A Conversation with Lisa Russ Spaar
BY MAX MCDONOUGH
Lisa Russ Spaar is the author/editor of over ten books of poetry and criticism, most recently Madrigalia: New & Selected Poems (Persea, 2021) and a forthcoming debut novel, Paradise Close (Persea Books, 2022). Her honors include a Rona Jaffe Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Library of Virginia Prize for Poetry, and a Pushcart Prize. She is a professor of English at the University of Virginia, where she founded the Area Program in Poetry Writing and for many years directed the Creative Writing Program.
Lisa Russ Spaar generously granted this video call interview on March 9, 2022 from her home office in Charlottesville, VA. The conversation—about her new collection, Madrigalia: New & Selected Poems, and her forthcoming novel, Paradise Close—has been edited for concision and clarity.
Max McDonough: I know you’re often in an interesting location. Could you say a little bit about where you are now?
Lisa Russ Spaar: You mean literally? It’s Spring Break at the University of Virginia, and so I am in my home office, which is also the laundry room, which is kind of metaphorical. Behind me, there’s a closet with a washer and dryer in it. When my children were little, that was kind of nice, because they would all come in here, throw themselves down on the floor to do homework or whatever, and the room would be warm with the washer and dryer going.
For a while there, I had three children ages three and under, and so [writing] poetry, writing anything at all was a challenge. Sometimes, I would strap them all to their car seats and drive them all around Charlottesville until they all fell asleep. Then I would try, usually it was in a parking lot somewhere, Barracks Road or Kroger or something, to write or grade papers or whatever until they all woke up.
MM: I imagine that had to affect your writing.
LRS: Well, one of the things that strikes me when I think about assembling ‘Madrigalia’ and looking at those older poems, those early poems, a few of them were from my MFA manuscript—they were much longer, more narrative. I used to have these large architecture notebooks that I would write in, collage in and stuff. But for the last 10 years or so, the notebooks have gotten smaller. Like, this notebook is as big as I can handle right now. They’re light, and it’s easy to start a poem on this page and then map it onto the opposite page.
It makes me think of Dickinson, you know, and those radiant nothings, the envelope poems, the stuff that she would write on, little scraps of paper while she was making bread. I like to think about the size of her desk, that little 12’’ by 12’’ child’s desk where she wrote her poems, and just wonder how much the materials we’re given, or the circumstances we’re given, affect our poems, what we write, and the size of them.
MM: When do you think you realized that in a conscious way? When did you come into an understanding of “Oh, this is my groove. This shorter length, compression?”
LRS: I’m interested in second books, as you know. I write that column about them, and so forth. I can’t wait someday to be writing about yours. In the leap between Glass Town and Blue Venus, my second book, I made a choice one summer to read all of Dickinson, whose work I’d only encountered in anthologies until then. Also, the Harvard University Press published those facsimile versions of the Master Letters. Those were enthralling to me. The erotic density and intensity of those letters brought me to Dickinson in a way that I hadn’t appreciated before, and [revealed] her wildness, the way that she worked so hypertextually with variants, holding different kinds of words in one space without canceling them or letting them go.
So, even though Dickinson isn’t writing a lot of sonnets, per se, I think that the movement of a lot of her poems is sonnet-haunted. And we know that among her favorite writers were people like the Brontës. She has poems for them, elegies for them. And also Elizabeth Barrett Browning. So, she knew what a sonnet was. Shakespeare was really important. Shakespeare’s plays were embedded with sonnets. I mean, I just think that she was attuned to that.
So I came sort of indirectly to shorter, more dense lyric by way of her, by invitation, by the reading that I was doing. Probably it has something to do entering my 40s, too, a couple of decades ago now, a time of erotic intensity. You hear of that, and you don’t believe it, because you think of your grandparents or whatever. But I don’t know, I just became aware of certain things, not wanting to say everything. Dickinson has a lot invested in that, too. For example, she’s more interested in aftermath than she is in the precipitating events. So a lot of those poems start like, “’Twas like a Maelstrom with a notch,” and whatever the antecedent is isn’t as important to her as the ensuing experience, the response.
MM: She has this attention for the asymptotic. She’s always pointing toward circumference, right? Approaching, but never…
LRS: Never quite, just edging around.
MM: The Madrigals, the “new poems” in the New & Selected volume, are all sonnets, or almost sonnets, 14 lines, often with end-rhyme. And some of them are even in the typical Shakespearean—quatrain, quatrain, quatrain, couplet at the end. How did you arrive at the sonnet for these poems?
LRS: For one thing, ever since Blue Venus, when I became more aware of how rotated or dense my poems were, I have tried to aerate them a bit by giving some white space. So, I started to work in stanzas, instead of stichic forms. Then, I was invited by Neil Perry at Hampton City Review to write a sonnet for a special issue, and, as you know, I like prompts. I like being given a little challenge or exercise. And so, I thought, I can do this. I had tried to write sonnets before. But I thought, I’m going to try to do this.
So I did, and I sent it to him. I really worked hard to make it—the pentameter, everything. Neil published it, and then, I found that I just couldn’t stop writing them. And as I wrote, I remember sending Sandy McClatchy a poem that he ended up publishing. But about the other ones I had sent, he said, “You know, they’re just a little bit too chime-y, with the rhymes and stuff.” So I started to think about that, too. How can I mess with that a little bit, so it’s not just chime-y or so that it doesn’t sound archaic?
And then, our mutual friend, Debra Nystrom, asked, “What are you working on?’ I said, ‘I’m actually writing sonnets. It’s really strange.” And she said, “Let me point something out to you.” And she opened a copy of “Orexia,” which is the book that came out before.
MM: Oh yeah! There are a good number of sonnets in there.
LRS: Yeah, and Debra said, “They’re all in couplets, or most of them, and they’re all about seven couplets, you know?” And I thought, so maybe this was something I was subconsciously working toward. The idea to actually have those limitations imposed upon whatever the material was at hand, I found exciting. I remember reading somewhere that Terrence Hayes, when he was doing those American sonnets, which are looser, beautiful, for “My Past and Future Assassin,” says that a sonnet is like a combination of a music box and a meat grinder. It allows you to do all this kind of wild stuff in a short space. I liked the idea—that the form’s part algebraic. It’s got the restrictions, but it’s also like fire, and I liked that combination, and continue to like it, I’ve found, even though I’m now writing some longer, slightly longer things. Like a novel.
MM: I can’t wait to ask you about that later. And about sonnets, well, I know for my attention span, there’s something seductive about knowing 10-ish, 12-ish lines in, something is going to change and hopefully delight me.
MM: I wonder, and other people have talked about this, about the internet. Is the sonnet coming back as a mode because our attention spans are newly molded for it?
LRS: I think that’s a really good point, and to go back to what we were talking about earlier, the little desk, the tiny notebook, the fact that you’re writing in a car, or in the bathroom with your foot against the door, or whatever. Or while you’re driving, right? You know that Debra Nystrom got stopped by a policeman for… she wasn’t reading while driving, but she was stopped at a stoplight. And now, it’s nothing compared to what we do at stoplights, but she had a book open up on the steering wheel. I think the cop probably just wanted to have a conversation with a pretty woman.
LRS: But anyway, two things. One, I think that’s really true, that built into the sonnet is you know that you have to turn somewhere. You’re going to have to do that, and you can’t just edge forever and protract it, right? The other thing about the internet is that I think, you’re right, our attention spans are affected by the rapidity, the velocity. At UVA, we get these little periodic—it’s kind of Big Brother-ish—but we get these little assessments of how we’ve been using our screens during the week. The report is a Venn diagram or something, and it says how many quiet hours you’ve had and how many hours you’ve spent on the internet, and who your collaborators are. I always get zero quiet hours, so I don’t know what that means.
MM: That’s email for you.
LRS: That’s insomnia, and email, yeah, and just being on it that way.
MM: I have a little story. I persuaded my scientist boyfriend to read the first sonnet from the Madrigals, “Adolescence,” which is a poem that plays around with pronunciations and is, I would say, especially self-aware of its being made of language.
“Beside the quay, I learned to pronounce as ‘key.’ As I knew to say ‘Yates,’ not ‘Yeats.’’’ Those kinds of things. He really liked the poem and, I think, found that the lyricism elicited mystery and excitement, rather than terror and confusion.
MM: How do you think about lyric language in poems? I know you’ve spoken about registers of diction. Is it different for you in prose?
LRS: I’m going to have to learn, I think, how to talk about my prose. But maybe we can start.
About levels of diction, definitely, that’s something that I admire in Dickinson. Not just to talk about my girl all the time. But one of the things you see, especially in those flood years, ‘62, ‘63, ‘64, when she’s writing hundreds of poems, and she’s had some kind of erotic encounter that’s engendered all this stuff. She breaks all the rules that I was taught when I was first learning to write, which is show, don’t tell, and all that stuff. What she does so beautifully is mix up abstractions and concrete language, using language mnemonically. And so, you get lines like ‘a Quartz contentment, like a stone.’ Contentment is a word that somebody would have crossed out in a poem in a first year workshop. But things get exciting in her poems when she mixes those things up.
That’s something I’m interested in and try to do, especially because I like difficulty in poems. I like difficult poems. I love a more plain-speech poem too, like a poem with a more Windexed window, but I really like being able to experience the poem somatically. Sometimes I just let it wash over me, like when I listen to jazz, which I—you know—I live with a jazz musician, but I don’t really understand jazz. I really don’t. But sometimes it doesn’t matter, I let it wash over me. And I hope that that can happen with the poems also.
MM: Do you think some of the high diction and lyricism is a tool or a way into writing about your own life? I actually laughed aloud on a plane recently. There was a poem of yours that was very compacted, textural, and then shifted registers to reference this harpist vocalist that your daughter was listening to, and I remember when her music was coming out. I think the line was, “I’d rather gnaw on rocks.”
LRS: Oh, yeah, “makes me want to gnaw on rocks.” I know, and I felt that way too. Can we name this artist? Joanna Newsom. I grew to love her. The way I learned, finally got to feel her music, was when my daughter would cover her on her guitar. I’d hear my daughter singing, trying out her songs, and hearing them in her voice was a way to enter those.
And then, to go to your question about prose. Well, I write essays, but the opposite of poetry is not prose, right? I mean, there’s so much beautiful poetry in Toni Morrison, James Joyce, and Faulkner, and Zora Neale Hurston, and James Baldwin, all those wonderful fiction writers. And likewise, I think a good poem has to have some kind of tension. If not a rising action and characters and dialogue and all that, it should still have some kind of tension between the self and a lover, the self and God, so on and so forth.
The novel that’s coming out in May, I’ve been working on that for a really, really long time, just secretly and quietly, because I wasn’t really sure what it was. It was material that I couldn’t deal with in my poems the way I wanted to. There were situations and experiences I wanted to dive into, but I didn’t want to present them autobiographically.
There’s a contradiction there, isn’t there, right? Because with a poem, I always feel I have a veil. And I remember Sydney Blair, if you remember the late, the great Sydney Blair. She said, “Do you think your readers don’t know that that person having sex in that poem is somebody else?” Or whatever. But I did. I’ve had that freedom with poetry. I felt like I couldn’t write a memoir about some of this stuff. It just didn’t seem interesting enough. My life isn’t that interesting, I don’t think. But I could take some of the situations that I wanted to write about, and then fictionalize them, and characters would just begin to grow up around them.
MM: I’m fascinated. Tell me more about how the novel came together.
LRS: It started off with an inkling I had had 30 years ago about wanting to write a short story about a woman who wants to die, and so she’s going to crash her car on a lumber road. She survives the accident, but then has amnesia and forgets that she wants to die. I never did anything with it, though every now and then it would come back to me, and I think part of it was the problem, how problematic that would be, right? To be a person who wanted to die, and then doesn’t remember that, but where did that go? Where did that instinct go? That character actually is a minor character in the novel now, but she sort of haunted me all those years. Then, finally makes her way into this story, though it’s an ancillary thing.
So, I was working on these two different pieces, one about an adolescent girl, and the other about a couple of middle-aged people. And then, at a certain point, maybe about seven years ago, I realized that they were really rhyming, these two stories, and they were more connected than I had thought. That’s how it happened. I started building them and putting them together. After I did that, then I had this coda thing that I was working on, where I kind of talk about how they connect. And that was really fun, to actually confront those stories. But I can’t really talk about that, right, because that’s how… you’ve got to read to see it.
I remember being at a reading where Jericho Brown said, “Ha, ha, you fiction writers. I can do something you can’t do. I can read the last poem in my book.”
MM: I can’t wait to read it, first of all. Second of all, that’s the fun part, when it’s really messy, but you have a bulk of it, and you get to play. I wish I could just rearrange other people’s novels.
LRS: Definitely. It’s all about editing and arrangement, isn’t it, finally? As you say, once you have the bulk of it, to start moving stuff around, and writing into it then. One thing, a permission I gave myself when I was working on this over many, many summers, is [that] I didn’t approach it linearly at all. I would just say, ‘What is arresting me about all of this right now?’ And then I would write into that scene.
One problem that I have, and it’s something that Virginia Woolf wrote about, all I have are situations. I have them. Like, these scenes come to me so vividly and everything, and then plotting them and making them move in sort of intentional ways, that’s challenging for me.
MM: A novel that you’ve spoken about at length over the years has been Jane Eyre. The Brontës appear in your poems often. Even in that first madrigal, ‘Adolescence,’ that I mentioned earlier, the first line is: “Lindens in a novel were what I want it to be under.”
LRS: Yes, absolutely.
MM: I don’t think it would be an interview with you without asking what Jane Eyre has meant to you over time.
LRS: So, it’s interesting, because when I was putting this book together, I went back to that early poem of mine, “Finishing Jane Eyre on the Grounds of the University of Pennsylvania Hospital,” which was actually in some ways the germ of part one of the novel. It’s about this adolescent girl who’s hospitalized for anorexia, and has her mother’s copy of Jane Eyre in her suitcase, and has started to read it back when she was still living at home and trying to go to school, lugging that hunger and those heavy books up the street to school, and then doesn’t want to finish the novel.
And I had that problem with a lot of books. I get so invested in their worlds that I don’t… I really slow down so that I don’t have to end. Or sometimes, I read In the Distance. It’s a beautiful book by Hernan Diaz. And it’s this wild western. Really, it’s sort of like Deadwood meets… I don’t know, whatever, but anyway, it’s very exciting. And all I could do was just immediately start reading it again, because the world was so incredible.
So, Jane Eyre. I myself first encountered it at 14, and then have read it on and off over the years. After reading Wide Sargasso Sea, and [seeing] a lot of other ways that people have talked back to the novel, I too have come to see how problematic Mr. Rochester is, and all of that. But what I identified with when I first read it still holds for me, and that’s Jane—Jane’s spirit, the fact that she’s plain and full of feeling, in a world that, with rare exceptions, doesn’t accept that, and doesn’t nurture it. And that she goes ahead and claims love for herself, and agency, and volition, all of that.
I still feel that way. I would add that one of the real fiction writers, Eleanor Henderson, who is an alum of our MFA fiction program, a wonderful novelist, offered an endorsement of [my] book—she calls it kind of a fairy tale of a novel. For a while, I was thinking about it as a kind of romance more than a novel. I was convinced at first that it was a novel by several people. There are elements in it, I think, that really owe to books like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. A kind of romance about a figure, a female figure who has to find her way in the world.
MM: That tension between interior richness, almost like a volume, in both senses of the word, and the exterior world that doesn’t nurture it—does that have anything to do with New Jersey?
LRS: I know, and I’m so glad we’re talking about New Jersey, because I was thinking about you this morning, about how it made me feel to see the 609 area code on your name.
MM: Indeed I still have it.
LRS: That part of the world, and we’ve talked about this before, is where my family’s farm was, Burlington County. So, we have a 609 area code down there. This was my grandparents, and where I spent summers, that kind of thing. But I read once in the New York Times, I think it was, there was an article about Jersey, why all the writers, you know? Why do so many good artists, musicians, actors, and writers come out of New Jersey?
And this writer’s theory was that it had to do with townships, and the fact that even though we’re such a small state, you just go from Plainfield to Dunellen, and Piscataway to Bound Brook to Somerville, or Vineland to Cape May, and you’re just going to these wildly different places with their own language, their own dialects, and their own corner bars. I think there’s maybe something to that, and to the richness of that.
Robert Pinsky was also from Jersey, and went to Rutgers. We talked about New Jersey, and he said, “There’s a special beauty, ugly beauty to New Jersey, that people who are from Jersey appreciate.” We talked about graffiti-scribbled bridge pilings, asbestos shingles, things like that. And we’re all crammed together, right?
MM: That’s right, about that ugly beauty. I grew up a block away, basically, from a two-story wooden cut out of a black cat that wore a giant, floppy Santa hat on its one ear during the holidays. I don’t know what kind of bar it was exactly, if you smell what I’m stepping in.
LRS: There were several of those on Route 130, which we would take back and forth between Piscataway and Delanco. And there were like, bada-bing, the Tony Sopranos, the windowless…
But, in contrast, Moorestown in South Jersey is a beautiful old revolutionary town. And then, Morristown, also. They’re beautiful, beautiful, and old. That really came into focus when I moved to Texas for a few years. Four or five years we lived down there.
And thinking now, Piscataway was founded in the 1600s, and we had along the river road, along the Raritan River, houses, really old houses, and we were on the Underground Railway, so there were houses that had hiding places for people who were going north. It was just all that beautiful old architecture, and different kinds of shrubs, all that. And then the ocean, right? When you get down to, when the land starts getting flat like that, really flat and open, then you know that you’re heading to the shore.
MM: And it smells different, and everything is—it’s completely distinct. In the same vein, Charlottesville, where you live and teach, is a distinctive place. I notice it here and there in the new book. How has Charlottesville affected your poems?
LRS: For one thing, and this is something I think all of us, right, who attended the University have to deal with. It’s a completely beautiful place, just visually… But it’s problematic too, because our founder owned slaves, and slaves built our beautiful university. And so, the way I—I don’t write a political poem necessarily; it’s just not what I do—but the way that I dealt with Charlottesville and Jefferson, or tried to, at least began to, was to do that anthology called Monticello In Mind. I invited 50 poets to write original new poems that dealt in some way with Jefferson. And I asked a lot of really diverse writers. I just wanted there to be a lot of diverse voices, and to invite people to grapple with this paradox of our American experience. Then, I wrote an introduction to that. That became a way for me to deal with that part of Charlottesville. And you know how Charles Wright has his sort of backyard poetics?
MM: Of course.
LRS: We talked about that. I’m always looking around. I think I share that with Wright a little bit, and so for me, it’s using the quotidian details. Listening to my neighbors. The part of me that grew up in a suburb loves the fact that just beyond the bamboo, which keeps flourishing, is a little subdivision, its cul de sacs, and the ice cream truck goes around, so it’s a little bit of home. So, sometimes I write about my neighbors cracking beers open and listening to bad music and stuff.
I want that to be as important to me as sitting in my window reading evening prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. Bringing those kinds of worlds together is important to me. And then, lastly, Charlottesville feels home to me now. Partly it’s the beauty of the place, and then all the history, my history here—of people like you, beloved people I’ve been privileged to work alongside, and read with, and all of it’s here. Obviously, I have a hoarding instinct, I think, but I’m surrounded by, always, by my students. It’s a gift economy, for sure.
MM: I polled some friends. It’s a biased sample, because a lot of them are writers. More than one wanted to know: if you could give advice to a 30-year-old today, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a writer, what would you say?
LRS: I think even back when we were in class together we talked about how it’s better to write a good poem any day than publish one. I mean, it’s wonderful to have a poem taken somewhere, and you as an editor yourself know that, being on both sides. It’s a pleasure to take a poem. It’s also a pleasure to place one. But the rush to publish, I think, can sometimes interfere with happiness and wellbeing, and it contributes to great stores of anxiety.
My first book, Glass Town, came out when I was on the cusp of 40, and I’ve still managed to have a life as a poet, and a really rich one. I think one reason my time to publish a book was protracted, you know, was because I had a full life—of teaching, and children, and living. But then, that enriches the material, and that becomes part of what you do.
I think that if you can just trust, the beautiful work will find its way into the world.