Frannie Lindsay’s fifth volume, If Mercy, was released by The Word Works in 2016. Her work appears in Best American Poetry 2014, Ted Kooser’s column American Life in Poetry, and Poetry Daily, and was awarded the Missouri Review prize. She is a classical pianist.
Nancy Mitchell is a 2012 Pushcart Prize winner and the author of two volumes of poetry, The Near Surround (Four Way Books, 2002) and Grief Hut (Cervena Barva Press, 2009) Her third book, The Out-of- Body Shop, is forthcoming from Plume Editions in 2018. She teaches at Salisbury University in Maryland and serves as Associate Editor of Special Features for Plume.
NM: I know you’re a classical pianist. How has this informed your writing? Did you come to music or poetry first?
FL: I grew up in a family of musicians. Someone was always practicing. Our grand piano served as a shelter for the many violins, violas, and cellos that found their way into our living room. I was always, subconsciously, hearing cadence and phrase. Without knowing it, I was learning the musical sentence even though I didn’t understand what that was. Someone in the house was almost working on Bach, or Mozart, or Bartok, often going over a passage repeatedly. I guess they call that imprinting.
NM: What an enchanted childhood, what apt training for a budding poet. Yes, I was immediately stuck by the cadence and phrasing, in all of these marvelous poems…what you call the musical sentence. What was it that drew you to poetry? First books?
FL: I’d have to say it was Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Jabberwocky. I had read Alice three times by the fifth grade, and was drawn in by its wild, loopy freedom. My father used to read us Jabberwocky at night before we went to sleep. He interpreted it as a kind of ghost story, and he read it in his resonant baritone voice. He managed to creep us out (purely for fun), but I also remember the music of those eerie nonsense words. (He also sang us Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Nightmare Song” at bedtime if we really begged him to. I hate Gilbert and Sullivan, but those lightning-quick rhymes got stuck in my head. And, “The Nightmare Song” just happens to be in anapests.)
Still, when I started writing poetry as a child, I felt like I was deserting my family tradition. I was a serious pianist until my early 20s, and the two disciplines (writing, music) really did compete — kind of the way ballet and horseback riding do for some kids these days.
NM: Because of what is required of the body and mind in each of the above? Can you talk about this in terms of writing and music? Did the only resolution of this conflict seem to be to do only one?
FL: I’m probably using the wrong comparison here. Let’s draw a more accurate parallel between ballet and, say, French Club!
Over the years, it has seemed that, while I don’t need to choose one or the other in any literal way, they quarrel over my time. (Either that, or I’m just too tired to go to the piano after several hours of writing and vice versa.) When I am throwing myself into music, I don’t even think of myself as a poet. I think of myself as a pianist and former poet. The same is true when my piano is silent because I’m spending all my hours in the study.
But they do inform one another. I don’t think I would be able to play with deep interpretation or subtlety if I didn’t write poetry. I don’t think I would be able to write the raw poems I write without a musical background, and a sense of the way language and its sounds discipline the narratives of extreme experiences. Similarly, during those rare periods when I am fully committed to both the piano and writing, music’s natural intimacy with spoken language is apparent, at least to me, in the pieces I play.
Then there’s this: music is in many ways an athletic discipline. (Poetry is certainly not just cerebral — I believe that metric foot, for example, influences the pulse and heart rate — but you create it in a stillness that’s essential. And I love being summoned to that place of absolute contemplation.) The first thing I noticed when I returned to the piano in 1990 was the joyous physicality of playing. I never understood those concert pianists who sat ramrod-straight while their hands and brains did all of the laboring. If you don’t move your whole being when you play (not in a hyperbolic way), your expression gets trapped. You tense up. That’s when injuries happen. I learned this the hard way. It has taken years to unlearn it. The body has a natural response to music for heaven’s sake! It wants to breathe, it wants to bend and dance. Even if (especially if) the musician and the listener are one.
My poetry claimed center stage in my mid-20s. From that time on, I was hearing beats in language (mostly anapests instead of the iambs that we consider the hallmark of conversational English). It drove me a little nuts. By the time I went off to Iowa for graduate school, my poems were overrun by assonance, alliteration, off rhyme, and that pounding anapestic beat.
NM: The traces of which are still wonderfully present in these poems. How did you modify this tendency?
FL: While the habit of overwriting, which had become part of my poetic DNA, was very hard to break, I did snap out of the sheer hypnotism of it while I was at the Writer’s Workshop.
NM: What do you mean by “part of my poetic DNA?”
FL: I grew up, and began writing, during a very polite, genteel time in our culture. It was the era of the “young lady”. Girls were taught, hand-in-hand with being quiet, to cultivate their prettiness: in appearance, penmanship, and a coy way of being in the world. In my early poems, I think I was enacting that culturally entrenched prettiness. Writing the “beautiful poem” became easy, and marvelously in step with my upbringing. Writing the muscular and memorable poem required rolling up the sleeves in a way I simply couldn’t.
At the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I worked with Henry Carlisle and Donald Justice. Their poems are so austere, and I love them for that now. They coaxed me, each in very different ways, to loosen my grip on prettiness. I quit “frosting my cakes” so lavishly. By the time I got my MFA, I had fallen in love with tension and silence. So much happens in the great expanses of page where the poem isn’t. Where a little discomfort can build its nest. Where the murmuring is.
NM: Oh, I love the echoes and reverberations too… maybe the white space gives a reader the place to receive, do you think? Maybe, in a way, the reader and the poem become an ecologically closed system?
FL: Yes, closed in one way. But also a welcoming wilderness.
NM: Wilderness in the white space! Did you “break up” with music after the MFA?
FL: I didn’t play the piano at all between my MFA years and my early 40s. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I established a daily early-morning practice of banging out drafts — anything that jumped into my head — on my big manual typewriter. (The neighbors loved me.)
NM: …the slant reference in “banging” to the piano? I wonder if this manual typewriter was a cousin in a sense, an unconscious reach back for the physicality of the piano?
FL: Oh no, I was a terrible typist! I’m still hunt-and-peck, and of course most of us didn’t have computers in the 70s and 80s. After a writing session, the wastebasket under my desk would be overflowing with Corrasible Bond paper full of little holes where the eraser had finally torn it. As well as poems I had managed to type perfectly except for the last line.
NM: Oh, those days—these young poets have no idea! What finally did call you back to music, the piano?
FL: I still remember the morning that I awoke and said aloud to my four walls that I missed the piano. It was 1991, and I meant it in a way that I had never meant anything else.
It was mightily visceral. I felt my fingers remembering pieces I loved. I somehow knew I still knew them. I was out of breath by the time I got to the Harvard practice rooms. I began haunting the music department after work and on weekends, found myself an old clunker of an upright for my apartment. It was free, all except for the moving costs (and it later proved untunable), and a wonderful teacher (I am still working with her. Years ago, I traded in the old, rickety upright for a baby grand that I love very much.)
NM: How was difficult was your return to music?
FL: Remastering technique was humbling. But I was, and am, an expressive player. I’ve never had to work at this. When I look at a phrase, I am always looking at a sentence. When I listen to three or four phrases sequentially, I hear poetry in its pre-language. I don’t know how else to describe this. It has something to do with rise and fall, asking and answering, and probably with the body’s pulse. (And there are always those anapests!)
NM: Yes…the beautiful phrasing in these poems-I find myself pulled down the page so naturally that when I arrive at the end I have to go back to see how you brought me to it. For one, your line breaks are masterful. This, from “Angel”
The vet said it was nothing but
getting gruel to her stomach
oh—that “but” after nothing, and its mute “t” which stops us to consider the implicit considerations. And, the pivot on “one” in the second couplet below is so subtly spectacular.
eight littermates having loped off to
glad solid lives Angel would never
have anything more than one
weary human who knelt deep in February
And of course the music throughout “kibble-thinned” “throat-stroaked” “eight littermates” “glad/have” —my marginalia is criss-crossed with the chiming throughout all theses poems. I’m sure others have noted this as well?
FL: When my first book was chosen for the May Swenson Award in 2004, I was delighted when JD McClatchy noted, in his foreword, the musicality of the poems.
NM: Is your musicality intentional as you compose?
FL: I listen to my poems as I write them. (Vowels especially, are such opportunities!) If I think I’m on the right track after a draft or two, I read it aloud. This step can be a real reckoning. When I’m doing my job right, I’m rewarded by a poem that seems to stand on its own two feet, whose sense and sounds are interlinked and organically logical.
I usually don’t realize that I have created hidden “chimes” within the lines until I read the poem over for the first time. I am very reassured if I find them there. It tells me that my heritage is intact, that I have a voice, that there isn’t much I can do to shake it loose.
NM: Can you talk about the lack of punctuation in these poems?
FL: Sometimes I omit punctuation to to allow the words can move freely, to sort of mill around getting to know each other. (Most of my first drafts are without punctuation or line breaks.) I often do add it later, but when I decide not to it’s because I want the motion to be uninterrupted and the breath to flow naturally without stumbling over the bothersome little pebbles of punctuation marks.
NM: There’s a physicality to your poems, a return to and a grounding in the senses via the natural world. We see this so clearly in “Brushing the Horse,” where the speaker turns us away from atrocites over which we have no control, where “We age in the glare/of the news.” to a tactile engagement with the world via our senses.
FL: All of us, I think, experience the world around us first by touch. Because I’ve lived with so many dogs, I have disinhibited this childlike impulse. (A wet nose against your neck when you can’t sleep, the silky and sensitive insides of a dog’s ears. And all those icky things you end up having to pry out of their mouths!) Touch transmits so much information to the brain. I’m grateful for that, because touch is loaded with imagery, and it creates a wonderfully delicate bridge between language and sensation.
NM: …and maybe a bridge between the mind and the body which fortifies us for our business in the world. This lovely enjambent yokes, enacts this bridge between the natural and human: “the sun going in like a wife who needs to/peel the potatoes;” … beautiful! Your poems return us to an ever-present grace, a ready antidote to despair. Thank you, Frannie Lindsay.
Brushing the Horse
I am tired of praying for a world not ours
to break, the hawk-sweep
blackly lifting two hundred schoolgirls
into the breathless Nigerian sunlight,
the fourteen-year old who has murdered
his beautiful algebra teacher. For the soft-eyed
extinctions. We age in the glare
of the news. Give me instead
the floor of a barn in the gray of Heaven,
wet with the scuttle of hand-fed rabbits,
their twitch and trust, give me
sparrows’ wings scattering hay,
the gentle chill of the rafters,
the tumbled and redolent towels for carrying
pea-hens back to their safe, dim coops,
the hinges arthritic with rust;
a cracked bar of soap by the cold-water sink;
the sun going in like a wife who needs to
peel the potatoes; the last truck
gone for the day, a plaid shirt draped
on a gate; a broom whose bristles
flip like the hair of a girl who is ready
to go to the Friday dance at the grange.
Give me a roan mare’s cheek;
the smell of apple, of patience.
Even then she had to be fed by hand
her gray bowl on a stepstool
her kibble thinned
with room-temperature water then beaten
sometimes I stroked her throat
to help her swallow
the vet said it was nothing but
getting the gruel to her stomach
she’d need six meals like that all her life
day after resolute day
sometimes she’d throw all of it up and
I’d have to start over
she would never weigh more
than the 45 pounds she brought with her
eight littermates having loped off to
glad solid lives Angel would never
have anything more than one
weary human who knelt deep in February
to slide the geranium-pink sweater over
her solemn head
she was wearing it still
penned in that small afternoon with
so many others
She hears only the wind of their voices
but she knows they are lost
by the way the desert grasses tilt
toward the manger instead of the village,
and she has no way to rally herself
for the large, dour men
so she bristles, whips an imagined gnat
with her tail, has only
the whorls of her toneless horns and
her hooves’ dull stones to defend
the cold little family huddled around
the lamp that keeps going out
while the alarming starlight stings her eyes
like a distant plea for rest,
and in the sweep of her breath’s coarse robes
they come nearer, nearer,
laden with ominous gifts
The Listening Room
I wish you would let me
wash your hair
comb your T-shirts
there is spaghetti
the sky is a mess with it
we have been cautioned
against looking up
the mourning doves can’t find
the calls of their mates
through the tangle
your wheelchair is stuck on
a crooked rug at the end
of nothing but books
you are leaving your children
the goblets are singing
the shards of your little song
nothing stands under
the right shadow
I promised I would
call no one
when we got to this point
we have no more eye drops
your hearing aid picks up
the dark dark please
let me go
to the listening room
and pray for at least
Instead you will be with
your owl collection
your brown and orange shirts
the paintings by your friend
but you ask me
in your milk voice still-here voice
can you have another hill of pillows
for your knees that have turned
already back into snow
and can I bring our wedding quilt
its squares of summer stories
and can I leave the light on
Prayer Without a Voice
Beloved and exiled God be with us
now in the glare of our sickness
place on our brow a rag of sacrament
quenched by the tears of the damned
lift us into your black hammock’s sway
remind us again that we can
no longer awaken
even one star
and nothing but this
needs your breath
After the death nurse went home
we had nothing to do
but watch the gray balloons of you
rise away first one then another
then the vast flock of them
so we opened even more windows
wanting everyone on the streets of the world
to know that this was
a joyful day among days
that you were sweeping across the morning
your prescient approving winds
Lord receive the soul of this good dog,
he comes to you in unmarred innocence;
may he now rest his chin against
your knee’s great ledge;
may he be met by friends remembered
and new friends;
may his leash be without end, his collar easy,
paws forever fleet;
may his panting remain close to those
alone at Sunday’s dusk
so it may warm them by the flameless hearth
of his forbearing peace;
may he sleep within the perfect oval
of the moon’s light on a window seat,
and each star know him by its light along
the pasture of his wintermost fur;
Lord receive him, run to him
with the exuberance of little children;
then let him stay
exactly who he is —
his mystery, his everydayness.
Frannie Lindsay‘s fifth volume of poetry, If Mercy, was released by The Word Works in 2016. She received prizes in well-known national and international competitions for her previous volumes, and has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The American Poetry Review, The Yale Review, Field, Crazyhorse, Plume, Salamander, and Best American Poetry 2014. She is also a classical pianist, and has been active in greyhound adoption for 25 years. She is currently at work on her sixth collection.
Nancy Mitchell is a 2012 Pushcart Prize winner and the author of three volumes of poetry, The Near Surround (Four Way Books, 2002,) Grief Hut (Cervena Barva Press, 2009) and The Out-of-Body Shop (Plume Editions in 2018.) She is co-editor of Plume Interviews 1 (MadHat Press, 2016.) Her poems have appeared in Agni, Green Mountains Review, Poetry Daily, Washington Square Review other journals and have been anthologized in Last Call (Sarabande Books) The Working Poet (Autumn House Press) and Plume 3, 4, &5. She has been an artist in residence at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in San Angelo, Virginia and Auvillar, France. Mitchell teaches at Salisbury University in Maryland and serves as Associate Editor of Special Features for Plume Poetry. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org