Sandra Simonds on Piecing Together Poetic Puzzles
Peter Mishler Talks with the Author of Triptychs
Sandra Simonds is the award-winning author of eight books of poetry: Triptychs (Wave Books, November 2022), Atopia (Wesleyan University Press, 2019), Orlando (Wave Books, 2018), Further Problems with Pleasure, winner of the 2015 Akron Poetry Prize from the University of Akron Press, Steal It Back (Saturnalia Books, 2015), The Sonnets (Bloof Books, 2014), Mother Was a Tragic Girl (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2012), and Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2009).
Her poems and criticism have been published in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Best American Poetry, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Chicago Review, Granta, Boston Review, Ploughshares, Fence, Court Green, and Lana Turner. She is the recipient of the Readers’ Choice Award for her sonnet “Red Wand,” which was published on Poets.org, the Academy of American Poets website. She went to UCLA for her BA, University of Montana for her MFA, and Florida State for her PhD. She lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Thomas University in Thomasville, Georgia.
PM: Is there a moment from your childhood or youth that in some way suggests you would become a writer in adulthood?
SS: I was very “artsy,” and started writing poetry when I was in late elementary and early middle school. I grew up in the 80s in small apartments in Los Angeles, and was raised by a single mother. My early life, unfortunately, was marked by a lot of chaos and abuse (and thankfully books!) I learned to focus my attention very keenly on art and writing because it was an escape and a way to feel free from my environs. When I got to UCLA, I was admitted to a succession of poetry workshops.
I had three professors who changed my life: Cal Bedient, Stephen Yenser, and Harryette Mullen. They probably don’t know this, but their classes saved me from myself! For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged to a community, and I have lifelong friends and comrades (David Lau, the editor of Lana Turner, for example) from this era. I even met my husband in one of those poetry workshops. There are also more mystical moments from early youth that were turning points like seeing William Blake levitating over a tree in a park. That sort of thing.
PM: In what ways are those teachers’ work, aesthetics, poetics a part of your work now? Conversely, what aspects of their teaching did you find yourself resisting as a poet starting to make poems?
SS: Oh, they taught me prosody and all the da-dums I needed for a lifetime! And those sound patterns get embedded even if they appear and reappear in shards and fragments—like bits of sprung rhythm. But my philosophy is that we learn from everyone. “One Art” is a great poem about experience and the basic idea is that you can only learn through it as opposed to reading about it or someone telling you about it.
That’s why ageism in poetry is silly—we can’t have the Songs of Innocence without its opposite just the way I’m as much my students’ student as I am their teacher. Learning is communal and should be without power dynamics—it’s a radically egalitarian proposition based on questions, asking the right ones, of course, good ones, but collectively and with an open mind. As the spectacular and wise Zohar poet says again and again, “come and see.”
PM: I ask this question of all the poets in this series: what is the strangest thing you know to be true about the art of poetry?
SS: That somehow (and I’m not sure how) poetry is a system of thought, feeling, and language that, when combined and written at the highest levels, knows much more than the poet and has the ability to understand the future in ways we just don’t comprehend yet. I think that there is a point where what is made has broken off from its maker and works on an independent level. I guess poetry is a sort of ancient AI.
The singularity happened in poetry long ago! For me, Rimbaud’s Genie has always been the best metaphor for this poetic phenomenon: “He is love, perfect and reinvented measurement, wonderful and unforeseen reason, and eternity: machine beloved for its fatal qualities. We have all experienced the terror of his yielding and of our own: O enjoyment of our health, surge of our faculties, egoistic affection and passion for him, he who loves us for his infinite life…”
PM: After having written several collections, is there a difference in how you commune with the power you’re describing here? What does it look like for you as a writer when you feel disconnected from such phenomena, if at all?
SS: Reading has always been a way to reconnect with this channel, spending time in the library, pulling books off of shelves, flipping through the pages of random texts, spending time outdoors without electronic devices. Like now I am sitting in the sunroom of a house in Bennington, Vermont and look, there are three deer trotting through the rain. Lovely, terrifying nature. Really our world conspires to cut off this connection, so it’s a rebellious act to keep it open—to notice the deer and the rain and the “look!” It’s an act of resistance. I think that the more you write, the stronger and easier it is to connect with these forces—it’s like meditation.
When you first meditate, it’s difficult, your mind wanders, you get stuck on time, but with practice, it becomes easier. Your mind changes and opens, your perceptions are rewired, and your neurotransmitters rearrange in new constellations and patterns. I’m thinking of Blake and the doors of perception here, but I don’t know if the idea of “cleansing” that he uses is that helpful because nothing is clean, and clean things eventually get dirty anyway—just entropy. Poetry is about observation, and perception is part-observation but part-something else—it’s observation as filtered through a person’s thoughts, experiences, and their unique emotional landscape. We are all special lilies, sun flowers, oak trees, robins flittering about.
PM: The reader will have to see this for themselves, but could you talk a little bit about the triptych arrangement of the poems in your new book, and how this came about for you?
SS: I was teaching A.R. Ammons, and, for a long time, I was thinking about working with the short line. Short lines are tricky musically (so are long ones, just in a different way). At the same time that I was teaching Ammons, I happened to go into the Dollar Store to pick up a few things, and I saw the receipt paper that the cashier had and asked her if I could have a roll. I told her I would pay her for it, but she just gave it to me. When I got home, I started experimenting with writing poems on long strips of the receipt paper. I think I gave myself a time limit like 30 minutes or something like that to write a poem on the paper. The paper constraint was initially a way to control the line length. I’m not exactly sure how I decided to start putting the poems side by side?Our poems are little actors singing various woes and ecstasies of the self, and sometimes they are just Beckett like voices grumbling in the dark.
Maybe I wasn’t happy with only one poem going down the page and liked the more maximalist version of the short line. In any case, once I put the poems side by side, I noticed that they started talking to each other—interacting, repelling each other—relationships emerged that I had not expected—completely unintentionally—and then I started to sort of play, in revision, with this aspect of the poem. The form was a good way to capture the flow of time, difficult aspects of narrativity, stream of consciousness, how reality or realities can be joined or unjoined through diction, space, simultaneity.
PM: One of the things I’ve always felt when reading Ammons’ Tape for the Turn of the Year was that I wanted to see some of the originals, to get a feel for how they were initially composed. I wonder if you gave some thought to how the original register tape’s physicality as a material object could be transferred into the poems printed in a book.
SS: Yes, the trace of the original—the way that the original paper gave the poems their form—is so important, and how the original lives in the book, but doesn’t have to exist anymore in the world. The original is as much an idea as physical pieces of paper.
PM: I am curious about what you found the form was capacious enough to hold, what it couldn’t contain, and what kinds of challenges or realizations arose in the process of making these new poems?
SS: The form is very challenging. There is the challenge of the three parts of the poem cohering enough to make the total “poem” work as a singular unit. There is the challenge of the short line that forces you to read very quickly down the page, so you are constantly negotiating line breaks and a quick rhythm. There is the challenge that the poem has three openings and three endings—it’s hard enough to know where to open one poem and close one poem—in these poems that task is tripled. All the poems sort of fail and succeed at capturing something of the reality of experience (for me)—the momentum, the flow, the incompleteness is part of the project. I mean this project fully understands its lack, which is deeply embedded in the form. It’s not trying to be an underground repository of human data. There is no quartz vault.
PM: Would you like to share any observations about the short line—what it can and can’t do, what it offers, and what it can’t?
SS: The main thing that I experienced when working with the short line is how it just forces your eye down the page—it’s like a moving target—and it’s sort of impossible to slow down. So, the turns of thought and phrase and syntax have to be really alive and quick. You have to be alert when you are working with this form because it feels a little bit like working with something convulsive, uncontrollable—like a volatile chemical. The stereotype of poetry is that it makes you slow down and think about things, pause, but the short line is the opposite—you are working with speed, so it feels a little dangerous too—but that’s what I like about it. They are sexy.
PM: To what extent does procedure play a role in your work—I can see it here in this book, and wondered if that’s something you can trace throughout your work, or, if not, could you make an observation about why it is appearing now?
SS: Procedure sounds very clinical to me—but it does capture the idea of form in time or the idea that form isn’t static. If you have a procedure, you are carrying it out multiple times under various circumstances—so there’s an element of chance. I’ve done things like write every day while walking around a lake where you are revisiting the same place that is slightly altered from the day before. Early Surrealist exercises helped me to appreciate the element of surprise, luck and play that enters into language—“play a role”—seems like a perfect phrase: we play, we “roll the dice” (as Mallarmé says), and we also role-play—our poems are little actors singing various woes and ecstasies of the self, and sometimes they are just Beckett like voices grumbling in the dark.
PM: Could we talk about the epigraph to the book from Francis Bacon? I’ll reprint it here: “How are you going to trap reality? How are you going to trap appearance without making an illustration of it?”Writing for me is a thoroughly immersive process. I live and breathe these books until they are done.
SS: I think what Bacon is saying when he distinguishes between appearance and illustration is that he wants art to go deep. He doesn’t want the artist to settle for a cheap rendering of the fiery, complicated emotional landscape of being a human. Sometimes that involves violence, discomfort, and sheer terror. He’s instructing us not to shy away from the difficult. “Appearance” for Bacon (blood, sinew, flesh, clothes) includes what’s underneath; it includes the ghostly.
PM: I wonder how finishing this book has informed, shaded, affected the poems you are writing now?
SS: Once I finish a project, I really leave it behind to make room for the next one. I went to Paris last year to visit Paul Celan’s grave and wrote a long poem about the pilgrimage called “Cassandra Data.” This poem is about family history, my grandparents who were Holocaust survivors and what technology knows or claims to know about a person, the person’s history; I guess this poem thinks through some epistemological and ontological concerns the way Triptychs does, but this poem is more interested in the intersection of family history and knowledge.
PM: You have a novel due out soon. I’d be curious to know if you were working on this while also making poems from this collection, and what observations you’d be willing to share about the experience of working on both your new poems and the novel.
SS: I hate the way that writers are marketed and branded as “poet” or “fiction writer”—it’s so narrow! My novel, Assia, which is forthcoming from Noemi Press in Spring 2023 is based on the life of Assia Wevill, who was a Holocaust refugee and is best known for her relationship with Ted Hughes. Popular culture casts her as the evil other woman who destroyed Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s marriage and killed her own child. I got interested in the story and spent time at the Emory University library reading through the Ted Hughes archive.
In the novel, I wanted to present Assia as a complicated person—a mother, an aspiring writer—a mid-century Jewish woman dealing with the trauma of the Holocaust, which I think contrasts with Plath’s poems which use Holocaust imagery (some would regard Plath’s use of the imagery as cultural appropriation) to reflect her mental anguish. Because Assia killed herself in the same manner that Plath did, she is also seen as a “copycat,” and I wanted to try to work with the idea of doubles as well to think through the feminist implications of the way we look back at literary figures—and what sorts of erasures are necessary in order for our narratives to become “historically cogent,” and why these narrative have to be wrong to support patriarchy. This is all to say that the novel took much more research than I have ever done with my poetry. I started writing Assia after I wrote Atopia, but before Triptychs.
PM: Could you talk a little bit about some of the overlaps you notice between Triptychs and the forthcoming novel?
SS: I felt haunted by Assia. I don’t think it helped that when I went to the archive and found pictures of her, she looked a little too much like me. Inhabiting the space of a woman who killed herself and her child was incredibly difficult, and as I wrote this novel, I felt at times that I was being driven to the brink of insanity. I considered abandoning the project over and over and to this day, I’m not really sure what made me finish it. Even close family members told me they hated what the book was doing to me and told me to stop writing it, but art wants what it wants, I guess. The process of writing Triptychs was much more playful and joyous even when I was writing about difficult things.
PM: Could you share any observations about the difference between the way you work with reality in fiction and the way you are working with reality in poetry?
SS: So, I think this is also best answered in terms of process. Writing for me is a thoroughly immersive process. I live and breathe these books until they are done. They become more important than family. That’s why when I’m inside of a project it’s really hard for me to do things like make breakfast. Once I have a vision for a project, I’m there. I’m not even here on Earth. I just live inside that dream, and who knows what will happen. It’s all I think about. I get knocked around a lot by these books. I’m not sure about a lot of things in life, but something just kicks in and drives that project forward, and I don’t know where the hell it comes from. There’s nothing like it. It’s a little demonic, a little magical.
Triptychs by Sandra Simonds is available from Wave Books.