Brigid Yuknavitch, w/ Lidia Yuknavitch

LIDIA: I was thinking the other night about the poem “What Kind of Times Are These” by Adrienne Rich, and especially that kick ass last stanza:

And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you

anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these

to have you listen at all, it's necessary

to talk about trees.

What does poetry and poetic language have to say to us about our times?

Brigid Yuknavitch

Brigid Yuknavitch

BRIGID: I think that one of Rich’s meanings is that we stop listening to suffering and history so quickly. Her poem captures the moment between two value systems as history becomes real estate. And still, people go to poetry readings, and still they listen. As much as she’s challenging her audience to remember and to act against forgetting, Rich is addressing some part of us language creatures that still listens not only for comfort and beauty and transformation, but also for our own experience and how we must change our lives (to paraphrase Rilke). As Rich writes in “Cartographies of Silence” writing and reading poetry is taking part in ongoing “conversations/from which time after time the truth breaks moist and green." 

I’ve come to think of poetry as impossible speech—what cannot be heard anywhere else whether its being said or not. This is partly because poetry puts us in the difficulty of language, both its beauty and its rupture. That difficulty gets forgotten in other uses of language. It is the difficulty of living in language, the threshold between our bodily lives and a culture. So the question of what can poetry do to my mind is always answered in what is poetry doing? What is poetry saying that isn’t being heard? How is poetry bringing us back to language and what we are trying to metabolize about our experience?

In our global media history occluding times, poets are bringing language we don’t think about into poetry. It makes sense (mind and body) that in our times poets are taking on the language of America at its foundations. Layli Longsoldier an Oglala Lakota poet writes back to the political language that continues to erase histories and peoples in her book Whereas.Claudia Rankine’s Citizen brings the reader who still listens to poetry into the daily aggressions of language she experiences. She brings sports media into the poem, so that we watch and listen to the enactments of violence. She brings the bodies of sports stars into language as their own language. Natalie Diaz writes about her addicted brother as an Aztec god, finding a language for his experience and her love beyond the available language (When My Brother was an Aztec). Poet Danez Smith writes about language in his book about black male experience entitled Don’t Call Us Dead, claiming being alive. Poets are writing more about their children and the world they will live in, bearing the loss. Maggie Smith, one among many, writes, in "Good Bones, about what she will not say to her children in order to sell them hope about the world.

I am amazed that our poets are doing the work of metabolizing terrible times so that we can suffer and survive them and see past them. I think its ironic, painful and forgiving that oppressed voices are coming in to make the language real again. Their experiences are becoming valuable beyond the fact that they are different. Our living poets are directing our attention to what will kill us or awaken us. These poets among so many others—including Franny Choi, Ocean Vuong, Jericho Brown—are poets of our times speaking past the myths of America and the Emperor’s new clothes to the experience of living in our times. Poetry is saying that the voices of the “other” are the impossible speech of our times. Their voices are what we need to experience to go on. 

LIDIA: Your own writing often moves between voice and body, articulating a space of experience at the edges of both language and the body. My favorite poems of yours always make my body vibrate, reminding me that there are intensities and intimacies of experience that bring me back to life. It's almost like poetry exists in defiance of the speed and consumerism-bound forces of daily life or what passes for it. Like poetry puts us back in our bodies in a way that almost nothing else does. Can you speak to that idea? 

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BRIGID: We have to slow down to read or listen to poetry. And the poetic line slows us down even in our reading. If you look up “poetic” in the dictionary in defines it as “having an imaginative or sensitively emotional style of expression.” But I often find that patterns are organized by an embedded line even in the prose poem or prose. It is these other patterns in counterpoint to the sentence that allow sound and imagery and other physical felt aspects of language to let affect and revolution (to use Julia Kristeva’s term) into a poem. We slow down to experience the difficulty of experience coming into language.

Poetry makes me experience being embodied (or disembodied) by language whereas most acts of reading or listening to words distract me from my own physical presence. 

Reading a poem is like learning a new language and culture. To some extent my words are being put together in new ways. Different metaphors are organizing me from head to toe, eye to ear, inside to outside, desire to death. A new pattern of words is making me experience language and my language body in new ways. And my lived experience comes into language more with every poem I read.

As I write this I think of how other art forms and life alter us in these ways as well. I’m not staking ground so much as trying to describe how it happens with poetry. However, poetry is condensed on language and the physicality of words as they register in the body so there may be something unique to this way of experiencing our being in language. The repetition of lines is like a body waiting in the sentence. The tension between line and sentence—whether the sentence is visible or not—is a tension of apparent dualities. The voice and the body of that voice that poetry brings back into relationship are the whole picture. The relationship between poet and reader makes impossible speech take fire. If I were saying all of this in a poem you would listen differently.

LIDIA: What are a few poems that are exciting to you? Why?

BRIGID: Pausing to read a poem immediately makes language a threshold again. Poems that have stayed with me a long time, that come to mind today out of so many, come because they changed my experience. One is H.D.’s “ Eurydice.” From this poem I learned that even in the dark there is more to see. I have always remembered Judy Grahn’s “A Woman is Talking to Death” for a juxtaposition of languages (including Shakespeare, prayer and the courtroom) that changes the meaning of love. I return to Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song,” because there is the terrible truth of violence next to song. I don’t remember as many individual poems as I used to, but I can often find them because I remember a line and an experience. I remember the works of poets and the worlds they called up in me. 

Adrienne Rich taught me to hold thinking and feeling together. Denise Levertov taught me to follow the music of the line like a landscape inside me. Wislawa Szymborska and Charles Simic stood me as a reader inside an innocence reborn from war. I recently re-discovered Eileen Myles whose subjects are so ordinary—the kitchen, the dog, the street—and so conscious that my daily life comes alive in new ways. I also re-discovered Marianne Boruch with her intractable unexpected lines calibrating my experience with words like her book title Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing. Her poetics makes me experience myself as a presence navigating a full and chaotic world that comes together around me. I follow Fanny Howe who follows her poem wherever it takes her, recently into childhood and old age, both of which are worlds newly impossible to speak in our times. I am always called to the moment by Jean Valentine's nurturing and shattering gestural poetics. I am brought to the space between two by Mary Szybist’s poems of annunciation (Incarnadine).

LIDIA: What do you love about collaborating with other mammals inside poetry and poetics at Corporeal Writing? 

BRIGID: I love (and sometimes fight!) hearing my language in new ways. I love that, when we work in a group, aspects of a  collective experience begin to emerge and push the writing deeper. I love the range of experience because it inspires everyone from all depths. Including the new writers. I especially love writers new to poetry. 

LIDIA: How do we not lose hope?

BRIGID: We write. Imagining the readers, we need to say what is impossible to say. We love. We bear terrible awareness. We let it change us for the better. We keep creating. Poetry helps this life in language stay connected to life.

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Find more at Brigid's Poetry Blog

Brigid leads online poetic workshops and teams up with Lidia for F2F poetics workshops at Corporeal Writing.