The Colorado Poet, #26, Spring 2014

Interview: Veronica Patterson

& It Had Rained (Word Tech, 2014)

Bob King: Your new book, & it had rained, consists of prose poems so, to me, there’s an almost obligatory question. What’s to be gained with the prose poem for you? Or what differences does it involve compared to the verse poem?

Veronica Patterson: About prose poems, I’ve  often asked myself, “Why do you do this?” Perhaps the most truthful answer is that these poems happen. In assembling the collection, I began by wondering how many poems I had written that were prose poems, in either the squared, boxy format or with a prose-like way of proceeding. In both cases, the poems I gathered didn’t make use of one of poetry’s most defining tools—the line break.

Veronica PAttersonFor me, a poem often begins in the subconscious, then something pushes it over the threshold into words. The first draft of a prose poem often comes quickly, it’s blurted, and I think that’s indicative of a compression and velocity I then want to keep as the poem that evolves. I love the possibilities that line breaks offer and attend to them in my verse poems, but sometimes line breaks seem to work against what’s being embodied.

Many things that are dream-based and surreal seem at home in prose poems, such as Russell Edson’s yellow taxi driver “who is really a cluster of canaries arranged in the shape of a driver, who flutters apart.” Something about that wild shape shifting and zany way of proceeding is irresistible.

The other style of prose poem in & it had rained swims in the waters of rhythm, the sense of current, eddy, and ripple. “Dragonflies,” the final poem in the collection, is of that kind. I wanted to re-create in the words, phrases, and lines of the poem movement and stillness of a dragonfly’s the dart and hover.

Sometimes  prose poems make me more conscious of sound and rhythm….

Sometimes prose poems makes me more conscious of sound and rhythm, and I want to make music in a box or conversely make music itinerant, giving it long legs to stride (or wander) forth. So when a poem draft arrives with a need for voltage (the box, with its compression and collision) or river (the long line), I turn to the prose poem.

BK: Now to go to the title itself: Where did you get the title? From within “Water and Its Light” and then used it for sections? What was the process? And the sections: The first section, “it had rained,” has many poems about family, your father, mother and you growing up, topics in the past which explain, to me, the past perfect “had.” The second section, “it rained,” has more poems on relationships between people now, including husband and friends. The last section, “&,” seems to portend playing with language a bit, which is what you do in that section.

VP: Thank you for your perceptiveness about how & it had rained is shaped. You’ve described the sections well, though my initial sorting and naming was purely intuitive. Yes, the repeated line “& it had rained” came from the longer poem “Water and Its Light,” then the line seemed to offer a second layer of meaning as a title, then a third as to open the three sections. Its use is deliberately inexact. Do you know Marvin Bell’s poem “To Dorothy,” which begins, “You are not beautiful, exactly. / You are beautiful, inexactly”?

In some ways, its meaning is simple. The phrase “it had rained” rose from a literally and metaphorically rainy childhood in Ithaca, New York. Then the phrase “it rained” drew poems that explore textures of life. And “&” spoke to some current of life beneath the surface. Again, organically and inexactly and, as you discerned, playfully.

BK: Most importantly, of course, “it had rained” is a repeated phrase in your longest, and probably most ambitious, poem here, “Water and Its Light.” I had that phrase buzzing in my head a long time before I realized I was unconsciously repeating Wallace Steven’s line “It was snowing and it was going to snow” about his solitary blackbird.

VP: I love rain, have always lived by lakes (if one can count Lake Michigan), and immersion in water has always offered me the most light in the sense of insight. When William Butler Yeats writes in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” “I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore,” it names a call I always feel—to water as water, to water as light, to water as refuge, and so much more.

The poem began in a dry time, dry in terms of writing, but more importantly in terms of inner being.

The poem began in a dry time, dry in terms of writing, but more importantly in terms of inner being. Then my husband and I took a river-launch trip into deep greenness that seemed to bring back other greens, other “waters” and their light. For me, water is light. As it rained softly during the trip, I felt my skin drink it in. The phrase that became to book’s title seemed to be part of an felt litany.

BK: To go back to “prose” for a question. Several poems here follow what I’d call a grammatical structure in their thought. The three initial paragraphs of “Water and Its Light,” to pick that poem again, begin with “To begin…” and the last three begin with “To end…”. Or in “Being”—you begin with being “too lonely” to be something, then “too slow” for something else (I’m trying not to spoil the images), then “too afraid” to be something and end by being human. Repetition and parallelism can be used in verse poems, of course (I think of your poem “Pears” in which each line begins “For they….”, reminiscent of Christopher Smart’s “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry”), but this seems less repetition than, as I said, using a grammatical function to structure the poem. Is that different with your verse poems? 

I am drawn to rhythms and repeated bits of language, anaphora of all kinds and lengths.

VP: I am drawn to rhythms and repeated bits of language, anaphora of all kinds and lengths. And “Pears” owes much to Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, as do several poems in other books. The repeated words and phrases are tools that probe for meaning. Such repetitions can also indicate the whole of the universe’s riches like a deck of cards fanned out so you can see just enough of them. Although I don’t usually worry that I will inadvertently plagiarize the words of lines I love, it’s only because I’m too busy stealing rhythms. (I never realize I’ve done so until much later.)

BK: You are certainly a connoisseur of language, whether clichés (“My, How You’ve Grown” which takes the standard phrase and puts it through its paces) or sheer play, sheer serious play, as in “History, a Litany” which starts “The beginning of history. The bin of history. The lesson of history. The lessening of history. The mixed blessings of history. The creation of history. The history of creation.” What is it about language for you? I mean many poets, like me, for example, don’t seem to have the intriguingly delicate fascination with words that you have. Has this always been with you? Do you remember early manifestations of this?

VP: What is it, indeed. I wonder on occasion whether too much is about language for me. Whatever it is, it began early. The word “look” looked like lens you could see through. I remember a conversation with a grade school counselor who was testing me for early entrance to kindergarten. When he asked me a simple question about “orange,” I was pleased to tell him about the color as it appeared in the Crayola box, and that orange wasn’t my favorite crayon but that I liked red-orange better than yellow orange. I mentioned how I liked to peel and pull apart sections of the fruit, whose rind didn’t taste good but could be squeezed near a candle flame to make tiny fireworks. I did get to go to school that fall. Words have always been alive for me, ready to play.

When I discovered what etymologies could offer about words’ deeply metaphorical qualities, I was enchanted and have remained so..

When I discovered what etymologies could offer about words’ deeply metaphorical qualities, I was enchanted and have remained so. When my family gave me all the volumes of The Oxford English Dictionary, which required new shelves, a friend at work wondered why I didn’t just look up a word online as he did. I was shocked. I was never just looking one word up—I was sailing an ocean.

This is a hard question to answer because it goes so deep for me.

BK: The poet Lola Haskins was speaking of a previous book of yours, I think, when she admired “how naturally” your work “makes its moves,” but I think that comment is appropriate for individual poems as well. What do you understand about “making moves” in poetry? Or your moves in your poetry?

Because I see every poem as a small voyage of discovery, navigation is crucial.

VP: Because I see every poem as a small voyage of discovery, navigation is crucial. Here I refer to Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, and what he describes as the importance of getting off the triggering subject. I most often make a wrong turn when I am thinking too specifically about the poem that I think is coming into being (and wanting to shape it) rather than following its potential insight. My poem “Pause” in Thresh & Hold, “Pause” captures one element of how I feel about moving within a poem: “Although the schedule / is subject to change, you / can purchase a ticket at the window / on this pause of platform, / for any destination.” From a given point in a poem, the poet senses the next true move.

BK: What’s the value of poetry for you? For the world?

VP: I often turn to Stephen Dunn’s essays in Walking Light. In one of them, “The Good and Not So Good,” he writes, “The good poem alters us a little bit, or is capable of doing so. At the least it moves us closer to what can be known and believed about the world, and our second selves (those parts of us which always know better) store such information in the vague repository which is consciousness. We may continue to behave badly after absorbing a good poem, but it might be slightly harder to forgive ourselves.” The expansion of consciousness in a world where consciousness seems to contract so easily is of value. Dunn also writes, “The good poem allows us to believe we have a soul. In the presence of a good poem, we remember/discover the soul has an appetite, and that appetite is for emotional veracity and for the unsayable.. . . Paul Eluard wrote, ‘There is another world, and it is in this one.’” I value poetry as a form of human expression that can remind us of our humanity.     

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“Notes” (from Stephen Dunn’s Walking Light)

--One perception must immediately lead to another perception, as Olson said, is another way of saying that a poem should be interesting all the way through.

--When a poem’s rhythm is right, the body is saying to the head, Good job, you haven’t falsified my role in this enterprise.

--When people praise a poem that I can’t understand I always think they’re lying.