Emily Pettit: Goat in the Snow by Jack Christian

Jack Christian speaks with poet Emily Pettit about the workings of chance and the unexpected in her fast-paced poems.

Goat In The Snow

Emily Pettit’s Goat in the Snow was published by Birds LLC in January of this year and was Small Press Distribution’s fourth best-selling poetry book for the month of January. These are poems that perform their spell in such a way that they leave a reader in a warm confusion in which one is likely to welcome more confusion. That is not to say the poems are obtuse or needlessly difficult. The only difficulty that I found was reading slowly enough, similar to remembering to pace oneself through an excellent meal. These poems are remarkable for the ways they manage to find pleasant, thoughtful intersections of the mundane and the sublime, the thought and the spoken, the private and the public. They are written about the imagination and in praise of it. And they are also careful. Reading Emily’s work, I am conscious of how precise and well-groomed her poems are and how generous she is to work so hard that I can believe these poems took no work at all.

Jack Christian There’s always a story to first books, in how they come about, in how they are often culled from years of poems and enough material really for several books. I know you’ve published two chapbooks previously, How (Octopus Books) and What Happened To Limbo(Pilot Books). And so I wondered how you conceived of Goat in the Snow.

Emily Pettit I started writing Goat in the Snow in college. I was writing poems, and then I decided I was writing a book. One night with my brother (Guy Pettit) and his wonderful friend Rory Jenson, I was discussing my constant desire to be a “fly on the wall” and Rory said, “Be a goat in the snow.” He said it like it was an obvious truth. And I said, “What?! What did you just say? Rory! I’m going to title my book that.” And I did. A later challenge I encountered was writing a poem titled “Goat In The Snow,” knowing that it would be the title of my book.

In terms of thinking about writing the book, a great inspiration to me was John Ashbery’sSome Trees, which is a book I read my senior year of college. It is a book full of poems. Poems exploring different forms. Different ideas. Different ways of having ideas. And although the poems in Some Trees inform one another beautifully, they are not dependent upon one another. Some Trees made me feel like what I wanted to do, needed to do, was to concern myself with writing poems and more poems. I never thought about writing the book as a project. I thought, I am writing a book of poems and I will call it Goat in the Snow.

In thinking about putting the poems in order, many things went through my mind. Initially, when I ordered the book, it did not contain sections. When Dean Young, my thesis director in graduate school, read my book (the version of it that existed back then), he suggested that I put the book into sections. He suggested this as an opportunity to add a layer of beginnings and ends. I am very concerned with endings. I am in love with them. I often, or rather, almost always begin with an ending and then try to get there. When I look at sections, I now look at them as just another moment to make time or breath that will pace the reading of the book. Many books do not need or want this moment of time or breath or division or declaration.

JC In the title poem the goat “move[s] quietly past a fence without hesitation,” and I can start to articulate many ways in which I see these poems doing this and playing with this. What did it come to mean to you to “be a goat in the snow?”

EP It means many things, and I think I might do it a disservice to pin it to any one idea, any one image, any one emotion or sentiment. I will shyly say, to me it is an attempt to explore John Keats’s Negative Capability. I see Negative Capability as an idea that can help us to better understand how we relate to the world and the things in the world or of the world and the things off the world as well. Negative Capability suggests approaching that which one encounters with a sense of awe and humility. Negative Capability is a call to failure, a call to uncertainty, a call to question, a call to mystery. And in the midst of this mystery Keats is not suggesting that a man not reach after fact or reason, but rather that a man should not do so irritably. For it is in a state of irritation that a person or a goat might lose his or her ability to pay attention, to witness complexity, to learn, to be moved.

JC Many of these are “How To” poems. Where did you get that idea? It made me think ofCronopios y Famas by Julio Cortazar. Is their an upshot to this advice? What’s the role, the stance, the performance of advice to you in these?

EP Titles are incredible opportunities! My writing of the “How to” poems began after an encounter with an internet list of “How to” links that so amused me that I began to write poems titled ‘How to … ”, and the first “How to” poem I wrote is titled “How To Appear Normal In Front Of Your Enemy Or Competitor.” I liked how the instruction title might complicate a poem, words in a poem, word work in a poem. Instruction or even the implication of instruction can be very provocative.

Anthony McCann’s book, Moongarden (Wave Books) changed my writing and my mind and my everything. Particularly the poem in Moongarden titled “The Temptations,” which begins—

Now you will feel absolutely terrified

And you are burning

And you will want to drink a beer

A gallon of beer immediately

And some water

Then you will want water

You are under the command of water completely

And you are absolutely terrified

This has been your experience

—and this is just the beginning of the poem. The rest of the poem continues to push the reader through its world. A world that redefines water and wanting and commands. This poem commands and perhaps demands a great deal. While reading this poem the first time and every subsequent time, I’ve thought—WOW—how you can capture control in a poem! And for me the way in which McCann captured control in this poem and in many of his other poems is through commands, demands, and declarations. Moongarden loudly made me think about this power a poem could contain, could share. Made me think I could say, Say! I could say, “How To … ”

JC Now that we’re talking about form, or syntax, let me go back to the goat in the snow for a moment. If the goat in the snow implies moving out into a more imaginative, boundary-less terrain, does it also imply a process for communicating what’s out there? Are the “How To’s,” the commands, declarations, the manner of address, the power and control you admired in Anthony McCann’s poems also part of being a goat in the snow? How do these connect?

EP Commands and declarations are maybe sometimes needed to push people in the imaginative directions that poems can present. People can be hesitant to engage with the unfamiliar and a command or declaration might make it so a person doesn’t have time to be hesitant. Everything is happening very fast.

JC I wonder, then, does creating such momentum and speed help you in writing poems like these, especially because you often find yourself writing toward an ending? Did you write them fast?

EP It is hard to for me to decide if I can say that I wrote them fast. There is a part that is fast and a part that is slow. I write lines every day. Then all of a sudden, I see/hear/feel/find the lines I’ve written, over perhaps the last week or two, coming together, and I sit down and write a poem. When I write a poem, I tend to sit there and write until I feel it is finished finished finished. I figure out the poem is finished after reading it aloud to myself many many many times. And so maybe that fact that I write the poem in a night seems fast, but it is only possible (most of the time) because of slow work. A few of the poems in the book I wrote when I was an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts. So I suppose I was 19 when I wrote the earliest poem that appears in the book. Other poems I wrote that appear in the book were late editions to the manuscript that I wrote and added this past year. So I wrote this book over the course of something like 7 years. So maybe that is slow?

JC When you’re in the process of bringing a poem together, can you describe different ways you make the pieces fit? What are you wanting to do as you move from line to line, or piece to piece? Something I admire in your book is all the different moves you’re able to make, but, are there moves you most like to make?

EP Moves. This is funny. There are lots of moves I like to make, though I can’t say that with out grinning or wanting to hide at the same time. Luckily while I’m writing, I’m not thinking of what I’m doing as moves. Though perhaps I should embrace that term? I love the word moving. I love the word move. I love the word moves. I love a band called The Moves. I love different sorts of logic, logic perhaps organized by music, comparison, diction, or tone to name a few. I try to let different logics live together in a poem. My mind is messy with different sorts of logic at work, and I think my poems, as a result, are making different moves, often messy moves, but moves. Right now I keep finding myself rhyming and often loudly. It’s scary. I’m even doing it in some correspondence by accident and then leaving it.

JC What you say brings me to something else that I thought about while reading your poems, and that was: Where do you conceptualize your speakers—I mean in terms of their physical space? I notice that the speakers in these poems often have, and seem to enjoy having, an elusive quality, most obviously in “How to Hide and Stay Hidden” where the speaker proclaims that her location is hidden: “Though the number is a secret, / like where I am.” Where do you picture yourself, or your speaker, in relation to your poems?

EP I am hiding in my poems. I am also not hiding. I am doing both.

JC Well, I ask about this partly because I see these poems as being very out-in-the-world. They seem to take place on a sidewalk and in the air, as much as in a more private place, like a mind. I see this in lots of ways, starting with the spoken quality of the phrases, idioms, and plays on idioms that make up many of the lines. And then, of course, because of the call and response between “Someone” and your speakers that reoccurs. All of which prompts me to wonder, who are these poems to? Their address is intimate and public at once.

EP I think the poems are both intimate and public. I hope they are both. They are both to me.

Jack Christian’s poems have appeared in Web Conjunctions, Cimarron Review and elsewhere. He is the author of Let’s Collaborate from Magic Helicopter Press.

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