Editor: How would you explain poetry to a four-year-old?
Rae Gouirand: One of my personal understandings is that we are all born with many, many capacities for sense-making, and that as we grow we are asked to forget more and more of them, and to pretend we only recognize the select few that the socioeconomic/transactional world is invested in our recognizing and acknowledging as real. I don’t say this to sentimentalize childhood or children—I do not believe young people are inherently more creative or wise or closer to the source than adults are. We all talk to ourselves, and to no one, and to everyone, in that way that is reminiscent of the poet hashing out a line, all the time, our whole lives long. But I do believe that poetry and other creative arts put us back in touch with our fuller sense-making capacity, which is eroded significantly over time by the very act of navigating the world we live in as adult citizens. Art is fundamentally restorative, even when it troubles or challenges us, or returns us to a fuller understanding that is inconvenient or uncomfortable to acknowledge.
If I were trying to explain poetry to someone who refused to meet me in a conversation on the subject of poetry more nuanced than one I might be able to have with a typical four-year-old, I would probably say that poetry is the practice of using language to try to communicate what can’t be said directly. I might also cite the idea that comes up in so many workshops that poetry cannot be summarized. I might even say something about how many artists paint not what it in front of them, but the world it puts them in touch with. But to be perfectly honest, unless someone is reading or writing poetry of their own volition I tend to find explaining anything that I understand about it pretty counterproductive. I prefer to talk to people I meet about why I write, and what I hope to do as a writer, if they’re poking at questions about poetry as a strange or suspect or unreal activity. I think the more important question has to do with why, not how.
If I were talking to an actual four-year-old about poetry, I probably wouldn’t be asked to explain—at least not by them.
What prompted you to start writing poetry?
This is a mystery to me. The feeling of pleasure that came from tracing a line over the paper itself might have had a little bit to do with it? I preferred to live in the world of books as a kid, so of course the act of writing felt like its own pathway to a kind of citizenship. I am working on a third collection of poems right now that is about the history of paper, and about paper as both substance and symbol, and right now I can’t think about my own relationship to writing without conjuring the impression of fibers.
What writers have influenced you?
Most profoundly, my students. Not because of their particular concerns or themes, but because I live in the ocean of their pages-in-progress, and the effect that that level of submersion has on my own relationship process is immeasureably valuable. I don’t think it helps writers to spend all of their reading lives focused on completed, published works.
I can name a couple of books that have had direct bearing on the development of my second book manuscript, though: Brenda Shaughnessy’s Human Dark With Sugar and Mark Wunderlich’s Voluntary Servitude both come to mind as having been especially influential in helping me to realize the kind of book I felt most compelled to write, and Joanna Klink, Ross Gay, and Henri Cole have all loaned important sense to my understanding of poetry during the last few years while I’ve been focusing on my second collection. I think I’ve sort of been studying declarative sentences, and what declaration has to do with the line.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve received?
I honestly can’t think of too many times that I’ve received advice from other writers, though I do remember a conversation I had with Alice Fulton when I was in her workshop at U/Michigan (where I did my MFA) in which she told me to embrace the fact that I was a maximalist poet, even if my poems often had very small footprints.
What inspires, engages, confounds and enrages you?
It’s hard for me to think this fall about truly dramatic, defining emotions rooted outside of this political moment. I am typing this the day after Trump has won the electoral college and a bit too focused on processing that to think about what inspires me more than empathy and action right now. Those of us who are especially invested in language have GOT to figure out new ways of dismantling and disarming and neutralizing, permanently, the abusive spin and illogical, injurious rhetoric that defines this country’s political discourse. I have been meditating on the word COMMAND ever since the beginning of last year. What does it mean to have absolute command of language? How can we increase our individual and collective abilities to speak truth to power, and to thus change who has power?
You wrote that your work explores “issues of kinship, figuration and its dangers, indelicate and articulate sexuality, the aspects of identity that live somewhere between the self and the self in relationship.” Can you expand on this?
Sure. That’s the way I describe the work in the manuscript for my second book—not necessarily all of it. (At the present I’m working on finishing working drafts for two books that stretch toward very different concerns.) But almost immediately after publishing my first book, I understood that I wanted distinctly queer feminist concerns in the foreground of my second book—specifically, concerns that I hadn’t seen reflected in a lot of queer work I’d already seen published. I wanted stretches of the book to deal very directly with territory that defined my own life during the years I was developing the book—both thematically and structurally. The bit about ‘figuration and its dangers’ speaks to my skeptical relationship with metaphor. The original title for the collection, Tenor and Vehicle, was meant to push issues of symbolism and representation right up against the relationship stories that are told in the poems, though I ultimately decided I liked another title for the collection, Glass is Glass Water is Water, for the way it spoke to the kinds of crossings-over that are the grit of the book. If I’m proud of anything about the collection, it’s that there is I think a lot of tension in its pages—it speaks to a lot of the nearly invisible tensions and territories that define queer relationships (and queer life) for me. There are a lot of poems in the book that deal with simultaneity, and about what it is that can’t be resolved between two people (or two layers of meaning).
One of the poems you’re printing in this issue—‘Not Marrying’—is the longest poem in that book manuscript, and the last one I finished. I started writing it in June 2015 right after the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage—the love of my life and I were in the middle of a 10,000-mile road trip when the decision came down, and driving back and forth across the country that summer while parsing our complex responses to it became the path into writing that poem. It took me a year to finish it, and it wasn’t until I had the final draft of it in hand that I knew the book had found its real truncating point.
As I type this, many people around me are of course absorbing the impact of the results of the election, and trying to figure out what they need to do before January 20th in order to best assure the personal safety and security of themselves and their communities. I hate that so many queer people I know—the people I think of as my kin—will be passing back through the question of marriage from that angle before this poem has even appeared.