Amy Randolph Interview, with Monica Mankin
From “the abandoned iris beds” and “lilac’s dark perfume” in the poem “Anna K’s Last Thoughts on Love” to the “rain on a winter-black river" in “So Long” to the “secret lilies,” “the crooked aster, pale waxflowers, / and foxglove bells” in “Small Moon,” images of the garden, the moon, the outdoors reappear throughout these poems. In fact, throughout many of these poems, we are, as you put it in “Anna K’s Last Thoughts...”, “carried away / by the rhythm of exterior things.” Where do these images come from? Rather, what significance do these images hold for you that they find their way into your poetry? Where does this particular desire “To be carried away / by the rhythm of exterior things” come from for you?
Where do these images come from, what significance do they hold? This is a difficult question for me to answer because the process of writing a first draft for me is always at least 90% unconscious. The images come in the same way I suppose thoughts come when one writes in stream of consciousness, or when one dreams. It's true that images from the natural world dominate in my poetry. Part of this, I think, has to do with the fact that the natural world for me is nothing but images (I include sounds, smells, and textures in this as well). I have very little scientific knowledge of that world, so its effect on me is experiential, immediate and impressionistic. Over the years, I guess I've unconsciously gathered the kinds of images that inhabit my poetry, and they've formed and keep forming and reforming in ways that attempt to express those experiences I can't express in the language of ideas. I mean soul experiences. I believe in a soul, and I believe my soul lives a much deeper, wiser, intuitive existence than the "I" that is my conscious self. It pays attention and is constantly gathering from and trying to make meaning of the "exterior things" I'm often too distracted or self-absorbed to notice (though I'm proud to say I'm more likely to be distracted by my own thoughts, daydreams, or worries than I am by my cell phone, which always seems either to be missing or out of juice). So I do want to be carried away by the rhythm of exterior things from time to time. Those moments for me are accidental meditations, brief escapes from myself, and they're deeply connected to both the natural world and to my writing.
In “Road Trip: Late Afternoon in Tennessee,” you write “This is where love / has brought us.” Your poem “Lessons” instructs us to “Never love the period” and “Give [our]selves to the comma instead...or, better yet, make love // to the question mark.” The poem “Conjugation 1: To Lie (As in / “to lie down with pearls and angels”)” ends with “angels who love her as only angels can.” Love shows her face in almost all of the poems that will appear with Connotation Press, but her face is rarely the same. Can you speak to the differences and what draws you to expose them? Also, have you written other “Conjugation” poems? How does language inspire you to use it as a metaphorical figure in your work?
I don't think I've ever written anything creative that isn't about love—healthy love, unhealthy love, love for the Divine, for children, for beauty and mystery. I think it really is our only connection to what lies beyond the limits of our own psyches. No one wants to be alone in the universe, and I believe the desire not to be alone is part of what composes love, and so is the increasing awareness of the fleetingness of things. That desire and that awareness can lead people to do wonderful and terrible things to one another and to themselves, and like most adults, I've experienced and been witness to both, which might account for the many faces love shows in my work. But I also believe love possesses a much deeper quality, and though I can't say for certain what it is, I believe that quality of love is what drives the writer/musician/artist. I believe it must be in part what compelled Rilke to write his Duino Elegies. There is such a profound love for the external world—a terrible, aching love on the part of a consciousness that longs for a connection so deep that both the lover and the object of love might be transformed by it. That transformative quality of love is the one in which I'm most interested.
The poems about language/grammar come directly out of my life as a creative writing instructor. "Grammar Lessons" was my response to an exercise I'd given my Introduction to Creative Writing class. "Conjugation I" was my attempt to teach an upper division creative writing major how to conjugate the verb "to lie." The poem just happened, and very quickly. What I like most about the process was that even though I set out to create something I hoped might drive home a grammatical concept (it did, by the way), the poem happened in spite of my intentions and took me by complete surprise. The only intentional parts of the poem are the conjugations themselves.
You’re writing a novel. Can you tell us about it? What prompted you to turn to fiction? How has writing poetry influenced your prose, and prose your poetry?
I've been working on "Houses of God" for several years when time has allowed. The novel is set in a small town in central Texas (much like the one where I spent my formative years) and centers around an abusive minister and his dysfunctional family. Most of the story focuses on the minister’s stepsister as she struggles to free herself from her stepbrother’s emotional and physical abuse. The first draft came about fairly quickly—within a year, roughly. The current draft on which I'm presently working—what I hope will be the final draft—has been a much slower process for me because it’s a sentence-by-sentence process. I'm listening for rhythms and sounds, searching for the right images, tightening the language. It isn’t so different from revising a poem, except that with this manuscript, I have many, many more words—at least eighty thousand more—with which to contend. So it’s going to take a little longer.
I think whether I'm writing prose or poetry, I'm always concerned with the same thing in terms of craft, which is sound, rhythm, and imagery. I think, too, that my poetry and prose deal with the same core issue, which is love—how it has the potential to destroy or transform us, how sometimes a person must be destroyed by love before he or she can be changed by it.
Anna K’s Last Thoughts on Love
By the abandoned iris beds, I’ve left them--
bones of dead conversations--
Rain in the garden, slick-
Today, I can’t even count the rose buds
as hopeful; new irises rock like grieving women,
marigolds shake their yellow fists--
Rain in the garden,
the muted flames inside--
but two miles away, steel tracks groan under boxcars
heavy with departure.
I would like to say yes, now I am
Once, while walking the fence line, I thought
I saw her at the wood’s edge, threshing light
from her wings. But change washes down
slowly in this broken light. Already
I’ve forgotten how to live by an open field
and all that tenderness. To be carried away
by the rhythm of exterior things—
lilacs’ dark perfume, the cattails gathering
their bells of silence—
these gifts I would place
on the tongues of my children.
Maybe the past will bury itself
cleanly, without art.
Still, there are those days, hurts
that can’t be ground down or sewn shut, and
what remains stays broken.
This morning, the lake stirs
from a foggy sleep. I force windows open
just to hear the pines sigh like old men
drunk with new light.
Such days feel like wanting to die,
listening to the wind.
Never love the period, that bitterest end
to all good beginnings. Refuse those hard
seamless walls, the cold articulation
of shuttered windows.
Think of it as the final destination, a sliding
deadbolt, your last breath—
Give yourself to the comma instead, the curved
sliver of moon and everything
that fills her, or, better yet, make love
to the question mark—so sexual, so
innocent (remember how it felt to be
that innocent, so perfectly still
and blue?) like a feather that trembles on the edge
of the restless sea . . .
Road Trip: Late Afternoon in Tennessee
The sky drags its pink boa across the black hills,
hills so strong and massive, I want to woo them, to shake myself free
of hair and skin, to put on a hat of wind
and dogwood leaves. It isn’t sex I’m after,
but then again, maybe it is.
Look at this room, its wilted lilac curtains,
the sadness of afternoon light
on mottled carpet. This is where love
has brought us, stealing heat and whispers
while the baby sleeps on sheets worn
to onion-skin thinness. Outside,
the thirty-dollars-a-day silence,
whiskeyed-up men with black tar breaths
shuffling across the gravel lot
to the last bar in town. Soon you’ll shed your sleep to join them
because really it’s all about the end of the day, the clumsy
dash to forgetting everything you have
is nothing you want. Maybe you’ll go,
saying to yourself, “No turning back this time.”
I step outside to watch the hills,
how their shadows reach into the valley
with such tenderness, even this hard light can sing.
Suddenly we left you dreaming,
wanting to tell us how, when moonlight sits
on our fields’ winter stubble,
souls of blackbirds and field mice
crawl under stones to sleep.
You might say “Look, sometimes
it’s easier, this falling towards midnight
like rain on a winter-black river.”
Even after you go, friend, something
insists on staying—
a particular sorrow, a tree,
and always the flame between.
Look how your diamond hooves have trampled
my night gardens. You’ve pulled up all
my secret lilies, those thin, quiet girls
weeping by the shed. Now the lark will never
grow wings and the landscape painter?
His eyes have sailed to a happier country.
Every night, I’ve tried to raise the dead
just long enough to let them breathe,
maybe laugh once more like fat, drunken uncles,
from deep in the belly.
But you’ve closed their mouths
with bitterness. Why are your hooves
so violent? Your face so broken?
Listen, old friend. I think it’s best if you hurry home
to your rooms of ice.
Take whatever you want—
the crooked aster, pale waxflowers,
and foxglove bells. Take it all,
but at least have the kindness to give the lark
his wings back.
Conjugation 1: To Lie (As in
“to lie down with pearls and angels”)
Imagine a pearl, its pearly layers
pearled around an infant’s
fingernail, and imagine the sea
that lies just under—murmurs
just under—the paper-thin nail
and how yesterday the sea, this very
same sea, lay down (oh, remember
her dress! The whisper of blue
against your skin, the blue silk
of her dress!) between your image
of the moon and my image
of the moon, and yes, yes,
I mean this sea—this infant’s
sea, blue like milk—and all her pearls
lying on the blue tongues of angels
who love her as only angels can.