Bronwen Tate and I have been friends since 2004. We’ve cooked together, written together, knit together and gotten our MFAs together. I love being friends with her and talking with her about teaching, writing and making.
Kate Schapira: Can you talk about the relationship that making physical objects has, for you, to making poems? I'm interested both in things like making chapbooks, with its more obvious and direct connection, and things like knitting which may seem unrelated but I suspect are not.
Bronwen Tate: I often see physical objects as a kind of ballast. They provide me with draft and stability. I love the fact that with making a soup or knitting a hat, time and patience are adequate. Struggling with words and language (both in writing poetry and in trying to write about poetry for my dissertation) can start to feel like a lot of abstraction and of uncertain value at times. There's something comforting in turning away from that and towards making an object that will be of clear use to someone. But now I also read criticism while knitting sweaters, and the physical object with a clear sense of progress (two more inches on the left sleeve!) gives me the patience to stay with whatever I'm reading and keeps my mind from wandering. And sometimes the objects send me back to language. Earlier today I felt compelled to look up "purl" in the Oxford English Dictionary and the eleven different definitions are so verbally thrilling to me that I want to write a poem using them. Making chapbooks (as we both do) brings that physical patience, the meditative repetition that slowly adds up to something [missing word here?] into the way the poems reach a person and I like that too.
KS: I've been delighted and honored to be around to watch your writing process over a number of projects, and one thing that always strikes me is your use of structure. How have different structures and constraints (formal, procedural, even collaborative) served you at different times? What do you think draws you to these?
BT: Structure and constraints vary from project to project, but are always there in some form or another for me. With my manuscript The Probable Garden, I read Proust in French, looked for words I couldn't make a confident guess about and then guessed at them anyway, later using the alignments and failures of alignment between my guesses and a dictionary to write the poems. The constraint here came down to starting from language rather than from the thing to be expressed. There was a lot of freedom for me still – I didn't stipulate how I had to use what I gathered, but usually a spark or provocation would occur and from that, the beginning of the poem. That problem or where or how to start is a lot of what draws me to this kind of thing.
My most recent group of poems, the ones in the chapbook the loss letters, use a very different kind of constraint or structure, but again one that helped me each time to make a beginning. This chapbook was a collaboration with Ming Holden, in which we decided to send one another ghazals, pantoums, villanelles, sestinas and sonnets, always in that order, with no more than 48 hours elapsing between poem received and response poem sent, and with no communication with one another other than the poems themselves. The constraint here was multiple: the time was short for each poem so we couldn't spend too much time obsessing. In each poem we had to grapple with the various fixed forms and the kind of thought that each form asked of us. And then the fact of having only the poem to convey whatever we wished to convey at a time when a lot was going on put a curious sort of pressure on the poem.
KS: This is connected to the problem of where/how to start: What makes you want to start at all—do you want to always be working on poetry, do you like to have something always going? If you don't work on poetry for a while, but you do work on these other things (making things, reading, doing scholarly work), what draws you back to it?
BT: Not to torture you, but I really wish this interview could include you eating a piece of this butterscotch pie I made yesterday.
KS: Believe me when I say that you don't wish that as much as I do.
BT: I would like to always have some kind of poetry going on, but sometimes gaps of time go by when I don't. The question of what draws me back is sort of the question of why I write poetry to begin with, right? The answer is multiple. For one thing, I really enjoy the feeling that can come from a total concentration on the material, a moment when I'm seeing and mouthing and hearing words and feeling for their resonances and rearranging them and shifting and moving them until they feel right. The feeling is a sort of dissolving of time awareness (I have far too much time awareness and time anxiety much of the time) and an intensity of being active, of being alive. Another part of it is that sometimes I look back on old poems and I don't hate them. When I can read an old poem and say "yes, that's what that was and it's still here in the poem," it feels worthwhile and I want to be doing it again, to have a crafted remnant of things. And then, of course, sometimes someone reads a poem of mine and responds to it and tells me, or sometimes I read someone else's poem and respond to it, and the desire to be part of this kind of conversation motivates me. Yesterday I stumbled across a scribble in a old notebook just after a list of camping supplies (head light, potato salad (make), apples, etc.), and it reads: "poetry: an exploration of language between mind and world, self and others, self and self. how/what do we tell/say about/around/between/inside?" It's a bit incoherent, but I think that's largely what draws me – the language between all these forms of relation is important, and it's infinitely fascinating to me. In poetry I try to map some of it.