Paul Nemser’s poetry book A Thousand Curves, which received the Editor’s Choice Award from Red Mountain Press, was published in April, 2021. Taurus (2013) won the New American Poetry Prize. Nemser’s poems appear widely in magazines, including AGNI, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Kenyon Review, London Review of Books, The Missouri Review, and Plume.
Terese Svoboda is the author of 8 books of poetry and 11 books of fiction, biography, memoir and translation. Great American Desert, a collection of stories, was published in 2019. She divides her time between NYC and a float home in Victoria, B.C.
This March Terese Svoboda published Theatrix: Play Poems, her eighth book of poetry. The author of eleven other books of fiction, memoir, biography and translation, she’s the recipient of a Guggenheim, three New York Foundation for the Arts grants, NEH grant for translation, PEN/Columbia grant for translation, O. Henry Prize for the short story, Jerome Foundation fellowship for video, Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, Pushcart prize for an essay, Iowa Prize in poetry. She’s taught at Columbia, Williams, William and Mary, the universities of Miami, Tampa and Hawaii, Bennington, Sarah Lawrence, San Francisco State, New School and abroad. Her biography, Anything That Burns You: Lola Ridge, Radical Poet was published in 2016
Paul Nemser’s third book of poetry, A Thousand Curves, won the Editor’s Choice Award from Red Mountain Press and is forthcoming this April. It is a collection from a lifetime of writing poems. He grew up in Portland, Oregon where he fell in love with poetry while reading in the storage room in back of his family’s tool store. He studied poetry with Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz, and many others. His book Taurus (2013) won the New American Poetry Prize. A chapbook, Tales of the Tetragrammaton, appeared from Mayapple Press in 2014. His poems appear widely in magazines. He lives with his wife Rebecca in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Harborside, Maine.
Terese Svoboda: A Thousand Curves’ first poem is called “After the Calm.” It suggests a compression of conflict/resolution, a perfect Janus-headed beginning. Where in the process of writing this book, did you write this one? Did it always start off the manuscript?
Paul Nemser: I began “After the Calm” in 2013 around the same time that my book Taurus came out. I grew up in Oregon eating berries and my mother’s and grandmother’s raspberry jam, so I looked at our raspberry bushes in our garden in Maine with anticipation. Yet every morning, the same birds that sang in the garden would ravage the ripened fruit. Sometimes the birds left us a few red berries. My poem began on one of those mornings.
As I see it, “After the Calm” is a love poem about the suffering and sweetness of life. Aging has been a long hard ride. Nature ravages body, mind, family, friends. Things are falling apart. But we are sometimes happy. “After the Calm” is about a sort of spiritual seeking for joy and music in the midst of time, mishap and pain.
This poem has always begun the manuscript that became A Thousand Curves.
PN: Why did you choose Theatrix: Poetry Plays as the title of your book? It’s exploding with “plays” on words—fragments, etymologies. homonyms, puns. And the title suggests to me a woman who observes, a watcher, perhaps a seer.
TS: I edged into hybridity. The collection was originally The House of Atrium, a play on what I considered hilariously portentous architecture, the Babylon of the 1970s. So the Greeks were involved from the start. I’d published my version of Marlowe’s “Faust” in Mere Mortals, my third book of poetry, and I had a few strange poems that had veered into experiments with voice at the end of When The Next Big War Blows Down The Valley: Selected and New.
Perhaps because women were never allowed to perform in Greek theater, their absence looms over it.
TS: “O goddess of raspberries, grant us red hands!” is a line from “After the Calm.” Often your poems reach for prayer, pagan or religious. There is something about the habit of poetry, always looking for the very best word or phrase – that reaching – that inspires poets to wave at what can’t be grasped. Is Rilke a model?
PN: What you say about reaching is eloquent and true. There are many things beyond the reach of ordinary language, and poems can reach some of them, or get closer to those that can’t be grasped. The mystery and magic of poetry live in that territory where ordinary language stops. As you imply, prayer and poetry entail reaching—for the infinite, the unknowable. I think they also reach toward the hope that nature, the world, fate, God will hear, understand, and be generous.
I am very interested in the unreachable. I wrote a chapbook in which the main characters are my mother and the unpronounceable name of God. I look for the sacred in the Bible, the Midrash, the Greeks, the Tao Te Ching, Shakespeare, and yes, Rilke. For the unreachable, I also return to Kafka and Celan.
PN: Theatrix is such a complex and intimate exploration of theatre and its components. Have you acted in plays and/or had roles behind the scenes? Have you imagined individual poems or even the entire book as a play to be performed?
TS: Just before my high school debut as the ballerina in “You Can’t Take It With You” I took the wrong medication, and couldn’t stand up! I did a lot of miscueing on a couple of college lighting productions, see the British series “The Goes Wrong Show” or “Noises Off.” A few of my plays have been produced, once in grad school, and once at a private club in Manhattan. My libretto for WET, about the world’s water crisis, was made into an opera that premiered at Disney Hall’s RedCat theater, and another is now with the Scottish National Theater. The idea with Theatrix is to make the poems play with each other, in other words, to produce unplayable drama.
TS: You’re not averse to rhyming verse, and other sonic feats. Do you hesitate to indulge yourself, knowing poetry fashion’s against you? Or do you feel the way I do, that a poet should be able to employ whatever register and tools the poem demands.
PN: I agree with you. A poet should feel free to use meter, rhyme and other music if the poem demands. My family loved wordplay—puns, nursery rhymes, word puzzles, silly songs. In college I took a prosody class with Robert Fitzgerald. It included writing one poem a week in a designated form. I got comfortable with scanning, rhyme schemes, rules of permissible variation, song forms, refrains, and how form interacts with content. I enjoyed this. It was like what my parents did for fun over meals and and in the car, but it could also be serious and beautiful. Later, in graduate school, Stanley Kunitz talked about form as “conservation of energy.” And my first book, Taurus, ends with a crown of sonnets. So I don’t hesitate to write in form. As Bob Dylan said, “It depends on how I’m feeling.”
PN: The “cast” in your “Poetry Plays” includes, “in order of appearance,” Stage Manager, Set, Marching Soldiers, The Comedian Jack Benny, Dramaturg, Me, WE, Third Lover, First Lover, Second Lover, Emma’s Corpse, Fourth Lover, Poe, Debussy, (Ben) First Actor, and (Beatrice) Second Actor. They appear in speaking roles, and eventually they all disappear. And an old comedienne has a joking flirtation with a man in an arm cast. So is a theatrical cast a way too to help heal something broken?
TS: Nicely put.
TS: Your wonderful lists. Here’s two that I’m particularly fascinated with. “Sink-spouts; car-sputter; woodpeckers pecking;/air passing atoms under the door” in “Functionary,”
and “In the Alley of Perpetual Industry,” the orchestral “bassoonings, hisses, corpses, cruds.” Do these lists require a lot of repositioning and editing or are they intuitive and arrive full-blown, one sound suggesting the next?
PN: I don’t make many lists in daily life, but I enjoy making them and reading them in poems. In the Bible and Homer, lists add power, variety, and sweep. From Whitman through the Beats to the present, it’s still true. A lot of my lists are intuitive and arrive full-blown. It’s also not unusual for me to change a word here or there. Major repositioning within a list—very rarely. Moving an intact list around within a poem—often.
PN: Almost every section of your book asks: What place is this? Is it stage set or solid ground? In “Verona Not Venice,” Verona is Romeo and Juliet’s, but the poem’s speaker is in a modern Venice with “dangerous dank water” that speaks. There are omens of plague, which connect the poem to our pandemic and also Chernobyl. I was especially interested in your poem “HBO’s Chernobyl” because my grandparents emigrated from Chernobyl to the US in 1913. Your poem is both about Chernobyl in Ukraine and about the HBO series. Radiation and corruption are everywhere. How do the two frames—theater and toxic reality—relate to the truth? As you say about Chernobyl: “Knowledge was eaten, [a plume of it] and all the rain there is, cannot quench the truth….”
TS: Everyone has a stake in the truth, Rashomon included. Seldom, however, has the truth been so laden with the consequences of life/death as at Chernobyl. Now Russia has produced its own series after the airing of the HVO series, accusing the CIA of impropriety. That’s the theater of politics, of holding the pose in tableau.
TS: The narrative poem “Border” is about “A girl who slept in a truck tire.” Ballad-like, she’s running from murderers with a child they catch. The scenario is just as sound-driven as sense. I’m unfamiliar with your other long poems. Does sound propel them as well?
PN: Yes. My ten-page poem “In the Beautiful City,” which appeared in TriQuarterly in 1999, and several of the very long poems in my book Taurus are definitely propelled by sound. I like a long poem to suggest momentum and necessity.
By the way, “Border” in my new book, had its genesis in my law practice. My law firm represented migrant children who faced adverse immigration results such as deportation. I was asked to help evaluate our written arguments and help prepare the younger lawyers handling oral arguments. The story in my poem is a composite based on various different fact patterns that I read and heard.
PN: Your book seems endlessly inventive in attacking the illusory Fourth Wall that divides the actors from the audience. How do you think about actor and audience?
TS: The more active involvement I can get out of my reader, the more there’s a theatrical dynamic. The “you,” that second person bugaboo, doesn’t have to be either the author or the recipient of nagging, it can have the ambition to ambush the reader. I did not pander to my audience in the arrangement of the poems: I put the more complex poems first. I wanted the reader to take it or leave it.
TS: Poetry magazine published a poem you co-wrote with Mark Rudman. Have you tried similar experiments since?
PN: That poem grew out of a moment of gentle rebellion and thoughts of ambush. During my Columbia MFA program, Auden came to teach for two or three weeks. He would arrive in slippers or other soft shoes and take out his watch. He seemed to be measuring his teaching obligation to the minute. Much of what he said about writing came from The Dyer’s Hand. Eventually he would assign writing a poem in a difficult or obscure form. He didn’t seem to like the student work much. For the villanelle assignment, Mark and I decided to irritate Auden by doing a collaboration in the style of Paul Celan. We thought Auden would hate it, but he praised it, We published that villanelle in Poetry.
Later we co-translated a Ukrainian poet, Ivan Drach, for a book edited by Stanley Kunitz. Literal translations and transliterations came from the University of Manitoba. Mark and I put the poems into English poetry with the wonderful help of the Ukrainian writer Bohdan Boychuk. After that, Mark, Bohdan, and I translated poems by Bohdan Ihor Antonych. For that book, Mark and I tended to work separately with Boychuk, and then we discussed and edited each other’s translations.
Finally, in Taurus, a fractured mythic narrative set in St. Petersburg, I experimented with different techniques and materials: a prose introduction suggesting I’d found the Russian text of the book in a hotel room, narrative free verse, lyrical free verse in many voices, found material such as a rock club flyer and a website for Russian brides, a scrapbook kept by a sentient mechanical arm, a long epic hymn, a crown of sonnets, etc. Taurus grew out of participation in Summer Literary Seminars in 2006.
TS: I taught there two years earlier! Although I also taught for them twice in Nairobi and once in Tblisi, St. Petersburg had most of the magic. But I digress.
“Landscape with view of lawyer” ends
I am a ritual slaughterer—
an honest, kind, and upright man—
with a knife, a whetstone,
and these teeth.
I’ve had a lot of lawyer contact in my life, not always adversarial, and I very much appreciate this poem, especially this stanza. I’ve always thought the occupation would be a stumbling block to poetry, having to scrutinize the language for loopholes or writing text that is perfectly clear – when language is never perfectly clear or water tight. Was your training useful?
PN: It was Stanley Kunitz, with whom you and I both studied at Columbia, who suggested the law. I asked what Stanley thought I should do after graduate school. I had debts and hardly any money, having put myself through Columbia by working as a book clerk. Stanley looked up in the sky for a whole minute, looked back down at me with huge eyes, and said, “The Law.”
As a litigation attorney, my job has been to use language to persuade judges, other lawyers, clients, and jurors. Life supplies the subject matter, and the law supplies the rules, which often need interpretation. The forms of expression—briefs, oral arguments, trials—are ritualized. In the end, success usually requires presenting a narrative that sways the audience. The arguments aim to seem rational, but underlying emotions can be strong. Dealing with witnesses is an art. Will they say what I want them to say (even if they don’t want to)? Will their stories knit into the story I need? And there’s suspense—how will the audience react? What do the listeners care about? What questions will come up? Can I keep their attention? Am I winning their minds? Their hearts? Not unlike in theatre.
After law school, I clerked for a great judge at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. In one case he wanted to argue that the death penalty was inherently cruel or unusual because the prisoner was given certain knowledge of the time, place and circumstances of death. The judge, who knew I wrote poetry, told me to go to the Harvard libraries and find every source in law, literature, philosophy, science, and social science that supported his thesis; then I was to use those sources freely to draft a concurring opinion that would make other people agree. He edited the legal argument in my draft, but he left the rest untouched, and the opinion was published. It ended with a long quote from Dostoevsky.
So I learned early on that I could work in the law and be a writer too. The main issue was finding the time to write poems, which I handled by not sleeping.
PN: Many of the poems in Theatrix contain phrases or passages in brackets. Who’s speaking in the asides—the character, the actor, the playwright, you? For example, the first poem, called “Stage Manager: Lights Up” is filled with bracketed material. The cast member SET says: “OMG, the alien blows through the one window not yet painted over. [dot, dot, dot.] / Dancers tambourine [in shivers] in front of the guns. / What about this is false: the scale, the alien plastered to the wall in a green you can’t see? the trust you place [like an acorn] in the seat?” They begin as stage directions, only a bit peculiar, literary in nature, as in “[dot, dot, dot.]
TS: Thank you for that generous quote. Sometimes the bracketing verges on the parenthetical but I try to make them remain fanciful stage directions. By using the hard edged brackets, I wanted to make the voice more forceful than what happens between those luscious curves of the parentheses. Throughout the book I try to make the punctuation work harder, or do without.
TS: “Motivation [Deluge]” is the poem most like my own in Theatrix’s use of brackets, the italicized counter-voice, and dramatic connotations. Was the poem always envisioned as quasi-theatrical or did you impose the conceit, coax it onto the stage? Here’s an excerpt:
The scene: whitecaps eat their babies…
Rain drapes the deck with gray curtains.
No matter whose wind,
I’ll beach us where land is long,
and the tiny fruits on twigs grow into birds.
PN: I was thinking about writing a poem that drew its form from the conventions of another kind of writing. Had I known about Theatrix at the time, I would have had many excellent examples of the strategy, but lacking those examples, I read some Stanislawsi and about The Actor’s Studio, and I decided to try a “motivation.” I wrote a couple. This one worked.
PN: Could you talk about Emma Goldman as one of the animating spirits of Theatrix? I loved your poem, “Emma’s Play.” When I was in college, I saw lots of posters with her picture that read: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” She said so many great things about love—“Free love? As if love is anything but free!” In your piece, Emma’s Corpse is surrounded by four of her lovers. All, including Emma’s Corpse, are alive and talking. The lovers banter and bicker. There is talk about the FBI’s harassment of Emma and her deportation. The piece ends: “[Bag hangs in mid-air, over the corpse, with a zipper on one side, an unfailing zipper as yet unzipped for the million future dead unfree to come, despite Emma’s love and ambition, for the free-for-all].”
TS: I am so delighted you found it interesting. I never sent that poem out, thinking that without the book’s conceit, no one would appreciate it. Lola Ridge, my biographical subject in Anything That Burns You, worked for Goldman when she first arrived in NY from NZ. Margaret Sanger was also Goldman’s acolyte, used many of Goldman’s tactics and claimed birth control as her purview after Goldman had been proselytizing for a decade. I directed/wrote a PBS/ITVS documentary,“Margaret Sanger: A Public Nuisance” in the nineties. So Emma has been on my mind for decades, and I am only one of so many whom she has animated, dead or alive.
TS: “What I Knew and What I Had to Say” ends:
Here the mouth of a boy
learning where to stand,
who just learned to say
Here I am.
The musicality of the stanza is forceful. Do you have musical influences?
PN: By age five I was listening to mid-1950’s rock and roll—Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, Elvis, I also liked doo wop. girl groups. novelty songs. I made my Dad buy me 45’s.
I played violin from ages 9-17, mainly classical music. I remember being stunned by the virtuosity of Heifetz in a live concert playing the Beethoven violin concerto, Stern playing the Brahms. My grandparents were happy hearing the classical music, but also wanted Klezmer and Yiddish theatre. They owned piles of sheet music that I played. I can hear them singing along. Eventually they gave me their Yiddish 78’s like “Rumania Rumania” and “Sam The Man Who Made The Pants Too Long. “
In the early 1960’s I listened to folk music—Seeger, Baez—and the Broadway musicals, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bossa Nova my parents liked. After that, I was full into rock and roll, soul, blues, jazz, then reggae. My girlfriend in those years was a violist from whom I learned much about classical music from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century.
In the 1970’s I listened to punk, especially The Clash, and to old-time country music; in the 1980’s to New Wave; in the 1990’s and thereafter to salsa and to whatever my son played in teen and college years.
When I had work in Brazil, I came to love Brazilian Popular Music. I learned how good the poetry can be in lyrics of Samba, Bossa Nova, Tropicalia, and later forms.
For other direct connections with poetry, I’ve long liked Child Ballads, Shakespeare songs, Robert Burns songs. I love Leadbelly. I began listening to Bob Dylan in 1963, and that has never stopped. My wife also loves Dylan, though she mainly listens now to Monteverdi and Mozart. In recent decades, we’ve seen a lot of opera, which often bases the libretto on poetry.
PN: Is Theatrix a response to the Trump era and the “showbusnification” of American life? Your poem “Spectacle” sees spectacle as a way for the powerful to control the audience. “Spectators [the root of spectacle] grin in their awe, in their sin of dissolving, one into the other, into a ripple of Yes, I’m less.” Does the idea of spectacle reach all the way to one reader sitting with a poem?
TS: That millions of people watched the hearings for the Supreme Court nominations from their laptops, singly, did not make it less of a spectacle. But at least they weren’t all jammed into a square, cheek to quivering jowl, listening to a dictator. I don’t believe the reader, however, is complicit, he’s reading the analysis.
I am popping my popcorn for possible legal spectacles regarding our 45th president.
TS: My utter favorite poem of your book is “Time Share.” It starts with Mom dying and ends with the poignance of all those un-looked-at photos labeled “Hawaii Sunrise.” The description of the sunrise:
but he knelt down, twisting,
knees to water,
to make the long waves stand still
against the all-at-once
of some red everything.
The poem is not in the least closed at the end, suggesting that timeless way one’s parents live on “without dates.” Had this poem been much longer in earlier drafts?
PN: This poem was never long, but I played around with it for several years. Eventually I showed it to Lucie Brock-Broido, and she didn’t suggest edits, but said, “It’s about time.” A year later, I put it into the form you now see. I’m glad you like it.
PN: How did the idea for “Nobody Knows How To Put Her Out” begin? It takes place on a stage. It’s a “theater of interruptions.” People appear and disappear, erotic narratives constantly break in or run away. A couple becomes a threesome consisting of her, his body, and his severed head, the setting turns into a table setting, props are like people, and people like props. The piece ends with desire and death. The final image is fatal intensity: “Someone is strangling swans, that’s the other sound. The dead talk [the way they do] with the accents of silence, and her head bursts into flame [or burns like a cigarette, or starts to glow]. But nobody smokes anymore so nobody knows how to put her out.”
TS: I love your term “theater of interruptions.” No one said plays had to be continuous, or obey only one logic. People gather to be entertained, and surprise is the main, and most persuasive, element. As long as you’re interested in hearing (seeing) the next bit of text, that’s all I care about. This poem required that it be in prose cut into stanzas, rather than lineated. The result was a rush of words across the space of the page, with the triple space opening up the possibility of a change of scene rather than just a facet-turning that the stanza break often suggests. How did it come to be? That’s dark now.
TS: In “Sensoji” you write (or quote?): “All you have is compassion and time.” A wonderful poetic statement, especially if you consider “compassion” as the ability to “see” the similarities in unlikes, and of course with time, feel the beat with every line break as well as clock-time. The poem feels as if were written with a Japanese brush, the ominous touch of “My son’s absence goes on/like a breath held years long” never mentioned again, and “the train without a human crew,” the bullet train, of course, but made so eerie. It’s three quatrains ending on a couplet so there’s no formal Japanese influence but are you channeling Basho’s travel verse?
PN: My love of Japanese landscape began when the tiny bookstore in an alcove in my Oregon high school started selling thin books of haiku. I tried my hand at haiku and tanka. In college I realized that the rainy, foggy mountains, rivers and waterfalls in Japanese prints looked very much like views of Portland where I grew up. I read Basho’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North around that time. When I turned 60, I took a Smithsonian trip to Japan, and that’s when I went to Sensoji. My poem was many years in the finishing, and the sonnet length appeared at the last. The line about compassion and time was my reconstruction of wise advice from the tour guide.
The Japan trip really moved me. It’s kind of you to ask about my channeling Basho’s haibuns. I would be grateful to channel Basho any time.
PN: “He Said She Said” is a devastating poem about the aftermath of a child’s death. “What she couldn’t say / he didn’t say….An envelope of silence. Licked shut.” The man and woman are in a situation like opposed eyewitnesses at a trial or like play-actors in a Greek tragedy. Language can’t render what really happened. “There the boy lies, crumpled, on the cement. /The wind came up and no one could hear what she said but she said it / for forty years…”
“He Said She Said” uses animals to express the ineffable. “The eyes of the dog so full and clear said it all.” The poem moves into heartbreaking storybook: “The boy will die and so will I, he said./ And the crow, she said, and the squirrel with his pitted acorn, the fish lithe in water, the lizard perched on the crack, even and most especially the attractive blue heron, feathers ruffled by what, she said, unable to fly today and even less so tomorrow, standing on the bank as if at theater.” The speaker, the woman, the man, the readers of your book are all in that audience of mortal animals. Toward the end the boy disappears into language and myth: “As it has been said: the boy flew away on a blue chariot…” Do you think there can be wisdom through suffering? Or wisdom without suffering?
TS: I don’t think you get any smarter with suffering, otherwise there would be some very smart people in the world. But people who have no experience in it cannot be said to be truly human. I am reminded of my eighty-year-old friend whose 25 year old son is a bipolar schizophrenic. If you’ve never had any experience with mental illness you don’t know how terrifying/sad it is to have a manic episode erupt in the kitchen, and have to call the police on your child. “Musée des Beaux Arts” by Auden is another touchstone, about how life goes on and through suffering.
As for the animals, their muteness makes their response more true. But how can I say that when I know that dogs fake it so other dogs don’t attack them?
TS: You have often published in England. Is the English taste more like your own, or are you just extending your influence?
PN: I saw depth, diversity, sharpness and skill in the 21st Century English work I was reading. I saw poems that attended to form—in every sense—but weren’t orthodox or stodgy. There were many poems exploring immigrant experience. There were poems taking big emotional risks. So I sent my own poems to a couple of UK magazines, and one thing led to another. Magma accepted a short poem, After that, I was one of ten poets Commended in the 2015 UK National Poetry Competition, then the largest poetry competition in the world. I was invited to London and got a lot of encouragement from poets who had seen my work. A short film was made out of “After the Calm.”
I realized that British readers tended to like what I was doing. London Review of Books published two poems, and each led to correspondence with interested readers. I was a finalist in an English competition and a semifinalist in an Irish one. The UK Poetry Society invited me to read in London. Last year I got second place for Magma’s Editors’ Prize. In short, I found a receptive audience.
PN: You follow “He Said She Said” with “Writer Doesn’t Mention The Trap Door.” It’s a major alienation effect following the tragedy. The comedienne is back onstage, but the absent child, and “the sadness and anger of maternity,” are still there too. First Actor and Second Actor rename themselves Ben and Beatrice. But is this much ado about nothing? They’re lost in a dark wood (or “in space”). There may be a plea bargain, perhaps a Dantesque judgment. Ben falls through a trap door. Whatever afterlife there is, Beatrice will follow Ben: “WRITER: She follows him everywhere.” Is that a stage direction, or part of the play? Is death a pratfall, a stage trick? The title of the section is simultaneously true and not true. Does theatre always contain that paradox?
TS: “She follows him everywhere” is stage direction. Death is the pratfall, the door in the floor that allows the dead to disappear. Emotionally, theater can be both true and not true, it’s a simulacrum of what our mind thinks is reality, arranged for some truth that doesn’t pretend to be whole. I’ve always loved the idea of the Matrix, with our lives spent on various axises all the same time. Now that’s theatrical!
PN: Throughout the book and especially at the end, you suggest the idea of a watcher. For example, in “Moon Theatre” (“Attending/ is what the boy is doing, and the dog, head lifted, begins his bark.”); in “Schipperkes” about watchdogs who ran messages for the Resistance; and in the last poem “House of Atrium”where we’re told to “Watch the little Atria,” the excesses and crimes of descendants of the House of Atreus. Did you think of yourself or your poems as “on the watch”? Is poetry the “dog about to give the plot away” or the Shakespearean Bear who chases everyone offstage?
TS: That’s funny, your last question! The poetry dog would like to have a plot to give away but the poet finds plot inscrutable. It just falls out of her hands like water. Just listen to me, is what the poet has to bark, don’t get distracted by any other character. But in this case, I’ve been trying to stuff the poems with characters and voices and plots because my poetic coming-of-age coincided with the rise of the voiced poem, one in which you were supposed to believe that it was Carolyn Forche herself who witnessed the bag of severed ears tossed on the table. As for the poetry bear, Shakespeare’s plays are long and he needed to persuade the audience to go home. Wouldn’t you want more?
TS: You are offering the Paul Nemser Book Prize through the Lily Poetry Review. It’s unusual for a living poet to be so generous. What drew you to the rewards of a prize-giver?
PN: Actually the naming of the prize was a gift to me. One morning I woke up and saw that Eileen Cleary of Lily had posted a picture of me and an announcement of the prize on Facebook. I didn’t know anything about it. So the gift flowed from Eileen’s imagination, kindness and generosity, which seem boundless. She does so much! She’s a poet, an editor, a book publisher, a hospice nurse and a mother. We’ve been in many workshops together and in group readings. I’m lucky to know her.