Susan Gillis speaks with NER author Gjertrud Schnackenberg about “Afghan Girl,” a poem that interrogates conflict and empire, beauty and religion, and about how poetry can “slip the cuffs of ideology.” The interview first appeared on Susan Gillis’s blog, “Concrete & River,” with contributions by Gregory Fried, and can be read in full here. “Afghan Girl” was published in NER 38.2, and an excerpt is available on our site.
SUSAN GILLIS: Your poem “Afghan Girl” opens on Sharbat Gula’s gaze as it is caught and held in Steve McCurry’s photograph. Let’s begin there, then. Is it fair to say the poem is one in which image-making as subject is explored through image-making?
GJERTRUD SCHNACKENBERG: Image-making as a way of exploring the image, and of exploring the insuperable drive to make images—yes, and the poem seesaws between the opposing facts that human images are prohibited in Islam, and that this photographic image of an Islamic girl is one of the most famous photographs in the world.
In reference to the paradox of this poem’s subject, an image taken from an image-forbidding culture, the poet Mary Jo Salter has spoken of “the unwinnable, unlosable argument of imagery.” Her phrase goes directly to the heart of how poetry thinks, and I think it furthermore hints at the bond between imagery and negative capability. That is, the way that poetry thinks, which is so often in imagery (and in imagery that imagines thoughts about images), is one of the ways that poetry slips the cuffs of ideologies and beliefs (and of the self and its viewpoint, too) while retaining the value, even the moral value, conferred by witness.
Read the full interview at Concrete & River.