Sandy Longhorn Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
These poems seem to connect to each other, like they're views from different windows in the same house. One way they do so is through shared imagery. Images that appear in more than one of these poems include a stone saint; offerings; honey on bodies; lingering, longing love; relics and memories of (and by) the departed; dust; and the outdoors. (I also notice that a blue robe, or dress, appears in these poems as well as in at least one of your previously published poems, "1976.") Do you understand these poems to be working together as a whole (and, thus, sharing imagery)? If so, would you elaborate on how you see them as a whole (or as part of a larger project)? Or (or also) are you drawn to these images and so place them in a number of poems? What is it that draws you to these images and brings you to gather each of them in more than one poem?
I love the idea of "views from different windows in the same house" that you create here. While I don't often write about a single subject (the death of a specific person, one terrible moment), my poems generally arise from an obsession with two things: the landscape of the Midwest and the psychology of an interior life lived deliberately. So, these images that you've pointed out are born of those obsessions. The character of traditional, rural Midwesterners is taciturn and practical, which leads to a lot of silence, which in turns led me inward to a life of the mind. The idea of lingering and longing may be a result of growing up in a place with vast horizons. Certainly, the dust and dirt in my poems filter through from coming of age in a world of gravel roads, corn fields, and hog farms.
Three of the four poems (all but "Late Aubade") are from a larger project, my new manuscript, In a World Made of Such Weather as This, which is part elegy and part self-created mythology. In the past five years, both of my grandfathers passed away. I have been fortunate to reach middle-age without experiencing the tragic death of anyone close to me (knock wood, toss salt), and both of my grandfathers lived long lives; however, their deaths naturally turned my attention to elegy. Many of the poems in the new manuscript imagine a consciousness for the dead in a bodily afterlife that is not heaven per se. I'm also fascinated by death rituals, both those from our own culture and others, as well as those in the past. This led to a series of saint poems, in which I create my own saints, such as "The Stone Saint." At the same time, while I no longer live in the Midwest, I was also reading a lot about how the land has changed and much of the elegy transferred over to the land as well.
As for how consciously I draw on these images, I don't set out to include them in the poems. They are the images that rise to the top while I'm drafting, and often I don't see the connection until I give a reading or arrange a manuscript or until the connection is pointed out, such as you've done. For instance, I hadn't noticed the honey in both "Late Aubade" and "Pilgrimage." As an aside, my husband and I have a bee-keeper friend who gifts us with the most amazing local honey. I'd probably internalized this taste and found it so appealing I repeated it in these poems. With the repetition of the blue dress (and thank you for searching out my older work), I really hadn't noticed that. In the older poem, "1976," the dress was blue because of the blue heron in the poem. In the newer work, I'm pretty sure the blue arose for purposes of sound, which you address in your next question.
For the most part, I believe we all have certain images that cling to us. They become our personal icons. I call on these as I try to create my personal myths and imbue them with deeper meaning so I might reach out and make that connection with my readers.
The tone of these poems caught my attention because it remains so calm, soothing, patient in the way of rituals, and on the edge of magical, if tone can be magical. In other words, there's a very strong and consistent voice in all of these poems, created by tone and also by imagery and careful selection of sounds (for instance, lots of /w/ and /s/ sounds, especially in "Pilgrimage" and "The Stone Saint"). What brought you to this very peaceful voice, at least for the poems published here? Also, what draws you about the nearly-magical?
Often, my work is described as quiet and unassuming, which I've always seen as slightly dangerous, too soothing and the reader drifts away. Your response is reassuring, a comfort. I'm thrilled with your description of the "nearly-magical" qualities in the poems and that the sound play is working as I'd intended.
As for the sound play, I rarely work in forms, but I think even free verse needs to have a clear sense of poetic sounds: alliteration and assonance being foremost in my process. The alliteration seems to come naturally to me, but I spent a few years after finishing my MFA where I specifically worked to include more slant rhyme, more vowel connections in my lines. Often in these elegiac poems the sounds are soft with a lot of long vowels because I'm dealing with mourning, which suggests these repetitions.
The focus on the nearly-magical goes back to my Midwestern roots and a story from graduate school, if you'll bear with me. In a form & theory of the novel class, after reading Garcia Marquez and Faulkner, the professor said to me that he didn't think a Midwesterner could write magic realism in the case of Garcia Marquez or the nearly-magical in the case of Faulkner. I took immediate offense and got my hackles up. Later, in thinking over the professor's explanation, that the Midwest is made up of "tight-lipped Methodists," I did have to concede, partially, his point. However, I've lived with that challenge ever since. Again, the silence of the people from which I come, may just be what pushes me in this direction. Because we are largely a private people, yes, tight-lipped, there is a lot of mystery about how well I might really know my kin. Within that silence and mystery, I have a lot of room to play and create.
From the poems published here and from other poems you've written, it's clear that you're interested in history and landscape and how they shape individuals and peoples. You also give voice to a number of peoples' stories, and even to the land's and monuments' stories. I guess I'm wondering how much you're telling your own story through telling all of these other stories, by layering on top of them your choices of imagery, tone, sound, etc. Do you see these stories, in a way, as your own landscape, which shapes you? In other words, it seems to me that you're defining your own landscape and using your voice on top of it to show how you're affected by that landscape. Does this sound right to you? Is this (at least partly) how you've found, or defined, your voice as a poet?
Yes, Yes, Yes, I cannot escape the landscape from which I was born. My parents did not chose farming, but my grandparents still had their farms when I was born, although my mother's family left theirs just before the farm crisis erupted in the early 1980's. However, I spent many vacations on the Longhorn farm, and the neighborhood where I grew up was an "addition" out in the country, surrounded by working farms. We always had a huge garden (although I have a "black" thumb myself) and boarded a few horses down the road. I spent most of my youth outdoors and when I think of it, I always return to that long view to a distant horizon at the end of a series of rolling hills and to a never-ending sky. So, while I technically lived in a city, I had my feet in both worlds, and I often felt stretched between the two and unsure of where I fit exactly.
Once I started studying literature, I realized that aside from a few classics (Willa Cather, for example), my people really weren't represented in the stories and poems I read. So, I set out to try and write from both my life and their lives in such a way that these stories might find a place in the world. I must confess I have a boulder-sized chip on my shoulder about how the Midwest is perceived by those from the urban corridors along our coasts.
My voice, most certainly, arose from these details, and I did not find it until I began writing about these subjects, while in my third year of graduate school. I also believe that I had to leave that landscape in order to gain perspective, in order to allow that voice to surface.
Stopping the car, we let the dust return
to the gravel road behind us. Ahead
is the house, our destination, engulfed
in tall grass, which requires a wading
through weeds and pockets of thicket,
a fending off of all that bites and stings.
Because we must approach what haunts us
with gifts in our hands, we make ready.
We unwrap the cloth that protects
the owl's claw tangled in trumpet vine,
loosen the lid on the jar of fireflies,
although it is day and they appear to sleep.
Draping our shoulders with red silk scarves,
we dip one finger each into the fat pot
of honey, harvested only miles from here.
We are not burdened by these offerings.
Threading the remnants of a path, we arrive
at the door intact, calling out the name
of our beloved, a song rising from the grass,
from the deep roots, holding us up as we enter.
The Stone Saint
When the foraging ants arrive to scale
her long-forgotten shrine in military columns,
she has eased her stone body into a life of moss,
tiny ferns embedded in the crook of her arm, the tilt
of her neck, between the folds of her robes.
She breathes in what is dank and dark, waits
without impatience for the winter-bare limbs
when faint sun comes to rest on her eyelids
so gently she remembers that one forbidden
kiss. A woven womb of hawthorns and wild
raspberry briars, the copse encases her,
and only the truest supplicant could trace
the once well-hewn path now wilderness lapsed
beyond even a god-given dominion.
The Penitent Boy Visits the Grave of His Beloved Father
Here stands the penitent boy
with his hands wrapped hard
around the family reliquary.
On his deathbed, the boy's father
called out for his son in a voice
of rock and gravel. The boy hid
in the hall closet engulfed
in the lifeless sleeves and scarves
still lined with the scent of sweat,
the fear of death outweighing
the fear of his father's heavy hands
so used to swinging a hammer.
Now, days after the funeral,
this penitent boy bows over
his inheritance, a dust-encrusted box
said to contain the blue remains
of a robe once worn by a woman
sainted in stone. In the family plot
the oaks cast shadows across
the marble headstone, and the boy
uses all his strength to smash the box
above his father's name. Whatever
once was hidden within, only dust
remains to consecrate the grave.
In fall, the foxes undulate through ditches
filled with cattails dense and wounded.
Night's fugitive, the wind strips threads
of pollen from stiff stalks and mounds
the amber leaves along the fencerows.
We remain bodies laced with honey
and salt, still nestled beneath the quilt,
while silence braids our breath together,
until the fox's mating cry fractures the air,
flinging us into the flint-colored dawn.