An Interview With Poet Karen Volkman

Nick Twemlow

The appearance of Karen Volkman's first book of poems, Crash's Law, selected for the National Poetry Series in 1995 and published by Norton the following year, signaled the arrival of a startling and canorous voice in American poetry. In the introduction to the book, series judge Heather McHugh called Volkman "an analyst of love," and remarked that the book "bespeaks a mind attuned no less to the accidents than to the orders of a sensual life."

Volkman's second book of poems, Spar, won the 2001 Iowa Poetry Prize (along with Joanna Goodman's Trace of One), and was published by the University of Iowa Press in February. Spar is a collection of prose poems punctuated by brief lyric bursts. The dense, highly musical lines seem to beg for a more unique classification, something akin to the ventilated short stories of Samuel Beckett, such as "Ping," merged with the measured, sonically rich poems of Elizabeth Bishop. The thematic wanderings of the book may best be described by the poet herself in the book's final poem: "Your music is dissonant sometimes, calamitous fugues and fallow, echoed tones, you are turning too many melodies into maunder."

Currently the Springer Poet-in-Residence at the University of Chicago, Volkman has lived an itinerant lifestyle since receiving her BA from New College in Sarasota, Florida, in 1990. She received her MA from Syracuse in creative writing, spent a year in the Ph.D. program in creative writing at the University of Houston, and struck out for New York City in 1994, where she lived for five years before moving to Europe, staying briefly in France and then Germany. Upon her return to the U.S. in 1999, she took a one-year teaching position at the University of Alabama, followed by a year-long stint teaching in the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Volkman about the unifying strategies of her two books, the differences between them, and if her approach to writing changed after she had published her first.

KV: With the first book, and I suspect with most first books, it was more a matter of watching and waiting and letting concerns and obsessions reveal themselves in the writing—okay, this is basically still the case. Maybe more just developing a sense of confidence regarding my own direction, sloughing off influences and unconscious self-restrictions, and getting to the point where the language could make discoveries on its own. With Spar there was of course the formal choice of the prose poem, a sense of working within that shape and constraint, of transgressing the line as an inscribed limit on the poem, a formal choice which provided a means of forming and unifying. I do feel the books have in common an organization that is to some degree dialogical, with poems juxtaposed to foreground tensions and contradictions, providing a kind of argument or conversation between the various tonalities and contradictory states of being expressed within them. I like to read books of poetry in which the poet and his or her speaker(s) seem conflicted on crucial points; I want more candor regarding the turmoil of coming to even a tentative or momentary clarification on an emotion or thought, what it costs to get there, and how an opposing or contrasting moment can be equally costly and equally valid.

P&W: How did your nomadic lifestyle inform your experience of writing Spar? Was shaping so cohesive a collection-cohesive in both form and content-a challenge under the circumstances? I imagine that the cohesion of the project may have provided you with stability otherwise absent. Can you comment on how this constant movement has informed your sense of argument, structure, and form?

KV: One of the attractive aspects of the prose poem is its ability to have a kind of solidity of presence regardless of internal permutation and movement. This could at times be almost oppressive—there were certainly occasions on which the poems and the form itself struck me as impermeable, hideous bricks (when I was having trouble writing, needless to say). I think this partly accounts for the surprising aspect of their disjunctive interiors. Rosmarie Waldrop describes as "gap-gardening" this idea of having the prose poem turn on its inner disjunctions since it doesn't have the more traditional turning of the line-break to effect that motion. So in those senses, it's possible that the ideas of containment and movement found a balance. I hadn't thought of it as relating to my peripatetic lifestyle, but it is definitely a viable notion. In a more general way, the moves may have grounded a sense of the contingent (however contradictory that may sound), a sense of circumstances and loyalties in a necessary state of flux, the incompatible claims of restlessness and desire for change with the longing for connection, contact, immersion in a culture or place. Also the differences in landscape definitely left their traces, even in poems that don't at all have the representation of place as their goal.

In France, I lived in Provence, within view of the Mediterranean, so almond trees, water, cliffs, even scree make their way into poems here and there. In Germany, I took long walks in the woods a few times a day, and that really shifted the book towards a conversation with the natural world and a sense of its materiality as something vivid and present; I was aware of this in earlier poems, of course, but these daily forays over the course of six months made it much more personal and emotional. There's good reason that trees are so often personified; they may be the most humanly expressive presences we find in nature.

P&W: What did you bring from place to place during your travels to help you through your next poem?

KV: I'm assuming you mean on a more abstract level, not practical objects like a laptop? Obviously that was a help. Also my dog (now sadly deceased). It occurred to me recently that writing in the same room as a dog or cat really does change the environment; the space is mediated by a sleeping animal, sensualized, made intimate in a way, since these pets are conversant with a different, more immediate experience of the world, but are also our friends and companions. And so are sort of a medium by which we can project ourselves into that more intuitive ground of sensation, make it more palpable, less strange. I know this sounds a bit New Age-y, but I think it's true. Rilke has a wonderful line in one of the New Poems about a cat's presence making the room more silent; any dog-owner will tell you a drowsy dog can do the same.

P&W: You've also taught writing a great deal, to a range of age groups. Who do you look to and how do you convey the approach you mentioned earlier toward "contradictory states of being" to your students?

KV: I often teach Anne Carson, C.D. Wright, Michael Palmer, Allen Grossman, Thylias Moss, Rosmarie Waldrop in graduate workshops. I've also on a few occasions taught a forms class, which ranges over Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Bishop, Ashbery, as well as Basho and Ghalib. And I'm currently teaching a class on the book-length poem, which in terms of "contradictory states" makes room for all manner of dialogic and discursive argument and complement. Thinking about form, in terms of form-types or more generally, can be a great entry into discussing what Carson has called "the motions of the self" and the expressive means by which that self might be manifested. In set forms, this is obviously mediated by how the expression of a set of cultural concerns inheres in organization and constraint. I also like to talk about deformations of convention, ways in which traditional lyric gestures, embodying cultural codes, can be made malleable and strange; I think there is still tremendous power in these gestures, if they're understood as, to speak very abstractly, ceremonies of intensity, or maybe rituals of sensation ... language acts that strive to represent sensation but also represent gestures of awe or passion or longing—inviting, constructing, and containing those states.

Working with kids, I use a different group of writers-Lorca, Williams, Neruda, Senghor, Gabriela Mistral—and the terms are a bit more down to earth, but I still find ways to talk about how the words don't just describe sensations but create them by surprise, by sound, by suggestion. Kids are very open to sensation, of course, and are so early in coming to writing (most of the ones I've worked with have been 7 to 12 years old) that they feel little inhibition about putting a rose in one line and red blood cells in another; they haven't yet been habituated to thinking of these two ideas as belonging to different realms of experience. At the same time, they have a sense that a rose represents something beautiful, and the blood cells something scientific and cool, so there is a consciousness, even if not articulated, of words as representing not just an object but a complex of feeling, association, and cultural resonance.

One thing that has greatly surprised me in discussing poems with children has been their sensitivity to rhetorical structures; this is exciting in a way, but also unnerving to realize how quickly these structures are internalized and how much power they have to shape response on the most intuitive level. It has reinforced my feeling that attention to rhetorical movements, which in poetry take the form of lyric gestures, is absolutely crucial in understanding the work poems do and how they do it, and essential knowledge for those who choose to pursue that line of work.