Can You Hear Me Hear Me Knocking?
Q&A with Deborah Hauser and Lynn Domina
Two poets who had never met and were unfamiliar with each other’s work.
East Coast writers, with dissimilar styles and subject matter. Deborah Hauser and Lynn Domina, were recruited from the Discussion of Women’s Poetry LISTSERVE and paired up for a cross-current style interview for PQ.
What happened next? Lynn and Deborah exchanged books and had an old-fashioned literary correspondence (via e-mail) about poetry and writing. Because their work is stylistically different from each other, it was a particularly intriguing opportunity for them to be able to ask each other questions as they were reading. Deborah notes, that she “enjoyed getting to know Lynn and her work, and answering questions prompted me to think in depth about my writing process. I am grateful for this rewarding experience.”
|Deborah Hauser (L) and Lynn Domina (R)
Lynn: Your superpower is time traveling. Let’s say that you could invite any three poets from any periods in history over to your house for dinner. Which three? What do you think they’d talk about?
Deborah: Three of my favorite woman poets: Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, and Anne Sexton. Sylvia and Anne would be catty to each other and argue over which of them had the better death. Anne would read Sylvia the poem she wrote for her after her death. Emily would bring home-baked cookies and tell us what she thinks about all the speculation over her relationship with Sue and reveal the identity of the recipient of her “Master” letters. I’d love to hear Emily’s reaction to her posthumous publication and enduring fame. I’m working on a series of fairy tale poems, so I would discuss fairy tales as source material with Anne. Sylvia would bake us her lemon pudding cake and make a spectacular mess in the kitchen. Instead of cleaning up the kitchen, we’d eat cake and write poetry together.
Deborah: Framed In Silence opens with a series of creation poems. How did the series develop?
Lynn: I wrote “Birds of the Air” first, not at all thinking it would become part of a series. My study looks out onto our back yard, and there’s a bird feeder outside my window, so the view enters my poems every once in a while. And I often struggle with titles, so when I can, I steal the title from another text. Once I stole this title from the creation story in Genesis, I thought, well, I should just write a whole series about creation, expanding on those brief verses. I think I wrote “Beasts of the Field” early on, but after that I wrote them pretty much in order. I like working on poems in a series because the blank page isn’t so blank.
Deborah: Each poem works well on its own and the series works well because while the form and subject matter connect the poems, the poems contain enough variation that they don’t fall into a pattern, and the reader continues to be surprised. Throughout Framed In Silence, I noted numerous references to imagination; God’s, the speaker’s, and the reader’s. What role does the imagination play in your creative process?
Lynn: Like many of us, I spend a lot of time in my imagination, and I’m often astonished anew at just how imaginative a creator would have had to have been to imagine this world in all its variety into being. Whatever origin story one subscribes to, part of the awe, I think, is how much there is to account for.
Deborah: I have to confess that initially I was a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to engage with some of the poems because of the religious content, but I was pleasantly surprised. The poems focus on the wonder of creation and the creatures found in the natural world and completely avoid proselytizing. I read the creation poems on two levels. First, as narrative poems describing the creation of the universe, but also as poems that could be describing any creative process; in particular writing. There are several references to form in the series. The poems in this series are all single stanzas poems. How does form evolve as you draft and revise a poem?
Lynn: With the poems in “Creation Sequence,” I decided to keep them all single stanza poems after I’d written the first couple. That challenged me to lead from one line into the next more coherently than I might have if I’d used stanza breaks. Most often, I’m going with my gut regarding form early on in the drafting process, but then form emerges as the poem reveals its true concerns. Like many writers, I usually have to throw out the first several lines, and it’s only when I’m further along in generating content that I begin to have insight into form. Most of my poems are free verse, so I have to think about the line and stanza differently than I would if I were writing primarily in received forms. When I am writing in received forms, though, I usually decide that right at the beginning. I will often choose to compose in a received form when I’m not certain about content, so the form permits me to think just about the words, and then content emerges.
Deborah: I’m one of those writers also. It’s as if the first few lines are a warm up leading to the real subject matter of the poem, and in the final revision the poem has moved so far from its starting point that those first lines sometimes end up on the cutting room floor. The last section of Framed In Silence is a series of poems, including the title poem, inspired by Edward Hick’s Peaceable Kingdom paintings. Can you describe the conversation between the paintings and your poems?
Lynn: Several years ago, I went to an exhibit of the Hicks paintings at the Fennimore Museum of Art in Cooperstown, NY. (Aside: if you’re looking for something to do in Cooperstown other than visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, the art museum will always be a good choice—the exhibits are very well curated.) I became intrigued with how obsessed Hicks was with the peaceable kingdom passage from Isaiah, with how his paintings seemed to duplicate each other until you looked more carefully. His obsessiveness became my obsession. So I wanted to write something about the paintings, but I didn’t want to just describe the paintings themselves. That’s the challenge with ekphrastic writing—how to create something new, something the painter couldn’t have created. So I started thinking about all the myths, legends, stories, etc. we have about the animals featured in the paintings. Some of the poems respond to Hicks’ biography, but the others each take one animal from the paintings and explore human responses to that animal. In many of the animal poems, a reader wouldn’t necessarily have to know anything about Hicks to enjoy the poem—but then the poems increase in meaning when they’re read in the context of each other.
Deborah: That’s one of the things that impressed me; how the poems accumulate meaning as you read them. In the “Notes” you reference a book on Hicks by Carolyn J. Weekly. You really did become obsessed and immerse yourself in Hicks. I love reading poems that point me back out into the world, and yours sent me online to view the paintings you were writing about. For me, it’s a fine line between researching some aspect of what I’m writing about and good old fashioned procrastination. Where else do you find inspiration?
Lynn: All over the place. For a while, I was writing poems that explored other Biblical stories in the tradition of midrash. More recently, I’ve returned to more biographical material, at least a bit. When I’m a little lost as to content, I’ll look at some books on craft, or books with suggested exercises, and that generally leads me to something. Last week I included a line of dialogue that a friend had uttered over ten years ago (it’s true what they say—be careful if you’re friends with a writer). But mostly I just stare out the window a lot.
Deborah: My biggest source of inspiration is reading poetry. I’ll read a poetry collection and then write a poem imitating the poet’s style. Or I’ll write down my favorite lines and phrases and use them to write a cento or a found collage poem. The inspiration for Ennui came from a writing assignment to write a poem that defined a word.
Lynn: On one level, Ennui is about language and the complicated meanings of words. It reveals meaning by sometimes seeming to undercut meaning. It precludes us from assuming that language is simply a transparent window onto the world. What is your personal relationship to language?
Deborah: I’m interested in the ability of rhetoric to shape our perception of the world. I’m hyperaware of gender bias in everyday language. So much of our language excludes women; starting with the term “mankind.” I’ve recently become more conscious of the paternalistic use of language in the medical field to both blame the patient and control the patient’s behavior. I have worked these issues into my writing, with poems that parse the language of an FDA advisory for women and children and a news article about domestic violence.
Lynn: Ennui relies on standard reference works for much of its material but also incorporates figurative language—and then draws attention to the fact that the language is figurative, by calling sections “metaphor” and “simile” for example. Can you talk a little bit about how you approached the arrangement of this piece?
Deborah: I started by drafting an exhaustive list of different ways to describe Ennui. Some of the section headings are in the first draft, but most of the arrangement and section work came during multiple revisions. It started with basic reference book sections (definition and antonyms) then moved to a literary exploration. The idea of incorporating medical terminology (symptoms, differential diagnosis) and structuring the poem after the DSM was the final step in organizing the poem.
Deborah: I’m simultaneously working on two projects for full length poetry collections. One is a collection of modern fairy tales with a recurring riot grrrl theme titled (dis)Enchanted: A Grrrls’ Guide to Surviving Happily Ever After. The other is a collection of longer Enuui style poems tentatively titled Asking For It. What are you working on currently?
Lynn: The poems I’ve written in the last year are fairly different from anything else I’ve done. I’m playing with some forms a little more—epistolary poems, abecedarians, etc. There’s a different kind of energy in the new work, which is always fun. I’m also beginning to write more nonfiction, which is not what I would have predicted for myself. But I’m finding nonfiction refreshing.
Deborah: Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition of Framed In Silence?
Lynn: That’s an interesting but tough question. For Hicks, I’d get someone who could play a soft curmudgeon. I don’t know enough actors. For God, I’d get Maggie Smith as she played Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies. What about a movie version of Ennui?
Deborah: There are references to real people like Sylvia Plath and Betty Friedan, but no characters or plot. The book is meant to represent the collective and universal experience of women who suffer from the malaise described in The Feminine Mystique. Julianne Moore has played that type of female lead very well in several movies, including Safe.
Lynn Domina is the author of two collections of poetry, Corporal Works and Framed in Silence, and the editor of a collection of essays, Poets on the Psalms. Her recent work appears or is forthcoming in The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Arts & Letters, The Massachusetts Review, and many other periodicals. She lives in the western Catskill region of New York. You can read more at www.lynndomina.com
Deborah Hauser is the author of Ennui: From the Diagnostic and Statistical Field Guide of Feminine Disorders (Finishing Line Press, 2011) and a poetry editor at The Found Poetry Review. She received a Masters in English Literature from Stony Brook University and has taught at Stony Brook University and Suffolk County Community College. Her work has appeared in Dogwood, DASH, and The Wallace Stevens Journal. She leads a double life on Long Island where she works in the insurance industry when she isn’t writing poetry.