Dianne Timblin on still lifes, memory, and foxesby Anna Lena Phillips, Dianne Timblin • 06.03.2012
Dianne Timblin’s three poems appeared recently in Fringe. (View in Firefox for best results.) Poetry editor Anna Lena Phillips asked her about the poems and her work. Despite an avowed difficulty with the either-or, she graciously agreed to complete our binary round as well. Find her responses below, and please share your own thoughts in the comments.
When you think of remnants, what’s the first poem or poet that comes to mind?
Keats is the very first who comes to mind: all those unwritten poems. And “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”—the hardest-working epitaph in poetry, at least in terms of setting up a whole body of work as a remnant!
But in terms of projects and works, Susan Howe, definitely. Her work is steeped in the residual and the fragmentary even as it’s haunted by them, and I find her book Souls of the Labadie Tract especially rewarding in that regard. Particularly the final section of the book, “Fragment of the Wedding Dress of Sarah Pierpont Edwards,” with its opening image of the actual cloth remnant, its sublime closing line—slim, vertical, elegant, and almost completely obscured—and all those exquisite, assertively wrought fragments in between. For me reading Howe raises all sorts of fruitful questions, many of them around notions of what survives and why. Often it’s clear why something has a greater likelihood to make it through the decades and centuries. But in other cases, the why is more random and elusive and strange, I think. In the narrative that opens the book, as Howe wends her way through centuries of ideas and ephemera in Yale’s Sterling Library, she acknowledges that, “apart from call number coincidence, there is no inherent reason a particular scant relic and curiosity should be in position to be accidentally grasped by a quick-eyed reader.” So a particular idea or relic may be more likely to survive because of, say, its material composition, the privilege that situates it where it might survive, the perspective of its creators and caretakers. Then the process of reclaiming it introduces new elements of probability and chance. All of this seems extremely rich from an artistic standpoint—and in Howe’s hands, it’s magic.
You call each of the three poems in the triptych you’ve sent us a still life. They’re composed entirely of nouns preceded by “the,” which might suggest a grammatical stillness too—but the rhythm of the phrases creates a sense of motion, quick motion even. This reminds me of the rhythm of brushstrokes in a painting, and of how, generally, a visual work moves the eye around itself. What made you choose this form to express the conceit of the still life?
Thank you for the thoughtful question—I love that you discerned motion in the poems. My hope was to establish a formal stillness and play it against a sense of motion conveyed through sound, with the rhythm acting as a kind of metronome throughout. So I set up the constraints with that in mind. With, on the one hand, the emphasis on nouns, the predictable number of elements within a seven-line form, the absence of connective tissue, a fairly rigid shape on the page—and then, on the other hand, anaphora driving the poem along, and the open spaces within each line establishing a more fluid vertical shape to contrast with the stiffness of the left- and right-hand edges of the poem.
I think the formal tensions emerged naturally from the notion of still lifes—such a wonderful, impossible term, since life in this sense doesn’t actually imply alive and because stillness is illusory amid, among other things, constant planetary and molecular motion. And then the convention of the still life itself adds another layer, the contrived nature of assemblage—the conceit that you mentioned. It interests me how, despite lacking an overt narrative, an implied narrative can seep through. Fruit in a painted still life might reveal the season; an open penknife next to an apple might imply intent. Similarly, the structure of the still life poems and the order of their elements could suggest a narrative, even if the arrangement emerged through entirely different means. In the case of this triptych, two poems are loosely based on memories and another is based on a painted still life—but I hope the form allows them to meet in the middle somewhere, in a kind of extranarrative space.
I fussed over the html for these poems to get the columns to line up properly (as you may know, formatting poetry online is an art of imprecision), but they will invariably look slightly different in different browsers. When I asked whether you’d like me to take drastic measures to make the lines more exactly justified, you replied that you wanted the poems to have a sense of “hand stitching.”
The main thing I’m interested in is the rectangular shape of the poems, with the final line more or less centered underneath. Essentially, I was going for an imperfect attempt at a perfect shape (if that makes sense), with some staggered space between the individual elements—but not, say, perfect justification anywhere, especially for the middle column. Making the poems three columns in Word and having the software do the justification/spacing work for me would have been easier, but I really wanted that appearance of hand stitching instead of machine stitching.
Some pleasingly archaic objects turn up in these poems—a monocle, a cassette. How did they get there (if you care to say), or how did these poems take shape?
To some extent it’s a function of memory, since one of the constraints for the two poems involving my own memories was that the memories had to be of events before 1990 or so. (I wanted fossil records, basically.) The poems took shape after I’d been mulling some things for quite a long time—initially, it had to do with some oddly placed flower bulbs. Years ago, I lived on a farm where there’d once been several cabins. Eventually they were abandoned, fell into ruin, and disappeared. By the time I lived there, the areas where the cabins had been were completely wooded over—not even a half-toppled chimney remained. But as you walked through the woods, there were a few stands of daffodils scattered around where the cabins had been. I’d been thinking about those daffodils for years and eventually came to equate them with the flashes of imagery we retain from very old or very early memories.
So that’s how I began thinking about a scattering of images that might suggest a narrative without going so far as to reveal it. As I thought about whatever thread of narrative remains from a long-remembered incident, it seemed to me that the thread exists partly because I’d either told the story or I’d spent time thinking about what had happened, either of which would leave a narrative scaffolding in place. But what really hangs around for me is typically a series of images that are quite clear but are in some way independent of the narrative. They’re tied to that particular moment but are somehow beyond it too. In “Still life with turnstile,” for example, the phrase “doors are closing” comes from a recording that was played on departing Metro trains in Washington, DC, for years and years. The recording changed about a decade ago, so now the previous one is an artifact, but it remains ridiculously clear in my mind—much clearer than its counterpart for arriving trains at the time, which I think was “Please stand clear of the doors.” But the incident I was drawing on here involves the doors closing and is a highly charged memory for me; I think that’s part of why that particular phrase remains much more vivid many years later. At any rate, I became intrigued by what happens when these long-remembered images are all that’s left—what happens when you pull the scaffolding away—and my curiosity about that got the first two poems rolling.
Then for the third poem I wondered what would happen if I put the form to work using someone else’s senses or sense memory. “Still life with ceramic tile” is based on a painting by Pablo Picasso and André Derain called Four Still Lifes, which I saw a few years ago in the Nasher Museum of Art’s exhibition “Picasso and the Allure of Language.” If I remember correctly, this grid of still lifes, which were painted on tiles, had served as an actual tabletop for a while. But whatever the reason, the piece had aged in a way that I find very satisfying. I also like how, together, the paintings form a gridlike structure and appreciate that it’s a bit hard to make out some of the elements in the work, which seems reminiscent of how various details emerge or recede in memory.
Heather McHugh has a great essay about the differing merits of “the” and “a.” She comes round to favor “a” in the end. I haven’t made up my mind. Do you have a favorite article?
This is an excellent question, and I love the idea of having a favorite article. (I’m imagining a t-shirt emblazoned with a lowercase “a,” with a red heart forming the body of the letter.) I’m finding it too hard to choose, though, given the articles’ various uses and charms. Perhaps there’s a time for every article under heaven?
Do you write in a specific place? If so, what are the things you like about it?
My favorite places to write are out back on the screened porch and at my writing table, which is tucked into a corner of our little guest room. My mom’s family sat around that table at mealtime when she was growing up, and her folks continued to use it until my grandmother was around ninety. It would have been a tight squeeze for a family of four, but when I’d go up and visit my grandmother, it was perfect for the two of us. It’s a great writing table—it has a marble top and chipped ivory paint and a few small Deco-ish flourishes. The silverware drawer that I opened time and again to set the table is positioned right in front of me with its fluted metal pull. I feel very well cared for at that table. I also have a bunch of photos and postcards and scraps of paper and cloth tacked up to boards that lean against the wall. So if I start to feel lost, I’ll grab a color or a texture from one of them and use that to keep moving. Or I’ll open the window—there’s a strip of woods behind the house, and there’s a lot to listen to. Tree frogs, foxes, red-winged blackbirds.
The other day I heard something crashing through the woods that I thought was probably a deer; I was working, so I wasn’t going to look. But whatever it was kept moving along, marching indelicately through the leaf litter. So I finally looked, thinking that otherwise I’m going to miss this apparently drunken deer, and it was a muskrat climbing over some low fencing, just lumbering right over. So it’s relatively quiet out back, but there’s always something going on.
What helps you make time for writing?
I think I’m my own worst enemy in this regard. (The Paris Review recently excerpted a quote that I love from Darryl Pinckney’s 1985 interview of Elizabeth Hardwick: “Nothing interferes with my own writing except my often irresolute character and of course the limitations of my talent.”) Preventing myself from thinking about everything else that needs to get done usually helps. Self-trickery is a particularly reliable strategy—the best is to roll out of bed and stumble to my desk before I do anything else. Before coffee if possible. That way I don’t have to figure out how to schedule writing time into the day. It’s been a long time since I’ve had anything like a writing routine, though. What probably helps most is having kindly readers who ask to see stuff that I’m working on. Friendly requests like that tend to be very motivating for me.
You’re an editor of prose as well as a poet. Has your work as an editor changed the way you write poetry? The way you read poems by other people?
Alas, it has a bit. I used to be able to turn the editor switch off a little better than I’m able to do now. From a writing standpoint, it’s become more important to draft things when I’m a bit tired or groggy or just completely engrossed. It helps if the editor brain isn’t fully awake or is transfixed, stunned into silence somehow. Otherwise, I can be too cautious, and thoughts about commas and spelling and capital letters start nipping at my heels. As a reader, I think having an editorial background makes me appreciate all the more when I’m so transported by a piece that something like punctuation is the last thing on my mind. If I’m so caught up in a poem that I don’t mull over the order of elements or notice things like discreet being used for discrete, I’m a very happy reader.
You had some poems in foursquare a while back. (For readers who haven’t seen the journal, it’s a single sheet, folded in four, featuring the work of four women poets, and it comes in a cloth sleeve. In other words, made to be loved.) How do you think foursquare’s format changes how we read the poems? What’s your favorite medium in which to read poetry?
I love foursquare. I have a stash of issues that I keep handy so I can pull them out and handle them and read through them anytime. The windowpane format is so satisfying, seeing these poems tightly juxtaposed. I think various tensions and harmonies among the works jump out in all kinds of interesting ways in that format. And I think the presentation of foursquare is a terrific reminder that reading a poem is a physical act—there’s an engagement required that’s different, that calls on a different muscle memory. Pulling the issue out of a fabric sleeve is similar to sliding an album out of its cover—very different, physically, from cracking open a book or magazine or journal. And then opening up the issue itself reminds me of unfolding a love letter or uncreasing a note passed back and forth in school. There’s something delightful in that.
I’m fairly unfussy about the medium. I have a weakness for things that are structurally unexpected, especially when the work seems to call for it, so I get a bit swoony over the presentation of Anne Carson’s Nox, for example. Poetry that arrives as a box of things to sift through makes me quite happy. At the same time, though, who doesn’t love curling up with a beautifully presented book or journal? Or a thoughtfully designed webzine? Or a faithful reproduction presented online? (This one, of Lorine Niedecker’s “Paean To Place,” is one of my favorites.) And of course I love Born. That didn’t really answer your question, did it?
What’s a recent poem you’ve read in an online journal that you especially liked?
Wow, there’s no way I can stick to mentioning just one poem. What an embarrassment of online riches this spring has been! Of course I’ve been loving the Fringe “Remnants” issue—as you might imagine, it’s right up my alley. Recently I’ve also been digging into the latest issues of Phoebe and Big Bridge. There are some excellent, sweary poems by kathryn l. pringle in Phoebe, “obscenity for the advancement of poetry #6” and “obscenity for the advancement of poetry #7.” I also keep thinking about Emily Kendal Frey’s work from “SORROW ARROW” in the same issue.
And Big Bridge has some great stuff going on—I’m still making my way through the current issue, but there’s terrific section called “Neo-Surrealism and the Politics of The Marvelous,” with wonderful poems by Joseph Donahue, Andrew Joron, and Lina Ramona Vitkauskas, among others. There’s also an excerpt in their “Big Tree” feature from Allison Cobb’s amazing book Green-Wood. And I’m totally digging the contemporary Japanese poems in that issue, particularly “Light-Exposure” by Takagai Hiroya, translated by Eric Selland.
Also, Guillermo Parra’s translations of Venezuelan poets on his blog Venepoetics qualify as required weekly reading for me. Venepoetics has been revelatory, particularly the trove of José Antonio Ramos Sucre translations. Sucre is an essential poet. The blog includes too many favorites to mention, but this recently posted translation of Sucre’s poem “The Kingdom of the Cabeiri” could be a good place to start.
What’s next for you?
Deadlines! Work deadlines, although I need to get cracking on some poetry deadlines too. And I’ll be keeping an eye out for that nomadic muskrat.
Pen or pencil?
Most of the time, pen. A very fast pen. I can’t abide slow pens.
Cake or pie?
Cake and pie
Pyrrhic or spondaic?
Spondaic, in honor of my teacher Eric Pankey, who told us he didn’t believe in the existence of a true spondee. It became a running joke between him and his students at the time as we tried to come up with examples, and each time he would gently and thoroughly disabuse us of the notion that we’d found a true spondee, resorting to whatever was rhetorically required: philosophy, prosody, comedy. We’d go back and forth, but Eric was was always hilarious and convincing. This went on for years, and it was great fun all around. I’ll admit we were pretty easily amused.
Motion or stillness?
Vowel or consonant?
Coffee or tea?
Coffee, although I do love me some tea.
Online or offline?
<pleading the Fifth>
Early or late?
Early for writing, late for reading.
Spring or summer?
Zero or one?
Zero. (Who can resist a fetching null? http://www.lettercult.com/archives/3331)