I’m a little behind schedule when it comes to posting this interview with Katrina, true – but that’s just another excuse for you to return to “Courage and Horror Stand Side by Side”, which can only lead to good things. Promise. As a refresher, Katrina Vandenberg’s first collection Atlas was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award. A new chapbook, On Marriage, is available now from Red Dragonfly Press. She’s received residencies from the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, the Amy Clampitt House, and the MacDowell Colony, and her work has appeared in journals such as The American Scholar, The Iowa Review, and Post Road. Now – on to the answers you’ve been longing for!
As usual: What was the impetus for this poem? What triggered it?
I saw a production of the play Speak Truth to Power. It’s based on the testimonies of human-rights activists from all over the world, and their stories are singular and moving and brave. After, the director of Center for Victims of Torture made a speech in which he said that “courage and horror stand side by side.” I saw it, literally — characters in Everyman or the gods Jack Gilbert sometimes writes about, passing out decisions about our lives. Like most people, I’ve never found a satisfying answer to the question asked by the Book of Job, which is basically: why do good people suffer? How do we respond?
The spacing and breath accomplished by the dropped lines and drastic spacing of “Courage and Horror Stand Side by Side” is, of course, the reason it needed to be published in a monospace font, but it’s astounding formally, and handled with a deftness that’s rare to find in poems that attempt to use the full width of the page. Why did the poem call for this kind of form or shape? How did it occur to you?
Thanks for formatting it, by the way. I heard it took two weeks to get right. More below.
The shape of this poem on the page seems to be an atypical style for you. Did you find it a challenging form to work with? How did you approach it? What were your primary concerns?
The poem was originally had a circular structure. It ended with a couple lines that were something like: “Then let this poem be your song for them, / say the gods who hold the cosmos in their hands.” I showed the poem to Jim Cihlar, the poetry editor at Milkweed, and we talked about it cutting it back, roughing it up. He’s a sharp reader, so it’s possible he also suggested exploding it on the page, but I don’t remember.
I liked the idea of breaking open the poem, because it’s not about an orderly universe, and cosmos grow like that — they’re named for the orderly look of their blooms, but the plants themselves are vigorous and unruly, and grow anywhere . . . I don’t think I’ve ever spent more time reading a poem aloud as I was writing it, to make sure there was still some sense of there being lines.
But I was initially suspicious of whether breaking the poem made it any better. White space makes everything look significant, after all, and when I look at that poem, I still see a fairly conventional one in a slightly more dissonant form — in the same way that a lot of verses in songs by groups like the Pixies or Wilco have a slightly more dissonant “new” sound but are still fairly conventional twelve-bar chord progressions. However, I enjoyed doing it, and writers should trust pleasure.
One aspect of your poem that truly impressed us was that the lines in “Courage and Horror Stand Side by Side” really seem to be lines – provocative units of sense. How important was this to you in composing this poem? How do you judge a line as a line?
A line, Miller Williams said in class, is a unit of sound, sense, and syntax, and that is how I will think of a line forever. In 2006, I heard Billy Collins on NPR, talking about how the University of Arkansas Press published his first book, and how much he learned about poetry from Miller — the press founder and his editor — during the editing process. Apparently Miller taught Collins the same definition of a line, because I was making dinner as I listened, and caught myself reciting it along with Collins.
Rote knowledge is useless if you stop there, but it often makes an excellent foundation. You can bend it, contradict it, explore its gray areas, turn it on its head, but I’ve found it easier to do all that when you begin holding some concrete ideas in your hand. I’m glad I had teachers who made me write 300 lines of blank verse, be articulate about 16th-century sonneteers. My teachers left out tons of writers I wouldn’t — anyone who wrote after the 60s, writers from other countries, women writers, writers of color, just for starters — and I don’t write formal poems much anymore, but I still think about that principle of “sound, sense, syntax,” maybe especially when my lines don’t look like ones I was taught to make. So many of the more experimental visual artists and musicians I admire departed, knowledgeably, from tradition.
Another question about the form or shape of this poem: It strikes me that the dramatic spacing of the poem – both horizontal and vertical – keeps the reader’s eye from moving too easily across the language. However, it seems as though the poem can be read in multiple patterns while still maintaining its strength. Was this something that you considered, or did it occur naturally? How do you feel about the lines being read in alternate orders?
I didn’t think about alternate readings. If you can read it in multiple ways and it’s meaningful, great. Whoever makes the art has to let it go.
In this poem, the gods are actively involved in human lives – “…the gods who / dole out fates…” – but they are also presented as inherently and naturally distanced, which I see in the parallelism of the lines “The gods are busy. / The cosmos are lavender.” How do you see this tension working in the poem? What does this disjunction mean to you personally, if anything?
I like “the gods.” They seem nearly fictional to our cultural mind-set, which gave me more room to move around in the poem than a monotheistic God might. And I’ve always — liked might not be the right word — the way the ancient gods were multiple and had egos and personalities. They were fallible, could take pity, get angry. I wanted that capriciousness. They are irrational, and they are in charge.
That’s why the massage therapist’s response means so much to me: she can’t control the rapist, but because she prays to be in control of her response, she inadvertently succeeds in scaring him. Perhaps if she had prayed to scare him away, it wouldn’t have worked. I don’t know. I think he gets scared because he can tell he doesn’t have her.
A lot of poets I know are wrestling with how to portray injustice. We are more aware than ever that we live in an increasingly-crowded planet with scarce water supplies and great wealth disparities, in which there is genocide and mass rape — it wasn’t a kind of poetry many of us were taught to write. The poets I know feel as if they’re trying to build a way to talk about these things, from the ground up.
There are a number of characters in this poem – the gods, the speaker, the “you”, the boyfriend, the rapist, the massage therapist. For the most part, they’re kept straight – which is an accomplishment in and of itself – but while we can assume the gods are speaking through italics in the line,”And did you sing for your enemies?”, I’m wondering who answers them by saying, “No.”
The “you” says “no.” I hope that one way to read the poem is that it is the unsung song for the enemy, but it’s okay if you don’t read it that way.
The simplicity of that answer, and the significant variation in syntax that comes with the answer “No”, followed by the statement that “The gods are busy” lends a lot of heft to that response, as though the two are somehow related, as though that’s the moment the gods become disinterested in the voice that answers. How do you see or feel this moment? What about singing for one’s enemies intrigues you poetically or personally?
At that moment, I see the gods as preoccupied parents, though I didn’t want them to seem all-benevolent, or even parent-like. Perhaps they want the speaker to learn to sing for her enemies, and she’s not yet ready, so they go on.
I’m really interested in compassion and forgiveness. Learning how to truly forgive someone (and whether — I had a long talk with a poet-friend this week, about whether or not “forgiveness” is sometimes a euphemism for taking abuse), is one of the biggest tasks people have. Like a lot of people, I’m not very good at knowing what to do with my anger. I don’t write angry poems well; other poets do.
Having seen an earlier version of this poem, one that featured even more dramatic spacing, I’m wondering how you felt about condensing the lines for the purpose of publication? How did you go about this? What was lost and what was gained?
I pulled in the right margin and took it from there. Most of it was intuitive. The poem’s easier to read now, which I initially had mixed feelings about. But I initially miss most things I cut, then cease to notice.
Also, you originally had reservations about publishing this poem – if I’m remembering correctly. While we’re ecstatic you chose to let us go ahead, what were your reservations?
Part of the rape narrative really happened. The event was years ago, and I’ve never met the woman, but because she’s a real person who lives with it every day, I wanted time to examine my conscience. There was a chance I had learned a detail I used while acting in a position of trust, and if I had, I didn’t feel I could publish the poem. Finally, I called a local journalist; when I learned that the detail had been published in the newspaper at the time, I felt I could let go of the poem.
We could probably have a lively discussion about what details of other people’s lives are free for writers to “take.” When I was in grad school, I learned that pretty much everything’s fair game; at CVT, we talk about the importance of clients owning their stories; hospice nurses talk about “vulnerable adults.” I’m not sure I have a satisfactory answer, especially given that the Internet makes a poem so much more public than it might have been, published in a small magazine, ten years ago. I don’t think the Internet makes us less private, by the way. Instead, we’re creating new kinds of shields to suggest openness while maintaining a different kind of privacy.
Generally speaking – and imagine this in the voice of a six-year old girl – Where do poems come from?
Reading other poems? Living in your body, in the physical world? A lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness? Strange juxtapositions. Taking the figurative literally. Generally speaking, if I knew, I don’t think I’d like writing as much, but I could write faster.
Who are your most important influences, the poets to whom you return again and again? How much sway do contemporary poets hold with you?
I’m a fickle reader. I envy people who love a poet or two above all others, and pattern themselves after that poet. But somewhere in my past I’ve had Donne phases, Keats phases, Whitman, Milosz, O’Hara, Bishop, Larkin, Levis, Simic, McGrath, Rilke, Strand, Zagajewski, Berryman phases. James Wright was the first poet who really meant something to me, as a college kid in Ohio. But mostly I obsess over single poems, one after the other, and I always seem to find just the one I need.
Contemporary poetry is amazing in its variety, playfulness, and fascinating associative leaps. How could I not respond, somehow, to the poetry of my own time? It seems pointless to fight about schools of poetry, though, as if only one kind could or should exist, when we, and our responses to the world, are so varied. One quality I greatly admire about the MFA program at Hamline, where I teach, is that the faculty introduce students to a diverse body of writing.
However much I read, I wish I could read more. I try to read new books from Twin Cities presses, especially — Milkweed, Coffee House, Graywolf — and like reading very new books and older ones simultaneously. Recently I co-read Brenda Shaughnessy’s Human Dark with Sugar and Pablo Neruda’s Selected Poems, which resulted in a very good writing week.
What was the first poem you read? How did it affect you? How and when did you realize that you wanted to be a poet? What was your response?
An Emily Dickinson one, in third grade. I remember being happily uncomfortable with the way “gown” and “on” didn’t exactly rhyme, and the poem making me happy and sad at the same time. I found it in a textbook we’d been given to use for only that morning, I loved the poem, and I was afraid I’d never find it again once my teacher collected the books. So it also became the first poem I ever memorized.
Finally, our Rock-Star question, but extended: What’s the most money you’ve made from poetry, and how did you spend it? What about the first time you made any money from poetry? What’d you do then? Any advice for those expecting their first checks?
I won a $44,000 Bush Artist Fellowship in 2005. It let me take time off teaching, write my next manuscript, read a lot, volunteer at the Center for Victims of Torture, apply to places like MacDowell. It was probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
I got the best piece of advice about the $1,000-or-so first-book advance from Natasha Trethewey via Dan Albergotti: Don’t use it to make a car payment. Buy something you can keep, something you normally wouldn’t buy. I think Dan bought some first-edition Jack Gilberts when he won the Poulin. I bought our house a twenty-volume set of Oxford English Dictionaries.
And, this isn’t poetry, but in high school, I won $50, second place, in a local story-writing contest. I wish I could find you the photo they took for the newspaper; I have really big hair in it. I learned later, from a PTA member, that the panel had decided that my story was too depressing to win first prize.