Cori A. Winrock’s first book, This Coalition of Bones, debuted from Kore Press in April. Her poems have appeared in (or are waiting in the wings of) Anti-, the Best New Poets anthology, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Colorado Review, From the Fishouse and elsewhere. She won the 2012 Summer Literary Seminars’ St. Petersburg Review Award and is a recipient of a Barbara Deming Individual Artist Grant. She just finished her third year as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Poetry at SUNY Geneseo. She lives in Rochester, NY with her husband and their daughter Sallie.
(Photo by Lindsay Crandall)
Your first book, This Coalition of Bones, was published this year by Kore Press. What can you tell us about this collection’s themes and goals?
The book is split into four different sections that use various types of portraiture to investigate the mutable records of memory, the body, the archive of domestic spaces/relationships, and the self. There’s a mixture of fragment and form in my exploration of the internal versus the external as well as embodied opposites: memory as a physical entity and anatomy as an emotion. The poems also focus on other kinds of transformation and transfiguration: iron-jaw artists, anatomical models, and magicians become part of the everyday while factories and suburban families are uncovered as curiosities. The manuscript was a finalist for a number of contests and Kore picked it up in its 2011 competition, so I have actually been in a liminal space waiting for the book to come out and simultaneously writing new poems. It’s thrilling to finally have it floating around in the universe! As I head off to give my first readings for the book I’m having a sort of reconnection-celebration with the pieces—which feels like enacting some of the memory elements that the book confronts.
Something that I find particularly interesting in your work is a mixture of images from the natural world with images from domestic spaces. Often, this creates a stunning surreal effect, as in “Hospital Bed in Early December Woods”. How do these two realms, which some people might think of as disparate, converge in your mind, and what is the relationship between them in your work?
I have been interested in exploring what constitutes the borders of the internal versus the external for a while. In part this stems from a background in neuropsych that propelled me in my first collection to consider the anatomy of memory and the body as merging with landscape and relationships and domestic spaces. I only recently realized just how much I am compelled to both microscope and amplify the domestic (or internal) through a framework of the natural world (the external) and vice versa.
The initial concern of my more recent poems, the political/gendered/mythological representations of marriage roles, was dislocated quite a bit by the unexpected death of my mom. As my grieving unfolded in language, a lot of my lines started slow-transforming into explorations of contemporary elegy. In particular this has taken the shape of a kind of postmodern pastoral elegy—not so much focused on the more traditional idyllic life of the natural world in connection to death but on placing the domestic space in a pastoral stetting in order to mourn a loss in a more public way: to expose the private sufferer, to make mourning accessible in a literal sense: a kind of bereavement you could physically happen upon.
What I found so astonishing about grieving such an up-close loss was how I could find myself, fully and unbidden, returned to the particular theater of trauma at any given moment. I have done a lot of traveling and stayed in some fantastical, inspiring, and scary-beautiful places, but I can’t think of anywhere that is more of an un-believable panorama than the Emergency Room/ICU: people are either revived or not. If I hear an ambulance, or see one driving on the highway, scenes from the hospital and all that anxiety seem to grow up around me in a tangible way. There’s a kind of post-traumatic stress to an unexpected and bodily death. I could be anywhere and feel I was in the somatic and emotional space all over again: in the woods I am also in the ER; in my car, I am also inside the back of the ambulance in front of me; in the grocery store I’m in the waiting room. This feeling of an intense and intimate scene emerging in and around me mimics what it is for me to enter a poemscape—walking into a space where language and lyric infrastructure materialize around me. In mixing the domestic and the natural I want to generate the sensation of finding oneself in two seemingly disparate places at once in real time, in the body of the speaker and in the body of the poem. There’s a kind of fairytale quality to trauma I’d like to capture—how it recurs and revolves and repeats with slight variation. The bone house, how it cathedrals in our grief and keeps it from rattling about at others. But I’d like those skeletons to be allowed out.
Sometimes poetic devices like surreal imagery and stacked metaphors allow for a certain degree of tonal distance, yet many of your poems use these devices while also employing first person pronouns and direct addresses to an intimate “you.” How do you think the confessional mode is complicated by lyricism, fragmentation, and surreal imagery? Is the distinction between a confessional or autobiographical “I” and a lyric “I” important for your work?
I’m intrigued by the act of trying out a craft technique that is historically associated with one outcome to see if I can create an altered outcome. I think a continuous alchemy of image can also be used as a way of creating emotional intimacy—of getting at the speaker’s internal state in a tangible/externalized way. As an image shifts and shifts again, it is possible to appreciate more and more of how a speaker identifies or reacts to the both the internal and the external landscape. In my first collection, this move aims to capture a self or a relationship at a particular transformative moment in memory or body—a kind of flashpoint. In my current poems I have been exploring how stacking metaphors and fragmentation can create a sense of intimacy truer to understanding a geometry of loss.
The elegies I’m writing are personal and connected to my own experience of anguish, but there needs to be something more at stake—my speakers still need to startle/surprise me (and the audience) with their decisions and actions. If I felt super wed to the autobiographical-confessional mode I would miss out on what it is to write into the unknown—to find myself wondering if my speaker can actually undress the body of a loved one who is not her lover. As a non-autobiographical self, the poem’s speaker is free to do what I, or others, may not or could not do. So I’d say the poems are pushing for a kind of hybrid confessional-lyric. I’m attracted to the illumination or exposure of the private sufferer without relying strictly on the factual. I crave something beyond an approached emotional proximity—I want the audience to be entangled, to be both the speaker and the body of the dead, the vessel toward which the speaker is grieving. Choosing a direct “you” also allows me to implicate the audience—to see themselves as the deceased, not just to relate to the living speaker: to blur the boundaries of who is the survived and who is the dead. I want the “you” I am addressing to be the person I am elegizing and also not—even though it means that I must over and over find her dead. There’s a sort of acceptance and denial in choosing this kind of address. To be surprised again that someone is gone.
I am also thinking of elegy in the traditional sense, as a song of lament—one that, as in ancient Greece, was antiphonal—could touch on the personal (via the lead singer) as well as on the communal response (via the chorus and the community itself). Often, when someone was asked to compose a song of lament, it would not be sung until the next death occurred—so the elegy read was actually meant for another. This forwarding of the personal appeals to me. I want to be able to play all the roles, I guess. And for the audience to as well.
Who are some of your literary influences, and what are you currently reading?
Part of my interest in dissecting the confessional and lyric “I” as well as using the continuously alchemized metaphor comes from being a Plath scholar. I taught a major authors course on her last year and spent a lot of time pressing against the view that Plath is confessional—I just don’t agree that she is in the classic sense. While her speakers at times seem intimately confessional I don’t think they represent a singular, or autobiographical-authorial self.
As I talked about a bit already, I think contemporary poetry has a real space for doing wild things with the form of the elegy. I’m currently compulsive-researching and absorbing anything I can connect to this exploration—from the more traditional Greek elegiac couplet to John Donne to Emily Dickinson to contemporary influences such as Aracelis Girmay, Tracy K. Smith, Anne Carson, Anna Journey, Corey Van Landingham, Rebecca Lindenberg, and Eleni Sikélianòs. I’m also reading mouthfuls of pastorals and postmodern pastorals—the contemporary apocalyptic landscape in these appeals to me, having grown up watching the aftermath of industrial railroad/canal towns in upstate New York as they went to seed: blocks of only bars and churches make for their own kind of sorrow.
My craft and elegy obsessions are currently crossing streams as a series of poems structured around Francesca Woodman’s photographs, specifically her notebook Some Disordered Interior Geometries. I see her take on the self-portrait as less about confessing something personal so much as using her body to stage something, allowing for an estrangement from her self. In her photographs she also uses a shared vocabulary of props that had already been cropping up in my poems—gloves and mirrors and various heirlooms—as amassed metaphors. Finding her work a few years ago felt like finding a visual version of the poems I wanted to be writing.
To be true to this hot second, here’s what is stacked on my office floor: the latest issue of Gulf Coast, Frances Justine Post’s Beast, Cole Swensen’s Gravesend, Bahnu Kapil’s Humanimal, Monica Youn’s Ignatz, Andrew Allport’s The Body | of Space | in the Shape of a Human, Lucie Brock-Broido’s Stay, Illusion, The Pocket Library: Poetry: Elegy and Hymns, M.H. Abrahams’ library copy of The Pastoral Elegy, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrl, Four Elemental Bodies by Claude Royet-Journoud, and The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons. Danielle Pafunda and Natalie Eilbert’s poems have been open in tabs on my computer for the last month.
The miracle of 3D printing has allowed us to replicate Van Gogh’s severed ear using DNA from his great-great grandson. The ear is now on display at the Centre For Art And Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, where patrons can ask it any question they like. What would you ask?
I’m curious what it might be like to be a one-way conduit between the living and the dead. But that feels too heavy. So instead:
If I cup your ear, like a shell, will you hear the ocean in my hands?
Finally, tell us something about this poem you’ve included below.
This poem was included alongside yours and the all-around fantastic poems in Best New Poets 2013. This piece is likely going to be the title poem for my current project. I stumbled across the word débridement a couple years ago and felt it captured a number of elements I was focusing on—to debride something means to remove damaged tissue or foreign objects from a wound, but it comes from the French unbridle and originally bride. As the poems I was writing began shifting more toward elegy the title seemed even more fitting. This piece is one of those rare ones that seemed to write itself, coming together in only a few drafts. It functions as a kind of craft-map for the obsessions I’m currently courting—the hybrid confessional-lyric, metaphor stacks, the domestic in the natural, and physically expansive lines; it also has direct links to the Francesca Woodman pieces and the use of the heirloom and props. Though the poem had already been published in Versal, I was terrified of sending it off to Best New Poets—I admire Brenda Shaughnessy something fierce and I didn’t want to face a rejection for a poem that felt so integral to my current poetic space. I got the email that the piece was chosen for the anthology the day I came home from the hospital with my first child—it felt like such a positive omen for the new poems.
When I find out I’m pregnant I bury my wedding dress
in the front yard—letting everyone in the neighborhood watch me
peel the blue satin over my head: my slipless figure & a shovel.
The school bus slowing its yellow dredge to witness the anxiety
of the uncovered. I dig a tunnel to my grandmother straight through
my mother—her old flowerbulbs empty rattles, their bodies now fists
in earth. I lick my ungloved hands & gather fragments of bone & leftover
teeth into my mouth. How else to feed the matryoshkaed body, its double
hummingbird hearts? Ashes. Ashes. In the tunnel I uncover a nightgown
I sloughed off as I lost my virginity to a song about elevens; crawl back into
its florals & incorporeal sense of expectation—the assistant’s glittering self
sawed open to applause. Down here my new cluster of cells can’t echo or mirror.
It lullabies me with replication. Tells me to revisit the rooms I flooded
just to peel off the wallpaper, to uproot the ugly azaleas from the family
before & before. When I arrive at my childhood I undress
the house like a wound.
--Cori A. Winrock, originally published in Versal, Issue 11 and reprinted in Best New Poets 2013