An Interview with Christine Garren

by Terry Kennedy

Christine Garren is the author of the poetry collections Afterworld and Among the Monarchs. Her latest collection is The Piercing, published in 2006 in the Southern Messenger Poets series from Louisiana State University Press. A Los Angeles Times Book Award finalist and NEA Fellowship recipient, she was born in Philadelphia and has lived in Greensboro, North Carolina, since 1979.

Terry Kennedy: James Wright once said, more or less, that the writing of a poem is like constructing a giant wall and then slowly chipping away at it until you find the true poem inside you. Similarly, Cate Marvin likens the process to weaving a tapestry and then cutting away the waste at the beginning and the end. Your poems are so tightly wrought; it seems that they must have undergone a similar transformation. Is this true?

Christine Garren: Yes, it is true I reach a poem through a process that involves the dismantling of the creation. The original or early draft might be a dense-looking typed page of an event and its images, associations, or other various details. The first revisions stay loyal to the spirit of investigation. If there is a metaphor to be had, I might wait for it to appear—like a drowned figure surfacing—rather than having knowledge of it from the beginning.

TK: It’s interesting that you use that simile—the drowned figure surfacing—because, to me, many of your poems, especially in your first collection, Afterworld, have a ghostly “feel” to them. I’m thinking of “Solarization” or perhaps “Lost.”

CG: I believe that I might experience events in perceptual ways that do not rely much on the concrete. In one sense it’s a form of myopia; in another sense it’s a faith in the mystery of things. Because the inexplicable and unknowable exist in life, I see no reason to exclude them from a poem.

TK: Wendell Berry says that “the idea of standing by one’s word, of words precisely designating things, of deeds faithful to words, is probably native to our understanding.” And that “the first aim of the propriety of the old poets . . . was to make the language true to its subject—to see that it told the truth.” By design, your poems draw attention to every word on the page. In other words, no language is wasted. As a poet do you feel you have responsibility to make sure that every word in a poem “rings true”?

CG: I see truth as fluid and language as frustratingly static. I understand that language is probably bound to fail the task. I am preoccupied with what a collection of words, even a flawed collection, might equal. I enjoy considering how the words interact with each other, and I especially enjoy thinking about their tonal dependence on each other. I am constantly aware during composition and revision that language obscures as much as it reveals.

TK: When you say “tonal dependence,” I’m assuming you mean something along the lines of mood as opposed to musicality. There’s a poem in The Piercing, “The Beloved,” where the opening image is completely turned on itself by the end of line. I hope you don’t mind if I quote it here: “Flowers were in bloom. Their blossoms white like frost.” That moment, when we hit that one word, “frost,” and have to freeze before continuing down to the next line really changes the tone of the poem for me.

CG: In that instance, my aim was to define more specifically the shade of white I had imagined. I realized “frost” could also support the paradoxical nature of love. If it is possible to present the undercurrent that might run beneath a more obvious and accessible emotion, I think it is critical to allow in the more hidden force.

TK: In his essay “Improvisations on Form and Measure,” Charles Wright contends that poets should focus less on line breaks and more on “imagining the line as a whole, [as a] unit.” A large number of your poems seem to function as one, whole, line. That is, each moment in the line seems to simultaneously rely upon, and create tension for, the next moment in the poem until, finally, the reader is released at the end—that last moment singing with the emotion and meaning of the poem as a whole. Is this a concern of yours when composing or revising a poem?

CG: Lately, I have been interested in the whole impulse of the poem— or that has trumped its quieter architecture. I regard the line as a visual lead through the emotional terrain of the work. Often I ignore all the beautiful ways a line can be built because its sacrifice seems natural to me. I am drawn to a line that visually supports instability and have used it lately as simply an energy source that travels.

TK: “Polaroid,” the opening poem of The Piercing, visually seems very different from those in the preceding book, Among the Monarchs. The white space in the poem, I see now, supports a feeling of instability in the reader. We don’t know what we’re going to find. We want to, but we’re forced to take our time getting there. There’s an uneasiness created that makes for a really powerful final line.

CG: “Polaroid” initially was a long poem that moved step by step through the speaker’s discovery of the torn snapshot. It was stichic in appearance and narrative in presentation. It occurred to me at some point that my approach to the poem was all wrong. Sometime after that, I narrowed the poem down to a few details that reflected its theme of litter, transience, and disconnectedness. Once I understood the poem’s interest or thematic impulse, it felt more natural to support it with a freer, more open and interrupted line.

TK: So many books of poetry today seem more like pre-planned projects than collections of individual poems. None of your books, at least from outward appearances, do this—which isn’t to say the poems don’t work as a chorus. Do you have a method for constructing your collections?

CG: I think some writers have minds that work best once a loose frame has been lowered over the crisis or obsession that has provoked the work. I, on the other hand, tend to resist organization based on topic and chronology. Voice and attitudes of response tend to connect the pieces.

TK: I’ve always thought of syntax and line as being the great controllers of voice in a poem, in poets. “Attitudes of response” is something I’ve never really considered. Could you explain that a bit more? Perhaps mention a poem or two as examples?

CG: By “attitudes of response” I mean one’s interpretation or observation or particular way of perceiving—one’s sensibility might be a better way to say it. I suppose it would be the mind at work before the line has been formed. It is the specific and peculiar quality that distinguishes one individual from another. If the mind had a DNA, I suppose it would be that. Concerning my work, an example from The Piercing might be the way it occasionally, however unpredictably, reflects an interest in the discarded item. My guess is that my concern with detritus suggests a perceptual attitude I developed over the years that empathizes with the cast-off object. I am thinking of “Polaroid” and “Thrift”—but also “Ghost-Ship” and “Big Box.”

TK: A complaint that seems to surface from time to time is that MFA writing programs have caused/created a type of conformity within much of contemporary poetry. When I look at the current work of my MFA classmates, I see more variety than similarities. Do you feel that your classmates are doing similar things with their poetry? Or do you feel like you’re each following your own path? What about in the greater world of contemporary poetry?

CG: My teachers encouraged the individual writer to develop as he or she felt driven to develop. They also encouraged us to pursue and constantly deepen our knowledge of prosody and the poetry of generations preceding us. They reminded us of our responsibility to be educated practitioners of our art regardless of the departures we might (and with their blessing) make. The complaint to which you allude and the one with which I am most familiar— that MFA work-shop poems insidiously may have encouraged conformity in contemporary poetry—is, I think, untrue. Surely we are a more sophisticated culture than that. If anything, it seems the past couple of years have encouraged the more generous understanding that a good poem is simply good, regardless of its formal or informal container.

TK: I’m playing devil’s advocate here, because you’ve made me think of another topic that comes up in conversation a good bit—that is, the idea that some poems, despite their theoretical place in the current literary climate, just aren’t good poems. I’m speaking here of poems that seem so syntactically disconnected as to suggest a complete absence of craft, at least on first glance—which isn’t to say that no craft is involved, just that the poems give off that appearance. Do you know what I’m talking about? I’m tempted to connect this type of poetry to cutting holes in your jeans with a pair of scissors rather than actually wearing them out. Is that too harsh?

CG: I tend to be open. That is not to say that I don’t grow impatient and exasperated with poems that completely elude me. Still, I do believe in allowing for whatever might confuse, irritate, or repel. I have found such declarations of tolerance are easy to announce, but difficult to practice. I remind myself that it’s through failed investigations and experiments that something lasting may surface. Even the analogy you make charms the rebellious spirit in me—the violence of the scissors—the unearned display of rebellion—the disfigured jeans.

TK: Many young poets, those in their early twenties—and I should be clear that I’m talking about graduate students or prospective graduate students—seem to be more interested in their careers as poets than they are in poetry. They don’t want to know how to write better poems so much as how to get their poems (and books) published. It seems to me that the poets who focus on the work first (although they may publish their first books a little later), tend to have longer careers. In other words, there really is something to be said for sweat and perseverance. What’s your take?

CG: Yes, commitment, perseverance, and relentless practice are qualities to be valued. In the end I think most poets, whether they catch a publishing break or not, are writing because they must—because the poem’s creation answers an emotional or spiritual need that they associate with survival.

TK: I suppose this reaches back to the question of writing for a private or public audience. In his essay “The Book as Bridge,” Carl Phillips talks about how, for him, the question of audience always enters his mind later. The first concern is to reach himself. Or as Stuart Dischell once told me, your duty is to the poems. The rest, the publishing, will take care of itself.

CG: Again, it is easy to say all of this—but practicing it is another matter. I can only speak of my own experience. When I care less about what an audience may think, I am able, it seems, to write a stronger poem. I made a decision some years ago to write the poems I felt were in my possession to write. I made this decision after years of study, after acquiring formally and informally what I think is a fairly deep understanding of poetry, its history and its forms. I began to write the poems I wished to write when the audience left.

TK: Thank you for taking the time to talk about poetry with me. It’s been very enlightening and inspiring. I have one last question, which isn’t really a fair one giving that The Piercing was just released by Louisiana State University Press last September—when is the new book going to be ready?

CG: Thank you for interviewing me; it has been a privilege to have this conversation and I have enjoyed thinking about the questions. I am in the process of arranging a manuscript now; I don’t know how long that will take me. But it is so nice to have you ask about it. I appreciate it all.