The Breaking Open that is Required for the Risk of Love: An Interview with Lisa Russ Spaar
Jasmine V. Bailey
Jasmine V. Bailey: Your most recent book of poems, Orexia, takes its title from the Greek root meaning “hunger.” For English speakers, this calls up “anorexia,” its complicated kind-of-opposite, in which we most often hear that root. Your previous collection, Vanitas, Rough, used a Latin word for still-life paintings incorporating symbols of mortality, and which resonates with the English “vanity.” What attracts you about words from other, especially dead, languages? Do you like the way they flirt with English cousin-words, sometimes misleadingly?
Lisa Russ Spaar: I love the idea of words flirting with each other, Jasmine! Which, of course, they do — shamelessly, whether we want them to or not (think what goes on inside books when the covers are closed and we’re not looking in! I like to consider especially words from “dead” languages carousing with the most current urban slang — very Tim Burton, in a way. Or Cocteau). Mixing up different levels or registers of diction as well as using words derived from various languages is something I do often. Why? For one thing, the effect can be unsettling, for me and for the reader, keeping my text alive through slippage and movement, a shuttling among various modes that helps to create an in-the-mouth, bodily experience in language, rather than just offering a distanced account or narration of something. I also believe that really interesting words, especially ones that are foreign to me, are themselves each like a poem: storied, freighted with history, mystery, myriad resonances, fragrances, hidden rooms. Working them into my poems is a kind of meta travel for me — and, again, a way to create movement, and particularly ecstatic movement (ex-stasis, beside the self), in poems whose main subject, as you intimate above, is often desire, orexia. God-orexia, love-orexia, sky-orexia, word-orexia, orexia-orexia. Desire for desire.
I do think that one reason I’m so attracted to rhyme and off-rhyme (something that is a bit more apparent in Orexia than in Vanitas, Rough, and a fascination which is all over the new work I’m doing now: lots of sonnets I’m calling “madrigals”) is for the ways in which that concerted sonic play creates a kind of lingual-erotic tension. I have a word-jones, obviously. Since junior high school, I have usually written with a dictionary at my elbow (cf. Dickinson’s claim that for a long time her Lexicon was her only companion — not true! think of her dog, her flowers, her siblings, Sue, her many correspondents. Or, maybe, it was all too true: the word/world connection inseparable for her), and whenever I encountered a word new to me, I’d look it up. I still do this.
During my childhood, my parents kept a big Random House Dictionary of the English Language open on a sideboard in our dining room (it was the size of at least five Manhattan phone books, and in addition to offering definitions and parts of speech, etymologies and synonyms/antonyms, there were often illustrations of the words as well, not to mention, in the back, nautical symbols, heraldric crests,proof-reader markings, and many. many maps — a treasure trove). This isn’t to say that my parents were particularly literary. I think that my father knew someone who worked for Random House, and who was offering a “deal” on dictionaries (the way people used to buy encyclopedias). Can you imagine that now? One challenge for our wonderful English majors here at UVA is to alphabetize themselves in line at graduation each year. These are bright, often brilliant students, but they rarely use a hard copy dictionary, so the sense of what letter might follow another isn’t something they probably thought about much since they learned the “ABC” song as children.
I came to some of the “root” languages (Latin, Greek, Arabic, Anglo-Saxon, etc.) mostly through etymology, another passion of mine. The only language other than English that I’ve ever systematically studied is German. But I did get a kind of contact high from all those flash card vocabulary quiz preparations I did with my three children, who studied, over the years, Latin, Spanish, and French …
JVB: I love that your poems make me keep the Oxford English Dictionary open — you have a passion for obscure words and arrange them in commanding lines like “sharp storax ambar & hoar-caped steam” (from “Ice Idyll”) with barely an unstressed syllable to lull us into falsifying the language as simple. What did you want the ear to experience in this line?
LRS: In this particular poem (which I’m grateful to you for noting — it’s an important poem for me, but not one that I have ever heard another reader mention), I was attempting, among other things, to recreate in language the acoustically transformative experience created by snow and ice-fall (and, by extrapolation, a change created by any life-altering weather) — what that kind of frozen water piled up in heaps and drifts does to our experience of being alive, of being in bodies. I didn’t want to SAY that the experience of waking to and entering such a world was strange; I wanted to try to create a palpable sense OF that strangeness, which must — as human experience must — come from and through the sensorium. What do such transformations do to our sense of ourselves in bodies? Can such experiences make us re-consider God, our own deaths? The speaker asks, “is there room in the huddled body / for this captured tune?” An “idyll” is a depiction of a rustic scene from nature, often an idealized one, and I wanted to play with that denotation, pushing against it a bit, to show how on a snow day, standing on an ordinary lawn in a neighborhood alive with the muffled growl of chain saws and engines attempting to turn over could “read,” under these new circumstances (falling in love, heartbreak, grief), almost as a foreign language (“Idolatrous, armored by a sheer, worshipful wrath, / could even winter swear I’m made of words.”)
One of my favorite poets is Gerard Manley Hopkins, for whom sound IS meaning much of the time. Consider “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves,” for instance: “ Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish ' damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black, / Ever so black on it” (!!) — Hopkins creates something akin to Sybil’s oracular, vatic speech out of all of that alliteration, and with — as you say of “Ice Idyll” — nary an unstressed syllable.
JVB: In “Mynddaeg Hour” you open the poem with the title’s definition: “Mind-day, old word / for the year’s turning”. This is a playful moment in which you speak as if directly to the reader, telling her the answer to something she’s wondering. How do you decide when to gloss your words and concepts and when to address the reader openly (as in “Orexic Hour”: “Almost wrote ‘edited.’ … Odd to be so direct.”)?
LRS: More and more I’ve become interested in having those kinds of Hamlet-like asides or Frank Underwood break-the-fourth-wall moments in my poems. Lyric speech can feel / is very insular, private — and while I’m extremely interested in difficulty in poems (both as a writer and a reader), I want my reader to be able to take part in creating my poem’s experience. In a maybe counter-intuitive way, wrestling with complex syntax, for instance, or tussling with arcane diction can be a way to do that, to invest the reader in the experience, but, taken to a solipsistic extreme, of course, difficulty might also inspire a reader to throw the book across the room! And so another way to let the reader into the poem is through direct address, or the imperative voice, or through a shout-out to pop culture or the use of a very accessible vernacular phrase. And concrete imagery — vividly rendered details of the soma, of the haptic world — is absolutely essential to creating a world in which others can participate.
JVB: Alongside Dickinson and Hopkins, what other poets’ work satisfies your desire for the difficult? What kind of difficulty do they create and how is it gratifying?
LRS: In “On Difficulty,” George Steiner talks about, I think, four different kinds of difficulty: contingent (as in having to look up words in a foreign language), modal (as in conceptual difficulty — that is, the subject matter is just beyond my intellectual capacities — think Stephen Hawking), tactical (as in, the author deliberately doesn’t want me to understand, and is using a kind of code), and ontological (in which the conditions of what it takes to produce meaning are questioned, challenged — called into difficulty — as with inverted, interrupted, or suspended syntax or especially fresh and complex figuration. I think that the kinds of difficulty I find most engaging are contingency and ontology, and so I’m very attracted, and return again and again, in addition to Dickinson and Hopkins, to poets like Thomas Wyatt, John Donne, and Shakespeare (so much poetry in the plays!), and to living poets like Lucie Brock-Broido, Alice Oswald, and Carl Phillips. I love the ways in which these poets play with image-making and with sentence structure in a way that involves me physically as well as mentally — how, rather than falling through an invisible net of language into a world whose engine is narration, I get caught instead in that net of text. Each time I encounter a poem like Wyatt’s “They flee from me —,” for example, or “Whoso list to hunt,” I find my heart racing with exhilaration.
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.
“I seek to hold the wind” and “wild for to hold” — thrilling.
JVB: Do you have a theory of poetic music or does your ear lead you to the patterns you favor?
LRS: I don’t have a theory of poetic music, but agree with your assessment of my most recent work, in which I’m especially interested in compression, in putting language under syntactic and sonic pressure in order to create various effects: anxiety, urgency, desire, loneliness. In my very early work, I was working more with fairly complete, often narrative-driven sentences, trellised over lines that were often poorly lineated. (Oh, 1970s confessional poetry.) As I developed, deepened into my own obsessions, flood subjects, and interests as a word-wielder, I found that shorter forms, more fulfilled lines, clustered image systems, sonic texture, and phrases mixed in with complete sentences of all kinds (questions, commands, interjections, asides, etc.) allowed me to better plumb that “Campaign inscrutable / Of the Interior” that was so important to poets like Dickinson, and continues to be very important to me. Keats’s “vale of soul-making,” if you will.
JVB: You are justly admired for your love poetry and poetry of sexual longing. In Vanitas, Rough, many of the poems are aubades of a kind — the speaker often writes from the moment prior to the cleaving from her lover. In Orexia, the lover seems to be gone, including two “Celibacy” poems and the unforgettable opening of “To Time” with the statement, “I know my lover.” I felt the anguish in Vanitas, Rough, was sharper: the anticipation of separation worse than its aftermath. Does that seem a faithful reading to you?
LRS: Now, “cleave” is just the sort of word I love, because it can mean two almost opposite things. On the one hand, it can mean to stick to, to bind oneself to something — to cleave to a lover. But it can also mean to part, to separate. As with a sharp blade, a “cleaver.” And so this is characteristically prescient and insightful of you, Jasmine, because in some ways the speakers in both Vanitas, Rough and Orexia struggle with with the pain/anguish of separation from the lover and with the pain / anguish of belonging to or being with the lover, because each condition depends upon the other for its power, meaning, and consequence. Anne Carson writes about this, of course, in Eros the Bittersweet, about how the current of Eros depends upon impediment, distance. In Lyric Time, Sharon Cameron says something similar about Dickinson and how, through language, she can both acknowledge her lover’s absence and reclaim his/her presence too. I should say, also, that for me, the beloved is also often the Beloved. I’m interested in the synergy between erotic and religious ardor, in experience and in language.
JVB: Catholicism seems to lace your poetry, but there seems to be a more insistent mystical worldview that emerges from your poems. Say another word about the Beloved and “erotic and religious ardor.”
LRS: I actually grew up attending a Presbyterian church in New Jersey, though for a number of years our choir director was an Episcopalian, and he not only introduced me to a great deal of beautiful, “real” church music (Bach, Britten, Buxtehude, ancient motets, and carols) bur also instilled in me a deep awareness of liturgical seasons and feast days — Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Pentecost, and so forth. These “seasons” are very much tied up for me with the turnings of the natural world, which introduces, I think, a pantheistic or mystical element as well. All my adult life I’ve attended the Episcopal church, which if course had its beginnings in Catholicism, which accounts, I think, for your seeing this influence throughout my books. But to your question: whether they’re struggling with God-hunger or not, I think that most poems seek some condition that eludes language. The Ineffable. Which can, of course, be said of our most transfiguring experiences — of something sublime in the natural world, or in love-making, or in epiphany or prayer. In what can’t be worded. At their most intense, religious ardor or longing can feel a lot like erotic yearning, and so the discourse we use for one kind of desire can often serve expression of another, as in this fragment by Emily Dickinson (Fr. 1682), in which she could be speaking of earthly or heavenly love, or both:
Extol thee — could I — Then I will
By saying nothing new
But just the fair — averring —
That thou art heavenly —
Perceiving thee is evidence
That we are of the sky
Partaking thee a guaranty
JVB: In “Celibacy 2” you write, “Is a murderer secreted in each one // of us” and “Instead of ‘murderer,’ let’s say ‘orphan.’” Is losing a lover like losing a parent?
LRS: In a way, I think so. Part of the move into adulthood — whether one considers this to be the exile of the children of paradise from Eden or simply the realization that gradually dawns on us that our parents are mortal, fallible beings, separate from us — involves the “death” or loss of a way of believing, which, if we’re lucky, can grow and evolve into new beliefs (“belief” is cognate with “love,” by the way). So, Freud aside, a lover becomes, one hopes, NOT one’s parental replacement, but lovers are, or can be, as crucial. One thing the poem explores is that this murderer/orphan exists in all of us — the capacity to end something, but also to be ended or abandoned. Both. This all sounds very pessimistic, but I hope some qualified redemption comes in at the end:
You’re leaving, you say? Either way,
What to do from here to then,
When language means to stay?
JVB: Oysters make an appearance in Orexia, and they were all over Vanitas, Rough. They seemed to be an image representing lovers who seem so connected they could never be prised apart, although they always are. What fascinates or attracts you to this image?
LRS: I’ve been in love with oysters since girlhood, when I first encountered a bushel basket full of them on my farmer grandparents’ porch on their farm in southern New Jersey, left there by someone in exchange for something — a crate of corn, maybe, or basket of peaches. Gnarled, mysterious (“close as an oyster”), they seemed to stir in the basket’s slats like archaic stones (in The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes about the allure of mollusks, of “inhabited stone”). I’d watch my grandfather expertly open (cleave!) each one with a special knife made entirely out of one single piece of iron. Salivating for the oyster stew I knew was coming, I was afraid then to eat raw the pearly cosmos on a half-shell he’d hold toward me (it wouldn’t be until years later, in a truly ecstatic experience at Casamento’s in New Orleans, that I would eat my first raw oyster — and I’ve been addicted to them ever since). So partly it’s purely gustatory. Such sexy food! Is there a more perfect poem than Seamus Heaney’s “Oysters”?
Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.
But I’m also attracted to oysters for the reasons you suggest: their isolato, mysterious privacy, their interiority, the way that they appear one entity but can also be opened up into two. A diptych. The “ugly” exterior and the celestial inside. Ocean meets heaven. Rock meets flesh. The implied inextricability of pleasure and pain. Beauty and violation. The breaking open that is required for the risk of love (paraphrasing Anne Carson paraphrasing Sokrates: “Your story begins the moment Eros enters you”).
JVB: It strikes me that in Orexia the speaker wishes to be known by the reader, but that she is also frequently unwilling to share concrete information. Moments like “I don’t want to suffer” from “Temple Serein” seem to plead with us to understand something that will never be voiced. Is the truth always too abstract for direct communication? Does the speaker mean to tell us more, but discovers she is, in the end, more interested in the swirling outer and inner worlds?
LRS: I think you’re right. At times, the speaker stops, often abruptly, because she has or can find no “answers” to her predicament. It’s “beyond the reach of words,” as I write in an earlier book, Blue Venus. But in many cases, especially in Vanitas, Rough and Orexia, the speaker is less interested in what precipitated her pain, its antecedent, if you will, than she is in the experience of aftermath. I feel this with Dickinson, especially in the anguished poems 1862. All of those poems beginning with “’twas” — “’Twas like a maelstrom with a notch” or “’Twas warm at first like us” — the antecedent of “It” is not important. It’s what happens after great pain that concerns Dickinson. At first she’s blind-sided. Re-shaped by the unnamed blow, she learns to walk and see again, “almost straight.”
JVB: Yoga comes into the title of “Worry Yoga” but seems inherent in “Temple Solstice” as well. Do you practice yoga? Does this form a part of your spiritual life and overall discipline?
LRS: I first tried to practice yoga in 1972 in the basement of the YMCA in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I found it hard then, and, to be honest, I still do find it hard to “clear my head,” which was what my teacher back then thought central to the practice. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to work with other yoga teachers with a more spiritual bent and a more fluid approach to poses, breathing, and meditation. For me, the body is integral to any kind of knowing, and so what I practice now — at home — is a mix of things I’ve learned in different kinds of yoga classes, combined with morning prayer, reading, breathing. Yoga is a Sanskrit word meaning “to join, or yoke.” It implies a “union” that is certainly as spiritual as it is somatic. Haha — Oyster Yoga! Right?!