Forgiveness Through Poetry: A Dialogue Between Poets Katrina Vandenberg and Jim Moore07/06/2012
On the shore of the Mississippi river and within eyeshot of the site of the I-35W bridge that collapsed in 2007, poets Katrina Vandenberg and Jim Moore met for a conversation about forgiveness and suffering in poetry. Katrina’s ambitious new collection of poems, The Alphabet Not Unlike the World, tackles these ageless human concerns in a sympathetic, formally inventive way. Their dialogue follows below.
Jim Moore: We’re here to talk about your wonderful new book that has just come out, some of the specific poems, and some of the underlying themes. I felt, as I was reading the book, as if I was reading a novel. Very rarely do I sit down and read a book [of poetry] and start on page one and go right to the end without putting it down. It’s hard to do that with poetry because it’s so intense. But the further I read, the more I felt myself getting involved with the narrator and wanting to know her story, and what was going to happen next.
I was struck, Katrina, with something you said on a radio interview recently for Minnesota Public Radio, that one of your concerns in the book is: “How do people forgive what happened to them, and how do people go on?” If there’s a poem that in some way deals with that, reflects on that, could you talk about it?
Katrina Vandenberg: In some ways I feel like I could point to nearly every poem in the book. Whatever our lives are, however comparatively easy or difficult, or where we live, or when we live, that’s a question we butt up against again and again. When I was on MPR, Euan [Kerr] had asked me whether I had come up with a conclusion about how do we forgive people, how do we go on. I had said to him at the time, “Well, I don’t know. If I knew that I could stop writing.” And that’s really only half true, because I think I do have an idea. There’s a difference between intellectually knowing it and knowing it in your body and practicing it. In some ways, writing poetry is a way of trying to put that information into your body and help practice it. At least I feel like I know something differently after I write about it, than I do just talking.
JM: So you might have even known, as you say it, in an intellectual way how to answer that question, but in the writing of the poem—which is a physical act as well as a mental act—you have a different perspective on it. Reading is the same way. You’re dealing with things that I’ve seen dealt with [in poetry] before, but you’re doing it in a new way, a different way, a way that forces the reader to take it in at another level. So, anyway, you have a poem…
KV: I do. And like a lot of poems, when I’m writing them they teach me something I didn’t know I knew. I can’t remember the quote now, but it’s something like, “How can I know what I think until I see what I said?” There’s a poem near the end of the book called “I think of myself as the old borrowed bicycle”. Another poem earlier in the book talks about the cosmos and the brownstone—images in this poem—so they return at this point:
I think of myself as the old borrowed bicycle
ridden by the young woman — nearly a girl —
on her way to New England Medical.
She grips the handlebar and wilting cosmos
all at once. The girl who, that morning, drank coffee
by the woodstove at the housing cooperative.
The girl who does not cooperate. I am not
a metaphor, just vehicle. Am driven
defensively, reflect after dark, navigate
blaring streets. The girl could be the metaphor’s
other half, but isn’t neat, for one thing. Showers
too often and too long, does not phrase her troubles
in I statements at house meetings. She’s a guest
in this triple decker, its basement full of used bicycles
on their way to Nicaragua. Life to come,
for the bicycles: a constant weaving
past flaming fields and churches, pistols cocked
at many boys younger than the comatose man
she visits in ICU. The girl drinks her coffee,
stands at the window on the top floor,
the quilt of orchards beyond Roxbury unfolding
into a future where people will always be missing.
Her job is to be carried, to remember
this fall forever. My job is to bear the girl.
KV: Sometimes forgiveness can’t happen—and we always talk about forgiving other people, but another component of it is learning to forgive yourself—until you get to a point in your life where you can look back and see a situation as whole. Another aspect of that is that the war in Nicaragua concerned a lot of people then. I don’t hear much about Nicaragua anymore, I hear about other places, other hot spots in the world. It just goes on.
TRANSCENDING THE POETRY OF SUFFERING
JM: A lot of these poems and a lot of great poetry through the ages has to do with suffering in one way or another. How to deal with it. How to name it, first of all. But more important than that even, how to bear it. How to live with it without letting it destroy you. This book really is a conundrum in a lot of ways: There’s a lot of suffering in it, there are a lot of personal challenges that are dealt with, and a lot of existential questions that all of us have to deal with, in terms of dying and mortality. You do it in a way that’s not depressing. I don’t feel as a reader that you, as the writer, are being overwhelmed.
One of the reasons that poems are not depressing is because you use some wonderful formal devices to help you get perspective on your material. For example, in a number of poems the alphabet plays a tremendous role, and you’re obviously thinking about language a lot. Does working with how the poem is going to be shaped help you get a good distance on some of the difficult subject matter? How does craft help you as a poet?
KV: I really think about audience. (And by audience I don’t imagine people reading my book while I’m writing, because I couldn’t write that way.) A lot of my poems start as letters. I drive some of my first readers berserk, because there’s always a “you” in my poems, and they’re always asking, “Who is this?” It depends, because I write them to different people. Not just anybody, but I like to imagine someone who’s been a really good reader to me. Someone I feel very comfortable talking to. Because of that, subject matter gets dealt with a little differently than if I were imagining a huge audience. Or nobody.
I find that there’s a sort of spiritual righting that occurs when I work. A lot of time I’ve got a story one way in my head or some sort of idea I want to start with, but when I get it down on paper I realize how petty it is, or how ridiculous it would be if I actually said it to someone else. I have to reconsider things, turn them and look at them in a different way. I have friends who can snarkily or wittily put someone down in a poem and I can’t do it, not well. A lot of times I end up forgiving people or the world in the process of writing poems, because I have to or I can’t see the poem clearly. The craft won’t allow it: that’s not a three-dimensional character, or that’s not a reliable narrator, or the tone is off, or whatever. I know other writers who say if you write anything to be understood by anybody else, it’s not art. That’s a whole different question. I don’t know if I agree.
JM: No, I don’t think I agree, but that’s very different from saying, “I’m writing, I’m trying to manipulate my audience in a certain way by writing in a certain way.” That’s one thing that would be a problem with almost anyone: that to even think about being understood takes the purity out of experience.
When I started writing poetry I was in college and I was going through a very difficult time, breakup with the girlfriend, left the school. My life was sort of in chaos. I just stumbled on contemporary poetry. I’d never really read it before. I was in a little bookstore in Norman, Oklahoma, and I was so struck that there were people alive writing about things that really mattered in a way that made me, as a reader, able to understand them and see them. That to me is such a great gift that poetry has.
I was wondering if there’s a poem in this book that at points surprised you in a particular way, that gave you a sort of path in the spiritual sense, or maybe just the psychological sense. A glimpse of a future or something that was not something you understood very clearly before you wrote the poem.
KV: I’ve got one that took me someplace I didn’t expect it to go, and one that taught me something. The first one is called “O, P, R, S (Eye / Mouth / Head / Tongue)”. It started out being about deer and that mundane activity you do in the north woods around here: One of you drives and the other scans for the deer. I had been thinking about something my former editor at Milkweed had said about why he liked birds. It was that they were physical manifestations of the landscape. I was thinking about how deer, to me, are dusk. Deer and the dusk were the same thing, that they were the world at dusk.
O, P, R, S (Eye / Mouth / Head / Tongue)
At dusk the deer appear on the highway shoulder,
more of them as the light continues to die.
Suddenly they simply are,
bare brown outlines, hesitant. I am
to scan for movement, eye-shine; my husband,
to brake when I say deer. If I say deer
are the world at dusk, barred owls — if antlers
are trees in silhouette; if as the light goes down
we are coming out of our hiding places, on the move
to night feeding grounds, hunted, haunted,
should I say I see these things,
even if I cannot name the pine
the deer walk among, could not track
their hoof prints to the river. If the ribbon
my life moves along is thin: diner,
asphalt. The poem is older than
ochre, sienna horses inked on stone,
older than my body, can I say it?
The deer are the world at dusk.
My body cannot help but remember.
The deer cannot help bolting into the road
in front of our car. They cannot help walking
with the name we gave them
which once did not mean deer
but any untamed thing that breathes
and traces back to the Sanskrit for he perishes.
KV: As I was moving toward the conclusion of this poem, when I got to that idea of deer meaning “anything that was untamed” and that it traces back to this word that means “he perishes,” I got very depressed. I thought, “Their name means that deer are destined to die on the road.” That, on some level within the language, we’ve decided, we’ve set up the world.
Another surprise in that poem was, “as if the light goes down, we are coming out of our hiding places, on the move to night feeding grounds.” At first I had the deer doing that, but when I shifted it to the people . . . it became every fragile part of people that comes out when there’s less movement and less light, and the line changed the rest of the poem.
JM: Do you feel you become almost a different person when you’re writing? Obviously still Katrina, but wanting more surprises or being more open to surprises? Or is this pretty much the way you are all the time?
KV: If I’m at my best, I’m really open and really humble about what I don’t know. And not in a tricky way, like, “I’m going to pretend to be open” so I can have a poem. I have to really actually do it. Is it the same way for you? Do you think you’re a different person when you write?
JM: I feel like I’m a calmer person, but also a more intense version of myself. Calmer is helpful because when I’m writing the poem, I’m not in a mode when I’m trying to cross things off of a list or figure out what the other person thinks that I’m writing or saying. There’s a kind of openness, I guess. When that comes, I feel that I experience the world more intensely. If I’m too anxious then I cut off the intensity. I like to write early in the morning. That’s a calmer time for me, it’s just sort of a moment. Also I tend to read other people’s poems before I start writing, and that helps me into that other version of myself.
KV: I don’t know if we write about a lot of the same things, but our concerns touch on each other’s. I was wondering whether you could read something from Invisible Strings?
JM: I’ll read the first poem in the book, because it connects to what we’ve been talking about. It’s a poem called “Love in the Ruins,” and here we are in the Mill City Ruins. It had nothing to do with that when I was writing it. It’s a little poem in very short sections.
Love in the Ruins
I remember my mother toward the end,
folding the tablecloth after dinner
as if it were a flag
of a country that no longer existed,
but once had ruled the world.
7 A.M. and the barefoot man
leaves his lover’s house
to go back to his basement room
across the alley. I nod hello,
continuing to pick
the first small daffodils
which just yesterday began to bloom.
Helicopter flies overhead
reminding me of that old war
where one friend lost his life,
one his mind,
and one came back happy
to be missing only an unnecessary finger.
I vow to write five poems today,
look down and see a crow
rising into thick snow on 5th Avenue
as if pulled up by invisible strings,
there is only one to go.
another winter: my black stocking cap,
my mismatched gloves,
my suspicious, chilly heart.
JM: I like that last section. I give away a little more of myself. It’s a tendency sometimes in your own poems to cover up or ignore some of the dicey or less pleasant parts of yourself.
KV: It certainly is. The sort of writing we’re talking about—about difficult issues—is on one hand important, but on the other hand might be considered kind of easy. And by easy, I mean it’s more noble or acceptable to be talking about that, and less so to be talking about one’s “chilly, suspicious heart.”
JM: I feel like I say such damning things about myself sometimes in my poetry, but that’s one of the great releases of it. You get to say a fair amount of truth about yourself. There’s something very freeing about that.
KV: I wrote this poem when I was reading a lot of poems by a poet we both know and admire, Deborah Keenan. The line “even if this, even if that, this poem is about forgiveness” seemed like a line she would write. So I wrote this poem for her.
I promise to solve for X. I promise I will write
a poem about forgiveness. Even if it is April
and another college boy has drowned in the Midwest.
XX means “girl,” XY means “boy.” A serial killer,
some say. Others: The boys are drunk
and we have rivers. We also have rails,
trestles in fields of corn, steel mills.
A restless moon, a horizon you can see clear to,
crows on telephone poles like Xs strung together.
As unfertilized eggs we all begin as XXs.
Even if we have lost dozens
in the Mississippi, eight in LaCrosse
alone, this poem is about forgiveness. It tries
to solve for X— X the cross, X the Christ, X
to X things out. The boy in Saint Cloud. The boy
at Saint John’s, where the monks bake bread
and copy the Bible by hand. When the moon
is dark and new. X the unknown,
X for times. X for ten,
for more than ten. On the Web site’s map,
the gravestones marked with little crosses
pop up along I-94 like crocuses, until you can’t see one
for another. It is Easter. The red-winged blackbirds
are coming back to Minnesota, their wings’ tips
feather the river along. The river
is a swish of calligrapher’s ink,
the boys are drowning inside the X—
X for the stranger, Mr. X. I love the Mississippi,
how it can mirror back the world without us in it.
How it keeps insisting to the bluffs, Sandstone —
river — limestone — river — shale — river — river.
The river of thoughts about Mr. X has worn through
us almost that long. XO, I kiss you,
the letter is sealed. I do not want to die
without lifting a child of my own from the water.
JM: I love that poem. There’s a kind of determination, kind of steeliness. But at the same time, there’s such tenderness toward the world, toward what happens in the world, and toward how much of it is mysterious and unknowable. It’s really kind of breathtaking. Was that a poem you worked on a long time?
KV: That was a gift poem. It came pretty easily. It took me a day or two to get it the way I wanted it, but it was a poem where I knew organically. I could hear the music of it, and I just needed to know what the words were. I could also see in my head how it was supposed to look on the page, which doesn’t usually happen for me. The line in it is jagged, it’s not a pentameter line. But I knew what that right margin was going to look like. A lot of it was about feel, and the call-and-response, and what words fit with its music.
JM: There’s a lot of confidence in your voice there too, and that’s one reason the poems, while they do deal with difficult material, make a reader feel strangely happy to hear you read them.
Jim Moore is the author of six collections of poetry, including Lightning at Dinner, The Freedom of History, and, most recently, Invisible Strings.
“I think of myself as the old borrowed bicycle”, “O, P, R, S (Eyes / Mouth / Head / Tongue)”, and “X” are from The Alphabet Not Unlike the World. All Rights reserved.
Jim Moore’s poem “Love in the Ruins”, from Invisible Strings, is being used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Graywolf Press, www.graywolfpress.org.