Conversations with Contributors: Paige Lewis

Paige Lewis is the author of Space Struck (Sarabande Books, 2019). Their poems have appeared in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, The Georgia Review, and elsewhere. Lewis is the curator of the YouTube series Ours Poetica. They currently teach at Purdue University and in the low-residency MFA program at Randolph College.


Emily Vizzo: How did you come to know that Space Struck was a book, a collection? That is, how or when or why did you come to see these distinct and beautiful poems as things that belonged together?

Paige Lewis: I had a lot of help. I’m not the most confident person, and I was actually having a bit of trouble seeing a book in the pile of poems I had. Luckily, my professors and classmates at Florida State University were poetry geniuses. I took a manuscript workshop while at FSU and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. My class helped me choose and organize the poems that would ultimately become Space Struck. And I can’t stress enough how amazing my classmates are with writing poems. Out of the ten students that took that class, eight have already had their resulting manuscripts accepted for publication!

EV: In your collection, poems sometimes directly interrogate the metaphysical, the spiritual realm. “St. Francis Disrobes” engages with the divine, and “In the Hands of Borrowers” and “I’ve been trying to feel bad…” engage with self-as-ghost. Do ghosts and the divine somehow belong to the world, or do your poems imagine that they also belong to the cosmos?

PL: This is a really interesting question! I’m not sure I have any authority to say where ghosts and divine apparitions belong. I grew up with so many family stories about encounters with angels and saints and ghosts, but I’ve never had such an experience myself. If they are in the world, I can’t see why they wouldn’t also inhabit the space beyond our world. If they have the ability to leave Earth, I can’t see why they’d stay.

EV: Mary Ruefle has said that poems that come readily, fully themselves, are gifts from the universe, something channeled through the poet rather than wrangled whole by the poet. Are there any poems in Space Struck that surprised you with their wholeness, that were born already walking, in a way? On the other hand, which poems especially resisted you, resisted being made?

PL: I love Mary Ruefle and am always so delighted to hear her words of wisdom. I agree that these readymade poems seem to come from beyond oneself. The poem “So You Want to Leave Purgatory” came all at once. I was visiting my mother and thinking, as one does when visiting family, about what my purgatory would look like. The poem came so fast that I actually didn’t trust it at first. Only after I came back to it weeks later did I believe it was a fully formed poem.

As for resistance, the poem that leaps to mind is “Because the Color is Half the Taste.” The first half of the poem came rather quickly, but it took me over a year to write the final two couplets. Originally, the ending sounded lovely, but it painted the speaker as much meeker than I wanted them to be, and I had to write and re-write endings for a long time before I was satisfied.

EV: Space Struck swerves toward the tercet in numerous instances; in some ways, I was reminded of Merwin’s Finding the Islands. The poems “When They Find the Ark,” “On Distance,” “Pavlov was the son of a priest,” and “Diorama of our need” are structured in tercets; other poems have tercets alternating with couplets (“The Terre Haute” and “Magic Show”) and others have tercets alternating with quatrains (“Chapel of the Green Lord”). Tercets, to me, signify both balance and imbalance; the perfect distribution of a three- legged stool, the imperfect thump of the third wheel. Can you talk a bit about lines-in- threes as they appear in your poems? (Your book also has three sections!)

PL: “The Imperfect Thump” would be a good band name! Eduardo C. Corral once told me that the imbalance of the tercet propels the reader forward, and I think it also propels me forward as I’m writing. You know how sharks have to keep swimming so that they don’t sink to the bottom of the ocean? I feel like writing in tercets keeps me afloat as I work through a new poem draft.

EV: Questions interrogate the poem, the reader, and the poet. The following poems contain questions—“The Foxes Are Back,” “My Dear Wolfish Dreamboat, Stand Still” and “Diorama of Ghosts.” When do you turn to a question in a poem, do you think? And when do you turn away from a question?

PL: Have you ever watched a movie with someone who interrupted your enjoyment of that movie to ask questions about it? You can’t possibly answer the questions because this is your first time watching the movie, but the person continues to ask them anyway. I am sorry, but I am this person. I’ve gotten much better about not annoying my loved ones, but I am full of questions and these questions are mainly fueled by a deep seeded anxiety. I want to know everything and am constantly forced to reckon with the fact that I know next to nothing about the world. I turn to a question in a poem when I have a question, and I almost always have questions.

EV: Space is not a silent place, scientists tell us these days. And some of your poems press into that cosmic conversation through literal dialogue: “No One Cares Until You’re The Last of Something,” “Because the Color is Half the Taste,” “When I Tell My Beloved I Miss the Sun,” and “Space Struck” all contain lines written as dialogue. In a musical, characters sometimes break into song. In a poem, the “speaker” sometimes breaks into “speaking.” What happens in a poem when the reader encounters dialogue, do you think? Does the language shift?

PL: I love your comparison to characters breaking into a song in a musical. Especially since singing is expected when one attends a musical. For me, dialogue removes one of the layers that exist between the person in the poem and the person reading the poem. The speaking brings the speaker closer, makes their existence more real, or more believable. It also gives a tiny bit of agency to the one who is speaking. My use of dialogue may also come from the fact that I wrote and studied fiction before I discovered poetry—and I was taught that one uses dialogue, in part, to reveal character. And I want very much to explore the character of my poems’ speakers.

EV: “God’s Secretary, Overworked” feels sonnet-like. Do you work in formal structures? When do you turn toward them, when do you turn away?

PL: It started as a sonnet! I absolutely love writing sonnets because they require a sort of constraint that my mind is not used to working in. I have so many cluttered and half-finished thoughts in me, my mind is always leaping. It’s a frustrating mess most of the time. But the sonnet forces me to pare down everything until it fits into a tiny box. It feels so good to declutter.

EV: You recently and successfully worked with Sarabande Books to request that Space Struck be packaged with sustainable materials. What connections can you make between your activism and your art?

PL: I am constantly thinking about how my living is, in many ways, hindering the living of other creatures. Even this book is doing harm—trees were killed to create the pages in which my poems live. The least I can do is try to reduce the amount of waste/plastic that is created in the packaging/shipment of the books. I hope that more authors get the courage to ask their presses to switch to more sustainable packaging. But honestly, the asking was easy. I need to be doing much more.

EV: In the poem, “Because The Color Is Half The Taste,” a reader can find the lines

[…] so I enroll in a night class
where I learn the universe is an arrow
without end and it asks only one question:
How dare you?

It reminded me, a bit, of Ilya Kaminsky’s incredible poem “A City Like a Guillotine Shivers on Its Way to the Neck,” from Deaf Republic. The final couplet:

At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this?
And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this?

And it reminded me, a bit, of Greta Thunberg’s recent speech to the United Nations in September 2019, where she says, “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school, on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you.”

I’d like to leave this final question a bit open, a place where you might decide to talk about the poetics of rage, accusation, accountability, the potential for justice.

PL: I feel so lucky that the poem reminds you of these two incredible humans. To be honest, when I first wrote that the universe only asks, “How dare you?” I was selfishly thinking of the question as applying only to myself. Like, why wouldn’t the universe be offended by my living when my living brings so much harm to things. Sometimes I forget that I can also turn this sort of question outward, that I might also hold others accountable—and of course I do. But I think there are ways in which a reader can shut down, can turn away from change, when they feel they are being accused of something, or when they feel the poem is being overtly hostile. I think that there are plenty of poems that handle rage better than I ever could, but I think, to be successful in these poems, the writer must include themselves as being at fault. I mean, we are all in this together. That’s why Kaminsky’s lines hit so hard—the “we” is outraged, and the “we” is reflected in the echo of that outrage.


Emily Vizzo

Emily Vizzo is the author of 'Giantess' (YesYes Books). A National Geographic Educator and former Artist in Residence with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, she was a recent panelist at the Nobel Prize Teacher Summit in Stockholm, Sweden, and is translating from Italian. She serves on the Executive Committee in Santa Barbara for the Surfrider Foundation to help protect the coastline and ocean for California’s Central Coast. Her free, public science and creative writing workshops received a 2018 Coastal Fund grant through the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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