Lynne Knight Interview, with Mari L’Esperance
I love the quiet grace and emotional depth of your poems. In a recent interview you said, "...I've come to think that every work of art is an act against loss." Can you expand on this idea as it applies to your poetry?
People have observed that loss is one of my central subjects, and I’m always surprised by that because I really think loss is one of everybody’s central subjects; it just seems a given to me, another way to say what Yeats said: The great subjects are love and death. Loss seems implicit there.
I had a very imaginatively rich and happy childhood. I miss it. I miss my youth. When I hear people say they would never suffer through adolescence again, I feel mystified. I would take every minute of all of it back! Even the bad parts. So I think I might just be someone who’s greedy enough to want life to slow down or start over. Writing against loss—if I think about it at all, that’s how I think of it—becomes a sort of defiant act. A way to steal time back.
Your poem "In Which You, the Snakes, and Long-gone Flowers Disappear" is a sonnet and, it appears, an ekphrastic poem. Can you tell us about the inspiration for the poem and why you chose the sonnet form?
I keep a basket of postcard reproductions on my desk, and when I sit down to write, if a line doesn’t come to me to follow, I reach into the basket and write about one of the postcards. There are periods when I do this often and long stretches when I hardly do it at all. That poem’s based on a painting by Courbet; I was struck by the oddity of someone having put a vase of flowers on a bench. Had someone put it there only momentarily? And where had this someone gone? Why even wonder, when whoever it was had long since died? Thinking about those things led me into the poem.
I love entering paintings, walking through the frame into the interior. I think it’s a way into the interior, period—a painting or sculpture can lead us places we didn’t know existed, not just in the external world, but within ourselves.
I don’t usually write sonnets, but in times of stress or confusion, I tend to rely on formal structure more. Several years ago, I wrote a series of sonnets inspired by paintings; this is one of the few successful ones. The sonnet is such an interesting place to work. Everything goes smoothly until you get to the end, to the final couplet. At least that’s true with Shakespearean sonnets, which is the sonnet form I use most often. The three quatrains are pretty easy to do once you’ve practiced enough. But the couplet is the real challenge. I took a course at the University of Michigan eons ago with the critic (now deceased) Austin Warren, and he was fond of saying that Shakespeare’s sonnets would be vastly improved if we could just snip the final couplets off most of them.
It’s very easy to arrive at the final couplet and feel totally boxed in by the need to have a pure rhyme. And then it’s all too easy to settle for the banal and singsong. The couplet might seem passable at the moment of its writing, but a day or week later, it reveals itself as ridiculously pat. That’s what happened to most of my art sonnets. My intent was to write a book of them. Don’t ask me who I thought might want to read a book of art sonnets! I wrote a sonnet every day for several months, and then I quit. I just couldn’t fix the bad couplets.
You wrote poems early in your life, earning a graduate degree in creative writing at Syracuse University, then were (outwardly) silent for some years before returning in earnest to poem-making in mid-life. What were those years between graduate school and your return to poetry like for you?
I never stopped writing. I did stop writing poetry because, as I once heard Robert Hass say, when you write a poem there’s a little bird at your ear saying, Tell the truth. Tell the truth. The truth about my life then wasn’t something I could tell or even wanted to tell. So I wrote short stories. I was in love with Ann Beattie’s stories; it was my ambition to have a story published in the New Yorker. I wrote reams of bad fiction, all of it, probably mercifully for me, unpublished.
Then I went to Cornell University for a summer seminar called “Reading Joyce’s Ulysses,” on an NIH grant, and I realized that I had to change my life. I’d been teaching an AP English class to high school seniors for several years, and one of the texts I used was Joyce’s Dubliners. One of the central themes in it—besides loss!—is paralysis. I would teach the stories and hear myself telling my students things such as “These people are stuck in the deadening repetition of their own lives.” and think—consciously—You’re talking about yourself, kiddo.
There were high school teachers from all over the country at the seminar. One was the poet Nan Faraday, whose death at 46 to cancer is a loss I still mourn. She became a dear friend, and she changed my life. A few weeks after the seminar, she sent me, without comment, Mary Oliver’s poems “The Journey” and “Wild Geese.” I’d never read Mary Oliver. I didn’t even know who she was. But I opened the envelope and read the poems and knew I couldn’t ignore what I’d been ignoring.
So I changed my life. As soon as I did, I started writing poetry again. That sounds sort of melodramatic, but it’s true. I had written a handful of poems around my father’s death six years before the seminar, but they weren’t poems I wrote with any thought of publishing.
You recently retired following many years of teaching. How has this transition affected you, personally and creatively? Have you observed shifts in your poems and poetics since leaving the classroom?
It’s probably too soon to say. It’s been so strange this fall not to be thinking about teaching, not to have my life governed by the school calendar. With the exception of a few years in my 20s, my entire life, from kindergarten on, has been dominated by the school calendar.
Because I’ve had the habit (maybe obsession) of writing every day for going on twenty-two years now, I don’t notice any real change. I have had time to go back through old folders, something I hardly ever had time to do before—I keep my poems in folders by seasons/years—and most of what’s in them is junk. Even calling them exercises is a little too generous. If they were basketball drills, the ball wasn’t even on the court.
But I’m someone who has to write her way through junk to get to the poem. It’s been dismaying to go back through and see how much junk I’ve actually written. But we all clear the path a different way. Some friends just wait, and the poem comes whole when it comes.
For the last several years you've spent part of each summer in Paris. Can you describe for us your relationship to that city, its people, and the French language? How does your time in Paris nourish you and your poems?
In January of 1999, I started taking a French class at the Albany Adult School. I’d taken French in high school and at Michigan, but I’d never learned to speak it. I decided I wanted to be fluent. After a few years of adult school, I started taking classes at Alliance Française. Twelve years later, I’m still not fluent, but I’m getting there. Spending part of the summer in Paris has definitely helped. I rent an apartment in a 1642 building on the Île St. Louis. My landlords—the apartment is actually their home—go to their country house in Normandy, where I visit them for a few days each summer. They don’t speak English, so I get really good practice while I’m with them. I think of them as my French family.
The first couple of summers, I took classes—first at the Sorbonne and then at the Alliance. The classes were terrific, but I’m so compulsive that all I was doing was going to class, going back to the apartment I was renting and doing homework for four or five hours. Ridiculous! I was in Paris! So I decided from then on to force myself out the door without the safety net of a class. In 2010, Cheyne Éditeur, a French publishing house devoted mostly to poetry, celebrated its 30th anniversary with an exhibit in the Orangerie of the Luxembourg Gardens and with three weeks of readings every evening “under the trees.” I fell in love with a book called Je sais by Ito Naga. His reading was as delightful as his book, which is part of a series of books that are inclassables, neither poetry nor prose but with elements of both. I talked briefly to Ito Naga after his reading and gave him my business card from the poetry collective I’m a member of, Sixteen Rivers Press. Early the next year, Ito Naga submitted his own translation of Je sais to the press. Ito Naga is a pseudonym for a prominent French astrophysicist who’s fluent in English because he worked for NASA for three years. But his translation needed some tweaking, so I offered to do that for nothing more than the pleasure of working with a text I love.
Working on the translation has been enriching in more ways than I can say. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the book has changed the way I see. Ito Naga has a very clear and penetrating gaze. He also has a deliciously wry sense of humor. His gaze, his humor, and his intelligence have influenced me and—I think—my work. I don’t know that anyone else would be able to detect it, but I can feel his influence in the way that I think about things. I notice more. I have more patience for detail. I’ve always had a rash, impulsive streak, but I find myself wanting to slow down, take my time.
I walk a lot when I’m in Paris. It’s such a beautiful city to walk in. I’ve always loved rivers—I grew up in Cornwall-on-Hudson—and there’s something so wondrous about a river running through the heart of a city. As if it’s the city’s main artery. I still write when I’m there, but I don’t take a laptop; I’m too afraid I’d waste time on-line, in English. So I write by hand, not my usual practice. Most of what I write by hand in either language comes out sounding like the bread-and-butter notes the nuns taught us to write in sixth grade. Stiff and artificial. I did an art sonnet a day last summer, and we already know about them. This summer, I wrote a poem every day in French. It was exciting to be able to do that even though I don’t think I ended up with more than three or four poems.
I also spend a lot of time in museums when I’m there because art stimulates me so. I’m far more apt to write from art than I am from music. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever written a poem inspired by music. I don’t feel the deep connection to music that I feel to art. I don’t hear as well as I see, maybe.
So, to get back to your question—knowing another language really is like having another life. For somebody who’s working against loss, this is a huge plus!
I’ve always loved grammar—the logic of language, I heard a French author say the other night on TV 5 Monde—but knowing what’s possible in French grammar and learning how things are expressed in French excites me. It excites me to wonder what it would be like to think of loss not as loss but as la perte. Une grande perte—I wonder if that means quite the same thing to a French-speaking person as a great loss does to an English-speaking one. To feel a sense of loss in French is to have un sentiment de vide—literally a feeling of emptiness. That seems quite different to me from a sense of loss, but is it? In my French-speaking life, am I perceiving things the way a French-thinking person would, or as an English-speaking person thinking in French would perceive them?
Of course there’s no way of knowing, the way there’s no way of knowing if the color red you see is the same color red I see. But this sort of thing fascinates me. I’m sure it fascinates all poets, whether they know another language or not. We’re obsessed with words. I studied with Donald Hall at Michigan, and he was insistent that in poetry there are no synonyms. Finding the exactly right word to say what I’m longing to say—how lucky I am to have that as my work. The older I get, the more I’m aware that there’s no time to lose in doing it.
“In Which You, the Snakes, and Long-gone Flowers Disappear”
What a strange place to put a vase of flowers—
outside on an old bench, about to tumble
over from their weight. How many more hours
can they last? Will they die before the rumble
of horse-drawn carts (one’s passing now) begins
the fall of rose and daisy, phlox, blue gentian
until the whole thing crashes, water thins
into a ribbon in the dirt? Mention
a ribbon in the dirt, long snakes appear
in the mind’s eye and start to narrow through
the synapses and slip into the ear
canal where they turn everything into
death’s prelude—all you hear a kind of prayer
against what’s passing you no longer there.
The Life of Clouds
An Anna’s hummingbird
keeps opening the flowers
to probe their sweet nectar.
Why bother to call nectar sweet
when it’s sweet by definition?
Some habits have the comfort
of old shoes: Take those I wear
to garden on the deck, the roses
fading like the hot pink dress
I’ll never wear again, my skin
too old, my life just one more
part of all we share with
birds and flowers, river beds
whose stones roll on for miles
until they finally go still.
The Other War
My daughter was born in the far shadow of the war,
her father a Canadian guitarist. We turned on
the past. Who needed to heed old voices? The dead
multiplied in Vietnam while we sat waiting
for the sun to set over the Georgia Strait,
my daughter’s father playing a Bach fugue,
my heart learning the patterns rapture takes
towards complication, rupture. My daughter
was an easy baby, plump, hungry, but my milk
was not enough. Maybe it was my meager diet,
brown rice a thousand different ways. Maybe
the dope and cigarettes I smoked. Maybe my sorrow,
because I could tell my daughter’s father no longer
desired me as he once had. My daughter nursed best
in the quiet of night, when I sat with her in the rocker,
the strait lapping the rocks in syncopation with her
sucking. But she was always hungry, I feared
I would starve her, so we bought formula, bottles,
and the dream of being Earth Mother, my hair
flowing in waves down my back, one baby
at my breast, another at my hip, a third at my feet,
vanished like the words my daughter’s father
whispered to her, tender, tender, I could never
remember enough once he was gone and the war
kept on and my hair longer and longer until the day
I hacked it off like a boy’s. My daughter plucked
the air for it, like someone playing a lost instrument.
When my mother lay dying that afternoon,
the hospice nurse said I might consider leaving
for a while because often the dying prefer
to go wherever they go alone. I didn’t leave.
Death came so peacefully I felt happy
to have been there, holding my mother
while she slipped away. In the years since
I’ve wondered where it is the dead go,
but even when I imagine them wandering
a quiet grove, my mother isn’t among them.
Nor has she appeared before me. She comes
in dreams, but she did that when living,
so I see no reason to read that as a sign.
When my sister and I poured her ashes in the ocean,
a strong wind blew them into clouds and back
against us, wading the waves at dawn so no one
would see and object to what we were doing.
Each of us saved a bit of ash to keep inside
a small ceramic jar. But I never think
my mother’s there, or in the air around me.
I think she’s gone. Ashes to ashes, I think,
wanting to understand more than I understand.
But when someone’s gone, she’s gone.
Still . . . you think she might be there, somehow.
You tell yourself stories, becoming her.
The Distant Idea of Grace
The clutter of the insignificant
consumed them while the day
lost itself in the vast space
of time no one remembers.
Don’t keep talking about peace,
he said, when you’re so at war
with everything. He meant
the lament of a soul in torment
she poured out weeping over
wine in the late afternoon
while light filtered the coast
live oaks and it seemed possible
they might survive anything.
As if that were theirs to decide.
As if they weren’t the children
they were, dreaming and afraid.