Welcome to Terspischore’s Atrium, where the Hermeneutic Chaos editors find delight in the elfin task of confronting their contributing authors with some really tough questions.
Today, our Interviews Editor Aaron Wiegert interviews the amazing Heather Fowler, our Pushcart Prize 2016 nominee, who contributed three ingenious and aesthetically engaging sonnets to Issue 3. She is the poetry editor at Corium magazine, and is the author of the story collections Suspended Heart (2009), People with Holes (2012), which was named a 2012 finalist for Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, This Time, While We’re Awake (2013), and Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness (2014). Her fictive work has been made into fine art in several instances and her collaborative poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging, written with Meg Tuite and Michelle Reale, is the winner of the 2013 Twin Antler’s Prize for Collaborative Poetry and is due for release this month.
We request you to spend some time with her sonnets here, and then come back to enjoy the interview.
1. “Sonnet of Where One Always Walks Alone” has a strong sense of place. Where do you imagine this poem to be set if it actually existed?
This may be a strange response to your question, but I imagine this piece takes place as an elaborate metaphor for loneliness via the “house of solitude” rhetoric (line 7)—or as a fairy tale of sorts. In line four, when I say, “This has gone on for centuries, for years,” alluding to the woman who sleeps alone existing in a stasis, waiting, leaving the door open, and yet having no visitors arrive, I think it’s because I wanted this place to depict an almost a magical site of isolation.
The poplar trees referenced in line one are commonly placed to line long driveways because they grow quickly and resemble hedges. I remember they made quite an impression on me on one of my Europe trips. They can feel rather intimidating, tall and sharp.Their purpose here was to set the house away from the main traffic of life on the thoroughfare, where people pass the house but do not arrive there.
If “house” is used rather than “castle,” in this case, it was a conscious poetic effort to modernize the scene, but the situation did feel timelessly tainted as I wrote this poem, underscored by the magical possibilities of the house itself vanishing, and this desired magical undercurrent is highlighted in lines 11-12, where the poems says that if the woman goes to town to find a new lover, “This dwelling will disappear, with all its markings / And quietly make ready to seal its next wound.” If the dwelling can disappear and vanish from a comfortable perspective of permanence that quickly, this idea embodied for me the illusory sort of safety one feels while cocooned in solitude or sorrow. The sealing of the wound is the kind removal, the lack of further excitement for those sealed in, the lack of outside interference, the self completely at its own leisure and at its own peril.
I liked the idea of using an olive stone as the metaphor for the woman’s soul—to give a nod to the Spanish imagery I am at play with, due to the book’s Lorca/Spain connections, and also to suggest her soul is what is hard scrabble, what is bared, what is left over after the fruit of life has been consumed.
I supposed the real location of this poem is the site of one woman’s longing and indecision—the actual dilemma of choosing whether to rest in depression and/or exile or join the world of the living and love and risk again.
2. “Sonnet of Inestimable Wealth” conveys a feeling of ritual. Do you have any rituals as a writer?
I have involuntary rituals—such as writing my way through or out of painful situations and then often being terrified that I will need to re-traumatize myself again and again by publishing the very work for which I bled. If I have a lost muse, for example, it’s not possible to simply decide to rationally avoid using that muse. My mind rebels. My heart pushes through to the marrow of the terror—evokes and evokes and evokes, until it is done with a situation. The mind has little to no control when this may be.
The good news is that this way of processing means that when the sorrow is done, it is completely over. Used up. Kaput. The bad news is that I know, when someone inflicts a painful reality upon me or betrays my love, know right away, that I will be living that sorrow for years, in the ink.
And I hate them very intensely in that moment, wish I could walk backwards to the time before the travesty, because I do not want that road looming forth for my work, already visible to me, and I am completely aware how much I will suffer, that I will have “shivered nude in miasmas of tears,” before I can let the hard and terrible things go.
3. The most cinematic of these three poems (to me) is “Sonnet of Rivers and Leaves” with its abundance of Autumn imagery. What does Autumn mean to you?
Autumn is death. Decay. Age. The cycle of life that allows for the beauty of spring. It’s a time when organisms shed the parts of them they do not need for the new year to come. I love the imagery of trees reflected in water, nature’s mirrors, and orphaned rotting fruit. I love the idea of nostalgia and belonging to a place or person, even beyond the point of beauty—right into ruin or splendor.
For me, I love the people most whom I have watched in all their glorious imperfections—the ones with love’s true equity. This poem is about love with formative and incredibly durable equity.
We return to the ones we know best. The narrator of this poem is all about remaining with her “you.”
4. How important is the “turn” to your sonnets?
The “turn” or volta is important to my sonnets, moreso when I write Shakespearean sonnets—but these pieces in Alexandrines for Lorca were written with a state of whimsy, open permissions for myself as a poet to follow the emotional curve rather than a set structure—with more focus on what the images brought about in the poem and what the poem as a whole accomplishes than in getting particular about shifting gears at a certain particular line.
5. When using an epigraph from a great writer, are you ever worried that it will overshadow your work?
Absolutely not in this case. Lorca’s quotes were places from which my poems began, points of departure. I am a woman, an American, a person from a whole different socio-economic background. My voice is my own. Yes, I wanted this book to function as an homage to some of his vivid style and themes, but I very much infused my reactions and sensibilities in this work—while being at play with the areas of our intersections and divergences. That said, I don’t hide that this is a dialogue I create or expand via the reference to his aesthetic. In the book, there is a poem called “Woodcutter’s Reply, Letters to the Barren Orange Tree” and that poem is clearly written in concert with one of his most famous poems, but what I would hope, in the instances where I am at play with his work, is that those who teach poetry would choose to use this intergenerational dialogue between poets to show students different points of departure and also to demonstrate the tradition of the poetic homage in continuation into modernity. Poets love to reference other poets, subtly or otherwise.
6. For someone unfamiliar with Lorca what would you suggest (s)he read to become better acquainted?
Well, I would have her/him read In Search of Duende, the second edition, published by New Directions Press. I would also suggest The Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca. If the reader can read in Spanish, however, I would suggest they use Poesia complete as an introductory text. I’m reading a really elegant translation by Peter Bush of his Sketches of Spain right now, which is a series of meditations or essays on various elements of art, history, and the essence of Spain—but I’d send new readers to his poetry. Let them have the jolt of his vivid parsed words first.
7. Do you use any other forms of verse (e.g. sestina, haiku)?
I use all kinds of forms. I often host poetry marathons where I do a different form each day for a month long period, using everything from archaic French forms to brand new forms based on art or science. I’ve probably written in close to one hundred and fifty different forms. Right now I’m writing an opera in verse, based on a story called “Blood, Hunger, Child” from my latest collection of short stories entitled Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness, so will be using multiple forms to pull this off like the rondeau redouble, the triolet, the villanelle, etcetera. But I love discovering new challenges.
With poetry or prose, I am not afraid to fail. Failure and effort are parts of the process.
8. Who is your favorite sonneteer and why?
Edna St. Vincent Millay. Because her formal expertise and concision are so elegant. Because she was known for her feminist activism and wild-woman passionate writing. Because she wrote librettos and prose and poetry—while living a life that was engineered to provide herself as much pleasure as possible. She’s a model for me, a s/hero, a minor saint. I simply adore her work and the power and resilience she brought to her lines.
She was way ahead of her time with many of her best ideas, and she made money with poetry. You have to hand it to her there.
This is a feat even difficult for poets writing today.