“A Small, Soul-Colored Thing” taught me poetic integrity: the opportunity of launching one’s memory into the middle of factual misunderstanding or misremembering and unstability as the point of being witness to trauma. This poem has a reliable narrator who questions and corrects herself, she does not live in surreality, she is human. The dog walked out of the forest with the deer in its mouth./ No. The deer came out of the forest. The dog/ran beside it, over, under: the dog slipped itself/into the animal lurching to my side of the road… I believe the events in this poem happened exactly as our poet, Paisley Rekdal, describes them, still out of the realm of magic, surrealism, and metaphor. This poem allows our eyes and imaginative responses more agency than the descriptive quantifying of an event. I value the mind’s eye as reality. We see similar affects in Brigit Pegeen Kelly‘s “Dead Doe.” Contributing to my belief in Rekdal’s seemingly alchemetic transformation of beings, is first hearing this poem read aloud, which built a bridge to my imaginative reality. I saw what she saw as she read, instead of first seeing the words then seeing in my mind. This was also my first introduction to Rekdal as a poet and ever since I have been breathing in every book, poem, and piece of her writing.
Honored with the opportunity to interview Paisley Rekdal for the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress, I have provided both my pre-interview notes that helped inform my final interview questions and the original interview.
“Strawberry,” the opening poem of The Invention of the Kaleidoscope reminds me of Walt Whitman’s “To Those Who’ve Fail’d” in the first Annex of his death-bed issue of Leaves of Grass. Whitman’s poem praises, and sings in his way, those who have passed on “prematurely” and those who might be seen by society to not live up to their full potential and therefore labeled as “failures.” Your piece “Strawberry” seems to do this same kind of work, but through a first person eye. “I am going to fail,” you write, “the way strawberry plants fail,/ have dug down hard to fail.” Going on to write, “the way/ this strawberry plant has failed, alive without bud,/without fruit…”
Here I specifically read failing to give birth, to propagate and populate, which could be seen as a biological failure. But I also read the witness of individuals trying hard not to fail—reaching and digging in every way possible to be his and her best. You, like Whitman, have turned the notion of failure on its head.
Failure is inevitable and therefore perhaps not failure at all, but a coming into knowledge and as the poem ends a “new and beautiful light.”Your newest book Animal Eye contemplates wild nature captured and put on display. Our speaker is sympathetic to animals’ pain and boredom in zoos, imagines the last moments of animal life before a human misfortune or science experiment takes the animals life and places it in a museum. We even enter wax museums filled with human horror of wax replicas of mass murders, calling out an undomesticated and unlawful nature in some. Every so often when our speaker is not being harmed by animals in poems like “Why Some Girls Love Horses” and “Voyeurs” she wants to become the animal. Often she imagines her own wild nature. And these moments of imaginative transformation are lyric and beautiful in their extremities, until our speaker confronts the danger of wildness to closely and slowly backs away. Through this animal eye you reaffirm our humanness by juxtaposition and the act of observing.On the other hand, many of your pieces in this collection repeat the phrase “In the dream” and “In the story” allowing the reader to assume we are already a part of your community, as if we have always had access to and shared in your dreams and stories. This dream-like imagination seems to peak with “A Small, Soul-Colored Thing” where our speaker watches a beautiful domesticated dog devour a deer. The speaker at first does not trust what she sees, but soon she becomes the dog feasting. Compare this to the next poem “Yes” and our speaker imagines all of kinds stories about finding a love that is already “taken” with a family and wife, and we realize our speaker here is a man wanting to love another man. We see how complicated defining “who we are” can be. We are many things, multi-layered with complicated thoughts. How do you understand the dreamscape and use of explicit reference to imagination in poetry? What does this allow you to say or complicate in writing otherwise difficult to address in plain speech?
The aspects of your poetry I am most attracted to are the ways you interrogate and explore feminism and female-hood, ecopoetics, and multi-ethnicity, probably because I identify as all three of these things myself. “Intimacy” seems to address all three of these concepts. Starting with humor, the poem opens with a reference to the movie “The Fly,” and Jeff Goldblum “worrying that his agent’s screwed him—” with a script of a half-man half-fly. Soon the poem turns sour with sadness in the line “because Heaven won’t take what’s only half:” This line reminds me of a talk I heard you give on bi-raciality. In “Easter in Lisbon” you frankly point out the racial discrimination you and your partner who is African American felt while traveling together throughout Europe. In “Intimacy” you more abstractly talk about fragmented selves and a holy place that will not accept a divisible soul. The documentary-style speech in “Easter in Lisbon” versus the metaphorical tone of “Intimacy” is striking especially when one realizes the heart of the matter is two-sides of the same coin.
Original Interview *** Conducted over Email
Your opening poem “Strawberry” in The Invention of the Kaleidoscope ends, “. . . to fail the way I’ve failed / in every particular sense of myself, / in every new and beautiful light.” Would you talk of how this differs from the cliché of failure as a creative pathway to success?
On the one hand I think this moment might fall in line with the old saw that our failures are what make us human and thus beautiful. On the other, there is grammatically a difference between where this beauty lies—outside the self in the light as the line reads—and where failure exists, which is inside the speaker’s sense of self. Personally, I vacillate between wanting to believe the cliché that failure is a creative pathway to success and actively rejecting it. We all know that people can fail without there being anything redeeming in the failure itself, and it’s good to remember this, and be empathetic to those who fail—especially when we are the ones who have—because ultimately the rhetoric of success-via-failure doesn’t really hear the frustration of the person experiencing it. It’s no good, when you’ve finished a book that fundamentally doesn’t work (as I have: and no, it never got published), to hear, “Oh, but I bet you learned so many new techniques from sucking for 250 pages!” That really is the worst thing to hear, but it IS the best thing to believe, otherwise you might never get out of bed in the morning.
Your newest poetry collection, Animal Eye, takes place largely in museums and zoos. How does the speaker in these poems distinguish her/himself from the people she is observing, who are themselves there to observe?
This is a great question. On a very literal level, the speaker distinguishes herself by talking: she’s the one who gets to observe through words, though she is herself (as we all are) observed. But on the larger level, the book is about the difficult problems that perception and imagination raise between observer and observed, who themselves sometimes become seamlessly (if frighteningly) “intertwined” in the book, or are each socially and arbitrarily seen as “other.” In the poems, as in life for me, I think it’s hard to distinguish what makes one individual truly different from another in a way that might be understood as organically authentic, rather than artificially imposed. Being mixed race, possibly these questions are more pervasive for me than for other people. Being a third-generation mixed Asian American, what makes me some part of me “really” Chinese versus “really” Norwegian/European? These questions can’t be answered, but they raise issues of perspective and perception, observer and observed, from which most of our social identity (sadly but understandably) stems.
Poems in Animal Eye often highlight distinctions between laws of human civilization and laws of nature, such as the accepted necessity of animal violence. In the poem “A Small Soul-Colored Thing” the speaker uses fantasy to participate in this animal violence—could you talk about addressing this taboo?
It’s interesting: I never would have used the word “taboo” since the poem, for me, is the fantasy we (I) might have of entering into a purely animal, reactive state in which problems of extreme self—consciousness, language and meaning—something that affects and shapes human identities, but not animal ones—get erased. The animal figure I imagine myself turning into as well is a hybrid: both deer AND dog simultaneously, as well as a host of other possible animals. There is violence, but I wouldn’t characterize that kind of violence as taboo except in the human realm. But as you noted, this poem is a fantasy—a longing to become part of a world that, by my classification as human, I can’t truly be a part of.
Your recent book Intimate: An American Family Photo Album combines poems with memoir and photography. Why did you feel the need to go beyond poetry, and what did this hybrid form ultimately offer you?
Poetry left out the ability to explain and lecture and question and debate. At least, my skills as a poet weren’t good enough to let me do this. The more I worked on Intimate and thought about photography, the more I realized that portrait photography and lyric poetry have a great deal in common: they tell (at their best) wide-ranging narratives about a single subject in static time. But ultimately, they are posed, highly artificial and focused on encapsulating emotion in ways that nonfiction is allowed to question more openly and at length. The book was meant to be poems, then it was meant to be poems interwoven with an essay on Edward Curtis, then it became poems interwoven with essay, fiction and memoir. It was incredibly daunting, but each genre allowed me to do, and say, wildly different things. Poems alone would have been too limiting.
Paisley Rekdal is the author of four books of poetry, including Animal Eye, The Invention of the Kaleidoscope, Six Girls Without Pants, and A Crash of Rhinos. She is also the author of a book of essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee, and the hybrid memoir Intimate. Her honors include fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Fulbright Fellowship, and her poems have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, American Poetry Review, and Poetry. She is currently a Professor of English at the University of Utah. Photo credit: Tommy Chandler.