2015 Contest: An Interview with Poetry Judge Heather Christle
Heather Christle (pronounced “crystal”) is the author of What Is Amazing (Wesleyan University Press, 2012), The Difficult Farm (Octopus Books, 2009), and The Trees The Trees (Octopus Books, 2011), which won the 2012 Believer Poetry Award. A new collection, Heliopause, will be out from Wesleyan in March 2015. Her poems have appeared in publications including Boston Review, Gulf Coast, The New Yorker, and The Best American Poetry. She has taught at Antioch College, Sarah Lawrence College, the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Emory University. A native of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, she lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she is writing a book about crying.
Interview by RYAN BOLLENBACH
Black Warrior Review: Your new book Heliopause is coming out March 9th (we’re very excited for it at the BWR office). What about the poems in this volume gives it its helio and its pause?
Heather Christle: “Heliopause” is the term for the boundary between our solar system and interstellar space, the limit of the sun’s power. It’s a border that Voyager 1 crossed in 2012, though it wasn’t announced until 2013. It’s such a vast distance between here and there that it takes some time for the signal to travel. I wrote many–though certainly not all–of the poems in the book while pregnant, a time of much waiting for new information, waiting to cross into what feels like a new galactic space. There’s also some luna in the book to balance out the helio; an elegy for Neil Armstrong, for instance, who died the same day that Voyager made that crossing.
BWR: One of the oft remarked on aspects of your poetry is its sense of humor, particularly in The Trees The Trees and What Is Amazing. I often wonder about the disparity between how author and reader perceive humor in a given work. Do you see your poetry as particularly informed by humor? What role, if any, does humor play in your writing process?
HC: I find language inherently funny. The word is not the thing! HA! And then immediately of course I become sad. This new book is perhaps somewhat more informed by the second feeling than the first, but I still had moments of writing when I laughed at the page. I found myself recounting in one case an idea I’d had about ant masturbation, and that still makes me giggle. Poetry needs comedy. I really do believe that. Not every poem, of course, but I do not trust a poet who can find no room for a laugh. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Henri Bergson’s “Essay on the Comic,” but it’s become a touchstone for me, especially this passage:
In a play of Labiche there is a character who cannot understand how it is possible to be anything else than a timber merchant. Naturally he is a timber merchant himself. Note that vanity here tends to merge into SOLEMNITY, in proportion to the degree of quackery there is in the profession under consideration. For it is a remarkable fact that the more questionable an art, science or occupation is, the more those who practise it are inclined to regard themselves as invested with a kind of priesthood and to claim that all should bow before its mysteries. Useful professions are clearly meant for the public, but those whose utility is more dubious can only justify their existence by assuming that the public is meant for them: now, this is just the illusion that lies at the root of solemnity.
This reminds me of how maddening I find it when people are reluctant to dare to call themselves poets. SUCH solemnity and vanity (disguised as humility) there.
BWR: In What is Amazing, periods are often omitted, and in The Trees The Trees there are indents that break up the poem and, to me, often feel elliptical. What compelled you toward the use of omission, or simulated omission, in those books?
HC: In The Trees The Trees I wanted to explore how I might shape a line without the use of a line break, to create a stable environment for the lines and their intervening breaths. It seemed to me that punctuation was unnecessary; the spaces did enough of that joining/separating work. And I think then I just began to find it difficult to return to punctuation. It felt superfluous and messy. Periods made me want to vacuum the poem. (I do not feel this way about other people’s punctuation, I should say, only my own.)
BWR: I’m always interested in developed spatial relationship between speaker and environment, whether its people or places, is in your poems. How is inhabiting Yellow Springs, Ohio for you?
HC: It is such a small space, an honest-to-goodness village, with fewer than 4,000 residents. We have lived here for just a year and a half, but already to walk into town for errands is inevitably to see and speak to at least a few people we know. There is little room for anonymity. There’s an enormous glen. A wildly long bike path. Weekly vigils in the next town over for John Crawford, a black man shot by police at Walmart for carrying a toy gun. I live here; I am beginning to believe that.
BWR: I was very excited to see your poems in response to William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops on Everyday Genius. What compelled you about the Disintegration Loops, and what was the process for writing those poems? Is listening to music, with or without lyrics, an integral part of your general writing practice?
HC: I cannot do any kind of thinking if I am listening to music with lyrics, and I especially cannot do the kind of thinking-not-thinking I need to write a poem. Lyrics are SO loud. Sometimes a song will be stuck in my head so strongly that I can’t read. And even purely instrumental music can control my head if it’s too narrative. Thank goodness for Basinski! Weirdly, I first heard “Disintegration Loop 1.1” while watching The Comedy. I loved the soundtrack (much more than the movie), and didn’t realize at first that the excerpts they’d included were a part of a larger musical landscape. When I did, I couldn’t stop listening, and watching the accompanying video–not The Comedy–but rather a static shot of lower Manhattan in the last hour of daylight on September 11, 2001. I began to make a few notes, writing lines as I was watching, a totally new practice for me. Gradually I developed a ritual of playing it on the computer each morning while I sat in a chair across the room and wrote, very slowly. Some days not a word, others a few sections. I’ve never written that way before.
BWR: What is a book by an up and coming writer that you highly recommend? Do you have a suggestion for a book by an established author that you think readers often overlook?
HC: I am tremendously excited for Emily Hunt’s first book, Dark Green, which will be coming out from the wondrous Song Cave this year. Her poems gently lacerate me. As for an established writer, I think that Inger Christenson’s Light, Grass & Letter in April, is fantastic, and not just for the way it contextualizes/contrasts with her much more well-known It and Alphabet.
BWR: What excites you when you sit down and read an individual poem? What might you be looking for in a poem submitted to our contest?
HC: I am excited when I sense that a poet, through conscious and unconscious observation of language’s behavior, has created a space within which words’ desires are recognized and fulfilled. If those desires are new additions to my understanding, then I become especially pleased.
BWR: What projects are you currently working on?
HC: There are two: my baby daughter, and a book about crying. The one, as you can probably imagine, has much influence on the other.
BWR: Do you have any non-writing hobbies, and, if so, are those influential to your writing process?
HC: I run, like many writers, and find ideas like come to me in those rhythmic minutes. (They also show up in the subsequent showers.)
HC: There is a moment in the poem “Christmas” from The Trees The Trees in which you imagine what you might be if you had to be only one thing “a knee/ maybe or a liver,” but if you had a choice, you opt for an analog phone. If a wizard jumped out of a bush and threatened to transform you into a body part, but gave you a choice as to which one, which body part would you be and why?
HC: How cruel of the wizard; decisions so often make people (me) unhappy. Now I am trying to think of what would be the happiest body part. Skin, I suppose, so that I could go on experiencing sensations of warmth. (As I write this my socks are too thin and my feet are too cold.) Maybe I would be the horn on a goat.