Jaime Warburton Interview, with Nicelle Davis
In your poem Evolution, Propagation, and Defense you reveal the intimacy of “parts” or the romance of looking a person with an eye for details. How is poetry the art of revealing “parts?”
I hadn't previously considered poetry as the art of revealing parts, but that's an interesting way to look at it. In a way, poetry isn't that different from scholarship – they both can involve analysis and synthesis following Noticings.
When writing this particular poem, I had been thinking about biology, about the way we as humans just want to live and the way we tend to read significance onto our experiences. They do, after all, feel significant. But how different are we from viruses, after all? How is love consistently a new amazement?
In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie Nolan, an Irish Catholic girl, wonders why "learned people" hadn't adopted chemistry as a religion – she recognizes in it the same beautiful mystery and conservation of energy, of life force, that she was brought up with in the Church. There is certainly sacredness in the most ordinary parts of the natural world, the same way there is sacredness in the repetition of our sounds, our worship of another's body. So to me, concentrating on each part of the body and breath, drawing attention to the magic of the most mundane molecule, learning and re-learning a lover, is like fingering separate prayer beads.
I love how you interject dialogue into your poems. Do you hear poetry everywhere you go? How much of writing is like eavesdropping?
Hearing poetry! I do tend to fly away into what might make a poem. My friend Katie will look at me and say, "Do you have poet-head again?"
I am an inveterate eavesdropper. I can't help it. My mother used to refer to me as "satellite-dish ears" when I was a kid, and come to think of it, my students are always telling me it's creepy that I respond to the questions they whisper to their neighbors. Hm. Anyway, I love to listen, and I get pulled into character after character, imagined story after imagined story. But it's people's language, too...you know the Tobias Wolff short story "Bullet in the Brain"? The main character, Anders, is shot, and what goes through his head before dying is a time he heard a little boy say "They is" instead of "There is." It's this moment of pure ecstasy, really. What he takes away from the pleasure of being alive. And he dies chanting those words over and over again. Wolff says Anders was "strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music." That's poetry, that's language and that's life. That's what you need to be aware of, either through sight or sound or touch or pure intuition. Leaving oneself open and present to experience can be a profound experience, and a rare one...and in every moment, new.
What is the first and most important lesson a student of poetry should learn?
Living people are writing living poetry. Right now.
What new projects are you working on?
Besides the usual mishmash of essays, poetry manuscripts, and scholarship, this month I'm beginning work on a collaboration with artist Margaret Reed – a collection of illustrated retellings of Balanchine's classic ballets. I saw a gallery show of her work and immediately thought, that's it! Whoever this person is, she's got the same eye as me and a much better hand! We're both interested in the gory and gluttonous, the hybrid and cannibalistic, the scaliness of fairytales. And whereas fairytale retellings are sometimes overdone, there's all this juiciness and weirdness in ballets. Balanchine tended to de-emphasize plot, which leaves open a fantastic (in the true sense of the word) terrain. I'm excited to play in it.
Evolution, Propagation, and Defense
Put another rung on the ladder and let me climb up. – Virginia Woolf
In the slow mornings while her son sleeps
down the hall & I don't
have to work for three
weeks yet, in these summer six o'clocks,
I rediscover opening, rediscover
what I want more from her,
& those limbs, rounded muscles,
thighs clasping, our feet forming
air pockets between their soles,
her hair curling back from brow,
nothing but forearm holding
either up – in this, we are like everyone
else: what difference could I claim, under
this one sun, in my counting a lover's
breaths, wondering at the texture of skin
beneath reading fingertips? There is flesh, yes, to press
between tendons, curve & waist & breast & breastbone
to find. How can I demand
any special worth for the pulling
of our own blood, this wild desire for story,
to have been there, meditation on the lover's
perfect strangeness, on each mote that is unarguably
Other, oh, to say, no one can come in here,
this moment is mine to trust, the new tide
to decide: as long as you wake me with a stack
of books & that mouth, I will stay, I will stay,
I will always stay – this is not too strange,
this is not something we have invented, yet is no less
rare for that: does each single cell not struggle
for division, flounder in most basic soup?
The Witch and Civil Religion
This morning I watched the sun rise again and wondered
what it could be like to transplant my life, palm trees instead of pine.
What is a forest girl doing by a swamp, if not to prove
she's more lizard than chipmunk, after all? After this darkest winter,
it's a teeth-bared frenzy of triumph just to feel bowels move
and be awake awake awake. I crawl out to white-painted rock.
I haven't spoken to a human in seven days. My yoga teacher's hand
pushing between my shoulder blades – Down Dog! Down Dog! –
the only touch in the world. I sit by the pool. I don't read a book.
The sole other presence is a blind old man in trunks and a WWII vet cap,
reaching for his cane at the shallow end steps, holding onto the wall,
feeling for a jet to direct at his groin: eeeaayhhh, he grunts. Eeeayyhhh:
he's warding off the spirits, brandishing the sawed-off shotgun of his still-
living self: back off, vampires. I imagine myself one of them, death
waiting, patient, silent. I feel my own sweat trail along a rib.
I lift my chin skyward. I know myself not part of his world.