About the Author:
Donna Stonecipher, the author of two previous poetry collections, The Reservoir and Souvenir de Constantinople, also translates poetry and prose from French and German. Her most recent collection is The Cosmopolitan (Coffee House Press, 2008). She grew up in Seattle and Tehran and has lived in New York, Paris, Prague, Iowa City, and Berlin. She is currently studying in Athens, Georgia, and lives part-time in Seattle and Berlin.
Donna Stonecipher in conversation with Camille Guthrie
Camille Guthrie: How did you come to choose the prose poem, divided into discrete parts, for this collection?
Donna Stonecipher: I would like to think of the poems as “poems without line breaks” rather than “prose poems,” because the latter seems to imply less attention to each individual word than in a lined poem, and that is not the case with these poems. I was listening to Bach’s fugues a lot, and the poems have a somewhat fugal structure, which seems suited to these stanzas. Most of all I wanted to avoid the line break. Line breaks are seductive, but for the time being neither they nor the silences at the ends of line breaks feel right. Line breaks feel like cliffs leading to a kind of dangerous euphoria. I think also of Baudelaire’s dream of “the miracle of a poetic prose.” As he says in his famous letter to Arsène Houssaye, “It was, above all, out of my explorations of huge cities, out of the medley of their innumerable interrelations, that this haunting ideal was born.”
Camille Guthrie: The poems are full of characters and little stories—narratives which can stand by themselves—and it’s kind of a novel in itself really. Do you see the prose poem here as a bridge between poetry and the novel?
Donna Stonecipher: It’s true I’ve got a secret inner novelist who, unfortunately, has no relationship to logic. So: plot progression, character development, etc., are beyond her. I think of the poems as lyric poems, but maybe narrative was an escape hatch from the rocket of lyric, which is so insistent on its own subjectivity. The characters allowed me to diffuse (and defuse) my own “I,” and the form let me include novelistic observations that make up a significant part of the noise in my mind and would otherwise go homeless. But I am in awe of true novelists; I would give my right hand to be able to create something like Buddenbrooks, a total universe that lets a reader pack a suitcase and move in for a week or two.
Camille Guthrie: You have lived mostly in Europe for the last decade. How have your travels informed this book?
Donna Stonecipher: When I wrote this book I was splitting my life between Berlin and Paris, two extraordinary specimens of the urban. I never thought of myself as a “city person,” but it is cities that have most called out a desire to re-create something I find in them, in poems. Maybe that also explains the form of the book—going back to the Baudelaire. The “characters” are glimpsed as one glimpses people in cities, disappearing behind buildings or into restaurants; the poems are in pieces as city life is in pieces. You cannot subtract narrative from the city, but nor can you build within it a seamless whole. The mosaic seems inevitable. European cities like Berlin and Paris are also particularly fascinating as they are going through a transition to multicultural societies, the way American cities have been for a long time already, and the resulting friction and harmony are very evocative for an observer. And Berlin’s attempts to find a language to grapple with its terrible past—its cultural memory—are nothing if not poetic in nature.
Camille Guthrie: It seems to me that your poems are often about coming upon beautiful or astonishing objects or scenery. “And what of the entire book of Exodus carved into a single cherry pit?” What I admire about your work is how looking is terribly complicated—there’s always a ques- tioning of each lovely thing—it’s not just there for pleasure. Do you see this kind of looking as the job of the poet?
Donna Stonecipher: I think it’s part of my job as a poet. I was very enthralled by beauty growing up, particularly manmade beauty, pe haps because I grew up in Seattle, a place full of natural beauty but, in the 1970s, not much manmade beauty (no good museums, no important paintings, no great architecture). Europe was my promised land. And it was incredible being a student in Paris at 21 and looking at Guimard buildings, for example (which I now find sort of silly). It was only after living in Europe for a while that I realized how complicated beauty for beauty’s sake was, how bound up with much of the world’s evils, imperialism for example. A seminal moment for me was reading Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s The Conquest of New Spain, in which the narrator (Díaz) mixes up aesthetic admiration for Tenochtitlan with the desire to destroy it. And to love beauty is a privilege. My second book, Souvenir de Constantinople, is also greatly concerned with this. The figure “The Lover of Beauty” is essentially a villain in that book. Of course, I have not given up my own love of beauty, but it’s much more complicated now.
Camille Guthrie: The Cosmopolitan is full of humor, and I often thought of Stein when reading its sound and wordplay. Do you use humor to ironize the beauty in the poems? Or is it for the joy of playing with sound and meaning? I’m thinking of the wonderful line, for example: “Displacement, embankment: some words have liquid centers, like some chocolates.”
Donna Stonecipher: I’m happy you think so. Humor to ironize beauty possibly, yes. For this book I think I was attracted to humor’s ambivalence. The book is a joyful one (I happened to be in love while I wrote it!) but also a somewhat satirical one: there is anger at political, social, cultural pieties. Humor seemed a good mode to accommodate both impulses. But I didn’t want to write “funny poems,” which sound their one note to the point of exasperation. I wanted the humor to have its place along- side meditation, and wonder, and grief, and etc.
Camille Guthrie: How do you come up with the idea of the “inlay” as a form? I am struck by the line: “Wasn’t this then happiness—to be contained within life like a big mind inside a bigger mind?”
Donna Stonecipher: I was in the Met, looking at inlaid furniture, when the idea came to me to “inlay” a poem. I was drawn to the intertextuality of those inlaid chests and writing desks, the different registers of ebony and oak, for example. At first I tried to write poems with other authors unfolding throughout my text like the decorative wood, but I didn’t like the results. At the time I was thinking about collage and quoting and attribution. I remember being very struck by a couple of lines in a contemporary’s poem and admiring her poem greatly for those lines. A year or so later, while reading Moby Dick I found her lines, verbatim, in Melville. Did my admiration for her poem diminish? In some way I couldn’t help that reaction, even though I know how interdependent and complicated structurally all writing and reading is. I don’t have a definitive feeling about attribution, but I wanted to very exaggeratedly and artificially call attention to the problem for myself by placing a quote from another author squarely in the center of my text. Is it like a piece of plastic that a sea-creature incorporates into its structure? How does the quote transform the rest of the poem, particularly in relationship to time? Can the rest of the poem survive without that odd little beating heart? Strangely enough, I found that they couldn’t. I tried to write poems without the inlays, and they refused to become poems.
Camille Guthrie: Each inlay contains another author in parenthesis. How would you describe the poems’ relationship with those authors?
Donna Stonecipher: So the poems are dependent on those quotes, but the authors don’t have anything explicitly to do with the poems. This has led to confusion from time to time; a British poet I know, for example, started talking about Ruskin’s wife in the Ruskin inlay because he assumed the “she” in the poem must be her. The shes and hes are no one, and they are not even necessarily the same he or she within one poem. I suppose it has something to do with the problematic of the foreigner, the exile, in the book; these quotes are maybe my foreigners. The foreigner wants to foreignize, maybe. I’ve also always been drawn to the aphorism, to the epigrammatic. If I could have my wish I would write only in aphorisms; the problem is I don’t trust aphorisms, but I do long for them. So I satisfied an aphorizing urge.
Camille Guthrie is the author of two highly regarded collections of poetry, The Master Thief and In Captivity, both from Subpress.