Thursday Jul 18

Soniat-Poetry Katherine Soniat’s sixth collection of poetry—A Raft, A Boat, A Bridge—is recently out from Dream Horse Press. The Swing Girl, published by Louisiana State University Press, was selected as Best Collection of 2011 by the Poetry Council of North Carolina. A Shared Life won the Iowa Poetry Prize. These poems are from a new ms., in progress, The Secret Where. Her work has appeared recently in Women’s Review of Books, Citron, Hotel Amerika and Crazyhorse, among others. She teaches in the Great Smokies Writers Program at UNC-Asheville.

                                           Katherine Soniat Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand

In a way, these poems feel to me like sitting on the beach while the tide comes in: Each time I sit down to look at them, I end up reading and rereading until I realize I’m immersed in their waves. One thing that gets me about these poems is that I get more out of them each time I read them, including another layer of emotion. I understand this to be a testament to the restraint you’ve used in your work – you’ve subtly packed enormous substance into these poems. Because I am this affected as a reader, I wonder about the genesis of these poems. What prompted these poems and the manuscript they’re a part of?

The "prompt for my poems,” as you suggest, is for me an important and fascinating question. Poems in this new collection, The Secret Where, arrange themselves as strata in a canyon, as layers of dream. Dream and geology have much in common with the manner in which I write. Both share color, shades, texture, and history that allow poetry to move in a vertical pattern. Often readers have said that the point-of-view in my poems soars, suspends, and finally descends swiftly like that of a bird. The lyric nature of these poems creates fluidity and makes them permeable. The language at the same time is exactly imagistic and solid as gemstone. A colleague once said that when she went to write a blurb for one of my books that the larger purpose and specificity of language seemed to disappear, her commentary turned to “cotton candy” in the mind. The poems wanted no exterior analysis, no intervention that would set them apart from themselves. Break them.
Strata. Dream. Personal and mythic history. The seams of a world—those unsteady places where one balances between contradictions. Each of these is a source for my poems. This new book, The Secret Where, moves in and out of, up and down in, an underworld of the dead and the living. They each have voices (and histories) that resonate with implication. In an opening poem, "Fire Devotion," the tone is struck for the poetry that follows: "Touch the secret where/ the heart in me began." This is not simply the personal heart, but the world heart.  And a geologic heart—according in ancient texts there was once but the single cell. This collection seeks to repair the fragments of a once perfected and whole fabric. Throughout, the focus is on "the intimacy of time,” which has nothing to do with the nervous mechanism of clocks. Or the even cruder jump of the digital.

I mentioned that these poems are restrained – they hold back in order to have a stronger emotional impact. But these poems are not sparse; they’re packed with beautiful and varying language, imagery, transitions, and so on. How do you craft such restrained and powerful poems? How are restraint and power related?  

It is often said that if one goes deep enough on the personal that the subjective gives way to the far larger landscape of humanity. This title, The Secret Where, involves my respect for, and keen interest in, place in poetry. "Where" is used as a noun in here. I invite the reader into the deepest "places" of contemplation, that locale (of) "where" privacy disintegrates primary structure, and we see the things of this world askew, and at a vivid angle. One reviewer noted very astutely that what evaporates in many poems is context, so, as in dream, the reader finds herself in a timeless and often nameless locale. This removal of context often allows the poems to avoid sentimentality. Readers sometimes want to know “who is this sick person, this lover, that child.” Identity is not the point. These characters and circumstances are intricately woven, and rewoven, tinted, given a different kind weight so that they tumble through that trap door at the bottom, and thus belong as archetype to all of us. Over and over the “story” surfaces, dies, and is reborn with reflected distortions of old glass.  Situation swims. Never does it gel for long. This is the way in which emotional power and restraint relate—remaining flexible, they reverse and roll restlessly with one another.

What is most important to you about a poem (or poetry)?

As I mentioned in the beginning of our interview concerning the “prompt” of a poem: that is very important in my work. The origin, the umbilical, of poems these days does not come from a narrative impulse. I had a dream before I began The Secret Where: the dream indicated "if you want to enter a poetry embedded in the fifth element, the ethers, you are to tell the 'bird myth,' then place a bird in every poem.”  Wise by this time, I obeyed. If I had taken the language of that dream rationally, I would not have even started. A "bird myth," what's that??? No, instead I sat down and began writing it. As this myth arrived for me, as the birds dropped, flew into poems, presumptions of knowledge dispersed, realigned, then partially clarified. Writing those first two poems—"Fire Devotion" and "Bird Gnosis"—was like moving into a spider’s beginnings, geometric design unsteadily looping into an architecture of sorts. The myth. Then I went back to revise those first pieces and allow language to tell me what was the quixotic nature and cellular direction of the manuscript. Finally when I had written most of the poems, the task was to thread each section together with invisible filament. Each section is tightly sequenced.  Probably, I am the only one who will know exactly how each poem resonates with the one before and after it. That’s my secret. That was the agreement made in the dream that said, “write the bird myth.”

I read in your bio on your website that you have traveled extensively and that you incorporate the places you’ve been into your writing. In what ways do you incorporate these places and your travels? What do you carry with you from the places you’ve been?

When I taught at Virginia Tech I applied for generous travel grants to support my writing projects. Each collection of poems involved one of the four elements and a geographic location. Sometimes a certain painter's sensibility was included. I traveled to Crete, the Alps, Peru, and to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Arriving in Asheville six years ago to live, I decided to tackle the fifth element which is ether. I struggled. I stalled, and went into reverse—the etheric must be solidly grounded. One day I printed out a particular file I had had for five years on my laptop, ready to toss it out. Sitting in a bakery, I read through eighty pages of tremendous fragmentation, but I understood that, indeed, my book was there! Extremely rough, but breathing. For the next year I merged, immersed myself, and slept with dreams of dream, the half-alive, and the imagery of broken worlds. I had committed myself to underworld. C.G. Jung thought that that is what is missing in the West's approach to therapy, and to life—a recognition of the "living" dead. We should never fear death or the underworld, those substrata that antiquity held close. Perhaps it alone  can offer the richly visceral context in which to grow. As myth once did.

Which place that you have traveled to influenced you the most, personally and as a writer? What was it about the place that influenced you, and what has the result been in your life?

I can say important synchronicities occurred in each of the above mentioned locations. The canyon spoke in the language of mineral and strata. Crete sang of its recorded matriarchal culture, of the Feminine. Peru communicated the drumbeat of the Q’uero shamans high in the Andes. The Alps told another story through personal letters and art of the two painters, Wassily Kandinski and Gabriele Munter. The topography of their relationship was as intricate and hewn as that of the Alps where they lived. The Bavarian village of Murnau, their home, is where The Blue Rider School of painting began in the early twentieth-century. But, in all honesty, the most important place for my writing was that nebulous last stop with the ethers: a highly spontaneous terrain that appeared within my writing process. A dark eloquence at many junctures. This is the mandatory place, the location "where" one is called to discovery, No plans. A place from which grew a collection of poems that, at first, I did not recall writing. The book that wrote me in many varied ways.

I’m excited to see that you incorporate myths and archetypes into your work and that you teach the use of archetypal imagery. What do you understand to be the role of archetypal imagery both in your (and others’) writing and in society at large?  
In teaching workshop, I have always depended on photography both of the masters and from my students' camera work. Lately, through reading the seminal works of C.G. Jung and James Hillman, I have found the immense possibility of archetypal imagery in my workshops for the Great Smokies Writers’ Program at UNC-Asheville. Using their own photos, looking at Jungian archetypal imagery, students' poetry gains lucid depth and strangeness. Such an approach makes our workshops an even greater pleasure in that it feeds teacher and student alike. The imagination profits from this balance of uncommon nourishment.  We come to know the world as a far larger place.

As a poet who has published six collections of poetry, will you share some wisdom about the publishing process with us?

Publishing for anyone is similar to jumping off that proverbial cliff and exploring the maze of available venues for a first book, or a later collection. Each time you have a book rejected, more than likely, you will revise/rearrange the manuscript. That is part of the joy, and hard work, of publication. It makes you see beyond the story that you originally were so eager to tell—or could it be that this collection, in final analysis, reveals something unknown and vital about you, the writer. At any rate, I suggest it is not what press publishes the book, but the curtain that rises on a "refreshed (in the broadest sense) you” who is quite a different person than the silhouette that began at a desk (maybe)—pen in hand. Computer glaring.


Fire Devotion
              I will speak to you in stone language
               (answer with one green syllable)
                                         —Octavio Paz
Touch the secret where
the heart in me began,  
vibrant in the amniotic pool.
A startle, perhaps, to a certain way of thinking—
the schism of another
breaking through.
Curled in water, the spine perfected. Fetal and
blind, I bow.
Private, those stations of the fire.
             And ahead, that promiscuity called November.
Naked limbs. The orifice. Sap configured,
the same over
and over.
So it was with ghost strata in the canyon and the spiraling
hawks of spring—
                               pattern stained above each dwelling.
Our cold lineage, space.                                  Friction and flint,
darkness set on fire.                    
                                     Slowly then the syllables arrived of only
and once.         Distinguishable.                                     Solitary.            
The intimacy of time.
Spelling Backwards
The day begins with a peacock above the river, wings across the sky.
Clouds of another bird on the void.
Pan squats, a tulip between his teeth. He’s waiting for me to cry and
dream in my bed near the rooster in the courtyard.
Those teachings again at first-light from the woman in gold: let the body
lose its head, not the blossom its stem; act from abundance, not lack.
That said, she shifted to a pitch unknown to many. Recall this turquoise
stone from the Andes under my pillow, and how it started with, Come
sleep inside me, and I’ll take you where you need to go.
Heard in dream, I am upended me in rows of warehouses, wandering,
bleating, Neema, Neema—this mantra over and over reverses to the
ancient Ameen. Each molecule echoes with the bass note—
so be it.
is the endnote in Aramaic, nothing more.
It is thus, and nothing less.
                                           So allow the ocean wind and
sky to sweep in as no other, for farther out it becomes
afterwards where you’ll be told not to fill on anything
again that looms above the rest.
Don’t flatten to low pitch of loss. That’s only one of the notes
around, and suited for fists that clinch in clouds above the coast,
above the glimmery flippancies of life in an inlet. Ivory tusks,
toucan flash, and the wild diamond-caked shards at dark.
Terminal creatures we are, and will become. But only when the lights blow
for the second time tonight, and I have little memory of why and how
you left but know that weight entered me at a deeper level. My cat
still comes to sit when I speak of you on the phone.
No matter what dimension we occupy, it’s where you listen best. Like
the perfect smile of our body when neither of us was lonesome or
cowardly in a warehouse district, and we held hands.
Bird Gnosis
                           I will speak to you in blood language
                             (Answer with a tower of birds)
                                                                       —Octavio Paz
In a drawer, the yellowed photograph labeled before
            Flesh undone, and there we are,
strata on the ridge (huge against the sky)—calcified male  
/   female—
rock pinnacle and gorge.     Hungry as lightning.
And wasn’t it prescient, the shadows we could
cast. Sublimely mineral we tried hard to bow
(be mannerly) above sea-level.      
Insular geologies                                 even then.                
None of that cresting foam (of lovers), roe
threaded through the whitecaps.           Glisten.
More and more enthralled, ingrown, our nervous
springs wound tight.
                                                 And one bird
(or traveling star) loosens the terms of strata
for us, the impossibly erect.
(say, bird                     and it sets you free like that)
Enigma of our uncalled-for, upright form.
Bells from far away suggest another life—
                                                             after /over/ before.
Notes from a risen land.
The not-quite-yet, malleable and merging.
Can love be there, and not here? Touch the cleft
where once my wings pushed through.
Like mercury in space,
                                   flesh looking for a name.
Sperm-swaddled egg
(yours, mine). Anxious in time.
Infant sprung from the groans of others.
                                            Which place in us
was made to face the wind—                              
heart medium
bird breath
midwife palms
set for emergence?   (balled up   sacked
then           stretched to screaming)
And don’t forget that old Tantrika dizzying the universe
back to a single cell.
                                   What split us in two, from down
to deeper down?
Legs jointed, double breasted, and finally sexed.
But before our long confinement we were birds
from the sea.
                    Feathery screech in the clouds,
spring’s great spiral turning.
                                                (hollow bones in a body flying)
Cry for me and suck the salt wind in.
                                                     Spend time (all of it)
feeling the heart beat
come and go.                 That close.
Always you will be my taller reminiscence—
sandstone, a porous being.