I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Poet Miranda Field on insomnia and living on the “wrong side of the river.”
I. Sleep & Dream
Julia Guez Sleep and sleeplessness seem to be real focal points in Swallow (Houghton Mifflin, 2002). In “Arnica / Ambien / Absolution,” first published by Columbia: A Journal of Literature & Art in 2004, you open with the lines, “No mortal ever learns to go to sleep definitively. No baby, animal or vegetable, / intends to sink his vehicle in so soundless a lake.” In a more recent piece, “Where I’ve Gone When You Ask Where Did You Go Just Then?” the speaker fantasizes about “traveling all the way down/ to where sleep-inside-sleep inside seventeen-levels-down-sleep / softly roars.” Is sleeplessness a by-product of the writing life? Is the kind of mind (which allows you to collect and render acute observations of the inner and outer world) prone to never resting?
Miranda Field A lot of those poems and images of sleeplessness just come from the boring, rotten fact of insomnia. Nights of sound sleep, for me, are like the birds and small creatures whose sudden disappearance signals an impending natural disaster. All’s well with the world when you’re sleeping and dreaming—but when it all eerily stops, something’s about to go terribly wrong. I think maybe when you stop sleeping, sometimes it’s because your unconscious is trying to tell you something you don’t want to hear.
And then there’s this straightforward longing for more writing time, so you extend your waking hours into the silent hours when everyone else is asleep—those hours that feel so super-charged with magical potential. So I have found sleeplessness, at times, feeds my creative life. Becoming nocturnal pushes me off the grid, pushes me to a kind of extremity, “rearranges the senses.” Other physical and imaginative spaces open up. I explore the thickets of alternative realities I call “dreams” in my poems a fair bit.
It’s not always—or even usually—literal dreams I’m talking about when I use the word “dream” in a poem. It’s maybe poetic space. Sometimes I really feel a kind of esthetic deadness—a kind of subtle-body starvation—on the grid. And insomnia comes to my rescue. Maybe it’s just that all the unvalued (because uncommodifiable) areas of existence—the immaterial, unsaid, unseen, therefore not “real”—they all grow stronger, richer, stranger after the closing bell rings at the stock exchange.
I’ve noticed I have this habit of referring to this “subtle body,” in poems, especially those exploring sleep and dream, and I don’t mean it in some mystical/occult sense—it’s just borrowed language, a term I stole because it’s perfect. For me this not-quite-material, not-quite objectively existing creature is nothing more—or less—than the thinking self, the esthetic self: she who reads, dreams, disappears into ideas, clicks link after link, disappears into hyperspace, drifts off. She’s the one who takes over when the one who gets up and gets dressed and swipes her Metrocard completely spaces out on the subway to work, missing her stop. I feel like she’s in danger of disappearing. I’m tracing her movements in poems.
Actually, I Googled “subtle body” when I started to write this, to make sure I wasn’t saying something I didn’t mean, and I got: “The existence of subtle bodies is unconfirmed by the mainstream scientific community.” The subtle body in my poems exists—exists in poem-space—outside all mainstream communities, that’s for sure. I think she feeds at night.
I’ve found my way back to nature, to where I was born, where I was meant to be, where I can breathe, where
glistening transparent pearls on stalks extend from hundreds of open throats … .
(“Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” La Petite Zine 25, 2010)
JG As a New Yorker, I can’t help reading sections of the new manuscript without thinking to myself, “This is not here. This cannot be New York.” (In “Cybele,” which first appeared in TriQuarterly in 2004, the pastoral is not only not-of-Manhattan, it is otherworldly altogether). Is the desire for a return “back to nature, to where I was born” belong exclusively to the fisherman’s wife (whose dream you detail in La Petite Zine), or do you have a similar urge to write and be “where [you] can breathe”? Is it possible to create this kind of space in the city? If so, where do you find the kind of stillness you describe so knowingly?
MF “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” refers to a classic 19th Century Japanese erotic woodcut by Hokusai. It’s a very explicit print—a giant octopus performing cunnilingus on a reclining woman, who seems pretty happy with it, pretty blissed-out. Apparently art historians have interpreted this as a rape, which I think is a flagrant misreading (there’s also this whole genre of “tentacle erotica” that’s grown up around it, and a less high-minded subculture that calls it “squid porn?!?”) Between the salivating fetishism and affronted prudery, the riches that are lost! To me, it’s a deliciously resonant image. It’s also quite radically gynocentric (though the artist was a man): the female imagination pleasuring the female body. If you look at the picture, there are these sinuous, glistening, boneless, glutinous, exploratory feelers! They’re like extremely flexible tongues! There’s eroticism, tender irony, symbolic underlayers—all kinds of communication going on here. As in a poem. In my poem, the speaker is supersaturated with her own inner life, is beyond needing to be “fertilized,” is fertile (creatively/imaginatively) in herself. To me, rape is the least erotic fact of the world.
But back to your question …
No, we’re not in Manhattan in most of my poems. I’ve lived here 25 years, and I’ve always had this need to escape, but there was a year when we were threatened with eviction from our rent-stabilized apartment twice, then 9/11 happened. I felt like I’d hatched my chicks near a forest fire. Tom [Thompson] and I went upstate and got ourselves a tall, narrow, pointy-roofed fixer-upper on the “wrong side of the river,” where our children could grow up with spiders and ghosts, and when we’re there, snowstorms engulf us so we can’t get back sometimes—we always half hope we’ll get stuck there forever. But I’m also always happy to fall asleep again to the sound of oceans of traffic eleven flights down when we get back.
JG When I first read “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” I was thinking of the Brothers Grimm story by the very same name (whose narrative is interwoven in the first part of To The Lighthouse). Re-reading the piece with the woodcut in mind, I am reminded of the husband and wife figures intertwining in “Scold’s Mask,” first published in Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (Sarabande Books, 2006).
Tonight, the tongue is a particularly muscular vine.
Tonight it redoubles its efforts to ascend
Heavenward. The husband-tongue, the “love-muscle” tongue.
What miracles of synchronized swimming,
what exquisite tension between buried root and forcefully
arrowing-forth prow … . It’s hard to hood this.
One tongue finds another to entwine,
one tongue grows a bindweed round another’s stem.
And consider carefully this ramification of the stickiest index:
its extremities are relentlessly expansionist …
Perhaps I have been reading in and outside of the wrong canon, but there seem to be relatively few meditations on desire (written from a believably female point-of-view) with the kind of immediacy typical of your “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife.”
You have a real talent for rendering desire, intimacy, and eroticism from a radically gynocentric point-of-view. To this end, what models, male or female, have been most valuable to you?
MF I feel like so much of my experience—of life lived in a female body-mind—somehow seems to “fall through the sieve of language.” (Why do we call what the octopus is doing in Hokusai’s print “foreplay”—by which is implicitly meant that-which-comes-before-the-true-real-pleasure-of-penetration?) Some writers and thinkers who have been important to me for the way they re-capture—or uncover—unrepresented realities are Mary Daly, Sarah Ruddick, Helene Cixous, and the (male) obstetrician Michel Odent. And Sharon Olds is an early poetic influence in this area, of course. Most important though, has been an ongoing conversation (largely online, and at this point 10+ years-long) I’ve been engaged in with a bunch of women poets of my generation, poets who are also mothers. The conversation is poetic and completely radically biologically female, extremely earthy, philosophical, serious, and humorous—all these things that aren’t supposed to go together: experimental poetics and “bloody show” in the same thread. In fact, it was from some talk originating with my “po-mom” sisters that the initial image in “The Fisherman’s Wife” came: “In the middle of the month I’m ravenous … . ” etc. In her poem, “Wherein a Surrogate Fails to Admit,” anthologized in NOT FOR MOTHERS ONLY (Fence Books, 2009), Danielle Pafunda writes:
They say that we cannot transmit. We were not built
to generate a message from the core … .
Seeking the language with which to transmit the messages generated from the core—if poems such as “Fisherman’s Wife” and others can be said to be “about” anything, it’s that.
III. Home and Homesickness
… I’ve returned to
where I was conceived. How much deeper, more iron-fed my original bed …
… The sky swirls, cold gruel thick enough to cover Dover/Calais
above the School of Homesickness with its skies of hypertext …
(“Where I’ve Gone When You Ask Where Did I Go Just Then,” La Petite Zine 25)
JG In “Where I’ve Gone When You Ask Where Did I Go Just Then,” the school of homesickness is capitalized. Given the setting—“the sky swirls, cold gruel thick enough to cover Dover/Calais”—I can’t help thinking of A Tale of Two Cities.
There are two cities you have called home. You were born in London. You live and work in New York (and you try to spend part of the year in the Hudson Valley). Where is home for you, though? Is your writing more iron-fed when you are at home (as the speaker suggests in the poem), or are there particular advantages to being away from home, expatriated, that is, homesick?
MF I was born on the outskirts of London, where you’ll find artists, plumbers, and barristers living on the same street—royalists, anarchists, druids, bee-keepers, road-sweepers—economically and culturally diverse, non-conformists and the rigidly conventional all mixed together. And everyone rides public transport. So I’m always expecting to feel at home in a city like New York, but where I grew up you could also hear birds, people washing dishes at the sink before an open window, the sound of a single car starting up and shifting gears as it pulled up the road on a foggy early morning. Individual, distinct musical phrases of life on Earth! I need those. They’re lost in the wash of inner city noise.
I think homesickness plays a role in generating my poems—nostalgia, longing for another, more northern-lit, far-off place. And since nostalgia’s an illusion, I guess it can be purposely induced. I think, yes, maybe I’ve arranged my life so that some kind of longing always enlivens my relationship to “home.” I live in two places. I love sitting up here on the eleventh floor above the continuous drone of traffic, longing for my little light-catcher of a house on its wind-blown hill near the railway tracks upstate. And underlying everything, there’s always this layer of deep nostalgia for my childhood environment—the different weather, the language. As a child, I remember being fascinated by the part at the beginning of Rapunzel, where the pregnant queen grows “sick near to death” in her longing for those beautiful radishes—the thing she can’t quite reach. And I’m pricked with nostalgia for a few moments when I first see the lights of Manhattan again each Sunday night, crossing the George Washington, tail-light to tail-light. But the city barely comes into my poems at all. Well, maybe the playground. The park.
JG I remember reading “City Playground” on-line at Coal Hill Review in the fall of 2009. The final image … insects with immense loaves for eyes … really stayed with me. Here are the last four lines:
A somber beauty rises & sets in the web of monkey bars
for large and fragile alike. Wild vines overwhelm
sculptures intended to be touched—gentle bug-friends
with immense loaves for eyes.
MF I loved the weird, surreal scale and other kinds of bio-distortions of some of the stuff my kids used to clamber around on in the Upper West Side playgrounds: giant bugs, miniature brontosauruses, hollow metal hippos. I loved to watch the little kids—to just drink in the atmosphere of deep absorption in distractedness, the serious, passionate free-associative play. That image came from reading a poem by Jean Follain, in which the words “children,” “immense loaves,” and “eyes” occur, and they seemed to synthesize themselves for me. Those giant fiber glass bugs and dinosaurs had the most generously proportioned, overheated, and deliciously benign eyes!
JG You are meticulous about revision. (When Rachel Zucker first introduced us in 2010, you were still penciling edits into the margins of Swallow). What is your process from draft to galley to print? When is a piece or a section (or a collection, for that matter) finally finished? Where do you draw the line, in other words? Does the box ever fully click shut, or is the work always evolving?
MF I don’t really have a set process. I move instinctively from early draft to “finished” poem. Just “follow the lights in my skull” as C.D. Wright says (though she’s not speaking of revision, but it’s the same for me whether I’m writing or revising). Like a piano tuner. And I’m guided by a (sometimes hampering) kind of perfectionism. Sometimes it sucks me down, and sometimes this leads to the death of something. But in that case, maybe it wasn’t viable to begin with—it was maybe “all for the best” as they say when something trying to be born doesn’t make it.
Nothing’s ever really finished in my mind. This is one of the major functions, for me, of publication: to rubber stamp a piece of writing: Done. And even the feeling of “done” is provisional, of course. By the time a poem appears in a book, it’s often passed through several incarnations. Each one felt “done” at the time.
JG You are simultaneously a wife, mother, artist, intellectual, and professor of Creative Writing at NYU and the New School (and this is only a short list of the roles you have taken on, as you have rooted yourself in the community). How do you manage to keep your balance, given all of your commitments?
MF It’s a matter of “endless small adjustments of balance,” with a view to finding, now and then, an optimal distribution of energies—and a little time and space to write.
Outside of my relationship with Tom and my family, my attachments are few but intense. My friends are very important to me, and a good proportion are poets, and conversations we have excite me and save me and ask me to give of myself, and that’s all life-sustaining, and enriching. But I’m a bit of an introvert, and I have an ambivalent relationship to defined communities—poetic or otherwise. I’m not so energized by big groups. It’s a small circle of loves that truly sustains me, some of whom are poets.
As for teaching, I’m an adjunct, so kind of a free agent—but I do pour a lot of energy into my teaching. I’m passionate about infecting people with excitement over contemporary poetry, and I love my students, I’m grateful to be involved in their work. But once the semester ends, I cordon off my time.
Marriage/motherhood—yes, young children are, let’s say, consuming. Writing stopped dead for a while after I had my second child. There was passionate love in early motherhood—it was more than anything the provenance of eros—but also loneliness, and a deep, scary awareness of the fragility of life. I bided my time when my babies were very young. There was bliss, but it was terrifying, too. I thought I’d lost myself. I couldn’t focus, and sometimes I’d get very, very down. But the unbearably hard part is finite—maybe ten years, for me (phew! that’s a long time, actually). At some point you wake up and understand that your children have wrenched you open and left you gasping, and your work is not just to launch them, but to tend to this new openness—to provide the conditions your new self needs to grow. And you and they collaborate on this, and there are no rules (no real ones), and you’re all winging it, and it’s exhausting, depleting, exhilarating, transformative—and how could you not get side-tracked?!?
But, hey, whether you have children or not, something will crack you open sooner or later. And you have to work with it.
Marriage, however—that’s not something I have to “do.” It’s the optimally fertile ground I grow in. It helps me do everything else. I’m lucky to have as a husband a friend/soul mate who I’m excited by—and a fully participatory partner, a husband and father of our children who’s a poet also, so understands the need for writing time. He’s very supportive of my work. Puts my work ahead of his own, I’d say. I have to tell him: Listen, you have to steal time for yourself, or I’ll take it all. It’s a very beneficial collaboration.
VI. What Is Next
JG In a brilliant interview with Days of Yore, Josh Bell confessed to feeling significantly more sensitive to the demands of the marketplace while he was at work on the second full-length collection of poetry. Is that factoring into your work at all? Are there pressures or pitfalls specific to writing the second collection that you did not experience while working on the first?
MF I read that interview and enjoyed it very much. Bell talks about what he calls “the pure terror of the first book,” which he calls a kind of “supernatural terror,” so different from the fear you face writing the second book—which is a fear he describes as “banality … . more depressing than vertiginous.” I definitely relate to that! I wrote my first book in a state of relative innocence. Experience silenced me. I’m still waiting to arrive at some kind of “higher innocence.” It’s not the pressures of the marketplace, per se—not for me. It’s all the chatter, all the feedback—and I’m not talking about responses to my own work. I’m talking about all the noise given off by the various essential or inessential components of the hive, all the industrious workers in the poetry machine: I’m one, you’re one, Josh Bell’s one, Stephen Burt, Marjorie Perloff, Ron Silliman, all the bloggers, the micro-reviewers at the Boston Review, the po-moms, The Constant Critic, Facebook friends, my students—so busy, so non-stop, round-the-clock weighing-in. Sometimes I just want to hear NOTHING again. But even up in my own little house on the wrong side of the river, there’ll never be that internal silence again. And (though maybe I’m just saying this to sound reasonable) I know it’s good. Poems can’t happen entirely in a vacuum. But I miss the “terror” as Josh Bell describes it: the terror of moving into entirely unknown territory without a guide (or guides … ) The banality is a different terror altogether—yes, maybe closer in temperament to market forces. I don’t love it. But I guess it’s a necessary—or at least inevitable—process of disenchantment.
JG My friend, Iris Cushing, workshopped with you in a semester-long workshop at The New School. In the course, she was so impressed to learn of the poet, Laura Jensen. Jensen was initially published by Ecco Press, and now Argos Books (where Cushing is a co-editor) is interested in re-printing Bad Boats. Over dinner at Redhead, we remarked on the impossibility of interacting with Miranda Field without coming away feeling grateful for the time and conversation and eager to add a handful of important titles to our List Of Books To Read As Soon As Possible.
When I was sitting down with you at OST, you introduced me to Elena Shvarts (translated by Michael Molnar and Catriona Kelly and released by BloodAxe). Who else are you reading, at the moment? Are you enthralled with anyone in particular?
MF Enthralled is the right word—when I find work that turns me on, I’m an evangelist, making sure a student who, I think, will catch fire with that book—right now— buys a copy. I’m enthralled by a lot of my contemporaries and near-contemporaries— early on, I read and re-read Brigit Kelly; most recently, Sarah Vap’s and Suzanne Buffam’s newest books have possessed me. I also get excited by a lot of contemporary poetry not written in English, and I’m helplessly trapped in English myself, so I’m no help—but I wish translations flowed faster. If I were super-rich, I’d fund translators like crazy. I’m currently in love with Inger Christensen’s Alphabet. I urge everyone to read her. One of the incidental pleasures of reading poets from the so-called “old world,” from any region cloaked, for Americans, in “otherness,” is that lines in the sand get blurred in translation. So-called experimentalists and so-called mainstream poets read and translate each other’s work, seemingly oblivious to this reductive categorization. I’m interested in hybridity, cross-pollination among schools—or esthetics, modes of practice, etc. Actually, to me, the very idea of rigid poetic taxonomies is a bit deadening—and beside the point.
I’m omnivorous. I read for pleasure, and all over the map. Tomas Transtromer and Francis Ponge in the same sitting. And I return again and again to Cixous, and C.D Wright’s Steal Away is a book I press urgently on students. I’ve read and re-read Mei-Mei Berssenrugghe’s Empathy many times over the years. Every so often (perhaps when I’m homesick) I read, and teach some Philip Larkin poems. Two summers ago, I read several of Kimiko Hahn’s books in a row, and that sent me back to Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book. I just read Dorothea Lasky’s Poetry Is Not A Project, which I’ll probably assign to my New School students next semester. I want them to hear Lasky say: “poems take place in the realm of chance, where the self and the universal combine, where life exists,” and take it to heart. I recommend these passionate, intelligent poets to everyone. I have no firm loyalty to any poetic tradition. I don’t believe in a poetic culture of purebreds.
Sometimes I get a little overwhelmed by all the incoming language. I go silent. That’s when I stop, and try to listen for a while only to myself and the (unwritten) world outside me.
Miranda Field is the author of SWALLOW (Houghton-Mifflin, 2002). Her work appears in numerous journals and several anthologies, including LEGITIMATE DANGERS: American Poets of the New Century (Sarabande), NOT FOR MOTHERS ONLY (Fence Books), and THE PUSHCART BOOK OF POETRY: The Best Poems from Thirty Years of The Pushcart Prize. She has received a Katherine Bakeless Nason Literary Publication Award, a Discovery/The Nation Award and a Pushcart Prize. Born and raised in North London, UK, she lives in Manhattan, and teaches in the creative writing programs of New York University and The New School.
Julia Guez is a Fulbright Fellow with a Masters in Fine Arts from Columbia University. Her poetry has appeared in Court Green, DIAGRAM, Washington Square, and Western Humanities Review. She is the online editor for CIRCUMFERENCE.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee