Interview with Rebecca Loudon
Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?
RL: Two different questions, but both answered most simply with sound. I am not entirely convinced that poets are made. I have a sense that we are born into it, like Bukowski wrote, Born like this, into this. I am certain that I was born into poetry and into music. I remember wanting to write poems before I could write, before I could read. And perhaps this comes from teaching both poetry and music, but the best poets I know began at an early age, as with the best musicians I know. I believe (in most cases) it takes years to master any art. I realize this isn’t a popular opinion and I worry that it makes me sound like a snob which I probably am. So it goes.
Music was my first language. And poetry was not far behind. I was raised in a family of musicians. My father played bassoon, my mother piano. She taught piano lessons. There was opera, symphonies, contemporary music, and musicians traipsing in and out, jamming or practicing, all of it in our house all the time. My grandfather was born on Robert Burns’ birthday, and he read those poems to me in a crazy Scottish brogue. He also read the vagabond poems of Don Blanding, Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis, poems by Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Shakespeare, newspapers, anything that was at hand. These were his books and he had a terrific voice and loved to hear himself. I was the only grandchild willing to sit still for him. I had A Child’s Garden of Verse from which my mother read, but those poems bored me. I memorized them easily, and longed to go back to my grandfather for more of the adventures of Archy, the cockroach with the soul of a poet, and my grandfather’s booming voice. And there it was again, the combination of words and sound. I should never write this early in the morning. (I began this at 6:30 AM.)
I started violin lessons at the age of 5 and while I know this question is about poetry, I’ve never been able to separate poetry and music in my head. They come from the same source, they are the same thing. This is the only consistent answer I’ve ever given in any interview.
By the time I was 9 years old I was seeking out and reading poetry on my own. I discovered my mother’s college literature book and I sat outside under the cottonwood tree and memorized long poems and recited them to whomever would listen which was usually the horses out in the pasture as I was a solitary child as I am a solitary adult. I memorized The Raven and Shakespeare sonnets and Little Orphan Annie by James Whitcomb Riley. I memorized music, whatever I was practicing. I memorized the scripts to entire episodes of I Love Lucy and just about anything that entered my head. I contained all those words, all those sounds, so when the time came to write my childhood poems the words were there for me. And the music.
(I’m doing this incorrectly aren’t I? I’ve never known how to behave inside an interview. Either I have too much to say including all my crackpot theories, or I have nothing to say.)
The first poem I read that shook me to my bones was James Dickey’s Falling. I think it was in a copy of The New Yorker. I remember exactly where I was when I read it, what I was wearing, where my desk was in the room, and what the dust motes looked like floating in the air. The poem and that moment was pivotal for me. I already had a ton of romantic swill under my belt, had discovered Sylvia Plath, wore pounds of black eye liner and had shaved off my blond eyebrows to draw heavy black serious poet eyebrows in their place (this was the 60s after all.) My poems were filled with black boats and true love, but after I read Falling things changed for me. I realized that poetry could move around on the page, that poetry didn’t have to be static, that it could be whatever I wanted it to be. I wrote my first serious poem when Martin Luther King was assassinated. By serious, I meant I was willing to share it, I wanted people to read it. This was 1968. I was 15 years old.
And here I come to a complete stop because I was living outside by then, and by this I mean I had been thrown out of my house and was living as a street kid while still attempting to go to school, and I’m not sure about how much of this I want to reveal. I rarely write about it. One more thing I have to include here, is that I was in New York in 1972 and I saw Diane Arbus’s posthumous retrospective exhibition at the MoMA, and that was the second pivotal experience that changed my ideas about poetry, about art, about being brave inside my work, owning up to the truth as I experienced it, not backing down to anything that felt outside the circle of normal and ignoring what anyone else thought.
Poems begin for me from practice. When I am practicing my violin, when I am practicing drawing, when I am practicing writing. I used to write every day in notebooks. Not just poems, but anything I thought of. Then I switched to my blog to continue my daily writing practice. I believe that the mastery of any art comes from mastery of practice. It’s kind of weird. I don’t think many poets think in terms of daily practice. Maybe it’s from spending a lifetime as a musician. But we have these muscles, not even muscles—tissue, tissue memory. Practice strengthens that tissue memory. When I practice Bach every day then it’s my tissue memory that can perform Bach, not my fingers, not my brain. My brain just gets in the way of things, slows me down. It’s the same with writing. I’ve learned to have a notebook by my side pretty much all the time to jot down ideas. This is practice. This and reading.
When I rehearse, I write during rehearsal breaks. Pages and pages of fast unreadable penmanship inside my cheap notebooks. Poetry begins for me while I am reading. I am an unstoppable reader. I find poetry everywhere. In novels in cookbooks in roadmaps in billboard advertisements in history books on the back of cereal boxes. I jot ideas and words and whole lines and possible titles in my notebook. I let these simmer and later on I use these to form poems or discover that I have been slowly writing poems all along.
The type of poem that comes all at once as a complete being is very rare for me. I call these poems godrush poems. They’re rarely any good. God ignores me as a poet. I am not much of a talker but I am an expert eavesdropper. I steal conversations. I put them in my notebook and use them later. I pay attention. I just stopped writing this and went outside to water and rake my garden. My garden gives up lots of poems. I can imagine being just about anywhere when I am digging in the dirt. I think after a certain point, after a number of years or after a number of poems, and that number is arbitrary, a poet becomes a poet, becomes alive in the river of poetry so to speak. Lives in the river all the time. Poetry is happening all the time in the brain. I don’t think it stops flowing once we are there. We can ignore it, certainly, but I don’t think poetry, like men and Jesus, ever abandons us.
Tom, that’s it for this question. I need to go pull some weeds before it starts to rain.
TB: We're about the same age. I was born in 1953. On my 16th birthday the first man walked on the moon. While you were mastering the violin, I was perfecting air guitar.
Ron Silliman once told me that the most important attribute a poet can have is discipline. You certainly seem to have that. I'm a little more wayward, I guess.
What do you want from writing? What do you hope for (expect?) from a poem?
RL: A map is the most basic thing I want and need from my writing. A map from yesterday to today. A map from 1968 to next week. I want a north arrow, a legend, degree tick marks, time zones, a legend, latitude and longitude lines, mountains with ridges I can trace with my fingers, blue rivers, street names, oceans and springs, lakes, Arctic definitions and national parks, highways marked in red, historical monuments and wildlife preserves, capes and points and peninsulas, fjords and inlets, archipelagos and live volcanoes, and an impossibility of folding the map back to its original configuration. And that is what I want from each poem, each story, each letter, each blog post that I write. I want a map so I can find my way back.
I’ve written too much about my brain being miswired. I’ve been honest about being bipolar I, a popular disease these days among poets. It’s almost embarrassing. Anyone who has even a slight mood swing claims bipolar disorder. It’s so dark and romantic! It’s so Sylvia. In truth, it’s not all that much fun. I spent years trying to control it myself until I was properly diagnosed in my 20s, then I was fairly stable for a good long time, until I lost my job in 2002. Once my unemployment ran out I was once again unmedicated, and I started my blog to map my journey, my clichéd and quite public fall from grace. It was terrifying. And it was dangerous. But I kept writing all the way through. I wrote two books, then I found my new job, and I wrote 2 more books. I’ve never really stopped writing because if I do, I’m afraid I’ll lose my way, I’ll forget, I’ll get lost in the forest.
I read my own stuff a lot. For one thing, I’m in love with it. I think all writers should be in love with their own work. If they’re not, they’re off the track somehow. They’ve made a wrong turn. I don’t believe in false modesty. I don’t believe art can come about without a great deal of ego. I read my books, I read my blog, I read my notebooks, I read my poems and things come to light. When I’m writing, in the act of writing, I don’t usually know exactly where I’m going, only that I have to get somewhere. Once I get to where I’m going, I read my work and it’s a giant AHA! Ohh, that’s what was troubling me, delighting me, frightening me, making me panic or dance. My writing informs my life. In this poem, I started at point B and ended up in a village in Norway. I have the map. My life solidifies in my head. Things that are easy for other people, for instance the real world, become more bearable for me when I know where I’m going, where I’ve been.
I don’t consider an audience when I write. That would stop me cold. That’s what makes this interview more difficult for me than writing on my blog. I didn’t have a huge burning desire to have a book or even a few poems published. That part came embarrassingly easy for me. I put my poems out and up and was invited to submit. Two editors who believed in me invited me to submit my collections. I’m not saying I don’t love to have my poems read and responded to. That’s sheer delight, but losing my audience would never keep me from creating my map.
I think I was pretty clear about what I expect from my work, so I will address what I expect from the poetry of others. I read poetry to find out about the world. I fall in love with poems that are dynamic as opposed to static. Static poems bore me immediately and I stop reading them, because there isn’t enough time in my life for mediocre poetry. I just finished writing a review for Aase Berg’s With Deer, a small enough collection that took me over two months to read, to parse, to absorb. Berg’s book was so full of surprising language and strange darkness and bumps in the attic that I spent days thinking about each poem. This is a good example of dynamic poetry. I like poetry that makes me laugh, that takes chances, that isn’t afraid to look stupid, that is more likely to run down the street naked than lounge by the pool with a mojito. I expect poetry to teach me something. Anything. Even if it’s just a different way to consider a zombie. I don’t want to be preached to, but I don’t mind listening to the choir if the choir is good and can interpret the music in a new way. I love to learn how to see the world differently through a poem. Maxine Kumin wrote about horses and those poems broke my heart because they differed from my horse experience. Brigit Pegeen Kelly wrote a poem called The Dragon. I wasn’t too crazy about most of that book but that poem lit my head on fire and I memorized it. I thought about it for days, then went back and reread The Orchard to see what I missed the first time around. Sometimes I read too fast. I have to take my time with poems or I might miss the entire show.
/ The bees came out of the junipers, two small swarms / The size of melons; and golden, too, like melons, / They hung next to each other, at the height of a deer's breast, / Above the wet black compost. And because / The light was very bright it was hard to see them, / And harder still to see what hung between them. / A snake hung between them. The bees held up a snake, / Lifting each side of his narrow neck, just below / The pointed head, and in this way, very slowly / They carried the snake through the garden /
--from The Dragon by Brigit Pegeen Kelly
I have little patience with didactic poems, poems that take themselves too seriously, poems that are reverential. I think deep play is a necessary part of the creative process. Poems that wear fake moustaches and try to sneak into the 7-11 to buy beer bore me. Nature poems that do not embrace both dark and light bore me. I think any poetic “rule” can be broken if the writer is original and practices his or her craft. And there it is again. Practice.
TB: I have some experience with feeling miswired. I was an epileptic kid. I've had experience with depression and some other issues. I think being bipolar is much tougher. I intuit that it's made you tougher, too.
Let's be clear. I don't think there's anything romantic about brain chemistry mysteries/issues. I think the body's a chrysalis for good and evil, for beauty and ugliness, for pleasure and sorrow. We're all captives of our bodies in some sense. Which isn't to say we can't dance the funky chicken now and then. Or open surprise packages of bacon or chocolate.
That map of yours sounds like a lifeline, an artery heading straight from the heart. I'm a little envious, Rebecca. I think you've accessed something important and rare.
What attracted me to your work, which I know incompletely, is its aroma, its atmosphere, the savage playful tenderness you bring to your (dare I say?) oeuvre. (Things always do sound a little better in French.)
Anyway, what am I rambling toward? That sense of deep play in action, I guess. I'm wondering how you stop, start and work your way through an actual poem. I mean, within the river of poetry you're accessing, you're also making a lot of decisions. I'm interested in learning about your process/practice in a little more detail.
RL: Deep play is almost my religion. It pushes back the dark. I am always uncertain. There is not enough time to do what I have to do. This anxiousness shows itself in my poetry. I never hold it back, but I don’t take myself too seriously, as a writer. I am trying every day to get out of the house. To go outside and breathe and pay attention. Deep play is my sense of the absurd. I grew up in a terrible house. I learned to defend myself at an early age. This, a somewhat skewed world view, was my weapon as well as my shield. There was no internet to usher me into a family, a network, an artistic community. I’ve never had any kind of community, really. I’ve never wanted one. I’ve only had this lightness and darkness. Deep play keeps my passion from slopping over into obsession. Obsession can be dangerous. It has deep eddies. It doesn’t play by the rules. If you are a runner you must be light on your feet. You have to skip over the potholes.
I like it first to be art.
I like it to express the zeitgeist.
As for the actual building of my poems, I am an incurable insomniac, so I write at night, when I am in bed and my window is open and I’m listening to the rain or a storm, or the weird screechy seabirds. I don’t listen to music or the television when I write. I don’t drink. I need quiet. My own breath and the sound of my house groaning and gulping its ecstatic sorrow. I feel relaxed and safe in my bed, and this is where my work happens. I read through my notebook to see what I’ve scribbled and sometimes I find the bare bones of a poem in those notes and when I start to write I do so without stopping. I have learned that it is important for me to push past my notes, to write everything that comes into my mind. It’s much easier to cut entire stanzas when I’m revising than trying to invent them later. My nasty little inner critic is tied up in the basement with a piece of duct tape over her mouth. I let her out later. I write deep into the night, pages and pages, and hopefully I go where the poems want me to go, though I’m not afraid to write crap. I think we all have to write crap every now and then. I believe that each poem carries the seeds of the next poem in its mouth and that if I skip a poem, no matter how crappy, I’ll stumble. Often, frequently, my poems are letters to people I’ve known. My entire second collection, Radish King, was both a love letter and a book of break-up poems. They were written as a specific response to a specific person. Sometimes I begin with a title. I never begin with a last line in mind. It is an important part of my process to let the poems go where they want to go. I revise like mad. These days I revise poems on my blog. I used to revise on Word™ documents but I get loose and frantic with Word™ documents and I tend to lose them (as you’ve already discovered.) I put complete drafts of poems on my public blog, but I also have private blogs, nonpublic blogs where I write and revise. One of them is for short stories only. I wrote my chapbook on a blog so my editor could see what I was up to. Revising on a blog gives me control over the latest revision. I always know exactly where to find it. Document control!
They have voices like human beings, but their roars are proverbs.
The psychotropic drugs I take for my bipolar disorder make it difficult for me to concentrate so I write much more slowly than I used to. I write about half as many poems as I used to write in a year. I worried about this for a long time, but I’ve decided that profligacy isn’t such a big deal. I had to decide that. My poems are inverted fairy tales. They frighten me, so I hide jokes and gags and whoopee cushions inside of them to buoy myself, to make it easier to keep going. Deep play. Cadaver Dogs was a terrifying book for me to write. I started in the middle and worked my way to the edges. Writing that book kicked the slats out from under me. It knocked me out. I’m still feeling it. I revealed a lot of myself in that book. Of course I reveal myself in all my books, but in this one I named names. And yet I never lost sight of deep play. I couldn’t.
You can do anything you will to do.
I never stop writing. I’ve never experienced writer’s block. I have what I call perverse desire, which I think is key to being an artist of any kind. When I write, my brain, that tarty grifter, gives me access to a truer world. I’m not even sure I’m a poet. How can one call oneself a poet? Isn’t that like calling oneself a genius? Isn’t it up to my readers to decide if I’m a poet or not? I don’t think I’m like most writers. Then again, I don’t know a lot of writers, really know them, so I have no way of quantifying that statement. My path has always been sideways and crablike and weird and extremely solitary and not altogether healthy. I do not call myself a poet. I am a musician. I am a mother. I am a writer. I am a painter. Perverse desire drives me and, of course, curiosity.
Tom, I hope you don’t mind the quotes. I stuck them in because I’ve lately started a new painting and I’ve been thinking about Alice Neel, how she kept on painting portraits even when abstract expressionism came into vogue. She had perverse desire, for true, as did Henry Darger, a reclusive, rare outsider artist, who created entire worlds in his head, and worked his whole adult life as a janitor. This conversation made me think of the both of them.
TB: Rebecca, I love quotes. I love how quotes can express love and provide all kinds of different avenues of approach and flight.
I'm just back from a crazily beautiful 3 day weekend of conversation, poetry, food, books and art in Buffalo, NY. Geof Huth and I improvised a public talk around a yearlong interview we did together and read from our work to boot. I feel intellectually energized and physically exhausted. I have to mention this because I rarely have these kind of opportunities.
During my time in Buffalo I went, in good company, to the Albright-Knox Art Museum. One of the art works which most moved me was a piece by Agnes Martin. It was called, if memory serves, "Tree." Against a field of white acrylic paint Martin drew with a relatively straight edge innumerable horizontal and vertical graphite (pencil) lines. It's a subtle work of austere and obsessive beauty.
I thought of you when I saw that Martin piece. It's analogous to what I think about and feel in the presence of Bach's music and/or a really good Steve Reich piece such as his Violin Phase. Obsession, I want to say, is an engine of beauty, don't you think?
RL: I think obsession is a thing of terrifying beauty. An engine, perhaps, but an engine that is overheated and about to throw itself off an unimaginable cliff, lacking its housing. I looked at a picture of the Agnes Martin painting and I agree, it is analogous (somewhat) to what I feel in the presence of Bach’s music. For me there is a fine line between passion and obsession. Passion is healthy, obsession is not, not for me. I have this theory about obsession, as I have lived inside it.
In my music and in my poetry, practice, discipline, is the perimeter I walk—what I call THE CIRCLE OF OBSESSION. If you say THE CIRCLE OF OBSESSION you have to say it in a stentorian voice, and all in caps. It’s a thin line, that perimeter, and it has no obvious physicality. It’s almost almost almost impossible to know when I step or fall or stumble or careen off that perimeter unless I watch closely for the signs. I’m writing and deleting so maybe I’ll stop doing that for the time being and just write.
At risk of being thrown out of the POET’S CLUB for good, I’ll tell you a story in which music plays a part. A few years ago I had an audition for an orchestra. The audition was hard. Some Mozart, a Bach partita or sonata of my choosing, some sight reading. I practiced constantly. I took my violin to work and practiced in the factory. If there wasn’t room in the factory, I’d practice in the bathroom. I practiced at home late into the night in my bedroom. I heard the partita when I closed my eyes. I heard it as I assembled airplanes. I heard Bach in my head when I slept or dreamed or ate. It got hard, almost impossible, for me to have a conversation with anyone because the music was so loud in there, inside. When I stepped out to go to the grocery store, I’d find I had grabbed my violin and taken it along, as though it had become a true extension of my body. We were connected. We were conjoined. This was good and true. I was learning and my body was remembering.
The audition was in August, and as summer’s heat and longer days arrived, I practiced more and more and slept less. Then I got to the point where I couldn’t eat or sleep. I couldn’t read or write. All I did was practice and build airplanes. I started showing up at work with unmatched shoes. I’d forget to brush my hair for days in a row. I sat on the bus with my violin between my legs and I’d drum fingerings on the top of the case oblivious to what was happening around me. At one point, when I was practicing late at night, I began hearing a telephone ring. It seemed to be coming from my closet. I was sure it was Bach, calling about my intonation. Or my crappy bow arm. This continued for a week or two and didn’t seem the least bit odd. Finally I went to the grocery store and I was standing under the fluorescent lights looking at a pyramid of vegetables and I heard Bach, my partita, playing through the store’s speakers. I turned to a woman next to me and said, I never knew they played classical music in here! She gave me that look. She moved away. And then I realized it was just ordinary Muzak. I had translated it in my head into Bach or I had projected Bach into the carrots. Whatever it was, I realized it was time to rein myself in. While writing is indeed a tightrope walk, playing the violin alone to an audience is a different kind of animal. There are physical pitfalls. There is nervousness, anxiety, fear, all things that affect the body itself that I don’t have to worry about when I’m writing a poem safe in my bed.
I had fallen off the perimeter into the (outside) the vast dark dream of obsession. It was pretty easy, too. It only took a summer. And it did not serve me well. When time came for the audition, I did not play as well as I might if I had just spent some time swimming or breathing. Or brushing my hair.
I have had similar experiences with poetry, especially while proofing the galleys for a book. In particular, my second collection, Radish King. The book was being shuttled between editors and each time I edited it, it came back with more typos. Hard to find typos, like the end letter of a word being in a different font. The typos were different with each galley. They grew each time I proofed it. I got to the point where I became so stressed that I couldn’t even look at the words. I printed them in blue ink so they’d look new. I printed them in blue ink then read them upside down to force myself to slow down. I panicked. It became nightmarish for me. I had to have an acquaintance kidnap me and drive me around in his car so I could read the poems to him in order to find the typos that kept multiplying. I hated that book. It took me a long time to learn to love those poems again. I had fallen over the edge.
I have learned to look for signs that I am flying past passion and tumbling over the perimeter; missing shoes, bad hair, auditory hallucinations. For me, obsession will most likely be my downfall if I don’t tread the edge with extreme caution.
This kind of obsession doesn’t happen for me very often when I am writing poetry, when I’m in the actual muddle of the process. Joy, certainly, fear sometimes, but I am in control. I know what I’m doing. The forest may not look familiar but I know enough not to step into a knee-deep hole and have my shoe sucked off by mud as I try to extricate myself.
TB: I am struck by the importance of flight in your work. It figures in your Amelia Earhart book and in some of the Radish King poems also. Can we talk about how flying figures in your thought and your life?
RL: I feel like I’ve revealed a great deal of myself so far. It kind of makes me itchy and worried that I might sound like an idiot or worse. I worry that none of this is interesting. Of course it is to me because I have a gigantic ego *rimshot* so I will go forward. My maternal grandfather had a small airplane, and my cousins and I got to fly with him, so airplanes were in my consciousness at a young age. I started flying in big airplanes by myself from Spokane to relatives east and south when I was 8 years old. Those were long distances for a kid on her own. My stepfather at the time had worked at Boeing for years, then he retired and he too was in love with airplanes. My father sold used cars, my grandfather sold cars and my brother was a natural mechanic, and there were always engines around and pieces of cars and this idea of how joyful it could be to take an engine apart and put it together. I was probably 9 when I first got my hands into a car engine. I loved the simplicity of it. Spark and fuel. The mantra of the mechanic. There was physical and mental beauty to parts that fit together perfectly every time if you just knew where to put them. Engines had logic, something missing from my messy brain. They soothed me the way the great rolling engine of Bach’s music soothes me now. This piece fits here yes, and this piece fits here, yes, and with all the pieces in the right place you can go very fast or you can fly.
I started working at Boeing when I was 33 years old, a single mother with a child in an expensive private school. My hours were intense, 12 hour days for 3 weeks, then a weekend off. These hours were mandatory. I took my son to the house of another mother at 4:30 in the morning, and she took the kids to school. I brought them home. I had no family to help out. I built airplanes and I wrote poems and I played my violin on the shop floor during lunch or in the bathroom if there was no room on the floor because that was the only time I had to practice. Times were scrappy, but by god, I loved my job. Building wire bundles for airplane engines, attaching them to the engine housings, the sounds of riveting ricocheting in my head as I rode the bus home every night. After 5 years I moved to the Everett plant to work on all aspects of the planes and on my first day I saw a man, Bill Bell, reading a book of poems by T.S. Eliot and I thanked god. And then I introduced myself. Bill and I became friends, and worked the same line, and we wrote poems on pieces of scrap paper and sent them back and forth to each other and for each other. We were consumed with perverse desire. I wrote more when I was working in the factory than I ever have since. I am sure it was the strict attention to detail on the planes that corralled my brain and allowed the words to flow. I worked in the factory for 15 years until my thumbs gave out. I had joint reconstruction surgery on both thumbs and continued to write. I wrote pages and pages of poetry. I took them home and stuck them in a drawer. They’re still there, along with Bill’s poems.
I quit my job at Boeing because my hands could no longer handle the work. I took a job at Microsoft which drove me round the twist. I hated it there. Computers. Snobs. Hitler Youth rallies every time we launched a product. I missed being on the line, the airplanes, their sleek bodies, their flawless engines. Women in jeans and steel toed boots. Eventually I got laid off. I continued to write. First my collection, Tarantella, and then the poems for Radish King. I was in a stormy and weird relationship when I wrote Radish King. I was dealing with a lot of frustration and anger. I noticed, as I wrote the poems, that a lot of people were falling out of airplanes and a lot of airplanes were falling out of the sky (in my poems, that is.)
I want to do it because I want to do it.
I finally made it back to Boeing by going through a temp agency, but I was no longer working on the planes themselves. After a year there, Radish King was almost ready to go to press, and Reb Livingston asked me if I had a manuscript in the works. This was winter, right when Amelia showed up and started whispering in my ear. My furnace was broken and my landlord didn’t fix it for a month. I had no heat in my drafty little house and spent a lot of time in front of the fire inhaling smoke. I was sick, but continued to go to work. As I drove in the mornings, I heard Amelia whispering in my ear. I literally heard her. She was telling me a story. Now before you go making that universal finger-beside-the-ear twirling sign, I will tell you that I had pneumonia and was going to work with a very high fever. I drove to work with Amelia talking to me and I wrote everything she said in my notebook which was open on the passenger seat. (Okay, maybe I had tumbled into obsession at that time with Amelia, but in an off-center way.) Within 2 weeks I had a terrible cough and the entire manuscript for Navigate, Amelia Earhart’s Letters Home, which I sent to Reb at No Tell Books. She accepted it after about 300 years. I dedicated the book to my the closest friends in the factory, friends who are still friends now, except for Cheryl who died of cancer at 33. I got my furnace, finally, and my fever went away, and I started breathing again.
I want to write about flying, about learning how to fly the plane, about how I can never get a recreational pilot license and the reasons why, but I’m not sure I want to reveal all that. Not while it’s still ongoing. I don’t think I really answered your question. One thing I want to do when I retire, is buy an airplane kit and build my own small plane. I want to do it because I want to do it.
TB: Rebecca, your answer was great.
I'm fascinated that you wrote Navigate, Amelia Earhart's Letters Home when you were sick with pneumonia. How does physicality, your sense of bodies as such, figure in the way you think and feel about your work as a poet?
RL: Physicality is the most important aspect of my writing. It comes from being raised by badgers. And not friendly cute Narnia type badgers. It comes from being unsheltered and terrified and on my own at a very young age. I had to grow street smart real fast. I carried my house on my back like a turtle. I learned early on to defend myself against my mother, my brother, any number of step-fathers and the occasional pervert who stopped me on the street to tempt me into his car. This happened a lot in Spokane, a prosaic town if there ever was one. I never told anyone about these experiences. I thought I brought them on myself. I thought I was guilty even though I was a child. There was no such thing as stranger danger back in the good old days. My first sense of physical danger came from my family of origin, and later from the world at large. Physicality equaled survival.
Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.
Tarantella, my first collection of poetry, was a surprise, a gift, an offer from an editor who liked my work. I tiptoed around inside of it. It contained love poems to dead composers and saints and childhood heroes, but it also contained a few poems that explored a measure of my physical self—poems about epilepsy, poems about spider bites and rashes and vertigo and tremors and mental illness. These poems were a stepping off point for me. I was still finding my way around what was important, what mattered beyond pretty, beyond thoughtful. I was censoring myself. I wanted it to be right. I wanted to please my son, my editor, everybody. I got over that pretty quick. It wasn’t me. I am not, by nature, a person who worries about what people think. By the time I was writing the poems for my second collection, Radish King, (I was writing these poems the entire time Tarantella was going through the slaughterhouse of publication), I had learned that the only way I was going to be happy inside of poetry was if I told the truth and fuck the audience. For one thing, it was clear that I didn’t really have an audience, just an eclectic group of like-minded poets, or people who came to see my stand up comedy routines that I called readings. This made my job easier. I went forward with Radish King and didn’t give a damn what anyone thought. In Radish King, I told the truth as hard as I could. I didn’t hold back or censor. One of my teachers, Sharon Olds (haha! name dropper!), told me my poems were feral. She called me monster girl. This is not to say I didn’t revise. I always revise, but the poems tumbled out fast and raw and they were all physical and they were sublime and they were furious. I didn’t hold back. I didn’t consider it, not even once. I knew I was on the right track because when I read some of the poems aloud, I cried. Not trembly girly tears but hot burning tears, the kind of tears that come from buried places in the body. The kind of tears that orgasm sometimes bring. Animal tears.
You played very well but I would like you to take the fourth sonata of Beethoven and figure it out for yourself.
Once I was writing Radish King, all my pistons seemed to be chugging along smoothly. Lots of people didn’t understand the poems but some people did. They understood them and they felt them. I had willingly stepped out of the Pacific Northwest tradition of polite nature poetry. I was writing selfishly. I wrote what I wanted. I was in a poetry workshop at the time and I was being told you can’t do that. I saw big question marks floating over other poet’s heads. My poems were puzzling. They weren’t easy. I wrote about sex. I cursed. I raged and threw tantrums and made myself laugh. I let my poems dress up in heels and fancy dresses and I let them get naked and roll around in the front yard. I let them set fire to barns and churches and airplanes and railroad tracks. I had to figure it out for myself, and once I did, poetry opened a door to my sexuality, spirituality, physicality and language.
In Navigate, Amelia Earhart’s Letters Home, I wrote Amelia as a lesbian. I was certainly familiar with her life, her history. There is so much written about her and so much that she herself wrote, but her attraction to women was something that had been kept quiet, in most circles. There is no way to know for certain. I had to go by my instincts, my gut feelings, and listen carefully to what she was whispering to me. It is interesting to me that men responded positively to Radish King, while it was mostly women who really took to Navigate. Perhaps they responded with their bodies as well as their intellect.
It seems almost redundant to write about Cadaver Dogs in terms of the body. A few people actually asked me if the book was about dead dogs. Uh, no. Every poem in Cadaver Dogs was part crime scene, part fairy tale, and part of my personal history. There were things I needed to air out. There were grievances and terrors and discoveries upon which I needed to shed light. Things got easier after my first book. I knew some things by then. I had grown a bit as a writer. I became selfish inside my art. I wrote to please only myself and I’ll never turn back from that. The poet Ivy Alvarez wrote, Each of the poems has the feel of a crime study. Little crimes. Small dioramas and dissections. And she was exactly right. The poems I’m working on now are a natural springing forward from Cadaver Dogs. The dogs gave me courage, as they almost always do.
TB: You write, you say, to please yourself only. I'm wondering though about your thoughts in regard to the social value of art and of your own artistic gestures. You're not, after all, writing for the drawer. You publish your work, put it forward, do readings, etc. You write to please yourself, but you also make your work available to be seen and heard (thank you, by the way).
RL: When other people my age were publishing their first books and earning their degrees, I was living on a commune with a bunch of hippies, milking goats, riding horses, baking bread and bathing in the river. I was most certainly writing, constantly, and these poems were for the drawer. I read. I found poetry books through the Mildred Hatch Free Library, an amazing thing for those of us truly off the grid. All I had to do was write and ask for a book of poetry and it would make its way up the mountains of Humboldt County and into my hands. There was no television, no radio, no internet, no cell phones. All we had was a slightly odd orchestra. The nearest post office was a five mile drive away. I wrote poems and baked bread and read and rode the horses and wrote more poems and read. I wrote love letters to myself. Once I came back to the city, I spent my time building airplanes, raising my son, going to rehearsals every night and writing. And reading. All the time. Every day. All those poems were for the drawer. I still had no television but I had library cards for several counties and I had all the books I needed. I had no community to guide me, to tell me that publishing and giving readings was the be-all-end-all of the poetry game. The only community around me told me to go home and practice Mozart and Beethoven, and I did. I was happy to write and shove my poems in the drawer. I’d say my drawer held about 35 years of pretty good poems in it.
There’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you.
It wasn’t until about 11 years ago that I sent any of my poems into the world to be published, and that was only because I joined a poetry workshop out of curiosity, and the woman who ran the workshop gave us tidy envelopes with stamps already attached and encouraged us to “send our stuff into the world.” The first time I did, I had a poem published. I got lucky. I sent poems out the door sporadically after that, and sometimes I hit pay dirt, but I didn’t (and still don’t) believe that anyone read those poems except for the people who were published in the same journals, if that. I continued to read poetry wherever I found it, but I never considered publishing a book. Again, that push wasn’t there inside me—perhaps because I was outside of the poetic community (thank the gods.) It wasn’t until I began my first blog in 2003 that I started getting feedback from poets who read my work and liked what they found there. I had editors stop by my blog and ask me to submit poems to their journals, and I usually did. Once I started the Radish King blog where I posted and revised and practiced, 2 editors asked me if I had a manuscript hanging around that they could look at, and I really didn’t, but I figured I could build one out of the poems living in my drawers. Once again, I got lucky. I started giving readings to sell books. It’s the only polite thing to do when an editor shows enough interest in your manuscript to publish it. I did gain an audience of sorts, or I gained an audience for my blog and those people discovered my poetry accidentally. It’s not a big audience but it’s fiercely loyal.
Does my poetry have any social value? Absolutely not. It’s not even socially relevant. Can you imagine Garrison Keillor reading it on The Writer’s Almanac with his sad Eeyore voice? He’d stroke out! My poems are personal and twisty and raw and they curse and bleed and bitch and I make fun of myself inside of them and it doesn’t even make a drop in the bucket of social value, as I understand the term. I’m not sure poetry has any social value at all. Certainly it contains a kind of cultural expression, in the way that Alice Neel did all those years with her portraits that embodied the look, the zeitgeist, of each decade. The only time that poetry is of social value is to other poets, and usually that’s either a masturbatory party of false good cheer and warm praise, or a bunch of hungry jackals feasting on the marrow of their jackal peers. Of course poetry has social value when there’s a wedding or a funeral or a presidential inauguration to be had. Then poetry is trotted out like a musty old aunt wearing shoes three sizes too small and reading a poem about trees. But from what I’ve seen, poets are a pretty elitist group. And so are classical musicians, but everybody knows that music has social value. Who doesn’t love music? Then again, we have to split the reed further because there are generative arts and there are interpretive arts. I don’t compose music, I play music, I interpret music, but I write libretti, and I wrote the libretti for a 5 part song cycle for soprano and orchestra, and I got to play in the orchestra when the piece was premiered. That gave me a good feel for how generative and interpretive arts are different and yet the same, but I seem to have fallen off the train tracks here.
As far as the social value of ART goes, I think I feel pretty much the same way as I do about my poetry. Art can move people to the point of change, but who are the people looking at the art, listening to it, reading it? Other artists. Unless the art in question is religious or contains sexual overtones. There is a history of art, of paintings being destroyed, and they are almost always religious. There are uprisings of the Christian right burning books. I just purchased my grown son a copy of Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, because it was his favorite book as a child and now it’s in danger of being banned. I’m not sure if this speaks to social values or to the power of the zealot. If I took a poll of my office right now and asked each person what they thought of art, they’d speak of television shows they love, movies where lots of shit gets blown up, and pictures of kittens. They all know I write, they’ve seen my books, they know I’m a violinist, but no one talks about it. I’m accepted here because I work hard and I’m a clown, but they see me as a person with a tail or a bear who has learned a complicated dance step. Is my office a microcosm of the world at large? Probably.
TB: I feel much the same about my own office.
Does a sense of risk figure in your poetry writing?
RL: I think there has to be great risk involved in any art if that art is to be authentic. If there is no risk, then art is simply derivative with a little glitter thrown in to fool the eye. I’ve never found artistic pursuit to be comfortable. If I’m having fun, if I’m lalala-ing and thinking about what I want to make for dinner, or maybe shoes while I’m writing, then I’m not authentically involved, and it shows in my work. I don’t mind beautiful poems or love poems or formal poems or poems about kittens, and I’ve written these poems myself, and as long as I step outside the easy in my writing process I am happy with some of them. I can’t tolerate easy in poetry. I don’t mean simplicity vs. complexity in form. For instance your poems, Tom. Your poems look deceptively easy, but indeed they are anything but. They are easy to fall into. They have dangerous craters hidden in them. They have rabbit holes and caves and if your reader isn’t careful they’ll fall in and break an ankle or a heart. Your poems are honest. The risks you take to build them are clear.
I can’t tolerate dishonesty in poetry. When I am in the process of writing I have to allow myself to look and feel and be absurd. I love absurdity in poetry and in life. There is humor in struggling, in ignorance—my struggling, my ignorance. I don’t mean that my poetry has to be ugly or shocking or full of blood and bees in order for me to feel okay with it, but if I don’t itch a bit, if I don’t flush from head to toe, if my skin doesn’t react to what I’m writing, if those little hairs aren’t standing up on the back of my neck, if I’m not looking over my shoulder or teetering on the edge of the precipice, then I am not fully invested in the act of creation. I’m faking it. I fake it a lot. Sometimes I just can’t get the poem to go where I want it to go, or I don’t allow the poem to go where it wants to go. These are failures and I’m not afraid of them, but they are not art and I will find a way to kill them. I went through a phase where I was burning a lot of my paintings. They were all self portraits. I would throw a tantrum and step on them and break the frames and feed them to my fireplace bit by bit. It was very satisfying. Someone told me that it was my way of cutting myself, of inflicting pain on myself, but that was a lie, a mistruth. I didn’t want to live with my failures. Also I have strong diva tendencies.
But to wind my way back to your question, if a sense of risk doesn’t figure in my writing, then I will never be happy with it. I don’t usually set my sites to write disturbing or creepy or sexually explicit or over the top or funny or puzzling poems (and my poems have been described in all these ways.) I do go forward in my process by pushing myself into uncharted waters. If I feel I’ve traveled a road or even seen it before, I’ll go off into the woods, take a back road, invent a shortcut. If I’m reading a poet’s work and I feel I’m being strongly influenced by it, I’ll switch to reading something else for a while. I don’t write poems using “prompts” or exercises. I don’t want to write poems that have already been written. I want to break down doors with my own hammer even if I fail. I don’t write poems about herons and crows and misty ocean breezes because I live in the northwest and that is the Northwest Way. It’s the expected thing to do here. In fact I find myself pushing against these poems, these ideas, pushing them away from me. I feel the same about mother poems, or woman poems. The Poetess. Gag. Motherhood has never been the epicenter of my life. Music has, forever. I don’t think that’s made me a bad mother. It did make me a focused, happy mother. I was with my child all the time. I didn’t see the point in writing treacly poems about skinned knees and kisses. There are other poets who pull it off quite well, but I read those poems and usually wonder just how much risk was involved in the writing.
The ideas dictate everything, you have to be true to that or you're dead.
Yesterday I took a risk by ending the two poetry workshops I have taught for the past 11 and ½ years. It was a personal risk because I have grown fond of all the poets in the group. It was an emotional risk because those workshops were pretty much my only social life, but mostly it was a financial risk. I didn’t make much money from them, but it was a little cash flow coming in each month and it was a flow I had come to depend on. I’m trusting the universe (how corny is that??) that the missing cash will find its way back to me. I think the workshops wound down organically, and I think poetry workshops should wind down eventually, if they are working properly. I wrote about this extensively on my blog so I won’t go into it here. The true reason I let the workshops end is because I wanted more time to pursue the project I’m starting now, and this project is extremely risky for me. For one thing, a lot of research is involved, a lot of reading non-poetry texts, a lot of note taking, a lot of delving into frightening (in a very personal way) outmoded psychiatric processes. I am researching 19th century insane asylums and medical treatments and the fact that certain diseases like epilepsy and Tourette’s Syndrome were thought to be mental illnesses well into the 20th century. I know it will take me at least a year perhaps two, to get these poems into place, but I have a vision for them, a vision as permanent and important as a tattoo, a vision that feels necessary to me, to my life, as necessary as breath. The question is, will I be strong enough to use my newfound time wisely? I think so. I hope so. It seems, for some reason, that everything depends on it.
TB: I share your sense that everything depends on such decisions. And I look forward to seeing your new work as it emerges.
What, I wonder, as a final question, is the next (could it be the last?) poetic frontier?
RL: This question made me think of William Shatner reading poetry but only for a moment and only because it’s 105 degrees in my house and only because a final question seems very final and it makes me sad to see this interview end. It’s Thursday night and the good thing is I don’t care if my answer makes sense and the worrisome thing is that I don’t care if my answer makes sense. It’s funny that you used the word frontier, which could be a border or the area beyond a border. Frontier embraces both passion and obsession. It just occurred to me that after all these words you might be sitting there in Ohio thinking you’ve got a real whack-job on your hands, and this is most likely true. I feel a bit shaky and worried tonight. It’s because I haven’t felt a response from you inside my answers which, of course, is your job as a good interviewer, and maybe it is the heat but I imagine you shaking your head and deciding to light a cigarette even though you don’t smoke, and you pour a glass of wine and maybe pick a sweet marionberry out of a blue cardboard carton, and you think, where the fuck do all these words come from? I’ve been thinking that myself, so I will keep my last answer relatively short and somewhat sane.
I believe there is nothing new under the sun, as Biblical as that may sound (or as much like the lyrics to a Byrd’s song that may sound, take your pick.) Electronics have made access to poetry easier, have created more brand new poets, some of whom have actual talent. I think gadgets and gadgetry have made us a little less human and a lot less humane. Electronics change quickly. Fads come and go. Who knows when a giant EMP will knock us all out of commission? It’s certainly a possibility, but people will continue to write poetry, on paper or on our bodies or in the sand, because it pleases us, the writers. Poetry is for poets, for those who write. We write to please ourselves. We will never lose the desire to please ourselves. We’re human after all. The Great Young Jesus Poets who are the hot new thing today will grow up, grow bellies and bald spots, gain and lose loved ones, die in car crashes or from breast cancer, read more or less, care more or less, love more or less, and if they are very very lucky, they will still be writing. I think that is the true secret of it. The hot brilliant stars who become famous if they don’t burn themselves out in their descent, will never know, as it is beyond their years to judge. I heard Maxine Kumin read in Seattle a couple years ago and when it came time for the audience to ask questions, everyone wanted to know about Anne Sexton. Kumin said, We were just two young housewives with children, and we had a party-line, and we’d read our poems to each other over the telephone. We were just writing poems. We never knew we’d be famous. So the test of success as poets is a test we’ll never really know. Does it matter?
I don’t buy into the modern theory that everything is circular, that closure is possible. Ours is a spiral shaped universe and everything in the universe is connected. Poetry will ring its way up the spiral and a generation later it will wind its way down and then ring its way back up. I think the last frontier is people connecting honestly and compassionately with other people, moving away from the screen, the text, the twitter and tweet, and meeting face to face to embrace, and from this, the new/old poetry will arise. Everything is connected. Just look at the stars, Tom, and don’t forget your shoes.
THREE POEMS BY REBECCA LOUDON
So you want to be an astronaut
what hoodoo did you encounter
in the swamp
prying open shells with your hook
grip tight enough to turn a flywheel
six hash marks today
track your compulsion
slake your blue-
clouds puckered from the north
at Yaquina Head steam rising
a constant foot-deep howl
I examined my body in hotel mirrors
that was my job across the country
Oregon Idaho Montana Illinois Virginia
coffee and a compass
my hair shorn
rolled whiskey in chloroform
worshipped your tongue's pink pelt
holy holy holy
hot wet cloth pressed to a boil
on my pudendum
I wanted to fuck a robot
have him lurch above me
metallic thumb inside
his nictating lens
hey rube hey rube
I danced in a whirlygig dress
sea smell throbbing up
let's fly in an aeroplane no storm but the Perseids
zip above the James River while all the tweeters
in the meadow tweet holy holy holy
lifted by a spaceship that proves
the great inconvenience of love
green lights spraying underneath
your metal thumbs
your Duchenne smile
My Rubella Sweetheart
I juggle parrots
tentus tendere [to stretch]
despite the weight of the Mercedes limousine on deck
a shout from the wheel-house that we are
going under in spite of your MAGICAL POWERS cape
delirious I rub myself with cinders
where I am the river
dropped-O could you would you
jump from the prow
[engine engine number 9]
I have a boy luscious about the mouth
brings me gingered pears
through this goddamn winter
spits his graffiti in the bow-lines
hard enough [spread me]
despite the weight despite the weight
of a Mercedes limousine on deck
crouch under the mooring
cook a bucket of frogs
green smoke roils let's sail past
the lagoon and reed-islands
the shrieking crowned hornbills
my aged cat
never left my side ever
I slept on feathers
crossed my Ts clean as a fishwife
the moment in which he rose up
curtains drawn tight
I was not afraid of solitude but reckless pursuit
neckties guns in the temple
the low dome last week’s rent
drew out the lining the ache in my side
that proved resolve
men rode motorcycles up and down the street
pounded my door demanded open up
demanded money my lace slip
Russian girls in the cafeteria
argued over the napkin dispensers
too full too full too full
cooed like release doves
lacking a center
what did my neighbor hear
headboard hitting the wall
that faced her kitchen
obsessive tooth brushing
I’m not nostalgic
for the parasite the waterworm
there was nothing left to talk about
stuffed with fruit
apples and sandwiches
the mokrie dela
disappeared from automats
turn and slide the plastic door
or the washateria
the Laundra in Newport
Loadstar Dryers coin tumble
in fact I thought about sipping a cap full of Pine-Sol
orbiting sensors in my bed
gossiping bodies at night
target practice on Thursdays in Dallas
go ahead tell me about the white capped angel
of terror and desire