Joanna Solfrian lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Her poems have appeared in journals such as The Harvard Review, Margie, The Southern Review, Pleiades, Image, and Spoon River Poetry Review. Her first book, Visible Heavens, was chosen by Naomi Shihab Nye for the 2009 Wick First Book Prize. She is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program and is a MacDowell fellow.
The High Window is pleased to include five new poems by Joanna in its inaugural issue, but first here she is in conversation with Anthony Costello:
This email conversation took place over a few truncated days in December, 2015, truncated because of work commitments and the time difference between Brooklyn (US) and Luddendenfoot (UK).
Anthony Costello (AC)
Joanna Solfrian (JS)
Thank you for agreeing to be the feature poet in the inaugural issue of The High Window Journal. I first came across your name and poetry in the spring edition of Rattle (2014), the west coast magazine. The American feature poet section in THWJ is there, in part, to introduce contemporary American poets to a British audience and yet, ironically, the poem in Rattle – ‘Instead of a Victorian Novel I write a Victorian poem’ – has something European about it! Can you say something about your influences? Where you come from and who you are? AC
Happy to be having this conversation with you. The first poet I remember reading who influenced me – especially if we think of “influence”s Latin root, which is to flow – is Emily Dickinson. Though since I was young when I first read her, maybe 11 or 12, what “flowed” through me was a horror at the fact that the written word could make so much sense physically and no sense at all intellectually. Which is to say, at 11 or 12, I had no idea what the hell she was talking about. But I felt something in my belly. I come from an old dairy town in rural CT (though what counts as “old” to a caucasian American probably does not seem at all “old” to a European). My father was a minister and my mother was an elementary school music teacher. I can’t ever get away from religion or music – they are both cellular stains – though I confess that sometimes I want to get away from religion, in the organized, doctrinaire sense. JS
Perhaps the “form” and language in your poems is the schoolteacher and the minister in you, your parents legacy? Searching for meaning is not doctrinaire, and that is what many of your poems in Visible Heavens (your first poetry collection) attend to in various ways? Perhaps for you writing is religion? AC
Yes, I agree – searching for meaning is a central devotion of mine. I would also add springing the meaning that is locked in various things – daily objects, like an ash can, or responses to other humans, or our perception of time, or in that smear of butter left by the child. I think much of our culture encourages us to be surface-level, to “look at the bright side” (a phrase I loathe if it means at the expense of acknowledging what is difficult), to be rapid – and reading or writing a poem is an anodyne to all those things. But I also think we have to speak about the writing and reading of poetry in a way that isn’t off-puttingly lofty, which is a hard thing to do when we love it so much. Because the most common response I get from strangers when I say I write poems is, “Oh, I never really liked poetry. I never understood it.” At heart I am a populist. That sort of response is a dagger, because poetry is for everyone. I wish those teachers who teach poetry via “what does this line/symbol/image mean” would rethink their approach and instead ask, “What is your experience of this poem?” Throw in a little something about anaphora or whatever to scratch the didactic itch, but other than that, listen. People who have very little formal training in painting (and I am one of them) flock to museums in the thousands every day – my hope is that poetry can do the same. JS
I am reminded of Sylvia Plath’s pertinent phrase about objects and things (like your trash can and smear of butter) as a having ‘a superb identity’; Plath, for a while at least, interested in the ‘selfhood of things’. Does this make you less interested in abstract poetry and more interested in sensual poetry, the body and the body of things? I love the analogy with viewing paintings to appreciating poems, an expressionist approach to reading poetry? Emily Dickinson is popular (more so since being rediscovered and promoted by a feminist movement in the 70s) but her work can be abstruse, too? And there are some difficult poems and difficult poets that we return to, not as a code-breaking exercise but because the language is positioned seemingly between interpretations. But let’s stick with the image of the gallery. Which poets’ paintings would you flock to see without understanding entirely their meaning? AC
I hadn’t heard that Plath phrase and I love it! Yes, yes, yes. I am interested in abstract poetry if it is not entirely disparate from the sensuous. But yes, in general, I gravitate towards poets who are not shy of feelings, poets who leap, poets who understand the quality of our suffering (to paraphrase Tom Waits, a nice guy to work into a discussion on poetry). So the most dog-eared poets on my shelf (how’s THAT for a metonym – wouldn’t it be great if Plath were actually sitting on the shelf, probably in need of a dusting?) are Neruda, Larry Levis, Dickinson, and about every other page of McClatchy’s Contemporary World Poetry anthology. But back to the gallery idea…if we’re talking contemporary poets, I would love to see Adonis’ paintings. JS
You can mention Tom Waits anytime. Perhaps his songs come nearer to what the lyric is in poetry than any other musician (he is certainly the king of the killer refrain). As for your dog-eared poetry books and given your passionate poetics I am not surprised to find Neruda there! Does the subject of love spring more readily from the pen of Latin American poets? While love in Dickinson often takes the form of a projected monologue being closed curtains (no less powerful for this) and a European poet might still put love in to a formal sonnet and in the third person (I generalise facetiously here), Neruda can be open about feeling and open about desire and love. Is love then, for you, the greatest subject for a poet? And formal lyric poetry about love the epitome? Love might win the populist vote, it abounds in diluted forms in a million Xmas card rhymes, but the lofty might sneer, or put such emotion into an objective correlative, but does it still ring truest, and if so is it up to the poet to find ways to ring true love in novel, striking ways? AC
You haven’t quite put it this way, but you’ve got me to thinking: what’s the essential question of poetry? That’s quite a different thing than, say, “why do poets write poems?” (The latter often provokes answers like, “Because I can’t NOT,” which is a difficult thing to say out loud without feeling slightly ridiculous.) I do think it has something to do with love. Looking at something is an act of love, so when a poet looks at her hands and thinks about their utility and form, she could argue that the mere act of thought and attention and subsequent feelings are acts of love. Love is circular in motion, maybe even at the quantum level, who knows — and that’s why we have to be careful when we write about it or seek it in our poems. I find that I often try to corral the unruly in poems, and sometimes there’s a nose-thumbing feeling of “Take that, chaos, QUATRAINS…” and I don’t think that’s particularly conducive to the love search. That’s more about ego, about winning. It’s best when we can make ourselves available to love. By the way, speaking of the quantum level, I do think that poetry is the best proof of quantum physics’ theory that the past/present/future exist simultaneously. This is a bizarro idea to wrap one’s head around, but anyone who’s read Izumi Shikibu’s love poems (your readers know her as a Heian court poet who lived at the end of the 10th C/beginning of the 11th) and thinks, yup, sister, I feel you, has essentially just collapsed the idea of linear time. “Although/the cricket’s song/has no words,/still,it sounds like sorrow” (translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani. JS
A richer answer to my pit-a-pat questions! And your creating your own (prima facie) imaginery question in which to answer with a kind of theory of everything (science and poetry) is self-willingly profound but maybe reductive? I do like, though, the link with poetry and quantum physics, because many poets walk around with Homer in their heads all day, and if Homer can coexist with the (relative) present day then so can Heian courtly poets. I love the phrase “corral the unruly”, but the rebel in me likes the idea of creative unruliness, and perhaps it is the unruliness which allows poetry and science to escape from any compound definition? Unruliness is not knowing, and never knowing? Unruliness is chaotic and potentially (limitlessly?) creative but also linked to war, another major subject matter for poets. If science and poetry are at some level wrapped up in a quantum oneness then love and war are too? If poetry exists there is a lacuna for a science of pain. I am thinking of Yehudi Amichai who writes:
even Newton discovered
Whatever he discovered
in the lull between
One pain and another
And I think of Akhmatova whose poem titles ask important perennial questions and who always surprises me with her pockets of lyrical negativity. Look how she counters ideal (perhaps universal) love, here:
Our Lord has made my Soul healthy
With the icy calm of the non-love…AC
Yes, I like creative unruliness, too. I don’t actually like the feeling of thumbing my nose at chaos, because it seems like a temporary (and fallacious) “win,” if you will. We could get some Lorca duende in here, because I think your unruliness can relate to the mischievous presence of a death-goblin…but your quotes on Amichai and Akhmatova are worth time. Amichai just nails it, so unbelievably frequently. I can’t think of another poet who does love poems and political poems – if we can separate them into such neat categories – equally well. And Akhmatova … what kills me about Akhmatova is that one can find an abundance of declarative, simple sentences in her translated work that emphasize a certain competence. (I don’t know if the sentence ends at the end of your quote, but if it does, that’s one example.) To me, the poems are sadder for their competence. Here’s another example of her structural competence: “In the west the falling light still glows, / and the clustered housetops glitter in the sun, / but here Death is already chalking the door with crosses, / and calling the ravens, and the ravens are flying in.” (That’s the end of “Why Is This Age Worse…” translated by Kunitz with Max Hayward.) In the original Russian, the first and last halves of that stanza are 13 words each, so there’s an equivalency sent up with the grammar of the stanza (over there, those things happen, but over here, this happens). There’s tension between the fact that those things are given equal space but are so horribly different. This might actually work with your proposal that love and war are wrapped in quantum oneness, which I wish I could say I disagree with, but I don’t think I do. It seems both are inextricably inside us. JS
‘Sadder for their competence’…that’s profoundly lovely, and I take it sadder because it is true? And I might add (for me) sadder because it is final. Love and war and, now, politics mentioned, each lending themselves to the declarative line, a philosophical axiom. I think (generally) European and American poets are more comfortable with taking an overview, laying the pensée bare. Descriptive poetry prevails in Britain, the philosophical stanza is to be mistrusted or feared. It is certainly disliked. We have talked about some iconic poets. Some poets have the epoch about them. Still thinking of Akhmatova, what a life! One could anecdote her all day, (I mean to be a model for Modigliani), but I have a vision of her sitting on a divan in one of her palace hovels, politics rife, war on, but poetry (in itself) still the main navigational star in her life. The lines you quoted above are powerful, and her visceral life equally emphatic, yet I still have a resistance to poets and poetry “encapsulating” in the way that the last two lines of a sonnet encapsulates or the way that a war poet or a seer is expected to encapsulate. Heaney talked about the pressure he was put under (from both sides of the political divide) to respond in poetry to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I don’t think this is the job of the poet. A poet should not feel morally compelled to write poetry about bombs even if bombs are dropping. Although many poets involve themselves in reportage with distinction, and poets protest with goodwill. For me, poetry has survived for 5000 years because it has often said the unsayable from a sideways position, and on the edge of things. In this sense Dickinson’s ‘at a slant’ theory of poetics is more in tune with what I am saying than Akhmatova’s attitude of taking on the world (full on). A good example is Kunitz. Stanley Kunitz is one of my favourite poets. He has links with Akhmatova with his interest in translation, and although he writes about politics and was politically active his work leads to the ethereal. He once said that, even amongst loved ones, he always felt a sense of not wanting to be there. His poems often take that pivotal position, too. (Ostensibly) he can write about snakes but he ultimately sees or feels the ‘braid of creation’, the invisible connective tissue. I think translation for Kunitz (and remembering Akhmatova translated from French, Italian, Armenian) is the quantum escape. You get what you can of another’s language, another’s poetry, add another strand of tissue to the world of poetry, but acknowledge the inevitable gaps of meaning, the unquantifiable black holes where (hopefully) death goblins are outnumbered by heavenly sprites. You have generously talked about other poets, Joanna, but I want to bring this conversation back to you. You began by telling me about the dairyland girl brought up on music and the bible, and poetry. I imagine in the early Noughties a young women, a young poet is studying (poetry?) has moved away from home, has fallen in love, is perhaps contemplating having a family, is writing poetry and getting her work published and then…in 2009 wins a major award (the Wick Poetry Prize). Your first collection – Visible Heavens – is published in 2010. We at The High Window Journal find it accomplished, which is why we have asked you to be our featured poet for our inaugural issue. Can you say something about Visible Heavens, the poems in it, your life and work since its publication? AC
We could certainly talk all day about poets, yes. I feel as though every answer leads to more questions, which I suppose is as good a definition of poetry as any. I actually didn’t formally study poetry until well after college – I was an English and education major in undergrad, so of course I was exposed to a lot of poetry, but I wrote it furtively and inconsistently. And badly. I think the girl from the dairy town somehow thought that college was a necessary step en route to a job, and poetry didn’t seem much like a job, so I hid the writing of it. But then after a long illness my mother died, I got married, we moved to Austin, TX and then to Brooklyn, NY, and suddenly we were surrounded by people doing creative work as if it was the most practical thing in the world. This astonished me. And many of them were very disciplined. So I decided to go to graduate school to study poetry, because I figured I should learn more about this thing I always wanted to do. Some of my early work is just dreadful, and a few lines of it ended up in Visible Heavens. But I also like the idea of swinging for the fences and falling short. So a few lines in Visible Heavens – which is largely about coming to terms with my mother’s death and, in a larger sense, wrestling with the intersection of religion and science – I actually like. To me, the collection is similar to a lot of first book prize winners’ – flawed in places, accomplished in others. My hope is that its verve compensates for the dud parts. As for life since finishing that manuscript, my husband and I have had two children, and have navigated other major life events just like everyone else. I’m in the process of finishing a second manuscript (another collection for adults), and I’m not yet done with a novel-in-verse for middle readers. I don’t know if this sounds like a lot or a little output since 2010, but in general, I am a fast writer with very little time. I should mention in there I taught creative writing part-time at a couple of Connecticut universities and now, in Brooklyn, I’ve gone back to working as a learning specialist, which is one of those vague terms that just means I tutor kids with learning issues. It’s fun. I love being around teenagers. If I go to a barbecue, the order of people I talk to is dogs, teenagers, babies, adults. It’s not that I don’t like adults – they’re just usually polite, and since I’m also polite, the conversation takes a while to go anywhere. JS
That’s a warm, sincere, fun answer. And an interesting route (both geographical and psychological). Six years does seem a long time for a second collection to appear, though, but I have seen even during this email exchange how work has cut short our conversation. It seems you have struck a balance, with work life, family life and writing life (no mean feat). Perhaps being super-disciplined (which you have learned to be) means you don’t have to make a wholesale sacrifice that some writers feel they have to make to serve their art. Can you reveal a little of what the new book is concerned with? Where you are with your writing at the moment, and your current writing practices. AC
Thanks for that. My current writing practices vary, due to the responsibilities you mention, but it’s not unusual for me to write on the subway. I also sometimes write at the local pub after my husband has come home from work and we’ve put the kids to bed – I have to put my back to the large-screen tv, especially if basketball is on, because I love basketball. Mornings before going to work I try to edit the current manuscript or submit poems to journals, the latter of which is tedious and time-consuming, but then again, doing so falls under the umbrella of “discipline.” (If anyone reading this is thinking of submitting to journals, I suggest looking forward to rejection letters, because no matter how kindly phrased, they are the least personal thing in the world.) The current manuscript still circles my pet themes: loss, love, looking for joy, science, etc. In includes a bunch of odes and ghazals, two of my favorite forms – I love odes for their magnanimity and ghazals for their leaps. They are actually both very generous forms. (Ghazals, as I’m sure you know, originally were meant for audience participation – listeners catch on to the radif, or refrain, and join in.) There are also a bunch of travel poems in the manuscript. I don’t get to travel much, except in my brain, but when we do I always read some literature from the region we’re visiting. Recently we stayed in a re-fabricated shipping container on the island of St. John, in the Caribbean. I did my best to research its former slave population and read up on various Caribbean poets as a means to engage with the land. I do believe that land retains memories of its former inhabitants. I think that trees, in particular, have a sort of steward-like wisdom. When the whole family travels, my husband and I have an arrangement that we each get an hour to ourselves each day, and during that hour I’m usually at a coffeeshop or bar with an anthology and a pen. Out of respect for giants, I always read before I write, always. It’s a form of knocking on a door. JS
Yes, I knew you liked odes (in the past you have written an ode to your mother and an ode to your thigh). I agree the ode is a very versatile poetic form as one can address almost anything. Ghazals are growing in popularity over the pond. Mimi Khalvati has been promoting the form in the UK for many years, and has written many fine ghazals of her own. Your last answer has a unifying homeliness to it which makes me feel we are coming to an end. I wonder, though, if you get a chance to read your work in Brooklyn? Is there a poetry scene there? How does poetry travel in the States? Is it so vast and varied that it is hard to keep abreast of poetry in the United States? I know some poets in California who haven’t heard of well-known poets on the East Coast and vice versa. Which magazine or journal last accepted one of your poems and do you have a title for the new collection? AC
A woman came up to me after a reading once and said, “I was really moved by that poem you wrote about your husband,” and I thought, huh, I didn’t read that one. The best I could reconstruct was that she took a poem about a god figure (whom I had addressed with the male pronoun) and assumed a spousal relationship, which she then applied to her own experience. Rock on, lady. This is to say, the thigh poem you refer to isn’t specifically about MY thigh, but it seems to be, which is fine with me – again, as a populist, poetry is for everybody. This includes the ability for that “everybody” to construct whatever utility they need from the poem at that particular time. (That’s the hope, anyway. Of course sometimes poems don’t do anything for anyone, and then it’s time to switch back to Neruda.) As for your questions about the States, gosh, there are so many people here. There’s so much of EVERYTHING here. And that said, the poetry world is still small, so it’s possible to go to conferences and see the same folks year after year, or to send off to literary journals whose editors you’ve just seen posing with their cats because you’re Facebook friends. This is probably how I learn about contemporary US poets – just by talking to them here or there, and browsing bookstores. There is definitely a poetry scene in Brooklyn – lots of reading series at bars, restaurants, writers’ rooms, etc. When I give readings, it’s typically at a university or a graduate program, and recently those have not been in Brooklyn (since after the round of readings for Visible Heavens, that is). However, I recite poems to myself when I’m waiting for the subway. It’s possible a rat has heard me read. The last journal my poems appeared in was The Harvard Review. The poem in it will indeed appear in the new collection, which does not have a title yet — I was thinking about The Mud Room, as in an inchoate, protean sort of mud, housed in a room that acts as a way station of sorts between worlds. But folks will probably think of galoshes. I’m entertaining other possibilities. JS
I totally understand what you mean by your thigh not being your thigh. There is at least one remove from the ‘person’ with the construct of a poetic self, and actually many more subtle layers of distancing in the creative process (and hermeneutics). I think, also, poems in the first person pronoun are the least likely to be true of all the possible points of views, and this has everything to do with the self-consciousness that shrouds the ‘I’, and the mistrust one has in the ‘I’ sounding off. I am relatively new to writing poetry but I have rarely written a poem that I could equate to being representative of ‘me’ (which readers often assume ), and this is because the ‘me’ is pitiful and banal and unfitting as subject matter. Thankfully, Art allows us to address (or create?) the world in a projective manner (one thinks of the theories of Melanie Klein and Oscar Wilde here), but if all Art is projection, then it is never true, or to invoke our old friend Richard Rorty, perhaps the best we can hope for is a contingent truth, and to invoke an even older friend (Winnicott), maybe Art as a contingent truth is a ‘good enough’ model. I want to thank you for sharing your time, allowing us a textured glimpse of the life of a contemporary American poet. Thank you for supporting The High Window Journal and good luck with your poetry. I am left with a vision of you reciting your work to subway rats, but what I would really wish for you (actually you can receive this as a challenge) is that you ditch the graduate reading platform and take yourself to one of those bars in Brooklyn, dress down, grab a beer and when it is your turn to be on stage recite from memory poems from The Mud Room, aim for the stars, through the high window. AC
Thank you so much for your time, Anthony, and this talk, which has felt rather like having a beer next to a high window with a view to please even Lucy Honeychurch. (Had to get an English reference in there.) I guess we’ll have to save hermeneutics, “I” vs. “me,” and the rest for next time, but there’s always a “next time” in poetry. Best of luck with your endeavours! JS
And here are five new poems by Joanna Solfrian:
My old lover mailed a trunk with golden fasteners.
Inside was a scarlet gown with a black velvet sash.
I slipped in, and the sash turned into snakes,
which wound around my neck and knotted.
The mirror reflected their bright fangs
and four drops of venom, warm on my collarbone.
I charmed the snakes into a black-linked chain
and the venom into salt. I strung the salt
on the chain and embedded a fang in each crystal.
The trunk is light when I mail it back, the necklace
hardly a whit. The gown spreads nicely
into a tablecloth, at which my new lover and I sit.
ODE TO AN ASH CAN
We are having
a staring contest,
the ash can and I.
The fact that it has
does not stop
the ash can.
Its lid, a gentlemanly,
covers eyes that
are not there.
O ash can!
You are winning.
Your organs are
newspaper, scrub pines,
that black locust
that stopped praying
to outdo your
but their bellies
Ash floated up
and the flames cried
and waved their arms.
Then the ash fell.
The fire retreated
like a Greek chorus
of tiny witches dying
like the name
of the boy
with the dark eyes
and if not his name
then the feeling of
the name’s kiss.
But this is about
the ash can!
You are trapezoidal
Your sides are immune
to the ember’s
Your pregnancy will
You will never groan,
and stomp out, saying,
“I’m done with this gig.”
Ash can, you stay
an ash can.
And for this,
we do not thank you,
night after night
you spare our home,
our sleep, our children,
our capacity to weep,
our eyes, and how,
when we stare at your
mute, armored breast,
they shift ever so
hoses us out
from the inside.
When I taste water, I taste the stream it came from
and the loins of the man picnicking next to it.
The self swells over and over. Yesterday, I came from
a preacher and a pianist, tomorrow, the balloon
at the end of a boy’s string. The room we came from
is the miracle we seek. All along we’ve been walking
on top of the earth, but the gods came from
within it. If you know the mud room of the world,
you know the creation space, the half-light, all that came from
a pair of eyes and a sudden yes.
Beware, Jo. The tailor’s stitching identities. Where he came from,
anyone’s fair game. He puts one eye on each sleeve,
so that when it’s the friend’s time to return to where she came from,
she’ll see the road and where it goes.
THE MOON HAS COME TO MY WINDOW SO I PRACTICE GRATITUDE
I am grateful for the small
children, their noise as they run down the dirt road,
the penumbras around them,
their bright braids and weeping knees.
Invisible inside them
is a mirror for angels, so that the temporarily holy
can recognize themselves.
Their bright brows are a grave where ideas rest.
The mothers kiss them there,
as I just did, bedside,
and the ideas move.
In this way, we are all free.
AFTER DRINKING ALL NIGHT WITH A FRIEND I BECOME HER
AND WRITE A POEM
You may think this is an old denim shirt
and skirt that falls white to the ankle,
but you are wrong—it is the sea, stitched by snails,
it is moonlight, glued by the weeping hands
of leaves. Look closely, friend, at the mud strung
on the widow’s silk—these are not eyelashes.
I have drunk enough from the master’s cup
to know that beholding the earthworm’s waste
is not the work of the lonely
but of one whom others think is lonely.
And, finally, if that has whet your appetite, here is a link to Joanna’s book, Visible Heavens, with an introduction by Naomi Shihab Nye: