Rachel Trousdale Interview, with Mia Avramut
What is poetry, to you?
A poem is very much like a person. We're rational creatures with irrational desires, inhabiting bodies which we can and cannot control, and which change whether we like it or not. Poems do the same thing we do: they reconcile contradictions, they find ways to deal with their physical limitations. When I think about what poetry is, I think about the interplay of form and content, physical and intangible, and how, like us, poems can't be itemized. A cat in a cardboard box? A gerbil in a robot exoskeleton? A stained glass window in front of a bush fire? Except the poem might still be around in a few thousand years.
How did you discover poetry, and when did you start writing poems?
I get it from both sides of my family. My dad loves to read aloud and recite. Some of his repertoire is children's poetry — A. A. Milne's When We Were Very Young is still important in family conversations — but also Eliot, Frost, Longfellow, Shakespeare, and, with great enthusiasm, Robert Service. My mother's family loves rhymes. One uncle is a songwriter, and everyone composes verses for each other's birthdays and other ceremonial occasions; Gershwin and Comden and Green are favorites. So I was writing verse from about the time I could write, though I only got serious about poetry late in high school.
To your knowledge, are you the first poet (or literata) in your family?
Not at all. My father sometimes writes poems as well as reading them to his kids. My mother is a professor of Russian literature. One great-aunt was a poet and translator who lived in a little studio apartment on 57th Street in New York surrounded by old books in English and French and Japanese, with three years' back issues of the Sunday New York Times stored in the bathtub and a closet full of the most amazing outfits, gold turbans, antique lace dresses, suits she bought in Paris in 1926—sort of a Jewish Marianne Moore.
Your work exhibits a stunning clarity, not unlike that of Seamus Heaney and, more recently, Gerry Cambridge. Two of the five intriguing poems we publish here delve into the essence of flight: by plane and, well, cannon. Another one alludes to travels. All of them are filled with movement, propelled by compelling life scenes, and suffused with a discrete scent of times gone by. Do you enjoy being airborne? Do you like traveling the world? Is this a way to connect to others, to transcend generational gaps? Is it a way to stave off fear? I cannot seem to stop asking.
I do enjoy being airborne, and I passionately enjoy travel, especially my first morning in a new place. Waking up jet lagged and confused at six in the morning local time in Dubrovnik or Dublin or Dar es Salaam and setting out in search of coffee is one of my private grail quests. I like to learn a bit of the language before I go somewhere, and having a first stumbling conversation in Croatian or Swahili is thrilling, especially since people are usually generous about understanding what I'm saying. Travel is so intimate—there you are, drinking the water, eating the food, taking pieces of a new place into your body. And it's so impersonal—no matter how hard you try to learn the language and leave the tourist track, you're not going to understand a place unless you live there. But those two poems are about fear in exactly that giddy moment of launching oneself into the unknown. I suppose how frightening that leap into the air is depends a lot on how long you expect to fall, and how hard it will be to get back to where you leaped from.
Where do you live, and where do you dream of possibly living someday?
For ten years I've been based in Decatur, GA, where I teach at Agnes Scott College. Decatur is a thriving, diverse, artistic little town just inside the perimeter of Atlanta, and the college is a great community. I really enjoy living there. This year I'm on leave, so I'm in New York, which is wonderful for many reasons. I lived in Paris for six months in high school and would love to return for a year or so. And I have wild visions of living in Mumbai. But my husband and I are both academics, and like many academic couples we're finding it challenging to get jobs in the same city. At this point I'd be happy to live anywhere that had work for both of us so long as there was a good bookstore and a decent Thai restaurant.
To this double-expatriate writer, your book "Nabokov, Rushdie, and the transnational imagination: Novels of exile and alternate worlds" is a mesmerizing read. A lesson in boundary crossing. A gate to redefining the notion of "home". What moved you to focus on this topic? Do you see yourself ever becoming "committed to more than one national identity"?
Thank you for reading—I'm so glad you enjoyed it!
I went to graduate school intending to work on poetry. But when the time came to propose a thesis topic, I found myself interested in why Vladimir Nabokov, Salman Rushdie, and Isak Dinesen all tasted the same to me. Obviously it had something to do with displacement, but they were different from other displaced writers. Eventually I figured out that they were all making "home" mean a set of texts rather than a place. That kind of home is handy for an exile because it's portable—you can carry books in a bag or even in your head— but even more because it can be shared with other people. And you don't have to be an exile to want to join that community.
I mentioned that my mother teaches Russian. I grew up surrounded by émigrés: Russian writers were in and out of the house all the time, including the novelist Yuz Aleshkovsky, whose family lived with us for a while when I was five. (I eventually learned how to curse in Russian for his benefit.) And we had other international visitors. There were big dinners where seating had to be grouped by language, Russian, French, and English, with bi- and trilingual people at the intersections, translating. Many of the Russian-speakers were also native speakers of Buriat or Uzbek or Magyar. And I had a few experiences of expat life for beginners: in addition to the six months we spent in Paris when I was fourteen, we lived in London for several six-month stints. I don't mean that half a year in Europe followed by a return to an American family home is comparable to really moving to a new country, but it gave me a taste. So even though my family on both sides has been American for generations, I've always had a foot in that world of mobile multilingual international life, where one of the things people have in common is the experience of displacement.
The language in "Spirit house" is straightforward, yet the multi-faceted meaning reveals itself slowly. Tell us about the genesis of this poem.
My uncle and aunt recently moved to a new apartment, which they have decorated with a sleek modernist background and beautiful art in the foreground. Some of the loveliest objects are things they've picked up in their travels. Others belonged to my grandparents. I was staying there and had a hallucination of my long-dead grandmother, wearing one of her wildly-patterned silk Pucci dresses, her gray hair coming loose from its bun, her arms waving like a Tibetan demon painting, astride the little green china dragon on the bookshelf. Riding dragons was not something she would have done in life. I thought I'd better write it down.
The energetic, delicately humorous "Entropy" is a stunning metaphor for motherhood: order, leading to disorder, leading to the ultimate, paradoxical, preordained communion. I was once asked if, and how, poetry and motherhood can coexist. I'm now asking you: how, indeed? Are they ever at odds? Can poetry bring order, and increase ectropy? Increase the "usefulness of the energetic units", as physicists would put it?
My children are so far hypothetical. But it seems to me that poetry and motherhood both require intense focus on the way the poem or the child interacts with everything else in the world. And both are liable to the same kind of errors—idolatry or solipsism. All of life is a struggle against entropy, and the most valuable work is always anti-entropic and thus makes more life, whether literally, in a child, or experientially, in a poem.
Of course I think poetry brings order. All art does, but poetry in particular is or should be highly ordered, in sound and structure as well as content. And at the same time, while a poem doesn't usually generate dirty laundry as quickly as a toddler, the order it makes can really mess with the tidiness of your thoughts.
A few nights ago before I fell asleep I was reading at random in Robert Frost and stumbled over "The Most of It," which I had never paid attention to before. It's twenty lines, rhymed, mostly in pretty strict iambic pentameter, but there are five pyrrhic/spondee pairs which threw me completely off balance. I had to get out of bed and make a diagram of what he was doing. It's a poem about asking the universe for a response and getting one totally unlike the one you were hoping for, something so different that you don't know if it's a response at all. Of course there are infinite ways poetry can create order, including the much too familiar order of greeting cards and the friendly narrative order of the rhyme you put together for someone's retirement party, but one thing poetry is particularly good at is making an order that completely overturns your expectations, so that at first you mistake it for chaos. I think that's like motherhood, and other kinds of love, too.
Does poetry make us more child-like, more ludic? Does it open the gates of a wondrous old Circus we thought lost?
Poetry makes us more all-sorts-of-things. I think that's what it's for. More what depends on the poem. I don't think the circus was ever lost, though.
The most touching, or unexpected, praise you received from a student sounds something like this:
"My mother keeps warning me that my college professors are going to try to indoctrinate me with left-wing propaganda. I told her that they don't, except for you, and you're so obvious about it there's no danger." I decided that this was a compliment.
On the other hand, I once received a course evaluation complaining that when I brought the class cookies, I didn't include milk.
You cannot please everybody. But you can teach them manners! Can you talk about the roots of the puzzling, smooth-flowing, brain-wrenching metaphor that is "Migraine"? The skillful poetic strokes portray in a unique way (Yeti!) the natural history of the attack and the migraineur's emotional reactions.
Recently I became embarrassed about the big gaps in my knowledge of literary theory and started reading selections out of the Norton theory anthology, paying particular attention to early twentieth-century stuff. And apparently, when I try to read Heidegger on language, what happens is I write a prose poem comparing a migraine to a yeti. Not that the poem's about Heidegger. But I suppose I was thinking about the ways that rational language can get at irrational experience. Migraines are irrational. They're a completely disproportionate response to whatever triggers them. And as a result, when I feel one coming on, I try to propitiate it, win it over, persuade it not to bother—usually by feeding it as much as possible. It's a superstitious behavior, by which I mean it doesn't work. As I was writing the poem, somehow that became a ritualized feminine activity, like a tea party, at which I was trying to teach the migraine proper table manners. I don't blame it for resisting.
Speaking of rituals: would you prefer to ride a bicycle or a horse? Why?
A horse! A horse has thoughts, whereas a bicycle usually has spiders. Besides, I have a bicycle.
Who was your favorite teacher, at Yale or elsewhere?
This is a difficult question. I've been very lucky in my teachers, and I hate to leave anyone out. But the first two names that come to mind are David Brown and Laura King. David Brown taught Asian Studies, American history, and gardening at the odd hippie high school I attended. None of those are poetry classes, but all of them were about, among other things, the rewards of intensity and immersion, and the importance of getting your hands dirty. When I started taking Dave's classes what I wanted most in life was to go to Middle-Earth; by the time he was done with me, what I wanted most was to go to India. That's a big shift, especially since his India was pretty realistic. At Yale, Laura King was funny and charismatic and wonderfully excited about her work, and she took her students as seriously as she took the medieval drama she taught us. She gave me some of the most meticulous feedback I've ever received. When I started teaching I tried to base my approach on hers, which turned out to be completely exhausting. I also learned a lot, about poetry and other things, from Leslie Brisman, George Fayen, and Howard Stern—not the one on the radio, a much better Howard Stern.
Contemporary American Poetry. What do you think of it? Let's ask a prudent "Quo Vadis".
The wonderful thing about being alive during a period is that you don't have perspective on it. If I'd been reading poetry magazines during the 1920s, I don't know if I would have picked out which experimentalists people would still be reading ninety years later, though now with hindsight it's easy to say "hey, that Stein lady was pretty neat." I can't say where contemporary American poetry's going because it seems to be going so many places at once. The variety of publishing outlets shows you something about the variety of poets. I get excited about Ugly Duckling Presse's books, which combine experimental language with technologically old-fashioned (and beautiful) printing. And there are venues like this one, which are online and therefore broadly accessible, with no technical constraints on combining different media, and no space constraints beyond our attention spans. And then there are hundreds of traditional poetry journals, from little start-ups run by recent college grads publishing their friends and anyone else they can get, to big established giants. It's thrilling. Similarly, it's wonderful to be living at a time when form is so open—it's normal for a poet to try out anything from ancient set forms to concrete poems to prose. There's a lot of playful poetry right now, and true play is most productive when it's unpredictable.
What are you working on? How and where do you write?
I'm working on a lot of things. I'm polishing a poetry manuscript on how our bodies do and don't determine who we are; I'm starting another about inconvenient eruptions of emotion in public; and I'm working on a scholarly book on humor in modern American poetry. I do all this on my laptop, sitting at my desk looking out my beautiful big window or walking very slowly on a treadmill with a homemade desk on top of it, my husband's construction which I have adopted. Sometimes for variety I work in the Columbia University library, where I can watch people's brows furrow.
Could you share something nobody knows about you? The secret will be forever inscribed on this magical Spirit House that is Connotation Press: An Online Artifact.
When I was five I wanted to be a paleontologist. People know or at least knew this, because adults would ask, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" and I would say, "A paleontologist." What they did not know was that even at the age of five I would judge them by their responses. If they said something sensible, like "So do you want to work on dinosaurs, or are you interested in ancient sea turtles?" or "I was just at the Natural History Museum and I really liked the giant hanging shark jaws," then I knew they were reasonable people and worth talking to. If they said, "Oh ha ha you're five and you know the word 'paleontologist,'" or worse, a stern "But you'd have to be good at math to do that," I had no further use for them. Now as an adult I hear my own responses to other people with the same ears, and I have to be very careful not to annoy my past self, because she's grouchy.
It's for keeping the dead in;
a house for the spirits of the dead.
All through Thailand they surround
the dwellings of the living,
little wooden houses, painted, carved,
to be inhabited by ghosts.
We brought one home. But
we've made a mistake:
we've kept it indoors. Now
the house—the big house—our house—
is pervaded with spirits:
the little green ceramic Chinese dragon
is ridden, sidesaddle, by my grandmother
in her patterned silk, and the silver cigarette box
on the table contains a whiff
of her Chanel No 5; the carved ivory ape
bears my grandfather's scowl.
They meet just behind the Nigerian mask
which hangs on the living room wall.
They who never traveled further than France
bought these things, assembled them
with fragile chairs and carefully selected curtains.
Now we, who travel everywhere,
bring back from the weirdest places
nothing they think is new;
here in a house they never knew in life
they're looking over our shoulders,
calling the smiling Cambodian Buddha
smug; disapproving the cotton gaudiness
of my Beninois dress. How can we, should we,
must we, now that they're here,
move the spirit house,
and send them out, like naughty children,
to play in the yard?
Never mind what I'm afraid of:
Dad's telling me about a family
of human cannonballs—
grandfather, father, son,
the generations propelled
across PT Barnum's
big blue and red tent—
which my grandfather took him to in Springfield
some time before the war when
there was no money for circus tickets
and leaving the farm was an Outing;
down in my grandfather's Ford
from Bethlehem, New Hampshire
all six of them (with Dad,
then called Billy, the youngest,
in the back, sandwiched short-legged
between his sisters, brother at the driver's side window);
down they came, down the mountains and down south
to a city big enough to make a place for
the peaked, spiked, straw-and-dung-smelling tent
where generations of men
entered a gun barrel
and waited, helmeted, curled, braced,
while someone else, too old or too young to fly,
lit the fuse.
he says and in my fingers I feel
the vibrations of wind and motor
through the stick in my hands,
all that terrible solid wind through which
we have risen and through which
I now if I twitch too hard can make us fall;
"Lower" he says and I press my hands forward
to a change in the noise, a buck, a hum
and for the first time I have
no faith at all in my pilot,
no reassurance against the leaps of the air;
"Steeper" he says and the air is
fighting the wings, he and I
are in not my but the air's hands
and for all my love of
the sequence of cause and effect,
for all my hope that we can steer
for all my ambition and
desire for exaltation
this leap is too much leap and I
cannot take this one, I
fail this test, I say, enough,
The yeti sits in the best guest chair. I am a reasonable person, she thinks. If I stir six sugars into its cup, if I offer it milk, if I hand it the best chocolate for-company biscuits, perhaps it will behave. Perhaps when it leaves the only sign will be a few orange hairs on the chintz. It picks up the teacup, delicately, by the porcelain handle, cradles the saucer, sips. Yetis, perhaps, have an undeserved reputation. Perhaps if groomed with the cat's flea comb, if tenderly washed in rose-scented soap from the special soap shop, if given an ironed linen napkin on which to wipe its mobile turquoise lips, perhaps if I manage things reasonably, it will leave when a good guest should leave, just when the sun's finished sinking and it's the hour to leaf through last week's magazines. Perhaps this time there will be no smash, no spin, no splintering, no furniture upended, no yelps or shrieks or flailing dances; perhaps nothing at all will be twisted off my shoulders.
He's like a baby, or a brood of termites;
everything's edible, and nothing's enough.
Here, I say, is a nice clean kitchen for you to play with.
But no: he has to have the bathroom too,
and the whole dining room table,
and even the bookshelves, who were supposed to be working;
he wants to lick the salt of your hands off
everything they've touched, wants to
leave his teeth marks in rings on the sideboard,
wants to chew on the roots of trees and the house's foundations,
and regardless of when you'll be ready, at the moment when he's really hungry,
never mind that you're right in the middle of
scribbling something down or kneading the bread dough,
when he's done tasting and testing and spitting things out,
you know he'll be urgently, irrefusably turning
his head to your breast.