Anita Olivia Koester Interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour
I admire the way these poems use the persona of Venus to discuss the lives of women. How did this persona come about for you?
Thank you, it’s such a pleasure to discuss these poems with you. Often my poems will take on many different forms until they find their final form. Originally, I was writing a series of prose poems that began as an exploration into self-portraiture. I was particularly obsessed with Frida Kahlo at the time, who is mentioned in one of the poems in the series. I love art and art history, and while I was working on these prose poems, I was also thinking about writing an essay on the evolution of Venus paintings over the centuries and how her same pose was then later used by artists like Édouard Manet to represent sex workers, but then also reclaimed by women painters like Florine Stettheimer who painted a nude self-portrait of herself in that same semi-recumbent position. I was thinking a lot at the time about the male gaze, at how difficult it is for women to reclaim the female form for themselves. I was also writing a lot about love, but particularly what one might call the fog of love, and once I started using Venus as a persona the poems began to coalesce, alter, and take on a new direction.
Your love of art and art history are very evident in these poems! Could you tell us a little about Gerhard Richter and the allusion to his work in “Venus in Art Therapy”? I especially love the line “Only a distorted image can achieve portraiture,” and would like to hear more about his distortions and how the poem moves from this idea to the idea of revising images of women to make them more complex and more human.
Well, these poems actually began from a lens of deliberate distortion. I was attempting to distort a portrait of myself in order to reveal something more unhinged and perhaps unexpected about myself, something I might not even have known. But when I began using the persona of Venus, she became the main distortion, and so I allowed the poems more clarity. But the idea of distortion still stayed with me, and I think when we write about our self or an other, we are always distorting. We are only translating a portion of that person onto the page. Richter worked off of photographs for his portraits and often would blur the paint usually using a dry brush,
perhaps to refuse a perfect likeness.
At the time I was writing these, I was particularly frustrated by heterosexual love and just about giving up hope when it came to men. The individuals blurred into this collective, and I felt so much anger and dissatisfaction with that collective, and then I would be pulled in again, often by desire. While I distort the men in the poem, really they were distorting me, or perhaps we were distorting each other, contorting our hearts and bodies. When it comes to any man painting women, I always think it’s rather presumptuous that they think they can see her enough to capture her. What I appreciate about Richter is that he claims that inability to ever truly capture a person, he makes space for that lack. He’s also not obsessed with female beauty, or at least his practice does not exploit the female form.
“Museum of Naked Women” is one of my favorites in this sequence that reclaims the female form by asking questions: “Does my tone bother you? Should we involve a mirror?” which falls in line with a woman aiming to please, but then the stanzagraph adds, “Can I cut myself with it?” which is, to me, surprising and horrific, yet, at the same time, perfectly reasonable given the distorting power of the male gaze and the ways in which women take these visions into their psyches.
Yes! Exactly, you pinpointed my intentions with those lines. The mirror means many things to different people. In my poems the mirror is suspect, vicious even, and they are often being broken. I feel this struggle with the mirror in an intensely personal way. I feel, like so many women, tied down by this concept of ideal beauty. This concept of female beauty tends to lead to a lot of painful insecurities in women, especially in young women. I’ve also always found it unnerving to walk through an art museum and encounter so many naked women, and hardly any unclothed men. I end up saying—where are the naked men!
In many paintings of Venus painted by men, she gazes rather vapidly in a mirror, primping herself or being primped most likely for some lover. Rarely does she have an expression on her face that isn’t alluring. When I wrote this poem I was trying to imagine how I would paint or photograph Venus, but the model in my mind was annoyed at anyone even attempting to depict another Venus holding flowers or gazing into a mirror. There are so many of them on display across countries, though very few of them are painted by women, (a notable exception would be the one painted by 17th century artist Artemisia Gentileschi). But the speaker is confounded at the prospect, and in the end I think she is wondering how much of what she could have been has been erased by the male gaze.
Your use of the mirror in “The Birth of Venus” is quite striking as well: “I suspect Venus must break the mirror entirely.” In this poem she physically breaks several times and “with each discarded husk… she gets closer to herself.” Venus slowly becomes another self in this poem but it takes her breaking again and again before she gets there. Could you talk about this idea of beginning over and over, as well as the last line of the poem? If she is ever finished, what might she become?
As I mentioned, these poems—though they use a persona and have some distance from the self—are nevertheless deeply personal. In some of the poems recently published in Muzzle Magazine, I write more about my divorce, which for me was a kind of rebirth. It was the worst and the best thing that ever happened to me. It was through this unbearable rupturing that I was able to begin my journey to becoming my current self as well as becoming a writer and a woman relatively comfortable in her own skin. My womanhood also was deeply wounded at that time; trusting men or even myself became impossible. I felt trapped within any relationship that I began, and so I would continually end them. I often felt as if I was outside of myself watching myself fail and break again and again, and yet I also saw how I was gaining in self-knowledge, and slowly learning to believe that I could be capable of deep love.
Just before I rewrote this poem I broke for what I hope to be the last time for a long time. It happened in a public place, and I am a very private person so this was strange for me. The poet Laura McCullough, who I had just met, graciously talked me through this breakage, and she told me that we have to break in order to let the light in. She also told me to stop thinking that I would ever heal from my wounds entirely, and instead to work to understand them and loosen their hold over me. And since then, I’ve been focused on letting the light in. I love that you asked me what Venus might become; this idea of being and becoming has always confounded me. I feel like we are always becoming and rarely do we reach being. In some ways, I don’t know yet what she will become, nor who I will become, but I hope to feel ownership over my own self, life and body, and allow myself to personally progress and live.
“Venus is Mummified” takes a different perspective on the idea of the distorted body. Here, the body is broken physically, mentally, and emotionally, because the self is discarded. “The body off somewhere playing dead,” the speaker states, and then we move to the crux of the poem: “You touch yourself but not even an ache, or a pulse arises.” As a reader, I found myself having an emotional experience because the symptoms of depression are so finely tuned in this poem. Every one of these poems is an experience within the mind and body of a woman. I’d love to hear more about your aesthetic as a poet, especially while writing this particular work.
Thank you, it’s good to hear that I captured those symptoms of depression, which so many people feel, and yet when you are inside of that depression you feel so completely alone. It’s often impossible to reach out to anyone. I was worried though originally about this poem, as I wasn’t sure if anyone would care for a poem about depression. I find my own depression quite depressing, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to read about it. And yet, we have to share these experiences, in order to work towards overcoming them. I often turn back to a short essay Adrienne Rich wrote about Anne Sexton’s suicide in which she writes, “We have had enough suicidal women poets, enough suicidal women, enough of self-destructiveness as the sole form of violence permitted to women.” Ending silences is the only way I know to work through this cycle of self-destructiveness; I don’t want to be that mummy in the poem, even though I often feel like her. I want to overcome and continue to overcome depression.
One of the reasons I would be so weary of loving, is that I would worry that the act of love or the loss of love would upset any balance I had found within myself. And that’s why the end of the poem turns back to Venus as the goddess of love in an accusatory way, as someone to fear. As loving can often be a kind of self-harm, when we love the wrong people, when we love people that continually hurt us, or when we lose love.
“Venus Reconsiders Everything,” offers a way of looking at love that seems, to me, very liberating. The breaking becomes a river, and love is “malleable, resilient.” I especially admire the line, “Here, my skin is so opaque; the violets are so purple and unafraid.” Is it at this place, this “present,” where Venus begins to feel free?
I’m so glad you asked me about this. Yes, originally the series was fairly negative about love considering Venus is the goddess of love. And even when my own love life took an exciting turn, I wasn’t sure I wanted Venus’ story to reflect that, but then I realized that was what was missing in the series. How could I explore all the facets of love without deep love? When Venus encounters deep love her tone changes, it’s like she’s discovering a new sound.
The first few images of the poem are actually references to a series of photographs I exhibited that were self-portraits using an old partially destroyed mannequin as a stand in for myself. A man I was dating once came over to my apartment, stood contemplating these photographs and pronounced they were “sad.” It was as if he was telling me my whole life was merely sad, and I was quite offended. But when I started seeing my current partner I knew he understood my poetry, my photography, my past, and that instead of sadness he saw wounds out of which a garden could flower. He saw more in me than I could see; in that sense it felt as if my skin itself was altered.
Initially, I didn’t want Venus’ rebirth to happen through love, I wanted her to break away from her obsession with love, particularly heterosexual love, and rebirth herself. Though she falls in love again, I think she did rebirth herself, and now she can stop being harassed by half-love, broken love, lost love, no love, obsessive love, self-negating love, one-foot-in love, self-destructive love, unrequited love. She can feel free to be herself and love at the same time, something that had always felt so impossible before. The question then becomes—what is next? But I think I’ll let Venus live in the present for a while before I make her start to think about her future.
The Birth of Venus
One is harassed, both day and night, by the divine being that is the image of the living self within the locked labyrinth of one’s own distorted psyche. -Joseph Campbell from Hero with a Thousand Faces
I carve my Venus out of salt, she melts on my tongue, tasting of sweat. I patch over her scars and tell her false stories of her birth. It comforts us both to pretend we had fathers. How alike we are, hunted by shadows. Our fathers ciphers, slices of DNA. I could give my Venus a thousand faces, but perhaps one is painful enough. They say men look for one woman in a sea of women, but that women look for all men within one man. It seems all hetero-obsessed bodies are destined for disappointment. With each discarded husk I think she gets closer to herself, but then I remember how adept women are at lying to themselves. I suspect Venus must break the mirror entirely. Break off the hands of the men who molded her and chipped away at her until she was someone they could tie down in their beds. She’s broken so many times in my hands, always tasting of salt. We begin again. I photograph the pieces of her, her torso more beautiful than any Apollo. Nothing about her is pornographic. If I ever finish, I’ll tuck a filament between her legs, place the switch above her tongue.
Museum of Naked Women
Where do you want me? The model asks. Should I remove my clothes? Lounge on the divan, pose like an odalisque or like Olympia. Will you too be scandalized by my gaze, which confronts the viewer? Her modest attempt at reclamation. If you tug the end of that black ribbon, will my head fall off? Would they prefer me that way? Headless. or heedless.
Should I cover my crotch with Moby Dick or Sonnets from the Portuguese? Or dandelions, or perhaps Dickinson’s violets.
Does my tone bother you? Should we involve a mirror? Can I cut myself with it? But look at my hands, these wrinkled maps of rivers, do they look like they belong to someone else? I once dated a man who said you could only tell my age by my hands. They lack flesh. Pink-knuckled, crosshatched. When the hands are not melded into the hip or stomach—they break off.
The thing is, I like to use my hands. Like any boy, I like to build. And this is where we’ll start, with my hands in focus. Another strategy would be photographing the empty divan, center crumpled inward. We could call it an erasure of a Venus some man painted, call it a self-portrait.
Venus in Art Therapy
Only a distorted image can achieve portraiture. Perhaps that’s what Richter was getting at when he pulled the paint across the canvas, blurring the image. Often of women he knew. I blur the men, the hard, thick ribbon of them like a Mobius strip. Names disappearing around the corner of a building. A news ticker. An advertisement. Do not buy…. Do not let him touch you. You will lose so many locks of hair your pubis will go bald. And yet there I go again, loving. Placing the body in peril. Worshiping the art of moving, the death-dance of it, the breath-work, the knotting. How we disappear into one another and emerge again altered.
Anyone who uses the phrase— it’s only sex, never felt their arm feather, their shoulder blades join into a fin. I carve off pieces of my heart for each of them, some tiny as platelets, others the size of a baby’s fist. My heart collaged now in crimson. Look at it writhing on the dirty-white sheets, like a skinned minx, a naked lamb, all of its warmth wrapped around other bodies.
Venus is Mummified
Too often love does not die but morphs into a rope, a razor, or a plastic bottle of pills. Consider the self strung up like a slab of meat in a butcher’s window. Consider the self splayed across the bedroom rug. Consider the self a piece of litter in the river. Sometimes this is the state of mind I wake up in. Rope burns on my palms. The body off somewhere playing dead. The bedroom painted in flesh tones: a muted, mutilated room. The body all angles and liver, propped against the wall. Puppet strings detached.
Depression has no vanishing point. Instead it spreads out, until the horizon itself is defined by fog. You touch yourself but not even an ache, or a pulse arises. You not only feel nothing; you’ve become nothing. Sensationless, mouthless. Your ear buzzing with flies. You think of the mummy you once saw, all the children pointing at it. Is this what you’ve become? Your organs tucked away in jars, your breasts flattened down. The fear that you might wake hovering around so many hearts. Only the truly innocent are unafraid of you.
Venus Reconsiders Everything
O, but love was so much deeper than the myrtle imagined. My body a horizon that could only fit into one mouth. And now, the linoleum covered with flowers is no longer claustrophobic. And now, the blue alloy birthing bed is the friend I never had. And now the breakage in my ribcage is only a river for you to enter. And now, and now, and now. What are the particular properties of this present? I taste it and yet my mouth has not destroyed it. I hold it, and it is strong the way only organic beings are strong: malleable, resilient. Don’t laugh at me, at the way I pronounce wander, I no longer care if it sounds like wonder. My love, we are like two children who have wandered into wonder. The house of candy calls us, and perhaps it is time to be consumed. To eat breadcrumbs from each other’s palms. To never go back to our previous homes. Here, my skin is so opaque; the violets are so purple and unafraid. We have been caught it seems, by the most delicate web of threads.