AN: First, a hearty congratulations on being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship earlier this year—it’s such exciting news! Can you speak to the importance of the grant in terms of giving you real time and space to focus solely on your creative work? And speaking of creative work, will you be focusing on a particular project? I know you’re getting ready to head to Ireland for the spring semester, so I’m guessing that may have something to do with it.
CV: The Guggenheim Fellowship has been a miraculous event and couldn’t have been better timed. The gift of a bit of leisure, that decluttered dreaming time in which the artist’s mind can wander, stew, or locate those sparks that simmer and flame later, long term. There is no way around it. An artist needs to have time and it’s rather hard to describe how you’ve spent it except that it was nourishing something for tomorrow.
My project is a book that is roughed out and now must find its form—and that’s how this Fellowship time seems to be happening. The working title is Cop and it is a lyric sequence from the point of view of a woman detective. I appreciate how detectives in genre literature usually see themselves as isolated from police culture but firmly situated within it, inside-outsiders, as I often see myself, to be honest. In my poem series, crime is not foregrounded so much as the ways the speaker physically enters the many levels of her community to better understand its failures. My speaker’s concerns mirror aspects of my own—she is often melancholic, is always the mother of a teenage daughter, and is too aware of the world into which she must soon release her girl, the world in which we do not serve and protect everyone equally.
While these are lyric poems, narrative anecdotes of my detective-as-lyric-speaker’s investigations become a larger conversation about justice; she cannot defend her profession as largely practiced, as I do not. These poems operate as meditations on specific moments where the American social compact has collapsed, when its faults become fissures. The lyric speaker, the character of the detective, is a gathering place for thinking through the personal and the social. Why do I find detective stories so compelling in these past couple of years? Maybe, as Anne Carson writes, “such performance can cleanse you of your darkness.”
AN: I’ve got a couple of questions here for follow-up. First, I’m curious—what detective stories have you found yourself drawn to recently, and in what media? I have found that during periods of profound grief, I tend to gravitate toward serial killer and murder mystery podcasts. I don’t know why, but I think it does have something to do with that Carsonian darkness you mention—that whole idea of looking at the thing without looking directly at the thing.
I’m also fascinated by your observation that your book “now must find its form.” Can you elaborate a little bit more on that? I’m going to save my question about long poems and lyric sequences for the next one!
CV: I am convinced that my most awkward drafts come from not understanding what my line is, or rather, what it needs to be. The rhythm of the poem is key, the line length’s pace, the syntax contained in the line, and finally the diction that coagulates as the line tells me what is necessary. In Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream, I found that letting go of the left margin, scattering those lines of various lengths across the page, gave a voice—a form—to all those notes I was taking as I devoured Marie de France’s lais. Also, I had been unsure as to how to integrate that speaker’s contemporary thinking about her own experience. All that white space allowed me to drop in a rather selfish, intrusive interpretation and application of Marie de France’s storytelling, to enact the way we read literature (sometimes) for answers about our own lives.
With writing The Bower, I could not move forward through the material at first, except by taking my notes from the two separate times I lived in Belfast and turning them into a rough blank verse. The amount of effort that required forced many choices—and the process of blank versification became a major distillation. That version, however, was relentless to read—and it created a rather know-it-all speaker, which began to horrify me. How to implicate myself, be more accountable and stop pretending I knew so much about anything was the new problem. So many certainties did this blank verse produce in my hands! I decided had to re-insert the meander—the very long-lined couplets seemed to give it that space and the rhythm of the lines had to loosen and enact the experiences, the discovery. A sort of chapter (canto?) form became an organizational form as well, coagulating the more random observations around a singular event. These connections and choices were often more intuitive than not.
The first part of your question was about detective story sources and TV has been, in COVID times, a major influence—Top of the Lake, The Fall, River, Prime Suspect. All of them feature heroic women scarred by violence and misogyny who enter the darkness and wrestle meaning from it, by which I mean, “solve the case.” This is a comfort of the genre—the movement towards solution. As far as literature goes, I love Tana French’s writing, David Peace’s GB84 series, the Martin Beck series (by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö), and Stuart Neville’s work, to name a few.
AN: I can’t let you get away without asking you about writing “the long poem”! I have always admired how you use space—or maybe more accurately time and line —to meander and meditate on seemingly unrelated topics that do cross each other and coalesce into a whole. Perhaps the word I’m looking for here, really, is weaving, which recalls for me Penelope, for whom, at least in my view, the art of weaving was simultaneously a means of protection from the threat of violence/rape and a subversion of authority. In a similar way, your work often contemplates the various kinds of violences that threaten us on the domestic front. There is a line in your poem, “The Bower,” where the speaker, in Ireland, is thinking at once about the history of conflict there, an old postcard she long kept with a disturbing image of Judas on it, and her own child:
What were you thinking, bringing a child into this knowledge
called the world? What could she learn from you, one
who deep inside your murky soul knows it matters
who was killed, that you’d do awful things to save her.
The speaker questions bringing a child into “this knowledge,” but the most terrible knowledge here is the speaker’s own recognition of the potential for violence in herself—and by extension, of course, each of us. That very particular knowledge becomes a moment of lyric insight that springs from the kind of braiding together of various narratives in the poem, which is, itself, aware of the weight of it all:
The search for meaning brings us all down hard,
boom, to the knees and maybe it’s good to stay there
for a while and stare.
I realize I still haven’t asked you an actual question, and process questions are always hard. Can you elaborate on how you think about the long poem, and how it functions—what it can do that other forms cannot? When you want to read long poems, whom do you read?
CV: I am going to guess that the answer to this very generous reading’s puzzling might be about how a person might write from a different sort of lyric speaker. While I love the first-person speaker (oh, how she can anchor all the seeing, thinking, and being), I myself cannot proclaim so well, especially these days. I mean, I could attribute this difficulty to factors around my race, background and position—a white person raised in rural poverty and one who is a woman in a world that is unsafe for us.
Also, the weaving might be a formal acknowledgment that I am aware of how unintentionally I live most aspects of my life and how little control I have over the many trajectories, narratives, and outcomes a day produces. Maybe my brain is less of a super processor than a bricoleuse? How to acknowledge and accommodate that way of learning was the big task of The Bower—the scramble for salvage at the end of a lived day, to pinpoint the fresh hubris with which I have been presented. Another horror/gift of middle age: one realizes that all character flaws have come to fruition.
The long poem was the only way to think through The Bower. That discrete lyric poems could recreate the abundant stream of experience of my living in Belfast seemed impossible to me. I reread Ammon’s Garbage at this time and the hybrid poem/essayness of it impressed me. This new book, Cop, is built from discrete short lyric poems so far, as if stories have less importance than salient details, as if too much information about violence starts to seem voyeuristic, as if this information that women are so thoroughly screwed is too much.
AN: I wanted to ask you about your ongoing work with Zoeglossia, an organization dedicated to making a more inclusive space for poets with disabilities. How did you become involved in this project, and what can we expect from the organization in the new year?
CV: At first, Zoeglossia came into being because other people (Kathi Wolfe, Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black) thought it might exist. In the way that Kundiman, Cave Canem and Lambda Literary have changed American poetry, Zoeglossia, we hoped, could create a space for disabled poets in that conversation that is American poetry. Our first retreat cost only $14,000 to produce, with the help of a grant from the Poetry Foundation, the free/very inexpensive space offered by Our Lady of the Lake University, and other grassroots fundraising. We have been overwhelmed by the response which, in my mind, means that it was dearly needed.
Along the way Zoeglossia has built a community of incredible poets and it is growing fast, thanks to the good work of interns (Saleem Hue Penny, Tonya Suther, Pardeep Tour), the support of the Ford Foundation, WESTAF, Amazon Literary Partners, the Mellon Foundation, and the unswerving community provided by the Poetry Coalition and Jen Benka at the Academy of American Poets.
Personally, this opportunity came at a time when I needed to make something, to grow with it, and I am so grateful for the work, the allyship. BTW, we are accepting applications for the next retreat (info at our website www.zoeglossia.org) until Feb 15, and the next retreat so far features teachers Meg Day, Raymond Antrobus and Travis Chi Wing Lau with the keynote address. It’s virtual (again) and we provide a lunch voucher and childcare stipend. It’s been exciting, exhausting, nourishing and thrilling—what a journey!
AN: Finally, I’ll end with a question I typically, if not selfishly, ask each person I interview: What are you reading now?
CV: Having had a breakthrough case of COVID at the beginning of November and then having moved back to Belfast by mid-December, my usually heroic stamina for reading is pretty much at zero. I have found rereading easier and more pleasurable, since the pace is very different and the space for reflection seems greater. Also, the books I brought are still packed so I’ve looked at what I had on my digital devices. I have reread Moyra Davey’s I Confess, which thinks through her youth, French Canadian separatism and James Baldwin, among other things. It’s a book that pleases my French Canadian border soul (my body is American). Raymond Antrobus’s The Perseverance is waiting in a box that will be unpacked soon. I am also rereading Eula Biss’s first book, The Balloonists (what lessons in implicating the self!). Finally, I am looking forward to Northern Irish writer Jan Carson’s just-released The Raptures.
Three Poems by Connie Voisine
They came out of morning willing
with a good gift for us of some normal thing
and now They stumble to us from turmoil
of Their own making, making it over
and over and eating it as if it were food
in the way that They eat everything:
constantly and without joy, purchased by
driving a car, passing money to a window.
They hear only the ugly that others might say
against them, ordinary others who want
simple things. Things They approximate
in order to extract what feeds
their beetle souls that must roll the dung.
You pray that snow and freeze might pause
Them so the parasite might perish, so that
the poison They bring to any table, not
only yours, might wither to dust. We would not
call it peace but just that They might stop.
What runs beside me yet,
my awful half, refigured,
accusing hot pant inside
my ear. You offer me things,
this exhausted face,
this acrid smell, this ringing
in my left ear,
offer me a spasming dog
to hold, hit by a car, a mask
of a sad man’s sad face
and the gash of his mouth
reveals no tongue but
a flexed fish. I close my
mouth, my eyes, hold
my ears, grit
my teeth against. I wake,
bed sheets invaded,
the shallow, pebbled light
of the room. Extinction.
That word woke me,
that word sharply and
with all kinds of meanings.
For a while I embraced you,
Brother, and so I saw you
everywhere. I found you in the
pecked peaches on our tree.
The rotting roof. In the bodies
of beetles, their rouged
wings dead between
the window and screen.
My friends, too, assumed
your awful dimensions,
one taking too many pills,
one whose disease aches her
whole body unknowable, another
haunted by childhood
molestation. Oh, Brother,
don’t I try to be good?
The voice answered, the snake
must eat of the dust,
bruise the human heel,
and the ground will now on
bring forth thistle and
thorns. The voice said, we
must eat from the ground
like cattle. In the TV drama
I watch at night, the prisoners
mostly talk about love. The novel
about the situation of race
in America ends as a love story.
Lastly, many of the humans I see
out my window walk little animals
and big ones, too. They buy
toys and pretty collars for their animals,
some of which are fluffy and
assertive. Others, so well loved,
can barely lift their heads,
can’t connect that noise to
a bird, the odor to catalpa blossom,
that tap to a falling bloom.
I have not much
But take my job, take
My money, take my waist,
Take my hands, no, take
One as I will need
To feed myself, pound
My chest, tear my clothing,
Hold your dear hand,
Stem the bleeding, push
Hair off your forehead,
Turn music low for a bit
Of quiet, cook dinner,
Serve it, clean again
And again, smooth my hair
In the mirror, brush my
Stained teeth as I avoid
The earned wreckage
Of my face, and then, again
And again, lay me down to
Connie Voisine is the author of the book of poems, The Bower, begun on a Fulbright Fellowship to Northern Ireland. A previous book, Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Her first book, Cathedral of the North, won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in Poetry. She has poems published in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, and elsewhere. A 2021-2022 Guggenheim Fellow, Voisine directs the creative writing program at New Mexico State University. She is also a co-founder of Zoeglossia, an organization for writers with disabilities.