Q & A with Davis McCombs’s Graduate Poetry Course at the University of Arkansas
Kenyon Review Online
This collaborative interview with the poet Anna Journey took place during the seminar, “Contemporary First Books of Poetry,” a graduate course for students in the MFA program at the University of Arkansas, taught by Davis McCombs. For the course, the graduate students read eight books and corresponded, via email, with the poets studied. McCombs has taught the course five times before, using new books in each instance. The MFA students who collaboratively developed the questions for the following interview are: Kaveh Bassiri, Josh Brown, April Christiansen, Aran Donovan, Erin Jones, Andrea Kendrick, Traci Letellier, Kristin Mason, Katie Nichol, Bouji Salassi, John Scott, Jillian Trimble, Joe Trimble, Rodney Wilhite, Corrie Williamson, and Toby Wray.
We know this is a difficult question to answer, but can you talk to us about how your poems come into being? How, for instance, do they begin: with an image, an idea, a line? At what stage in the writing process are the forms of your poems determined?
My poems usually begin with an image plucked from a cluster of related images that I’ve recorded in my notebook. So, for example, I was talking to a relative susceptible to hypochondria the other day, who’d fantasized that she’d reactivated a vanished twin embedded in one side of her jawbone through hormones from birth control pills. Well, I knew I was going to appropriate her weird grievance and use it as a trigger for a poem (who wouldn’t?), so after I hung up the phone I started doing my image-cloud thing. I also read a little about vanishing twin syndrome online and in a medical book, where I learned the term “fetus papyraceus,” which describes the condition in which a dead fetal twin is compressed by its growing twin into a flattened, parchment-like state. The dead twin becomes a piece of papyrus! I loved the image of the vanished twin as “parchment-like” and so that triggered a bunch of associations, including my relative’s vanished twin unrolling an ancient scroll—an old letter—in her jaw, trying to communicate with her. Also, I look for “echo patterns” of potential associations, so my speaker’s cousin trying to see an absorbed twin in her jaw triggered the image of my speaker raising her cousin’s pointer finger, in childhood, to trace the face of the man in the moon, and that image led to their staring at the belt of Orion, etc. . . So I follow the initial image and let the ensuing metaphorical pairings form a kind of helix which twists and makes turns in the poem’s overarching dramatic circumstance.
The form takes shape almost instantaneously. I’ll “hear” the first line as I see the image and the sound of it determines the line length. I like white space (to give my dense language room to breathe), so I often find myself drawn to couplets, or to irregular stanzas composed of only a few lines each.
The focus of this class is on contemporary first books of poetry—and many of us are currently writing first book manuscripts. Can you tell us about your experiences submitting and publishing If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting? Was it a long process? Do you have any regrets about how the book came into being?
I was fortunate to have met with that incredibly desirable combination of both timing and luck as I set out to publish my first collection. I finished my MFA thesis (the manuscript of If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting) in June 2007 and submitted it to six contests during the fall of that same year. I finalized for three contests, one of which resulted in the book’s selection for the National Poetry Series. I received the news about the NPS in August 2008. The book came out from the University of Georgia Press in March 2009; so, the process from selection to publication was mercifully swift.
I don’t think I have any regrets about the book, except for the first edition’s one typo, of the irritatingly homonymic variety, on page thirty-two. And, naturally, as time passes there are certain poems to which I feel less close. But, you know, I’d be worried if I felt like I hadn’t grown as a writer.
We admired the structure of the book, the way you ordered the poems, the sections. Can you tell us about that process? We noticed, for example, small movements within the larger structure, several sets of what we called “paired poems”: two Van Gogh poems, two Keats poems, two elegies, and, obviously, two poems called “Night with Eros in the Story of Leather.” Can you tell us about that?
I sequenced the poems in my book in a little cornflower blue cabin in the middle of the upstate New York woods, at the artists’ colony Yaddo. I used the surface of an extra twin bed in my cabin to spread out all of my poems, creating four horizontal rows—one row for each of my book’s four sections. Using multiple sections helped me manipulate my poems within small, manageable units: each section was like building a longer poem with its own echoes, intensifications, and closure. I circled the beginning image or phrase in each poem as well as the ending, and wrote descriptions like “sassy tone” or “image of fire” so I could fine-tune transitions between individual poems. I also circled images and phrases that repeated throughout the manuscript, so I could get a better idea about the quality of my own poetic obsessions and shape them with intent.
All poets write from their obsessions: for Frank Stanford, it’s meditations on death and the delta; for Linda Bierds, it’s historical figures and events. Because we all write from our own peculiar psychic obsessions, there are often conversations between poems that begin to happen as you shuffle the pages. My obsessions in If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting are often mythic or fabular: I’ve got classical myths, family stories, Appalachian spells. I’m also interested in persuading a reader by voice. Because the voices in my poems are so similar tonally—even in the persona poems—I decided to emphasize that continuity in the book by suggesting that there’s one recurring character.
In addition to creating a tonal through-line, I found that giving structure to my book through the repetition of certain images and motifs best suited my poetic instincts as a compulsive mythologizer. For instance, in each section I placed a poem about a metamorphosis (and, in some cases, several poems). In one section, family ghosts return to the world disguised as magnolia buds. In another section, a miscarried sister crashes a costume ball in the form of a luna moth. Rather than grouping all the metamorphosis poems together, into a “metamorphosis section,” I scattered them throughout the book so they’d echo and intensify through repetition and accumulation.
I tend to write poems in clusters and then I keep the strongest ones, which perhaps results in the “paired poems” phenomenon of which you speak. I didn’t consciously decide to have groups of two, however, and there are other clusters comprised of trios, such as the poems which use fragments of Appalachian folk myths as imaginative triggers (“A Rabbit Must Be Walking,” “A Crawdad’ll Hold Until It Hears Thunder,” “If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting”), or the “fox poems” (“Fox-Girl before Birth,” “A Skulk Is a Group of Foxes,” “The Shapeshifter Introduces Her Village to the Moon”), for example. I like the idea of having micro-movements within the larger manuscript because I get bored quickly. I need to have a lot of stuff going on. I like to run into pleasing echoes of previous images/characters as I move through a book’s winding trajectory. So, the spacing-out of closely related poems (like the metamorphosis poems, for example) was deliberate. I wanted the poems to mirror each other and refract rather than create a linear progression.
We spent some time discussing your use of metaphor, the way at times in your poems one metaphor seems to generate another metaphor, on and on, the poem gaining speed as they move away from their occasion(s). It seemed to us that you were using metaphor to disorient and disrupt as much as you were using it to clarify and enhance. We found that particular aspect of your work interesting and effective. Would you mind sharing your thoughts on that topic?
I think the associations in most of my poems tend to defy rational logic, so the speedy movements from metaphor to metaphor of which you speak are propelled more often by images than by narrative. I often use a fragment of personal history or myth to generate a poem, although the poem often strays into other worlds of metaphor. The way my metaphors “move away from their occasion(s),” as you’ve accurately termed it, results from my needing to relinquish a certain degree of rational control in order to allow the poems to lead me where they want to go.
Stevens talks about the imagination as the mediating force in a world of resemblances, that metaphor is “the creation of resemblance by the imagination.” It’s always been important to me in my poems to create not just a single coupling of resemblances but to enlist a sequence of metaphorical couplings. When I feel a poem is working well, the linkages between my metaphors acquire a speed in which their velocity creates a kind of three-dimensionality, what I hope is a holographic field of metaphor.
Will you tell us about discovering the unpublished Sylvia Plath poem? How did that come about? How did you discover The Great Gatsby connection?
I didn’t discover the existence of Plath’s early Petrarchan sonnet, “Ennui,” as the piece has been safely housed in the archive of Plath materials at Indiana University’s Lilly Library for a number of years. I did, however, discover the poem’s unpublished status, quite accidentally, during my first year as an MFA student at VCU.
At the time, I was taking a seminar course on Fitzgerald; and for homework one weekend, I was instructed by my professor, Bryant Mangum, to peruse the University of South Carolina’s online Fitzgerald archive, where I came across Park Bucker’s fabulous transcription of Plath’s handwritten notes in the margins of her personal copy of The Great Gatsby. Next to the paragraph in which Daisy claims, “I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything,” Plath scrawled the phrase “L’Ennui.” I knew from the index of Plath’s Collected Poems that she’d titled an early poem “Ennui,” so I requested copies of the poem from the Lilly Library. From there, I wrote a seminar paper for the course discussing Fitzgerald’s influence on Plath. (I also discussed an essay she wrote on Tender Is the Night, and several other poems of hers, including “Medusa,” “Morning Song,” and “Daddy.”) As I was compiling my works cited list, I wanted to specify the journal in which “Ennui” had originally appeared, but the librarians told me the piece had never been published. I confirmed that fact with the estate of Sylvia Plath.
I was an editor at the journal Blackbird at the time, so I negotiated with the estate to gain first serial rights to the poem, which we published in November 2006. I also published a scholarly essay (a condensed version of my seminar paper) about the sonnet in Notes on Contemporary Literature, in which I place the poem in an historical and literary context and argue that “Ennui” is Plath’s creative reaction to her collegiate studies of Gatsby.
Near the end of chapter seven of Gatsby, Nick Carraway observes the lovelorn Jay Gatsby pining outside the Buchanans’ mansion as Daisy and her husband Tom sit in their kitchen, absorbed in conversation after the murder of Myrtle, Tom’s mistress. Plath underlined the last sentence in the chapter, “So I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlight—watching over nothing.” Underneath this sentence, Plath writes the following: “knight waiting outside—dragon goes to bed with princess.” Plath’s unique interpretation of the scene using fairy tale imagery shows her imaginative use of metaphor in direct response to Fitzgerald’s prose. “Ennui,” given its time frame and utilization of the tepid knight and idle princess metaphor, suggests that the poem is Plath’s creative reaction to Gatsby. Plath’s sonnet evokes a quality of post-romanticism in which fantasy is futile and idealism is dead. Fitzgerald’s golden girl, Daisy Buchanan, is the probable inspiration for the “blasé princesses” in Plath’s poem.
On a perhaps related topic, do you consider Plath an influence? What other writers have been important to you? Someone suggested a possible affinity with the Gurlesque poets. Are we on the right track? If not, can you set us straight?
I do consider Plath an early, and lasting, influence; she was one of the first poets I identified with and tried to emulate as an undergraduate student. Some other early influences include Charles Wright, Jorie Graham, and T.S. Eliot. The contemporary poet who’s been most influential on my development as a poet is, however, Beckian Fritz Goldberg—her bold associations, her startling images, her irreverent tones, and her interest in fusing lyrical beauty within realms of the grotesque. Norman Dubie and Larry Levis, too, have been enormously influential on my poems; also, I read a lot of poetry in translation, such as Rilke, Celan, Amichai, and Akhmatova.
Although I admire writers associated with Gurlesque poetry (such as Sarah Vap, for instance), I don’t share all of their aims. Similarly to Gurlesque poets, I’m interested in exploring the grotesque and in cultivating subversive female personae. Also, many of my poems could be called “performative.” Ultimately, though, I think my poems aren’t as interested in camp as Gurlesque writing, or as focused upon the particularized realm of girl culture.
Obviously, your poems deal at times with what might be considered risky subject matter (murder, sex, erotic pastries!), but we were curious about what aspects of the poems felt to you the most fraught with risk. To put it another way, does writing poetry scare you and if so, how?
Yes, writing poetry shakes me up, in a good way. I mostly don’t know how a given poem will end (when I do, the poem ends up feeling flat and unsurprising). So that realm of uncertainty during the writing process often feels the most fraught with risk, to me. Earlier last summer, for example, I sat down to write an epithalamium I hoped to read to my husband during our elopement ceremony on a seaside cliff, in Catalina. I began typing the title, “Wedding Night: We Share an Heirloom Tomato on Our Hotel Balcony Overlooking the Ocean,” which soon grew into: “Wedding Night: We Share an Heirloom Tomato on Our Hotel Balcony Overlooking the Ocean in Which Natalie Wood Drowned.” My loving epithalamium turned into a grotesque spiral in which swirled the newlywed couple and the drowning actress as she claws the side of a rubber dinghy, the two worlds linked by the weird, specterly generations of an heirloom tomato’s DNA. So, you know, I didn’t read the poem at my wedding. I was like, “Save me, Rilke!” I read an excerpt from one of his letters to Emanuel von Bodman instead.
We talked about Robert Bly’s idea of the “leaping poem” and we wondered if his idea about works of art possessing associative or imaginative leaps seems true or useful to you as a poet.
I think Bly’s wonderful notion of leaping poetry in “Looking for Dragon Smoke” is based more on a surprising disjunction of images, whereas I feel the leaps in my poems are often more akin to the kind of associative jump cuts we see in cinema.
We loved the painting on the cover of the book and felt that it was a perfect accompaniment to the poems. Did you choose the painting? If so, how did you encounter it? Were you happy with the book’s design?
I am happy with the book’s design. I like the vigorously Satanic color palette and the little, swirly hairballs. And, yes, I did select the painting by Leonora Carrington. I found the image in a book in my personal library, Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art, by Susan L. Aberth. I also corresponded with the copyright holder (who turned out to be the owner of the gallery—very convenient!) on behalf of the University of Georgia Press, in order to receive permission to reprint Grandmother Moorehead’s Aromatic Kitchen. All she wanted was a copy of my book. No fees! Good woman.
I’ve loved Carrington’s work for some time; she and Remedios Varo are two of my favorite surrealist painters. As it happens, my first choice for the cover was Varo’s Les feuilles mortes. I won’t bore you with my tedious story involving the ten million emails I sent to the last recorded owner of the painting—a long-dead French airline heiress—but let’s just say her children are all quite elderly and unreachable, and it was impossible to find out who currently holds the copyright to Les feuilles mortes.
Currently, I’m fascinated by the black-and-white photography of Francesca Woodman, particularly the manner in which she complicates the genre of self-portraiture.
We noticed several poems that refer to drawing or painting. Do you have experience in the visual arts? If so, does that work influence or inform your poetry?
I went to art school as an undergraduate at Virginia Commonwealth University, where I studied ceramics. I suspect my addiction to imagery comes from that background and that visual sensibility.
But I’m a terrible visual artist. My teapots and coffee mugs and plates were just things; and not in a rock-your-world, cosmic, Pongian kind of way. They were just things; they didn’t change you when you looked at them, and they didn’t have any psychological or emotional complexity. My pots were just products of my technical proficiency. When I finally took a poetry workshop with the excellent Gregory Donovan as an elective during my penultimate year as an undergraduate, I discovered that I could make the kinds of images—images with conceptual depth—I wanted through the medium of language. I remember the first time I met with Greg to discuss a poem, he asked me, “Are you an English major?” I shook my head and felt sort of sheepish. He barked, “Well, why the hell not?”
Can you talk to us about the poem “If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting?” Why is it the title poem? Do you consider it a kind of ars poetica?
“If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting” wasn’t initially the title poem. Even though I take great pleasure in titling individual poems, I was having a terrible time coming up with one that spoke confidently for the collection as a whole. I was like, “My titles are all too damn long for a book title!” So, I picked one of the shortest poem titles in the book that I thought might work and titled the early draft Carnival Afterlife.
The original title, however, never felt right to me. It didn’t evoke any of the qualities that I admired in other books’ titles, such as the cinematic sweep of Larry Levis’s The Widening Spell of the Leaves, the defiant tone of Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s Never Be the Horse, or the strangeness of C.D. Wright’s Translations of the Gospel Back into Tongues. One day, I sat with my mentor David Wojahn in his office as he delivered his deadpan indictment. He leaned back in his swivel chair, stroking his stubble, and said: “It’s too dactylic.”
My poetry hero, Beckian, after reading the draft of my manuscript, wrote me an email, saying: “Sure, who doesn’t like Carnival Afterlife as a title, but that isn’t your book. Better titles: If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting; Red-Haired Girl Wants You to Know; Walking Upright in a Field of Devils. The work is not so Carnival-esque and I think a lot of titles now tend in that direction—carnival, circus, puppet shows, whatever. Mainly I just don’t see it as capturing the mood of your work.” As soon as I saw her list of choices, I knew in my gut: “Of course!”
I chose “If Birds” as the title poem for several reasons. First, I liked the oddball image and its fabular implications. Second, I liked the way the mysteriously incomplete “if” clause functioned rhetorically. I hoped readers would find pleasure in discovering the rest of the phrase when they reached the title poem toward the end of the book. According to an Appalachian folk legend, if a bird gathers a piece of your hair and uses it to build a nest, then you’re driven mad. The fact that the collection’s title is rooted in myth seemed to speak for the mythic nature of my poems, and there are also images of red hair repeated throughout the collection. I think I do see the poem as a kind of ars poetica. All of my poems are probably either elegies or ars poeticas. Or both.
We took note of Mark Doty’s blurb that refers to your work as “Southern to the core.” Do you consider yourself a Southern poet? What does that term mean to you?
My parents were both raised in Mississippi, and so the roots of my family tree are tangled in the South. Because of my interest in braiding elements of my family history with mythic or fabular materials, certainly there are aspects of my poems that resonate with the South. My concern, however, with being labeled “a Southern poet” is that viewing my work through only that lens may lead to a reductive reading of the work. I hope the range of my poems transcends any regional designation.
I did, however, write almost the entirety of If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting in Richmond, Virginia, and you don’t get much more Southern than that city—its ancient magnolias, its Southern Gothic cemetery, its brown river, its Civil War cobblestones showing through the cracks underfoot. Because I lived in Richmond for eight years while I went to VCU as an undergraduate and as an MFA student, that Southern landscape inevitably permeates If Birds. (There are also a few Houston poems, and, hence, a bayou or two.) I’d argue, though, if I’d written my book in the Midwest, images of my grandfather’s ghost would appear, wandering among the silos and, I don’t know, the devil would seductively thumb the hairs of platinum corn silk in a field. Landscape is not an end in and of itself; it acts in my work as a scaffold for the psychological material: how we deal with loss, how we enact desire, how memory troubles the present, etc. . .
Right now, I live in Venice, California, so lots of oceans, eucalyptus groves, black-chinned hummingbirds, and Martian-like succulents—like the Finger Mound and the Black Rose—populate the poems. I like to think I’m loyal to internal regions, not geographical ones.
What are you working on now?
My second book of poetry, Vulgar Remedies, is forthcoming from LSU Press, in August 2013, so I’m currently writing poems for my third collection. I’m also collaborating on a libretto for an opera and working on a collection of personal and lyric essays, In the Blood.
What advice would you give us at this stage in our careers? Have you ever received what you consider bad advice?
First, I’d advise you seek out summer residencies to fuel your writing by applying to a pile of artists’ colonies, such as Yaddo, MacDowell, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, among others. Colonies are fabulous places to read intensively, write a pile of poems, and organize poems in a manuscript. And it’s nice to escape from academe for a while and just sit there in the woods, mostly alone, to reckon with your work. Also, I think it’s a great idea to build relationships with other artists—not just other wonderful poets, but composers, playwrights, visual artists, filmmakers, novelists, and performance artists. Meeting other creative people helps you branch out and such relationships will enrich your own work. I still keep in touch, for instance, with the composer Laura Schwendinger, who I met the first time I went to Yaddo. Recently, she commissioned me to write a libretto for her chamber opera, Sylvia, based on Plath’s life and work. Laura is an amazingly accomplished composer; her work has been performed at places like Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. Plus, she’s into drinking elderflower liqueur and sneaking with me into Plath’s old studio at Yaddo with a Ouija board, so, you know, the girl’s alright.
Second, I recommend that you read Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s essay about putting together a manuscript, “Order & Mojo: Some Informal Notes on Getting Dressed,” from the book Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems (CSU, 2006). I wish I’d read essays about structuring a poetry collection as I approached ordering the poems in my book; things would’ve been a lot easier!
Third, I suggest that you define what success regarding your first book means to you. That may seem like abstract advice, but, actually, it’s not. In addition to the contest circuit, there are many great presses who have open reading periods. Which press’s books do you find of especially good quality? There may be presses out there that publish wonderful work, but have a teenie weenie art budget, and so they may have a sort of general cover template for all their acquisitions. That may suit you just fine, or it may not. How much control do you want over the cover art? What makes a book ugly to you? How do you feel about poem titles printed bold fonts? Do you prefer serif or sans-serif typefaces? How many contests will you submit to initially? Make sure you only send your manuscript to places you’d be happy to have publishing your book, or else you’ll feel deflated and cheated.
Fourth, read broadly, as I’m sure you do, and review new collections of poetry. Don’t leave the discussion of books solely to the critics in major newspapers’ reviews of books. It’s important to contribute your voice to the discourse of contemporary poetry. Plus, reviewing books keeps up your critical chops, and it also makes for good karma.
I’m sure I’ve probably received some bad advice at some point, but probably not regarding the big issues. I think I’ve just experienced garden-variety sorts of unhelpful workshop comments. For example: a plainspoken narrative poet will tell me not to be so baroque, or someone will say, “Write a poem without using any adjectives” (yeah, I’ll get right on that), or “You can’t mix the grandfather stuff and the erotic stuff in the same poem.” You know, advice that means: “Dude, your aesthetic bugs me.” You’ve just got to keep waving your freak flag while you take the advice you find helpful and leave the rest.