An interview with Marick Press Author Cassandra Cleghorn by Mariela Griffor
Cassandra Cleghorn is a poet and teacher who received her BA in Classics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, 1983 and her PhD in American Studies from Yale, 1995. She has been a Senior Lecturer in English and American Studies at Williams College in Williamstown, MA, for over 20 years. Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous notable journals including The Yale Review, The Paris Review, Tin House, and, most recently New Orleans Review and Poetry International. Cleghorn is also a devoted musician, playing fiddle in the traditions of Ireland, New England and Québec. She is currently at work on a book-length essay on trees, art and precarity.
MG:When did you start writing?
CC:I’ve always read with a pencil in my hand.
I came of age in the heyday of Black Sparrow Press and New Directions. I hung out at the Book Den in downtown Santa Barbara where I grew up, reading everything on these lists: Snyder, Creeley, Levertov, Patchen, Rexroth, McClure, Henry Miller, Joanne Kyger. These outsider artists were my personal canon before I knew the traditions they were writing against. So my first influences located themselves resolutely in California as a peculiar place, geographically and aesthetically—visceral, endangered (oil spills, earthquakes), and imagined.
MG:I’m from Chile and I would say my poetry is very much influenced by the Chilean landscapes. Did the geographical landscape of California influence your writing?
CC:My poems are often set in extreme landscapes that I may or may not have actually inhabited. My sense of place first took shape in the chaparral of the Southern California foothills and coast. Home smelled of sage and salt and pine. Then I spent several formative years in Santa Cruz, among the redwoods. When I moved to the East as an adult, the forests of New England were a shock to me—so bright green, so moist. I’ve acclimated, slowly. I take the weather personally. Here in the Berkshires there is a small river that runs about 100 yards behind my house, and soon there will be snow and ice–more water here, while the West coast burns and withers. And Indonesia: over 110,000 forest fires, unimaginable. Meteorological and geological events have their personal, internal analogues. In my childhood, there were several divorces, dramatic relocations. One of my nicknames was Maria Apocalyptica.
I don’t want to mislead. I’m not a hard-core naturalist. I love gardening and hiking. But I spend most of my time indoors, thinking, reading and writing. Lately my focus has been nature, trees especially–what Emerson called the “occult” relation between the human and the vegetal. In his brilliant book, The Tree, John Fowles tries to put words to his relationship with nature which, as he says, is both “the key to his fiction” and yet also virtually indescribable. His very attempt to capture nature verbally, he says, “exiles him from what [he] most needs to learn.” I get this. The working title of the new project is “In the Shade With Trees.” I start with Ovid’s Metamorphoses and end Heather Christle’s The Trees The Trees. Among other things, I’m thinking about poems as miniature biospheres.
MG:What inspires you to write?
CC:I’m inspired by the worlds of materials and objects, by the worlds of human and nonhuman animals, and by writers who move naturally in and out of these worlds. Paul Valery’s meditation on the forms of seashells, for example, what Bachelard called his “transcendental geometry”—the poet’s attempt to reconcile the human and nonhuman senses of being and making with the world he finds himself handling and inhabiting. I’ve been called a “granular” poet, referring perhaps to the work of accretion each poem attempts. The more closely I listen to the suck of a wave as it drags the beach stones, the more likely it is for me to empty out of myself what I don’t need and find what I can use. Writing a poem is for me an act of abstraction based in bodily senses, an experiment in “creaturely thinking” I’m thinking here of Anat Pick’s sense of bodily vulnerability as “a mark of existence.”
MG:Who are the writers that inspire you?
CC:I learned to read Greek in college and still turn regularly to the ancient Mediterranean for inspiration, especially to the poets, both classical and contemporary, who steeped themselves in that world: Homer, the Greek lyric poets and dramatists, Ovid, Cavafy, Seferis, Ritsos, H.D, Walcott, Anne Carson and Alice Oswald (whose recent reworking of the Iliad, Memorial, is gorgeous). In addition to anchoring myself in the modernist and contemporary writers who write in the wake of Hopkins, Emerson and Dickinson, I read hundreds of manuscripts a year as Associate Editor of Tupelo Press. I read what our writers are reading. The list is endless. My newest find is the extraordinary work of Toon Tellegen, contemporary Dutch poet: Raptors, translated by Judith Wilkinson (Carcenet, 2011).
I’m a restless reader.
I also find creative nonfiction very generative. Most recently: Marvin Gayford’s record of sitting for a portrait by Lucian Freud, Man With a Blue Scarf and Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk. I read for a writer’s ethical attention to the world as it is, and for her relatively untroubled conviction that there are sets of difficult truths that may be observed, recalled, recounted, witnessed. I find such work an antidote to the instability of much of the poetry I love.
MG:Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a poet? Do you feel that poetry can cure us or change things in us or in the world?
CC:I borrowed the title of one poem in the new book from a Greek grammar: “It is Possible to Live Justly and Happily and Do Good Things for Men.” The poem takes pleasure in the possibility of optimism, and yet registers mistrust in the end, pulling into itself. I believe in the power of poetry to open hearts, of course, but I am wary of the idea of poem as panacea or program or platform. I’d put it this way: I value a poem’s capacity to pry open a space for more world to enter.
This prying open makes me think of the saxifrage with which Williams ends “A Sort of Song”—“my flower that splits/ the rock.” This, just after he has named the poem’s charge: “through metaphor to reconcile/the people with the stones.” So the poem both sutures and splits.
I just read a breathtaking review in Boston Review by Colin Dayan of Lori Gruen’s new book, “Entangled Empathy.” She explores Gruen’s radical notion that as humans we had best think hard about animality, “feeling into” the nonhuman persons with whom we live. “To be ethical,” Dayan writes, “is to know how to locate oneself in relation to what one does not know, a world adamantly not one’s own.” I love this sense of unknowing, of using the poem as a set of alien feelers.
MG:Often I think artists don’t admit some relationship between art-making such painting and poetry, but you seem comfortable with the idea that there is a connection between all the arts. Can you develop this?
CC:I come back to writing every day remembering that I don’t really know how it works. Reading poets on other arts helps me preserve my appreciation of poetry’s mysterious effects. When John Yau writes that Joan Mitchell’s “physical gestures create an armature of rhythmic potential,” I learn about the painter’s technique from the poet’s viewpoint, and I get a new way of thinking about how repetition might generate energy in a poem. All the arts are trying to express what Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington calls “the sound of your mind,” or what neuroscientists call our “conscious and unconscious vision.”
MG:What connection you see between your poetry and your music?
CC:Ashbery said somewhere that when you listen to music “you don’t really know what’s just around the corner.” Unlike a painting that presents itself to the viewer as a whole, a musical piece unfolds over time, moment by moment, while producing in the listener an ever-elongated memory of its entirety.
As a musician who plays by ear this quality of constant discovery feels especially true. When I play with others I have to be alert to the moment: adjusting my sounds to those around me, arriving at tacit agreements about the music we are making together—all of this happening consciously, but also spontaneously. I try to adopt something like this stance in my writing, almost as though the unfolding poem is my musical partner. I try to hold at bay my preconceptions about where the poem is going or even what it is “about,” ready to respond to its moves. Then, in revision, I may exert more conscious control over the poem—or less. I do wonder how much our retrospective acts of will improve upon the artifacts of discovery.
Pinsky singles out my “musical ear.” He and I met years ago when I was performing my poetry with improvisational jazz musicians—in a group called “Merge”—and it’s inspiring to note that Pinsky himself now regularly performs his own poetry to the accompaniment of live music. For both of us, the improvisation comes not in the creation of the poem itself, but in how we modulate the voice and place lines into the framework created by the improvising musicians. The experience for the performing poet is electric. I try to learn from jazz players about how to breathe, making spaces between the sounds.
Thinking about the interplay between sound and page, I’m reminded of Orlando White’s brilliant mediation on “white space” recently on the Harriet blog. He describes that space as “the throat of paper, inhaling language and exhaling sound and silence.” Breath, again, as the basis of both poetry and music.
MG:Do you ever fall into a trance when you are writing or when you are playing music?
CC:If by “trance” you mean a kind of suspended state, in which the senses are diminished or absent, no, not at all.
MG:You mentioned the role of revision. How many times do you revise a poem?
CC:Most of the poems in this book were revised countless times, some of them over many years. Every so often, I compose a poem relatively quickly—in a few long, single-minded sittings. But that’s rare. When I am actively working on a poem, I am obsessed with it. I have it almost always actively in mind—the only real exceptions are when I’m in the classroom or practicing the violin. Once the class or the rehearsal is over, the poem jumps back onto the front burner. I spend the time I’m not writing the poem figuring out how to steal time from whatever else I am supposed to be doing to get back to it. As a mother of four, including twins, I’ve learned to grab moments. My writing seems to need this guilty dynamic. My life doesn’t allow for escape to writing retreats or residencies. I’ve accommodated myself to this fact. I write best when it seems I’m too busy to write.
MG:What kind of routine or rituals do you have when you write or when you are ready to play music?
CC:My musical routine is highly ritualized. I play my fiddle almost every night after dinner, with my husband, Jeffrey Levine, who plays guitar. We formed a duo several years ago, and are in the process of recording our second CD. Our band is called Duo Eamon–we play traditional, instrumental dance music of Ireland, Quebec and New England. We perform out and about in clubs, cafe, farmers’ markets and festivals. After years of being away from music, this daily practice means the world to me.
My writing practice is also daily, but more variable. I write first thing in the morning as my schedule allows, and then I fit more writing in around the teaching as the day progresses, and again late at night if I can stay awake. When I have a new poem in the works I can write anywhere, on anything–typewriter (Smith Corona Electra), computer, a scrap of paper, I’m not choosy.
MG:How do events in your real life affect your artistic life or your creative process?
CC:I go back to John Fowles’ formulation: how in trying to describe x or y or z–the violence everywhere around us, obscene hatred, the losses–we are exiled from what we most need to learn. For me, the fact that is closest to home, the fact that I most need to learn and from which I feel most barred, is my mother’s sudden death this past summer. She was healthy, vital, only 77. She died early one morning in August in her sleep. I found her in her bed later that day when I went to her apartment to play Bananagrams. This is not a story of violence. There is no tragedy here. But lately, when I try to write a poem, this is what I am drawn to write about. And writing into that particular loss, I believe, will take me to another, wholly unexpected place.
MG: It had been a pleasure to learn more about you and your writing. Thanks for your time.
CC: You are welcome.
Mariela Griffor was born in the city of Concepcion in southern Chile. She is the author of House and The Psychiatrist. She is founder, publisher and editor of Marick Press. Her work has appeared in Passages North, Washington Square Review and many other Literary Journals. Mariela holds a B.A in Journalism from Wayne State University and M.F.A. in Creative Writing from New England College. Her forthcoming publications include the translations: Canto General by Pablo Neruda (Tupelo Press) and Bye, have a good time! by Kristina Lugn. (For info see: www.marielagriffor.com