We asked Chen Chen, our last interviewed contributor, to give us a question to kick things off: If you weren’t a writer, what other path could you imagine taking?
EM: I think I would like to be another kind of artist, the more performative the better. I often think of poems, of writing, of words as surrogate selves. The poem-self is truer than any “autobiographical” self, this made artifact, this written voice that captures not one facet of a self, but the cusp of a moment of being. In this way, poetry satisfies me because it involves that translation of inner to outer, that contradiction, that revelation “this is who I actually am, no this.” And poems of course are objects in time, which is something I love about them. They’ll evolve and change beyond the page, beyond myself, my intentions. They are the voices in our heads. They are selves to try on. I don’t mind the spy-like secretive feeling of dancing or shouting inwardly and tugging out the reverb, the disembodied mind-ore, making the inner echoes into some semblance of a self, a single true moment of selving maybe, on the page. I do like being sneaky, becoming something surprising even to myself, recording a self in flux—that great espionage! So I’ve thought about being a spy but I’m way too fearful. A psychoanalyst would be fun, to explore and expand another’s mind and sense of self in the world.
But, what if I could make something with my body that was as true; what if my body could fold and turn as lines do? The vulnerability of an enjambment I could communicate without words, without approximation, or the restrictions of language. The stage as page. What if my speaking/singing voice could carry a poem’s multiplicity of meanings in one tone? I’d love to sing, to dance, to act—something where I could feel no segregation between mind and body, self and world, art and being. I would be able to create in company, to become and be witnessed at once. I could feel so known in the moment—unlike writing, performing or making art with the body seems to achieve an intimacy with others, with the world of space and time and people that language arts can only achieve through the creator’s absence, through disappearing. I leave my self for you to try on, like the sisterhood’s “traveling pants” or a Dickinson dash—we can all fill it, bring it to life, make ourselves more present, but only one at a time.
Your poems “Tinsel Demon” and “Grown Daughter” appear in our latest issue. I was struck by the beautiful, haunting imagery that you employ in both of them. Tell us the story of these poems—where did you find the inspiration for their images and turns?
EM: Both of these poems appear in my first book, The Spirit Papers, which just came out through the Juniper Prize with University of Massachusetts Press. Both poems anticipate loss—or recount loss as an exercise in anticipating it. Tinsel, I remember poet Timothy Donnelly saying in a conversation we were having about material culture. The word itself was enchanting, and I was thrilled by the idea of a poem using “research.” Of course, poems resist my intentions so my exploration of tinsel took me far from my research into the actual history of tinsel. I was disappointed by its real origins and began instead to imagine my own history for it, a kind of destructive creation myth. The fluttery spiritlike silver stuff out of its contemporary holiday context began to tell me its own story. So many of my poems consider future children before birth and myself and those I love and fear losing after death. In “Tinsel Demon,” I imagined a pre-world for those fears, an anti-apocalypse apocalypse, a kind of substitute big bang theory in which a demon shreds space and creates light and color as a kind of curse or infection. When he finally exhausts himself, he scatters not space but his own drained-of-color self across his invention, our new world. His suicide becomes our tinsel—reflective, silvery, tangled—that kitschy beautiful thing. I keep accidentally writing tinself as I write this. That sonic/spelling slip is such a big part of how I learn my own sense in a poem: Isn’t selfhood as multifarious, reflective, messy and tacky?
“Grown Daughter” involves less intention, less intention gone awry. Even though it stays in one scene, nearly narratively, more than many of my poems, I wrote it very stream-of-consciously. The contextual story is that I spent an evening after some writer’s block doing rituals in Los Angeles with my spirit-friend, the poet Max Ritvo. We went out to dinner at a local Italian restaurant and shared three dishes. We tasted everything mindfully at the same time and discussed the sense of taste, which led to synaesthesia, and ultimately the way the eye perceives color, depth, and scale. Then we took a nightwalk, a rare event it seems in this drive-everywhere culture. We somehow started discussing our friendship and relationships in general, how like vision, there’s a selectivity, a trickery really by which we name and define what we see, fill in what we can’t see. Like the senses, every relationship contains every other. Max and I often joked about being each other’s mothers and one of our first writing prompts was to write morbid poems to each other called “for my dead mother, Elizabeth” and “for my dead mother, Max.”
Beyond blurring life and death (which unfortunately was something we were often imaginatively doing in both terrible and self-preserving ways because Max was dying even as he was so radically alive), we were also interested in blurring the “yous,” the identity of the intimate others in our lives and poems. If a friend or relative or beloved is addressed in a poem, they cannot remain other. They become half-mirror, half-curtain—maybe pure catalyst—for the speaking self. I came home from that evening inspired, bleary-eyed, overwhelmed. After months of complaining about my lack of inspiration or privacy or a writing routine that was feasible in Los Angeles, I sat tilting my chair back at a round dining table beside an empty chair. In the same room, Dan (my now-husband) was reading (a no-no for my usual writing process). I decided to see what would happen if I wrote without thinking or announcing (even to myself) that I would be writing. What came out was a conflation of my fear of losing Max, my fear of losing my own mother, my desire for a new loving stranger to become my surrogate mother, and my desire to become a mother. The poem’s mother-daughter relationship is more than bidirectional; it seems in retrospect almost erotic. The mix-up of other and self was liberating I think. It allowed me to stay interested, to follow this odd, sort of oppressive pair and learn what we were becoming, what we loved and resented in each other, what we were afraid of becoming—which turned out to be time more than anything else.
I ran a quick search on the title of your new chapbook, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (forthcoming from Horsethief Books), and I found out that it’s the name of a series of experiments done by a forensic scientist—she recreated crime scenes as miniature dioramas that could be used as crime scene training tools, which I think is super fascinating. What led you to this name, and how do you think it applies to your work (or, more broadly, poetry as a presented art form)?
EM: I think you’re right—this appropriated title (the series directly responds to those dioramas) also speaks to a larger theme or question about death in my work. In my first book, The Spirit Papers, I consider death metaphorically through the voices of posthumous speakers, fantasies of heaven and hell, and the imagined or impending departures of those I embody and love: Max, my future child, my miscarried siblings, my mother, even myself. In this way, I am haunted by spirits of the dead but also of the spirits we each already carry as mortal beings—the essence we can’t really examine until we are somebody else’s memory, someone else’s imagination. The spirit is the thing we hand over for the other to keep, not unlike the poem. After all, we can only explain death as an outsider—there are no firsthand accounts. The loss is missing only to us, kept only by us. The loss becomes the survivor’s to possess. It is a strange absence we all carry and I think anticipate—it motivates us to create but it also lurks behind all fear and dread I think. As a fearful person who loves to imagine all the possibilities, I think of death (in poetry and beyond) as the living test of Keats’ negative capability. To dwell in it can be creative and self-destructive.
The unexplained death of the nutshells allowed me to think about death from a new perspective, to remove myself from the death of my loved ones. Instead, I had to think about death scientifically but also materially. Murder. Measurements. I felt I shared an obsession with Frances but where she adored the precision of evidence, of recreating a scene, I couldn’t stop imagining the imprecision and uncertainty of who these dolls were or what it meant to gaze on the deaths of inanimate models. The relationship between objects and material art and death, especially crime and the backstories and psychologies of the dolls fascinated me. I do think the use of a creative act to help explain our most destructive acts as humans is a lot like poetry. Even the line break is a kind of internal violence that leads to order. Even the white space between stanzas, in any form, suggests the silence, the absence, the inexplicability between rooms.
Today I think many adults fear poetry because they look at poems as if they are supposed to understand some clear message or lesson, when often they are as much handmirrors as microscopes. A poem is in many ways a miniature. A compressed world. We are so used to the disorder and uncertainty of being human beings, individuals with only one brain to access, in a world that is inexplicable, huge, daunting, and full of wonder. But in a nutshell, a miniature, we become the gods of our world—we can see so much more at once so it seems we have more control and authority, that there may be order and understanding. On second glance, consuming it all at once is overwhelming, more stimuli than we are meant to take in even if the scale is smaller—and of course the kicker is that, while illuminating, miniaturizing our environment renders it unusable. It is art. It cannot change without our moving the parts (like a dollhouse) or at least imagining into them, projecting our stories. The meticulous physical replica awakens us to all that is metaphysical and missing, impossible to approximate. A poem embodies a similar paradox. It is useless as a thing without us, but it can guide us by expanding our perspective, our power. We learn from globes early how much of earth is water, but we cannot swim. We can spin and spin it and our world turns no faster. The miniature is a power game. It instructs and affirms our selfhood, but we are still subjects of a gigantic and unknowable world.
I feel as if the question “How did you start writing?” is a bit vague. To change it up a bit: Was there ever a time when you wanted to stop writing? If so, how did you overcome that urge?
EM: Sort of. I used to like hiding that I was writing. I wanted everyone to know I wanted to be an actress and my poetry was very private (I’m talking during childhood/early adolescence). When I first felt my mom’s desire for me to share my poetry with teachers and others, I had the desire to appear to stop writing. My mother encouraged me forcefully to submit to a poetry contest in middle school. I swore never to write again. I may have even torn up a notebook in rebellion. For me, the feeling of not writing is one of not living (sometimes as a result of needing to focus on life; sometimes as a result of not wanting to live much at all). I become half ghost and half traitor. I experience it a lot and it feels interminable but then I’ll write in a burst and often these blank periods feel longer than they are—often they are periods of dramatic and immediate change—a new relationship, a new environment, a new role such as teaching, a new schedule, most recently a bedrest pregnancy. The self-consciousness (in time, in body, in space) that such living requires can stall my writing, but the experience always contributes to some growth or change in the writing when it does return.
I hope one day I’ll learn to trust that the urge and ability always does return. During these silences, I don’t keep notes—at the very worst, I don’t even have interest in reading—but somehow the mind keeps storing and transforming so as much as it feels like I am abandoning poems and they are abandoning me, nothing really vanishes for good. Writing is actually a lot like not writing. They both are states of adaptation, helping me make meaning or transform the meaning of things I can’t quite grasp. Even the not writing states serve the writing, and I think the writing states make richer the life moments of not writing. Even in the most intense period of writing, twenty-two hours of the day at least require no pen, no computer. I like writing, that feeling of finishing a poem, even radically revising it, but I often prefer the feeling of waking up in a world where a poem is possible, where language visits. In my writing periods, beyond the everyday tasks and obligations, ideas come and go like passersby that may at any moment inspire an inner guest, a companion. The suspense can be painful, but there is always a possibility to live toward. It sounds almost parasitic, but I live for that intensity, the company of an unwritten poem.
Whether I’m writing or not, the key is that I do want to be writing. It means being, wanting to be in this world. That said, there is within the writing of every poem, the dread and pressure before starting, before ending too and sometimes somewhere in the middle—like is this really worth it? What if I fail? That present is scary to me. But even then, it’s not really wanting to stop, it’s an in-the-moment kind of learning, not knowing. I want to begin again in safety, I want to survive the end.
What’s one piece of advice you’ve heard that’s helped you the most as a writer? And/or, what’s the strangest piece of advice you’ve ever received?
EM: In high school, I was quiet. I loved writing anything—stories, poems, essays—but one day junior year I quietly ran for an assistant editorial position at the school magazine and lost. I was devastated. A senior beat me, but to rub salt in the wound, another talented senior who hadn’t even run actually got a position as assistant editor, too! Christine Schutt, my English teacher and the faculty advisor at the magazine, an exquisite novelist and short story writer who may as well be a poet, wrote to me: “a writer knows enough to raise her hand.” She wasn’t reprimanding me, but she also didn’t pity me. At first I was baffled, even angry. Eventually, her words made me realize that being a writer began with being able to identify oneself as a writer. A writer didn’t have to hide behind, but could be a voice in the room as well. I think this idea of authority over time tempered my shyness or at least gave me the confidence to assert myself beyond the page, to look at the world as a writer even if no one else noticed or cared.
Another piece of advice Christine gave us when we began writing personal essays, learning how to use digression, avoid explication, craft a sentence: “never be the victim.” I can see her hands pushing forward through air with each cadence as if to break down the invisible classroom boundaries. Her advice always came with gravity and mischief and rhythm. This mattered. “Never be the victim.” She read us some stories of Amy Hempel and maybe Lydia Davis, too. I realized that even in a memoir-essay, a first person account, the voice must be human, complex, vulnerable but NOT pure. The advice helped me understand grit and avoid sentimentality. I think she followed up by advising us to write the last thing we’d ever want to record on paper. I’m a blusher in life, so the idea of using my sacred writing space for my embarrassment and shame was non-intuitive, thrilling. I love that advice because art isn’t about conveying a message, telling it how you want it to be, how you want yourself to appear. The power to write comes with the willingness to be prone, transformed, excavated, rediscovered both by yourself and the reader.
Since a lot of our readers are younger writers, do you have any advice or insight for aspiring writers?
EM: The importance of a mentor, a peer, some kind of first reader—a pair of hands that will hold everything and anything. It’s more important than any workshop. Even if he or she is silent or not a writer, I believe a writer needs a human audience to imagine, preferably an audience of one. I think this trust is essential, a destination that allows one to want to be clear, to be precise, to be understood while also tricking the writer into becoming her own first reader. It’s like the dreaming brain, mysteriously moving between the store of conscious memory and our unconscious and involuntary mind. The real but imagined reader forces the writer to oscillate (without awareness) between her own expressive needs and the impressions she will leave on another. Strangely, having a reader in mind can allow more openings, more space in a poem for negative capability, for self-surprise, and also for the particular to become universal.
My other suggestion may seem to contradict this companionship: solitude. Being alone not writing, not trying to write. It turns on the voices in the head. It allows us to welcome visitations, to invent rituals, to become others, to rest on the border of wakefulness and dream. It forces us to make our own company, to take in the world around us. It forces us to feel uncomfortable and at ease, afraid and hungry, unnecessary and sometimes omnipotent. We humans gestate pre-verbally, and I think every poem does too. Poets need this sacred mammalian time to doubt themselves completely. To destroy and recreate, phoenix-like, their sense of self. We learn the world before language. We have to let ourselves get to the point of need, of desperation for words before using them. They need to recharge to become essential. You will begin to feel the metallic of a syllable, a quenched alchemical thirst. I think for me and probably many young writers, there needs to be some care in creating boundaries, hibernation periods, in order to find freedom, to become “the writer self” before writing. You can become as the poem becomes rather than writing the poem from outside it. The poem must be both an other and a self, a stranger and a self-portrait. It’s kind of like a lived version of form: we have to make meters and constraints for ourselves, in time and space, to let ourselves become new, free. Being alone leads to a different use of language than the language we take for granted in social communication. Language becomes a different beast, not just a means to communicate or exchange information, but an extension of oneself, like building a body, a fossil, a monster that exists out of time and will be read.
Oh and lastly, revise as an alien, a violent and impatient alien. Meaning comes from forgetting any source or intention, the “trigger” as Richard Hugo would call it. To allow new meanings to emerge, cut away anything that feels too familiar, too easy, too painless. Clarity is about transparent emotion not wrought explanation. Be a masochist, let the poem confuse you, change its mind, hurt you. Trust disorder before order. Experience the poem as an unexpected planet rather than an explicable thing. You are now the poem’s purpose…it is not the other way around.
What authors and books have got you inspired & writing right now?
EM: Emily Dickinson—her posthumous speakers above all—is my first and final go-to, but it’s more what I have stored within me than reading her on the page right now. Keats, Rilke, Mandelstam, Donne, Hopkins, these are some of my constants. I adore and always return to Franz Wright (Walking to Martha’s Vineyard) who really gets that the stakes can never be too high, that suffering and irony are one, that belief and doubt are one. Mary Jo Bang offers me a new pace of thinking, not my own, all while wrapped in the most lavish textile, a new language that is somehow already mine. Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” I always go back to for its ability to talk while somehow teaching. Jorie Graham’s early work I especially love for the fullness of questioning, a metaphysics paved by its music. I wrote and put together The Spirit Papers in large part alongside my soul friend, the exceptionally talented Max Ritvo. We had a lot of cross-pollination, not in voice, but in obsession maybe? He died in August and I have been rereading his genius collection Four Reincarnations ever since. It reminds me that entertaining a reader, making her laugh is a way to live again, to make energy (and often beauty) of suffering.
Much of my writing is more directly inspired by the visual than by written art—the lighting of an old film, the photographs of Francesca Woodman. Most recently, I have suffered a bout of silence, not writing because of a terrifying pregnancy, and to some extent the element of blank in my grief. I’ve just started looking at some gorgeous paintings by Egon Schiele that Max sent me before he died, paintings of pregnant women and blind mothers nursing. Non-poets, their plays, letters, memoirs, fiction, criticism: Kafka, Beckett, Gaston Bachelard, Maggie Nelson. John Berger’s fragmented essays, And Our Faces, My Heart, Deep as Photos; Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors; Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness. The stories of Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, Amy Hempel, Christine Schutt.
Lastly, give us a question, if you would, to ask during our next Conversation with a Contributor.
EM: Where do your poems begin and end—in other words, what are some typical entry or inspiration points and how do you know when the work is finished, ready to be abandoned? For instance, what does revision look like and does your relationship to your work change throughout the writing process?
Elizabeth Metzger is the Poetry Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Journal. In 2013, she won the Narrative Poetry Contest and was listed as one of Narrative’s 30 Under 30. Her poetry has recently appeared in The New Yorker, Poem-a-Day on Poets.org, BOMB, Yale Review, Kenyon Review Online, and Best New Poets 2015. Her essays and reviews appear in PN Review, the Southwest Review, and Boston Review. Her debut collection, The Spirit Papers, won the 2016 Juniper Prize and was published by University of Massachusetts Press in February 2017. Her chapbook, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, will be published by Horsethief Books in 2017. She has taught writing at Columbia University, where she received her MFA.