NER Managing Editor Leslie Sainz talks with poet Corey Van Landingham about urgency and liberation in persona poetry, the character of silence, and her two poems in NER 43.2.
Leslie Sainz: It’s my understanding that you’re in the process of, or have recently started, teaching a class about how to begin and end a poem. In the spirit of that focus, I’d love to touch on the beginning and ending of “Of the Noble and the Vile,” which, to me, traces a haunting progression towards intimacy. In the first few lines, we’re given the indefinite pronoun “one”: “A canker on the sunken cheek. / One wants to take a thumbnail to it, slough the bluing wound, / flick tongue through hollowed hole.” In the final few lines we’re given, for the first time, the second-person pronoun “you,” which can be read as both an external address and an implication of the speaker-self: “It’s something else / that keeps you up some nights / picturing, off Mykonos, / deep below Alexandria’s blue basin, / thousands of blinkless eyes.” There’s also a sense of multiplication at work—the poem first considers the cheek of a single statue, then concludes with the understanding that there are “thousands” of statues we will likely never recover from underwater. Talk to me about the process of mapping the expanse of the poem—which lines came to you first? How did you determine which beats were emotionally and thematically necessary to arrive at the stillness of this ending?
Corey Van Landingham: Thanks so much for this wonderful question, Leslie, which brings me back, and brings me closer, to the poem and its larger project. And I’m grateful that you’re honing in on those slippery pronouns, which I went back and forth on while revising this poem. I love that idea of a progression of intimacy, which also feels like an ominous progression—the poem wants to act, at first, as though its observations are objective (impossible!), unattached to any particular human, to any particular hands. But by the end of it—and it’s a fairly long poem—the human desire to touch can’t escape with such distance. Because it isn’t just something sensual, but something imperial here. Sure, humans first made these bronze objects, but if it weren’t for their initial displacement, their looting, their being lost to shipwrecks or to the general silt and upheaval of time, all followed by their re-discovery, the objects wouldn’t have corroded. I like to imagine the pristine bracelets, statues, coins shimmering whole without us. I’m glad the “you” can be read as facing externally and internally, because I certainly don’t want the poem, nor the poet, to get by unscathed.
As far as mapping the poem’s origin, I started with that line, “Free of us, bronze sighs.” This poem is part of the very early stages of a new manuscript, and the poems focus on various forms of isolation. While much of that isolation, so far, is portrayed as undesirable, I wanted to include a variety of stances. Art, in isolation—in a kind of quarantine from human economic, and aesthetic, greed—endures. So the poem’s proliferation toward the image of those thousands of eyes on the ocean floor imagines that persistence.
Regarding the class on beginnings and endings—for now, it’s only going to be a couple lesson plans, but I hope to expand that into a semester long class about not only how to open and close a poem, but also a book, as well as the beginnings and endings of poets’ careers. The idea came about after listening to a recording of Frost’s “Directive,” and being reminded of how absolutely enchanting, how mysterious and strange, that first line is—“Back out of all this now too much for us.” I mean, all those monosyllabic words, untethered to anything at first but their own incantation—c’mon!
LS: In a 2019 interview with Pleiades, you mentioned that you were working on a new project that explores the “prismatic effect” of marriage through a “transgressive, contemporary speaker.” I’d be interested to hear if “Her Thoughts on the Hereafter” came about because of this exploration, given your speaker’s direct and indirect acknowledgement that her selfhood had become irrevocably tied to her being a wife. If you’re still working on this project, has it expanded to include persona?
CVL: It did come about in that manuscript! But it also led to this newer project, as a kind of “hinge” poem, allowing me, I think, to move from one manuscript to the next. I often have this problem, as I’m winding down one project and starting another, that I end up creating a kind of liminal could-be-this, could-be-that space, where a poem could be slotted into either. In all honesty, I’m still asking myself whether “Her Thoughts on the Hereafter” belongs in manuscript three (Reader, I, comprised of poems circulating around marriage) or manuscript four (these newer poems of isolation). It would be the only persona poem in the former, and the latter is largely devoted to various personae. It might be tidier to include it with the other personae, but there’s something there, in the poem that juts out of a manuscript a bit, that I’m drawn to.
LS: Let’s stay on the topic of persona. Across your body of work, there’s a characteristic elegance, a lushness to your lyric that elevates even the most quotidian details. And yet you’ve expressed before the desire to experiment with new schticks across projects. Has writing in persona, as you’ve done here in “Her Thoughts on the Hereafter,” provided a sense of liberation from your own voice? How might writing beyond the self, ironically, reveal more about us as authors, as people?
CVL: Liberation, that’s exactly the hope. While there is much artifice, much fiction and imagining in Reader, I, it’s also my most “confessional” book. By the time I finished writing and revising it, I was so sick of that “I,” of all the me me me. Don’t get me wrong—in itself, that book was surprisingly fun (I never thought I’d say that about writing poems) to write. It felt like it captured more of myself, more of my personality, than previous poems where I was often reverting to the sound-like-a-serious-poet thing.
So I wanted to free myself of all that introspection, of the first person’s mise en abyme. But it wasn’t just a choice of perspective, or of subject matter—it was also a choice of style. What would I have to do to my syntax, my usual poetic impulses, if I wasn’t projecting from my own voice? If I wasn’t using any first person, or if I was using the “I” of another figure? It’s a challenge I’m posing to myself, trying to forge a new style, a new way of approaching the page.
That irony you mention is also connected to liberation. Freed from my “I,” I’ve found myself uttering things I may not have had the courage to in poems that are read more autobiographically. That’s part of the thrill of the mask. And even the focus of this new project is probably more personal, more revealing, than I had intended it to be. I’m a fairly solitary person—“a loner,” my mother used to call me. I’m an only child, without much family. I’m not good at maintaining long friendships. I often prefer to be alone.
Maybe writing about other people, even other objects, in solitude is one kind of communion, a way to both limn and veer away from that isolation I find most comfortable.
LS: The epigraph of “Her Thoughts on the Hereafter” names the lost Egyptian city of Thinis as the poem’s setting. This detail reminded me of the lines “There’s hope in the study of things / That a lost world might stay a little longer” from your recent collection, Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens (Tupelo Press). Two questions come to mind—how did you reconcile or employ a sense of urgency when occupying the voice of an unknown woman from a lost city? And what hope did you acquire, if any, when conducting research for this poem?
CVL: Like most poets, I think, my urge to write steps from precarity, from loss, from frustration. It’s a lyric desire, to make things “stay a little longer.” And it’s also a political desire, to amplify often anonymous voices, to allow them the endurance of memory, the privilege of history. That isn’t especially novel—writers have been doing this for centuries. The question of urgency, though, comes down to singularity, to the ability to create a believable mind, a believable voice and presence, on the page. That’s the hope of research, I think—that granularity of real, lived experience. It’s something I’m still working on, merging that with a vibrant voice that can step out from dates and names. I always come back to Lucie Brock-Broido’s persona poems, how they never sound like actual speech—and thank goodness for that, or we never would have gotten the brilliant ending of “Jessica, from the Well”*—but feel like they pulse from an actual, idiosyncratic mind, a kind of hydra sprouted from poet and the persona inhabited.
Initially, I drowned the poem in narrative. I had some elaborate, murder-mystery type plot cooked up, and the poem was much longer.
But it wasn’t the circumstance of her death that mattered, I eventually realized, but the real, human (even if speaking from beyond-the-grave) gravity of losing something you love. In this case, that’s the dog.
LS: Lastly, I’d like to touch on form and the open fields you’ve built into these poems. I’m thinking of Dana Levin’s theory that the open fields between and around our lines represent “the expressive unknown.” This feels especially true to me in the context of your subject matter, which rests at the edge of knowing and remembering. What role does silence play in your formal decisions?
CVL: Oh, Dana Levin is so brilliant!
I appreciate how that sense of “the expressive unknown” is both intellectual and sensual (which doesn’t surprise me, coming from her). And it gestures to that felt mystery regarding white space, the field of the page, what hovers in the spaces between our lines. Silence can be its own character, creating tension with the other voice, or voices, a poem puts forth.
Especially in a poem like “Her Thoughts on the Hereafter,” which is made up of shorter prose stanzas, silence was a crucial part of the writing process. Crucial because I think of it as a kind of adhesive, allowing discrete flights of speech to interact in a single plane. In a lyric poem, especially, that adhesion is temporal. I think that may connect to your question about knowing and remembering, and how silence—and a poem’s formal decisions—relate to that. For a speaker speaking not only from beyond her physical life, but from thousands of years ago, the silence between those sometimes-elliptical prose stanzas feels like I’m tuning into an ancient radio station, catching blips of her voice floating across the airwaves before losing her for a moment in the static. I can’t—this far removed, with so much unknown about her life I’m imagining here—catch all of it, but I can tap into it, put down fragments.
And, outside of this poem, I love how silence can make a statement reverberate, how you can almost feel its wake rippling through the white space of the page.
Leslie Sainz is the author of the debut poetry collection Have You Been Long Enough at Table, forthcoming from Tin House in 2023. The daughter of Cuban exiles, she is the recipient of a 2021 National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship. She is the managing editor of the New England Review.