Part 3 concludes my interview with Stephanie. I look forward to posting commentary on her poem "Stacks" on Thursday and Friday.
Another one of your poems from Domestic Interior, "Self-Portrait at the End of the First Half of My Life," maintains a perfect-pitch sardonic wit that considers self-reflective attitudes about societal codes on the body and pregnancy. I wonder if you could talk about how the Ring Lardner references may (or may not) connect to appearance and motherhood?
The Ring Lardner reference is really just so much about my personal reading growing up—I was a huge fan of Marshall McLuhan and he mentioned Ring Lardner’s quotation, “Some like ‘em cold,” in The Mechanical Bride. That book influenced a lot of my first thoughts about how bodies are viewed as commodities and as parts rather than a whole. The body is something separate from the life and the individual in it. I know that most of my life I lived with this feeling and belief. In fact, I did not know it was ever questioned until I read that book—and after that I read a lot more of the subject—art history books, costume and fashion books and feminist theory—much of the feminist theory I read echoed my own feelings about the body. Ring Lardner represents also a tough guy writer that I was fond of. I had a big crush and soft spot for those men city writers who were around in the early 20th century and the world of men they described. I think I was in love with them or they were my inspirations/muses.I loved the idea (idealized, of course and not real) of tough newspaper writer/fiction writers/playwrights who were hard drinkers, city-savvy, not innocent, elusive, and not at all domestic. A good example would be the whole world portrayed in the USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos. There is just a male, city, energy—I don’t know how else to explain it—testosterone?—that propels the narrative and I found it very attractive. In painting, the counterparts would be Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh. I just love the city of Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh.
Another big influence on me was Nathanael West. I liked modernist male writers, as an ideal. I never have liked 19th century Romanticism and now that I think of it, I really never liked those kinds of men the poets were; I have been more of an 18th century and 20th century reader and admirer. I do think some men “like’ em cold—cold, distant and not intimate. It is probably very much the case now with a lot of internet porn in people’s lives where sex addiction has a devastating effect on people. The best thing I’ve seen or read on it is the movie Shame with Michael Fassbender.
"Time, Waste of" (Domestic Interior) reminds me so much of an earlier poem, "I was a phony baloney" from your first book, Allegory of the Supermarket. It is not the mere use of the term "phony," but the "culture" that exists in each of these carefully structured poems. Does an underlying concept, such as "culture" determine or assist in the structural lineation of your work?
This question is just a fabulous question. I always feel intimidated by this kind of thing—to be completely candid, I don’t even know how to answer that. I mean, I think your reading of it is the answer—yes, I’m sure that I did that with my lineation, but it is more of an unconscious process that has to do with sound and making lines read how I want them to. That overall theme is definitely in the background, informing everything. I sort of can’t answer this except to say thank you for reading it this way. I mean to say that I feel inarticulate and unable to answer this using any kind of critical or interpretive language. I don’t know if you’ve ever been around painters when they describe their paintings—they don’t talk about theme or meaning—it’s like, “I wanted to use yellow, and white and round shapes were calling to me because I was looking at rocks in my garden.” That is sometimes how I feel when trying to answer questions about how I composed something.
Memory and addiction are prevalent themes in your poem, "Problems in My Interior Monologue” (Map Literary), which assists in developing an unreliable narrator who recalls moments that may or may not have occurred. Do you concern yourself with the reader’s accessibility?
Oh yes, I want to be accessible. I am completely on the side of the reader. I feel very strongly that way. Perhaps that was because I went to school when the vogue was for making readers do work, not caring about their experience, and lots of questioning of the role of “authority” in authorship being a bad thing. Deconstruction. So I was part of that era—and it made me really never use sentimentality and to be a skeptic. But the poems one writes under that influence are terrible. They are poems that need footnotes, not in a playful way, but in a deadly serious way, because the poet has not really finished the poem. I always felt it was as if the writers were trying to write their own scholarship. For instance, I went to a reading where the author gave a long explanation about the scaffolding behind her work—something like, “I used five Greek myths in a cycle to talk about my son’s death, which are the lines of the chorus which alternates with the straight narrative.” I think you should not talk about it or call attention to it in the poem. You have to be confident that that structure is strong and the reader will feel it—they should feel it, or why else use Greek myths?
One type of reader is the scholar who does find those things in the poem, but the poet should not be calling attention to it—I mean not just as an introduction at a reading, but poems are constructed like this too. It’s like, do you want to hear the recipe or eat the brownie? I want readers to eat the brownie. I don’t want them to know all the tricks and secrets. I think there is no reason to write if you are not writing for a reader; the purpose is to elicit emotion and thought from them. Making the reader work, tedious writing so that you can show your muscles and your talents—that’s just narcissistic writing. The older I get, the more I believe this. Writing is a craft. Last year, I was in a house that was built by hand. You could see all the dovetail joints, and the man’s craftsmanship with wood. You could see how he placed the windows in just the right spots to make the best use of the sun. But if it were not livable, what does it matter? In fact, it was a livable, joyous space: a gift of this person’s hands. You could see his dovetail joints—wonderful, musical, clever lines in a poem, let’s say, but the door worked, the kitchen was practical—it all worked together. It was a gift. Trying to not be accessible, on purpose, or as a technique, is either done because the person has to write in code, for some reason—or just is a selfish act. I’m dogmatic about this. I read a lot, and I love elegant, effortless prose and works that are well-edited—that have cut out all the boring parts, as Elmore Leonard said; or Faulkner’s “kill all your darlings. “ I like a delight when I read. Prose or poetry that one can read it easily without a lot of mental torture (which is not the same as complexity of subject)—that’s true artistry.
You've written, or alluded to your son's brain tumor in several poems including "A Foreign Country" (American Poetry Review). This particular poem seems to carry a different tone and level of emotion compared to many of your other poems. How do you control tone in your writing, and how does your son feel about you sharing these experiences with readers?
Again, this is hard to talk about as I don’t know that I always try to control tone; it’s just the way the poems writes itself, but I will say that I am much more intentional about making tone sound the way I want it to, now. The tone in “Scary Narcissist”...I tried to be weird and kind of ambiguous. I do control tone in that way, and I know how to intentionally do a deadpan tone. In the composition of the brain tumor poem, it started with that anaphora, and then as I was writing it. I remembered the funny moment when he talked about not wanting to die a virgin. I guess the control of tone, in this case, came from honestly letting the whole of the experience come to light. That in a very dark time, when I thought my son was going to die, there was a true moment of levity. And that is the true experience. Also that it was January and it was hot. Meaning that one could have gone in a cliched or sentimental direction and say that it was in the dead of winter, and also note something else from the experience that I did not—he did not want or take any pain medications after the surgery. I could have said he was “courageous” there, but that’s not true. He just probably has a high pain threshold.
I do attempt a conscious thing in my poems where I throw in a line that is unexpected to manipulate tone. An example would be in the poem “Notre Dame,” with the lines, “Even my husband / After we got back together / Laughed at that” which moved the whole story forward by erasing all the details that got the speaker to that point. I also have a desire to write poems now that might “break your heart.” I want to feel like I do when I hear a song where a young man is singing about his broken heart, or how much love and attraction he feels. I like to be moved like that. Time is short, we need to connect quickly, and I want to affect how you feel. If you can feel sorrow or feel happy, I want you to from my work. My sons and my husband—this is just part of our life, my writing, and we don’t talk about it. I don’t even think my kids are that aware of what I’ve actually written. I used to run a reading series (with others), Casa Romantica in San Clemente, where they heard me and others read. My son was at the reading where I read that poem—I had just written it—he still had the bandage and visible scar on his head. He probably doesn’t even remember this. It was more about the cookies afterwards, I’m sure.
After the surgery, he never wanted to talk about it and would never consider it as having been a big event in his life. I think because it made him different from others during that adolescent time of conformity. He is also a very private, quiet person who doesn’t reveal a lot. Once in a while, though, he’ll say something like, “Hey, I survived cancer.” I don’t know. My poet identity is sort of in a separate compartment. My older son, who is working in film, seems a bit more interested in the fact that I’m an artist.
Is a release of your third collection in the near future?
I just finished the collection and the title is Thanksgiving Dinner in a Rich Zip Code.
Besides poetry and essay, have you written in other forms and genres that we should be aware of?
I have only published these two, and some blog posts. I do write short stories and would like to publish a collection. I have that as a goal. I also have a topic for a memoir and I may write that. Life has to give me an answer, though, as to what happens in it and whether I will need to write it. I am living it now.