Jill Crammond Wickham: Pictures in the Firestorm is so visual—almost like a photo album—you draw portraits of both place and person with equal skill. Are you a visual artist as well?
Lauren Rusk: Thanks so much. In fact, I used to draw a lot and do some painting, and always assumed as a young person that I would become a painter. In college, however, my interest in the process began to wane, and shortly thereafter I became fascinated by modern and contemporary poetry. When I began to write poetry, I found it great company—it talks to you! I also loved the fact that I could work on poems while riding on the bus or walking.
What is your process for writing such visual poetry? Do you work from photographs or memory or a combination of both?
I work from memory, from particular details that remain vividly in mind, sometimes years after an experience. Or else from notes that I jot down when an impression alters my breathing and feels somehow freighted with significance.
“Freighted with significance” is such a wonderful phrase! All poets should strive to be aware of those impressions. Is that what moves you to write about a certain work of art? An impression that alters your breathing and “feels somehow freighted with significance”? For example, what inspired you to write “The Village Printing Shop,” your poem written after the painting by Charles Ulrich?
What prompts me is the beauty and passion in the painting itself together with the personal associations that the visual image brings up. I may not be sure, at first, what those associations are, but I can feel their emotional vitality. That painting by Ulrich is a so-called genre painting—one about “ordinary” people at work—a kind I especially enjoy.
In the picture’s foreground, a boy is gulping water from a big cup, lost in thirst, oblivious for the moment of his job. On the table beside him are tools and ink, and looking toward the background we see an iron stove, then the printing press itself, and a couple of men working at it. I was first drawn in by Ulrich’s affectionate, naturalistic portrait and the way he rendered the light.
Beyond that, I kept returning to the image because of what it called up in me, which I discovered bit by bit as I wrote and revised. My associations had to do with the importance of print—books—in my life. (I can’t go through a day without an alternate life, in the form of some novel, in my backpack.) The painting became an image of the thirst to read.
Another source of associations was those old Hollywood movies about exciting newsrooms—in black and white! Those sequences of the latest revelations, dug up by heroines and heroes, rolling and flipping off the press. It’s also relevant that in Pictures in the Firestorm, “The Village Printing Shop” comes before “At the Holocaust Museum,” a poem that alludes in part to the book burnings of the Third Reich. What a long answer that became, for such a brief poem!
In addition to gorgeous imagery, your work has an immediacy and accessibility due, in large part, to your attention to the finest of details. You describe with equal grace and clarity 1960s San Francisco and a preschool classroom wall “painted” by a mischievous artist. In that much of your work is based on life experience, do you take copious notes while going through your day-to-day? Are you a “scrap of paper/torn envelope” type of writer or a journaler?
The notes are occasional, on odd pieces of paper. I’ve never used a journal; I don’t want to keep the humdrum writing around, between covers. It would unnerve me.
The poems in your collection read like a travelogue, taking us from New Mexico, to Paris, to Oxford. In fact, on your website, you have a “Whereabouts” section which lists you as dividing your time between Stanford University in California, Portland, Oregon and Oxford, England. How does your life as a trans-continental traveler affect your writing? Are you able to be a part of the literary communities in all your homes?
Certainly, being surprised, which is likely to happen somewhere new, is essential to my writing. So the shorter trips—to the southwestern United States, Paris, and lately, Prague and Berlin—have been fruitful. In Portland, where I have lived and hope to do so again, the weather itself is full of surprises. And I have several friends there who are poets.
Regarding the trans-Atlantic switching from Stanford in the school year to Oxford in the summer, I remain an American poet in lineage and temperament. On the other hand, I find conversation with British friends stimulating and delightful. Also, it seems that many more people in England who are not poets themselves care about poetry and go to readings.
Do you go to readings? How involved are you in your local “poetry scenes,” whether in the US or England? In what way, if any, do you take part in your local literary communities?
I do of course attend readings. Actually, it was hearing living poets read their work that first got me excited about poetry in college. I also give readings fairly often. In addition, I get together with friends who write, though not often enough, because they’re scattered geographically. We share work, talk about how our writing life is going, and read aloud poems we admire. But I’m not really part of any scene. I’d like to be, a little more.
The sense of connection you mention in hearing living poets read their work is also an important quality in your own poetry. You are quite skilled in creating a keen sense of connection for the reader between speaker and poem—one which often resonates with an awareness of a certain social/political climate. I’m thinking, of course, about “At the Holocaust Museum,” but also Onate in “Sight Unseen” and the events of 9/11, captured in the collection’s title poem. Would you consider yourself in any way a political poet?
Social, and hence political, tensions often impel my writing, as does aesthetic feeling. Frequently the two are connected. The third, inseparable element is love.
Let’s talk about your book! According to the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ website, Pictures in the Firestorm grew out of your work in VCFA's MFA in Writing program. After graduating in 2005, you then did an additional postgraduate semester to refine and extend your thesis for the book manuscript. Can you speak about this process?
At the end of the MFA program, I felt that my thesis was close to being a book, but needed more seasoning and revision. It also needed a first poem, a final poem, and one more fairly long poem in between. The postgraduate term gave me a chance to focus entirely on completing the book, as well as the luxury of working a second time with Betsy Sholl, who is a vigorous and discerning reader as well as a stunning poet.
Poets have a variety of methods for compiling a collection. What was your method for putting your manuscript together?
The principle was to balance coherence and variety. In arranging the book, I tried to provide subtle associative links from one poem to the next, and also variety of tone and length. On the larger scale, I wanted the last few poems to circle back to the concerns of the first few—national and international violence, the suppressed realities and desires of women, and the ways that aesthetic feeling illuminates one’s world. And I wanted a sense that the last couple of poems engage those concerns with increased intimacy and understanding.
In addition to poetry, you have written several scholarly articles, as well as a book of literary criticism, The Life Writing of Otherness: Woolf, Baldwin, Kingston, and Winterson. What is your preferred style of writing—poetry or prose?
Writing poetry is my vocation, what most compels me. I also enjoy writing critically about literature I admire, whether it’s poetry or prose. The Life Writing of Otherness is an expansion of the thesis I wrote for my doctorate. After that, I returned to poetry writing and entered Vermont College’s MFA program. Now in reviews and articles such as “The Possibilities and Perils of Writing Poems about Visual Art” [Writer’s Chronicle 39: 2007], I write as a poet.
You teach writing and literature at Stanford University. How does teaching enhance your writing?
It makes me discover in detail how the writing of many fine authors operates, in order to promote the students’ engagement with it.
In teaching writing, what is one thing you have learned from your students?
That they all need to hear, in precise terms, what they do well. We’re not always aware of our strengths.
Who are your major poetic influences?
Elizabeth Bishop, Mark Doty, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Robert Hayden, and Wallace Stevens, among others.
Who are you reading now?
Anne Carson, and I’m having a great time. I admire her range, versatility, and honesty.
Any new projects?
I’m halfway through my next book of poems, titled What Remains to Be Seen. The collection treats moments of nuance and intensity in my relation to particular people, places, and works of art, and explores the questions that those moments raise for me. While some of these questions—personal, social, and existential—came up in my first collection, I believe the new book takes them further. It looks inward more deeply and outward more expansively. Some of the pieces have also branched out in terms of form and voice. The title of the book refers to presences within and around me that compel attention—in person, in memory, in history, nature, and art.
If you could pass on one piece of advice to fellow poets, what would it be?
Read an abundance of poems by a writer whose work intrigues you, then another, and another.