profiles in linguistics and poetics: Deborah Poe

Deborah Poe


How we architecturally balance language sonically and spatially affects how we receive the movements of our perception. Deborah Poe asks, “Where does your mind go with the space music takes within you? What gaps do you negotiate, and what do you create in the musical leaps? Imagination surges—it swerves and quiets.” This is differentiated both in the design of material and performance. Poe is a director of film, a bookmaker, an experimenter of acrylics and “turmeric and paprika dye baths”. Materials render the process and inception alternatively.

The psychic energy of space and form reflect these meditations. Poe, as a writer of prose and poetry, requests the reader to “[unravel] neat binary divisions,” as a way to “open up space and narrative to play [with] multiplicity of meaning.” This allows us to “decenter,” and enter into the dream. A way to “imagine that field as the sensual infrastructure and the circuitry as language and logic. The phenomenal world that grey field.”

Deborah is the author of the poetry collections the last will be stone, too, Elements (Stockport Flats), and Our Parenthetical Ontology (CustomWords), as well as a novella in verse, Hélène (Furniture Press). In addition, Deborah is co-editor of Between Worlds: An Anthology of Fiction and Criticism (Peter Lang). She is also co-editing a collection of Hudson Valley innovative poetry (Station Hill Press). Deborah’s poetry is forthcoming or has recently appeared in Handsome, 1913, Shampoo, Denver Quarterly, The Dictionary ProjectYew Journal, and  Mantis. Her fiction and hybrid work have appeared in journals such as Fact-Simile MagazineNight TrainSidebrow, and A Picture’s Worth.

Deborah Poe is assistant professor of English at Pace University, founder and curator of the annual Handmade/Homemade Exhibit, and guest curator for Trickhouse. She has also taught as afternoon faculty at the Port Townsend Writer’s Workshop in Washington and Casa Libre en La Solana in Tucson.

1.)      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?

More abstractly? Place. The desire for connection. The desire to shove off, to disconnect. The seeking out of spaces where a strongly emotional being could roam.

More concretely? Moving around much of my first 26 years—the tension between places to which my family and I returned and left. My uncle, an electronic musician—in the late 70s / early 80s he was my first real model of fierce dedication to creative expression.

My reading life as I grew up. All the books I inhaled.

The list of favorite writers has become increasingly more varied and shifts with time. What has changed most though has been the way I discover and read. I talk to people whose work and minds I admire about current manuscripts, interests, and reads. A network of friends recommends books to me. I am also apt to find books through research or that are referenced in other texts I am reading, especially when I am immersed in a particular project.

It is easier too for me to recognize what I love, why I love it, and how I might learn from it—the exciting conversations that can arise between science and literature (Italo Calvino), the fearless, irreverent, and magical spaces between experiment and discovery (Rikki Ducornet), the way in which a writer negotiates difficulty and the breath with grace and force at once (Layli Long Soldier), how a writer fastens form to content (Selah Saterstrom), the delicate rendering of relationship between beauty and human destruction (Elizabeth Frankie Rollins), a defiance of the boundaries of genre (Elizabeth Colen), the creative possibilities and trickiness of bearing witness (Edwige Danticat, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). I could go on and on.

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

There really are too many stars to name, but my constellations include Bruce Beasley, Suzanne Paola, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Cole Swenson, Lori Anderson Moseman, Jen Hofer, Bernadette Mayer, Jill Magi, Anne Carson, Jaime Wriston Colbert, Carole Maso, Rikki Ducornet, Brian Evenson, James Baldwin, Rebecca Brown, Laird Hunt, Jeanette Winterson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Louise Erdrich, Arundhati Roy.

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

I view my time living in Paris in 1992, when I was 21, as the period during which I began to recognize myself as a “real” writer. I have talked a bit about the development of my work with rob mclennan, in the first question of his 12 and 20 Questions series.

In 2011, I did many things for the first time. I directed a film, edited and shot by Pablo Gavilondo, for which dancer/choreographer Michelle Pritchard choreographed a response to one of my poems. The film screened at the Poetry Off the Page Symposium at the Poetry Center in Tucson in May 2012. I began to draft my first novel. I exhibited a handmade/homemade book object at The Brodsky Gallery in Philadelphia’s Kelly Writers House. My first completed hybrid manuscript was accepted for publication with Furniture Press; Hélène is coming out this month (September 2012). I think that year’s accomplishments reflect how my work has changed over time. There’s a broadening, or opening, to other types of projects, which is probably as much due to my curiosity as it is to increased confidence that the years have allowed.

This summer was the first summer I worked only on fiction. I became obsessed with this (novel) thing I had never done before.

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

When I began studying literary theory and poetry at Western Washington University for my Master of Arts, I found myself compelled by writers and thinkers that were spatially-oriented. Edward Said is one example. Mei Mei Berssenbrugge is another. I think this preoccupation had and has as much to do with the ways I think and remember as it does my orientation around place.

The more I read and think about this, as I write my fourth poetry collection about memory, the more I ask myself some questions. Do I remember and think the way I do because of my relationship with place? Until I lived in the Pacific Northwest, I moved every three or four years. Or is the way I think due to psychological and biological processes in which memory inextricably links to place?

To say I have been influenced by music and visual art is an understatement. I am frequently in awe of electronica musicians—Yagya, Burial, Loscil, Actress, among many others—because of what they are able to do spatially with sound and silence. Where does your mind go with the space their music takes within you? What gaps do you negotiate, and what do you create in the musical leaps? Imagination surges—it swerves and quiets.

Because of the keen relationship between silence and white space on the page, I also am deeply indebted to visual art, both as a viewer and a maker. I do not consider myself a visual artist obviously, but I love working with materials. Film, acrylics, bookmaking, or turmeric and paprika dye baths—they allow me to manifest ideas in different ways off the page.  

There is language’s relationship with the white space, a sort of silence, on the page. There is the way language inhabits a space sonically during a performance. And there is language’s exception or absence or play in visual art. For me the influence of genres is an engagement of the spatial in language, materiality, and experiment.

5.)      What are your plans for the future?

To deepen my Zen practice and studies.

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

In 1992 I was living in France. I had just graduated from college in December of 1991 and had finished a French minor along with the English degree. What I remember most in terms of my reading during that time was falling in love with Marguerite Duras and reeling over Virgina Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

In 2002, I started my Master of Arts at Western Washington University. I can’t say enough about how important Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr’s American Women Writers of the Twentieth Century: where Lyrics Meets Language was for me. I believe it is an extremely important landmark in American women’s poetics during the past twenty years. Around 2002, I was also introduced to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Carole Maso, Jeanette Winterson, Elfriede Jelenik, Rebecca Brown, Judith Butler, M. Nourbese Phillips, Trinh T. Minh-ha, among many other writers from whom I have learned and continue to learn.

And now where are we? VIDA has pointed out the failings of the publishing industry in publishing women writers; however, I do think one of the most significant things that has occurred in the past twenty years is that we have increasing diversity in the publication of women writers. Along with increased globalization has come greater access to women’s literature from all over the world.

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

There are so many women writers already guaranteeing their place in global and American literature that this was a terribly difficult question to answer: Layli Long Soldier, Mayumi Shimose Poe, Holly Wendt, Sreedhevi Iyer, Beth Couture, Soham Patel, Kristen Nelson, HR Hegnauer, JenMarie Davis, Danielle Vogel, Piper Daniels.

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

Labels strike me as fairly inflexible. If I must: “ran freely through the color white.”

9.)      The poem “Fragile Magnets,” elliptically circles ideological currents of creativity and the mind. The speaker begins, “I start writing again. I’m working on this poem. I have to do this, to write, or else I lose it, my mind and the words.” Lose “it,” we settle in a sense of sanity and urgency smoothing to a parallel dialogue: “Freud knew that what we call madness and what we call inspiration come from the same source. However the argument counteracts its path of least resistance asking, “My head is trampled coral. Last night blows through me like sea grass. Freud was wrong, wrong, wrong. Why conflate insanity with language. Does it have to be a slippery negative?” If we were to accept the Freudian defamiliarity of the mind, would we not be placed in the body? And why is the body that is connected to inspiration celebrated in its deformity of language as it pulls away from the mind? The poem then reads, “Shall I apologize, dear Freud, for my gestures of kindness? Would you call it penis envy?” and “Mysteries remain, after all, to swirl in these unknowns. This is what kisses mean.” I would like if you could speak more to the masculine feminine comparison here and how this connects to intimacy and our interaction with language and the unknown.

I consider “Fragile Magnets” one of my early hybrid experiments. I felt it cohered in a way I had not felt about other pieces I had written earlier. It was an experiment in decentering language. As with my first poetry collection, Our Parenthetical Ontology, I wanted to attempt an unraveling of neat binary divisions and open up space and narrative to play and multiplicity of meaning.

10.)   In the same poem, the form swings us from dream to real from sleep to memory in the form of italics that at most times remains unfamiliar. Take for instance, “In the dream phone call, he admonishes me, tells me I’m moving within the same boundaries. I need to swim out of them. He is talking about the snake in his toilet that has crawled out to parrot his mutterings … I saw your number on the floor—need a ride … Rubbing my eyes I put on my goulashes, my dark green pants, and my un-ironed white shirt and lock my apartment behind me.” We find ourselves in the dream, but then the dream performs more fluidly than the real, leaving us to question our movements in both atmospheres. These diverging landscapes negotiate our interiors, what it means to dream, and live, and how participation with “other,” works in experience. How do these different modes of consciousness affect your own life and being as an individual and writer?

The time between dreaming and waking—first thing in the morning—this is the most productive time for me to write.

My dream life is furthermore very important to my writing and always has been. I am actually trying to bring that dream life into my newest poetry manuscript on memory, more concretely than I perhaps have before. For one piece, I “translated” a dream through the lens of the four theorized memory storage units: cellular, modular, holographic, and synaptic (the most commonly accepted). That was very fun “dream work.”

I do not think this is exactly what you are asking, but when I thought of different modes of consciousness as a writer of fiction, I thought of something I did to help write characters recently. I used four general elements of earth, air, fire, and water. I wrote characters through the lenses and languages of those four elements. I would like to write an essay at some point about how that process helped me to work through interiority.

11.)   As a fiction and poetry writer I would like to ask you how your creative process is affected differently between genres if at all. How do these fields merge and how does the architecture of the language interact in this space and participate with experiment? Can you describe how your mind and art interacts with form and how you reflect on the differences of genre, if the genres are necessary, and how they are absorbed differently by the reader?

Interesting choice of words, architecture. It and infrastructure are two of my favorite English words.

I want to reverse the question. How does my creative process affect my poetry?

I coined a phrase called the sensual infrastructure in Our Parenthetical Ontology. In the current manuscript, I began working with that phrase again. I have carried that phrase beside me in teaching and writing. I think of it now because when I first began this latest poetry manuscript, I was trying to draw out what that sensual infrastructure might look like. I imagined a field like a computer motherboard. Through it runs the gold circuitry. I began to imagine that field as the sensual infrastructure and the circuitry as language and logic. The phenomenal world that grey field. When I say, “ran freely through the color white,” there is a similar ideation going on to embody a creative process affected by poetry. Poetry, if you will, allows me to run, drawing language behind or with me, through that field.

My creative process for prose is unlike what I have described above. I have never come to the page of poetry as a storyteller, at least not a linear one. But I had and continue to have ideas all of the time for stories. Writing fiction has made it possible for me to bring human beings—voices, conversations, imaginations, interpersonal interactions—into play in ways that poetry has not.

I have written elsewhere that I am frequently suspicious of entrenched identity politics, yet I understand very well the complexities of a world in which the marginalized and oppressed have not had access to the media or literature to tell their stories. The tension between postmodern sensibilities (the deconstructed human subject) and representation is not absent from my desire to write fiction.

I have had very good days while writing the novel when I feel like I’m walking into an empty space and then populating that space with objects and voices—there’s a treehouse over there, shall we sit down, let me light your cigarette for you. I can’t describe right now why that phenomenon is so thrilling. Perhaps it is because there is a freedom the likes of which I generally experience in the still more comfortable genre of poetry.

With hybrid work, such as Hélène and the story “Fragile Magnets,” that I shared with you, I am probably reaching between two orientations. There is a keen attentiveness to language and a strong sense of poetics. Yet the pieces do possess a narrative arc.

You asked lastly about how the reader absorbs my work. I suspect that readers are asked to follow more leaps and swerves. My hope, however, is that the risks I take thematically and stylistically are never at the expense of some emotional resonance for my readers.