NER poet Heather Christle (“In Order of Appearance,” NER 39.2) talks to fellow poet and NER editorial panel member Luke Brekke about counterpoint, composition, and managing tone—and how she cannot imagine where she’d be without the work of poetry.
Luke Brekke: “In Order of Appearance,” from its title to its final lines, seems to delight in associative energies. I know you’ve been working in a different form over the last several years—on a nonfiction piece about crying. Have you been writing poetry during that time, too? Does this kind of associative movement feel more at home in a poem than in your prose, or does it show up there, as well?
Heather Christle: I did not much write poetry at all for the five years I spent on the crying book, only recently returning to the form this February.
The associative energies—or urges—you mention have been very much at play in the crying book, but I have to keep a different kind of eye on them there, because as they extend over more and more pages they have a tendency to reproduce harmful associative patterns that have little to do with the imagination, and much to do with the hierarchies and systemic oppressions that want to arrange minds. In a poem, I find it easier to maintain the associative energy that—for me—disrupts predetermined movements. I have been so glad and grateful to re-enter that space, to find that it still wants me.
LB: One of the things that always keeps me engaged and charmed and surprised by your poems is the way they manage tone. At times a poem of yours may seem whimsical or playfully absurd, but then there will be a line that runs counter to that, a line that, to borrow a phrase from Marianne Moore, makes “a place for the genuine.” In this poem, some lines that do this kind of work are “I thought of the cowardice / of certain of myselves” or that moment when you refer to your hands as “those most constant of weapons.”
To what extent is developing this kind of counterpoint something you’re conscious of as you compose?
HC: I do not know that it is precisely conscious in composition, at least in its initial moment. Or rather, that tonal shifting is my consciousness, is always there, and when I am able to access poem-making, the words use what they find in my consciousness to do their strange work. The title of this poem, “In Order of Appearance,” is, quite honestly, a description of how the poem was composed: this thinking, in this order, made to occur by language. And it is also my favorite way for movies to credit their performers, because it occupies a strange space between the arbitrariness of the alphabetical and the hierarchy of privileging stars. It’s just . . . linear time. How odd!
LB: Can you talk a little about your “interior peripheral vision”?
HC: I think of it as a space where much of a poem’s desire is located, one that tends to disappear when gazed at directly, which is why the poem spends so much time trying to look elsewhere, so that the desire can remain alive, present, and unobtainable.
LB: Two forces keep opposing each other in this poem—the “swimming mountain” and the speaker’s hate for various people. I kept thinking of Frost’s poem “The Mountain”—were you thinking of it here? It’s also a poem that is actively working to keep an illusion alive. The final stanzas of this poem seem to privilege the imagination as a kind of antidote to the poem’s hates, and they make me wonder where your latest poems are working in regard to that continuum.
HC: I’ve read Frost’s, but did not have it in mind (that I know of) while writing this one. I suppose I should say I was not in that neighborhood of my mind. I was just in the space of wanting to preserve the imagined opposite to a swimming hole and letting the poem use whatever it needed to—whether actual or pretend—in order to not let that swimming mountain flicker out of existence. It had made me happy. I didn’t want it to go away.
The poems I’m writing now do a lot of wandering between worlds possible and otherwise. Or rather, my mind feels more these days like a place where many worlds overlap, where reality and the imagination are lovers, live in the same house, even wear each other’s clothes.
LB: Who are the poets you are reading these days? Who has you excited?
HC: I can’t stop thinking about Renee Gladman’s Calamities, which gave me the feeling of running—Wile E. Coyote-style—out past the edge of a cliff, only to realize that an invisible grid was still holding me aloft in the air and everything around me was sparkling with strange meaning. I am still carrying the feeling of the words around with me. They are like a gold net I can suddenly activate around my body and through which I can see the world. I love that book.
I also just read A. K. Blakemore for the first time and felt that good thrill of finding a new alertness. And I am loving Emily Berry’s long lines in Stranger, Baby. (They are tempting me into trying out some of my own.)
A couple months ago I heard Hanif Abdurraqib read, and while I loved the poems it was an essay he read—centering around Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”—that left me reeling. It was just so loving and graceful. And he read it surrounded by Columbus people, people he’d just returned home to, and the room was full of such warmth I felt lucky to be there.
I love poets. Thank goodness for poets. I know they—we—get things deeply wrong too, but I just can’t imagine where I’d be without this work. Thank you, poets!
Heather Christle is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Heliopause (Wesleyan University Press, 2015). She lives in a small village in Ohio.