Taije Silverman – Interview

Published in Panhandler Issue 4

Taije Silverman was the 2005-2007 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Emory University. She holds a BA in English and Creative Writing from Vassar, and an MFA in poetry from the University of Maryland. Her poems have been published in journals including Ploughshares, Poetry, Five Points, The Antioch Review, Pleiades, and Prairie Schooner. She has won several first place awards from the Academy of American Poets, and merited fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her first book is Houses are Fields (LSU, 2009). She grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia and currently teaches in Philadelphia.

March 19, 2009

Brooke Hardy: I always like to begin with a basic question. Can you remember your first exposure to poetry?

Taije Silverman: I wrote my first poem before I could write. I dictated it to my mother. I don’t know, at the age of three perhaps. I don’t remember writing it, but she remembers it. She told me that I explained that it was in the voice of an old woman. I think the whole poem was something like, through this woman’s voice, as I explained it to her, “Oh God, when I not see you, I cry. Do you love me?” So that was the first poem I ever wrote. Missing a little part, a verb. And then later, I don’t know which came first, there was a poem in sixth grade, Mrs. Hutchenson’s English class, that I read, that I fell in love with, by a woman named Evelyn Tooley Hunt. It was one of those poems in the poetry section of your English textbook. I copied it out in pencil in my notebook paper, and then I recopied it in colored pencil in my new cursive, and I taped it up to my wall, next to my window. I remember it there. I don’t remember the poem very well now: “My mother taught me beauty, / and for its lack she died. / No… my mother taught me duty, / and for its lack she died. / Who knew so much of beauty, / she could not teach me pride.”

I don’t even know what it meant. I still don’t know what it means. Something about the music got me. I have no idea why I loved it so much, but I worshipped that poem. And then, I always loved poetry. There was a poem… Did you ever see The Outsiders—this trashy movie that everyone saw in my generation when we were about ten or eleven? It was a book as well. Do you remember Ponyboy? I forget the name of the actor who plays Ponyboy. He starts reciting this poem by Robert Frost, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Do you remember that poem? That one is still in my head. That was another one, and when I think about it now, I have no idea why I loved those poems so much. Something about their music. They were my personal talismans, my incantations, my little mantras that I could carry around.

Doug Moon: That seems like a very experiential, personal approach.  Recently, I was reading a book by Zizek about film and he talks about how he thinks poetry should work and says that a poem’s message “is not the meaning expressed in the metaphoric poetic language, but resides in the very poetic displacement of this meaning.” In other words, the work of poetry is actually the work that the poetry does. What I was wondering is not whether or not you want to confirm that, but do you feel that reading criticism, approaching poetry with a manifesto or philosophy is important or something you do?

TS: I think you might have asked me two different questions, or at least I heard two different questions. For me, criticism isn’t a necessary part to reading poetry. In fact, they are way too often antithetical to each other. In terms of manifestos, I love that word, and I don’t know if you all know a very short essay by Frank O’Hara called, “Personism: a Manifesto”? It’s hilarious, and it makes fun of the idea of a manifesto. With that as our base (that mentioning the word “manifesto” should always be in jest) yes, I do think that we should have manifestos when we come to poetry and that they should vary, and even contradict each other. I find myself at least needing to remember why I read it and why I write it. I don’t know. Yesterday in my introductory poetry class, or the day before actually, we were preparing for a poet that was going to come to visit to a college where I teach and one poem that she wrote is about a card she got from a third grader which just said on it “loisfaribari.” The whole poem is her going through, trying to figure out what “loisfaribari” means, and saying it in all different contexts: Should we take the expressway or would it be faster on the loisfaribari? God, I’d just love to go to the beach and just drink a tall glass of loisfaribari right now. So as she goes through she starts pronouncing each syllable very carefully, and then with a Spanish accent. She has some Spanish heritage, this poet, and then you come to understand that the word is actually, “love is for everybody.” And one of my students in my class asked if we could all read it as a group, and so we all read it as a group, pronouncing the whole thing over and over again with different emphasis in the way that she had. That moment was certainly my winter’s, if not my year’s, manifesto. This is why we write poetry. This is why we read poetry. To have fifteen different students from fifteen different backgrounds in fifteen profoundly different moods sitting in a classroom with me saying the word “loisfaribari” in different emphases over and over again until we’re just repeating “love is for everybody” in our happiest and most certain collective voice. But that manifesto—it comes at me from every angle, like surprises, like secrets.

BH: Your first poem in your book, “Listen, No One, They’re Sleeping,” seems to convey a sense of urgency that I find interesting for the opening of the book, because as it progresses the poems seem to calm down, the tone changes. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the concept of pacing in poetry. In a collection like yours, do you think that pacing is an important element to consider when arranging your work? Is this something you even consider?

TS: Absolutely, I think it’s a wonderful question, both in terms of an individual poem and especially in terms of a book. I’m also really glad that you felt that way about this collection, that it does calm down. In fact, the earlier poems that I wrote are in the later section of the book, and I did want to plunge the reader into the action directly, head first, and then pat their hair a bit as they were in the thick of it. So I guess that’s part of what I was thinking in terms of pacing my own book, and in a more broad sense, I think that pacing is an essential aspect of and question for poetry in that every poem, in some fundamental way, questions the relationship between the lyric and the narrative, by which I mean, more or less, the notion that there is progression, that time goes in a linear manner, that you start somewhere and finish somewhere else. And this might go back to your quote from Zizek, about metaphor as something intact, that message can’t be culled from it necessarily. You probably, studying and writing poetry, have some experience of how you can read something in a linear fashion and yet still feel that it circles itself, it ends where it began, and when you look for the staircase going from the beginning to the end, you find yourself in a rotunda, in a circular hallway, circular courtyard. So I think that pacing engages with that question and shifts according to how much investment you have in narrative and how much in lyric. It’s a vague answer I’m giving you because I actually think it’s a very vague and deeply complex question, but I love the question.

BH: I really enjoy the narrative style to your poetry, particularly in the poem, “Syros 1989.” I think this arises from the strong, specific persona that runs through the poetry. Do you agree that your poems involve the same persona in this collection?

TS: No, no. I feel as though many different people wrote many different poems. And that’s as far as I can get to committing to the notion of persona for myself, that there are many different voices and truths and versions of self inside of me. The only reason I’m being coy about the word is because, well, Brooke, you know as an actress that there’s something assumed false about persona, put on, and I find when I approach poems with that attitude, I get nowhere, in terms of what I feel or think.

BH: For me, at least, personally, the idea of persona seems to be an afterthought to try to remove the author from the poem itself.

TS: That’s absolutely true.

BH: So with persona we go in afterwards and say, “What is the persona saying in this poem?” In my personal view, poetry comes from different voices, but it all comes from this same person and afterwards you cull this idea from it.

TS: And you probably find later, as you’re looking back over them, that there’s a cohesion which you hadn’t necessarily suspected, and in that sense they all belong to the same persona, but you don’t see it because you’re inside of it, in the way that Doug is always going to see Brooke, every time he looks at you he’s always going to see the same person, and every time you look in the mirror, you’re going to see something bizarrely different. You can kind of become Doug after three years of letting the poems sit, and then looking at them and seeing, oh, the same person wrote them.

DM: It seems what you’re suggesting is it would be impossible to write such a long collection without different voices and moods and attitudes creeping in there that would subvert a consistent persona, right?

TS: For me, for me, yeah, but I certainly know poets who feel the opposite.

DM: This collection is substantially different from a collection of extended persona poems.

TS: Yes, in my opinion. Yes.

BH: The imagery in your letters poems is very striking. How do you see these poems working within the larger collection?

TS: Love and death. Love and death. Love and death. Love and death. That’s what we’re stuck with, right? Those poems are love. Those poems are sex. Those poems are lust. They are my own manifestation of the self trying to hold onto the body, losing my mother, losing the person who was most important to me and most enormous. The person who actually encompassed the universe, and at the same time, having this lover with his small, single body who hadn’t brought me into the world, who hadn’t raised me, who’d come and would go. I could see it, my separation from him, and I could just take that body and say, “stay, stay, stay.” So I think those letter poems are my attempt in my life and in the book to intersperse that begging, desperate “stay” with the inevitable dissolution that comes from death. And I hope that they do or can provide some respite for the reader in the way that they did for me in my life. There’s only so much death we can deal with before we just want to go out and kiss someone.

BH: I think they function that way in reading the collection. I found these most interesting because they were fairly different from the other poems stylistically and in their content, clearly.

TS: I actually wrote them, it might be interesting to know, I wrote them literally in bed, next to my lover. I didn’t speak them to him. I never read those poems to him. I just wrote him letters next to him, telling him what was happening inside of me. I never showed them to him. Telling him what we had just done. We had just gotten into this huge fistfight essentially, and now I’m going to tell you about it. So going back to narrative and lyric, that was my insistence on narrative in the midst of this lyric chaos.

DM: When you write a poem that seems to arise from a certain moment or setting, like your lover’s sleeping in bed—

TS: He wasn’t sleeping, he was wondering what I was writing. Sometimes he was writing on my back while I was writing my poems.

DM: Do you ever feel it’s hard to go back to those poems, like in a revision? Does it feel like you’ve lost momentum or initial aim out of that setting?

TS: Well, it’s tricky business, isn’t it, which I’m sure you’ve all experienced in your own revisions as well, that you can’t wait too long or the thread’s gone, the momentum’s, poof, disappeared. I give myself a couple weeks of being in that space because we’re slow, we’re caterpillars. Our psyches lag behind our experience, so in a way I can get in a fight with my lover in a hotel and then need to tell it afterward as if I’m only understanding that it’s happening later, even days later, still being in the experience. You have a fight with a friend and you’re stuck there a week after, still having a fight. So in that lag time, in the psyche’s afterimage, so to speak, I can work within revisions, but if I tried to revise one of those poems now, it would be like Jon revising that poem. It’s done. It happened to some other reflection in the mirror.

BH: I always like to ask poets what their revision process is. As a young writer, I always find it interesting how each time I do a revision the poem changes based on how I go about that process. What’s your revision process?

TS: One thing that I can tell you that might be useful is corkboard. Get some corkboard and put it up on your wall, and really, if you can fill a whole wall with it, get your drafts and pushpin them up. You will find yourself walking by to the bathroom, on the way to breakfast, I’ll just stop and read those couple lines out loud. You’ll find you come up with—you engage in it much more often, much more dynamically, and without any of the pressure of sitting down at the desk—now I’m going to make this poem better because I have to. Which for me, induces panic sometimes. But if it’s just there on the corkboard—I’m going to try on this green sweater, and then, you know what, that verb’s wrong. I’ll try this one. I’d recommend that. In my own experience in revision, in the middle of the night I’ll often come up with lines. In yoga class I often come up with lines. In conversations with other people I’ll often come up with lines. Sometimes driving, which doesn’t make me the safest driver, because I always need to write them down, I need to get out of bed and write the line down whenever I come up with it. This morning, I didn’t. Right around dawn, I was working on a poem, a revision of a poem yesterday, and I’ve got the sun doing some stuff at the end of the poem that is a little too personified; it’s a little too cute. The sun is just not a person. And this morning I realized what the sun really was and what my narrator’s relationship with the sun was. Now? Gone. Didn’t write it down. Who knows what I was thinking, or if it was any good.

BH: All of your poems seem to take up the notion of time. Is that something you considered thematically for this collection?

TS: Absolutely, in fact, I structured it into four sections for the four seasons of the year and for the four members of my family. You wouldn’t have known it. We’ve got Winterless, but that’s the only section that gives you a clue that these are seasons. I also wrote many of those poems to the future. Literally, as if the future were a creature and I were writing to the future. Sometimes, the future’s name is No One. Listen, No One, They’re Sleeping. But it’s always the future because I didn’t believe the future was coming, that there could be a time in which my mom didn’t exist. It was a myth. So I wrote to myth. That was my central concern, that myth. And now I’m just thinking of something that I read in the New York Times, by, I think, the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. You know his work? He’s very clever, and he’s fun too. You might like him. I don’t know. His first book is Everything Is Illuminated and his second book is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. He’s a very New York, intellectual, young, hip, funny writer. I remember reading in the New York Times an interview with him that said, “They say that time heals all wounds, but maybe time is the wound.” I believed that. When my mom was sick, I believed that. It was my problem. It was my foe, what I had to go up against. And I wrote into it, and I wrote toward it, and I wrote against it, and I thought about it constantly. I was reading an autobiography of Sarte, and in that autobiography, Sarte wrote, “Dying is not enough, one must die in time.” What’s the difference between dying and dying in time? You get a moment to die? The way I get a moment to say the word “moment”? How strange. Dying is a pebble in the water, and then there’s something else? Before that there was something else? What a concept. That an ending is part of a narrative, that an ending is part of a lyric circle? Am I making sense? Probably not.

DM: Along the same lines and as you’ve already said, the collection seems very concerned with family.  When reading the collection, even though there seemed to be poems that I didn’t think initially would be about family, there seemed to be a return to that and an insistence to that. It wasn’t necessarily nostalgic and since you said it is addressing the future, it seemed as though it was once foundational, but also a lens or a tool to work through some of these things. I was hoping you could say more about the role and how foundational the idea of family was in writing this collection.

TS: As foundational as the earth is to us. I couldn’t overemphasize it. And I’m struck now in my writing by the same thing that you’re pointing out. In that poems that are not about family seem to be about family, quietly, sneakily. And to that discovery, I guess I would point to the fact of family as provenance. The fact of family as the answer to the question where are you from—to have an answer to that question. A million different answers for each of us. But how fundamental that question is to being in the world, to having a source, to knowing where you come from. And the tension between that and not knowing, the tension between having a place, having a home, having these people who recognize you, who have your face. My mother and I have very similar faces. If you look at your parents you see yourself in them, they can see themselves in you, there’s something deeply, psychologically reassuring about that. In a way that—yeah, in the book, it’s literal and almost everywhere, but I’m starting to think that it’s going to continue to surface in my work figuratively for a good long time, if not forever, and that might be true for all of us.

BH: In your poems like “Fugue” and “Little by Little,” you seem to play with the spatial arrangement of the lines on the page. How do you feel these spatial relationships between words on the page affect the way your poetry is received?

TS: I did choose tonight not to read any of the “Little by Little” poems because in a way, they’re hard to read. It’s hard to get that sense, that sound of fragmentation in conversation. How they’re received, you’d be the better person to answer than I am. I don’t know. I’ve had some pleasant response, but I don’t know that they make that much sense. There are a bunch of voices coming into those poems, and then there’s a chainsaw chopping them up. And they scatter over the yard. And “Fugue” as well has gotten a really positive response. But that’s much less fragmented. In terms of how they’re received, well, I don’t know. You tell me.

BH: I guess, perhaps, I am wondering how you think the way lines are arranged on the page gives poetry a sense of motion.

TS: I guess I worried that they would alienate the reader, and I also wondered—I wrote them because I couldn’t write anything else, I didn’t write them thinking, “I’d like to alienate the reader now. I’m going to write some poems that fragment.” But once they were written, I wondered, “Ugh, am I becoming a language poet? Am I becoming one of those people that tries to be obscure? What’s happening here?” So I both worry about that alienation and—do I hope for it? I don’t hope for it, but in a way, I might judge it a necessary aspect of the book as a whole, in that there are those moments when you can follow a narrative, and there are those moments when your mother is losing the ability to speak and you cannot tell the story to yourself. You cannot. You don’t have words for what you’re feeling. You’re having the experience of something without the imaginative capacity to literally grasp it. Just as those poems manifested that for me, I’d certainly understand if they manifested that for my reader, and I would not discourage it. But of course, I want you to feel everything I feel, to think everything I think, and know where each one of those voices came from. I want you to see my mom on the back deck saying those fragment bits of words, and hear the birdsongs as I did. And I don’t know how to do that.

DM: Voice and dialogue at times seem like italicized interruptions, temporally and spatially outside of what would be the narrative of the poem and then switch gears. Did you want to say more about that?

TS: I’m sure there are plenty of things I’d like to say about that. It is a frequent theme in my poetry, and I very consciously, almost always, didn’t italicize my own voice in poems. Nor did I italicize my therapist’s voice because what I was hoping to experience from her was a kind of reflection of myself in the same voice. My mother’s voice was always italicized, and my lover’s voice was always italicized. To be honest, this is going to sound so cheap, but I’m just going to confess it to you all. I have a great family, and most of the time I’m more interested in what they’re saying than what I’m saying. My father just dropped nonsense, and fabulous nonsense: “Look, your mother is making everyone into dwarves. She’s making me shrink right now!” I didn’t want to let that go. I wanted to write that down. There are poems in this book that if they work at all, they only work because of what someone else said. So I stole them. I just used their dialogue and put it into my poem. There are certain poems that my mom wrote in this book, and that my dad wrote, and I just kind of gave the filler. I shouldn’t admit it, but… walking through, you realize that this shouldn’t be lost.

BH: When asked about his creative process, C. Dale Young mentioned that he always begins with what becomes the last line of his poems.  Where do your poems begin? What would you say are your triggers?

TS: They certainly vary. I read this interview with C. Dale Young, that you all did, which was really fantastic. I loved it. They were really good questions. I thought, I’m going to be in good hands. Right, just the other day, as I was revising a poem and realizing that actually, the last line of the poem is the most important one to me. I don’t know if it’s the first one that came, but it’s one of the first. I guess I find the last line about three quarters of the way into the poem, usually. Then I have to write my way toward it. It certainly wouldn’t be the first line that I wrote. I was mystified and amazed about that fact when I read it about C. Dale Young. Triggers, they vary. Most recently, I spent my spring break visiting my sweetheart in Rome, but I had jetlag. So I would wake up at around 4 in the morning unable to sleep and in a panic. What am I doing here? Why am I dating someone in Rome? What’s happening with my life? Who am I? You know those thoughts that happen before dawn? So I went to the window, and really it was only that trigger, and I would call that trigger the choice between waking him up and breaking up with him and going to stay in a hotel I couldn’t afford—or writing. That was the trigger, right? So I just wrote about what I saw through the window— the guys in big rubber pants pulling fish off the truck and putting them in the market. Then he, my sweetheart, found his way into the poem. Then our conversation found its way in. Then loneliness found its way in. The trigger was some daily version of desperation, which it often is. I have a wonderful group of friends right now and we give each other triggers. My friend Constance sent me this Wikipedia site for a part of the body called the philtrum, which is this part right here, this groove in the upper lip. She sent me the link, and then she said, “Write a poem about it.” I wanted to, and I said I would. Of course, three weeks went by and I didn’t. Then she sent me an e-mail and said, I’m waiting for the philtrum poem. Then I felt like such a tool if I couldn’t write a simple poem about the philtrum, you know? So that became the trigger, and I did write a poem about it. I think I’ll read it tonight, just to test it out on you guys. Another friend said, “Write a poem about your first kiss,” which became a poem about every kiss I’ve ever had. Sometimes I’ll do assignments that I give to my students. Sometimes I’ll read a poem in a book and I’ll want to write my own version of it. Sometimes I’ll hear—feel a poem, I’ll live a poem. I’ll take the taxi home from the airport and realize I’m in the middle of a poem, and what the taxi driver is saying is part of the poem. I just want to get it down before—you know, I literally brought with me to Florida notes from that experience written on baggage claim tags because they were in my bag and I didn’t have any other paper. So while he was talking and I was experiencing the poem, I was writing it. And baggage claim tags glow in the dark. I just found that out last night. I don’t know why.

DM: So your poem actually glows in the dark.

TS: Yes. Yes. Finally!

DM: Do those poems seem different to you when they come from some kind of prompt as opposed to one that arises from a moment or experience? Looking at them at the end after revision, is there any difference in the two?

TS: Great question. I don’t know yet. The prompts are new to me. I think there is a difference. I think—no, no. I think it depends on the poem. Some of the prompts—there’s this poem about the first kiss, that is also the next kiss, and it’s also the last kiss. I won’t say it’s silly, but it’s light. It doesn’t feel forced, it just feels light, whereas the poem on the baggage claim tags doesn’t. It’s a little too new for me to know. I suspect you might be onto something. I also fear you might be onto something, and I don’t know.

DM: Lastly, I’m seeing a lot of narratives about the various media—print, journalism, TV— and its all starting to feel cataclysmic to me, where its reaching some sort of terminus where everyone is starting to publish more on the Web. Since you were talking earlier about writing poetry and how it can become this very visceral, tangible process where you’re writing on glow-in-the-dark baggage tags and walking by a corkboard, I was wondering what you think about the future of publishing, writing, and reading poetry when we’re moving more toward non-traditional print and electronic media?

TS: You couldn’t be asking a more wrong person that question. I shouldn’t have born in the last century. I should have been born centuries and centuries ago. I belong in those images of Victorian womanhood over there. That I have a computer, that I use Facebook, that I use e-mail. This cell phone. . . None of it makes sense to me. I actually worked in book publishing after I graduated from undergraduate for a couple years and I used to go into stock rooms and just smell the books. God, I loved them. I used to put my faces up against the pages. I love books. I love the weight of them, the smell of them, the look of them. Their covers, their care. I want to eat them. I dream about eating them sometimes. I saw someone with a Kindle. I don’t know. To me it’s like I want to read something on a Kindle as much as I want to eat Spam. You know that stuff? It hurts my soul, Kindles do. But I’m sure I probably felt that way about e-mail, cell phones, and all sorts of aspects of what are now our ways of communicating, a few years ago. I’m sure I’ll get used to Kindles. I don’t want to. I didn’t want a cell phone. I don’t like it. I know it’s useful. I know it’s convenient, but as I said before, my psyche is slow. All of our psyches are slow. We’re going way too fast for ourselves. I mean, at this point, I’m so far behind myself that I can’t measure the distance anymore. So I guess I’ll move into that world of digital publishing in that same collective amnesia that comes when you can’t measure the distance, but I’m a sort of weird grandmother about it.