I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie Burt about her newest collection Advice From the Lights. We also talked about a few of the poems that appear in this issue of Plume.
AB: One thing that excites me most about Advice from the Lights is the wide range of subjects and voices. In the first poem “Ice for the Ice-Trade,” for instance, a block of ice offers this metaphor for the inner life:
A few twigs and dragonfly wings got caught
near the center of me long ago; they serve
to distinguish me from others of my kind,
along with some bubbles of air.
Many other objects in this collection speak―kites, a golem doll, lobelia, a secondhand flashlight entreating “Hold me.” Can you speak a little about your predilection for the lives of objects?
SB: Absolutely! I love writing in the voices of nonhuman speakers, often inanimate speakers: there are more coming (in fact, there are more in Plume!) because I can explore complex emotions without having to ground them in a plausible life narrative. If I’m creating a human character, the character is either me or not me. She’s either trans, or cis. She’s white, or not. How old is she, exactly? Lyric poetry, by most definitions, tends to skirt those questions, but the closer lyric poetry gets to dramatic monologue, and the closer it gets to the present day, the harder they are to avoid. Flashlights, however, aren’t people at all. You can’t say “stay in your lane” to a poem about a flashlight, or complain that it isn’t #ownvoices. So speaking objects are in some ways, for me, liberating. And they allow me to explore emotions, states of mind, kinds of reactions, that I probably would not feel able to depict if I had to use the voice of a person—nor if I had to write the kinds of poem (which I still like to read!) that eschew consistent voice.
AB: Yes, there are more nonhuman speakers in this issue―in “Cabbage Whites” for instance. The poem uses a “we” perspective which, though rarely used in Advice, notably appears in the book’s very last poem “White Lobelia.” These poems seem connected by the collective voice, and by a sense of freedom or transformation, or at least a more complete sense than I see in the rest of the collection. Your thoughts?
SB: Good catch. Most of my new poems (those written since Advice) are about finding and trying to keep and trying to understand a sense of community. Since coming out as binary trans and starting transition I’ve found more close friends, and more trans friends, and realized how much I wanted that sense of community.
Most of the speaking objects and animals in Advice are pretty lonely. Most of them are alone. The exceptions–other than “White Lobelia”– are clearly not the poet, or at least not the poet as an adult. They’re ways of life I can’t have. Now I am writing about ways of life I can have– though sometimes only partially, or figuratively, or only with some of the attention that I (like all of us) have to parcel out each day.
AB: For me, your poem “After Callimachus,” in this issue, represents both of the aforementioned perspectives: the speaker who feels “like margarine to your clay-oven bread/compared to better girl’s butter” but who in the second part requests with more assurance “Castor and Pollux, prevent us from feeling lonely./None of our friends deserve to sleep alone.”
One of the things that intrigues me most about this poem are the gaps: especially between the two sections, the white space with “[Iambi, 193].” They may represent literal gaps in fragmented papyrus (which is pretty cool) but I also feel the portion that is unread, as it were, holds a lot of meaning.
SB: That’s wonderful and valid for the first graf and you’ve got it!
But the white space between the two poems isn’t supposed to be meaningful, nor to represent gaps in a papyrus; they are two poems, among something like 35-40, from a larger project that’s been going on for about 15 years, that’s a big deal for me right now, that’s represented in two of my earlier books, and that’s going to be a book of its own from Princeton UP in about a year and a half! They’re just two separate poems from a big sequence! But I’m glad you feel there’s a lot of unread meaning! Maybe that’s the meaning in the other poems? Sorry for the misunderstanding!
AB: More of a misreading, on my part. But still interesting. Perhaps the reason I read it as a gap (or something unread) is because of the many poems in Advice where loneliness is a matter of not being seen (or read) completely. The words “code” and decode” appear with some frequency and in “Scarlet, a Betta:”
All the colors I recognize are alive
in the pebbles at the bottom of my tank.
I pretend each trace or trail
I make in the clarified water
amounts to my emphatic signature,
which I have chosen to leave in invisible ink.
So I found a richness in what I misread as a space, or one poem instead of two. As a poet, how much does your original intent matter, once your work is out in the world, being read? Do you care if someone doesn’t get it?
SB: Good questions! I’m usually delighted when readers see or hear or feel something in my work that I never saw there: honestly, at this point in my life, I still want all the (flattering or at least non-insulting) attention I can get. I’m happy to see new dimensions to any poems, really, including my own! There have been moments when I felt somebody got my work wrong, but they’re far outnumbered by those that made me say “oh! thanks!” And most of those worse moments have involved errors of fact, or failure to look up a reference that would have been not so hard to (say) Google.
AB: Do you mind speaking a little more about the larger project that includes “After Callimachus”?
I don’t mind at all. It has had a long genesis. I took Greek as an undergrad in order to read the poetry and loved it, got mostly B+s and sometimes A-s, and thought “hey, at some point I will go back to it.” Then I got to Macalester College where one of my then colleagues, David Wilson-Okamura, had a strong interest in classics. So I thought I’d root around for an ancient Greek poet I could hang out with and the answer– I didn’t know why yet– turned out to be Callimachus. I translated some epigrams and some short expressive works and an inscriptional poem by Callimachus, put them into Parallel Play, and walked away.
Then I read a paper by the U of Chicago classicist Mark Payne about how to read Callimachus and I realized *why* he had turned out to be the poet for me: he was a highly professionalized, self-consciously belated, craft-oriented, library-loving, remarkably femme (to put it in our terms) poet with a strong connection to childhood and a wish to undermine or evade rather than attack directly, and while today’s categories of sexuality don’t work super-well for the poets of antiquity, I decided that Callimachus was extremely queer and on the edge of trans, and no wonder I wanted to write as him. (I do think his pronouns are he/him/his though.)
So I wrote some more Callimachus and sent it out and some editors liked it, and I had the delightful experiences of reading some of the Callimachus material at the U of C with Mark, where a colleague of his (I’m not sure if that colleague wants to be named) heard and read more of them and was lovely enough to connect me with Princeton University Press, who are starting a series of poetry in creative translation, and now I’m doing an entire book of Callimachian variations for the series! I hope I can do him justice. He’s so good, and so underrated compared to the other major lyric and epigrammatic and generally non-epic poets of Greek antiquity (though that said, he did write epullions, and translating him lets me play with short narrative in a way that’s normally not mine)….
AB: It’s interesting that Callimachus had a strong connection to childhood: another aspect of these poems I find exciting is their uncanny portrayal of the same―not just physical details, but also emotional ones―the assorted pains of youth or how it felt (so precisely) to be that restless or clueless, or to enter that strange reverie/trance of pre-adolescence that I see in “Fairy Story Stephanie,” among other poems: “I was the sun in June: I was ready to set/all amber and solar gel, and me craving the lead.” Do you have an especially good memory? Especially vivid memories about this time period? Did you keep a journal? I’m curious.
SB: Thanks for asking! I’ve never kept a very good diary or day-by-day journal—letters to friends are as close as I get, and I send those now; I don’t have them from childhood. I do keep a journal for writing ideas, observations, especially vivid moments or days, and so on, and I’ve been doing that for most of my adult life, but definitely not from childhood. So I guess it’s a vivid memory? There’s just a lot that sticks around from then. One of my favorite contemporary poets once said she had total recall of high school; I wouldn’t put my own capacities that far, but I do remember a lot. (It probably helps that I still have friends I made then, and that my parents still live where they lived back then—though that’s my teen years, not my childhood.)
AB: What are the first and last poems of Advicr from the Lights that you wrote? Are there ways in which certain poems opened up the collection, shaped it, or completed it for you?
SB: I love this question! I don’t remember what the first poem was, and the first poem started was probably not the first poem finished anyway. I do know that the poems with Stephanie in the title, the ones from All-Season Stephanie, the chapbook, came relatively early, and as a group, and the ones with the years in the titles came after that. In both cases I wrote a poem, showed it to someone I trust, and got encouragement, and wrote more. Realizing that I could write about my actual childhood and be funny and just compile facts and memories, rather than having to tell a pagelong story…. that was important. “My 1979” (“I was Mr. Spock being raised by Dr. Spock”) came first in that group: I discovered (or found or made up or something) the first line, realized that nobody else had made that joke before, and that it was me. And then everything else.
I got a lot of help from Jeff Shotts at Graywolf in terms of collection shape. He’s really an ideal editor. He thinks about the book as a book and the way the poems fit together, where I tend to get stuck within individual poems, or in small groups of two or five. At one point I wanted to try to publish two books simultaneously, one more personal than the other! That would have been… a sign of the split in myself that the book is about, I guess? Anyway I’m better now, and he’s great. I also got some pretty serious collection-shape advice from other friends with collections of their own.
The last poems are and have to be the two poems that are *at the same time* talking object poems and adult world public-facing political poems, “Concord Grapes” and “White Lobelia”: I wanted the book to end with something public-facing and something ambitious and something, also, that gestured towards just how white the book is, how much I would like to be able to think and write about race! Both of those poems look (not in the same ways) at race, and at my own whiteness and at white privilege, though “White Lobelia” is also about attitudes towards art (raw/cooked. rooted/aerial, “natural”/not) (these attitudes are themselves sometimes racialized, of course).
Those were two of the last poems that I wrote, but they weren’t the very latest: those were the poems begun after the November 2016 election, including “Advice from Rock Creek Park” and the other “Advice” poems except for the title poem. I and many others felt like the world was ending and the time for complex artifice was past: very short lines, pulverized fragments, and direct exhortations seemed the only appropriate response. I no longer feel that way, but I value the impulse to action that those months brought. I hope it doesn’t go away.
AB: I have to admit that I basically stole that question from Emilia Phillips; she asked me some version of it when she interviewed me for 32 Poems. Here’s a final question: I love the references to 80’s music in Advice, and I just read “Baby Radio” on the Poetry website. What are listening to now: this month, this week? Did you discover anything new this year?
SB: I did– and I’m trying to branch out from 20+ years of utter absorption in indie rock and indiepop, much as I love and will always love their best examples. A close friend got me super-into Angel Haze, whose work (especially the album Dirty Gold) has powerful rap, beautifully sung melodies (sometimes in the same song) and themes of trans, queer, and nonbinary empowerment. For quiet, quiet mornings, the British singer Kathryn Williams (audience and vibe comparable to Beth Orton, if that helps). And Dessa: anything and everything by Dessa, especially her new one, Chime.
AB: I’ll conclude with my favorite question: What are you reading now? Poetry, but other things, too: what have you read recently that has impressed you? Do you read several books at once?
SB: So much is out there! I’m always reading ten books at once, in many genres if I can help it. This week I’m in the middle of (partial list): David Baker’s new Selected Poems; Marwa Helal’s Invasive Species (verse and prose); Lyn Hejinian’s somewhat demanding but super-smart collection of journals and nonfiction, new from Belladonna; the latest (the fourth) in the Wayward Children series by Seanan Maguire; NeuroTribes, by Steve Silberman; and Authoring Autism, by Melanie Yergeau. Most recent books I finished, loved and recommended include Hannah Ensor’s Love Dream with Television (poetry), Khern Callender’s Hurricane Child, and Robin Talley’s Pulp, both of which are recent and absolutely perfect queer girl YA. Also a lot of comics. The Alan Davis run of Excalibur.
I have no idea how people who like books can manage to read only one book at once. On the other hand I am very willing to give up on a book after 40 pages if it doesn’t grab me and if I don’t need to read it for work/ teaching/ to be a responsible scholar. There’s so much else out there, and not enough time.
AB: Thanks, Stephanie. It was a pleasure.
SB: Thank you!
They do not fit their given name. They glow
all day in the sun, without
ever opening up; they are able to retain
their shape and their seal under even the weightiest rain.
They may assert, or believe, that any problem
they notice among themselves must be a low
priority next to the crocuses, always picked first,
or compared to the unwell maple, whose phantom limb,
as recently as last summer, could provide
an afternoon of unreliable shade.
Their practice at holding their own
has made them feel less cultivated or planted
than like something they themselves have made.
Nevertheless it is tough for them to remain
so sanguine; they have arranged
to keep themselves together in almost the same
way they keep other people’s secrets,
even when shaky, at dawn, or nearly asleep.
They dangle and dodge in light wind
as if they were windchimes. They are, also, perennial,
able to outlast frost: they can insist
that the most important fact about them—more
or chromosomes, varietals or
Latin names—is just
that they continue to exist.
As well as the overfamiliar valentine,
the thumbnail spade for archaeological digs,
they duplicate the alphabet: a V,
for victory, as well as a sort of X
wherever two or three will overlap.
Their bone-white, surprisingly durable
extensions resemble exclamation marks,
or quills, or claws. Once I heard
them claim that they were eggs,
dragon eggs; one day they would, supposedly, split,
detaching the bloom from the ornamental top,
so that the V-shaped part would drop
to Earth, and low-to-the-ground observers could see
the dragonets discover their feet,
their solarized scales, their yet-to-be-sharpened pairs
of retractable talons. The adults who share, or repeat,
these stories must be, not gardeners, but magicians,
the kind who understand how to escape
from anything, whom you hope
can teach you, too, how to do that.
Some renegade botanists
believe the cultivars can be regrown
from even the slightest cutting: one tendril, one stem.
Other experts think this trick can work
for closely related species, but not for them.
V for vigilance. V for vindication.
After a hailstorm, either V in survived,
in visible and invisible. They are the kind
of students who ought to teach, but will not give lectures,
having determined what parts of their own life cycle
are worth trying to explain
to the outer world, what to reveal from within their clusters
of shoots, their extracellular architecture,
and what belongs, for now, on the inside.
Petals that flourish in shade,
the deeper the better; they treat
the sun much as we treat the sun— a friend,
as long we don’t have to see his face.
Indigo, moth-wing, beetle-carapace blue.
They were the single flower or flower name
that stuck in my mind
after our mother decided we ought to try gardening
together: my brothers and I
needed to get dirt on our grade-school hands.
The resulting muddy fingerprints
were temporarily everywhere indoors.
The mature blooms can lay across
each other casually,
like couples in high school hallways,
or else in late middle age;
once settled in their shallow
excavations and properly sheltered
from overexposure, they
can almost be left alone.
An uninformed visitor, seeing the shapes
they make in their raised wooden beds,
could take them for pansies,
although they are more resistant
to winter, and never display
anything like a “face.”
No matter what choices you make
you will entertain second thoughts.
You could always have run away,
or grown some other way.
Who did you want to be, before you knew
who you were going to be, today?
to move in quickly on a wide-eyed girl
one finger over a shoulder or
a shoulder strap,
to say to her “don’t overanalyze,”
to lay one hand in her lap
and tilt back, then
push down cut-off summertime shorts,
to invent our own sports,
there that I learned when a come-on
would get us both off,
and when I was likely to be a welcome surprise.
My privilege and my tank tops work together to heighten
your suspicion of me. I have my own mission,
for which you can borrow my certainty. Me,
and my buff denim jackets, and no barrier
between my inmost thoughts
and what’s visibly me.
Who would you want at your back
or holding your hand
the earth below this earth
upends its ancient self,
and liquid chaos overrules the land?
If you can’t have your first or your second choice this time
you might be grateful to get your number three: me.
When we were caterpillars we
were meant to be left and could be left
amid our claque of leaves, each on our own.
We spent our lives in search
of sugar and cellulose, or shelter and shade.
Now we live out in the open, protected
if at all, by our apparent
insignificance, or by the speed
with which we pivot and change direction.
We know we are nothing much
to see beside our brighter, nobler cousins,
fritillary, viceroy, swallowtail:
eye-catching, exuberant, tansy and coreopsis,
flower-on-flower beside our favorite weeds.
And yet we believe
it is better for us to be
this way than any other, better to be
what looks like pallid shyness from above
or from the perspective of color photography
but honestly comes to us as continual effort,
a matter of learning our ultraviolet
signatures, of willingness to fail
or else get lost in loops, jumps, lacy spin.
We may not have much longer
to find one another. We do expect to be found.
At least we know where to begin.
We got along once
without eyes, without wings, under eaves, on the unfrozen ground.
No danger, no inclement
weather, no stalking or
can make us choose to live that way again.
Stephanie Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice from the Lights (2017), Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and Popular Music (1999). Burt’s works of criticism include The Poem is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (2016); Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (2009), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Art of the Sonnet, written with David Mikics (2010); The Forms of Youth: 20th-Century Poetry and Adolescence (2007); Randall Jarrell on W.H. Auden (2005), with Hannah Brooks-Motl; and Randall Jarrell and His Age (2002).
Amy Beeder’s third book, And So Wax Was Made & Also Honey, is forthcoming from Tupelo Press. A recipient of an NEA Fellowship, a “Discovery”/The Nation Award and a James Merrill Fellowship, she has worked as a creative writing instructor, freelance writer, political asylum specialist, high-school teacher in West Africa, and a human rights observer in Haiti and Suriname. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, AGNI, The Southern Review and other journals. She lives in Albuquerque.