’s way, the way of bloody self-sacrifice and yet the word “scarlet” has inevitable sexual connotations, and so renunciation becomes erotic. Did ED mean to highlight this fact by using this word? Probably. I just do it more by casting it in pulpy autobiographical terms. In the Catholic tradition, self-sacrifice or self-annihilation has erotic overtones. That’s my orientation, my understanding of the whole business. Many of these poems are like little liturgies where either self or world gets disappeared by the end.

GL In your poem “Arson,” the speaker “misread[s] the word arson for person,” and then imagines seeing “through the words to the words / they might have been had they . . . never grown up in such a broken home.” This shift, from the subtle changes in the sounds and letters of words to the emotional-environmental changes in a person’s upbringing that can account for adult deviance is stunning, but it also, I think, typifies something essential in your aesthetic: the poetic value of mistakes. Could you tell me why you see “misread[ing]” as poetically generative?

TL I am thinking about how bad my eyesight is and how mishearing and misreading were maybe my first experiences making poems. I listened to the ethereal and incomprehensible Cocteau Twins a lot in high school while falling asleep . . . words floated up and stitched themselves together, and you got the impression you were escaping to some secret, hidden world. Then I think of the Impressionists who were not merely myopic (if they were at all) but trying to accurately depict sensation. Rimbaud used to read drafts of his poems through his eyelashes, purposely blurring the words to see what they might become—a nice, gentle proto-surreal exercise. The point is to surprise yourself out of habitual thoughts and language and find parts of yourself that aren’t normally given the chance to speak. Often you dredge up junk and then other times, the TRUTH, even truth that is musically right. Misreading may not be just a compositional technique, it could also be epistemologically true, no? Maybe all there is is misreading of others, self and world. The best we can do is stumble around in big mind and try not to get wrong. This probably has bad implications for the advance of science—in the context of universal misreading, a sense of certainty would be psychotic, but good implications for the very serious endeavor of not taking things very seriously.

GL Your two “Essay on Style” poems are great enough to defy paraphrase, but I think it’s safe to say they chart your ambivalence on the topic. On the one hand, style is worn (by people, poets) in order “to become more mysterious” (for the sake of expression, perhaps, or mere disguise), but on the other style comprises “the distance between me and myself,” which throws the epistemic aims of art into question. So the rub seems to be that style can help construct the mask of art, but it can also alienate the artist from herself.

Regarding said rub: does style represent more of a boon (fostering expression) or a threat (alienation) to you as an artist? Also, to what extent do these poems go beyond the essayistic mode of description, explanation and demonstration of style to critique the role of style in contemporary poetry?

TL “ . . . style can help construct the mask of art, but it can also alienate the artist from herself.” This is extremely well-put.

I’d like Whitman to take this one for me. He’s mumbling from the preface of Leaves of Grass: “Who troubles himself about his ornaments or fluency is lost.” This is right before he launches into, “This is what you should do. Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches . . . ” Then there is: “The greatest poet has less a marked style and is more the channel of his thoughts and things without increase or dimunition, or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains.” Well. I actually like curtains—give me the right beaded curtain and I can crash in and out of room forever. So, Whitman and I differ there, but this is the quotation I was looking for initially: “The great poets are also to be known by the absence in them of tricks and by the justification of perfect personal candor.” I think it’s fair to say I was tired of my own tricks. Once they become recognizable as such, one really has some spring-cleaning to do, no matter what the season.

Before Whitman stepped in, I was going to say I am a latecomer to clarity and plain speaking, which in a way I am, in part because of my education, but then I looked back and found that I had been having some sort of dialogue with myself about art and artifice for a long time. Maybe it takes a lifetime of being an artist to come clean of/from art. When I was involved with acting as a kid, I remember working hard for that moment where you weren’t acting any more, just reacting. So much superstructure, blocking, rehearsal just for those “real” moments. It seems to me with poetry, the entire “play” can be real. There’s no need for artifice. And when it achieves that lack of artifice we call it song (or maybe just prose!).

And yes, I am implicitly critiquing style in contemporary poetry too by critiquing myself. Tricks abound. Flimsiness. Style with nothing behind it. Friends would cast this debate as surface vs. wisdom. And I like that distinction but can’t come down hard on either side. I love the fleshiness of language, its materiality. (Too often, I’ve probably mistaken the poem as a stand-in for the body.) This means I love music and weird, sumptuous images even for their own sake, but not for an entire poem. I need meaning, you know? Precise description is pretty thrilling too. As far as the cool anti-poem is concerned, I like those too, but I am on alert should coolness sour into cuteness or flat meaninglessness. Then again, I am really always happy to hear an intelligent mind fling itself around and land on its feet, sometimes sticking the landing once, twice, three times a poem. I admire freedom in action.

GL Your work occupies an interesting location in contemporary American poetry since your poems alternate between playfulness, which is stylistically widespread, and a kind of tragic severity that I don’t see in the work of many younger poets. You also blend surrealistic techniques with mediation and disquisition, which further separates you from your contemporaries, since your use of chance language and dream imagery are not ornamental but illustrative of the inquiry at hand. Thus, it appears that your work is partially invested in the registers and tools of your poetic moment, but that you use those tools, in part, to write against and challenge prevailing trends. To what extent do you see your poetry as conflicting with said trends and sensibilities? And, more generally, what aspects of contemporary poetry do you find most exciting, and what aspects do you find most troubling and in need of critique?

TL I think one of the projects in poetry these days is to see how little can pass for poetry. There seems to be this competition: Who can extend the dadaist notion that “everything is poetry” the furthest? Sometimes this is exciting because in the course of this sort of exploration, a poet will re-enchant quotidian life, and then sometimes these poems seem like a capitulation to meaninglessness. As I said above, I like cool, trendy poetry but sometimes it depresses me. That’s why I like to cleanse my brain with Louise Gluck once in awhile, her merciless spareness. Or the fierceness of Amichai. My friend Jada likes to say, don’t play it cool, play it hot. This is a fine piece of romantic advice—it means stay vulnerable, open etc.—but it can also apply to poetry-making. There’s a disengagement with other humans that comes from too much coolness. If you’re too cool, you get cold. I suppose it depends on what you go to poetry for. Chances are it’s different things at different times. But I mostly go to poetry for a kind of intimacy with another person I can’t find in life—hence the love of poets like Dickinson.

I used to be more preoccupied with invention, hence the use of surrealistic techniques, but now I try to write poems that could have been written by anyone. I don’t want to write to the poetry world, but to everyone, friends, family, everyone . . . people who aren’t necessarily poetry readers. The existence of music, the integrity of line, and an intelligent turn of mind. Those are enough for me.

There isn’t a particular trend in poetry I am excited about, but poets yes. In particular Oni Buchanan’s Must a Violence. In particular the poem, “If You Love An Animal.” I read a poem by Filip Marinovich online the other day called “To Be Alienation,” which really knocked my socks off. Now that I think about it, both are driven by moral outrage, the latter of a self-directed sort. I also love Anthony Madrid’s first book I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say. He plays with the forms and tropes of traditional Eastern wisdom poetry and infuses them with quirk and feeling, and wisdom, too! I am also really loving Uselysses by Noel Black. It’s hilarious. But I don’t think there’s any one thing that binds these poets. They’re all intelligent, sure, but they have radically different sensibilities.

GL So what’s new with Tanya Larkin these days? What are you reading, writing, thinking? What new projects are afoot and all that good stuff?

TL Mostly I have been trying to keep up with the band I front, Waves in Detroit. There are about five songs I need to finish by Sunday—it's a much quicker process than poetry writing. We get together, jam, and sometimes have the kernels of four songs by the end of the night. Not all survive . . . I learned early on when I started writing songs for and with these guys a little over a year ago that I need to have conviction in the lyrics in order to actually sing them and find melodies. So this means I actually I have to write good lyrics. Also, since I have the chance to say it publicly, it is the greatest thing ever to be in a band that can rock pretty hard. Collaboration is often instantaneous and mystical. As Keith Richards says in his autobiography, the secret of rock-n-roll is that it is actually jazz.

What I’ve been thinking and reading. I just finished a book called Love, Sex, Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives by Simon Goldhill, and have started The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt. I had been working on an essay about Sappho and Bessie Smith and got interested in the emergence of the lyric and how the performance of lyric might have laid the foundation for meaningful democracy, how the recognition of personal concerns might lead to the bonding of a group or to an ever-enlarging narcissism. File this all under my worry for the future of civilization under environmental/economic threat.

I am also finishing a novel I have been finishing for a long time—I am reluctant to say how many years. Because my novel is in the first person, I tend to read lots of novels in the first person—the latest is Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be. There’s very little plot, but it’s funny and brilliant.

Poems have been happening though they have temporarily taken a backseat to songs—I’ll have to work on that. Some of these poems are more lyric and others more long and discursive. These essayistic ones address climate change obliquely by discussing architectural places and ruins and the ruin that language becomes when its referents disappear.

Tanya Larkin was born in Montebelluna, Italy and raised in Pennsylvania. She attended Columbia University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and is a recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. Her poems have appeared in Conduit, Quarterly West, Ploughshares, and elsewhere.

Gregory Lawless is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and author of I Thought I Was New Here. His poems have appeared in such places as Third Coast, The National Poetry Review, Salamander, La Petite Zine, Zoland Poetry, and many others. His chapbook, Foreclosure, will be published by Back Pages Publishers in the spring of 2013.