PF detail from Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Beach Scene, Guernsey (Children by the Sea in Guernsey) - 1883;

ISSN 
1942-2067

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Last updated:
May 2009

Interview

 
                    Photo credit: Melissa Buckheit

Pirene’s Fountain interviews Rebecca Seiferle

With Ami Kaye

PF: We’re so pleased to have you with us for this interview, Rebecca! Perhaps we can start by speaking of the writers and poets you came to appreciate during your formative years. When you became a poet, which works influenced your thinking the most?

RS: Thank you for inviting me. Well, at first, I was very influenced by French poets, especially Desnos, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire. The first poem I memorized was in French and by Baudelaire. I was also very much taken with the work of Emily Dickinson, an attachment which has drawn me back to her work again and again. I began reading Spanish poets like Neruda and Vallejo in my late teens, and that, too, became a long lasting influence and connection. Perhaps it's odd that I was drawn so often to poets who wrote in other languages; I think on some level it was a reflection of my sense that English was in a way another 'foreign' tongue. The language I had been given was not my "personal lexicon" as Cesar Vallejo calls it, the language one has to make out of the mother tongue, the linguistic material, to articulate one's own experience and sensibility. I've always been drawn to translating, and felt, even when writing my own work in English, that I was translating deeply inarticulate, almost material, levels of experience.

PF: When reading your brilliant work, one can feel your inherent connection to the natural world. How did that shape your poetry? Is it something you have always felt and expressed?

RS: Thank you. Well, I've always felt this connection to the natural world. I think part of it was growing up the way that I did. We moved so often; so there wasn't much sense of social continuity, of being part of a community, neighborhood, or of having a 'home town.' But wherever we lived, I lived outdoors. I spent most of my time running through the woods, or wandering along a stream; whatever landscape I happened to inhabit was my sense of home, of being home in the world. 

PF: There is such passion and energy in your words, as if you have a visceral relationship with them. Please tell us something about how the language of poetry came into being for you.

RS: Until I was 5 or so, my mother read to me, both from a children's anthology that contained the usual nursery rhymes but also some poems, and from Biblical stories adapted for children.  The sound of language imprinted in my body's rhythms, a kind of musical breath in the mind. It wasn't until I was 9 and trying to finish an English assignment to write a poem about a favorite place, that I realized how much I wanted to be able to express my experience in language. That realization was born out of a deep sense of frustration; in trying to write about my favorite place, then in the Vermont woods, I felt this profound sense of being inarticulate, unable to say that I don't know what, to paraphrase St. John of the Cross. But part of my visceral relationship to language is due to the wounds inflicted by language. In my family, terrible arguments would devolve around a word, until someone would flare up and call upon the dictionary--as if there were some final, objective, arbiter. Growing up the way I did, being always the stranger, and sometimes a stranger within my own family, I often felt the way in which words can injure, the wound in the word. I felt, unwillingly, words like thorns embedded in the skin, so language was inevitably for me a visceral--life or death--encounter, a way in which it was imperative to bear the word with an awareness of the wound implicit within it in order to heal that wound.

PF: I love the way you have articulated the “wound” of words. It is so obvious from your work how each of your words is weighted with meaning, however, moving to the external, there is a tremendous historical and cultural scope to your poetry, not to mention mythic connections that impart a unique flavor to your entire body of work. What facets of civilization prompted those explorations?

RS:  I've always read a lot and all sorts of things, history in particular, philosophy, mythology, archeology, anthropology, not just out of interest, but a kind of hunger, a sense of 'not knowing' the world, of trying to find some connection with the world, my place in it, the place of any human being within it.  I think, in a way, that my mother reading those Bible stories to me imprinted my brain with a kind of "Biblical imagination," part of which is the intersection of ordinary events with great signification. And this also connects to that sense of the wound in the word, for the word is wounding because of the historical and cultural weight it bears within it. The root of many words in any language is often entwined in issues of power, inequity, oppression, and so I felt that to articulate one's own experience and sensibility meant confronting history.

PF: Please tell us something about your work as an editor of a literary magazine. Do you find that editing a journal expands your own understanding of the art and skill of writing, and fosters development of various forms and styles?

RS: Yes, I do think that editing a journal has made me aware of the work of any number of other writers, different styles, different forms, and also different bodies of work. When I first started the journal and for the first four years of publication, the issues appeared quarterly. I was living in Northwest New Mexico and isolated from any writing community, so the journal was for me this space where writers of various styles, locations, places, could meet in this sort of other place that poetry seems to create.  That space also expanded my own understanding of the possibilities, even sometimes of those possibilities with which I argue.

PF: As an editor reading submissions, besides preference, what are the deciding factors in choosing one poem over another?

RS: The Drunken Boat is meant to be 'drunken' with enthusiasms. From the beginning, I've been interested in providing a space for works that might be too unfinished, too long, too experimental or different from the author's previous works, etc, to be published in other venues. So I have a preference for the poem that takes the risk, is intemperate, wild, that doesn't fit on one side of the poetic divide or the other. I do consider craft, music, the deftness of language and form, but it's that sense of the poem being alive on its own, sometimes willfully, uncooperatively, that I'm most drawn to. However, a number of issues have also been guest edited by various poets, sometimes contributing or assistant editors to the journal, and so I see part of my role as giving space to the enthusiasms of others, and not imprinting the journal with my particular taste.

PF: It is truly wonderful that The Drunken Boat provides an alternative publishing platform to poets whose poems have so much to offer, but are sometimes overlooked by conventional venues. Speaking of poetry, I would like to learn about some of your favorite poems. Could you share with us some insights about a few of your new works, including "Being Born at Any Hour" and How many lives sleep in the circumference of your arms when I am…?

RS:When you first asked about favorite poems, I thought of poems by other poets, rather than my own. I suppose, like many poets, I'm most involved with my newest works, and How many lives sleep in the circumference of your arms when I am and "Being Born at Any Hour" are both fairly recent. "Being Born at Any Hour" is more formally conventional and metaphysical, preoccupied with the nature of being, how birth--a sense of new being--can arrive at any moment, just as death, an ending of something, arrives at various moments in our life. I was one of those infants born after an extremely difficult birth; the umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck, and I was thought to be a stillbirth, though I came sputtering back in the baptismal font that was meant to save me from limbo. So I've always had this sense of the fluidity of birth and death, how they are always, simultaneously, present in any present we inhabit. I was also thinking of Auden's line "many have died for lack of water, not one has died for lack of love," and how it seemed untrue, and ironically so, since it was written in the decade that preceded my birth. Growing up, I was very aware just how many had 'died' for lack of love, and by that, I don't mean physical death necessarily, but this sense of having died in life, of going through the motions and functions of existence but having some dead spot within oneself. And there's also this sense of rain in the desert, of that which mothers and fathers one into life, in the unexpected generosity of the earth itself. How many lives sleep in the circumference of your arms when I am is one of two long poems I've written in the last year or so. Writing both of these poems was like following a breath, a kind of ongoing fluidity. With the first poem, I realized that it belonged with the images that I'd been working on simultaneously, that the poem and the images belonged together in some way I hadn't imagined. I began to see how an image would call for a particular section of the poem, though, once I began to combine them, both the image and the text would change, exerting a kind of critical and necessary presence upon one another, requiring that the text become more compressed, in some cases, erased or written over by the image, etc., or more direct, more explicitly lyric, less narrative. At the same time, the text exerted the same kind of presence upon the image.  The result was these Other poems, the text/images, a few of which you've included here. Since I moved to Tucson, I've reclaimed my interest in art. In my twenties, I painted and won awards for my photographs and also sculpture in wood. Then, for whatever reason, I left that behind. A number of synchronicities here, whether it's visiting art classes at Cochise college to talk about the elements of narrative in painting, or teaching both in the English and Fine Arts department at The Art Center, have revived my interest. The image, in a sense, exerts a presence like the world, but also a kind of silence, that allows the text itself to become more lyrical, associative. That development continues in How many lives sleep in the circumference of your arms when I am, eventhough the poem has a somewhat different movement and stays on the page.  In writing it, I felt as if I were following a breath, but also as if being swept up in its embrace, a kind of inclusivity, sweeping this fluidity of being, possibilities of encounter, history and culture, into a wholeness of embrace, this space that love makes, how the universe does give us what we need. A good number of my favorite poems by other authors have always been sequences; for instance, Gloria Gervitz's Migraciones/Migrations, translated by Mark Schafer, is a brilliant work, a poem written over a period of 27 years, where the "you" and the "I" have a remarkable fluidity and where the poem is inhabited by presence and absence, but also evocative of the Diaspora. I wrote a piece "The Poem Is Not a Closed System" for the Poetry Foundation about these longer works that I'm fond of, so rather than repeat myself, I'll just list the link.

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/article.html?id=179644 

PF: Thank you for a fascinating peek into the “process” of your poetry, and those of others which you have found interesting. Can you also tell us about your translations? How did translating Cesar Vallejo The Black Heralds influence your perceptions of poetry and writing?

RS: I read Vallejo for a long time before I began translating his work. In grad school, I wanted to write about his poems and realized that writing about them required translating them since the existent translations seemed to me to miss his work in various ways. I've spent so much time with his work, translating not only The Black Heralds and Trilce, reading, thinking about it, that it's been like this long intense relationship, somewhat like wrestling a telluric angel. His work is very different from mine, so there isn't an obvious influence; I've never felt that translating was synonymous with channeling the spirit of another author into one's own poetic becoming. I think it's his intense linguistic necessity, the way in which he goes to the root of the word, his sense of suffering in language, that's part of the affinity. It's odd in that I can't point to definite influences, and yet I do feel that the time I spent reading and translating his work taught me more about poetry, in the sense of language, its mutability, its fixity, its sheer obduracy, its material nature, that intensely personal vocabulary, than almost any other single encounter.

PF: There is a distinct “sense of place” in your work. How have the places where you have lived informed your poetry?

RS:  It's ironic, perhaps, because I feel my "sense of place," which others have noted in my work originates in my feeling of homelessness, of being deracinated, home everywhere and nowhere. Perhaps it was that sense of moving so often, as if from one world to another, each one vanishing in the rear view mirror, that gave me that sense of the particulars, the sort of shimmering body of the presence of its place in its details, atmosphere, etc. I think moving to New Mexico in my twenties grounded my work; I had such a strong sense of that particular place, the intersections of history and culture that make it unique and at the same time the place seemed to intersect with my own imagination and interior life. I felt that way at other times in my life, in the woods of Vermont, running after the buffalo in Wyoming, or stepping into the Atlantic in January in Maine. All of those occasions were singular and brief, though all of them have informed my work.

PF: From your invaluable experience as an established poet and journal editor, if there was one thing you could tell a submitting poet, what would it be?

RS: To persist. And by that I mean to keep trying, sending your work into the world, but at the same time to care only for the necessity of the work itself. Rejections can't help but affect us, particularly when they are many, so one has to persist in the trying. But it's more important to trust in the process, to do whatever the work itself requires. The work, if it's alive, will find its own way  

 

Please read Rebecca Seiferle’s new poem below:

 

How many lives sleep in the circumference of your arms when I am

 

held
contemplio,
reading the  angles of inclination
between the heavenly bodies and conjunctions of us
in our bed,

or  outside alone,
my face turned toward  the pink flushed sky of snow impossibly pending
into the fronds of palm trees, the moonlight the only drift of white
constellating  the earth.

How  I know 
you are behind the door  of the forest looking at me,
and how I  let you look at me
in that meadow that opens  within me,
just because you are. . .

 

* * *

 

Worlds and  luminaries beyond  multiplication wheel into view,  wondering
if you remember all the others you were in my arms:
one night
of the yarmulke on my head evokes a shetl of longing,
and later  when you kneel over me, your fingers in me  are two girls
in that Crete now under the sea,

and always in whatever world, whatever name,
my body a temple
just for being in your arms.

 

* * *

 

                             A fauna of,  a flora of
raspberry with its prickles
and hair and its  color of blood and its taste of the earth and the  rain,
the insistent head of the bear  nuzzling the  shadows of your collarbone,
its snout tonguing its way into wild honey,  all the tenderings of
the mild and beautiful flanks of the horse, the gaze of the lion
over the haunch of a tenderness which it  never tears. 

Oh, your gaze is
as the light of that star which squares the moon, a hand's distance
which my hand keeps reaching across,
rising  in the sky of  trines and oppositions.

 

* * *

 

and so I give you
this box of my dreams,
the one with the dolphin
singing
its blue bereft song
under the stone
I made into a pillow

 

* * *

 

Who was I in the forest  with all its leaves, the shape
of human hands,  that I do not
remember, the alphabet of branches, the crane waiting, focussed
on the depths of the pool, all the others I was in your arms,

natal as starlight,
caught in the  ephermis  within you, tender membrane 
which opens, unfolding,  into the earth, and emerges somewhere, elsewhere,
and flows like a river again, sextiling the other side of the  penumbra,
which, even in its darkness,
is surprised to be so full, so full. 

Who am I when you walk into the room of the twelve houses,
except the one who loves you, in my name, but in any name: all the skins,
the animals, the  stars, I have worn, waking up to thee.

 

* * *

 

How the dream followed me for years,
how  it would arrive every so often,  like rain
to the stricken desert,  a small bucket carried
to the root of the tree. . . .  How always the dream would take me
in her arms,  would kiss me, and I would wake up--speaking.  That woman
I was following who was following me.  My own

language,

My own, you are my own,

 

and yet  it is beyond language--gravidity
of your breath making love

of worlds and words,

where  for years nothing
but the dream

kept me alive, kept
me singing,

 

* * *

 

and how waking up, I  felt so sharply all the lightless  squares
of an existence where you were not, and how before
I knew you, the dream
that dreamt me into being

had your face, your arms,
your legs, the curve of your back.

I tried to be intelligent about this,
which is to say  I was sometimes confused,  which
is to say  I over-thought, as all confusion makes more of itself
by overly determing:
"she must be a symbol, a muse, a conflation with some other feeling or actuality."

 

* * *

 

Bereft,
I didn't know I was looking for you,
within me, the jade emptiness given over to laughter and joy,
and within you, the jade emptiness given over to laughter and joy,
kisses into which I dissolve flowers into the mouths
of bees, that angle of nose, that intensity of a pale star, that particular
gaze--yours.

 

* * *

I don't know how

I dreamt you

in all those moments,
in all those moments
so long before that one moment when you
gave me your hand on the street,

so that now in so many waking moments,  I turn, amazed, to you
 

* * *
If someone were to ask
what has happened to me,
what is the importance of this poem,
where is the  war or the market, the  history of the thorns
embedded in language?

I would say only

the only reason for having animal hands upon this animal earth,
for dreaming one's thirst

through the desert,

is,  is

there is no earth upon this earth
but that which this love makes.