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The Believer Interview with Rae Armantrout
BLVR: Can you remember the first time you ever read an Emily Dickinson poem?
RA: When I was a kid my mother got me an encyclopedia for children. It was called Childcraft and it had two volumes dedicated to poetry for children and for some bizarre reason it had an Emily Dickinson poem in it. Although her poetry is hardly for children. (laughs) It’s about autumn and it starts, “the morns are meeker now” and it ends with “I’ll put a trinket on.” The leaves are changing and the seasons are changing and she’s going to try and match nature. Obviously the word trinket implies all you can do to match nature is pathetic and ineffectual. Or at least that’s how I take it. So that’s the first time I read an Emily Dickinson poem. She still surprises me, which is what I like best in a poet, really. She puts words together that you’ve never seen together before and never will see together again.
BLVR: It’s interesting how many people I’ve visited have been able to automatically remember that first Emily Dickinson experience.
RA: I remember first reading, A narrow fellow in the grass. Well, you’ve probably never seen narrow fellow together before and never will again. Of course she’s talking about a snake. She defamiliarizes that so immediately and gives you a creepy feeling right from the beginning. She’s so bold in the attitudes that she takes toward God for instance. In that time of revival meetings and tents and evangelical religion all around her she remained skeptical, engaged with religious thought but skeptical and challenging. She sort of throws out questions that challenge God. The end of that one famous poem where she says The Brain is just the weight of God – you imagine God in one hand and the brain in the other, which is already a bizarre idea. And they will differ — if they do — As Syllable from Sound —. So is God in the brain? Is the brain God? That’s kind of a radical question to be asking if you’re a nineteenth-century woman. And then the difference between syllable and sound is so subtle. She doesn’t make it between word and sound. It’s syllable and sound. It’s the smallest unit. She’s a great thinker with a bold imagination and the most daring and unusual way with words I’ve ever encountered. Usually when I read a poet who is good, I kinda go, Damn I wish I’d done that or that’s good but I could do that. I get rivalrous. But with Emily Dickinson, I go, I give up. (laughs)
After discussing what it’s like to win the Pulitzer Prize and whether Rae would ever read on a Kindle, they get to the poet’s process:
BLVR: Would you talk a little bit about your process?
RA: I keep a blank book and I write down notes in it. The notes might be a sound bite, something I hear on TV or something I hear someone say at a café or school. A while ago I heard someone say, “I want to explore the post-hope zeitgeist,” and I put that in a poem. (laughs) Some things cannot be allowed to pass on unremarked. I keep the notes all the time and I try to take the book with me in my purse just in case. Then in the morning I look over my notes. I try to get up fairly early, I’m not a monk or anything, around 7:15, before Chuck does, and have my coffee and sit here with my notebook and see what occurs. I try to get a poem started when it is quiet.
BLVR: And do you write by hand?
RA: Yeah, to begin with, and then when a poem starts to come together I’ll go to the computer and mess around with it and change it.
BLVR: When you’re compiling a manuscript, how do you know when the book is done?
RA: That is a hard one. The last two times my editor made that decision for me. With my book Money Shot, my editor just wrote me and said, “Do you have a book?” and I said, “I have a manuscript. I didn’t know it was finished but maybe I could think of it that way.” I think that actually was a good time to stop it because that book was written during the worst part of the financial crisis/ripoff. Not that every poem in it is about that situation, but that is a motif that runs through it. I wrote it over the course of two years, so the work from that two years has a certain type of consistency that reflects that period.
In terms of Versed, I initially thought that Versed was one manuscript and Dark Matter was another. But Dark Matter wasn’t long enough to be even a short book of poetry, so I felt like I had to keep writing it. I had my surgery in 2006, so by the time I was in 2008, I was still writing Dark Matter, but to stay in the headspace of Dark Matter I had to keep believing I was going to die and at a certain point that became a burden.
Read the full interview for more. Photo by Andrew Kenower.