First Verse is a series of conversations between David Koehn and another poet who has recently had a first book accepted or won a first book prize. These conversations navigate the process and experience of conceiving, developing, and bringing a first manuscript to its final form as a finished book.
Abigail Cloud’s collection Sylph won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize and was published by Pleiades Press in 2014. She holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University, where she is Editor-in-Chief and Poetry Editor of Mid-American Review and teaches full time. Recent publications include APR, The Gettysburg Review, and Pleiades.
David’s poetry and translations were previously collected in two chapbooks, Tunic, (speCt! books 2013) a small collection of some of his translations of Catullus, and Coil (University of Alaska, 1998), winner of the Midnight Sun Chapbook Contest. David’s first full length manuscript, Twine, now available from Bauhan Publishing, won the May Sarton Poetry Prize. David’s poetry has appeared in a wide range of literary magazines including Kenyon Review, New England Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rhino, Volt, Carolina Quarterly, New York Quarterly, Diagram and many others. David Koehn received his MFA from the University of Florida, Bachelors from Carnegie Mellon, is an essayist for OmniVerse, and Chair of Omnidawn’s Advisory Board.
David Koehn: So, thanks again for volunteering to be part of First Verse.
Abigail Cloud: Thank you for asking me. This is exciting.
DK: Yeah. The book is great. It’s really—I really enjoyed reading it on multiple levels, not only just because it’s pleasurable as a book of poems and because it’s so well-crafted, so well-written, but there’s a secret joy one has in the demons that seem to populate the everyday and history, and the riddles that come along with it. So, I found the book fascinating on a lot of levels. So, today we’ll probably talk a little bit about your perspective and point of view in the book but also talk about what it means to have a first book, which is kind of what this whole First Verse thing is, for a lot of people, there’s a variety of ways of going about making it happen, and for a lot of people, they have an interest in hearing that journey. So, before Sylph won the prize, the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Series Prize, where were you in terms of developing poems and publishing and thinking about a manuscript? Was this you knew this was the set of poems that was right to submit, and that it was a winner, or was this an end of a process or the beginning of a process for you? Kind of talk me through that.
AC: This was actually the second version of this manuscript, and when I say second version, the first version was entirely different. I had an entirely different manuscript done. It was “done,” air quotes. And it felt like it was—I felt ok about it, and I’d sent it to a couple of contests, and then I was in a workshop with Mary Biddinger at Winter Wheat, which is a writing festival we have here.
DK: Mary Biddinger? Ok.
AC: Mary Biddinger, yep. And it was about designing a poetry collection. And something she said—I don’t even remember what it was—something she said completely changed how I was thinking about the book. And I actually didn’t go to anything else that day. I sat right down in the Student Union, where everything else was going on, with my poems, all my poems and my list of poems, and I started completely revamping the thing based on this new idea. So, what was really strange about it was that the first manuscript was sort of more tied into the demons, the everyday demons, and also some of the things that I had done as a graduate student, but the new collection kind of based around the Romantic ballets was actually much more in keeping with who I am as a person, and kind of what my split soul is. I always kind of think of it that way, because being a writer and being a dancer, actually, have always been really hard to kind of compromise between.
So, Sylph happened. [Laughs] It was a complete accident, really, that that happened. I hadn’t been intending to write a book that was organized around a specific thing, but I did, and it was kind of a phenomenal accident based on something that had piqued my attention in a random workshop. So, the whole thing got reorganized, and then I had to write poems for that new organization for this new idea, making sure that there was a different unity involved in that. So, it was quite a process. So, the manuscript that I had been sending to contests as Sylph—it was actually first Sylphide, and then I dropped the –ide because no one knew how to say it [laughs]—it became Sylph, which was actually, I think, the right move, because I think it has more resonance that way. People are more familiar with what a sylph actually is.
AC: And I actually felt a lot more confident about that collection as it stood. That was it. That was the way it was supposed to be. So, I felt a lot better about it. So, it started out wanting to do a collection sort of in the true sense of the collection, just things that I had written and where I was at the time, but then it became something that kind of took over itself, which was a good thing. It ended up being the best thing possible for the book, so…
DK: Uh huh. So, a couple things struck me there. One is I think you’re one of quite a few dancers turned poets.
DK: And, in your mind, what is the relationship, if any, between dance and poetry?
AC: There’s actually a huge linkage for me, and I talk about this a lot with my creative writing students at the undergraduate level. There’s a—it’s hard to explain this to people who have never heard of him before—but Rudolf Laban is a movement analysis person, or he was, and there’s a whole system of dance notation and a whole set of principles based on effort. He actually originally designed these “effort principles” for use in the working world, but dance sort of adapted them. So, part of my education as a writer was also pairing the word sounds and the word energies with these effort principles in dance. So, we had the glide and the flick and the slash, and those really specific terminologies…
DK: The glide, the slash, and the flick?
AC: The glide, slash, flick—I always get them out of order—the flick, the float, the glide, the dab, the slash, the punch, the wring, and—I always forget the other one—press. Press is the eighth one.
DK: So, where could I find this nomenclature?
AC: Well, if you just look up Rudolf Laban and “effort principles”—that’s what they’re called—and so it gives you—I learned about it from the perspective of choreography, actually, in composing dances, putting them together based on these principles. But then, words also tend to fit in these, and I’ve kind of studied informally where we would, as a group of human beings speaking a common language, where we would put those words. What are the dab words? What are the slash words? And we have different opinions, kind of, about them, but for me, I think a lot of that feeling that happens with words comes into what I write. I’m feeling my way through words more than I’m sort of intellectualizing them, which for me is fed through the body in a lot of ways. In my readings, I do dance poems, which are essentially poems with which I’ve paired choreography, which helps me remember them.
DK: Because they’re in the body, yeah.
AC: Right, exactly. Exactly. They’re already sort of from the body internally, and a lot of my poetry is written with the body in mind, even if it’s not a human body. It’s still sort of centered in the physicality, which is part of that instinct from over 30 years of dancing. That is really important to how I write, and if I can’t write, if I’m having a really big struggle, I have to move. If I’m not moving, it’s not going to work. I always tell people, if I’m struggling, I’ll go for a walk and I’ll stick a pen in my watch strap, and I’ll just write on my arms, because that’s like…
AC: It looks ridiculous. I get lots of stares, but I don’t care, because the walking is sort of what unblocks me. And all that comes out of the dance. So, they sort of feed each other, which is why I think it’s kind of ridiculous that it took me so long to pair them in a very concrete way in the poetry, in the book, like to actually overtly put them together. It wasn’t right. It didn’t feel right until Sylph kind of happened or created itself. So, the movement is a crucial component to what I do as a writer.
DK: Yeah, yeah. So, a poet that I admire is Julie Carr. She’s a former dancer, and I’ve been in workshops with her where movement is involved and you position yourself and it’s a different way of feeling your way through the world, for sure. So, I don’t know if you know her work or not…
AC: Just a little bit.
DK: Yeah. And then, there’s another poet that’s coming back, and I’ll have to do some research on it—Arthur Sze used to talk about an ancient Chinese poet that said until he took a horse ride and caught bugs in his teeth in the morning, he couldn’t write a single word. And there’s something about transporting through space and getting that sense of the world, the physical movement that allowed him to sit down and write.
Wow, that’s fascinating. I had no idea. And then…
AC: Does it make you uncomfortable? Like, in the workshops where movement has been involved, has it made you uncomfortable at all?
DK: I think it depends on context. In the case of—in some cases—I’ll be very specific. Like, when I went to the AWP dance, where there were people dancing around, that was like wedding meets high school dance meets complete discomfort, where I could barely walk in the room. Like, flashbacks of 8th grade kind of thing. But, in Julie’s workshop, because of the environment, because of the way it was set up, the way it was contextualized, I didn’t feel self-conscious at all and was able to lay on the floor, move around the room, hang out a window, whatever seemed right. So, I think it has a lot to do with how it’s facilitated and the context in which it’s operating. Yeah, so what are some exercises that you’ve done with your students that involved—have you done movement with students?
AC: I have, yeah. One of my favorite things, just so that they don’t feel self-conscious, I’ll put them in a circle facing outward, and then I’ll ask them to—like, I’ll say a word and then I’ll ask them to come up with a gesture or a position or a shape that meets that word. That’s always really fun. And the brave ones are free to show—they’ll show if they want to. What happens, though, is we start comparing what those shapes look like and we start to see similarities between how they do it, what has come into their heads as a result of such a word, which leads you to a good conversation about that translation of language to motion and how we actually process it mentally.
DK: Got it. And so, is the book orchestrated as a dance in some way? Is that part of the strategy here?
AC: A little bit. A little bit, and I never really talk about that, because it freaks out people a little bit.
DK: Why does it freak people out?
AC: I think they just aren’t—they feel—I think dancers have this reputation of being sort of ethereal and untouchable, and it’s like a secret world. And that’s not really true, of course. Everybody moves. Everybody dances. That’s how we function. And it’s actually more common in other cultures than in the United States in particular, or in England. They’re a lot more staid in their motions.
DK: Staid, sure.
AC: But it’s totally normal in some cultures for everybody to be dancing all the time. So, but there is a sense of the type of movement that would belong in a section. Like, the Black Act section is fairly—it’s violent in a way, partly because the black act in a Romantic ballet is where something horrible happens. There’s a betrayal, or some sort of violent act that occurs, and so that’s where sort of there’s like a miniature explosion, almost always, in those ballets. So, all the poems in that section have that feeling of those little minor explosions or those betrayals.
DK: So, in a ballet, there’s always a black act? Or is there sometimes a black act?
AC: In a Romantic ballet, there is usually a black act. It might not be a full act, but there’s usually some sort of crucial moment where everything goes wrong. In Giselle, she finds out that Albrecht is actually engaged to a noblewoman. So, he’s been kind of stringing her along all this time, and he’s actually a prince and he’s engaged. I’m trying to think of another good example. It doesn’t always happen in the same order. In some of them—Bayadère is a good example, because there’s a typical love triangle. That’s a pretty common trope. And in Bayadère, she dies from—she’s dancing with a basket of flowers, and an asp arises out of the basket and kills her, and the asp was put in there by “the other woman” in that sense, which is actually pretty unusual. The other woman is usually a passive character, but in Bayadère she’s actually active. And so, almost always in the black act or the black act moment, there’s some sort of death or violence. And then, the white act is sort of the repercussions of that, and in a lot of Romantic ballets it’ll take place in the underworld or in the forest, and that’s where the shades come in, where the sylphs come in. And in Giselle, the Wilis dance men to death in revenge for betrayal. In Bayadère, the shades aren’t vengeful, but they are sort of there as that ethereal being that is kind of taking possession of that world. So, the movements in the poems actually kind of represent that same sort of energy. So, we have sort of the more violent poems, and the poems of betrayal, and then we have these poems where the mental state has frayed, essentially. There’s a lot of sort of floating that’s taking place here, a lot of gliding, the same movements that you would see, but then there’s also the lunatic poems, I call them, because they’re sort of based around the old, old texts of doctors and so on at the mid-1800s, when “lunatic” was in fashion. So, the frayed mental state takes a place there, and that has to be sort of hallucinatory and loose in its logic. So, the movements of the poems definitely do mimic the movements that would occur in the ballet.
DK: Yeah, so we have the Prologue, the Black Act, the White Act, and then Apothéose.
AC: That’s right, the apothéose, the apotheosis. You know, normal—I shouldn’t say normal…
AC: But other poetry and fiction make use of the apotheosis. And usually it’s some kind of transcendence. So, in the end of Swan Lake, Siegfried and the swan both throw themselves into the lake, and presumably they ascend. Some ballets actually end with them kind of ascending off into a better sphere or something. Sometimes, though, it’s actually vengeance. In Bayadère, the temple falls down and kills everybody. So, the woman who is killed unjustly has her vengeance in that sense. So, there’s usually some sort of transcendence, whether that is to a better sphere or whether that is actually some sort of recompense in violence, or something like that. I don’t know what that would be.
DK: Yeah, the fall or the—yeah. Fascinating. And so, I want to continue to push that a little bit further, because I’m fascinated. So, this was all part of the strategy of organizing these poems, that this was some of the framework or lattice or structure or movement notes that you had in mind as you’re putting all this together, both in terms of the arc of the book as well as within the construction of individual poems, and I assume, then, the poems in relation to each other?
AC: Yeah. What’s funny about that is that a lot of the poems in the book actually existed beforehand. They were part of the original manuscript. The dance poems—most of the dance poems, and then some of the other kind of meshing poems, the poems that sort of bring elements together, those—there’s a whole pool of poems that were pre-Sylph, and then there’s the post-Sylph idea poems. Pre- and post-Sylph, and so giving them that act structure actually allowed them to be pulled into each other in a different way, which was really exciting. And I actually—when I was going through edits for the book after it won the prize and I’d gotten some advice from Dana Levin, the judge, I actually went back to my original groundwork, which was in our library, our university library. They have these, like, hip-high tables, long tables. So I just spread the whole thing out across these tables and I went and I was like, “I’m going to do this all over and see what new orders might be created.” Almost all of the poems ended up exactly where they originally were.
DK: Oh, wow.
AC: So, they adhered together naturally, I think. There were a couple poems that moved quite a lot and moved throughout the whole sequence, but most of the poems ended up being where they were in the beginning.
DK: So, that’s actually pretty fascinating. So, you had this manuscript that you had orchestrated, that you had put into a choreography. That choreography resulted in a structure, and then that structure was filled in by some poems that were post-Sylph, right? Would you reveal maybe some of the poems that were post-Sylph?
AC: Oh, yeah. Some of the poems that—most of the dance poems were actually written after I’d had the Sylph idea. Some of them—“The Christening” existed before, and the Cinderella poem existed before, “Before the Glass Slipper,” and “Mad Scene” had existed. “Mad Scene” was sort of like my first real acknowledgment that, oh yes, I’m going to write some dance poems, and they’re going to be who they are. But then, “Old Madge” happened. “The Girl with the Enamel Eyes.” “Swan Aubade” came out. All of those poems erupted after the idea for Sylph came.
DK: What was the third one? You said “Girl with the Enamel Eyes,” “Old Madge,” and what else?
AC: “Swan Aubade,” out of the—yeah. They all sort of happened. So, I actually hadn’t been writing a lot of dance poems before. The idea for Sylph kind of unblocked that, I think, for myself. I am tempted to say it kind of gave me permission to write these dance poems. Like, okay, now you can combine these energies or these selves. But yeah, most of them were written to further color in that framework of the acts, the way that the acts go. And some of them were easily placed at that point. I mean, “Mad Scene” ends the Black Act section. It’s actually called “Mad Scene” in the ballet. It’s its actual name. So, it’s sort of a nod to what the actual ballet is. But some of them were just obvious in that way as to where they were going to go. “Sylphide,” the actual title poem, has been all over the place. It ended up in the Apotheosis, because…
DK: Yeah, it is. It’s back in the back.
AC: Yeah, it’s her internally, and that’s something that you don’t usually get in that actual ballet. You don’t see her internal self. The ballet’s kind of centered on James. And so it was important, I think, to give her her due and to put her where she belongs, even though in that particular ballet she’s sort of the troublemaker, I guess. James is the one who ultimately commits the Black Act, but it’s as a result of the Sylph’s actions. So, I think coming to terms with that belonged in the apotheosis. So, kind of when the poems were created, or when they were in their stages where I’m putting things in order, there were obvious places for them to go. I think the last poem I wrote for this book is actually “Husbandry.” It’s in the Apotheosis, and it’s…
DK: “Your price, his ring.”
AC: Yes. It’s written, actually, about a fairy tale that doesn’t, as far as I know, it doesn’t have a ballet yet. It’s one that I want to create.
DK: Oh, really?
AC: So, this is what preoccupies me in my “spare time.” I invented this for a novel idea that I was working on, the concept for this ballet based on Tam Lin. And I have run into people who know Tam Lin, who understand the—it’s quite a famous tale in some of the European countries, but it’s not really well known here. But it needs a ballet. It’s so a ballet. I can’t believe that there isn’t one yet. It’s written, in a sense, the fairy tale is written in verse originally, and it sort of needs to become choreography. It has to at some point.
DK: Sounds like you.
AC: It’s gonna have to be me. Oh well.
DK: There are worse things to be working on than that. That sounds fascinating. So, I don’t think I’ve ever looked at a piece of choreography. That’d be fascinating to see. So, you’re fluent in notation of choreography, I take it?
AC: I don’t use strict notation when I choreograph. I’ve tried. There actually is a system that Rudolf Laban created. It’s called, creatively enough, Labanotation. And I learned that at a very elementary level, but it is intensely complicated. Whenever I choreograph, it’s for me. My notes are for me, and I have to be able to reproduce them. So, I actually find old choreographic notes all the time, and I try to recreate what I’ve done—and I know my limitations as far as how it works—but sometimes, when I find old choreography notes, it really does lend itself well to writing poems because I tend to be really symbolic in how I do it. I have—what is it? “Hawk’s pose,” or something like that. It’s something that I put into my choreography pretty often, and I just had to kind of name it so I would give myself some shorthand. And so, I do find little snippets like that that lend themselves well to the imagery that I like to use in my poetry as well.
So, you may have seen I’m obsessed a little bit with birds and wings. It’s a little problem that I have, I admit. But that’s—I was listening to—I was at a Q&A with Richard Blanco recently, and he actually talked about that, pursuing your obsessions, making them—continuously writing your obsessions and sort of giving yourself permission to do that, which was good to hear, because I do it all the time. So, I’m kind of continuing that in the poems that I’m writing now, and it’s okay. It is okay.
DK: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. So, sort of three things popped to mind there. I was recently talking to an MFA student who was like, “I keep trying to bend the end of my poems back to where I think they should go, but they keep wanting to go another direction, and I keep having to redirect them.” And I’m like, “You might want to go that way.” You might want to just lean into that, and that’s probably where the poem is, out there somewhere, and you haven’t even gotten to it yet if that’s what’s happening. And, of course, for me, the instructor of all instructors in that mode is—well, there’s a whole history of writers, but in the contemporary, in the contemporary specifically, is Rusty Morrison, who—she’ll talk about taking a poem of a particular title and then peeling it back and then writing another poem of that exact title about the same exact subject and then peeling it back, and then writing another one and another one and another one. And so, her ongoing peeling back and peeling back and going in and going in is inspiring in the sense that if your nose is leading you there and your body’s telling you there’s something there, then you might as well keep going there, because that’s where the spring is.
AC: Yep, yeah. You have to focus on that energy. In dance, it’s always like what do you feel like your body should do next? And sometimes you go counter to that to create a new moment, but a lot of times what you end up doing next is what the moment is requiring, and why should it be any different with words? I think it’s exactly the same.
DK: Yeah, yeah. There’s some sense of structure, but also some sense of improvisation in your work.
Before I go there, I want to talk about two things. I loved the story where you said, I took a shot at deconstructing the book based on some feedback. I laid it all out, said, okay, what if I didn’t have the structure I have? And it ended up sort of recompiling in the same exact set of movements because it had to. And so that was sort of, I’m sure, reaffirming for you that, yeah, this is how it needs to work, and that there were some poems that presented themselves as a result of that, one of them being “The Girl with Enamel Eyes,” which I think is a fascinating poem. And if you would indulge me, would you read “The Girl with Enamel Eyes”?
AC: Yeah, sure. This is—when I watched Coppélia, which is the ballet that this comes from—its alternative title is actually “The Girl with the Enamel Eyes.” No one ever calls it that, but no one ever thinks about what Coppélia is thinking, so I do.
AC: I get her. I totally understand her. All right.
Those men like catapults, their cow-white
eyes, they never saw the trick of it. She slipped
into my corner, put her hands on my breasts.
She skinned her nails into my back—the half-
moons did not leak or anger. She stole my frock
and turned me over a chair in a heap, tossed
my book to the floor. My father swooned
over his alchemy. Her Franz’s ladder rattled
at my window. I want to tell him we do not all
love him and his fence of teeth. She smiled
like a clock. She took my place. Her feet traced
all my patterns. The one-man band told me
she will be to him all women. I am not his
instrument. But I have seen him pin a butterfly
to his collar. I have seen their sawdust heads
cracked with beer. They have mocked me
in my balcony, their arrowed fingers dig out
the air. I’ll never see the blessing of the bells,
or dance the hours. But when she bent low
to the sheaves (He loves me, he loves me not)
I am the one who heard the wheat.
DK: Thank you. Yeah, “the half moons did not leak or anger.” “She skinned her nails into my back.” Yeah, your verbs do a lot of work in many of your poems, and sometimes the nouning of a verb, or verbing of a noun is a lot of fun.
AC: [Laughs] Both.
DK: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
AC: Isn’t that our prerogative, though, as poets? I love that that’s our job, to reimagine words even at their basic level. That’s the best thing, I think, about being a poet. You can do whatever you want with words. Very bossy when it comes to words. I enjoy that about it. I can reform them into new things.
DK: You can do whatever you want.
AC: I want to do what I want! That’s right.
DK: Yeah. That’s awesome. So, again, before we sort of get into a little bit more around—we’ll come back to the ideas of improvisation and form and we’ll come back to how these poems play to the ear, but before we do that, I want to backtrack a little bit and talk about—was it Dana Levin who gave you the call?
AC: She didn’t actually call. She was the judge, and then Kate Nuernberger with Pleiades called, and she actually left a message, and I received the message while I was at—Prairie Margins is our undergraduate journal, and I’m the advisor. So, I found the message while I was in that meeting and had to immediately leave the room. They all thought something horrible had happened.
AC: So, it was a little bit nerve-wracking because of course you’re not supposed to tell right away until the announcements are made. So, there were a couple of them in there who kind of knew what was going on, and we immediately made up the shorthand. The MFAs and undergrads and I, we made up the shorthand that I was having a baby, which is something that’s partially true.
DK: Which is partially true, that’s right.
AC: Right, partly because they’ve heard me talk about writing poems as being like having a baby all the time. It’s excruciating, sometimes, for me. So, that was kind of the funny part, and then Dana actually emailed me after the fact and gave me some suggestions, and later she gave me some more suggestions, so we had a little bit of a dialogue about that, which was really helpful.
DK: Well, first, what was your reaction? I mean you got the voicemail message, and… you’re like, “Yep, no problem”?
AC: I freaked out a little bit, I admit. I’m not usually a very overtly emotional person. My mother would laugh if she heard that. But it was exciting, but it was also kind of startling. It seemed very unreal. It was very unexpected, and it happened at a time where it was very unexpected. I mean, it was really exciting.
DK: Why’s that? What was…?
AC: I just was completely thinking about other things. I knew that it was a semifinalist for that award, and then I knew that it was a finalist for that award, because I had emails about that. So, I knew that it had gotten a little bit further, which was really exciting, but my mind was in a completely different place. When I send out work—this is true of small packets of poems—I forget about it, on purpose. I make myself not think about it. I just can’t. I can’t afford the nerves. So, it was as far out of my mind as I could put it. But then, getting the message was, of course, judging from what I hear was the look on my face, was terribly exciting and also, since it was a secret, it had to be so quiet, and so who did I talk to? I called my mother, of course. So, that was really exciting to get the call and then to be able to share it with my family, because they’re the ones who have been here the whole time. They know what I’m doing. My mother always said that she could tell I was learning when I was in grad school because she couldn’t understand my poems anymore.
AC: So, she had been there. They’d been there and they know how important it was to me, and of course it gave them immediate bragging rights, which was also great. So, it didn’t register, I think, in some ways. And I did call Kate back right away, and we talked about some things, so I think just talking to her grounded it for me a little bit. And then, of course, I had to go back and pretend that nothing had happened. So, that’s not something that I wanted to do, but you have to. That’s part of it. [Laughs] I got a secret.
DK: Yeah, it’s a glorious secret. I remember having the feeling of joy, but also I had a, personally, a sense of like I could exhale. There had been something released as a result of it. Like, I was talking to a former mentor, and he said yes, all that hard work is going to go somewhere.
AC: It’s going to be a thing.
DK: It’s going to be a thing instead of being buried in a ditch somewhere, which was great. And then, what was the, for you, what was the next part of the process? I mean, part of that process was, I think you said, feedback from Dana and some potentially reconfiguring, but that it then fell back into an order?
AC: It did, it did.
DK: And then? What happens next?
AC: Well, you know, Dana had actually given me some suggestions of poems to pull out, and what she said was save those for your next manuscript, which was hilarious because now I have two manuscripts that I’m developing over time, which she assures me is completely normal, so I’m okay there. But I had spent more time with it. Fortunately, the manuscript was pretty clean, according to Wayne Miller, who was the editor. He was actually in Belfast while all this was happening, so we were having email conversations back and forth about it. So, they kind of took over, and they took over the styling, the design, which was really exciting, and…
DK: So, you didn’t give input into the beautiful cover?
AC: Ah, but I did. Yes, yes, that was the thing.
DK: Oh, okay. All right.
AC: When they—especially when Wayne Miller got back from Ireland, we had been talking about this art. I actually have a piece of art that I’d found forever ago, and I’d used it to make sort of an inspiration image for the book. So, I’d basically designed a fake book cover for my book while Sylph was in development. That artist never got back to us, and so I went to an artist I’d found after the fact.
This fellow named Mister Finch, who is out of England, he makes textile rabbits and moths and birds, and all these wonderful things. However, he was already in a book deal, so I couldn’t use his work. But then, he actually had linked to, on his page, linked to Louise Richardson. And I kind of went after her art in a big way, because she also does textile art, which is very close to my heart because I do that too, and she just has these amazing pieces, kind of installation pieces with moths and wings and feathers and just amazing shapes. And so, I had to track her down. I actually tracked her down myself, because it was—she didn’t have readily accessible email. And it turns out I’m excellent at Google stalking. It’s part of, I think, my skills as an editor. Working for Mid-American Review, frequently I have to track people down, so I actually do that quite a bit. And so we went and found her, and she was excited, which was awesome. So, I’d given Wayne and Kate a list of images that I liked the best, and they selected the one that they wanted to use, and then they did the design and gave me the images to comment on, to give feedback on, and I had very little feedback because it was right, I think, right from the beginning. They had a really strong idea of what they wanted to do with the design, which was awesome.
DK: It’s a beautiful cover.
AC: It’s pretty, right? And also a little frayed, which is good.
DK: Exactly. Well, it’s called “Tatting,” right? And then it’s got like this coffee stain element underneath the fray and the butterflies at the base of a pure white slip. And yeah, I think it’s attractive to the eye, and I think people will gravitate to the image.
Okay, so then there’s this book design part. So then, what happens after the book design part? Is it now just kind of, you have a manuscript and you’ve got this book design cover and you just kind of close your eyes and hope? Or what happened next?
AC: They sent me—you know, they put together the design for the inside and they sent me the proofs for it. The manuscript was fairly clean, so there wasn’t a whole lot of stuff that needed to be changed in terms of small elements, which was great. I kind of pride myself on that, again, as an editor. So, I was excited that they found it also to be clean. And so, they showed me the design. I gave a little bit of feedback on fonts. But really, it just, again, it looked like it should look. We were ready to go. And so, I didn’t really have to do anything, which is awesome.
AC: I didn’t have to read through it again and find little things that were wrong. It was fairly complete. The hardest part, actually, was doing the acknowledgments, like the thank yous, because I always fear that I’m going to miss people and I don’t like that. It made me very panicky, just deciding who to thank and what to say. That was the hardest part. I already knew what I wanted to do with the dedication. Everything else was finished. So, I had an easy way there. But you do have to think about those things. You have to think about the acknowledgments ahead of time, and I dragged my feet on that specifically because I was really concerned about it. But it was fun. It was a fun kind of process to actually have to think about. And at one point, Wayne sent me the ISBN number, so that means it’s real.
DK: That means it’s real. There’s a number.
AC: Once the ISBN number is ready, it is a book. It is a real book. So, that was fun. It was a fun little acknowledgment, I think, of what it means to have a book and to see that book become an object.
DK: And then, was there a launch experience for you, or was it a soft launch?
AC: It was kind of a soft launch, because we weren’t sure when it was going to be finished, if it was going to be finished in time for the AWP conference or not. And then, it ended up being ready, so essentially, we’re at the book fair. The Pleiades table is kitty-corner to the Mid-American Review table. And so they have them there, yeah. The book is there. I can see it from where I’m sitting, and so people are buying it and they’re sending people over for me to sign it. And so, I had my first experience signing books for strangers, which I was wholly unprepared for. That was not something I knew how to do. Signing it for friends was fine. I get that. I could write little notes and things like that. So, I basically stole a page out of Traci Brimhall’s book and I started putting lines from my poems in there. Actually, my go-to line used to be in one of my poems, but it isn’t anymore. I actually don’t know where this line went. So, I just had been using that, and as I said, strictly stolen out of Traci Brimhall’s playbook. And so it was kind of interesting just having that and not really—kind of having a sneaky launch, I guess.
DK: What’s the line?
AC: It’s—oh, shoot, what is it? “Why must my body dance? Your bones speak all the time.”
AC: That’s my go-to. I think it used to be in “Bones,” a poem that’s in here. I don’t really know where it is now, if it’s in some other poem somewhere, which is possible. It is possible. But that’s good. It gives it a life of its own. It has its own little experience. But then, you know, I’ve had a couple of readings. I read here at my university, at BGSU, and kind of had—that was sort of like the official celebration of the book, in a way, just kind of being there and amongst the people that kind of helped me along the path of the book and doing, reading those poems in front of people, again, here. So, that was exciting.
DK: Yeah, certainly, literary publishing, it is definitely—there’s uncertainty around production dates, and you just have to go in knowing that. Is it going to be ready for a date or not is always a bit of a crapshoot, and one of the—I’d scheduled some things around the time of when I thought my book was coming out, and it missed a couple. And then it hit when I just happened to be at the University of Florida, where I received my MFA, and the very first time I ever had to hold my book in my hands and read it was to, of course, my thesis advisor from the University of Florida and to a whole new crop of fresh-faced kids, and so I kind of lucked into that one, which gave it a sense of full circle, but it just as well could have missed. They literally drop-shipped 20 copies to the University of Florida like a day before or something.
AC: Yeah, that’s astounding timing right there. [Laughs]
DK: Yeah. So, just, I think, a word to the wise for anybody’s who’s expecting German-like clockwork…
AC: Right. That’s not how printing works. Printers get behind, and I think working with a journal, with a literary journal, I’m completely used to that, and so I wasn’t really expecting anything to be available at AWP. I was actually expecting it to be on its original date [in April]. So, I think that preparation also really helped because I wasn’t impatient about it. I knew what was going on with it.
DK: Yeah, yeah. I definitely had no expectations, so I think that just helps take the pressure off. But you had your initial reading there at Bowling Green, right? And what was the first poem you read?
AC: I read—oh, golly. What did I read to them? I mean, I read at Findlay, which is a university to the south of us, and I feel like I read somewhere in between and I can’t remember what I was doing. But a lot of times, I’ll open with “The Birth of the Everyday Demon,” just because it’s kind of a start to the ethos of the book and kind of the magic of the book, in a way. So, a lot of times, I’ll start with that one. I’ll read a couple of demons and then move on. But I almost always read in sequence. So, I’ll read a bit from each section and then I’ll read some new stuff, and then I usually close with a dance poem just to make it kind of full, to feel like I’ve really finished it.
DK: Yeah, I sort of—I collated the book in this kind of—there’s “The Birth of the Everyday Demon,” and then I found my sort of, a favorite Black Act demon, “The Snapped Key Demon,” which just—it’s so specific and so familiar, but it had this triggering effect of having such a broader impact for me, and so I thought that one was just—it caught my attention. But any number of the demon poems could have done that, and then I had great fun with “The Choked Peppermint Demon.” [Laughs] I don’t know…
AC: Oh, yeah. It’s a thing. A lot of these demons are very personal demons to me. We have a unity. [Laughs] I had a bad habit of choking on, like, pizza place mints when I was a kid.
DK: A habit? As in…?
AC: Multiple times. Oh, multiple times, yeah. Always terrified my mother. She always kept an eye on me. I still, if I’m going to eat one of those round mints, I still try to have people near me just in case, because I’m just not sure anymore.
AC: I’m just not sure. But yeah, that’s—the demons are sort of—we always want there to be reasons for things, I think, as humans. We try to blame things. But also, we want to have control, and I think naming those little annoyances or those tiny little horrors, naming those as demon-caused, I think, is a little cynical, yes, but it also is, I think, consistent with how we feel about that kind of thing. How much control do we really have over these little things that are just always going to happen? And somehow, placing it in the hands of a semi-intelligent creature is comforting, in a way.
DK: So, what is your history with demons?
AC: You know, I could not even begin to tell you where the demons came from originally, but I…
DK: But they’re classically riddlers. I have this tape playing in my head—tape—I have this tape playing in my head from, as a child, when I read C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, of an older demon educating a younger demon. So, I have sort of these literary ideas of demons running around in my head. I don’t know if any of those are true for you as well, but I was curious about it.
AC: A little. I love mythological literature, and I think, in a lot of ways, we look at the gods and goddesses of some of classic mythology, and we always look at the stories of the gods and goddesses being responsible for all of these things, and we have to appease them, but I’m actually a big fan of Piers Anthony, and he has his Incarnations of Immortality series. On a Pale Horse is one of my favorite books ever, and in that particular piece there are these little demons, and it’s really treated like an office environment, almost. Everybody has a job to perform. And so I think I was sort of thinking about that when I started writing the demon poems, in some ways, but these lesser demons, these working-world demons, they have—it’s not like gremlins where the acts are kind of random and instinctive. They just kind of do what they’re doing like animals. Demons are intelligent. They have a place. And I love supernatural TV and stories and things like that. I’ve just fed on those. So, in a way, the demon poems are also sort of my homage to that backgrounding of supernatural literature and just loving that idea that there could be these little creatures whose job it is to have your milk go sour or to…
DK: Ahead of time.
AC: Right, ahead of time, yeah, exactly. It’s really important. And some of them are more dangerous. Some of them, like the Mattress Fire Demon, that’s a danger. It’s a thing that happens, and it causes chaos and very real injury. Some of them have just the most minor of jobs, the tiniest little jobs, and that’s okay, too. You need all kinds of demons to make up this world of problems for humanity. I’m very fond of the demons.
AC: I’m very fond of them. I love them very much. And every time something weird happens like that, then I’m automatically thinking of them. Like, I have a terrible—I’m a spiller. I spill things. It’s a gift.
AC: And so, I know there’s eventually going to be a demon poem related to the spilling. How can there not be? It’s just a thing that happens. So, I feel like there’s always going to be more demons in there, whether they get written or not. There are always going to be these everyday demons.
DK: I love the everyday demons, and like I said, I have a variety of favorites, but I think any reader is going to locate their demon in your book. Somewhere in there is their demon. They have a lot of jobs.
AC: They do have a lot of jobs.
DK: And some of them get burned out.
AC: That’s true.
DK: They just get tired of providing calamity.
AC: That’s right. That’s right, and not being respected, I think, for what they do. They have a really important place in this world, in the community, and I feel like they don’t get enough attention. So, I’m trying to help them out a little bit, I think.
DK: It’s shining the spotlight on. With that, let’s pick one to shine a spotlight on. Who should we handpick for the spotlight? Who would appreciate it, or who wouldn’t appreciate it? Maybe we want to tempt them a little bit? I don’t know.
AC: I don’t know. Well, I feel like, since we’ve mentioned it, we’re going to have to talk about “The Everyday Demon Experiences Burnout.” We’re going to give that demon some attention. This poor demon.
Something on the water. Something
wholesome, like spoiling corn crops
or sparking a tri-state wildfire. Or
a bit of glamour, like stopping glass
elevators in casinos, between floors,
then dropping them. I’m tired
of small catastrophe, the delicate
balance between shrugged-off accident
and tiny horror. Fits of pique, bursts
of desperate memory, tireless, dull
annoyance: How many brittle ankles
can be wrenched in holes? How many
jugs of milk can be soured before time?
How many smashed heirlooms, rained-
out parades, singed fingertips, coins
dropped in grates, stained blouses
before business meetings? How
many shiny balloons are there still
AC: It’s so sad. He’s so sad and just wants to live a more exciting life, I think, in some ways. Looking at that now, it’s kind of funny because I have some friends who live in the Chicago area and their Easter Egg hunt was hailed out today, so I feel like they have a kinship with that today.
DK: He wasn’t too tired to provide the hail.
AC: That’s right, yeah. Throw some hail down.
DK: But he’s got a job to do.
AC: That’s right. That is right.
DK: He may be a little burned out, but he’s going to show up and push the buttons.
AC: That’s right.
DK: So, with that, there’s a voice here that resonates with me, and to my ear has some familiar stances and tones, and it’s a familiar voice in the book. When I mean the book, I mean the sort of story of poetry as it’s been developed into the contemporary from all of its different draglines. And these poems vary between sort of structured and lyrical to litany, to narrative first-person-speaker voice poems, to one that’s sort of pseudo-elliptical, where you have the poem seemingly written down the right-hand side of the page with the parentheticals in analogue down the left-hand side. So, certainly for me, I have a huge affection for the diversity of choice. I think it’s the benefit of being in the contemporary is there’s no forced schoolmarch. There’s no alma mater song to sing. We can work in all of those equally because they’re at our disposal. But I was hoping to hear from you, kind of where you situate where you hear that voice coming from that you attend to.
AC: And it’s a difficult question. I consider myself to be a lyrical poet, and I actually had an MFA student write, recently, a paper on the problem of dividing everything into lyrical and narrative, which was really interesting, because she considers herself both. And I guess Sylph is, without a doubt, both. It has to be both. You can’t talk about Romantic ballet without having narrative. That’s what it is.
DK: Or implied narrative, yeah.
AC: Right, and picking out moments of those narratives, I think, can be lyrical, because those ballets are also nothing if not lyrical. So, I’ve had to kind of come to terms with combining those two elements, because I’m not really usually narrative. It’s not usually my go-to. I think of myself as being sort of more imagist and really focusing on play of language and sound. When I think about where do I fit into the contemporary sphere, I don’t have a really good answer. I’ve never had a good answer. There are poets that I distinctly admire and that I sort of sometimes, I guess, chase after in what I’m doing, or that I kind of link to.
DK: So, who? Who, both—not even just necessarily contemporary, but do you project backwards to Niedecker or to Bishop, or to Moore? And in the contemporary, who do you cast towards? I’m curious. Name-drop.
AC: Name names. You hit the nail on the head with Moore. Marianne Moore is one of my favorites because of her defamiliarization of objects. I love that. That’s one of my favorite things. I love it also when I’m teaching, because it’s kind of a way to show students, like, this is how you explore. This is how you take an object and link it to a whole bunch of different things while making it unfamiliar. So, I love what she did with that, the tradition that she composed. I also—Plath and Sexton both, in a lot of their sort of fairy tale/hallucinatory moments, are ones that I find a kinship with.
DK: Of course Ariel, right? I didn’t want to—I was hesitating bringing that to the table, just because I didn’t want it to overstate, because I thought it would be a disservice to start the conversation with “let’s do the Ariel–Sylph comparison.”
AC: I know, I know. Such a foundational work when I was a grad student. It was just so different from some of the things that I had been reading. I had been reading Denise Levertov, whom I also love, but I don’t find myself writing to that aesthetic as much. So, Ariel was one of the books that I read as a grad student in workshop with Larissa Szporluk, whose aesthetic is also, I think, something that I aspire towards. I love some of the things that she does with language and sort of the silence in some of her work. But I also really loved reading Anne Carson in grad school and I actually have Red Doc set aside. I have to re-read Autobiography of Red, and then I want to read Red Doc, one after the other, in the summer. I feel it’s very important to give it that space. So, I love these poets that are testing language, testing the hallucinatory or sort of mesmeric path.
One of my favorite poets of all time, though, is Brenda Hillman. Her book Death Tractates is my favorite book, period, full stop. It’s something that I think, imagery-wise and language-wise and also kind of structurally, it really struck me and gave me ideas about what poetry could do, what my poetry could do. I’m also a big Mary Ann Samyn fan. Her book Captivity Narrative was amazing to me, especially because it was sort of—its structure had a purpose, and as a first book, I think that’s kind of rare, finding that central element that kind of controls the whole arc in such an amazing way, but also, there are all these different poems in there that are doing things that still fit in. So, that work was really important to me. And you’ll notice—I don’t—they’re all ladies, and I feel bad about that.
DK: No, no, no. I was actually—in my initial taxonomy, I kind of oriented around three different roots of the contemporary, right? Niedecker, Bishop, and Moore. So, I don’t think we need to apologize for that kind of process. I don’t think that’s a—for example, if someone had read my book, they would cast back to Heaney, to X guy and Y guy, just because they would sense in the work that there’s probably an orientation in that way. So, I don’t think we need to be apologetic at all. I will say that my affection for Moore is affirmed in your work, and I think that’s sort of a lovelier comparison than I would—I think that the Plath comparisons are inevitable because of the hallucinatory, because of the titling of the book, because of the similarities in sort of arc of Ariel and arc of Sylph and the rhetorical stance.
AC: It’s just like, her obsessions are different from mine, though our styles are similar. So, that’s the—and it’s fine. It’s fine that that happened, and I feel good about it, because I feel like she, she and I both have some similar understandings on the nature of nature and language. So, I kind of came to terms with that a long time ago, even though I’m not a confessionalist. It is sort of like confessional for other people, I guess? It’s like imagination confessionalism, sort of.
DK: Well, I would say yeah. It’s interesting. She’s sort of accidentally confessional in the sense that we take her as such, but the poems could stand alone if they weren’t confessional. I think your poems could accidentally be interpreted as confessional, though you would never want them to be, though they probably are. [Laughs]
AC: Sure, some of them. Absolutely. I mean, a lot of these demons come out of my personal demons, and that’s fine. There’s a sense of exposure there.
DK: Which is the risk, which is the risk, right? I mean, that’s part of it, part of the risk.
AC: Sure, yeah, yeah.
DK: And then Brenda, she just read—launched her fourth book in the quadrilogy. I was at the reading at University Press Books, which is a little bookstore in Berkeley that she first worked at as an undergrad, and she was happy to launch her book there. And yeah, she’s fascinating in the—also, the arc of that career, right? I mean, there’s been a transformation there from Death Tractates to where she is today.
DK: So yeah, she’s a pleasure, and I think she’s reading on the 24th of this month out at Colorado State, where my daughter goes to school. I think I’m going to try and trek out there and take my daughter to it, just because I should. [Laughs]
AC: That would be wonderful. Because it’s Brenda! It’s Brenda. I actually have a friend who has a cat named after Brenda. He works with Brenda, actually. He’s in the program out there, but his cat is, in fact, named Brenda, after Brenda Hillman, so I totally respect that.
DK: That’s funny. Well, I will also say that the current state of her work is explicitly political.
AC: Right. Yeah, yeah.
DK: Which is—I don’t think of your work as explicitly political.
AC: And it never will be. I’m almost positive I will never do that. It’s not part of my makeup, I guess, and so—like, the arc of her career has just been astoundingly changeable. She experiments. She’s open to wherever the poetry takes her. And that’s what I really admire, because sometimes I feel sort of locked in, and I feel like she never has felt locked in, which is a beautiful thing.
DK: Yeah. I wonder what she would say. But never say never, because, you know, life is long and strange and…
AC: That’s true. That’s true.
DK: And, again, I have a deep affection for the aesthetically-minded point of view in your work and in your writing, but who knows? Maybe you’ll write that horrible, awful, political poem that you never wanted to write because…
AC: Yes, that would be awful. That would be awful, and I’m not very political in life. It doesn’t occupy my brain. But I do get charged up about some things, so I mean, it could happen if I get charged up enough.
DK: Yeah, I—it’s like a hot ember for me. If I go near it, it just burns me. I run away. I don’t have a way to go at it that’s comfortable at all and that I—it’s just not where I drift. And I think people would, if they were desperately seeking political pieces in my repertoire, they might find one, but it would be so slant that it would be hard to interpret it as political. I think that the same kind of slant seems to surface in your work as well.
AC: Exactly. Yep.
DK: We’re coming up on an hour.
DK: Sort of two things to close out. One is—I ask everybody the same question—so, folks are out there. They’re putting their first book together. They’re trying to publish poems, maybe. Maybe not. What’s your advice? Do they spray and pray? What’s the…?
AC: I have not heard that term before, but I like it. I like that a lot. That’s good.
DK: What’s the strategy? What would you recommend in terms of going through this process of trying to get a first book done?
AC: I definitely think it’s important to keep your hand in getting individual poems published. As you’re forming a collection, keep sending poems to literary journals that you like, because that gives you that experience, but it also gives eyes to your work and helps you, once you’ve seen stuff in print and kind of seen what else is there, it really does actually help shape the overall collection, because you start seeing those poems in different ways.
But then, also, contests. Contests, contests, contests. You have the presses that you admire. As poets, we have tons of contests that are available to us, which is not the same in fiction. There are some, but it’s still fairly normal to have a short story collection or a novel and get an agent. We don’t do that in poetry so much. So, find those books that you like. Figure out where they were published and what contests they have, and send to those contests. I do like open reading periods. Some of my favorite presses do have them. But I think the contests are so great, because there’s marketing and support already built into that, and they tell you what they’re going to do. So, you already know ahead of time. And, I think, most importantly, with the contests, especially first book contests, those editors are passionate about bringing first books to print. They know what it’s like. They know what it’s like to make that become a reality. So, who better to guide that book? So, I always advocate for the contests.
I remember sitting down at a Q&A with Cate Marvin ages ago, and she was kind of talking about that, because we asked her a similar question, and she also gave props to the contests because it is probably the easiest thing to find. It’s something where there are parameters already built in: you know exactly where to send it and what to do. They tell you how to format it. So, especially for a first book, it’s probably the best way to do it. I have a good number of peers and friends who have beautiful chapbooks, and they’re thriving in literary communities which is awesome, but in terms of the business of creating a book—contests. Contests, contests, contests. It worked for me. [Laughs] And I’m not a contest person. I normally do very poorly in contests.
DK: Why would that be?
AC: I don’t know.
DK: You seem to have won, though.
AC: I know. It’s so weird. I think having those contests at your disposal and having beautiful lists of them in places is probably the best thing to do, because you have access to a huge literary community and you kind of need to narrow it down a little bit. You need to channel it. So, continuing to work on a manuscript even once it’s “finished” is great, but having access to those automatic forums for that manuscript—I don’t think there’s any substitute for that. I think it’s fantastic.
DK: Yeah. Perfect. Thank you for that answer. People will appreciate it, I’m sure. So, two things to close out: I want to definitely reinsert that Mary Ann Samyn has come up multiple times in multiple interviews.
DK: Yeah. It’s interesting that—you’ll get people talking about the elliptical or the lyrical, and whether it’s a narrative poet talking about it or an elliptical poet talking about it, a lot of folks will volunteer Mary Ann Samyn’s work as somehow accessible and representative of both and doing something different and having an appeal that they feel like others might not have. So, your mention of Mary Ann resonates from a pattern-matching experience, where it’s in…
AC: Not surprised. She’s phenomenal at what she does.
DK: It’s in the conversation, yeah. And then, to put a nice little bow on this, if you would, would you read “Sylphide” and take us out?
AC: Sure, okay. Poor Sylphide. She’s caused all this trouble, and then we hear from her.
In somewhere nests there are owls, flumes
of moon in the dark. On the lake, four swans
in the snow. In the looking glass, I loved
you. In the blink the mouse spent
to disappear, I loved you. I cannot stand
the sight of rings. By the lintel, our lady’s
candlestick. Beyond the hedgerows, sea
holly. The tansy will not forget. I had
to touch your sleeping eyes, capture all
their vows. I loved you from the mantelpiece.
I loved you in the chest of drawers. I loved
you while the creeping mallows stretched
and ebbed. Out on the ice, a silent cave.
I could not wait for your eyes to open. Today,
the lavender rotted in its patch. The thunder
cracked this tree. I cannot build my wings
with clay, I cannot build my wings with lace.
I loved you hidden under the tartan, behind
the curtain, just past the pane. I loved you sifted
into your lamplight. I loved you nestled
on the highest shelf. Under the cat’s fur. Between
the door and not door. The buckthorn kills
all my enchantments like weeds. I loved you
pressed against the glass. I have great sympathy
for moths. Have I gotten what I deserved?
DK: What a beautiful poem, and what a beautiful book. Congratulations.
AC: Thank you.
DK: It was a joy to have a conversation and to spend some time with the book. I’ve spent the last month with the book, and it’s been a pleasure. And we’ve only touched on just a handful of the poems, but I think readers are going to find pleasure throughout, but also troubles and some riddles and some concerns.
AC: It’s not really about answers, is the book? Yeah.
DK: They may tempt a little fate in the process. So, thank you for being part of First Verse. Thank you for sharing your book.
AC: Thank you.