Interview with Renée Ashley on The View from the Body (Black Lawrence Press, 2016)
by Heather Lang
Renée Ashley’s newest collection, The View from the Body, is now out with Black Lawrence Press. Throughout the sixty-five pages, Renée anchors the ungraspable so that we, the readers, might be able to take a true look at those parts of our lives that would otherwise be too difficult to approach and impossible to capture. Renée gives pain a location: “Would like to place it in a town Or a state.” Similarly, emptiness becomes a “mark” on a “forehead. A stain.” Renée is that rare poet who has truly mastered both image and phonaesthetics, writing lines such as these from her poem, “The Abduction of Mirrors”: “Turned from the blue spoon of sky, such speed such cupidity. And / here you are again. Roofless. Ladderless. Cooped up in the open.” It was an honor to study under Renée with Fairleigh Dickinson University’s low-residency MFA program. These days, I’m fortunate to call her a dear friend.
Heather Lang: Thank you, Renée, for chatting with me about your edgy and eloquent book, The View from the Body. Before we begin, I have a confession. In the crafting of this interview, I employed the help of a few other Renée Ashley fans who also happen to be former students of yours.
Renée Ashley: What a cool idea! Wonderful!
HL: Regarding The View from the Body, Tim Lindner is “curious about the age old poets' chicken & egg situation: what comes first the image or the emotion?” In a collection this concerned with the visceral and the existential, Tim’s question seems particularly perfect. So, which is it—the image or the emotion—or which does it tend to be, and might you please share an example from the collection?
RA: It is a perfect question! (Hi, Tim!) The emotion is a constant, I think, a sort of steady-state, low and dark hum in the background. The ever-present shadow. (Do you remember the song on one of the South Park albums that went, “Dead dead dead. Someday we’ll all be dead”? That’s the sort of thing that’s playing nonstop in my head, but wordless and tuneless. Sometimes it alternates with They Might Be Giants’s “You’re older than you’ve ever been And now you’re even older [repeat many times] And now you’re older still.” Which is, of course, the same thing wearing a shorter skirt). Apparently I’m quite the glum bunny, and in this book especially. It was written after a particularly crappy chunk-o’-years. Yeah, I’d say that the emotion is, basically, the ambient self, and the image, once it’s recognized, is mapped onto that. An example? Perhaps in “Or, I Saw Someone Leaving the World,” the sentence “I am a barn door / flown closed.” This must have been refracted off the idiom “closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.” I’m the door that has “flown” closed on myself—I’m trapped inside. (And, as I’m reading this over again, I see the image, again, in the lines you quoted from “The Abduction…”: “Cooped up in the open.”) Sealed vessel. It’s a constant recognition for me. I can’t get away from myself and a great deal of the time I’m no fun at all and I’m locked in with myself! Ghastly company. It’s a feeling much like drowning, I think. But here’s the thing: What I just said is hindsight. I certainly didn’t articulate that when I was writing.
HL: David Pischke, another FDU MFA alum, brought up the intriguing topic of patterns. I must admit, one of the first poems I noticed within The View from the Body was “Salt to Make a Sea.” It reminded me of your first collection, Salt (which also happens to be the first Renée Ashley collection I read, and one of the main reasons I applied to and studied poetry with FDU). Were there any conscious connections between the poem, “Salt to Make a Sea,” and the collection, Salt, despite their being published a couple decades apart? What’s the symbolism or significance of salt to you and your writing?
RA: Oh, Heather! Thank you! That’s so lovely! (Hey, David!) Good question. In the initial impulse for “Salt to Make a Sea” there was no conscious connection, but somewhere along the compositional line I recognized the echo and wondered whether, perhaps, I’d already used up my lifetime salt allotment, whether I’d “done” salt to death and needed to move on. The impulse, though, was such a strong one and the poem such a short one that I decided to let the image have its way and, in doing so, indulge myself. It felt sufficiently different, to me, to be somehow new. The significance of salt? I would first say that it’s such an elemental substance, that it’s longer and wider and deeper than our familiarity with the little crystals that make our tongues pay better attention. It preserves; it destroys. It’s of earth and of water, it’s basic, it’s mythic (pillar of salt, and all that). The argument for a connection to Salt must be there; the near-constant visual of the Leslie Salt Company salt mounds from my thirty-one years in the Bay Area made an impression (though I didn’t recognize that until I moved to the East Coast). I suppose it could have just burned itself into my brain and, so, came unconsciously to hand. Deliberate consciousness, for the most part, is reserved for revising and editing.
HL: Another former poetry student, Letisia Cruz, is curious about your transition process between collections. I want to know about it, too. Letisia asks, “Is there a ritual that says this is now done, or is it more of an intuitive thing?”
RA: A ritual! (Oh, Leti, you give me so much more credit for intent than I can own!) No, there’s no ritual; however, the process (nothing I’ve done on purpose, just what I’ve observed over my decades of moving from book to book) is, or so far always has been, the same. I’ll have been working on a manuscript for four or five years when something new gets under my skin, some new obsession or approach or tone that doesn’t quite fit seamlessly into the project at hand. Then I have to work very hard to focus and finish that in-progress manuscript before I fall too deeply into the next interest-pit. So, I guess, that’s a process of intuition acknowledged and partially blockaded by conscious restriction. I allow myself to take notes and set them aside, or cut articles, take photos, or whatever it is, but I don’t allow myself begin the new project proper until I finish the one at hand. This may be the only rule I’ve ever given myself that I’ve actually kept to. Otherwise, I know for sure that I never would have completed anything.
HL: While we’re on the topic of shifting between collections, before your The View from the Body was released this year, your Subito Press collection, Because I Am the Shore I Want to Be the Sea, came out in 2013. The View is largely composed of couplets while Because I Am the Shore contains prose poems. Could you please talk a bit about the distinction between lineated poetry and prose poetry for you as the artist? Maybe you could touch on intended audiences, too.
RA: Ah, here’s the thing: Because I Am the Shore was written after The View from the Body. They were published out of order. The View circulated, altogether, if I’m not mistaken (I’d have to go to the basement and check the submission files), about ten years. Every ten or twelve rejections, I’d slap myself upside my head and say, “This manuscript must really suck! I wonder what I’m not seeing.” Finally, desperate for another eye on the manuscript, I asked Martha Collins to read it and tell me what I was missing. Something was clearly wrong. She very generously read it and suggested only that I move the lead poem away from the front of the book. So I did and Bingo! the ms was accepted. The funny thing was that the ms that was accepted had been held for a very long time and was the original ordering. The publisher kindly let me substitute the new, Martha-improved version for the old, and I was tremendously grateful to both Martha Collins (a fabulous poet; if you haven’t read Blue Front, a truly brilliant and important book, do so) and to Diane Goettel at Black Lawrence for that.
Prose poems were the obsession that forced me to finish The View, which is lineated, and those prose poems became Because. The ms I finished after Because is also prose poems; that obsession has really stuck. I’m circulating that one, Ruined Traveler, now. I’m utterly obsessed with prose poems and how they’re made. The really, really good ones that I’ve found aren’t just prose that didn’t develop conventionally. Because the form isn’t traditional or codified, just about anything that isn’t lineated, apparently, can be called a prose poem. Over the last decade, bit by bit, I’ve formed my own aesthetic. I needed it to work for me, and, for me, it’s got to do with compression and, as you mentioned, phonaesthetics. And interest, of course, but that’s a given for any writing. No, the prose poem is about putting pressure on the language in an extreme and thorough way.
The difference between lineated and prose poems? It’s a matter of pressure, again, I think. Lineated work has a more meted-out, modulated way of putting pressure on words—not the full- bore, no-break, claustrophobic intensity of the prose poems. In lines, and especially with couplets, there’s a lot of air, of white space, and anything that touches white space (line beginnings and endings, stanza beginnings and endings) bears a lot of visual and rhetorical weight and slows the reader down. Prose poems, on the other hand, are blocks; the right and left margins are justified and arbitrary. Those rigid, upright margins can be made to increase pressure on the language, if that language is tuned for it. The reader is forced down the page, should be compelled to keep on reading, without those white respites during which she might wonder what’s for dinner. That entrapment of the reader (again, in my opinion, a good thing) can be heightened by extreme compression (and, in the case of Because, the elimination of terminal punctuations, except for exclamations and interrogatives, intensifies that pressure). When I say compression, I’m not talking about distorting the language to use fewer words (omitting articles or slaying grammar), but about keeping the language rushing forward, profluent, about playing each word off other words, making them do double-duty, if you can, about creating a tight net of meaning, sound, and movement, and, perhaps, about hospitable ambiguities. About airlessness.
I have a theory about audiences. It’s this: Despite what my mother told me, I am not special. There are tons of folks out there very much like me, unspecial and asking the same questions, tendering the same answers, if they’re tendering any, bemoaning the same difficulties, thinking they’re alone in their dilemmas and considerations and depressions. So I write for me and hope the poem or the book will find those like-minded people. Not every poem or book is for every reader. For example, I won’t read animal stories, no matter how good they are, because the animals are always in peril or get killed and I can’t bear it. That’s not my idea of fun. Ever since that movie, Day of the Dolphins (just thinking about it can make me cry), I’ve sworn off animal stories. It could be a style that puts a reader off, or a tone, or a level of difficulty. But there are folks out there who are also, let’s say, death-obsessed, who have suffered great disappointments and losses, who feel alone, feel guilty, or sad, or remorseful, or sick; there are those who are interested in what language can do under certain circumstances. I write for them, all of whom are me.
HL: In a beautifully wooded corner of New Jersey, your home brims with books and with dogs. Okay, so there are only two dogs, but your Steven and Mona have larger-than-life personalities. Regarding the books in your library, which might we be most surprised to find?
RA: Let’s see: tons of books on opera? Is that surprising? Lots and lots of books on ghosts and hauntings and mediums—that might surprise you! And books on cold readings. And cognitive science. And Harry Potter. That may be it as far as surprises go. I don’t think I’m very surprising; perhaps deeply transparent is more like it.
HL: Although The View from the Body is often gravid, it’s funny, too. The poem, “Like a Child She Is Eating Noodles She Is Eating Noodles Like a Child,” begins as follows: “Dog to the left dog to the right—this is what the dog thinks though / his syntax is simpler. He thinks: noodle noodle noodle.” What can you tell us about this poem in terms of its inspiration and its craft?
RA: That one started with the first line, as many of my poems do. It just passed through my head and I caught it before it got away entirely. It’s just my life. I’m allergic to my dogs, take all sorts of shots, pills, sprays to keep my head from exploding. But I live in the forest and I’m allergic to trees, too—I’m allergic to everything—so what the heck. And I have no alpha in me whatsoever (except in the classroom, odd, that); the dogs beg incessantly. Steven’s much worse than Mona. They’re such a source of delight and silliness. And, with Steven, drool. They’re pains-in-the-butt. Anyway, it was sound/association/fun-driven after that. It was play with built-in gravitas because of my ambient gloom. And then cleaned up and aligned, of course. I write many, many drafts of every poem and only work on one poem at a time. It wasn’t hard to spend time in that one at all. The dogs crack me up. In fact, Stevie just picked up his little, blue, squeaky elephant to take to bed with him while he naps with my husband. Steve’s a seventy-pound, black dog and he wants his teeny, bedraggled, blue elephant. What’s not to love? No clue, however, about whether I was eating noodles, though. It’s unlikely. Noodle’s just a funny word.
HL: There are a number of poems to which I’ve returned time and time again including “Trouble,” “Little House,” “The Museum of Lost Wings,” and “What, Sweetie?,” among others. Renée, do you have a favorite poem from the collection, perhaps one that carries a particular significance for you?
RA: I don’t really think so, not a favorite. I like the longer, segmented ones, “The Abduction of Mirrors” and “I Did Not Know It Had Come to Be So Late,” because I enjoy the process of that kind of extension, the braiding. I like “What, Sweetie?” which is short, because it’s snide and true and I remember that awful man so clearly. I can’t see him, but I can hear his voice. I’m really sensitive to tone of voice. And I rarely get riled, but that guy really pissed me off. What a piece of work. But I held my tongue. At the time.
HL: I’m sorry to read about that experience, Renée! I’m happy, too, though, because we now have “What, Sweetie?” which was first published by The Kenyon Review! Please give the pups kisses for me. Maybe even toss the little blue elephant for Stevie! Oh! I should have asked you if you read your poems-in-progress out loud to the dogs. Oh well. It’ll be a question for next time. Thanks for chatting with me, Renée, about The View from the Body out with Black Lawrence Press. Happy writing!
Two poems from The View from the Body (Black Lawrence Press, 2016)
I Did Not Know It Had Come To Be So Late
Unmerciful the woods beyond the lawns where
narrative constructs and continues
(a queer permission) and you thrown over sorrow’s
shoulder like a satchel or like salt. The sky
is hovering like a plateful of sky. The sea
disappears. Sublimed. And here I am again,
sackful of spirit and shit, suspended in the fact
of failing again. Again, nothing but what I am.
It has come that I am broken (the tongue
is a dissembler, is a sophist). I see now
what love might be—care has come to un-
pick my locks (language, language, clarity
is overrated; the tongue is tied to itself).
I have not earned the right (my love offers
the unspeakable) (my love offers the un-
imaginable) but I take it. You take it.
Quietus and all blessings thereof. And rest
(the tongue flails, bedsheet of desire). School
of the wholly, school of the not at all: This moon’s
just a hole in the sky. Aperture, garden of stars,
some pale disorder (spiritous) (rag of elements,
coating of dust). Everlasting. (Threadbare.)
It is as simple as this: No thing surrendered
in the woods last night. Everything surrenders.
Death means whatever death means, Sweetie.
—man to his wife, overheard
And endlessly so. But not again, I think. Hence
Picture this: a single graceful hill-
side washed in light. Off-center, the dark back of
someone—that condescending shithead, for in-
stance—receding. Imagine that you cannot hear
the soles of his shoes shushing against the grass.
Conjure up a blank sky, call it a blue that rises
through the spine and carries on without us, drops
the living from here to here again.
distractions. And that unlikely thing named What
still in the back seat driving – there we are, bending
over the wreckage again. One more down. And
one. Hay in a haystack. Oh, Sweetie, perhaps now
that you have come I will try to lift my little head.
Renée Ashley is the author of six volumes of poetry (The View from the Body, Black Lawrence Press; Because I Am the Shore I Want to Be the Sea, Subito Press, Univ. of Colorado—Boulder; Basic Heart, X. J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, Texas Review Press; The Various Reasons of Light; The Revisionist’s Dream; Salt, Brittingham Prize in Poetry, Univ. of Wisconsin Press), two chapbooks (The Verbs of Desiring, New American Press Chapbook Prize, and The Museum of Lost Wings, Hill-Stead Museum Sunken Garden Poetry Competition) and a novel (Someplace Like This), as well as numerous essays and reviews. Her awards include a Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, a Pushcart Prize, a Kenyon Review Award for Literary Excellence, the Charles Angoff Award from The Literary Review, and an American Literary Review Poetry Prize, among others. She is a poetry editor of The Literary Review. She teaches poetry in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Heather Lang is a poet, literary critic, editor, and adjunct professor.
Her poetry has been published by Architrave, December, Diode, The Normal School online, Pleiades, Whiskey Island, and others. Nevada’s NPR member radio station interviewed her about her writing twice this year, and she served as the Las Vegas Poets Organization's featured poet in June. Heather’s a Fairleigh Dickinson University MFA graduate and an editor for both The Literary Review and Petite Hound Press. www.heatherlangwrites.com