Jessica Rae Bergamino interviews Lisa Russ Spaar

Cover of "Orexia" by Lisa Russ Spaar

JRB: First, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me a little about your beautiful new book, Orexia (Persea, 2017). Over the course of your career, your poems have often provided readers with a landscape for understanding a type of ecstatic femininity that exists at the limits of both language and skin. The poem “Orexic Hour,” for instance, opens “My body, made to be entered / & exited. Almost wrote ‘edited.’” I’m in love with the multiplicities alive in this Dickinsonian triangulation — the soul enters and exists the body, the body is entered sexually and exited in child birth — and all of it the stuff of lyric happens simultaneously. You spoke in an interview with Emilia Philips about early criticism of your work which called it impersonal, though your poems always offer the reader entry into such an intimate poetic landscape, and I’m curious how you approached intimacy as you crafted a book that deals so explicitly with questions of desire and its fulfillment (or lack thereof).

LRS: I want to begin by thanking you and Tinderbox for taking an interest in my poetry. Although it may seem cliché to say so, poets tend to work on poems in a kind of solitary “dwelling” of (im)possibility, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, and so it is gratifying to know that this liminal realm sometimes leads to actual poems, to books, and to people who read them. I’m grateful. And since Dickinson is in the air, I will say that one reason she is a touchstone poet for me, a poet I return to again and again for her “White Sustenance,” is that there is always, in her poems, the float of Eros, God-Hunger, and Language—whether the poem is about a hummingbird, a beloved book, or the human brain. Even the word “white” itself is code in her poems (“you didn’t come to me ‘in white’” from the Master Letters): it is bridal, but also ghost-like, spiritual. Hibernal. And it evokes the purity of “possibility” (“a fairer House than prose”), but also of annihilation, of the page itself, of poems, of art.

Or consider the iconic “Dare you see a Soul at the ‘White Heat,’” for instance. On the one hand, that lyric is clearly about the soul annealing itself into Eternity. But it’s also very erotic (“Then crouch within the door”) and somatic (though its bodily orientations are marvelously distorted). And the poem is, I believe, an ars poetica. All of the flux, the roil of emotion and desire, reaches its fulfillment in “designation” – the “design” that is the poem itself. Breath-taking. And so what Dickinson gives us is not so much plot points and linear story. The engine of her poems is rather inscrutable “interior” campaign: desire for desire itself: the desire to feel, to know and to know anew – all while residing in possibility, mystery.

In my own poems, this is what interests me: I want to stir in my reader an involvement that is as palpable and bodily as it is ultimately, finally, untranslatable. What the reader experiences can never be exactly what I’m evoking, but it should feel genuine for us both. I’m not interested in giving away my meaning or my intention, but rather in creating an experience of the mind, soul, consciousness—what you will—through the evocation of tensions that have to do with content and with craft. This kind of poetry is not to everyone’s taste, of course. Some readers prefer a very windexed window into the world of a poem; they want to know exactly what is happening and where and to whom. They want to be told what it is they should be feeling or taking away from a text. And there is nothing wrong with that at all. I enjoy reading poems like that, too. But it’s not what compels me when I’m making my own poems; I’m after a mutual foray of discovery, even if that discovery is that there is only so far that language can take us. Mark Jarman once called me a “love poet.” I suppose I am. Love is something that life (or art) cannot complete and that death (also art) cannot stop, to paraphrase the wonderful Wendell Berry.

I love the trinity you suss out here—enter, exit, edit—which, now that you’ve revealed it, seems like a paradigm for so many things: relationships, poems, life itself.

JRB: Building upon the previous question, the poem “Temple Gaudete” ends with the pronouncement

Too simple to say

We begin as mouths, angry swack,

lungs flooded with blue foreseeing.

Story that can save us only through the body.

I love thinking of this last line as a definition of the lyric, performing a different sonic pathway into the form than the classical greek songs. I’m curious if you would be willing to speak a little bit about how you understand the relationship between the ecstatic and poetic, and, perhaps, how the body operates as a focus for both of those states of knowing.

LRS: As you know, there has been a lot of dialogue in the last couple of decades about the lyric poem—what it is, what it isn’t, if it’s a construct, a product of how a text is read more than a literary entity, or genre, with its own defining characteristics. I like your suggestion that perhaps more than other kinds of poem, the “lyric” is less concerned with the body in time as it is with time in the body (“Story that can save us only through the body”). I don’t know enough about classical Greek poetries to speak with any credibility about how my avenue into the lyric may differ from or resemble that of the ancient poets, often credited as the source of the poetry of the interior, subjective, lyric “I” (the Psalmist, Sappho, &c). But I have a sense (and I acknowledge here, again, all of the debates about the lyric, and lyric reading, and lyric shame) of what the impulse to be lyric means to me.

In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James sets forth a few conditions that he feels are necessary for an experience to be considered mystical—or, by extrapolation, ecstatic—among them that the occurrence must be noetic (that is, it must concern itself with gnosis, knowledge, some kind of new knowing) and that it must be ineffable—unsayable in language, beyond the reach of words.

These two conditions—knowing and ineffability—seem contradictory, but not, of course, to the lyric poet, whose project is, in part, to body forth in language the ineffable: the subjective, inner realm (language being, after all, that most oxymoronic nexus of abstraction and physicality). Most of your readers probably already know the etymology of the word “ecstasy”: ex – stasis, a movement out of the static, from one condition of being to another – a standing beside or outside the self. A lyric poem is an incarnation of absence, of longing, of desire. It is a voicing, an outing or beyonding, an othering of forces and paradoxes within us. And to give shape to weeping and laughing—those preliterate noises unique to humans which underlie all lyric poems—requires a body of some sort: if not a literal tongue, teeth, breath, torso, then the conjuring of those bodily capabilities in somatic script: syllables, word, phrases. And this “body” is required not only to generate the poem, but to fulfill it in a reader. As St. Teresa of Avila says of one of her especially ecstatic religious visions: the pain and ardor and transport may be spiritual, but the body holds a considerable share in bearing testimony to their truths. There is a reason that ecstatics of all sorts—religious, artistic, culinary, athletic, political—turn to “poetry” when they need to communicate what can’t be otherwise summoned, seen, felt, known.

JRB: While reading Orexia, I found myself returning over and over again to Blue Venus; the poems in these two books seem like they’re in deep conversation with each other. There are poems that return to blue — although you cite Maggie Nelson’s Bluets in the book’s notes — and poems such as “Celebacy 3,” which opens “Sleep, why do it? At an glass, / we lip our own mouths” seems to revise (or, edit, if you will, as suggested in “Orexic Hour”) the questions of insomnia and desire that are alive in Blue Venus and reframe them through experience and age. These two books were published with more than a decade between them, in very different political landscapes, and I’m wondering if you would speak a little bit to what it’s meant for you to grow and change your subject matter and obsessions inside your books?

LRS: I’m gratified that you feel that Orexia (2017) is in particular conversation with Blue Venus (2004). BV was my second full-length collection, and was in several ways, aesthetically and personally, a break-out book for me. As with many first books, my inaugural full-length collection, Glass Town (1999), was long in the making and contained a good number of what Robert Hayden would call “apprentice pieces” (though one always hopes to be apprenticing). For me, coming of age as a writer in the 1970s, this meant quite a few first-person, heavily enjambed poems driven by narrative, a form with which I’ve never really felt comfortable. By the time the wonderful poet and editor Gabe Fried at Persea Books accepted Blue Venus, I was working with a little more courage in shorter, more musical and interior poems, and delving more deeply into my flood subjects: Eros, desire (for the natural world, for the b/Beloved, for desire itself, for words), paying attention (being awake), the briary thicket of language itself, and mortality (insomnia being a kind of “little death”). These subjects still preoccupy me, though as you say, my engagements with them have changed in the decade-plus that separate those two books (I should add that in my intevening collections—Satin Cash (2008) and Vanitas, Rough (2013), I’m also working through these obsessions). During the time spanning Blue Venus and Orexia, I moved from early into late middle age, for one thing—so there have been, of course, more losses, compromises, compensations. And, as you say, our national and global circumstances are also evolving and devolving: the planet heats up, Rome burns, extremists entrench, even as long abused and/or silenced minorities find fresh agency and voice. I like to think that the best writing is always “woke”—whether a poet’s subject matter is overtly concerned with gender, politics, race, or not—which is why I find, for instance, the work of William Blake and Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes and Murasaki Shikibu and Jean Valentine as relevant and compelling as I do the myriad poems of our current moment.

JRB: North American literary communities have been experiencing our own series of #MeToo moments — there are more than I can possibly name here, but some major headlines have been the allegations of gender based violences and hostilities made against David Fenza and Junot Diaz, the lists of allegations posted in the bathrooms at AWP in 2015, the suspension of Stephen Galloway at the University of British Columbia after allegations of sexual harassment. How do you understand the ever-evolving role of the feminist poet in terms of both artistic and community creation? What does it means for you to write desire in the context of rape culture?

LRS: As your question implies, it is important to distinguish between the actions of individuals and the broader aims of literary communities, just as it is crucial to remember that “rape culture” is not about Eros (which need not be carnal—it’s possible to feel desire for the way red maple leaves look against a cerulean sky, for instance) or about reciprocal human desire, but rather about power, anger, revenge, and a wish to exert domination and control. How can these precincts—the individual and the community, the criminal and the poet—be made accountable to one another in order to effect positive change? One answer is certainly through truth-seeking and communication, both aims of the best poems. Which is one reason to keep writing and reading and sharing them with one another, and not just in our academic communities, but everywhere and anywhere human beings desire to be seen and heard and made real to one another.

Jessica Rae Bergamino is the author of UNMANNED (Noemi Press, 2018), as well as chapbooks from dancing girl press and Sundress Publications. Recent work has appeared in Third Coast and Black Warrior Review. She is currently a doctoral candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Utah.
Lisa Russ Spaar is the author of over ten books of poetry and criticism, most recently Orexia: Poems (2017). Her honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Award, and a Pushcart Prize. She directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of Virginia, where she is the Horace Goldsmith NEH Distinguished professor. Her essays have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.