ellenbryantvoigtA new interview with faculty member Ellen Bryant Voigt, “discussing her new collection and the poetic process behind it,” appears online at The Rumpus:

The Rumpus: This is your first poetry book after your collected poems, surely a moment of self-reckoning. And yet, Headwaters: the source of a river, the flow of a mind—the poems are so fresh and unleashed. What surprised you most when you started writing them?

Ellen Bryant Voigt: I think their tolerance of a certain kind of excess, particularly their double-stitching, that amount of direct repetition. It’s borne, perhaps, from recognition of impermanence, rather the opposite of chiseling a poem into stone—and unlike the chisel, it allows faster, multiple shifts of tone, redirections, mid-course corrections.

Rumpus: When you say “impermanence,” are you talking about the impermanence of language, of life, or… ? Why recognize it now?

Bryant Voigt: Yes: life, art, and these days even the planet—don’t you think? Seems to me it has always been absolutely in evidence, although one prefers to ignore it, that impermanence, or labor against it. That gets harder to do as one ages.

Rumpus: In The Art of Syntax, you use the image of the right-branching tree to talk about how an English sentence works. In my mind’s eye, I kept seeing a really lopsided tree, everything hanging off that initial clause. The syntactical tension in the Headwaters poems feels more Andy Goldsworthy—your clauses like twigs balanced against each other to create different patterns and shapes. Can you talk about your relationship to the sentence in these poems?

Bryant Voigt: I agree with you about that imbalanced tree! It’s a common simile in the world of grammarians that somehow stuck, even though it doesn’t accommodate introductory syntax, or the fact that we read English sentences left to right—a “left-branching” sentence would be oxymoronic. It’s somewhat useful in its isolation of the fundamental subject and verb, but that may be better caught in another simile, that of the “engine” of the sentence pulling its baggage cars behind it, or maybe pushing them.

HeadwatersWhat I have always loved about poetry is its two rhythmic systems—the rhythm of the sentence, which is the given, how we think, how we make meaning; and the rhythm of the poetic line, which is wholly artifice, made by the poet every time, in every poem, in every line—and the relationship between them. And yet, my preoccupation and my allegiance had been with and to line, not sentence. That’s what I tried to reverse in these poems. By removing the “markers” of punctuation, I had to rely on other syntactical signals, meanwhile disconnecting the brain’s “chunking” of syntactical units from moments of pause or rest, which punctuation also provides. No rest except at the end of the line or (a longer pause) the stanza. This was a way to enforce my own attention to the syntax, since I certainly still wanted clarity. The ideal was what Cristanne Miller called the “recoverable syntax” in Dickinson—there, of course, it’s achieved through excessive punctuation, all those dashes that give chunks of syntax both a backward and a forward connection. It seemed possible to approach something similar with a long, irregular-length line.


Read the full interview at The Rumpus.


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