The Goodbye Animals (FootHills Publishing, 2014)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks?
Chapbooks “at a slant.”
I am thinking more loosely here of chapbooks as any “small poetic book-forms,” such as the fragments of Sappho and, in particular, of Mary Barnard’s beautiful translations and arrangement (Sappho, translated by Mary Barnard, University of California Press). Through selection, Barnard creates six spinning universes. Or we could say six small chapbooks within the whole, ones that are united from the remnants of Sappho’s life. Limited boundaries create precise focus and jewel-like texts in these six sections. Through sequence, Barnard creates a narrative, one that was not present before. Linearity derives here from fragments. Kaleidoscope in motion, stops…the puzzle of Sappho’s poetry in place … for a while.
Chapbook brevity encourages concise language and many times an exact lyric intensity. For instance, Mary Barnard drew from the disconnected remains of Sappho’s verse, then through her own knowledge of Greek and dream-smudged narrative, she threads each section with bright instances of the poet’s life. From within each of these six “ribboned packets,” Sappho speaks anew. We grow to understand her broken language in varied new ways.
Sequencing is also key in a chapbook when the poet has very disparate subject matter to assemble. Odd juxtaposition can create sudden awareness in a reader—those “at a slant” connections. What surprise and pleasure we have when rereading any collection that focuses on the muffled ghost narratives. Experience and idea unfold, then refold into new fabric—a bit thinner and awash with colors.
* * *
Two from Sappho
(translated by Mary Barnard )
#20 We put the urn aboard ship/ with this inscription:// This is the dust of little/ Timas who unmarried was led/ into Persephone’s dark bedroom// And she being far from home, girls/ her age took new-edged blades/ to cut, in mourning for her,/ those curls of her soft hair.
#21 Cyprian, in my dreams// The folds of a purple/ kerchief shadowed/ your cheeks—the one// Timas one time sent, a timid gift, all/ the way from Phocaea
What chapbooks influenced your writing?
I am still using my wider definition of “chapbook” when I speak of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies. In those ten poems is a universe of lyric linkage, of agitation and relief—within and between poems. When reading these masterpieces, I find small phrases that bind line to line and then push into a flash of thought. Subtle strategies too come from an overview: precisely how one elegy prepares us for the next—(all while the sea beat on stone of a borrowed castle. And there Rilke sat, writing.)
Rilke always has been a deep influence on my work—his poetry offers me a visceral knowledge of what it means to reach for the next trapeze while still in midair. To study these ten Elegies is to fly. Our own chapbooks offer likewise this chance for speed and lyric economy. Strangely placed lines (or poems) jolt your reader into a third awareness. No one quite knows where they are, and a voice is saying, let go and connect but never in the same breath.
* * *
from Rilke’s The Tenth Elegy
Only those who die young, in their first condition/ of timeless equanimity while they were being weaned/ follow her lovingly. She waits/ for girls and befriends them. Shows them, gently,/ what she is wearing. Pearls of grief, the fine-spun/ veils of patience—With young men she walks/ in silence.
What is your chapbook about?
This is the question always asked, and, for me, the hardest to talk about in a meaningful way. BUT, I have many times wondered what is it in the human psyche and in earth’s dynamics that “requires” different forms of life to always say, Goodbye? Never to settle, but ever to jitter ahead. Rilke knew that one well: creatures in love with leaving and, always, on the cusp of farewell. And indeed there are many ways to do that. Does one choose or is one chosen to leave; is another forced to exit?
And indeed we humans are part of this—my “animal” collection.” In many ways, humans have forced the animals, collectively and individually, to go away. To become extinct. We have literally taken the land away, “backing them off this planet.” Because we too are animal, we share those archetypal patterns of “goodbye” with mammal, bird, fish. Earth too is in the process of leaving. The nourishment of relationship, in the largest sense, of being “next to” that which nourishes—from rock and water underground (‘fracking’ got that one) to a hand we can hold, and hold dear.
And do you and I (with wisdom or ignorance) choose to leave parts of ourselves behind? Is our own notion of home (domestic or planetary) a definition we back timidly away from, or finally are exiled from? The Goodbye Animals places humanity, more now than before, in direct relationship with its animal/ natural counterparts: What might it mean to respect and be in “right relationship” to other life? It might feel very different, but not in a visionary way. To stop this habitual ease of “goodbye,” we must feel absence so that we come to love presence(s), and become responsible for other than ourselves.
How did The Goodbye Animals come about? It arrived as surprise, Like emptiness knocking and saying fill me up in a hurry! Not quite, but it felt like that the day I was asked to make a chapbook, one ready to go in two weeks. This initially was not an intentional book of poems, as many are. Having two unpublished manuscripts, I selected a first poem, “The Goodbye Animals,” and that choice led me to the rather quick work of one-to the-next until I had thirty pages. Though I sensed pattern, I would have been unable to articulate what these pages focused on.
Maybe a story about writing the poem The Goodbye Animals” will best offer some details, the import of which I only understood in hindsight:
Once upon a mountain, I was handed a bucket of water and a sack of clay—me and six others. Create pieces of life, we were told. Marvelous creatures came forward from our damp hands! Everything was given shape that day…from the human foot to Noah’s smallest animals. Then there was the heart-shaped bowl for flowers that contained a tiny rustic human heart. And yes, we the creators were pleased. Our clay art sat in a field on boards to dry. Two heart shapes, big and small, sat on a shelf in the hot summer shed.
At midnight a storm whipped in. Wind, rain, lightning, and the next day each hard-won form was mostly washed away. Pretty lifeless, these once-storied chunks of clay. And later that poem about a day twenty years ago gave the animals a context in which to say goodbye. They had to. The rain was insistent. But later, once their poem was picked to start a chapbook, the rest almost jumped into my lap. Poetry has its own sly intelligence.
And while I was assembling that chapbook, I was NOT thinking: everything is in the process of saying goodbye. When the chapbook was published, and I was asked WHY this group of poems, I saw straight to the bottom of the well, where each of my animal/ earth forms dozed. And there too were the poses of goodbye—in each poem is a partial gesture, a nod to that final word. How uniquely goodbye arrives—and in fragments. Some leave by choice and others sense life here is no longer sustainable (wherever that “here” may be).
What other chapbooks have you written?
Winter Toys (The Green Tower Press, 1989)
The Fire Setters (Web del Sol Online Chapbook Series, 2003, re-issued 2012)
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook?
I mark the patterned weather, the design
of the slow, returning whale. Clouds roll
in, a whole new species with no purpose
yet in mind. They cast illusion on the
rhythm of the whale. By evening I want
a nocturne of a formal instrument. Wind
blows on the bare branch. It turns me
small, my shadow long.
This poem embodies my chapbook refrain: we must exist in conjunction with all life, and that of our planet: Right relationship. Pattern counts, not habit. Radical pattern that has proved its worth. Recall how migration works—meet species that have hung around earth for a long, long time.
Did you collaborate on the cover image?
My Facebook friend, an artist whom I have never met, graciously offered this stunning photograph. (See Pd Lietz’s work here.) Her words and imagery are “art” in the truest sense.
What are you working on now?
I just finished proofs for my seventh collection, Bright Stranger, forthcoming from Louisiana State University Press in spring, 2016. It took about ten years in the writing process, and then lengthy revision.
What would you do differently next time?
Well, as you probably know by now—my interpretation of an interview question often is counter to what was asked. So, about strategies for my writing, things I might do differently next time, or keep . . . . What I do know of my “next time” in writing poetry is that each time is the first time. There are certain unspoken things I enjoy doing with my imagination, and I really emphasize the word “with”: me and my imagination (or unsecured recollection) have had a wild and bumpy relationship! Many details of which I have discovered in responding to this interview… some habitual protocols I do have. They nest inside process, and they are the “keepers.” These good habits are my good friends to share: Let go the narrative idea of a poem. Imagine, instead, what dwells on top and beyond your known thoughts. Wiggle into every shadowy angle. Furnish those spaces. Don’t say, I can’t remember. Make it new. For you see, “Your Story” is very tired and wants to go home. Regard any writing as you would dream fragments and interpretations. Remove every pointed notion that pins down your imagination; see this creation (you right now are making) begin to shift like mercury. Turn the lights off (in your head). Nod a while. Dream your way to the center of the poem, touch it, then swim way far across … to the other side of the circle. You are a great dreamer, so swim. This is what you do well. Love the process of “moving between,” (and outside of). It’s is who you are. Or maybe you have an idea in place of who you will become. Write that down too, and go to sleep. A long cold winter is predicted next time—to hold you in place. The biggest concern of all….
Katherine Soniat’s seventh collection, Bright Stranger, is forthcoming from Louisiana State University Press, spring 2016.The Swing Girl (LSU Press) was selected as Best Collection of 2011 by the Poetry Council of North Carolina. A chapbook, The Goodbye Animals, recently received the Turtle Island Quarterly Award. A Shared Life received the Iowa Prize for Poetry. Poems have appeared in World Poetry Portfolio #60, Hotel Amerika,The Threepenny Review, The Nation, Poetry and Connotations Press. She was on the faculty at Virginia Tech, Hollins University, and teaches now in the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNC-Asheville.
In my mother’s house there was no heart.
In my mother’s heart she was always looking
for a home. I threaded stories of her, ones neither
of us had ever heard. Soft ones with feathers at the bottom.
When my son had a daughter, she came into this blueness
knowing details with a past.
____________________At night in bed playing puppets
with the covers, she whispered, You know, there’s so much
sadness in the world. She was three, and I almost couldn’t
It was dark in the bedroom, and inside her head. She didn’t hesitate
but thought in stride with nothing. Hem of the sheet humped up—
cave in a city on earth that soon would go away
_______________________________________________— for Olivia