Photo by Sean Patrick
NER managing editor Leslie Sainz talks with contributor Danielle Cadena Deulen about formal contrast, speculation and POV, and the private language of water in her poems “Lake Box” and “Stalemate” from issue 44.1.
Leslie Sainz: Let’s start by discussing form. Your poem “Lake Box” is a narrow, 16-line prose poem that contains just two sentences. In my reading of the poem, I see a humanity cleaving to the remnants of the natural world post climate point of no return, often via simulation. I’m fascinated by the relationship between syntax, form, and subject in this work. How did you conceive of pairing a musical, protracted lyric with the cell-like physicality of the poem?
Danielle Cadena Deulen: Thank you for such a considerate reading. The poem actually started with the title, which dictated the form, since I knew it had to be in a box! The box shape is so antithetical to what we think of when we think of the roundish, organic form of a lake. It seems somehow sadder and more alien to place a lake—or even the idea of a lake—into right angles. I wanted the poem’s structure to have the sense that it was holding water—a lyric fluidity (with sentences that seemed abundant and cohesive) that contrasted with its constraining shape.
I don’t normally begin my writing process with titling, but in this case, the title came first. I came across it while I was cleaning my child’s room and found a bizarre drawing that rendered the words “Lake Box” in smudged letters so that it looked like the words were evaporating. I thought immediately how it reminded me of Ed Ruscha’s art. I’ll attach an image of it here so you can see what I mean. I set it aside, but didn’t throw it away—kept thinking of it as I cleaned the rest of the room: how “Lake Box” combined the natural and unnatural, how the phrase embodied Capitalism’s tendency to consume the natural in order to replace it with a manufactured approximation (field to pavement, air to smog), or a more entertaining, replicable, sellable version of the original (ocean in a bottle). It seemed ripe for exploring how even the most elemental things in our lives might be commodified and/or replaced in the future. I was so obsessed I even jaunted out of the room for a minute to post my kid’s drawing on social media; I wanted to know if it had the same resonance with others. When I was done cleaning the room, I sat down at my desk and wrote this title at the top of the page, then the first draft of this poem.
LS: I’m always impressed when a poem wields the first-person plural with deftness and stability. To me, this perspective seems inseparable from the element of time, especially in “Lake Box,” with lines like “How these days will arrive to us later, later . . .” and “The eyes of the world forever closed, we’ll say . . .” capturing the tension between individual or collective agency and predetermination. What does this POV afford a poem? What does it take away?
DCD: Yes, indeed: the temporality and POV are linked in this poem, since I’m imagining not just my individual future (like César Vallejo’s poem “I will die in Paris, on a rainy day”) but a collective American future. In this way, it might fall under the category of “speculative poetry” (now I’m thinking of Tracy K. Smith’s “Sci-Fi” and Elizabeth Lindsay Rogers’s “Columbus, Mars”). All literature of speculation, I think, implies a “we” in its imagining. It’s a way of saying, “I see what we’re doing now and this is where I think it will lead us.” The poem begins in the implied present with a consideration of what we are currently losing from the earth but moves swiftly into the future via an imaginative journey where we end at the most distant point: in the purely theoretical. To end a poem in pure thought when it began in a discussion of the material world—the physical magic of lakes—implies the trajectory we are on as a species: that we’re so invested in the idea of Capitalism that we seem to be willing to let go of the physical world entirely. But I like the physical world. I’ve had a lot of beautiful days and evenings swimming in lakes. I don’t want the future I’m imagining, and I suspect no one else does either. The collective POV asks us all to consider where we’re heading together. Of course, using this POV is tricky: I’m assuming so much about the values and lives of my audience—in the first place, that they will be willing to play along and imagine themselves as part of the “we,” or if they’ll feel immediate defensive at having been brought into the poem and refuse the experience of it outright. If they refuse the experience, then they also refuse the rhetoric, of course, and the poem fails in what it was trying to achieve.
LS: Both “Stalemate” and “Lake Box” are profoundly elemental poems in which the element of water is ubiquitous. Whether evoked through the concrete images of a lake, a puddle, a canal, or rain, water seems to be both an emotional texture and an envoy to the more theoretical aspects of these poems. In your own private language, what does the image of water carry and conjure?
DCD: What a beautiful question. I can’t say that anyone has asked me about my own private language of water before. I think of water as the most powerful element on earth—capable of creating and sustaining life but also capable of catastrophic destruction (floods, hurricanes, tsunamis). I also think of it as something quite external to me: I’m not a watery person. If we’re talking elemental characteristics here, I’m probably all earth and fire: my energies tend to be volcanic, for better or for worse. Perhaps that’s why I’m always literally thirsty, and why I tend to be drawn to water and “watery” people: it’s something I feel I lack, so tend to seek out. At the same time, feeling too saturated makes me mushy and ineffective and terribly depressed. I grew up in the Northwest, which is basically a cold rainforest. When I think of my childhood, I think of the rain and the rain and the rain—a melancholic oversaturation of everything. I saw The Neverending Story when I was a girl and whenever I’m sunk in a depression, I always think of that scene in The Swamp of Sadness when Atreyu’s horse Artax loses hope and drowns. How’s that for a high lyric reference! Anyway, when I moved away from Oregon, I moved to the desert—to New Mexico to “dry out.” I think, without really being able to articulate it, I wanted and needed the experience of missing water.
I love your observation of water in my work as an “emotional texture” and “envoy” to abstraction. That seems exactly right to me. I’m thinking of several poems that align water with thought, but especially Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses,” which ends: “It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, / drawn from the cold hard mouth / of the world…” So, there’s my educated association. And while I can get on board with this metaphor, I think its equally plausible to think of water as pure feeling: powerful, vulnerable, responsive, weighty, mutable, impossible to ignore. But thinking of water as a “texture” and “envoy” seems even more perfect. Water is a natural symbol of transition—it holds us in the womb, it cleans us, carries us, keeps us alive. The crossing of a river in a story always means a great shift in the protagonist’s lot. In Greek mythology, Charon carries souls from earth into the underworld across the river Styx. I also think of it as the most sensual of the elements. It’s probably true of all forms of water, though there’s something about a lake specifically that I associate with contained desire. When I think of lakes I immediately think of swimming nude at night. It’s probably no mistake that the poem ends with us all undressing and lying in what’s left of our idea of a lake, in what is perhaps the saddest skinny-dip of all time.
LS: Your third full-length poetry collection, Desire Museum, is forthcoming this fall from BOA Editions. How are the themes, mythologies, and windows of “Stalemate” and “Lake Box” representative, or not, of this larger work?
DCD: Thanks for asking about my new collection. It’s the first book I’ve published in seven years, so I’m ridiculously excited about it. Each section of Desire Museum focuses on a different aspect of desire, which I think of as a catalyst for so many other emotional experiences: romantic longing, of course, but also a sense of hope, ambition, devotion, infatuation, mania, supplication, greed, rapture, etc. Desire is always an aspiration of some kind—a dream of fulfillment. The collection aims to explore what happens when that desire is thwarted, the fulfillment never attained. The first section focuses on the psychological and political traps of desire—what we will allow for ourselves and others while inside our obsessions. The second section is a series of sapphic love poems that explores erotic love, female embodiment, and the transformative power of desire. “Lake Box” is representative of the themes of the third section of the book, which centers on the climate crisis. It expands the idea of “desire” to consider what we, as humans on this hurt planet, want and need for our future. In this poem, you can see how the idea of a lake becomes a longing that cannot be fulfilled, so is commodified. “Stalemate” is from the elegiac fourth section, which meditates on grief and how to accept radical loss. This poem falls right after the longest, densest work in the book, “Museum,” a lyric essay which will be published in Seneca Review and meditates on the suicide of a friend. In “Stalemate,” I tried to illustrate our closeness, how his presence remains a part of my psyche—but formally, I needed it to appear much lighter than the poem that came before it to give readers a visual break. I needed it to “float” on the page. When I stumbled upon this dreamy, fluid form, it felt right. I think of it as a hinge poem in the book, one that turns from grief toward acceptance.
LS: To risk a water pun, what kept you afloat as you were writing these poems? What sustains your creative practice more generally?
DCD: The quick answer is that art sustains my practice—and I mean that in all its forms. Creativity is my favorite attribute of humanity and when I can’t think of anything to say for myself, I love attending to what others have to say: reading, listening to new music, going to art exhibits, watching film, etc. Although, honestly, the time I have for these activities has been greatly protracted since having children…
Desire Museum was seven years in the making. This is the slowest I’ve ever written a book. This is due in part to the emotional and temporal dedication that parenthood requires. But beyond that, these years have been a time of profound change. In part, I’m referring to the events and revelations that have affected people on a national/global scale: the climate crisis, the U.S.-Mexico border crisis, the opioid crisis, the fight for racial justice, the fight for women’s rights, the pandemic, and the moral insanity of our politicians. On a personal level, I’m referring to the births of my children, the deaths of five loved ones, and striding into my forties with a deep sense of regret—not for my actions but for my inaction—for what I hadn’t accomplished and who I didn’t love better.
I don’t process things quickly. In real life, I’m absurdly incompetent in moments of great emotional weight—overreacting or underreacting—because I often don’t know how I feel until long after. It took a long time to understand how to unravel these experiences from discrete moments of grief or rage or joy into the larger narrative of my life, and then it took still longer to understand how to write them for an audience. That’s my aim, anyway: to find something useful to say about the experience of living, to build a connection to other humans. With so much shifting under my feet, I’m hesitant to claim, in retrospect, any particular practice that sustained me, except this: sitting with my own silence and listening to the voices of others. I know that might seem counterintuitive to work that draws from autobiographical material. But I take solace in the fact that mine isn’t the only voice, so I don’t have to have all the answers. When the world feels confusing or overwhelming, I incubate in an attentive silence. I listen and wait.
Leslie Sainz is the author of the debut poetry collection Have You Been Long Enough at Table, forthcoming from Tin House in September 2023. The daughter of Cuban exiles, she is the recipient of a 2021 National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, the Yale Review, New England Review, Kenyon Review, Narrative, and elsewhere. A three-time National Poetry Series finalist, she’s received scholarships, fellowships, and honors from CantoMundo, The Miami Writers Institute, The Adroit Journal, and The Stadler Center for Poetry & Literary Arts at Bucknell University. She is the managing editor of the New England Review.
Danielle Cadena Deulen is an author, professor, and podcast host. Her latest poetry collection, Desire Museum, is forthcoming from BOA Editions in fall 2023. Her previous books include two poetry collections, Lovely Asunder (University of Arkansas Press, 2011) and Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us (Barrow Street, 2015), and a memoir, The Riots (University of Georgia Press, 2011). She is co-creator and host of Lit from the Basement, a poetry podcast, and teaches for the graduate creative writing program at Georgia State University in Atlanta.