Issue 5

An Interview with Elizabeth Cantwell

 · Nonfiction

By Christopher Schaeffer

Elizabeth Cantwell is a Ph.D. student in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Southern California, where she has acted as Managing Editor of Gold Line Press. Her writing has recently appeared in such journals as PANK, The Los Angeles Review, 1110, La Petite Zine, and the Indiana Review. Her first book of poetry, Nights I Let The Tiger Get You, was a finalist for the 2012 Hudson Prize and is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press.

I want to start just by asking about the genesis of this project. Some of the pieces from it that were originally published elsewhere — I’m thinking specifically of the excerpt in THEthe — already had the feeling of a “long poem” about them, in the sense that even without context they felt like they were pretty dense and dynamic, like they were balancing a number of parallel and contrapuntal concerns. So to be able to look at all of these pieces play out in the body of the entire book, or rather to see the workings of the entire book behind each piece, was deeply impressive. There’s a lot going on — so what was the initial kernel? Was Nights I Let the Tiger Get You envisioned as a book-length project all along, or did it begin to cohere and converse with itself as you went along?

I definitely did not conceive of this as a book-length project when I started. Actually, I have a different manuscript that I’d just written — a long, weird narrative thing in verse — and I was sure that was going to be my first book. I sent it out for three or four months and then started to realize it was the sort of unwieldy, ugly manuscript that was probably going to have trouble finding a home. So I thought “Well, I can just scrape together a more “traditional” manuscript out of these other poems I have lying around” and one thing led to another and soon I ended up with Nights I Let the Tiger Get You.

But in its first incarnation it was pretty much a mess — I did just scrape things together, and threw in a whole chunk of prose poems and some more lyrical poems that I liked, and then I needed more pages, so I remembered this long poem I’d written — the title poem — and stuck it at the end. So at first it was just this really sloppy, non-coherent group of poems that didn’t feel like they really belonged together at all. Things only started to come together when I gave the first version to a friend of mine who also happens to be a terrific poet with a first book on the way — Jessica Piazza — and she sat down and read through it and came back and suggested that I split the long poem up, break it up into little sections, and sprinkle it throughout the manuscript to hold the whole thing together, like vertebrae. Which was revolutionary for my thinking about the work as a whole. Looking back, I realize that the manuscript really couldn’t come together as a book until I saw the whole thing through the lens of the long poem.

Once I started seeing it that way, I realized that a lot of the poems, even the ones I’d thought of as just stand-alone lyrics, shared the same anxieties and obsessions and images as the long poem — letting “Nights” move throughout the manuscript emphasized these themes.So then I started playing around with different organizations and sequences, and removed some of the poems that really were outliers, and put in some new ones that shared the manuscript’s mindspace, and tinkered and revised and deepened everything, and ended up with something that I’m now very pleased to hear really does feel like a “book-length project.”

Somatics is huge in poetry right now, but your engagement with the body is often fantastic or ambivalent. I’m thinking in particular about “The Information Age” — with that wonderful implicit contrast between a very bloodless, antiseptic image of wing-iconography and the owl-person’s “wings to send you/ into the sides of mice — but throughout there’s an almost manic anxiety about the limits of what a body is and a body can or should do — all throughout there are bodies doing work, bodies falling apart, bodies failing themselves, bodies performing in miraculous or monstrous ways — and that’s set up in contrast with parallel operations performed in explicitly animal or animalized bodies, the lizard forcing itself through the blades of a fan for example. 

Obviously, there’s a world, or at least a few generous area codes, between what you’re doing and what’s going in, say, CA Conrad’s somatic exercises, but I am very struck by the doubled gesturing going on — bringing the text around constantly to the body as creaturely and immanent, but always in this kind of dream-like, unreal formulation.

Like you say in “Aphasia”: “I realize I am obsessed with making all of this mean something. With stringing shadows on.” This was, I guess, less of a question than a long comment, but can you speak to these concerns with the somatic and the unreal in some way?

This is a great question, and is making me think about my obsession with the body in a more theoretical light than I usually do, so thank you for that. I guess one thing that’s probably pretty obvious about me from my poems is that I have a very strained relationship with the body. I spent a lot of my life wishing that I could be just a mind — no body at all, just a perfect, incorporeal mind — and I’ve spent the last few years trying to come back around to some sort of truce with the body. I think perhaps the unreal elements here could be a sort of reflection of my desire for the body to be less real than it is. Does that make sense?

This might be sort of a tangent, but I’m reminded of the scene in Black Swan where Natalie Portman is in her bedroom and she’s plucking the swan feathers out of her skin and her eyes go red and her legs bend backwards in that sickening, animalistic, terrifying way. Or any of the scenes in The Fly. In both of these movies, there’s a thrilling escape in becoming something other than human, but that escape is only momentary and quickly turns bad. I also love David Lynch, and I think some of Lynch’s weirdnesses with bodies and doubling and physical transformations and stuff is the sort of feeling I want these poems to have. I think the line between the unreal and the real is very thin and very blurry and in some places disappears altogether, even when we’re talking about something as seemingly concrete as hands and legs and eyes. So it’s important to both stay in touch with the corporeal and not trust it, not give it even an inch.

When you mention that desire to exist completely sans body, and that ongoing struggle for a kind of detante with the body– and I think “truce” really is the perfect word– that seems to be a fantasy a lot of poets have, and a process a lot of poets seem to go through, even back to, in some sense, La Vita Nuova. I think that’s part of why people think about Descartes, these days, as a “poet’s philosopher”– somebody who doesn’t get a lot of play in philosophy conversations, but is salient to a lot of poets. Aside from your own writing towards that tension, is that a theme that was important in your reading, as you were kind of growing into the role of poet?

Hmm. That’s tough. I definitely didn’t seek out works that dealt with the struggle to accept the body as, you know, relevant to and inextricable from life—but I do think I tended to be drawn to writing that was enacting these feelings on some level. Emily Dickinson was very important to me as I was figuring out what it was that I was trying to do with poetry—and her poems are so infused with anxieties about the demands of the body, of the living self. One of the first contemporary poets I really started reading was Dean Young, and the copy of Elegy on Toy Piano that I bought when it came out in 2005 definitely has some interesting marginalia. Two passages I have underlined and starred are “When you die, your new body is entirely symbols,” from “Halflives of Youngonium” and “what happens / to all the personness when the body / is a mess and percolates no more?” from “Hammock Half in Sun.” So I guess that even if I wasn’t consciously looking for poets who shared these concerns with the nature of the body, I was actively thinking about the issue as it manifested in the work I was reading.

More broadly, the poems in this book are lovely just to look at, that is, they have a great profile on the page — a very visually and structurally satisfying balance between prose paragraphs, regular stanzas, and less regular stanzas. This gets back to my first question on some level — is there a logic between the formal arrangement of pieces here? The title poem in particular is set up a bit more jaggedly, a little more erratic and unpredictable, than some of the other pieces —  which resonates pretty handily of course with the Blake poem you open with — was this, again, something you’d set out to do from the beginning, or did it arise organically?

Well, as I mentioned above, the manuscript started out pretty slapdash. But one of the considerations I had when I was in the reorganizing/editing/structuring phase was making sure that the poems spoke to each other formally as well as thematically. At one point I felt like maybe the prose poems didn’t fit, and that I should change them into verse—that I should make the whole thing lineated. So I played around for a while with that, and it was terrible, because the poems really did not work at all with line breaks in them.

Which, I guess, speaks to the organic/intended question — the poems I write tend to come out in the form they want to be in, even if I don’t intend them to. Generally if I try to manipulate form after the fact things only go wrong. The poems here all insisted on taking the shapes they took, and all I could do was arrange them in a way that felt balanced and harmonic.

I like that emphasis on intuition and harmony. When I think about contemporary poets who really have an astonishing relationship with the line as the unit, I think of John Allen (who I think you know or know of, he was in Red Skeleton too), but you also have this sense of “aptness” in terms of appearance on the page as well as in terms of, to borrow your “harmonic” again, aural quality. When you’re writing a poem, and when you’re returning to a poem, what kind of balance between the poem on the page and the poem as a spoken language object do you try to strike?

I think in the best poems it’s hard to separate the poem on the page from the poem as a spoken thing. I don’t think many of my poems get there, but I guess that’s the ideal — to make it impossible for the reader to see the poem without also hearing it as a sound object.

I do read my poems out loud as I’m writing them, and I do think about the sound of each line as a line. I took a short summer workshop with D.A. Powell years ago, and he talked about how each word you use has a weight. You have to make sure no one line weighs too much, and try to balance the lines—unless there is a specific line you want the reader to feel very heavily or not at all. This works conceptually as well as metrically or aurally. The easy example, which I remember D.A. Powell giving for us new poets, is that you don’t want to write a line that contains the words “heart” AND “dream” AND “love”: all of those are very heavy words, and the weight of all of them at once is going to throw the poem off. But it’s easy to extend this idea to the heft of the words’ sounds and rhythms, and that idea of weight has absolutely stuck with me.

I don’t know if you read this one book that came out from LSU several years ago — Houses Are Fields, by Taije Silverman — but I kept thinking of it as I read Nights I Let the Tiger Get You. Part of it is tonal — you’re both really deft at vacillating your rhetorical distance. It’s tough to pin down what level of disclosure you’re on, as a reader, reading both—how much is being revealed, how much is being performed, etc. In that sense I think there’s a pretty complex relationship to somebody like Berryman or Barbara Guest going on — where you’ll have, as in part five of “Nights I Let the Tiger Get You”, this business with the brother which feels so much like just very well-done personal lyric, and then you’ll have moments like the shift in “Recess,” in which something that sort of speaks the same slang as the personal lyric suddenly modulates into something much less predicated on an implicit agreement of acting out some kind of verisimilitude. That crucial parenthetical in “Enter: A woman (who looks/ like me), I guess. How did you approach these issues of navigating a lyric that’s still mercurial and strange enough to leap around these very disjunctive symbolic registers, that is, how do you get poems like “A Defect in the Dreamer’s Understanding of Her Life” and “A Kingdom Ago, by the River” to not only exist in the same book, but to do so generatively?

I haven’t read Taije Silverman’s book! But now I want to. I think that Nights I Let the Tiger Get You definitely walks a confessional line at points; the title poem absolutely comes out of very real events, so there’s a certain amount of personal disclosure that’s impossible to avoid. But I think for a lot of poets, personal disclosure itself is a slippery process. And sometimes in the process of confessing something you find yourself hanging out in some unfamiliar landscape, because often the only way to talk about this thing that happened to you — this thing that is probably traumatic or impossibly joyful or incredibly strange, or else why would you be compelled to write about it — is through a sort of veil.

Maybe this goes back to what I was talking about earlier, about the line between the real and the unreal being blurry. There’s this poem by Wallace Stevens, “Repetitions of a Young Captain,” which absolutely blows me away, and I think says a lot about our understandings of reality as filtered through language and poetry. The opening is gorgeous:

It had been real. It was not now. The rip
Of the wind and the glittering were real now,
In the spectacle of a new reality.

So there’s this way in which the real thing, the remembered thing that was real, that “stood in an external world,” is replaced by a poetic tempest, the “rip / Of the wind and the glittering” — but it’s not as though this replacement is a poor substitution of something unreal or performative for something concrete — it’s simply a “new reality.” And in fact, Stevens has already represented the initial “real” thing as performative — as a “theatre.”

Memory is always a distortion of real events — there is no real possibility of truth in confession. And I think your comparisons to Berryman and Guest, although there’s no way I’m anywhere near their level, are really apt in this sense that the surreal moments aren’t an escape from a real world, but rather just the only way possible to negotiate the field of memory.

I love that reading of Stevens, because I don’t tend to read your poetry as that of a particularly “political poet,” but you seem to be approaching this very Stevensian and very beautiful faith in poetics as something that CAN in a concrete sense manifest itself in a “new reality” in an external world. His idea of a “supreme fiction” I suppose — this willful imposition of something more satisfying that has to emerge from the actual, tangible work of artists and poets. Somewhere Jack Spicer talks about how people who love Wallace Stevens tend to hate poetry, which, like a lot of what Spicer says, strikes me as totally wrong-headed, because I think Stevens offers one of the most utopian and demanding system of poetics I can think of.

Yes! I also love a lot of Spicer but get angry with him on some accounts. I didn’t know he said that about Stevens and I obviously love Stevens AND love poetry, so that makes two of us. Some people paint Stevens as too academic or too cerebral, and sure, he is definitely calculating—but his poems matter because of the very real feeling and belief behind them. There’s that incredible moment in “Domination of Black” when he stops the rolling motion of the language about the world outside the poet’s room (“Or against the leaves themselves / Turning in the wind, / Turning as the flames / Turned in the fire, / Turning as the tails of the peacocks…”) to just say “I felt afraid.” Just like that, all on a line by itself. Talk about a line that couldn’t take any more weight. I think that poem is, on some level, about the fear that it’s too hard to communicate. That all of our attempts to write these poems and impress something on some reader’s mind is just going to be boiled down to the “cry of the peacocks” — this wordless terrifying thing that can’t convey anything exactly. Anyway, I agree with you — I think reading Stevens is demanding and so is the politics of his poetry, the importance he places on poetry.

And a couple of easy ones: 1) Desert island books, which poets could you just not live without, and 2) What is some stuff you’re currently reading that you’re super into, or were reading a while ago that particularly informed Nights I Let the Tiger Get You?

Desert island books is never easy! I’d have to have Anne Carson, so I guess in a Sophie’s Choice-style decision between Carson books I would end up taking Plainwater. Although I deleted that three times just now and replaced it with Autobiography of Red only to delete and replace again, so. I’d also take Ashbery’s Selected Poems and my leather Bible-style collection of all of Shakespeare that my prescient grandfather gave me for my first birthday. If I’m limiting myself to five… I guess the other two would have to be Emily Dickinson (The Complete Poems) and Wallace Stevens (The Collected Poems). I apologize for choosing basically all obvious collected/selected works, but narrowing my list down to five is hard enough, so forgive me.

When I was writing Nights I Let the Tiger Get You, I was reading a lot of Kate Greenstreet and Baudelaire, partly due to coursework and partly just for fun. As for stuff I’m currently into—I’m finishing a dissertation on connections between early modern poetry and contemporary poetry and infinity, and I’m deep into a chapter on Spenser right now and have been re-reading and re-falling-in-love-with The Faerie Queene, big time. A.R. Ammons has also been someone I picked up for my dissertation and found myself appreciating on new levels. Sphere is really something. I often get that overwhelmed feeling that there’s so much I haven’t read and so little time, but that’s also weirdly comforting — I know there will never be a lack of really wonderful stuff to read.

Read the title poem from Cantwell’s new book, Nights I Let the Tiger Get You.

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