This is such a carefully constructed book (My Crooked House) about the anatomy of a house and a psyche, and the healing of both. I’d love to hear you talk about how the idea for the book came to you.
Well, the poems started coming before the architectural structure of the book announced itself. For a few years I’d been thinking, writing, and talking in therapy about the many aspects of my homesickness. For the first forty years of my life I didn’t feel at home in my body or in my mind or in my writing or in my job or in my family or with friends or in my first marriage or in any place where I lived. This unease with every aspect of my self and my life left me feeling “broken in some fundamental way.” I projected this psychological state on my actual house—e.g. letting the house fall into disrepair and feeling unable to do anything about it. What I’m trying to emphasize here is: my house wasn’t just a metaphor for me, it was me. The root of the symptoms of homesickness was my homesickness for my core self.
At the same time, I was also thinking a lot about “the stories we tell” and how we tell them. Why do people repeat the same stories about their lives? Why do we choose to tell this story and not that one? What were the stories I told, time and again, about myself? Why did I keep circling around the same stories? Somehow those stories seemed part of my basic structure—the walls and floors of me. What did those stories mean? What would happen if I walked around in them? What would happen if I played with using aspects of my brokenness in the forms of the poems—e.g. the lists and the excessive numbering of things that come out of my obsessive compulsive nature? Then, at some point, a line was crossed and the construction of the poems turned into the construction of a book. I knew the poems were beginning to fit together but wanted an objective opinion so I worked with Dael Orlandersmith, a playwright and solo performance artist, for a few sessions. She helped draw the plans for the book. The book was built the way a house is built but from words/poems/stories not from wood/plaster/nails.
I am so in love with your voice in these poems. You are so honest. In your poem, “How It Happened, Part 4,” you talk about how you signed up for a poetry workshop, and the teacher pushed you to “hide less, go further, get out of your head.” You followed that advice brilliantly. Who is this workshop leader? (I think I want to sign up.) At what point did you decide to be a poet?
There were a lot of obstacles for me to overcome before I could declare myself a poet. I come from a family/class/geographic/social/occupational background where the announcement “I’m a poet” would be greeted with “Who the hell do you think you are?” and I bought into that accusation for many, many years. So even though I knew quite early—around the age of ten—that the land of metaphor was where I felt at home, I ran from being a poet in the same way in which Jonah ran from his fate. But, as Jonah couldn’t escape his fate, I couldn’t escape mine. I took a workshop here and there and, though teachers praised my “surfaces,” nothing felt “right” until I had the good fortune to sign up for a workshop with Joan Cusack Handler. It was years before she started CavanKerry Press. In the beginning I believed she hated my poems because every week she’d compliment my craft but add, “hide less, go further, get out of your head.” At the time I didn’t realize she was giving me an incredible gift—the gift of writing my poems, not anyone else’s.
Your poems are so sad, so funny, and so very true. And you surprise me again and again, as in the poem, “About Time through Time, Part 7,” when you talk about wanting to show your therapist what a good client you are. I can relate! But I never would have called myself on it. And the poem about folding fitted sheets. But really, how does anyone fold fitted sheets? Maybe you can post that poem here?
Isn’t it funny how sometimes what feels like one’s private shameful flaw turns out to be quite common and far from shameful? Whenever I read this poem at a reading both women and men come up to tell me that they also cannot fold fitted sheets! Take that Martha Stewart!
At the age of fifty-six, I don’t know how to fold a fitted sheet. Even worse, I feel folding fitted sheets into small neat rectangles that fit on shelves in an orderly fashion is beyond my abilities. I am not kidding. Every week when the sheets come out of the dryer I start folding with optimism—this time I will surely figure it out—and end with rumpled messes, which spill onto the floor when anyone opens the closet door. Every week my belief becomes stronger: I am broken in some fundamental way and thus incapable of learning how to fold a fitted sheet. I trust my ability to understand complex scientific theories such as dark matter or to fix an outage affecting telephone lines or to travel alone in a foreign country but not my competency with easily-mastered-by-everyone-else-in-the-universe tasks such as applying makeup, buying shoes, blow-drying my hair, managing money, cooking simple meals, housekeeping, or tending a flower garden. It has been this way my whole life. I get by because you can get by with wrinkled sheets in disorderly closets by pretending you’re above worrying about such nonsense but, truth be told, week after week I’m in the basement trying to figure it out.
You write about panic attacks and accidents, almost as if there is a meta-Teresa who watches you go through them. And with absolute clarity. I know it’s a lame question, but I have to ask: How do you do that?
I’m not sure how I do it. From a very young age, one of my primary survival techniques was to watch closely every one in the room because the slightest change could signal great danger. And in order to avoid setting off any one else, I had to watch myself. So I became quite skilled in a mind-trick called “splitting”; one side acts, the other watches. In the panic attack and accident poems I wanted to recreate this experience for the reader.
I think my favorite poems in the book are your poems about Jack Wiler. I love that method you use of reversing time, writing from two days before an event up to two minutes before the event. It’s so effective. I was wondering if you could say a few words about Jack, and maybe post a poem about him.
Two summers ago, at Frost Place, I heard Luray Gross, a NJ poet, read a poem that used the reversal of time. as its overarching structure. When I was struggling to find a way to write about Jack’s death, I remembered her poem and adapted the method to my purposes. (By the way: Thank you Luray!)
As a person and as a poet Jack was a force of nature. His poems grab you by the lapels from the first syllable then take you from Toledo to Tampa to Walla Walla before he lets go after the final period. His advice, in regards to writing poetry and to living life, centered on “pay attention.” Jack haunts My Crooked House. I hope that I did him proud.
for Jack Wiler
Three days before, we give a reading at the Main Street Museum in White River Junction. As always you blow off the roof with your performance. You also do a great job reading the Talker role in one of my sideshow poems. The audience loves you. Afterwards our host takes us to dinner at a fancy place, not a chain or a dive. She tells us to order whatever we want from the menu and whatever we want from the bar. We drink glass after glass of a good merlot; eat scallops and filet mignon; laugh at everyone’s stories about the poetry world. At one point you, a satisfied calm on your face, turn to me and say, “This is the first time I really feel like I’m being treated with respect as a poet.”
Two days before, we eat breakfast at the Polka Dot Diner and you ask if I really told you that We Monsters wasn’t the right title for your next collection or if you dreamed the conversation. When I answer that you dreamed it, you tell me that you’re thinking of changing the title but don’t know to what. We drive from Vermont to New Jersey in a terrible storm. You’re in the back seat. You complain about a chill. At various times during the trip I hear mumbling and turn to see if you’re talking to John or me. I’m a little worried because you seem to be pleading in a childlike way with an invisible person. When we drop you off, I give you a hug and say, “I love reading with you.” You agree.
Thirty hours before, I send that new poem for your comment but you don’t answer.
Fifteen minutes before, I’m walking towards the car because John and I are going to Tuesday night yoga when he comes out of the garage, his eyes full of shock, and says, “Johanna just called. Jack’s gone.” Gone where? Oh no, did they have another big fight and Jack walked out? Gone where? And John looks at me and keeps saying, “He’s gone.”
One minute before, I’m walking down the hallway to your bedroom and telling the cops standing outside the door that we’re close friends and I haven’t yet stepped into the room, haven’t yet seen your body, covered with a sheet, on the floor, haven’t yet seen your face.
And then there’s only before.
I imagine, while reading these poems, that they flowed out of you as naturally as water from a faucet. Is that true? What is the biggest challenge for you as a writer?
Oh god, no. I negotiated at length with each and every poem—e.g. What form do you want to be? What metrical pattern? What word here? What word there? What is your story and how should I tell it? (To tell the truth, sometimes it was more of a battle than a negotiation.)
My biggest challenge? Did you ever make popcorn in a hot air popper? First the heat rises but no kernels pop then there’s a stray pop here and there then, all of a sudden, the finale to a Fourth of July fireworks explodes in the popper then silence. My biggest challenge is to avoid panicking during the “no kernels pop” and “silence” times.
How does a poem begin for you? What is your writing process like?
A subject catches my attention. A second subject catches my attention. A third. A fourth. Etcetera. The connections between the subjects are a mystery to me at this stage. I throw myself into an intense research period during which I circle and circle those subjects. This is my lost in the dark woods stage. A line, or a few lines, of a poem pop into my head. (See my answer to the previous question for the whole kernel popping metaphor.) Bit by bit, the poems lead me out of the dark woods and into the landscape of the project. From that moment until the project ends, I’m moving in that landscape day and night.
Who are your primary literary influences?
Shakespeare, Keats, Melville, and Emerson. In the past few years I’ve become obsessed with epics so Homer, Virgil and Dante have played a larger part in my poetry life.
I’d love to close with a poem of your choice.
Thank you, Nin for your thoughtful and attentive questions.
Since My Crooked House is essentially a long love poem to my husband John, I choose:
What I Was Waiting For
John says, before he falls asleep each night,
without a hint of dark, “I love you, Tree.”
Some nights, awake enough, I add my part,
“And I love you, the sun, the moon, the stars.”
Yet even when I’m too far gone to speak,
to hear, and words get missed, his love, his love, abides.