David Herrle SubtleTea Interview with Emily Van Duyne
D: So you're a Project Verse winner. I love the last five poems of your final assignment. It seems that you had to impress a tough and insightful crowd. Dustin Brookshire, the founder and orchestrator, knows how to tell it like it is, which makes his praise trustworthy. Tell us about your Project Verse experience.
First of all, thank you so much for reading the poems, and for putting together this interview. It's lovely of you. So, Project Verse. I heard about the contest through the grapevine, from a friend who'd had a poem taken by Dustin for his online magazine, LimpWrist. I loved the concept, not only because I love "Project Runway," but because it was a contest that was about producing work, as opposed to just dusting off your three best poems to have them judged beneath the narrow eyes of like - I don't know - Robert Pinsky or whoever. I also love assignments and quick deadlines, so it seemed ideal for me.
Once we started the actual competition, it was a total roller coaster ride and a blast, and rather havoc-wreaking, all at once. Dustin's a stickler for the rules, (see Week 3, where he slayed me by posting my poem with the typos I'd missed in the final proofread: horrifying) so that made everything tense, which was, in retrospect, as it should be. It heightened the sense that you really had a lot to lose by screwing up. And the more difficult the challenges got, the better everyone's work got.
Also, the advent of the social networking craze made "meeting" the other contestants easier, and tons of fun. I became pretty chummy with Will Roby and Kristen McHenry via Facebook. Emari DiGiorgio and I were already friends, and we became better friends because of the contest. So I was emotionally invested in who went home each week. It really was like being on a reality show.
D: Judging from only several of your poems and your social-network persona, I assume that Van Duyne Likes It Hot. Your vibe is a popped button, whipped cream and whips ("my staccato inhale, the salty night’s tough/twin shudders") - but you've a wistful, spectral, memoir vibe, as well. I can't help but feel virginity lost in a stanza about nose-piercing, sensuality in two girls chewing mint, and menstrual innuendo in the apparently innocuous "I'll give you each red cent/in my pink wallet". But other pieces catch my heart's breath, make me look back on my own ebbing road. Tell us about what you like to look at and turn into poetry, what your obsessions are, what turns you on and off. Why do we like or need to look back so much?
Oh, well, the quick and easy answer is that telling stories turns me on. I adore narratives, especially narrative poems. I have high hopes to one day write narrative poetry in the vein of Larry Levis, who I admire tremendously. No one else can take a traditional story, or memory, and reveal its layers; his poems are like brainy burlesques. Which I do find incredibly sexy. My friends tease me about my undying flame for Levis. He died in 1994, so, you know, bummer. Levis has one poem, "Self-Portrait with Radio", about his first memory, which is sitting at the dinner table with his parents, listening to the McCarthy hearings on the radio. The poems starts out with sound "Soieee...pig, pig, pig" and spirals back to an encapsulated history of his entire clan, how they've led up to this one memory - so he's placing himself in the context of his personal history, and simultaneously placing that history in the context of history at large. It's a bit like a labyrinth or an advent calendar, which are two ways I like to picture poems: one door opens to another, which opens to another, which...you see what I mean. But Levis also does something else that I aspire to do. Just when you think you've nailed an image down, he spins it. It's like watching the light switch on the ocean. For instance, in "Self-Portrait", he says (I'm paraphrasing, I apologize), "It's the way the snow falling on those rows of slave cabins makes them look so pretty in the distance..." I often feel like every time I sit down to write, I'm just trying to write that poem, or my version of it.
In terms of my "popped button vibe," well, I mean, yes, sexual desire is very interesting to me, something I like to write about. Writing is a sexual act, after all, it's about desire. I get the same pull in my belly when I'm writing a "real" poem as I do when I desire another person. Both acts are about transcendence, about coming out of yourself. Sex is about coming together with another person, and writing, to me, is about self-invention or becoming another. I think poetry at all, but especially poetry about sex, absolutely must be about self-invention, or it will ultimately fail. No one cares about poems that are just about banging, let's be honest. They're a real snooze fest. It's the getting beyond one's self or the limitations that we face day to day that's interesting. Also, for the record, I'm rather surprised to hear my "social networking persona" comes off as sexy time. I thought it was largely curmudgeony.
One last thing: literature turns me on tremendously. I love to write about other writers, other books. I suppose that makes me "meta" or something? Whatever it makes me, I find nothing so exciting as writing poems about my experience with other writers, like Lorca, or Plath. It goes back to my advent calendar image: they've opened a door for me, and I have to open the one behind it.
D: Your favorite books, films, music, etc.? You've mentioned Possession in two of your poems that I've seen. Do you mean the Byatt novel? What is its significance?
Oh, Byatt. (Sigh...) Another obsession. I sometimes fear that David Bowie and A.S. Byatt will one day read my poems and get a dual restraining order against me. But yes, that book, and almost all of her books, are very important to me, both personally and to my work. It was the book that introduced me to Browning and Rossetti, to Norse myths, to literary criticism, to...to...to (another sigh)... I read it the summer I was 17, the summer after my paternal grandfather, who I was very close to, died, the summer I lost my virginity. Like Levis's poems, the novel is layered, it's about a hunt. In the case of Possession, the characters' sleuthing for clues mirrors (to me) Byatt's quest to write. It's also a novel about the deep, deep pleasures of reading, about desire, about how, as writers and readers, we are always searching for some unnamable thing, but that once we"'get" that "thing," it disappears, it's a vanishing point. I hope I'm making sense. That book means so much to me, it's difficult to talk about. Her other novels, particularly her Frederica Potter novels, are also incredibly close to my heart.
Let's see, I've already mentioned Levis... Plath is my other hero. She's first, last, and forever in my heart, you know? Another poet obsessed with transcendence, and with sound! My God, you can't get those poems out of your mouth. I love the dark music of Plath, and I'm obsessed with writing criticism about her, as I think she's been so sorely misread, misunderstood. We've created an entire culture around her "image" (Goth girl teenage suicide nut jobs) when the woman was a high-minded literary Anglophile, and a devoted mother. Such nonsense.
I also adore George Eliot, the Brontes, J.M. Coetzee, Michele Cliff, Adrienne Rich, Faulkner, a remarkable poet named Nickole Brown (who lives in Kentucky and came out with a book called Sister in 2007, with Red Hen Press). Robert Hass, Terrance Hayes, Dzvinia Orlowsky, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, my friends W.F. Roby and Dana Guthrie Martin, my dearest pal Danielle DeTiberus, who writes amazing poems. Sheesh. Musically, I love nothing so much as 60s girl groups, and 60s soul. And Chopin. I play classical piano, so there's all that jazz. Ok, I'll can it. Next question.
D: My favorite lines from your lovely "Reach Back" are "Oh, endless/ways to be/a pretty girl." I confess: I see a Barbie doll, and I melt. So what if she's impossible; she's adorable, in all of her delicious iterations. I know the dangers to girls' self-image such ideals can inflict, but I dig the salvation that Galateas deliver against the cult of naturalism and warts-and-all realism. Give me Revlon over Friedan. Beauty happens. It's unfair, aesthetic primogeniture, and it avails opportunity. "No one with problems/is pretty, I thought." It seems that way, doesn't it? To paraphrase whoever Shakespeare was, beauty sells more than honesty. And it's ultra-powerful. If a single ounce of LSD can dose 300,000 people, a single fox can tug the strings of 300,000 men. From your "Stiletto: A Love Song": "— here is/love, two spiky heels that click and clack/across this earth, to pierce your gutsy heart."
Girls grow up admiring, studying, comparing, envying - and unwittingly desiring - beautiful female bodies. The body becomes the locus of femininity, femininity becomes the locus of beauty, then beauty is female. No wonder Simone de Beauvoir said that “all women are naturally homosexual.” (Your poem recalls a childhood three-way nipple-pinching episode, and I swear there's something Sapphic in your "Two Drinks Away".) As Sappho gushed, "you, blessed lady, smiling on me out of immortal beauty." See, Beauty (capital B) belongs to the eternal. The worshipped are only as good as their terminal effect on the worshippers because the appetite is really for the capital-B Beauty. Grace Kelley called the entry into her forties “the end.” "[Beauty is] fearful because it's undefinable...because there God gave us only riddles," said Dostoyevsky's Dmitri Karamazov. He also pointed to its duality: the ideals of the Madonna and Sodom (lasciviousness). Your thoughts on Barbie, Beauty, and those dual ideals?
Let's start with Barbie, shall we? I loved doing her hair. My mother forced pixie cuts on me my entire childhood, and I envied anyone with either long, straight locks or ringlets. My best friend had Shirley Temple ringlets and I often wanted to murder her. I loved Barbie because I could pretend I was her, in a tactile way, but other than that she left me pretty cold, as did most toys I couldn't somehow manipulate or puzzle over. (hence my delight in her cornsilk tresses). Barbie and her multicultural cohorts may have damaged the psyches of many women over the years, but I appear to have escaped that fate. (Wipes sweat from brow...)
I'm not terribly interested in beauty, I don't think. I'm interested in images of androgyny, of femininity, of women, how to juxtapose them and twist them, what they mean culturally, how to use them as totems, as threads, as themes. I'm far more excited by women who aren't conventionally beautiful but who have that fascinating charisma we can't nail down. To that end, I'm more fascinated by men who have the same quality, like Mick Jagger or David Bowie. I'm actually fascinated by the idea of Mick Jagger having sex with David Bowie and me being in the middle, but that's certainly a topic for another time; and if you believe Angie Bowie, it happened at least once (sans moi).
This whole concept of "real" women being somehow different from "Revlon" women strikes me as a bit absurd. If you're suggesting that there's no middle ground between a cover girl (which is literally a flat image) and a woman covered in - what was it you said? "Warts"? - well, I think that's about the most dangerous thing you can suggest. Especially dangerous to one's poetry. If your looking to interrogate the complex or try and define the indefinable, Revlon is the least interesting place one should look.
As for women's "natural homosexuality," I imagine that to be about as true as men's. You mentioned two poems of mine. I'll address "Reach Back" first, a poem about many things from my very early life, one of which is an episode wherein two childhood friends and I played "doctor." You used the word "threesome" to describe this, which I find a bit ludicrous. Children (and we were, I think, four years old) are often unafraid to explore one another's bodies, and I wouldn't deny that it was sexual in nature, but calling it a threesome makes it sound like we were in a frat house performing for the boys. The "natural homosexuality" in women has (I think) much to do with the desire I discussed above and in another poem: I call it "the glamour of the familiar, the shock of recognition." In other words, you are me but you are not. That's pretty irresistible, I think. To reach outside of one's self and simultaneously reach in.
You also mentioned "Two Drinks Away" as being "sapphic". That poem was written in response to one man's ideal of female sexuality, a man who told me, "Every woman is just two drinks away from a lesbian relationship." Now, dear, I hate to stereotype as much as the next gal, but I imagine this is a relatively common idea among American males, probably born more out of desire than anything else. In the poem, I imagine him imagining me reaching out to kiss my dearest female friend, who was in the room when he said this. The conceit of the poem (which, apparently, fails miserably, I'll have to revisit that) is that his desire is for us to kiss so that he can watch and - hurrah! - we'll finally shut the hell up.
As for de Beauvoir's quote, what can I say, ultimately, but that those French broads are wacky. Ever read Helene Cixous on the female orgasm? Yikes. You'll need a neat whiskey and a cold shower when you're done. But don't take my word for it.
D: Speaking of beauty, I've assembled an image of your mother as a former wild-streaked bombshell who would give the "Mad Men" gals a run for their culottes. For instance, "The Door" recalls your mother waking your father as she giggled into the bedroom window, back from a gin-and-beer-soaked night with the girls: "maybe she belted Johnny angel,/how I love him./Or pointed to a guy /in the crowd/and winked." Other passages, however, show an instructive, steady mom. And I sense a (benign?) conflict between your self-image and hers. In "Kinesis, Or, At 58 My Mother Learns to Surf": "I didn’t understand my mother, yet" (italics mine). And in "I Blame the Ronettes":
I’ll never be the
she is, never have that voice, its hot sweet
shot of honey Scotch...
the table in her wiggle dress, electric
blue, her figure eight hips cha-cha, twist & switch.
Am I onto anything here? Was she both a pillar as well as - to steal from your Lorca poem - "a snake charmer?" Share her with us, regardless.
Oh, you're onto something, alright. My mother is the single most fascinating person I've ever encountered, the Rosetta stone to my psyche and my poems; and believe me, I can't read the stone. I can't nail her down, but I just keep trying. "Kinesis" is about the mystery of the woman. It ends with "I'll never understand, I spoke too soon," which surprised me when I was writing it but refused to go away. You can't tie my mother in a bow. She's hell on wheels. She makes me look like the Dalai Lama.
I adore my mother, and she terrifies me. I never will be the beauty she is. The woman looked like Christie Brinkley (Cover Girl!) when she was younger. She's nearly sixty, and she looks about 40. She tackles everything with a freakish tenacity and never sleeps, yet never appears too bothered by it. She was very much shaped by the "Madmen" era. In fact, she grew up in Armonk, NY, and her father worked on Madison Avenue. Her mother was equally beautiful (when I was a child, we were often stopped on the street when people mistook her for Donna Reed or Olivia DeHaviland) and was a classic 60s housewife: shirtwaist dresses, Benson and Hedges, gin and tonics, "All the Way With JFK,"...you get the idea. But, sadly, her parents succumbed to the snaky evils that the show portrays so pitch perfectly. They were terrible alcoholics, lost all their money, died really young. My mother suffered a lot because of their actions, yet, amazingly, to me, when she watches the show, she seems oblivious to said evils. She's utterly charmed by how accurately the show portrays the time period; her eyes gleam. She's a baby boomer, so again, as portrayed so brilliantly in "Madmen," she loves flashy ads and images, comforting, catchy slogans. She falls for the show the way people fall for Don Draper's line on the show. It's all very fascinating to me.
As a child, I both envied and adored her, wanted her all to myself. She was so beautiful, and so hilarious, and so incredibly nurturing. My father comes from a blue-collar family; he banged nails for a living when I was a child. My mother was so in love with him she couldn't see straight. The feeling was mutual, and as I recall, there was a lot of weird envy floating around between he and I. All of which is to say, we were poor as dirt, and my mother was such a damn good mom, I never had the first clue that that was the case. She surrounded herself with a gaggle of remarkable, funny women, all with children of roughly my age, (my best friends, my first crushes, my first kisses), and they would stay up late drinking around big tables (which someone would inevitably get up and dance upon) blaring early 60s pop songs. But eventually, that envy I mentioned before crept into our relationship. When my father and I fought (which we inevitably did) I looked to her for help, and she wasn't often there to give it. She would try to play both sides of the fence sometimes, so, yeah, I think that snake-charmer element does come into play.
I don't know; like I said, she's a woman in love with images, with the starry glint on the toothpaste ad grin, the Bing Crosby Christmas, with stills, with what is fixed. That's how she sees her life before her parents fell apart, and that's how she likes to picture the lives of her children. It's obviously a bit delusional, but it's a beautiful delusion, one she can tie in a pretty package with a bow. It infuriates me, but in the end, I admire her tenacity. She's a bulldog with gorgeous blond hair.
D: I'm a fisher of lines, not poems. I fetishize word groupings as one fixates on ankles, toes, thighs, crooked smiles. Returning to your "Stiletto: A Love Song," the following lines outshined the entire piece:
I’ll never pen a poem to a tree. I’m sick
to death of muddy psalms
of praise for some dumb earth
that won’t sing back.
While I can appreciate a sunset's glory or a canyon's vast mouth, I know that the sun would set while I died of thirst and the canyon would swallow my life if I slipped from its lips. Blake wrote that "where man is not, nature is barren." And G.K. Chesterton stressed that Nature isn't our mother, but our "little, dancing sister": admirable but not worthy of obedience or imitation. What are your thoughts on human-centrism versus nature worship in art and life?
Um, I hate to be brief, but...I really have none. Or, rather, they're fairly well summed up in those lines. Thank you for your kind words about them, by the way. I'm obsessed with art, with speech, with human relationships. Trees are great, but I have absolutely nothing to say about them. Pass the whiskey. Next.
D: What do you look forward to? Does death worry you? What do you want to leave behind?
Right now, I'm looking forward to my upcoming trip to Austin, TX. And yes, death worries me tremendously; I'm a narcissistic little poet! The idea of the world without me is ludicrous. Honestly, as far as leaving things behind, I just hope people read my poems while I'm still alive, so I've not got much to say in that vein. I want to leave behind children, hopefully two of them. I adore babies, and the thought of making people that are half me sounds like the most interesting thing I could ever hope to do. Like a fabulous, neverending science experiment: the antithesis to boring Barbie.
D: I'm pleased that Dustin introduced me to you and your excellent work, Emily. I wish you blessings on your path and hope that you pump out a few books, at least. Any closing words for readers/fans?
Thank you so much, that's very kind. And thank you
for the opportunity to run my mouth, it's my most favorite thing to do. And if
there are any fans out there, it's a surprise to me! But if there are, I'll
just say this-- we can't all be Girl Scouts, Millie. Amen.
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