Angela Hume: Rebecca, dear poet and woman friend, I am so delighted to talk with you about your poetry in this format! Over the years we’ve known each other—since 2006, when we met in graduate school—we’ve discussed poetics and practice at length. It’s been exciting to watch your project evolve. Here I want to ask you some questions that I think gesture toward some of the key formal and thematic concerns of your work.
So. To begin. Your book is called Correct Animal, and in it I spot geese, whales, a beetle, a mammoth... Even human figures become animal, “noising and flapping.” Can you talk about animals and “animality” in your work?
Rebecca Farivar: That is a tricky question to answer, but one I thought about a lot as I was bringing the collection together. The animals and the humans in the poems share many qualities. As you pointed out, the humans take on animal qualities at times, but the animals are attributed with human motivation and emotion, too. So they blur together for me. Whether human or animal, they all operate under the control of instinct and pattern, as well as exerting thought and reason. In that way, the humans and the animals register as the same force in the poem for me.
AH: You say “whether human or animal,” but it seems to me that the poems are actually working to deconstruct this limit. Also, it’s interesting to me that you name the human/animal in the poems “force.” Can you say more about “force”?
RF: Force as in energy. The animals and humans in my poems have energy that is distinct from the plants or objects. They can exert themselves. They act. Regardless of when or why they act, or even if they have control of their actions, the fact that they move on their own makes them feel like a force to harness, rather than a material to manipulate. I’m not saying that they act on their own in the sense that they are just coming out of me onto the page. There are no Martians or Muses taking over my brain and speaking through me. But rather that’s just a true thing about how animals and humans exist in the world—we have the ability to control our motion. And because of that we can attribute reason to those actions. This fundamental connection between humans and animals is what leads to that deconstruction of the line between us.
I’ve tried to play with objects in my poems by imbuing them with same motivation and thought as humans. I even published a poem several years ago called “The Humanification of Things.” But there ultimately is something that doesn’t resonate when an object is thinking. (You’ll notice that poem is not in the book.) It just doesn’t matter if a blender’s scared or a table wonders about its place in the world. Their lack of movement so clearly marks them as not alive that anything that seems human-like just won’t stick.
AH: In other words, perhaps: the table is worldless. That’s Heidegger. And that’s a conversation for another day! But just briefly: I appreciate that, for you, the poem is a vehicle for philosophical speculation. For you, writing poetry is doing ontology.
Let’s talk about your poetry as it relates to place. I want to ask a couple of questions. First of all, you’re a Bay Area native. Not surprisingly, the materials of your poems are often distinctly Northern Californian. There’s morning Bay fog; the smoke and ash of the region’s fires; coastal debris; the big, empty sky. How does your poetry relate to space, place, and local (material) cultures? Secondly, you’ve spent several years living and working abroad, in France and in Germany, since writing (much of) Correct Animal. How has this experience affected your poetics? Do you ever find yourself doing a kind of “travel poetics”?
RF: I’m going to answer these two questions together because in my head they are related. I have thought a lot about the impact of place and how it influences my writing, and perhaps because I’ve been thinking about place in particular for the last few years as I’ve been writing abroad, I can see it other poets’ work as well. Recently I was flipping through some poetry books on my shelf and it just happened that I picked up two books in a row that were written by poets in California, and both those books referenced Eucalyptus. And then I happened to pick up two books that were written by poets in the Northeast and they both referenced bears. So it seems only natural that the local place around you while you're writing, whether you’re from there or not, would start to seep into the work. If every day you walk down a street lined by Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus becomes part of the materials you work with to build your poems. It’s in your space, so it’s in your head, whether you realize it or not.
That’s something I’ve come to really realize from living abroad. Bonn is on the Rhein and I would see the river almost every day, just on my daily commute. Many of the poems I wrote while living in Germany have imagery from the river in some way or the other, so much so that I’ve assembled a chapbook with these poems and titled it Am Rhein.
Perhaps it seems obvious that the local place would enter the work, but it’s something that I didn’t appreciate or notice before because, as you pointed out, I’m from Northern California and most of the poems in Correct Animal were written in Northern California as well. So it seemed like those poems were more influenced by my past experiences than the actual landscape as I was experiencing it at the moment, when in fact looking back, I think it was the other way around. It’s not the original place but the current one that has the most impact for me.
Maybe this seems obvious, but I really expected that the German language would have had more of an effect on my writing than the place—maybe I just wanted it to have more of an effect on my writing because I wanted to feel like I knew German better than I do! But really the language has had little impact. Sure, I do have some poems that use a German word here or there, but German grammar, structure, or sensibility are nowhere in the new poems. What is there are rivers, castles, trains—pieces of the Rheinland. I don't think of this as a travel poetics, but just a fact of place.
AH: Ah, the Rheinland. As you know, it’s been my home for the past year, too. I look forward to reading your new manuscript.
I’d like to ask you about your form as it relates to your content. Your poems are incredibly compressed, and in this way the bodies, objects, and materials that constitute them—so daily in nature—are rendered strange. On my reading, there’s more than a touch of Williams here. “No ideas but in things”?
RF: Yes, I do subscribe to the Williams line of thought on images! I don’t think I ever consciously thought that I wanted to write like an Imagist poet, but ultimately I aim to create an impression of an emotion or sensation, and usually it’s tied to an image. I do remember being drawn to the Imagist poets when I first started studying poetry in college. I love it when I immediately feel something from a poem and don’t really understanding why I felt it, but still not doubting the feeling. I try to recreate that same experience with my own writing.
AH: The type of poetics you’re describing actually sounds very Romantic. And I do mean Romantic-with-a-capital-R—as in that lyric that draws from local, “natural” settings to achieve or name an insight (to name one capital-R Romanticism). To what extent do you see yourself as drawing from the Romantics?
RF: I have a complicated relationship with the Romantics. I don’t normally gravitate to those poets, but when I’m forced to read and really think about the work in a detailed way, like when I had to teach “Ode to a Nightingale” in Germany, I do appreciate their complexity. But when you present the Romantics in comparison to my own poetic intent, I can see the connection you’re making. Though when I’m using the pieces from my local environment, it’s not to exalt the natural world, but rather just another material making the poems. I also feel like the Romantics have a much clearer sense that what they’re expressing is a truth about the world and I think my poems are much more ambiguous—I hope a feeling or emotion comes through and feels authentic, but I also know that it’s not “true” for everyone (or even every speaker in my poems). It’s an experience or feeling that happens in the world, not a truth about all existence. But maybe I’m being a little too hard on Romantics there.
AH: It’s good to be hard on them, since most of us are Romantics ourselves—at least to a certain degree. And again, the Romanticism we’re talking about is just one form of it. There are many.
I want to ask you about the women in your poems. From an unnamed “she” at the center of so many of the poems to the female protagonists in American literature who crop up in the middle section, women's bodies populate your book. In the poems there’s also talk of conception, wombs, birthing, and milk. Is this is a feminine and/or feminist poetics?
RF: Once last year, after I gave a reading, an older man asked me if I was a mother, and I said no, to which he said, “Oh, well you write like you’ve had children.” And that is definitely true, and something I’ve sort of wondered about in my writing, why I use so much birth/pregnancy imagery when I have not experienced it myself. I think it does come down to the fact that I am distinctly interested in expressing a feminine poetics. My speakers are female and I assert that they are.
That being said, one thing I’ve been concerned about is whether I use the female body as a crutch to explain or access the female experience—the body becomes shorthand for woman. I think I start to get away from that shorthand in the middle section of Correct Animal in trying to speak to these female characters from American literature about their experiences in a way that isn’t precious or instructive to the reader, but a little snarky and unexpected. But of course there are still lots of babies and mothers in that section, as well.
These days I’m trying to move away from using the female body so much in my work. I’m still concerned with having a distinctly female voice at the center of the poems, but doing that without drawing only on the body.
AH: I don’t think you use the female body as a crutch. I think yours is a poetics that thinks the world in and through experiences of embodiment. It’s a way of asserting the actuality of female embodied experience as it relates to all of the other materials. It’s a form of insistence. Recall Rich: “No one has imagined us.”
RF: Oh, well, thank you—I’m glad that it doesn’t come across as a crutch! Actually your reference to Rich is so crucial here because she is a poet who has had a great influence on me. The first poetry book I read and owned outside of a classroom was Diving Into the Wreck. Her commitment to the female experience instantly drew me to her work early on and, thematically speaking, still influences me today.
AH: I know that you follow comedy culture—writing, standup, podcasts, etc. And while I wouldn’t describe Correct Animal as “funny,” the tones of the book are wonderfully slippery. We have lyric sincerity, and then we have irony; we have the intensity of witness, and then we have the breezy tongue-in-cheek. How do you think about humor and tone in poetry? In your poetry?
RF: One thing I am constantly amazed by when I listen to standups talk about their craft (this is via podcasts) is how similar the process of writing comedy is to the process of writing poetry. A lot of the same buzz words come up in conversations around comedy and poetry—there’s lots of talk about trying to get to the truth of an experience, trying to be surprising, trying to be authentic. Poetry and standup—at least good poetry and standup—are both trying to express some reality about what it’s like to exist in the world. So it seems natural that poetry would veer into comedic territories sometimes (the same way standup can veer away from jokes).
I love it when I read a book that has a variety of tones, either within individual poems or across the collection. It feels authentic somehow and keeps me attentive while I’m reading. Both Zachary Schomburg and Mathias Svalina who run Octopus Books have this tonal variety in their books (and I would imagine that shared slipperiness is part of what drew them to my book when I submitted it). I remember reading Mathias’ most recent book I Am A Very Productive Entrepreneur (which is technically a novella though I read it like poems) in a park in Berlin and it made me both laugh out loud and cry, two things that are usually embarrassing to do in public when you’re sitting by yourself, but fortunately it was Berlin so no one paid attention to me. I had a very similar experience reading Zach’s most recent book Fjords Vol. 1 in an airport. In that case, people did seem to notice. I’m currently reading Bright Brave Phenomena by Amanda Nadelberg (who read at Studio One in June) and she has this same tonal variety, too, where I’m delighted one moment by a funny or unexpected turn of phrase and then struck by the sheer sincerity or beauty of the next line—sometimes within the same line!
AH: I love the connection you draw between writing comedy and writing poetry. Tone is so difficult to control. I admire how skillful you are at it in your own writing.
It’s been a pleasure, Becks. Thanks so much for this exchange!
Rebecca Farivar is the author of Correct Animal (Octopus Books, 2011) and chapbook American Lit (Dancing Girl Press, 2011). She holds an MFA in poetry from St. Mary's College of California. Poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, 6x6, RealPoetik, The Volta, Word for/Word, The American Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Oakland, California
Angela Hume lives in Oakland. She is the author of Second Story of Your Body (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2011). Poetics/poetry have appeared in such journals as Evening Will Come, eccolinguistics, Zoland Poetry, Word for/ Word, and Spinning Jenny. Critical work is forthcoming or has appeared in The Volta, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, ecopoetics, and Evental Aesthetics.