First Book Poets in Conversation: Laura Cherry & Linda Dove

Laura Cherry's poetry collection, Haunts, was published by Cooper Dillon Books in September 2010. Her chapbook, What We Planted, was awarded the 2002 Philbrick Poetry Award by the Providence Athenaeum. She co-edited the anthology Poem, Revised (Marion Street Press). Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Forklift: Ohio, H_NGM_N, The Vocabula Review, Newport Review, LA Review, and Naugatuck River Review, and in the anthologies Present Tense (Calyx Press) and Vocabula Bound (Vocabula Books). She received an MFA from Warren Wilson College.
Linda Dove holds a Ph.D. in Renaissance poetry and taught literature and creative writing for many years. Her full-length collection of poems is In Defense of Objects (Bear Star Press, 2009), and a chapbook, O Dear Deer,, just won the first Eudaimonia Poetry Review Chapbook Award and will be published in July. Poems have been nominated recently for a Pushcart Prize and the Robert H. Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America and have appeared in such publications as the L.A. Review, Diner, Horse Less Review, and the North American Review. She lives in Altadena, California, with her husband, daughter, and two Jack Russell terriers.

Laura Cherry: In each of my readings of your book, I've been struck by both the thoroughness and the subtlety of the theme indicated by the title, In Defense of Objects. The idea that objects need defending is intriguing, and it threads through the book and pops up in many different ways and contexts, but without ever seeming belabored. Even in poems that don't explictly expore the connective idea, that idea illuminates and elevates the objects, as in "Labor Day Pie," ("Eggs and citrus juice, rind and sugar. / Outside, the finches hang / from a collapse of sunflowers.") And, of course, I think of Williams's "No ideas but in things," and wonder if that was a spark to you. Can you talk about how you came to your theme and how it unfolded?
Linda Dove: To start, I just want to say how happy I am to be included in this first-book discussion with you. I love that both collections came out within a matter of months of each other. In Defense of Objects includes poems written across a large span of time (about 12 years), which I take as both the blessing and the curse of the first book. It allows a poet to sample different writing stages, different obsessions that she moved through, which also means it includes some poems she'd probably thought she moved past long ago. As one of my blurbers commented to me, it ends up as a rather "rangy" thing. The idea for the theme arrived pretty late to the collection and required about a dozen new "glue poems," which explored the idea of objects more explicitly, to make it fit. I also dropped in some key quotations borrowed from others - like the infamous line of Williams's - to stand as epigraphs. "No ideas but in things" was not so much spark as the embers left over the next morning! I have to say, though, that I won't write that way again if I can help it - as a sort of regressive act. Editors are looking for thematically-tight collections these days (perhaps because of the success of narrative in the culture?). From now on, I have the opportunity to think about what I'm working toward more deliberately.

Thinking about theme raises an issue for me in terms of your collection, Haunts, which is your attention to autobiography. I seem to want to avoid it in my work, as if I don't quite know what to do with it, as if the first-person pronoun might bite. But you reach straight for daily life and give it staying power, both by elevating it into general wisdom, as in "On the Bridge" ("Love is asleep in the passenger seat, and may never // wake up again") and by transforming it, as you do in "The Nurse and the Principal," which becomes a comedic allegory of sorts, or the series of poems on your daughter ("Lila is a reasonable heroine"). Can you offer us a glimpse into your writing process and how you make use of the everyday in your work? It doesn't seem to fit the confessional mode exactly....
LC: I have said, jokingly, that I wouldn't write anything if I didn't commute to work by bus and by train - but I think it might actually be true. While I don't need anything fancy to write, it turns out that the one thing I do need is a pocket of time in which I am assured that no one will suddenly call for me or need something of me or ask me a question, and that is precisely the thing that my life as mother and worker and caretaking daughter does not readily provide. If it weren't for the commute and the occasional hour in a coffee shop, I'd likely never write at all.

As far as my approach to autobiography goes, though I am fundamentally and unrecoverably indebted to the Confessional poets, I'm less apt than they to mine the recesses of my psyche, more interested in turning the circumstances of my life into something captured and held and seen clearly as beautiful - an acquaintance, a neighborhood death, or a cross-state drive listening to Roald Dahl on tape might all be occasions for art if I'm open to them. I'm committed to writing in a way that is accessible to non-poets but not dumbed down, so I try to keep my material grounded in the everyday and ready-to-hand. I admire poetry that does not function in this mode, but this seems to be my territory.

Speaking of which - this might be a clunky segue, but this train of thought leads me to a section of your book that I find very compelling, partially because it deals with my neck of the woods (Groton, MA) rather than your trademark western expanses, but also for its far-reaching human element: the "divertimento" of your book, the section based on a historic New England cemetery. I find these poems inexpressibly moving. Can you say how you came to write them and how they relate to your other work?
LD:I'm so glad to be asked about this section of the book! I often think back to the days I spent writing "The Old Burying Ground" as the best stretch of creative time I've ever had. I couldn't wait to get to my desk every day. The occasion for writing was a visit to Groton in October, 2004, when I happened to wander into the town cemetery, which was filling up with gorgeous red and gold leaves. I easily spent several hours there, walking among the old stones, reading the names and the inscriptions left behind, admiring the carvings. Each section of the poem is based on a stone I saw that day (I took a lot of photographs!).

That winter, I researched early gravestone cutters in preparation for writing the piece. I suppose that's a thread common to much of my work - I'm intrigued by subjects that engage me-and by extension, the reader - intellectually. I enjoy the process of research and figuring out how to use ideas in a poem. I also think I pushed myself creatively for the first time in that series to try something a little bit out of my comfort zone. I created a mash-up of different forms and types - prose poems next to epigrammatic lyrics; persona poems next to pastoral; experimental poems that offer a sort of associative logic, as well as poems that depend on normative syntax. The whole sequence is chronologically-challenged. In terms of style, I look back on it as a transitional piece for me.

It's funny you brought up that section because I am likewise intrigued by the two sequences that appear in your book - "Lila" and "Chapter Book." As with mine, each interior poem is titled, giving them their own weight within the series, and yet they lean on and against each other. I'm curious about their origins and your approach to them creatively, as a sequence, rather than a single poem.
LC: I hadn't considered this before, but those two sequences were composed using entirely different methods. "Lila" began as a jumble of poems about the experience of becoming a mother - from idea to infant, you might say - and somewhere along the way I got the idea that they'd work well as a chronological sequence. A couple of the pieces incorporate my daughter's name, so that becomes something of a framing device or guide. I liked the idea of each piece representing a particular milestone or moment, both culturally recognized ones such as sonogram, first movement, childbirth, and more idiosyncratic ones such as replacing leaded windows or counting sleepless nights. I wanted the sequence to have a bounded feel, possibly for my own sanity's sake. I didn't want to be writing baby poems forever. A numbered sequence with a beginning and an end seemed just right.

For "Chapter Book," I set out from the beginning to mine the experience of living on a farm in rural Arkansas for two years of my childhood - my impressions of that time were incredibly vivid but scattered, and I wanted to see if I could piece them into a narrative; hence the title. I also recalled that I was forever trying to write about the place even at the time, without success, and I snuck that idea in there as well. There are some advantages to growing up, and one of them is gaining control over your own story. Even if you use that power to rewrite the story over and over, the power remains yours. I can't begin to describe the satisfaction I have from having captured something of that time, which otherwise would exist only as lightning bolts in my head: the crazy thunderstorms, the green heat, my mother's desperate illness. This series, like the handful about high school later in the book, came to me under the tutelage of the wonderful, recently deceased and sorely missed Steve Orlen. I don't think I would have tried such a tightwire act without Steve to hold the net.

You mentioned earlier that autobiography is not your thing, but you do suspend that policy to include a number of very tender poems about your own daughter and becoming her mother. I admire the striations in your book - the way, in a manuscript about objects, the thread of the human keeps reasserting itself - in the graveyard poems we talked about, and even more strongly in these daughter poems ("My Daughter and I Speak of the Wind" and "Mother Tongue"). Are the daughter poems also an example of stepping out of your comfort zone?
LD: Definitely. I have always been interested in how women poets navigated the waters of motherhood in their work, but it took me some time not to feel at sea with that material. Maybe I was nervous about sentimentality? Or maybe I was just experiencing a loss of imagination, but I couldn't see clear to write poems about my daughter, who was adopted from China, in conventional lyric or narrative forms. My experience coming to motherhood wasn't typical, wasn't normative. It was incredibly joyful, but it was also fragmented and indirect and mediated. I wanted that patchy reality to inform the poems I wrote about it.

Now when I read the two poems in the book about my daughter, I think they aren't nearly oblique enough! They come at the topic indirectly, through the stand-ins of art and language, but - in the last analysis - they're pretty conventional, if not confessional. I devoured Sarah Vap's recent collection, Faulkner's Rosary, about her pregnancy and birth and admire the way she writes about motherhood so obliquely, so stealthily, so quietly. In her new book, Lucky Fish, Aimee Nezhukumatathil also has an amazing collage sequence about giving birth that manages to knit together wildly disparate genres. That's why I love your "Lila" sequence, as well; the last section, especially, which is written as a list poem, is such a beautiful, provocative mix of colloquialisms, ephemera, pop-culture, and personal history ("Lila is facilitated best in human society / Lila is a girl").

Speaking of mixing things up, I'm completely taken with the poems in your book that address the natural world - because they don't take place there, at least not as it's usually defined. As one of your speakers states, "I am clearly, irreparably urban," and so are the seasons, the hawks, the weather, and even the nature film on the Nile that concludes your book. I'm wondering if you can speak about those (for lack of a better term) anti-pastoral pastorals.
LC: The funny thing about that question is that when I wrote "I am clearly, irreparably urban," it felt true, but in the years since then I've become clearly and irreparably suburban. The point remains much the same, though, with regard to capital-N nature: cities and suburbs, peopled and paved and landscaped though they might be, are ecosystems of their own, and the natural world makes itself known. Mountains of snow fill parking lots; meltwater drips on commuters filing out of the subway; ants invade houses after the thaw. A pair of hawks nesting and raising chicks on the window ledge of an office tower is both a marvel and just another part of the landscape. (Those red-tail hawks were succeeded by peregrine falcons, who shacked up in the hawks' nest, and who were finally chased out by the Audubon Society for reasons best known to that venerable organization.)

Insofar as I have an insight here, it is that we don't have to go out into wilderness to find nature; it's already where we are, and for the most part, the wilderness is likely better off without our proddings and pilgrimages anyway. A related idea, and one I'm strongly attached to, is that suburban cultures are richer, more dramatic and less TV-flattened than we're often led to believe. On any given day, a lot happens on my street that is neither soul-deadened nor intellectually bankrupt for lack of being in an urban center. That's my report from the sidelines, and (I hope) a useful, achievable set of tasks: to watch and to gently complicate received wisdom.

I know just enough about you to know that you lived for a stretch on a ranch, and now live in very-non-rural Southern California. The ranch is the primary landscape of your book and informs many of the poems ("At this one point of the Little Colorado, / this bend, where a hump in the desert wash / forms an esplanade of mud flats and waste, / what matters most is contingency.") I wonder what you make now of the contrast in that environment to your current one, and whether your work is as involved now with those new environs as it was with the "ridgeline of orange boulders / and pinyon pine."
LD: You know, I stole that line of yours - "I am clearly, irreparably urban" - for a poem a couple years ago (credited, of course!) and put it in the mouth of Eve, so I guess I always thought of it as more a state of mind and less a matter of population density. And, also, coming from rural Arizona to the Los Angeles basin three years ago, I don't really distinguish between "urban" and "suburban" anymore. To a rancher, this neighborhood of lawn sprinklers and tree-lined streets looks well enough like the big city!

As far as your question about geographic influences, I would have to say, no, the city has not yet asserted itself in my more recent work to the extent that the desert did in those earlier poems. When I arrived in the mountains of Arizona, everything - the topography, the flora and fauna, the names of things (Skull Valley, Bloody Basin Road, javalina, cholla, Pyrrhuloxia) - landed in my ear like a new language, everything was shockingly strange and ripe. But, of course, that perspective says more about me than about it.

I think the word "nature" gets used dishonestly more often than not. I've written a few poems here that challenge the conventional romantic view of the "natural world" - about the L.A. River, for instance, which is both encased in graffiti-covered concrete and home to lush, riparian habitat. Or the so-called "L.A. moss," which is the local term for the ubiquitous plastic shopping bags found dripping from tree branches and stuck in storm drains-and also capable of sustaining small ecosystems. So, I agree with you when you say that nature is already where we are.

In general, the work I'm producing now is more experimental, less tied to narrative or description than it was in the first book. I've finished a chapbook manuscript, O Dear Deer,, which I began after serving on the jury for a gang-related-murder trial in downtown L.A. a year or so ago. It's highly-stylized and associative and doesn't attempt to tell the story of the trial, at least not realistically. Much of the time, the more experimental poetry out there doesn't satisfy me as a reader. But I assume that's a fault of mine, rather than the work, and it intrigues me, and I want to know more, so I've started turning my own work in that direction to see what happens.

I know you have a new chapbook manuscript as well. Can you talk a little bit about that project?
LC: My chapbook manuscript, provisionally-titled Two White Beds, grew out of one of those poem-a-day projects (good for jump-starting work, I find) a couple of years ago, and I'm still tinkering with it. It's a story told in the alternating voices of two young Victorian women, Sam and Millie, one more privileged than the other, who fall in love and then have to figure out how to proceed with their lives. It's entirely fictional, heavily influenced by, among other things, the novels of Sarah Waters, and has been a total departure for me and great fun to work on. Not least of the pleasures involved was having the power to give Sam and Millie a happy ending! That doesn't happen much in poetry, or in mine, anyway, so I seized the opportunity when I saw it. It's very different from the leap you've made in your chapbook manuscript, but definitely a stretch: a kind of historical literary riff that is part flight of fancy and part homage to a bunch of genres I love: Victorian novels, lesbian fiction, verse narratives, and Merchant-Ivory films full of green fields and floating white dresses.

Well, this has really been fun too, getting the chance to ask you many of the questions I've had about your work and to learn things I hadn't even thought to ask. And your questions and juxtapositions have helped me see my own work in some new ways, which is a gift, especially for this first collection whose poems have lived with me so long and become so familiar. Thank you, Linda!
LD: Thank you, Laura! I learned a lot, too - about Haunts, but also about my own work. I was so glad to have this opportunity to exchange some backstories with you and hear a bit about where you're headed in the future.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761