As you note at the beginning of your book, the title translates to “beautiful ugly.” Do you have a sense that poetry, or the poems in this collection, exist in the tension between these poles?
Poetry at its most intoxicating is courageous. It may be layered and complex or primal and stark. But it always delivers the gift of upheaval as it simultaneously soothes. I have found that poetry that alters me most always contains the components of dichotomy. The unsurpassed poems stimulate our minds, while at the same time they calm our bodies. They frighten and embolden us. They make us fall off our bicycles and they comb our hair. They are the revolution songs that make us dance uninhibited and pelvic, and the sotto voce voice that brings us down off the ledge. They send us into the labyrinth of a dark and windswept forest where we are naked and near hypothermic while concurrently spooning us soup under the light blue electric blankets of our long gone grandmothers. They exist, live, express, relate, hide, shine, cry and die within the oppositional and affiliate territories between the verdant and the barren borders of paradox. For this reason, I believe it is not so much the tension between poles, but the intersecting zones and junctures, the places where two seemingly contradictory powers commune that supplies the source of Poetry’s muscle and juice.
Some definitions of belle laide that I have come across include: a beautiful-ugly woman, an attractive unattractive woman, and a woman who has the power to seduce, though if broken down into individual physical components, the seduction makes no sense. I find it interesting that there is no equivalent in English to this French phrase that seems a just pairing for poems that tackle the dichotomies of Illumination and shadow, adoration and wound, captivity and abundance. Poems, that on occasion, walk the high wire with no net below. Poems that arrive with a small budget circus come to your little town, just when the heat and the sound of cicadas would have made you a mad man or woman delivered in chains borrowed from the elephant tamer onto the floor of the town’s one jail cell. Poems that pilgrim through the polarities of trust and hesitation, sanity and psychosis, the undomesticated and the urbane.
Writers, all the time, come up against the question of how to write of suffering, of injustice, personal or global, without making the reader, or the writer, want to throw themselves into the pit dug in the backyard, designed not for a grave, but for a celebratory feast. A natural writerly inclination can be to infuse language with beauty that contradicts caliginous subject matter, conceivably as a means of transformation, of tempering – or perhaps because there is never one without the other. Never beauty without sorrow; or ugliness without beauty. In writing celebratory, pastoral, occasional or love poems, the opposite holds true as well. The love poems that comprise a section of their own in Belle Laide, contain, in addition to the expected carnal lust and hallowed intimacy, tension, shadow, and mistrust. Corporeal and devout adoration is paradoxically paired with watchfulness and even derision, as if the lover is also the enemy.
I once read that perhaps the best definition for a concept of God is the intersecting point of paradox, the place where all the multitudes of seemingly disparate polarities unite. The place where the unapologetic totality of everything and the utter blank emptiness of nothing joins, coexists, and interlaces their arms around each other.
There’s a clear investigation of strong emotional acts throughout the book: desire and mercy, for example. What drew you to explore words with such wide implications and connotations?
The investigation and exploration of the implications and connotations of individual words is one of my favorite (a short curl at the temple fashionable in the 17th and 18th centuries. syn see parasite) poetic pastimes. Inquiry into the meanings of words can become an infatuated obsessive endeavor for me, escorting the poems into unexpected directions and territories. I often feel an enormous and amorous excitement when I learn some obscure and archaic, perhaps close to extinct, usage of a word, as above with the word “favorite”.
Words are the tools of the writer, the way pigments are the tools of the painter. Multifarious meanings are contained within single words. Words are bound and are freed by their variances and endless tones and shades. It is the fact of several concurrent and sometimes oppositional meanings of a single word that contributes to the varied interpretations and the personalization of how any given reader receives and understands, and makes a poem germane to them.
I am reminded, just now, of a passage from Neruda’s memoirs on the power of the word and of the beauty of language itself. I have always been conflicted by the fact that he was able to forgive the ruthless ravage and savagery of Spanish Colonialism because of his love for the language they left behind. In seeing the language of the conquerors as a gift, Neruda was capable of making peace with the paradoxical.
“…They swallowed up everything, religions, pyramids, tribes, idolatries just like the ones brought along in huge sacks….Wherever they went, they razed the land…But words fell like pebbles out of the boots of the barbarians, out of their beards, their helmets, their horseshoes, luminous words that were left glittering here…our language. We came up losers…We came up winners…They carried off the gold and left us the gold…They carried everything off and left us everything…They left us the words.”
Though the close attention to vocabulary and etymology may seem an intellectual endeavor, my poems are birthed more from emotional derivations than intellectual ones. They begin in wet meadows or in volcanic ash with a spawn or spade or a miner’s headlamp, rather than being birthed from the cerebral chambers in the turret of the brain’s tower. So words that carry a higher voltage of emotion like desire (humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself – T.S. Eliot) and mercy (earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy season justice – Shakespeare) are bound to be in the camaraderie of sounds and meanings within my poems.
In the poem “Coat-of-Arms” the first line states “Desire is not the root of all suffering.” I am contradicting the Buddhist tenet that desire is the cause of all evil and suffering. Neither the poem, nor the poet, wants to blindly fall prey to any religious doctrines in entirety. One of the poet’s most important roles throughout history has been to present a view of beauty and of revolution, to question the status quo, if not in action, then in thought and in sensation.
And I hope as a poet not to fall prey to purely pragmatic and rule-oriented prescriptions for the writing of poetry. Poetry, after all, is subservient to imagination and imagination alone. Though it might be true that no one has a truly original thought (or feeling), poems are best left to travel by foot or by Maserati, at the poet’s discretion and to dress or undress without too many social or intellectual constraints.
Many of your poems display an interest in the societal roles women and female bodies. Can you say a bit more about this?
I have never intentionally set out to write a feminist poem, nor to write strictly from the point of view of a woman. But as a woman, I suppose, short of setting upon myself the task of writing from the point of view of a gender other than my own, I naturally, without thought and premeditated proscription, write from the perspective of my gender and from my maenad and gynecoid body. Does it mean as a woman I can better empathize with the plights of other women than men can? Do I write poems such as “Under House Arrest” and “Harem” – one tracking a current situation of subjugation and confinement of women, the other presenting a historically re-rendered portrayal of a comparable inhumanity, because I am a woman? It is because I am a human being disturbed and saddened by the mistreatment and harm we impose and act out on each other, whether that impulse towards cruelty stems from the imbedded inequality between genders, sexual orientations, races, cultures, and classes or comes out of intolerance for differences generated from the perverse, innate and antiquated need for othering, for making separate that which should not be separated.
Many years ago, when I was a very new writer, I wrote a poem assuming perspective from inside the head of Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, as she was lying unconscious in a hospital with burn wounds incurred from a fire her grandson set inside their apartment. The poem alternated between her thoughts while hospitalized and her grandson’s thoughts while inside an imagined juvenile jail. A concurrent and parallel internal dialogue between the two (as imagined through my lens) was taking place, a dialogue ultimately of asking for and of granting forgiveness. I wrote the poem because the story I read in the newspaper was a startling and painful. The idea that a grandmother could be lying in a hospital dying from a fire intentionally started by her grandson and a twelve-year boy was sitting behind bars riddled with remorse was a human story, that for me crossed boundaries of gender or race—perhaps one that existed in mythology, perhaps not a new story, but nonetheless a devastating one. A story that involved and encompassed a history of a race not my own, but ultimately it was a human story between a grandmother and a grandson. And perhaps it could be argued, or agreed, that it is a very human inclination, poetically and otherwise, to tell and re-tell and to re-shape and re-imagine stories, not just for the purpose of documentation, but as androgynous anodyne.
During my short-lived connection to the slam performance world, I read that poem aloud in a large theater in Albuquerque, NM. There was uproarious noise coming from one of the rows. Later, I was told a Black woman writer from San Francisco was the maker of the noise. The story of her outrage came back to me in bits and pieces, including a tirade in the parking lot after leaving the theater. I sought her out the next evening in a bookstore in Santa Fe where she was reading from her novel. We had a long talk that continued via email for a few months. Her opinion was that I had no right as a white woman to write from the perspective of a black woman. That it would have been fine for me to write a poem telling my reactions to the story of Betty Shabazz and the fire, but it was definitely not okay for me to step into her thoughts and feelings in persona form because I was a white woman.
The telling of the Shabazz poem story may seem a sidetrack, a departure, from the question of writing from the female perspective, from the female body, though perhaps that is exactly why the memory of the poem and another’s reaction to it came into this discussion now—the fact that I was writing from an imagined state of being another human being, and not just another woman, but also a twelve-year old African American boy. That poetry can involve our crossing districts and precincts and entering into the lives of others. That poetry is not just a narcissistic, let me tell you all about me, a gussied-up blog of what I ate and thought today, but that poetry is imagination at its best. That imagination is not just conjured images and sonic metric derivations of line and language, but that it might be a compassionate journeying into territories similar, yet vastly dissimilar to our own experiences.
In the original version of the poem about women in Afghanistan, titled “Under House Arrest”, directly following the line like arms held up against a crowd throwing stones was the line like a poem without action to back it up. I wrote that line to convey my feelings of guilt, of hypocrisy, of appropriating others’ pain for the name of art, while not really adding to the cure by giving the time and energy true valor or sacrifice requires. I was questioning whether the writing of a poem is anywhere sufficient enough a response to such conditions as life under the Taliban. Put simply, I was asking myself, far more than any reader, is the writing of poetry enough?
Ultimately, I succumbed to the advice of a few teachers who really hated that line. The poem existed before I “studied” poetry, and under the influence of those more “learned” than I, I excised the line, but added the new opening section comparing with details the life of free women living in first world countries to the life of the women living under the terror and confinement of the Taliban. But to this day, I don’t know if the line was just a terrible line of poetry or if it disturbed other poets by making them have to consider the question themselves of whether or not the act of writing poetry is enough to absolve us of social inaction.
But yes, the female body in all it reverent curves and sagging crevices, in all its copious, capricious, lustful locomotions and in all its repressed, banged-up and bandaged catatonia is both gangrenous and magnificently beatific, and a featured guest in Belle Laide.
Birds appear about sixty times in this collection. What function do they serve for you, whether concrete or metaphorical?
Birds enter my poems often; though I had no idea the number of instances was so high. There is a large saucer-shaped concrete birdbath outside the window of the room I wrote many of the poems in. In those stalling, gathering, still moments of conjuring poems, lines and words, the birds were visual visitors breaking the spell of the concentrated internal wanderings. They arrived to bathe and to drink as one comes to an oasis in the desert. They came individually and more often in flocks. They came colored and winged and flamboyant and rare; and they came drab, droned, dun-colored, but still winged, still capable of flight.
Animals, in general, inhabit and contribute evocatively to the lyrical environment of my poems, with birds being the most invited guests, next to human beings. But are they actually invited, or is it more likely they are permitted admittance only after the fact of turning up uninvited? I never quite know who or what will arrive on the doorstep of the poem. Some ideas, images and lines will land, knock and wait for entrance; others break down the door and demand to be taken in. As if I am a gate keeper, the final decider of the poem’s guest list and therefore the fate of the party. Sometimes discretion is exercised as to who and what may enter; and other times there is no room for rational thought or fear, no place for mistrust of even the hungriest, most desperate and unstable guest coming across the threshold.
Though a tiny warm-blooded creature hardly fits the depiction of what we think of as a frightening guest. A house sparrow’s heart beats 460 times per minute and the ruby-throated hummingbird’s 615 times per minute. I can offer that it’s likely the birds and other animals are in my poems as reminders of a world outside of the human realm. That they correspond to parts of our intuitive, instinctive selves and serve as liaisons between worlds. A bird represents a life lived in nature, not one insulated from it, and not one based on intellect, but on sensorial prompts.
The abundance of birds in my poems symbolize something forgotten, oppressed or powerless, fragile and in need of protection. And in other instances birds function to signify freedom, wildness, soaring. Their winged flight is in stark contrast to human concerns, to human internment. Birds are imagistic and archetypal devices that function under paradox—at times exemplifying vulnerability and at other times embodying the strength that comes when a life is lived out-of-bounds, away from the restrictions of cultural and societal gravity.
It also occurs to me that birds are the opposite of ground dwellers. They may land fleetingly in water or in grass fields to find food, but primarily they live in the tops of trees and in the sky, never staying in one place for long. Even their impulse to nest is ephemeral. They share a common trait with associative poetry: they are both instinct-driven to travel and migrate, arrive and leave. There are periods of sustained feeding and nurturing, but always the inevitable fleeing and flight, never remaining too long in one domain.
Everything that matters is new again with Dwyer: tone, sound, attack; the brash, uneasy mix of materials, diction, and rhetorical poses; the volatile conflation of carnal and spiritual desires; emotion. A human being breathes these lines and the cumulative effect of her language—dense, swiftly veering, now oblique, now head-on—is overwhelming and welcome.