Saturday, May 14, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Camille Guthrie

Camille Guthrie’s new book is Diamonds (BOA Editions 2021). Her previous books are Articulated Lair: Poems for Louise Bourgeois, In Captivity, and The Master Thief (all from Subpress). Her poems have appeared in such journals as At Length, Boston Review, Green Mountains Review, Pleiades, The Iowa Review, The New Republic, and Tin House, as well as in anthologies including The Best American Poetry 2019 & 2020, The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood, and Art & Artists: Poems. Guthrie has been awarded the Isabella Gardner fellowship in 2020 from MacDowell and a residency at the Yaddo Foundation. The Director of the Undergraduate Writing Initiatives at Bennington College, she lives in rural Vermont.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

There’s something marvelous about having the object of your first book: the thing in your hands that you made. I’m forever grateful to the poet and lawyer Beth Anderson, whom I met at Brown when I was at the MFA writing program, and who chose my book, The Master Thief, for Subpress. It does change your life. Being a poet is an odd thing to be (and a great thing): to say “I have a book” is a lovely thing. My new book DIAMONDS is very different from my first book. Wiser, bolder, whiskery, chatty, more funny and more playful. I haven’t reread my first book for years; it’s like looking at an old photo of oneself, and I’m not at all nostalgic. After I went through a midlife crisis, I want to say something intimate, while still remaining interested in poetic formalities. My new poems are both more raw and more performative.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

The word “poetry” always seemed to have sparkles about it, and I was pulled to learn whatever I could about it. In high school, I started reading poems seriously—Plath and Sexton, of course—and was hooked. And began writing with earnestness. I first fell in love with novels. I loved my junior high library’s copy of Dune so much that my mother bought it for me. It was transporting. I loved the book itself: its dusty smell smelled of Arrakis! I love novels and read them, teach them, think about them all the time. I guess one has an affinity for one more than the other. The pleasure and difficulty required in the precision and crafting of words on the page compels me to write poems.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

Five years seems to be my pattern. I write many drafts and don’t have that much time to write. And, it takes a long time for books to come out! It’s a slow business. I’m not Keats, that Sweetheart of the Ages, so first drafts don’t fall into my lap from the sacred branch of vision. I don’t take a lot of notes anymore. I try to write without thinking too much, trusting myself, letting go of doubts, writing as if not even looking at the page—slant, indirect—so that the final poem appears after many attempts, revisions, additions, cuttings. When I write something formal, such as the sestina “Beautiful Poetry,” which is more like a short story, I work on it for years because I want it to fit the form and yet sound conversational. It’s the same process with free verse poems; I want them to sound as if I’m talking, but they have undergone great revision. Helen Vendler writes about how lightly Shakespeare approaches his beloved subject in sonnet #18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.” Shall. Ah, so lovely and seemingly casual. My aesthetic goal is to bring all of my attention and knowledge to form—on light footsteps.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

It depends. My first three books were intended to be “books,” with a theme in mind; the first on fairy tales, the second on the Unicorn Tapestries, the third on the art and life of Louise Bourgeois. DIAMONDS does have a tone running through it—that of a woman in a midlife crisis. The book is about all sorts of things: moving to rural Vermont after being a New Yorker; being a parent; looking at paintings; teaching and reading; falling in love; grief and longing. Poems come out of an idea or fact or feeling. Some examples: reading an article about a planet made of pink diamond; seeing the exquisite Vermont moonlight fall on the swing set; deciding that I admire Queen Gertrude in Hamlet more than I like her son now that I’m in my fifties; asking why my students pronounce “Satan” with a soft T in Milton’s Paradise Lost; looking at a painting by John Singer Sargent; realizing how my life would be much worse if I lived during Medieval times. When an idea persists, I write it down, then come back to it and see what happens. I don’t know what I think about it until I write the poem.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Oh, I love doing readings, although it does make me anxious beforehand. I’m deeply grateful to have a new book out, but it certainly would have been a lot more fun to be able to give readings in person. And, I miss seeing people. Some of the poems in my new book are funny, and they are hard to read online. I don’t know if those parts are coming through. Who knows? My performance of them improves with an audience. Performativity is a large concern of DIAMONDS—the performance of gender, of love, of domesticity, of duty.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I’m often drawn to write about beauty, paintings, gender, sex, family, love, reading, and writing itself. I find writing ekphrastic poetry endlessly interesting; Articulated Lair, my third book, was entirely about Louise Bourgeois. In DIAMONDS, I also wanted to write dramatic monologues; to apostrophize the writers I think of often; and to find a way to engage with “the anxiety of influence” in a way that is more conversational than adversarial.

            I had a lot of questions in DIAMONDS. Why does driving one’s kids to school feel like hell? Is there a hell for people who exaggerate their suffering by comparing things to hell? Why are biographers so rude to Fanny Brawne? What would it be like to date Hieronymus Bosch? How did Madame du Barry rid herself of rivals? What’s the perfect thing to wear to get divorced? Why do some images, like the painting A Young Daughter of the Picts (by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues) seem alive to me, as if she is walking and talking? What guidance does H.D.’s Trilogy offer, as if a religious text? What are the effects of hyperbole? Are poems an answer to loneliness?

            My current questions are more about living in the country, culpability, clarity, and history. I don’t think I’m a good Modernist, which I’d like to be—like Mina Loy or H.D. I’ve been living in rural Vermont for thirteen years, and I still feel like a city person even though I’m trying. I want to look more carefully at what I see every day—the mountains, the trees, the fox in my yard. Within in the context of the history I’m living in now—the pandemic, climate change, the erosion of democracy, and so on.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I remember Rosmarie Waldrop, that genius poet, talk about how one’s content follows you even when you try to avoid it and focus your attention on form. Every writer has their own content that they are beholden to. How they choose to share it with the world depends, of course, upon their nature, inclination, style, opportunity, and context. Some writers are suited to and compelled to be public poets. Some are more suited to introversion. I deeply admire the poets who are activists, organizers, editors, administrators, laureates, leaders, anthologists, directors, etc. I do think poets have a role in the “larger culture”! And, there are so many ways to do it. I loved Mary Ruefle’s project in which she mailed 1,000 handwritten poems (by other poets) to people living in Vermont, whom she chose randomly out of a phone book; a project she did in 2021 for her Poet Laureate fellowship for the Academy of American Poets.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I haven’t worked with many editors. Usually, with poetry, as you know, you submit a poem and the editor takes it or not. A few editors have made suggestions to me, and that’s been terrific. Jonathan Farmer, editor of At Length, is a marvelous editor. He always helps me make my poems much better. Usually, I rely upon several brilliant, generous girlfriends I have as writing partners to get feedback. These women in my life are golden.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

A psychiatrist once said to me, in what seemed like an offhand comment, “Much of life is performance.” That wisdom has guided me through many a difficult moment. I often teach Judith Butler in my classes—her thinking about gender and performance has been invaluable to me, clarifying, inspiring. I love this quote from Butler: “The authors of gender become entranced by their own fictions whereby the construction compels one’s belief in its necessity and naturalness.” Much of these performances are, of course, daily—to perform being a woman, mother, professor, friend, sister, daughter. Since this new book is very personal and yet dramatic, I have taken the performing of being a writer more seriously, and I try to bring the original energy I felt while writing the poems to my readings.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

I’m one of those poets who is often also writing a novel, essay, or some sort of prose. Some of my ideas are simply more suited to them. Plotting out a novel is completely fascinating, and although I’ve read tons of novels, I’m still figuring out how to do it. The critical writing I’ve done is a joy: to examine “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or “My Last Duchess,” for example, in Poem Guides I wrote for the Poetry Foundation, were very pleasurable. To read something so closely; to count the sounds in Keats’s ode. What an exquisite person he was! And, Browning is so full of wicked humor. I usually have writing, or voices, running in my head, so these other forms allow me to put them somewhere.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

A typical day, lately, begins with making coffee to wake myself up, packing my daughter’s lunch, and driving her to school. I listen to audio books or podcasts about poetry on the way home. I just listened to David Naimon’s engrossing conversation with Rosmarie Waldrop for Between the Covers, and now I’m listening to Lauren Groff’s Matrix. Wow, so fabulous. I’m there for the Medieval nuns, the visions, the labyrinth. A writing day is not typical, but if I have one, I get right into it: coffee, music, work: get at it! I try to put in time and let the ideas take over. I make lists of things to do and follow them. Taking breaks to eat, daydream, do laundry, text a friend. If I put in time every week, ideas or words come to me while I’m doing other things—teaching, parenting, cooking, cleaning. I’m a relentless reviser, so it can take me years to finish a poem. Incremental progress is my strategy. Occasionally, usually in the joyous Spring when Winter finally ends in Vermont, I will be taken over by inspiration and feel like I’m in a daze, in love. My whole self is taken up with an idea, and everything feels charged with electricity. I feel energy pouring down my arms, and my hands long to type. It is most wonderful, and I wish it happened more often.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Accustomed now to the parenting life, and life with a job, thank god, I’m good at getting right back into it with the time I have. I don’t feel stalled; I just feel pressed for time. I also love my job teaching at Bennington College, and it’s useful to be thinking about wonderful texts and about writing as a process with my students. Reading, of course, and looking at paintings is always an inspiration for me. While social media can be exhausting or depressing, seeing new poems posted and shared all the time is also exciting. Every week I read some poem shared by a friend or stranger that startles me and reminds me why I love poetry. Yesterday, I read some of Diane Seuss’s new poems, which were breathtaking.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

What?! I am surprised by this question. I do not know. There are so many homes to remember. My childhood home in Seattle. My teen home in Pittsburgh. My apartment in Providence. My apartments in Brooklyn. My first home in rural New York. My current home in rural Vermont. Right now, I would say that the aftershave my boyfriend uses reminds me of home.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I like what he says. Yes, that’s true. I like to think of the writers I love as companions. Melville, my bosom friend, for example, often runs through my mind; I was driving home from picking up my daughter today and was thinking of that fascinating phrase “that hive of subtlety” from “Benito Cereno.” I am influenced by art, for sure, in particular paintings, and wish I could go to museums more often. Many of the poems in DIAMONDS are about art; there are poems about going to the Clark Institute of Art and looking at paintings by Rembrandt and Sargent; a poem about Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights; about Le Moyne’s A Young Daughter of the Picts. W.J.T. Mitchell’s definition of Ekphrasis appeals to me: “something done to something, with something, by someone.” Incredible. That’s what all poems are, too. Music also comes into the book with star appearances by David Bowie and Björk.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

H.D., Mina Loy, Emily Dickinson, Nella Larsen, Shakespeare, Lorine Niedecker, Virginia Woolf, John Keats, Miriam Toews, Sei Shōnagon, Milton, Roland Barthes, Melville. There are so many I could go on and on.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I would like to publish a novel. I would like to go to Italy!

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Oh dear, I think I’m pretty good at teaching. I can’t imagine doing something else. But that’s different from being a writer. It’s a dream to be a writer who can live on one’s publications; that’s not common as a poet. If I “had not been a writer,” I would be a different person. I’d like to think that I would do work for women’s rights. I would have ended up being that strange woman who lives alone in the woods, and people say, Stay away from her. She’s reading and talking to herself.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

There is no choice. Writing is hard, relentless, absorbing, possessive. When I’m working on a book, I feel bothered by it, “bothered by beauty,” as John Ashbery wrote. “No layoff from this condensary,” as Lorine Niedecker writes. When I’m writing, I’m also at my most happy—being alone and thinking and worrying over words. I often wish I wasn’t a writer; I have a naïve fantasy that I would be happier and calmer if I wasn’t. To have one job. I’m not good at other things, such as playing the flute or singing or surgery, so I’m sticking with poetry.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last great book I read was FIGHT NIGHT by Miriam Toews. Hell yeah! That is book is a force. I loved it with all my heart: its characters, its style, its structure. The last great film I saw is The Apartment, the Billy Wilder film from 1960, which I had never seen. I love Jack Lemmon’s physical comedy, his nervy, earnest, wiggly energy. I loved the pristine secretaries battling for dignity and love within the patriarchal structure of the office. I loved the lightning-fast banter, the comebacks, the Tiffany lamps and Modern art stuck to the wall with pins of his apartment. Most of all, I loved Shirley MacLaine’s performance. Her wholehearted longing, her honest tears, her warm demeanor in the Elevator Operator uniform. I feel like we all still work at Consolidated Life.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I am working on a draft of a novel about moving to the country from the city. It involves a bear. I’m also working on some new poems—about a Giant Sloth, the myth of Danaë, and a fungal carpet.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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