Photo by Elizabeth Sanderson
Poet Sarah Wolfson talks with NER 43.4 author Kim Addonizio about intuiting endings, conjuring and consulting with major literary figures, and her poem “Existential Elegy.”
Sarah Wolfson: Who first found their way into this poem: Sartre or the cat?
Kim Addonizio: Great question. Actually, I think Paris came first.
SW: In all seriousness, I’m curious about this poem’s origin story. Could you tell me how “Existential Elegy” came to be and a bit about the process of writing it?
KA: One kind of writing prompt I’ve given my students is to take a quote by some artist or thinker and respond to it. I’m not sure why I was thinking about Paris in the first place, but that led me to de Beauvoir and Sartre and I started reading a bunch of their quotes online. So I had those two elements early on. As for the cat, I would have liked to write about him exclusively but I knew better than to put most of what I wrote into the poem.
SW: The poem feels breezy in its movement but meticulous in its construction. The couplets are practically free-standing, thanks to some well-considered enjambment. How and when do you know a poem has found its form? How did you know when this one had?
KA: I do generally feel that click that Yeats talks about, like the lid of a box closing, when the piece is finished. But it can take a long time to close the box, and often I think I hear a click when I’ve just shoved the box shut out of anxiety and the desire to be done. At the same time, I hate being done, because then I’m not in that space of composition, which is the best place to be—the space where some energy is there in the language and I’m inside of it, working my way out. When I get really stuck, I know I’m nearing the ending. And the ending is always so hard to find. When the process works, to change the metaphor slightly, it’s like those drawers that close with magnets—you finally get close enough and then—whoosh, click.
SW: As its title suggests, “Existential Elegy” is concerned with meaning and loss. The poem imagines de Beauvoir’s and Sartre’s key ideas as literary thought bubbles delivered through perhapsing (“Maybe de Beauvoir,” “probably thinks Sartre”). The poem then juxtaposes these ideas with the speaker’s very concrete, at times mundane existence. In your recent book Now We’re Getting Somewhere, you also engage the ideas of major literary figures, including Whitman, Sontag, Neruda, and Keats. What draws you to invite these voices into your poetry?
KA: Ideas as literary thought bubbles—I love that. As for literary figures, I think of them as fellow travelers. I have my own personal, idiosyncratic relationship with those minds and hearts, as I imagine everyone does.
SW: For me, the heart of the poem occurs when the speaker says, “Everyone I loved was still alive.” It’s a searing moment that joins the general elegiac rumination of the poem’s first half to a singular, intimate story. The line takes me inevitably to the pandemic, to aging. Would you say that a sense of mortality is on the rise in your work more generally?
KA: Hard to say. I’ve been writing about death since my first book. But then, everyone writes about death. It definitely becomes less of an abstract concept as you get older and think, wow, I don’t have all this time anymore. Death of other people, okay, hard enough—and more frequent as you age; one’s own death, though, how to wrap your head around that? (Which makes me ask, what does Keats say? Or Hopkins, or Dickinson or Whitman, or the ancient Greeks? And then I pull them into the discussion.)
SW: I read somewhere that you believe ideas themselves are an overlooked aspect of your poetry, with readers and critics focusing more on its grittier aspects, as if ideas and grit must be held at opposite ends of a taut line. To me, this poem—and many of the poems in your recent book Now We’re Getting Somewhere—are all about ideas. Do you think this misperception of your work is changing? Do you think your work is changing in the way it handles ideas?
KA: One thing I know about other people’s perceptions is that you don’t have any control over them. I care less these days about what anyone thinks about my poems, because I’m confident that I’m writing what I need to write, the way I need to write it. Or really, I should qualify that: I care about readers who can see what I’ve put there. It’s idiotic to have some reductive, binary idea of what can coexist. As for the handling of ideas, I’ve just recently noticed how philosophical my poems are getting. I seem to be thinking and writing about things like time and quantum theory and Buddhism from the perspective of someone who knows very little. I’m just trying to get my head around ideas and beliefs that interest me, so the poems are part of thinking my way through.
SW: What are you working on now? Is “Existential Elegy” part of a larger sequence or collection that’s in development?
KA: Yeah, it is. I’ve got another poem called “Existential Voyage,” and those other pieces about time, etc. I think the next book’s going to be called Exit Opera. Though the title I’m still wistfully thinking of is Journey to the End of American Horror Story Season 1.
SW: Great titles, both of them. I look forward to reading it. Thanks so much for your time.
KA: Did you know the Greeks have three different words for three different kinds of time? I love that. If only we knew what time actually was. But you’re very welcome.
Sarah Wolfson, a former staff reader for NER, is the author of A Common Name for Everything, which won the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry from the Quebec Writers’ Federation. Her poems have appeared in Canadian and American journals including The Walrus, TriQuarterly, The Fiddlehead, AGNI, and Michigan Quarterly Review. Originally from Vermont, she now lives in Montreal, where she teaches writing at McGill University.