Kelly Cherry Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
In another interview, you said that you often think of language (representing poetry) and character (representing fiction) in terms of music. What does this mean for you when it comes to reading and writing?
That’s how I thought of them when I first began to write. I imagine this was because the first language that attracted me was in Shakespeare and the Bible. Both seemed to me forms of song. I remember I had a recording of Olivier’s Henry V, and it was thrilling to hear him sustain the music of a line in something approaching a held note.
My first and forever love in music was Beethoven, especially the late string quartets (music we heard in the house, as my parents were string quartet players) and the piano sonatas. I filtered almost everything through these three influences—or should I say inspirations?
I’m curious about how your musical influences shaped your understanding of the world. What you mean when you say that you filtered almost everything through your musical influences/inspirations?
I don’t really know how to describe this; it would entail writing music, which I can’t do. But of course, musical dynamics, phrasing, pitch, tone, texture, orchestration et al. provide inspiration, and sometimes a model, for a poet, as do the lives of some composers.
How might your poetry—and, potentially, the way you understand art and the world—be different if you had grown up with different musical influences—say, jazz, rock, or another musical genre?
I assume that jazz, for example, might have led me to jazz rhythms in poetry, as it has many poets. My parents liked jazz; I don’t, though I know there are extraordinary performers of it. When I was the age for it, I enjoyed The Beatles, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane. But I wouldn’t have enjoyed a steady diet of it.
You’ve written that you think that artists must have an external, not just an internal, life. Can you expand on what you mean by an internal life and external life?
Writers—who, after all, work in solitude and tend to be intro- and retrospective—need to engage with the world. It is an endlessly fascinating world, whereas self ultimately becomes boring. Maybe for years it is not boring, but ultimately it is.
It seems to me that you’re right, that there can be a danger in being highly internal that affects a person’s life and art, even if the danger is just boredom. I’ve even heard it suggested that one manifestation of internality is living entirely in academia—going to school, then becoming a teacher, and never really leaving that world. To what extent, and in what ways, do you think that people, including writers, need to engage with the world?
The extent of one’s engagement with the world will no doubt vary from writer to writer, but I do think it is useful to have done something besides teach, or to have explored subjects that are not entirely literary, certainly not entirely literary, contemporary, and American. There’s so much to be learned—how can one not be interested in things besides one’s meager self? We benefit so much from relationships; well, to struggle with a subject is a relationship, and it is invigorating.
After reading “Your Autobiography,” “Paradox,” and your interview with “Southern Bookman,” I am fascinated by how big a role you think stories and language, particularly religious language, play in the way we understand and shape our lives. Could you explain this idea and give us examples of how this works?
Long before psychiatrists and psychologists got around to it, the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce pointed out that our relationship with language is reciprocal: we make language and language makes us.
Religious language, like other professional languages, identifies concepts and processes, and religious concepts and processes are particularly useful for writers (unsurprisingly, since poetry and storytelling stem from myth and legend). Good and evil, retribution and forgiveness, soul, meekness, communion, blessing—where would a writer be without these words and concepts? They take us to necessary places.
I know that you love to travel, and I want to read your book The Exiled Heart after learning about your threat-thwarted plan to marry a Latvian composer. Where is one place you’ve been that you cannot return to, or that doesn’t exist anymore, and what do you remember about it?
It amazes me that now, post-Soviet Union, I could return to Latvia. It would not be the same Latvia, nor are my former friend and I the same people we were when we met. I would like to return to the London of the sixties, with its affordable, and terrifically exciting, theater, concerts, books and bookstores, and museums. I’d like to spend a few months in Paris and another month in the Sicilian countryside, writing poems—that would be possible were it not for the expense. I’ve been to Russia three times but not since 1990 or ’91 and I wouldn’t want to do it on my own now. If there were a residency, maybe. The Philippines and the American Southwest shine in my memory. The Philippine people are among the world’s friendliest and most likeable.
You are Virginia’s new Poet Laureate. What do you have planned? Have you had time to do anything in this capacity yet? What does your position entail? In what ways should we encourage the reading and writing of poetry in our communities? What successes have you seen in this regard?
Because the press release has only just gone out, I have not yet done much as Poet Laureate (though I did help judge a decorated Christmas tree contest!). I am hoping to work in particular with adults and seniors. The position has no requirements, but I am prepared to give readings and talks at appropriate centers and I expect to write to a few such places. There are, in my experience, many people who like to write poetry, and I hope there are those who like to read it. Reading and writing poetry can make us smarter than we are. There’s that reciprocal relationship again: the language of poetry shapes us to its ends as we shape it.
I’m interested in the idea that reading and writing poetry can make us smarter. In what ways does this happen?
A poem is not a game, but it is sort of like a game. Thinking about rhymes, close or slant, lines, sentences, stanzas, caesurae, cadence, meter, and all the other linkages that make a poem a whole, one is strengthening one’s mind in ways not unlike a game strengthens it. But something even more important is also happening: the poem awakens one to its larger themes. Those themes grow out of phrases, which means the poet, as well as the writer, discovers what she is saying in the process of writing it. This means the poem is smarter than she is.
Lilac rides the air,
a cool, sweet jockey.
The moon swims among branches
like a goldfish among castles.
A cloud veils Venus’ shy smile.
Fireflies creep into the scene
like children stealing down a staircase.
Light On A Windowsill
Light on the bright white windowsill
A sky blued and as fresh-smelling as jonquils
washed in rain Such happiness
as this must be illegal I’ll
stroke your forehead, remove the helmet
and heavy, gold greaves Gods will
wonder why you and not they receive
my tenderest attentions They
will watch with envy in their hearts
The damp gym of her armpits
Hands washing each other in their own sweat
Her mouth is a desert,
Saying sand, saying grit
Legs trembly as an old woman’s hands
And her brain is a beehive
Buzzing in her ears.
Stung by his comment—
Ribcage airless and tight—
Who can save her?
But she knows the answer.
It’s why she’s afraid.
Beneath the propositions and assertions
we make each day lie not just rules of grammar
but hidden logic, the gangly hanging skeleton
a breath-filled life embraces. Thus logicians
are orthopedists of the thinking mind.
They sometimes break a patient’s leg to heal it.
A metaphorical leg, of course, as “patient”
refers to paradox, and paradox
is a paralysis of cogitation.
But what of metaphor and simile,
the ways in which a poem or story speaks?
Do not they have their own hidden logic?
In them, paradox perambulates
and is the shortest distance between two points.
By increments, and barely noticeable,
it happens to, around, in and because
of you—your autobiography, the shadow
you cast upon the earth on which you walk,
writing your life. The story of childhood—
in equal measures surprise and humiliation,
though sometimes there’s a glowing Christmas tree
or candles on a cake—segues seamlessly
into the unoriginal years-long
tale of adolescent turbulence.
How many years are left to go? Some lives
are short, and some are longer but haunted by
brutalism: the shadow knows. And all
arrive at a necessary end with the death
of the author, that wrong-headed theory that confuses
life with art. There are no epilogues,
no drafts, no revisions. Your autobiography
concludes as it began, the last page blank.