Interview: Ellen Bryant Voigt

Various Contributors

Ellen Bryant Voigt’s most recent collection of poems is Headwaters. She is the author of eight volumes of poetry, including Shadow of Heaven, a finalist for the National Book Award, and Messenger, a finalist for the National Book award and for the Pulitzer Prize. Here, she talks about her background in music, the biographical facts pertinent to her new collection and the New Yorker.

RA: You originally trained as a pianist and you’ve spoken about your time as a musician. The musical quality of your poems is celebrated, and it is obvious when reading your poems that this sound-driven lyric is your natural poetic voice. Have you ever tried to write against this inclination, or experiment with narrative or language-focussed poetry?

EBV: I don’t think of music and narrative as being mutually exclusive – some of my poems ARE narrative, and are as ‘sound-driven’ as the lyrics, as least in the making of them. With a few experimental exceptions, almost every poem in the language contains, importantly, aural properties, whether or not these are overt, foregrounded. There is, for instance, the rhythm of the line working with or against the rhythm of the sentence, an inherent music that reminds us of poetry’s beginnings as an art that was danced or sung or spoken. And to some degree, every poem is ‘language-focussed’ – as Auden said, ‘words whispering to one another.’ But if you are referring to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets’ dismantling of syntactical conventions, the answer is no: I wouldn’t want to give up semantic and even discursive clarity as one tool among many.

When reading your newest collection, Headwaters, I noticed the lack of punctuation in every poem, including in ‘Geese’, the poem in the latest issue of Granta. In your previous collections, there was already a sense of a quick and vital questioning – a breathlessness – and now, with this latest book, it feels as if that movement and feeling comes to the fore. Was this intentional? And how was it inspired?

If intent requires a conceptual plan in advance, then no; but the many parts of the brain don’t always reveal themselves to all the other parts. Nor is the poet a dependable source on the subject of inspiration! The biographical facts that seem pertinent to me: my most recent book had been a New and Selected Poems and a prose study of syntax; the first of those projects required a close look at all my previous work, which I think inevitably leads to a certain dissatisfaction and even impatience, and the second project opened another way to think about my own work. Meanwhile, I shouldn’t discount having my sixty-fifth birthday, which causes its own sort of impatience. After several years of idling – either silence, or more-of-the-same – I began a new poem that had a great deal of repetition, a great deal of descriptive excess, and multiple, very fast tonal shifts; somewhere around draft \#25, it occurred to me those shifts could happen more easily if I removed the syntactical markers – i.e., the conventional punctuation that helps ‘chunk’ the functional parts of an English sentence. This required me to think more carefully about how those markers might be implied rather than notated, and in turn freed the line to be the sole manager of pace and pause, moments of rest. And I found that very exciting – enough so to make a commitment to the protocol and its possibilities. So there is no punctuation at all in the new book.

Following on from this, you rely on the line break both for the music within the poetry and for linguistic impact – you often end on a rhyme, or the end of lines are working within or towards half or imperfect rhymes, rhymes which feel deftly weighted and intuitively crafted. As your rhymes can continue and evolve throughout the poems, these end words feel like anchors holding the balance for this. This stanza in ‘My Mother’ strikes me particularly:

apologize they would be grateful whenever
they had forgotten what to pack
she had a spare she kissed your cheek she wiped the mark
away with her own spit she marched you out again unless you were
that awful sort of stubborn broody child who more and more
I was who once had been so sweet so mild staying put
where she put me what happened

Is this emphasis on line-breaks an unconscious focus in your writing, or an intentional one? And can you explain your process in regards to end-rhyme and line-breaks, and perhaps what else you believe might root the sounds within the poems?

We’ve developed the habit of referring to ‘line-breaks’ when examining free verse prosody, and it’s useful in the sense of a line ‘breaking’ or dividing or rechunking the sentence. But mainly, in composition, I think of making a line that has its own integrity as a rhythmic phrase. As I mentioned, without a comma or a period providing some kind of pause, the end of the line becomes the only moment of rest, but consistently ending lines where a natural syntactical chunk might also end is predictable and boring. Repetition, including the repeated syllable of rhyme also provides a tiny ‘rest’ – we’re snagged for a moment on the recurring or chiming sound. When that happens within the line as well, not just at the end, I hope what is subverted is any sense of a predictable pattern for those repetitions.

As well as this idea of a corrupted rhyme, the metre of the poems feels disturbed: stretched at times, crippled at points and extended beyond comfort at others. Do you feel as though this disturbance works within or towards a complete, expected rhythm?

Pattern is repetition occurring with sufficient regularity to create an expectation for it. And any art requires both pattern and variation, wouldn’t you agree? Whether it’s painting or dance or poetry, all pattern with no variation lacks energy, but NO pattern would replicate chaos and incoherence. So I’d vote for a ‘complete’ overall sense of rhythm, or pulse, without it being necessarily ‘expected’. That is to say, with metric as with rhyme: these poems are much more committed to asymmetry and surprise than to the Apollonian virtues of order and certainty. I hope the same is true for their overall structures as well – how they move and develop down the page.

What music inspires you? Do you listen to music when you write? How do you feel the relationship between music and your poetry has evolved throughout your writing life?

Music in the background is oxymoronic for me: I tend to listen to IT, instead of listening FOR the music in the poem. The big shift for me has been a gradual one, away from making music independent of poems. Some of this was circumstantial, the difficulty finding the time to devote to more than one artistic medium. Some of it was temperamental, a resistance to performance (I never really tried composing). However, a few years ago I inherited an amazing Bechstein grand piano, and lately I’ve been playing fairly regularly with a friend who is a cellist, a collaborative experience that is so different from the solitude required for poetry. We can make our way respectably through two of the Beethoven sonatas – Ludwig, and the rebuilt Bechstein, reward even the rustiest fingers.

You’ve been published many times in the New Yorker, the first (that I can find in the archives) poem published in 1977, the most recent in March this year. What is it like have a long relationship with a magazine of such literary repute? How has your relationship with the magazine grown since your first published poem within the magazine?

I think one tends to have relationships with editors more than with magazines – at least, that has been my experience. Paul Muldoon at the New Yorker has been wonderfully enthusiastic about this new work, and that has been extremely confirming. Much much earlier, I had important support from Howard Moss, at the end of his long tenure there, and also from Peter Davison at the Atlantic, Grace Shulman at the Nation, and other editors at small press publications. It’s just a very lucky thing, finding editors whose taste coincides with what you’re doing.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve just started Robert Boswell’s new novel, Tumbledown. I recently read and can recommend highly: The Virtues of Poetry, by James Longenbach; The Night of the Republic, by Alan Shapiro; and Dirtwork, by Christine Byl, which is wonderfully organized around the tools she learned to use for building and maintaining trails.

For more from Travel: An excerpt from A Yi’s Barrenlands in Granta 124 with an introduction from his translator, Alejandro Zambra searches for Cesare Pavese, Miroslav Penkov, Héctor Abad and David Searcy talk about how they write their first sentences, two poems from Joe Wenderoth, new fiction from Humera Afridi set in Karachi ‘79, podcasts with Robert Macfarlane, Sonia Faleiro, Eleanor Catton and Lina Wolff and a new Haruki Murakami story.

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