Thursday, June 24, 2010

Claudia Emerson

Claudia Emerson’s four books of poetry, Pharaoh, Pharaoh (1997), Pinion, An Elegy (2002), Late Wife (2005), and Figure Studies (2008), were published as part of Louisiana State University Press’s signature series, Southern Messenger Poets, edited by Dave Smith. Late Wife won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Smartish Pace, The Southern Review, Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, Crazyhorse, New England Review, and other journals. An advisory and contributing editor for Shenandoah, Emerson has been awarded individual artist’s fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and was also a Witter Bynner fellow through the Library of Congress. She was awarded the 2008 Donald Justice Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Currently serving as Poet Laureate of Virginia, she is Professor of English and Arrington Distinguished Chair in Poetry at the University Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. For more information, please visit her website.


It began with the first baby, the house
disappearing threshold by threshold, rooms

milky above the floor only her heel,
the ball of her foot perceived. The one thing real

was the crying; it had a low ceiling
she ducked beneath—but unscalable walls.

Then she found with the second child
a safer room in the camera obscura, handheld,

her eye to them a petaled aperture,
her voice inside the darkcloth muffled

as when they first learned it. Here, too, she steadied,
stilled them in black and white, grayscaled the beestung

eye, the urine-wet bedsheet, vomit, pox,
pout, fever, measles, stitches fresh-black,

bloody nose—the expected shared mishap
and redundant disease. In the evenings

while they slept, she developed the day's film
or printed in the quiet darkroom, their images

under the enlarger, awash in the stopbath,
or hanging from the line to dry. Sometimes

she manipulated their nakedness, blonde hair
and bodies dodged whiter in a mountain stream

she burned dark, thick as crude oil or tar. The children's
expressions fixed in remedial reversals,

she sleeved and catalogued them, her desire,
after all, not so different from any other mother's.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I believe I began drafting this poem in early 2007 or thereabouts. I was working on a book (Figure Studies, LSU Press 2008) that I knew would include a lyric sequence featuring girls in an imagined boarding school as well as poems about women in isolation, refusing to “school”—a hoarder, a cat lady, an elevator operator among them. The photographer I conceived as being isolated or isolating herself in the camera, or behind it, and in this way she survives the implied chaos of her children.

My ex-husband is a fantastic black and white documentary photographer, so I lived around the equipment and observed his creative process for twenty years. I never learned to take a decent photograph, but I was always fascinated with the medium. I adore the work of Edward Weston, Annie Leibovitz, Constantine Manos, Richard Avedon (particularly In the American West), Sally Mann, and Diane Arbus. I am in awe of the photographer who captures the unexpected, the moment, object—or the face that might appear ugly or even freakish to many, but who makes, frames, and renders such realties into powerful, beautiful works of art.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

I don’t really remember, though I typically revise a lot, as many as fifty revisions if you count the smaller repairs toward the end of the process. My memory is that I stewed over the idea for years, actually, but when I committed to drafting the poem, it went fairly quickly, a week or so.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I do believe in inspiration! But I think most of inspiration simply comes about by never being bored, by paying attention to what’s going on around you. And I have to admit that I don’t see a big difference in the something “received” and the “sweat and tears” since I do not despise all those revisions. Once I am enthralled in the writing, there’s profound joy in that particular loss of self in the work.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

I had settled on couplets for the girls’ school sequence, so that choice impacted how I envisioned the form of everything else. Because I have tended in the last couple of books to think in sequences, once I write a poem or two toward it, the sequence then determines the form of the remaining poems.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

The poem was published just a few months after I finished it, appearing in November 2007 in The Cortland Review, an on-line journal, and the issue was guest-edited by R. T. Smith, editor of Shenandoah.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

I have tended to wait a little bit, a couple of months or longer, to make sure I am still committed to a “final” version. I know, though, that I am not alone in revising poems that have already appeared in magazines before they go in a book.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

The photographer, like a lot of the figures in this book, is from my imagination, though she was inspired, the way all characters are, by a variety of people I have known or known about, as well as by the directions the book eventually wanted to take. I am very loyal, however, to the fact of photography—and made sure that I understood the technology thoroughly in order to make the character (and the extended metaphor) believable even as she is unique and surprising.

Is this a narrative poem?

The poem to my eye and ear has an implied narrative, but that’s not the marrow of the poem. The lyric impulse lies for me in how the woman uses photography to control, to artistically manipulate chaos.

At the heart of this poem is the specter of morality, the idea of right and wrong. Is all good poetry in some way ethical or just?

Not all, but a lot of what I consider good poetry grapples with some emotion or situation of urgent or persistent importance—and many such poems will be engaged with morality on some level.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I was re-reading all of Emily Dickinson at the time I was writing this book. Research and an immersion in my poetic “obsessions” will lead me to read more than poetry, so I was also re-reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography, as well as other articles about the history of photography.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I try hard not to think about a reader or audience when writing. Because my work has had a surface level clarity, I like to think I can attract the kind of smart fiction reader not living in the academy, one who enjoys the art in carefully crafted language and will look for the layers in meaning.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

Oh yes! I talk about my ideas and show drafts to my husband (not much help because he likes everything I write), my mentor, poet Betty Adcock, as well as poet friends Rod Smith, Sarah Kennedy, Catherine MacDonald, and David Wojahn.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

The book itself is different in its woman-centered focus, as well as its avoidance of much narrative. I also disallowed myself the first person singular in the entire collection, an attractive decision for me since my third book Late Wife is so intensely personal.

What is American about this poem?

I’m not sure the poem is particularly American, unless Americans are more photography obsessed than any other nationalities. Sontag writes about the anxiety she believes lies in the obsession to be behind a lens and record everything instead of living the moment. My photographer would rather record the children, manipulate the images and save them as a defense against actually interacting with the human beings she has “created.”

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

A little of both, I guess. I loved being able to use so much of the vocabulary of photography—and to be able to focus on the room/body/camera interstices. I struggled with the ending—but wanted to close on the idea that while what she chooses to photograph might depart from the typical images most mothers choose to shoot, in the end, the difference is not so great.

She also dovetailed nicely with the other poems about women in solitude, since her solitude lies in the act of photographing, developing, and printing.

She did not, however, satisfy my ongoing interest in the metaphoric possibilities of photography in my poetry, and I continue to be drawn to the medium—photography’s vocabulary, technology, and history. I have already drafted several poems since “The Photographer” that touch on photography or respond to a photograph for my next book, still in progress.


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