Interview with Brittany Perham on Double Portrait (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016) by Heather Lang

Heather Lang: Brittany, congratulations on the publication of Double Portrait. Your stunning collection is palpable. It makes me dizzy in the best of ways, and I want to thank you for chatting with me. The first time that I read your work was, I think, in 32 Poems’ volume 12, number 2, fall/winter 2014. I immediately fell in love with the haunting cadence of your verse, so when Diode Editor-in-Chief Patty Paine asked me if I’d like the honors of interviewing you, I jumped at the chance.

Double Portrait demonstrates a superb mastery of several poetic techniques. Repetition, for example, feels integral to your stunning collection. In the first poem of the second series of the book, the abstract word “forever” is repeated over a dozen times. This allows new denotative and connotative definitions to brilliantly unravel. Could you please tell us more about this aspect of your writing?

Brittany Perham: Thank you for this question, Heather. Repetition and refrain are essential to this project, so talking about this is really the best place to begin. Repetition, refrain, recurrence, mirroring—it’s everywhere in the Double Portrait poems. These poems think and feel in a way that is obsessive—so the formal choices have to make that way of thinking feel present and alive on the page. And the formal choices actually help me create the obsession the speaker is dealing with, or the kind of obsessing the speaker is doing. The formal choices drive the poem into being. So, with the poem you mention, “forever” becomes the little hitch in language that both moves the poem forward and inhibits its motion. “Forever” keeps connecting us back to the same idea—and the speaker’s obsession with that idea—again and again.

This poem is patterned on a ghazal, or rather on the ghazal form as it’s practiced in English. A convention of the form is that a word or phrase is repeated at the end of every couplet, after an initial couplet in which the word ends both lines. Another convention is that each couplet should be discrete—that is, each couplet should stand alone, without enjambment or syntactical connection to the couplets surrounding it. But of course this poem doesn’t use that convention. In fact, it does everything it can to work against the convention because it connects every couplet syntactically, until the very end of the poem. This poem is only three sentences long, and two of the sentences appear in the last couplet. So the poem was interested not only in the obsessive feeling created by word and sound repetition, but the one created by a certain kind of syntactical construction. I hope this poem, and the Double Portraits in general, invite the reader to feel what it’s like to be inside an obsessive brain—what it feels like to be unable to break out of a certain line of thinking, for example—even, or especially, when that feels particularly maddening.

HL: I’d love to chat with you a bit more about poetic forms. DP.b.03, [“I try to want it but I don’t”], for example, seems to be a pantoum. Would you please tell us more about your experience with and experiments in form, especially in light of our current literary climate, one that’s often brimming with free verse?

BP: Yes, you’re quite right—this is a pantoum, or rather, it is three interconnected pantoums. I love the pantoum. I hope I write more of them.

When I was first writing poems—in college and afterward—I wrote primarily in free verse. This is, I’m sure, because I read primarily free verse. My writing teachers gave me free verse collections; the poems I read in magazines were free verse; my fellow students wrote entirely in free verse. I only read metrical poetry in college English classes. So I studied form in an academic way, but never as a practitioner. All my models for my own writing were free verse. I either didn’t think other models were worth considering, or I didn’t know the poets I read in my English classes were models to consider. And I learned so much from all of the good free verse I read. I read collections that were varied and ranging and particular and profound, and I read them with no scholarly intention or sense of continuity or tradition. Reading felt like lust. It was the most bodily thing I was regularly experiencing. I remember being nineteen and twenty years old reading Deborah Digges, Brenda Hillman, Sharon Olds, Pablo Neruda, Jorie Graham, Yehuda Amichai in translation, David Rivard, Dorianne Laux, Mark Doty, Sylvia Plath (over and over), and hundreds more. I can still picture the covers of the books I had because I carried one of them around at all times, as though the book would protect me, which is a superstition I still hold. Never have I loved so many poets—every poet I read—so guilelessly and utterly. So I imitated all of them, and learned a million things, and practiced those things.

Then I went to grad school where—while the dominant style was certainly free verse, and while I still read loads of contemporary free verse—I began to find other models. I owe a lot of this to a particular teacher, Stephen Cushman, at the University of Virginia—and to my classmates at that time, who were much better read than I was. They helped me see—suddenly and immediately in my second semester—that reading formal poetry was not an academic pursuit. Formal poetry was my poetry, just like free verse poetry, and what was I doing ignoring it completely?

After that, I read and practiced much more broadly. And because of this, I could begin to see more clearly and consciously the formal (as in structural, to substitute an unsatisfying word) choices that my favorite free verse poets were making. This was a great revelation and it changed the way I thought about free verse, and poetry in general, forever. It is also when I stopped responding to certain kinds of free verse—free verse in which I did not believe that the writer had any clear idea of her formal choices, and therefore could not believe that the writer had any sense of what she was saying, or why. Which was completely true of many of my own free verse poems.

It took me a long time to write satisfying poems that were “formal”—by which I mean, written in a metrical pattern or a received form—though I was discovering so much about the ways I wanted to work. I think this is because to most of us, and certainly to me, those patterns were very unfamiliar. I had to go way back to my childhood, to nursery rhymes and the poems in A Child’s Garden of Verse, before I found any muscle memory there, anything innate and familiar. I think we need to change this because there is so much human pleasure in those patterns of the ear and eye. There is so much we knew in our child-bodies, and so much that has been seeded in our DNA from our ancestral past, that we have somehow unlearned or become afraid of.

I’ll just say one last thing because you asked about the literary climate. I write many kinds of poems and I want to write many other kinds of poems, poems I don’t yet know how to write. If I sometimes choose to use a form that a reader recognizes, what does that mean? If I write a sonnet is it derivative? Will it necessarily fail to capture human speech or feeling? Is it less inventive and more artificial? These are some of the criticisms of formal poetry. All a person has to do is look at sonnets by Shakespeare, Millay, Brooks, Marilyn Hacker, and Terrance Hayes side by side to dispatch with the first two questions. And as to the third, all poems are artifice. They are made things. This is why we love them.

I also don’t really believe in the myth of the two camps of poetry— “formalist” or “free verse”—and I think many writers feel this way. There are so many poems that defy those static categories and so many writers who are formalizing their work in strange, diverse, imaginative ways. So I don’t consider myself a “formalist” in terms of the familiar, limiting definition. But I am a formalist; all poets are formalists. This is our job description. Poems formalize language on the page—this is what they must do—whether in a form we recognize or a form we invent.

HL: I noticed that some of your poetry demonstrates an almost Dr. Seuss-esque cadence. For example, DP.b.11 begins, “We were lovers in Phoenix. We were lovers in Houston. / We were lovers in cheap and expensive hotel rooms.” I chatted about this poem with my friend, a fellow poet, Michael Kroesche. Together we noted that the tone, the diction, and the sentence structure of this poem is often simple but never dumbed down. We discussed the ways in which the couplets create tight little complete-thought loops and how the meter and rhyme connote a playfulness in tone. All this belies the futility and purgatorial nature of the relationship at hand and allows us the distance that we, as readers, need to approach someone else’s intimate happenings, to excavate artifacts from the dig site of a relationship that wouldn’t otherwise be ours to exhume. Would you please talk to us a bit about your juxtapositions, the ways in which you pair gravid content with lighter delivery? 

I love these observations. And I’m glad to hear the reference to Dr. Seuss, which is something I never thought of, but which really pleases me. This poem is tonally light though it’s ostensibly about a breakup. Once I heard Kay Ryan give a reading and she talked about the idea of “lightness” in poetry. She wasn’t talking about light subject matter, or light verse, or even humor though humor could have a part in it. What I remember—or what I chose to hear—was something about the idea of “lightness” in the way that you are suggesting. Lightness, as in something that rises or as in the rising motion itself, maybe. Lightness that is set against heaviness, the balancer. And lightness as in effortlessness, the opposite of what is overwrought or didactic. I have this image of the poem as the thing that lifts—and I mean this verb in both the transitive and intransitive way—which comes in some way from Kay. And I’m very grateful to her, and I hope I’m not misrepresenting her idea in a way she wouldn’t like. I hope there is some of Kay’s “lightness” in this collection. And beyond that, I hope that this poem, and some of the other Double Portrait poems, will make readers laugh, even in a dark, this-isn’t-funny sort of way.

HL:  What can you tell us about the title, Double Portrait? How was it chosen, and did the collection have other working titles?

BP: No, there was never another title. Each of the poems was written with the title “Double Portrait” and so I knew the collection would be Double Portrait too. The numbering system came later, to catalog each Double Portrait in its series. These poems are all kinds of double portraits, which is to say they are concerned with representing the situation of a self in relationship to an other. Sometimes that other is human—beloved, family member—sometimes that other is an intangible thing, idea or something else.

HL: Brittany, which of the poems in Double Portrait is most scandalous? In other words, is there a certain piece that made you nervous, one that you were worried about your mother, lover, students, and/or boss reading? If so, why?

BP: I think all poems make us a little bit nervous when they find their way into the world. We think things like, is a reader going to respond to this? Will people judge these poems? Is my work any good? And of course what we’re asking underneath that is, is what I have to say interesting to someone else? Will people judge me? Am I any good? And nothing takes those worries away, no prize or success. The best we can do is get familiar with the questions, and to glom onto the people who can get us through them. My partner is also a poet, thank god, and many of my friends are writers. They understand. As to the particular worries you are asking about—no. I don’t think the poems are particularly scandalous; they are poems.

HL:  You were a Wallace Stegner Fellow, a rare opportunity and a high honor about which many poets can only dream. What was it like? What did you love most? And, what was least expected about the experience?

BP:  It really was an honor, and a windfall, and it changed my life in exactly every way. I don’t think that’s hyperbole, or at least not much. OK, I was a poet before. But coming to Stanford let me support myself in a way that included my writing—by teaching writing. I love teaching. And I had never been able to really teach before, not in a way that was financially sustainable and that didn’t include lots of other work, and not in a way that actually left me with any time to write. I also started believing that I was a writer—not right away, but over time. I can’t tell you how much that helped. I still have doubts—which crop up regularly and persistently. I don’t think I will ever get over them. But the doubts I have now I sense are different than the ones I had before. I hope that someday I’ll acquire new doubts. That will signify some kind of growth, won’t it? The single best thing about the Stegner program is that I met many beloved people. My dear friends. When I can be kept from the doubts, they are the ones who keep me.

I understand that, these days, you’re a Jones Lecturer in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University. Might you share with us one of your favorite classroom prompts and/or perhaps a habit you try to instill in your students?   

BP: I owe so much to my students. They are intuitive and feeling people. They know things. And they come to the classroom with such curiosity and good cheer. So I always leave class feeling more cheerful. I can’t tell you what that means to me. There is so much not be cheerful about and it’s easier and easier for each of us to be our most cynical self. They probably don’t know this but my students combat my cynical self, which otherwise gets too much airtime. I think they do that for each other, too. So what I really want for them to know is that I value their stories, and I want them to feel that the other people around the table value their stories too—which is always true. But it can be a hard thing to feel. We have to practice feeling that our stories deserve responses, that they are necessary, and we have to practice listening to other people’s stories and providing a feeling response. I think when we go back to the basic idea of storytelling—which is about connection, the process of a self connecting to someone else—we remember why we’re speaking and we remember how to listen.

HL: What are you up to these days? Might you tell us a bit about your current writerly project(s)? And, is there anything else you’d like to share with the readers of Diode today?

BP: I’m writing prose now, memoir. I have no idea how to put together a book in prose. I’m trying to teach myself and I’m reading a lot. We’ll see.

HL:  I can’t wait to read it, Brittany. I have no doubt that your memoir will be brilliant. Thank you for chatting with me. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Brittany Perham is the author of Double Portrait (W.W. Norton, 2017), which received the Barnard Women Poets Prize; The Curiosities (Free Verse Editions, 2012); and, with Kim Addonizio, the collaborative chapbook The Night Could Go in Either Direction (SHP, 2016). She is a Jones Lecturer in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University, where she was a Wallace Stegner Fellow.  In 2016 she received the Elizabeth Matchett Stover Memorial Award given by Southwest Review; she has also received awards and fellowships from the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fund, and the James Merrill House Foundation.

Heather Lang was voted Las Vegas' Best Local Writer or Poet this year by the readers of KNPR's Desert Companion. Her poetry and prose have been published by or are forthcoming in The Normal School, Paper Darts, and Pleiades, among others. Last year Heather was interviewed on Nevada Public Radio, and her writing process was on exhibit at the Nevada Humanities Program Gallery. Heather teaches literature and composition part time at Nevada State College, and she serves as World Literature Editor with The Literary