2013 Contest: An Interview with Poetry Winner Hannah Aizenman
Hannah Aizenman hails from Birmingham, AL, and received her BA from the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Gigantic Sequins, plain china, Three Rivers Review, and Collision Literary Magazine. She is currently pursuing her MFA in poetry at New York University. She lives in Brooklyn.
Interview by BETHANY STARTIN
Black Warrior Review: I loved your winning poem, History, or Umbilicus, and I was especially excited by the constant metamorphoses, the transformations into ‘stray omphalos, oracle bone,/a parsing out of pulp and marrow’. How does your poetry as a whole engage with metamorphosis?
Hannah Aizenman: First of all, thank you for the kind words! As for your question: metamorphosis is really important to my work, as a theme and as a practice. I wrote HISTORY, or UMBILICUS not long after reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which I loved: both myth and history, it tells a story of the world by way of various transformations. It strikes me that this is basically the work of poetry—to record and perform these alchemical moments wherein the stuff we (the writer, the reader—all of us, really) are made of changes. When I write a poem, I’m thinking in leaps, from one thought or image to the next; the material is mercurial and I’m following it, trying to discover what it will turn into. Figurative language is all about transformation. The metaphor—which I think of as the atom to poetry’s matter—is itself a metamorphosis, a kind of magic, a trick of language by which one thing becomes another. So even as my poetry often directly engages with metamorphosis as a subject, the idea of it is also, for me, ingrained quite deeply in the poetic impulse and process.
BWR: I’m intrigued too by the uncertainties within the poem, the searching nature brought out by the speaker’s unanswered questions. What would you say are the central questions that your work is asking?
HA: The initial idea for this piece was a little too grand: I wanted to write a poem that would, somehow, chronicle all of human history. Inevitably, that project began to seem a bit daunting; I started to interrogate it, to get inside it and break it down. I can’t speak from a place outside of history, but I can speak from within my own body—a body which is, like every body, an historical object, a vanishing point where so many experiences, and stories of those experiences, intersect. This piece was borne out of that tension. The questions with which I wrestle in this poem are pretty big concerns for my work in general. How do larger mythical and historical narratives appear to us through the lenses of our finite bodies, our limited perspectives? How do those narratives change in our retellings; how do those retellings change us? How do we make our own bodies into the stuff of myth and history; or rather, how do those modes shape our understandings of ourselves and of our world? Where have we been; where are we going; how do we make something from what we have lost, and what we will lose, along the way?
BWR: There’s a sense of the fairytale underpinning the poem, as well, with the lilting storytelling quality of the narrative voice: ‘There was a girl who was also a cave and she could feel the etchings/inside her’. What’s your favorite fairytale, and which is your favorite version of it?
HA: I love fairytales and folktales and myths and legends—we use such simple language to tell them, which only underscores their striking images, their strange logic. I’ve always liked the ones we all know (“Cinderella”, “Beauty and the Beast”), though the things I like best about them have changed. I’m more intrigued these days by their grotesqueries—the evil queen demanding Snow White’s lungs and liver, the witch drawing the prince up into the tower on Rapunzel’s cut-off hair—and there’s no one better for that weirdness than the Brothers Grimm. Once I dreamt that I had no hands, and when I looked it up, I found a Grimm fairytale called (surprise!) “The Girl Without Hands”—I find that one pretty lovely and bizarre. Also, it led me to the Aarne-Thompson classification system, which is fascinating! It’s such a thorough index of fairytale types, tropes, themes, and structures—it practically reads like a story in itself.
BWR: You’re working on your MFA at NYU (or perhaps you’ve finished, so feel free to correct me on this!) – how has your poetry changed during your time there?
HA: I’m in my second semester at NYU, and I love it. I’ve been so lucky to engage with such talented and stimulating professors and classmates, all of whom are teaching me so much. The biggest change I’ve noticed in my own work has to do with voice: over the past few months, I’ve felt much more confident and consistent in my poetic voice. I’ve been challenged to write not just from poem to poem, but toward a body of work: to develop a poetics, and apply it. It’s interesting, because the conscious creation of a unified voice sounds like a limitation, but I’ve found it really freeing: identifying my own aesthetic, my own style and interests, allows me to explore other traditions and modes of expression much more deeply, and to learn even more—to both expand and hone my craft.
BWR: We at BWR always want to hear about under-the-radar poetry, so what’s the best underexposed collection you’ve read recently, and can you point us to a particular poem (or poems) from it?
HA: Currently, I’m reading The Lost Lunar Baedeker (ed. Roger L. Conover), a collection of poetry and prose by Mina Loy, a Modernist-Futurist writer from the earlier 20th century. She’s largely been forgotten since then, but it seems like she’s begun to be rediscovered in the past couple of years. I’m not very far into the book, so I can’t yet name a favorite poem, but I’m enjoying it: her work is fragmented and very visceral, surreal. She’s also got some great manifestos, which have that empowering, exhilarating quality manifestos often do, but also a sense of humor, which manifestos often don’t. Another fantastic read is Jack Spicer’s collected poems, My Vocabulary Did This to Me (eds. Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian); “After Lorca” and “The Book of Magazine Verse” are my favorite parts of that collection. Spicer, a mid-century poet, is also resurfacing from literary limbo—like Loy, he didn’t fit neatly into any one literary scene during his life, and, like Loy, he was well ahead of his time in terms of vision and experimentation. For both Spicer and Loy, the poetic imagination is the thing; it’s characterized by a sense of seeking, a wonderment. Spicer writes: “A metaphor is something unexplained—like a place in a map that says that after this is desert. A shorthand to admit the unknown.” This feels truer to me every time I read it.