SQ: Thanks for agreeing to a little exchange which will follow up where Damian Rogers left off last week. I was quite taken by your new book, particularly the spaciousness of it. As much as I love a project, so many books of poetry these days, probably my own included, are overdetermined from start to finish, or so tightly bound to project that they are beginning to feel a bit claustrophobic. Is this a book that was built as a project?
SB: I like your word “spaciousness”— appealingly paradoxical for a book of short poems. My poems seldom span more than a page or two (and in the case of this book, often no more than a line or two) but I like to imagine they ramify outwards in ways that do take up more space (mental, emotional, temporal…?) than their physical size might suggest. I’m a huge fan of Dickinson, and it’s that feeling of infinite space within her tight lines that most appeals to me in her work.
As for the question of a project, I’ve tried to write from that approach before, partly because I think it might spare me the terror of starting afresh each time I sit down, but for the most part I seem to need that rudderless terror to really feel invested. The poems in The Irrationalist were mostly all written within a fairly short span of time–less than a year, which for me is like lightning–and so for that reason tend to cluster around shared concerns and obsessions. That said, the middle section of this book, “Little Commentaries,” was a sort of mini-project, in so far as the basic formal engine helped propel the series along, but since part of its “project” was to give myself as close to absolute freedom as possible in terms of content, there was really no question of things being overdetermined. So in this case, my usual terror was replaced by a sense of possibility. In the wake of this experience, I’d be interested in trying my hand at another such “project”…if only I can come up with a scheme that’s sufficiently “simple and elastic” (to quote Whitman).
SQ: I can’t help but read the image of the ship in a bottle on the cover of your new book through the lens of an expat writer not necessarily adrift, but fully formed, existing in a bubble in a foreign land. Is there a bit of this at play in the poems?
SB: I think it’s a marvelous reading of the image, though not one I’ve ever thought of before. Funnily enough, while I imagine that by “expat” you mean that I’m a Canadian living in the U.S., I was actually living in Mexico at the time of writing most of these poems–a sort of double-expat, if you will–and very much felt the way you describe (except for the part about being “fully formed,” which is hard for me to imagine ever feeling…).
SQ: You are in Chicago, and yet continue to publish in Canada. Do you feel your poetry community and/or your poetry is distinctly Canadian? If so in what way?
SB: This book actually came out with two presses: House of Anansi, in Canada, and Canarium Books, in the U.S. The longer I live in the States (going on seven years), the more of a stake I feel in the literary landscape here; and yet, having “come of age” in Canada, and living there the better part of three decades, I can’t imagine ever shaking (or wanting to shake) my Canadian identity. Many of my dearest friends are Canadian writers whose work and conversation sustains me, and I still feel thoroughly invested in the Canadian literary community. Heck, I can sing the national anthem in both official languages. I wouldn’t say my work feels distinctly Canadian, though. I’m not even sure what that would mean. My work has never been particularly invested in landscape, place, or historical narratives, and I’d like to think my reading habits are sufficiently eclectic as to reflect a range of influences….But then the same is true of much Canadian literature. Frankly, I guess it’s not a question that has ever seemed terribly productive for me as a writer. (Though there is a sort of standing joke in my household that I’m writing “the poetry of exile”—and as absurd as that sounds, there probably are some psychological benefits to toiling away in the dark).
SQ: Little Commentaries pleased me enormously. “It’s best to forgive all sins in advance/ because afterward it can be hard” or “On Hummingbirds: The smaller the heart/ the swifter the wings.” The Little Commentaries seem to come out of the tradition of the epigram but also the prose poem, little almost surreal twists. They put me in mind of Anne Carson’s Short Talks. Can you tell me how they came about?
SB: I had the title in mind for many years—lifted from a small, hand-bound pamphlet—Commentariolus (Little Commentary)–circulated by Nicolaus Copernicus in the 16th century, in which he first (and covertly) set out his heliocentric theory of the universe. Having been somewhat obsessed with miniature things all my life, I was instantly drawn to the way this revolutionary theory, with its huge philosophical and theological implications, was smuggled into the culture under such an unassuming, self-deflating little cover. It seemed like a great title for a book of small poems, but it was years before I came back to it. When I finally did, I was living in Mexico with a large swath of time ahead of me in which to write. To stave off the existential tsunami that this occasion threatened, I hit on this project of miniature poems, or “commentaries,” that gave me the freedom to write about basically anything at all of interest to me, in the Copernican spirit that “there is no one center of the universe.” The only aims were to surprise myself, to cover as much ground as possible within a few lines, and to generate at least three or four poems every day. As much as I’ve loved Anne Carson for years, I think it was actually reading Kenneth Koch—his humor, his freedom, his bravado— that gave me the shove in the right direction with these. It was an incredibly refreshing experience for me, and got me writing again as I hadn’t in years. And yes, I love epigrams, proverbs, and all pithy things.
SQ: There is thinking in the poems. There is a history of unruly thinking in poets such as Erin Moure, Lyn Hejinian, Lisa Robertson, Anne Carson and Jan Zwicky. I mention these names because there seems to be some overlap between essay, or prose, as well as in juxtaposing historical figures with more quotidian thinking the way these poets do. In “Trying,” for instance, dealing with what shouldn’t remain, but still is largely a female concern. Or, as you ask, what is the “Male Factor.” Not to drag the question into gender, but rather to touch on the question of the female public thinker. Or the difficulty of that figure given the inevitable visceral experience of gender which can’t ultimately be completely severed. Does that resonate for you?
SB: Absolutely. What I admire the most about the women you mention is the way thinking is held in tension with feeling in their work, and happens in the midst of daily life. The way their commitments to intellectual curiosity nevertheless admits the desires, frustrations, humiliations, and minutiae of mundane experience–while resisting the confessional mode of much contemporary lyric poetry. This may well be a particularly female approach to philosophical inquiry, I don’t know… Formal experimentation seems key to the discoveries of each of these writers as well–as it is, likely, to the discoveries of all great writers.
One difficulty facing the female public thinker in particular, however, is time. In my experience, thinking takes time—something which for me, since becoming a mother 16 months, 4 weeks, 2 days, and 6 hours ago, has becoming critically scarce. It is perhaps interesting to note that of the four women you mention, as far as I know, only one of them has children…
SQ: True, though I notice that a lot of familial work: ailing parents, ill siblings, seems to fall to those women without children. Which is to say that I don’t think childlessness lets a female poet off the hook emotionally and/or domestically. Of course there are male poets I know who do this domestic work as well…but to bring the conversation back to the page, I am wondering if in your writing you are cognizant of an interiority about the poems? And if so, what does that mean for you?
SB: “Interiority” and “spaciousness” is a lovely pair of words to describe any book of poems. They speak directly to what poetry can do, perhaps like no other medium, or at least the kind of poetry I want to write: create a kind of expansive interiority that allows for contemplation. A poem, a book of poetry, is a literal space that provides a reader–or a writer–with a site for genuine encounter, in Buber’s sense of the word. An occasion to glimpse, however fleetingly, a window that opens beyond time and self…onto what? timelessness? selflessness? Something vastly more expansive, in any case, than I typically glimpse in my daily routine. Lots of novels do this of course, too. Proust dedicates seven volumes to mapping this phenomenon. All the books—all art—I truly love do this for me, and this is the kind of space I gesture towards in the series of “Interior” poems in my book. These poems are, of course, also plays on the “interior” genre in painting, in particular those fabulous Dutch interiors that create such exquisite moments of stillness, of reflection, in the midst of ongoing domestic activity.
And of course it’s precisely this kind of interior space that I find so hard to wrestle free from the claims of new motherhood. Which is why I’m so interested in finding models, like Hejinian, for instance, who can manage a balance between such apparently conflicting demands. And of course, you’re right. Nobody gets off the hook. Life presents every one of us with such endless distractions and obstacles we each have to struggle in our different ways to reclaim as much of this stillness as possible.
SQ: Your work experiments formally as well. I am curious about where and how you came to form. Is your relationship to it intrinsic, or was it a discovery? Also, do you think of constraint, or conceptual tactics as formal experimentation and has this work also influenced your current practice?
SB: “All problems are problems of form.” Who said that? Auden? Eliot? Some particle physicist late in the 20th century? It has the ring of truth to it, whoever said it. The longer I work at being a poet, the more I find myself approaching the page as a formal problem–or, to put a more positive spin on it–a formal possibility. So I guess I would say that my arrival at formal experiment has been a process of discovery, but one that feels intrinsic to any long-term engagement with the art. Certainly, the writers whose work excites me the most seem to exhibit signs of formal restlessness. And yes, I tend to think of form in as open a way as possible–so that it covers not just conventional questions of prosody, line, stanza, etc., but also genre, sub-genre, and all manner of constraint and conceptual tactic. I’m still a rookie, where those tactics are concerned, but there are certainly poems in this book that employ loose constraints as their compositional engines (in the longer prose piece, “Trying,” for instance, my only constraint was that each paragraph had to contain at least one conjugation of the verb “to try”). The project I’m currently working on starts with a conceptual tactic that will hopefully open new ground for me as a poet and allow for new kinds of utterance. Because if it’s true, as many believe, that we’re fated to write the same poem over and over throughout our lives (and I don’t necessarily dispute this), we certainly need to work at finding new ways to go about writing it, don’t we?
SQ: I would like to end with a poem. How about “The New Experience”?
THE NEW EXPERIENCE
I was ready for a new experience.
All the old ones had burned out.
They lay in little ashy heaps along the roadside
And blew in drifts across the fairgrounds and fields.
From a distance some appeared to be smoldering
But when I approached with my hat in my hands
They let out small puffs of smoke and expired.
Through the windows of houses I saw lives lit up
With the otherworldly glow of TV
And these were smoking a little bit too.
I flew to Rome. I flew to Greece.
I sat on a rock in the shade of the Acropolis
And conjured dusky columns in the clouds.
I watched waves lap the crumbling coast.
I heard wind strip the woods.
I saw the last living snow leopard
Pacing in the dirt. Experience taught me
That nothing worth doing is worth doing
For the sake of experience alone.
I bit into an apple that tasted sweetly of time.
The sun came out. It was the old sun,
With only a few billion years left to shine.
Suzanne Buffam is the author of two collections of poetry, Past Imperfect (Anansi, 2005) and The Irrationalist (Anansi / Canarium, 2010). She was born and raised in Canada, and is now living in Chicago.