profiles in poetics: Caryl Pagel

Pagel-PhotoCaryl Pagel


From a tiny red notebook, Caryl Pagel watched “improvisational tales unfold in real time”. This act taught her to receive things that “stun her” in a thinking map delineated by structures of physical manipulation in which the brain tucks and pockets content. Twice Told,recently published by H_NGM_N Books, is a flexing flock of poems that gather “the vision and presence of another”.  She states, “To read or listen carefully is—at its best—to inhabit the vision … of another.” The present receiver is altered by the interaction; a multiplication of the self that bears memory, passion, and perspective simultaneously. This metamorphic narrative changes our tales, our recollection; the internal structure of our self-identity. Another associated circumstance with embracing other is empathy. These empathy exams can, if one is not careful, “eventually make a wreck of you,” although at the same time this act carves out parts of yourself for others to find comfort; essentially the same places that you yourself are seeking as well.

The concentrated loop of Twice Told has much to do with the life and death cycle. The repetitive notion of life in a concentric dream is each individual’s interpretative taste. So the reflection of our reception of these qualities shifts from each story, each evaluation; each interaction. As Pagel asks, “how much care is too much? And for what end, and to what purpose?” This “captivation” is savory, but also needs to be regarded with self-care so that the self is not swallowed up in the other. She asks, “Is care the clearest expression of love? How is it related to freedom? What is the right amount of care for someone who is sick, or in danger, or angry, or depressed? Does requited care matter? Can you harm yourself with care for others?” These questions are at the heart of Twice Told. The answers are by no means readily handed to you on your grandmother’s holiday china. They are ones of endless vision. Perhaps the central message is in the permutation of circles.

Caryl Pagel is the author of two books of poetry: Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death (Factory Hollow Press, 2012), and Twice Told (H_NG M_N Books, 2014), as well as the chapbook Visions, Crisis Apparitions, and Other Exceptional Experiences (Factory Hollow Press, 2008). Caryl is a poetry editor at jubilat and the co-founder and editress-in-chief of Rescue Press. Her poetry and essays can be found in AGNI, The Iowa Review, Jacket2, The Mississippi Review, and The Volta. This fall she will join the faculty of the NEOMFA program in eastern Ohio and serve as the Director of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.



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. What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

When I was little my dad had, or I remember he had, a tiny red notebook that he’d scribble stories in. This is how I learned to read: by watching improvisational tales unfold in real time. We’d practice sentences as he invented them, creating a secret (so I thought) tether between the two of us. I was extremely disappointed when in kindergarten all of the other children began chanting the alphabet and I realized that language was a public and communal tool, not a private puzzle between me and my Pops. Once I recovered from this minor trauma I knew that I wanted to write. A few of my all-time favorites are Inger Christensen, Emily Dickinson, Lorine Niedecker, and W.G. Sebald. They are compelling in part because as I have changed my relationship to their work has become increasingly bewildering and bizarre.

. Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

The teacher who altered everything was Dan Beachy-Quick, who I was lucky enough to work with at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago about a decade ago. Others whose conversation, presence, and practice have transformed my approach to writing are Amy Margolis, Amber Dermont, Robyn Schiff, Emily Wilson, Elizabeth Robinson, and Madeline McDonnell.

. How has your own work changed over time and why?

My work shifts every time I read something that stuns me. I am frequently impacted by sentence structures or sound, by something that physically manipulates the way in which my brain receives content. Most recently an essay I was working on was affected by Renata Adler’s Speedboat.

. Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

Absolutely. The poems in Twice Told engage the creepy gothic narratives that I (we all?) grew up re-reading and obsessing over: “A Death in the Woods,” Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, Ethan Frome, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” The Haunting of Hill House, etc. These days I probably read more fiction and nonfiction than I do poetry and most recently I’ve been writing essays. I should also say that one of the greatest gifts to my practice has been the opportunity to work alongside visual and performance artists at both the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (where I went to grad school) and the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (where I taught some of the most inventive students I’ve ever met). The way the makers at both of these schools dealt with perseverance, chaos, humor, form, and difficulty continues to affect the way I write and teach.

. What are your plans for the future?

I’ve been working on a collection of linked essays for a few years now. The most recent one includes rambling on Sir Thomas Browne, addiction narratives, deception, Fleetwood Mac, Kurt Schwitters’ Mertzbau, George’s Buffet, ice patches, and a particularly bleak year I spent in Iowa City. I’m also in the process of boxing up my books in order to move to Cleveland at the end of the summer where I’ll join the NEOMFA faculty and serve as the Director of the CSU Poetry Center. I can’t wait.

. What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

Well, it’s hard to ignore the fact that so many of our contemporary game changers—the most compelling formal innovators, risk takers, experimenters, and thinkers—have been women. I think of the rangy, genre-bending, thoughtful and inventive work of Chris Kraus, Joan Didion, Maggie Nelson, Dara Wier, Renata Adler, Abigail Thomas, Lauren Slater, Claudia Rankine, Eula Biss, Lucy Lippard, Rebecca Solnit, Mary Robison, Sabrina Orah Mark, and Lia Purpura, to name a few. And, too, distinctive first books by wonders like Rachel Glaser, Andrea Rexilius, Suzanne Scanlon, and Hilary Plum. I’ll also say that while I (and every woman I’ve ever known?) have encountered the peculiar horrors of gender bias (such silly insult!) in writing and publishing (M v. W!) my spirits are buoyed by the brilliant lady editors who work so hard to shepherd strong writing into the world—people like Emily Pettit, Sandra Doller, Rusty Morrison, Janet Holmes, Kathleen Rooney, and Joyelle McSweeney, again to name only a few.

. Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Some of my recent favorite books are: Hannah Brooks-Motl’s The New Years, Amina Cain’s Creature, Anne Germanacos’ Tribute, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, Kiki Petrosino’s Hymn for the Black Terrific, Sasha Steensen’s House of Deer, Bianca Stone’s Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, and Michelle Taransky’s Sorry Was In the Woods.

. If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?


. The opening poem, “Old Wars,” in your manuscript TWICE TOLD, negotiates how memory, sense of self, and communication fracture in stifling societal climates. The rupture follows repressive measures. We read, “They were on a dusty / black road being marched to death / and you know this because the / narrator is delivering this information within / a story via another story—a / story told by the same old / woman who may or may not / have existed whom he may or / may not have met on a / train who may or may not / but most likely was a part / of the war             She was not / a hero […] There are no / heroes here.” Could you please allude to how the poem expresses multiplicity in identity, memory as story, and the puzzle as not one of “heroes,” but of “monster and master”?

To read or listen carefully is—at its best—to inhabit the vision and presence of another. Through this process one necessarily multiplies the self and bears many memories (or passions, or perspectives) at once. One can be, in fact, possessed by a story; their very body taken hold of, which is simultaneously a gift and curse. Empathy, although rightly associated with a certain kind of bravery and courage, can also eventually make a wreck of you. A many-selved monster. When writing “Old Wars” I was thinking about (or am at least now thinking about) the ways in which we are transformed by the narratives we read and recall, the ways in which stories become us, and us them, and how one might begin to remember (or suffer) others’ tales as if their own. I’ve long been enamored with writing that acknowledges this act of captivation.

. In “The Traveler,” the opening stanza reads, “The only fact to continue to / bear is suffering and the suffering / itself is what one requires to / exist—it is purely grief that / prevents one from vanishing completely.” Some of us our survivors, some of us are not. The traveler evaluates this wisdom from a stranger, but the intimate encounter surpasses the definition of someone we do not have physical personal history with. How is this poem addressing the personal / public sphere of intimacy and how does this relate to suffering?

I’m fascinated by the role of the traveler, often the first indication in gothic fiction of a framed narrative. In so many 19th century novels, for example, the reader receives the story through a stranger’s point of view. In Wuthering Heights we learn of Heathcliff and Catherine’s tumultuous romance through Mr. Lockwood, a stranger, who hears of it from Heathcliff’s housekeeper. In Ethan Frome, too, the narrative is conveyed by an outsider passing through town who hears it from, if I remember correctly, a shopkeeper. Story as rumor or hearsay; as something that necessarily includes both the personal and public spheres of intimacy.

. In the poem, “Four Dead Men,” we meet four individuals. One man, “He needs someone to circle his / sickness He needs you and only / you to circle his circles and / he needs you and only you / to attend to his sickness.” But the “you” in the poem does not. One man dies from a suicide and returns to help is friend. He has the hope that, “the third dead man— could inhabit again the tone and / humor and luminous brilliant beautiful significant / wonderful loving tortured sorrowful stagnant angry / awesome puzzled tragic hurtful magic difficult / mind of his dear friend during / the time in which he still / survived—when this man was not / yet ill but lived instead to / write about architecture and remarkable buildings.” The juxtaposition of these two life stages presents the desire to embrace the remarkably complex stifling and incredible beauty of our darkness and our light, love and madness, linear and dissonant multifarious experience of both life and death. I am interested in how you pair patriarchy to this conversation? How do you believe the fear and embodiment of death to also be the stimulus to “circle his circles,” not in the approach towards death, but as a vehicle later negotiated in death towards life?

The various circles—“the first of forms,” so says Emerson—that occur in “Four Dead Men” via repetition of subject matter and phrasing mimic an obsessive sense of looping that I found inescapable when writing this book. The cycle of life and death of course and also the circling that occurs in the at-times faulty and obsessive logic or repeated narratives of those who struggle with mental illness or addiction, and how easy it is to—purposefully or not—slide into someone else’s orbit of anxiety. Dependency shifts one’s experience of time, whether that dependency is on another person (many new mothers, so I’ve heard, experience an alternate sense—or speed?—of time after giving birth) or on a substance or idea. I was curious about this manipulation of time as well as the relationship between dependency and care, which is perhaps an idea related to your question about patriarchy. How do women—willingly or accidentally or reluctantly or forcefully—inhabit care-giving roles that threaten independence or creative autonomy? I have no answers, only more questions, some of which were the impetus for “Four Dead Men,” such as: how much care is too much? And for what end, and to what purpose? Is care the clearest expression of love? How is it related to freedom? What is the right amount of care for someone who is sick, or in danger, or angry, or depressed? Does requited care matter? Can you harm yourself with care for others? And on and on. You see the loop. I was also at this time steeped in the work of Thomas Bernard, who I find to be a fascinating writer, and whom I had just discovered was a hero of my hero, W.G. Sebald. In part this poem responds to fictional relationships in his novel Correction. I was interested in investigations of the disturbed, addicted, possessed, and pathological, and how those investigations might be expressed through relentless and oppressive sentences, creating—through endurance, doubling, recollection, endless revisions of thinking, second-guessing, and duplication of phrasing—ripples of paranoia and a sort of frenetic or frantic engine.

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