Introduction to Claudia Emerson’s Poems in Waxwing
— September 12, 2015
Claudia Emerson’s poems here in Waxwing appear in the first section of her last poetry collection, Claude Before Time and Space. “Swimming Alone” and “The Wheel” open the book and “Pre-Algebra, 1970” appears shortly thereafter. Claude is a thin volume at only 59 pages — including frontismatter! — in three sections: “The Wheel,” “Bird Ephemera,” and “Claude Before Time and Space.” The first two sections are what Claudia called “stand-alone poems,” and the last section offers a series of sonnets or sonnet-esque poems about Claudia’s father Claude. I say all this as an introduction because the book was as important to Claudia as the individual poems, and, for me, each of Claudia’s books offer us a kind of “poem at large.” It’s kind of like a fractal: the movement is the same at both the micro and macro level.
In August 2014, just a few months before she died, I sent her the first — and what became the only — question she would answer for an interview at 32 Poems, where I’m a prose editor. This question provides some insight into her book-to-book writing process and how Claude arrived from her two previous books, both published this year. I have not altered the document in any way from that I received from her on September 4, 2014, and it should be noted that the “other new manuscript” I inquire about is Impossible Bottle, which was just released from LSU last week.
Emilia Phillips: You’ve got two new collections we can look forward to, including The Opposite House, out with LSU in 2015. [What is the name of the other new manuscript?] At readings I’ve heard you say that you think about poems in terms of projects, whole collections. Was there any overlap in the writing of the two collections and, if so, how did you go about mentally shifting between two projects? Do you think most contemporary poets generally scatter a mixed bag of seed and then later on gather their favorite wildflowers for a bouquet? Have you ever had to defend your method to others?
Claudia Emerson: These two books might overlap in terms of subjects I return to, or certain figures, fascinations and even obsessions, but the Opposite House is not overtly personal/autobiographical, while Impossible Bottle (fall 2015), in large part, is.
I have long conceived of books as I write the poems that will compose them. The interest for me, I suppose, is in the meaning that a sequence can make as opposed to individual, stand-alone poems. I don’t mind at all that a poem can mean differently in the context of the book; find the slippage to be fascinating. I have very much enjoyed and learned much from exploring the possibilities of the long, more narrative book, the lyric sequence, as well as the shapely volume.
MFA programs with the requirement of a thesis have been blamed of late for what people negatively call “project” books, but expanded forms have been around for centuries. I stumbled on the notion of my second book — which has been diagnosed (for lack of a better word) as a long poem — not during my MFA experience, but when I was cobbling together a livelihood of sorts as an adjunct. I was teaching at two and sometimes three schools in the same semester. One fall I taught nights at a community college twenty miles from my home and days I taught at two different liberal arts schools fifty miles in the other direction. I realized that if I didn’t have something “bigger” than a poem at a time, I might never write again! That’s when I chose one of voices/characters in the second book and began to feel my way along a sustained narrative.
As for defending my method? My series editor at LSU, Dave Smith, has often said to me that my habit of constructing what I call the “table of conceits” is flat-out idiosyncratic. My mentor Betty Adcock agrees with him my method is crazy, but she sees that it works for me and so gives me her blessing. My friend R. T. Smith, meanwhile, has often constructed books in a manner similar to mine, and I know he and I are certainly not alone in this. There are countless examples of contemporary poets working in expanded forms. Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie really influenced me when it appeared, and I also have recently admired the work of Maurice Manning and Steve Scafidi, in particular, as they continue to explore what the longer form can become.
Many of my poet friends do, however, write the poem they are given to write, and then when they have enough pages, enough poems they consider strong enough, put a book together. This simply doesn’t interest me as much — though I love seeing how other people go about the process of book composition. It is altogether good that we should be curious about and come to understand a diversity of approaches to book composition; after all, I am a teacher and it is vital that I remain open to others’ writing practices.
The books of posthumous publication — Opposite House (March 2015), Impossible Bottle (September 2015), Claude Before Time and Space (unknown) — offer us a kind of trilogic reckoning with ephemerality: time and memory, as these three poems demonstrate, and of documents both literal — like the daybooks of Emma Bell Miles in “Bird Ephemera” (published in Blackbird) and the accounts of the “Midwife” (Linebreak) — and figurative — especially the body, as we see most devastatingly in the poem “On Leaving My Body to Science” from Claude, which will be published in the October 2015 issue of Poetry. The poems published here show Claudia wading into memory, in the same way the children go into the river in “Swimming Alone,” and like a river, as soon as the course of memory is charted, it floods its bank, slips its bed, and winds a new way through the land: “Motion’s old architecture.” We see this in the form of these poems, and in the way in which memories and their meanings are changed by the present.
A year ago yesterday, September 11th, Claudia sent me the last email she ever would:
send the next question when you’re ready — though I am going to my mother’s for her 90th birthday tomorrow and probably won’t look until Sunday.
Yes to getting together! …
Her eyesight failed shortly thereafter and she was unable to answer my last question, sent a year ago today:
EP: As an undergraduate I went on a trip to Europe with a professor and [other] creative writing students. Trouping around in sandals on the Slovenian karst, I stepped on nettles. My professor picked the leaves of another plant nearby and had me rub them on my feet to ease the sting. He told me then that remedies or antidotes often grow near pricks and poison.
The other day, you and I were talking about loving, coming to love, and seeking out writing that’s different from our own either in form, style, or tone. Is this not the same sort of gesture? (Not to suggest that our poetry is as unpleasant as a stinging nettle, although, I don’t know about you, but I hope my poems have that bite.) Tell me a little bit about a poet or two who writes in one way or another in different way than you do, you have. Why do you value their work? How do reading these poems work with or against writing your own poems?
My question, of course, was about generosity, about finding our way into work, about finding a way to listen to as many voices as possible. Although Claudia couldn’t reply to my email with a response, I realized many months later that she had given me my answer.
When Kent Ippolito, Claudia’s husband, asked me to help send out the Claude poems, I didn’t know if I was up for the task. Claudia’s death devastated me, and I didn’t know if I was ready to spend that much time with her last poems. I wept through my first reading of the collection and upon my return to certain poems. But through the process, I realized that my question to Claudia had, at its heart, a more true set of questions: How do we read poems that are difficult for us to read? Why should we read them? How do they change — and therefore reward — us? We read poems that are difficult for us to read because they allow us to locate or honor what or who we lack, we’ve lost, we miss or grieve. Do the same poems that sting us also offer us a balm? My sting was grief; but the balm is Claudia’s voice, here, insistent as ever. And like the river: