Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #10

An Interview with Veronica Patterson 

(Bob King)

BK: The heart of your new book, Thresh & Hold, is the arriving and then departing death of a close friend, almost a sister, it seems. Despite that, the subject is approached in a number of different ways. Did you experience difficulty in writing poems which approached the experience of grief? Or what are or could be the poetic problems in doing this?

VP: Poetry and loss know each other well. Yet there can be special difficulties in addressing certain subjects--love, death, and grief among them. Because these subjects are perennial, always fresh in feeling, the challenge is to embody them freshly and authentically for the reader. And expressions of grief have their particular challenges.

At best, they avoid any special pleading (please care about my poem because I lost someone), they express sentiment without sentimentality, and they speak from what poet A. R. Ammons in his poem “Poetics” calls “that self not mine but ours.” For me, meeting the challenge means dreaming deep into the lost relationship, reaching for something at its root, and letting what’s found there take its own particular shape.

 BK: Your love of language is obvious in your book, but it goes deeper. You seem to like to examine language. The title shows this, of course, as the word ‘threshold’ is separated into two words, giving new meanings to both. In another poem you invoke the ‘god in good’ and the be with you in bye.”

In yet another you speak of the word ‘blood’ as having too many openings and the poem goes on to subtly include a number of other words with double o’s in them. What do you think accounts for your fascination with words and how does that affect your poetry or your sensibility?

VP: To me words are physical and alive. I can’t quite remember the first time I saw or someone revealed the roots of a word to me, the distance from a star in desire, the killing off in mortgage, but I do remember my visceral excitement.

Words are rooted and growing. They contain, hide, and reveal meaning. I notice that italicizing a word in a poem, in whole or in parts, is my way of holding it out to the reader as itself. One even-then-old book from childhood that was a companion--The Golden Windows, by Laura E. Richards--has an illuminated letter at the beginning of each tale.

I felt I could climb up and inside those letters, see through their windows, follow their (sometimes literal) tails into their tales. I’ve written about that book, a poem in short segments, one of which is

Every Story Begins
with an “A” twined with vines,
grape-laden, October
in western New York, purple Concords.
Or a curved “T” holds the burst
of a chrysanthemum, my mother’s sad
(my sad mother’s flower, sad my
     mother, mother my sad…). 
Perched on the crossbar of an “H”
is the peacock in Stewart Park by
     Cayuga Lake,
its feathery eyes folded, its tail sweeping
the story.

Individual letters and words have physical presence. They are natural “metaphors,” bridges between letter, word, and poetic unfolding that shimmer and pulse. When I get lost on the sea of the Oxford English Dictionary (beside my desk, all the tall volumes), it’s exciting. Sometimes I feel as if I’m working my way through a set of fairy tale tasks or a mythical landscape, tugged forward by the possibilities of the words themselves.

BK: Following that up, in other poems, you use syntax to make a poetic point. Writing of a memorial service, you have the objects reversed as subjects (in “Come Back, ”one phrase is “memories wept mourners”). In a couple of other poems you use parallelism as in “The Year of Held Breath” in which the repeated phrase “It was the year of” becomes the rhythmic structure. Do you find yourself playing around with syntax in your writing or searching for the most effective syntax or making choices?

VP: When something is first coming into words, If some crucial bit of syntax reveals itself, I follow. In “Come Back,” I wanted to capture what I had felt and seen--first, in the room in which the hospice memorial service took place, and then outdoors, as doves were released. As several of the mourners read poems and stories that triggered their own and others’ tears, everything in the room seemed to shift and waver.

As I watched the boxes of tissues being passed, it felt like the chairs were moving (that sensation you feel when the car next to your car moves but you slam your brakes); there was a sense of slippage and reversal. Once I tried to capture that first reversal, more such language followed, with surprises along the way. Then came revisions as I realized that the language might be shaped to reveal the wrench of grief itself.

When I wrote “The Year of Held Breath,” I had arrived at a writing residency, and after settling in, looked back at the previous year. It had been just more than a year since the first symptom and the embarkation into the unknown. The phrase “It was the year of” suggested itself--and that line seemed to trigger the others, which came--in that way that a phrase can keep probing what can’t yet be encompassed. The repetition unfolded and eventually became the first draft of the poem. Because the year had been unnerving, even in the first draft, I let little questions, admissions, and corrections enter. I chose not to let the poem rise at the end because its flatness seemed important. It was a year that couldn’t be exactly named, but could somehow be surrounded or recited.

And because at another level, I found that I had been holding my breath as I wrote--so the held breath became the title. The first draft poured forth with a velocity that enters and drives a number of my prose poems. Something arrives--a metaphor, a phrase, some bit of syntax--and I almost literally run with it, at first unconscious. In revision, the choices become more conscious.

BK: In two poems, you have another poem at the right margin. They don’t seem to be made to be read ‘together’ but exist as two separate poems, one doing something in relation to the other. What’s that “something”?

VP: Now that you’ve asked, I see that the poem on the right is a ghost truth, something older, colder, less personal or autobiographical. In “She Called It ‘The Cup of a Thousand Faces,’” I had been looking at a Japanese woodblock print of a figure on a bridge with revelers in the distance. I knew that figure as my mothe,r and I went to get the cup that the images conjured. As I wrote the poem, which explored how little I knew or had asked about aspects of my mother’s life, the other image hung at the periphery of my vision, offering its truth. So I gave it a presence there.

In “The Book of Common Poems,” a somewhat similar thing happened. At its root was a felt need. I had read another poet’s poems to my friend who was ill. Because over time we had read so much together, the word “common” came to mind. Poetry was one of many things we had in common. The word itself suggested The Book of Common Prayer. The human situation that she and I were enacting was ours alone and yet it had been enacted infinitely. I wanted to be there with her deeply and well, to attend to her. I wanted to know how to behave (whose root is to have, to hold). So I turned to something austere, an early version of The Book of Common Prayer, looking for instruction.

The phrases I found about visiting the sick became a second presence in my relationship with her and in the poem.

BK: “The Year of Held Breath,” “Room,” and “Acceleration” are prose poems. What’s your sense of the use of the poetic line versus the written sentence of prose poems in your writing? Or maybe “versus” is the wrong word?

VP: Line breaks give a poem a certain pace, gait, and presence on the page; they act as notations for the poem’s sense and music, letting the reader know how to take a poem in. Because they matter, the poet works with those breaks--and what a relief, sometimes, not to! When something in the initial poetic impulse seems by its nature to build up a certain velocity or kind of movement (zooming, hop-scotching, trying to run through dream sand) in the way it enters the silence of the page, sometimes a prose poem comes into being. It is often a story that wants to excite the reader’s mind in a slightly different way--to capture a story that in its essence can’t be told. The poem lets in the compressed language of poetry, inserts the surprise of the mundane, relies on a dreamlike mystery, and uses gap-leaping nonsense. A prose poem can become a finite container with buzz, a box of bees, a party, a crazy quilt. But like all poems, prose poems happen an infinite number of ways.

In Howard Nemerov’s short poem “Because You Asked About the Line Between Poetry and Prose,” he likens that shift between prose and poetry to the change from raindrops to snowflakes. The poem ends

There came a moment that you
      couldn’t tell.
And then they clearly flew
       instead of fell.

He found a way to reflect something about the line between prose and poetry, something that can’t be completely defined.

BK: In many of your poems, the beginning subject is a thing. a samovar, the photo of a tarsier, a Monet painting, a sign seen in a field, a magpie. Do you think you’re extremely ‘sensitive’ to things in the outside world and finding a way they relate to the inner one? Or, put another way, how or why do you often seem to start a poem with things?

VP: Things do arrest me. In their intense reality, their “thisness,” things seem to pull the world toward them a little way and light it up. And that light reveals wild shadows. Things also trigger  memory, thought, and language--so they move me inward. Although things often seem luminous to me, they are also wonderfully unruly, which is good for the poet. Lewis Carroll wrote of Alice in Wonderland, “The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo.” Though I grew up with ideas about Platonic forms, with forms being more important than instances and things, I realized that things often have an extraordinary, surprising, and rewarding presence if I pay attention. They astonish me, and astonishment can be a good starting place for a poem.

BK: You’re also a teacher of writing poetry. How does that fit in, or not fit in, with being a poet? And what do you see as the most important thing (or things) you can offer students?

VP: Do you have a smaller question? Teaching poetry often fits in with being a poet in that it means deliberately discovering more poetry and therefore more about poetry.