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Laura Sims’s first book of poetry, Practice, Restraint, was the recipient of the 2005 Fence Books Alberta Prize. She is also the author of three chapbooks: Bank Book (Answer Tag Press, 2004), Paperback Book (3rd Bed, 2006), and List (Bronze Skull Press, 2006). She has received two Pushcart Prize nominations for her poems, and was awarded First Prize in the 2004 Summer Literary Seminars Writing Contest, which provided a one-month residency in St. Petersburg, Russia. She was recently awarded a Japan-US Friendship Commission / NEA Creative Artist Exchange Fellowship, and will spend six months in Japan in 2006. Individual poems have appeared in the journals First Intensity, 26, How2, 6X6, La Petite Zine, Columbia Poetry Review, jubilat, LIT, Boston Review, Indiana Review, and 3rd Bed, among others. Her book reviews and essays have been published in Boston Review, Jacket, Rain Taxi, and the Review of Contemporary Fiction. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where she curates the Felix Reading Series at UW-Madison. She teaches creative writing and composition at UW-Madison, Edgewood College, and Madison Area Technical College.


Photo Copyright © Thomas A. Garver

Tryst Interviews Laura Sims

Mia: Can you tell us a little bit about your background: Where you grew up, what your childhood was like, your education, family, friends?
Laura: I was born in Waterville, Maine, but grew up in Richmond, Virginia. I never got the southern accent, but I can call it up when I need to – it comes in handy sometimes. My parents divorced when I was 2, and I lived with just my mom for four years until she met and married my stepdad. So my mom and I were very close. In fact, when she remarried, I told her that if she had another kid, “it” would have to sleep outside! Thankfully that didn’t happen and I remained a spoiled only child. Nicely spoiled, I hope.

I was an independent and secretive child, always at home in my internal world. I read a lot, wrote stories and poems from the time I could hold a pen, and started my own detective agency at age 6. I wanted so badly to solve mysteries, like Nancy Drew, but could never find any. Very disappointing for a Nancy Drew acolyte.

My dad was also an important part of my childhood; he took me to the library every week, introduced me to authors like Sylvia Plath and T.S. Eliot, and always encouraged my reading and writing. He also took me to double- or triple-feature matinees, which must explain my passion for movies.

I was educated in Richmond public schools, mainly the lily-white ones out in the suburbs. I went to the College of William & Mary as an undergraduate, and absolutely loved it – especially in retrospect, when I compare it to my MFA experience at University of Washington in Seattle. Those were a rough couple of years.

Mia: How did you come up with the title of your book: Practice, Restraint?
Laura: Practice, Restraint was originally the title of one of my poems, one that I cut (early on) from the manuscript. I kept it for the book because I liked the sound of it, and also because it aptly describes my (unintentional) project. Instead of trying to explain that myself, I’ll quote my acrobatically eloquent friend, Steve Timm, whose book, Disparity, can be found here: blazevox.org. He wrote this (in an e-mail to me) about the title, with special emphasis on the comma between the two words:

Utter aptness of meaning: a manual for both writer and reader of the book. The majesty of that comma, the way it doubles: take it out and the title orders us; put it in, and we must do what the title commaless would order us to do and so I got lost for a while marveling in that cyclotron of a title you smashed atoms and at'ems together to conjure so that it could cover all the gluons and muons and bringemons the poems particulate. But then the title as it is and if the comma renders no additionals, still anyone would notice it and aha that the title is a short list of two sweetly abstract and sensible nouns and they do foretell the coming of what the covers cover.

How’s that for commentary? I certainly couldn’t have said that myself! Thanks, Steve.

Mia: What was your reaction when you found out that your book won the 2005 Fence Books Alberta Prize?
Laura: I had just finished teaching a disappointing evening class (you know, there are always disappointing days, no matter what) after a full day of boring, soul-killing bank work, and I decided to check my e-mail in the school’s computer lab before heading home. Rebecca Wolff, Editor of Fence Books, had sent me an e-mail with the subject heading: You win. I stared at that for a while and then read the actual message, which let me know that I’d won the Alberta Prize. I’m pretty sure I jumped up and down and screamed and cried a little (yes, I was alone in the lab), but part of me thought it was a joke, or a mistake – until I was able to reach Rebecca at the number she’d given me and verify that it wasn’t a joke, that it was real. In short, I was overjoyed.
Mia: The great and amazing thing about your writing is that it’s difficult to define. I wouldn’t classify your writing as confessional, narrative, langpo, regional, or even experimental - I think someone suggested that your writing was “avant garde.” But I’m not ready to agree. To describe your writing, for me, in two words: “slender, light” and yet, it is profound. I am able to garner different meanings from it each time I read a poem of yours; that is the mark of a good poem, when it escapes categorization. Someone else mentioned “minimalist” – perhaps, it was you, but there again, it’s not minimalist as far as simplicity is concerned. I see influences of the best of haiku, tanka …forms, which are, as any practicing poet will tell you, extremely difficult to write; it is pure and unadorned. Your writing is different, I’ll grant that much, but how is it different? I guess what I’m asking how would you to describe what your writing is doing/saying?
Laura: I think you’ve given a perfect description of exactly what I want my poetry to be and do – thank you! I want it to be slender but profound, contain shreds of narrative that are beyond the reach of linear reconstruction, but that still strike emotional, visual and intellectual chords with the reader. I also want the reader to absorb the space in my poems – I think the white space is as vital to the poems as the words themselves, particularly when my poems deal with so much absence and emptiness, things unsaid, unsolved, unresolved. As with anything, so much depends on the reader; an attentive and sensitive reader will pick up on those faint signals, but a less appreciative reader will probably find many of my poems slight, confusing and cold. Oh well!

As for thematic concerns, someone recently asked me (at a reading) about the violence/murder/death in my work, and I feel I gave an unsatisfactory answer. What I should have said is this: I read a lot of murder-mystery novels, and many of these inspire poems, thus the “body count” in my poems. (That’s not my only inspiration for the dark thread running through my work, but still…) It may seem kitschy or trivial to get inspiration for poetry from mystery fiction, but I think these books, in tackling the smaller questions, like “who murdered who and why did they do it?,” are simultaneously grappling with the Big Questions like, “what is death and why do we have to die?” So reading a mystery novel, for me, is a way of facing (over and over and over again) those large, unanswerable questions, working them out and working them out and never finding a solution – because the best mystery novels, of course, are the ones without solutions, the ones that leave doors hanging open, suspects on the loose, and justice undone (or questionably done). It pushes me to write, even when I know the “solution” is unattainable. Or maybe I should say – especially when I know the “solution” is unattainable. How much would we write if we could write our way to The Answer in a poem? Answer: one poem.

Mia: I had wondered when you read your poems aloud, how you were going to tackle the white spaces. For example in the poem, “Bank Fifteen”

In every backyard

A peacock

Or some green nonsense


What rifles report from her far-flung states

When you read, line three, you paused between, “some” and “green” and “nonsense” as if you were separating the words. Even in the lines themselves, you have a lot of “white space.” I think the spaces act as holders for each thought to sink in and in this respect you command the audience’s attention. I don’t know if you noticed, but the whole room became absolutely quiet/still as if hanging onto every word you read. Any thoughts on technique here?

Laura: I think you’re absolutely right about those white spaces; I want them to allow the reader / listener room to breathe, think, meditate, and absorb the words. Since poetry is an art form, like any other, that requires the audience’s participation, why should a writer provide every word or thought and cram it into the reader’s mind? Similarly, if there is space on the page I think it should be honored during the reading – give the listeners a chance to actually hear the words! This is becoming a brief essay on minimalism, but I firmly believe this, whether I’m reading or writing. It’s not a conscious choice for me, though – it’s simply a natural reaction to words on the page; I can’t stomach reading a page of poetry unless it gives me some space; if I want a whole world delineated for me, I’ll read fiction (and I do – more often than poetry).
Mia: I want to discuss one other poem: “Hourly /Daily”

The legwork done

By lesser organs of the afternoon


Lies hard on the world


Where are organs permitted

Conditions like this?


Is there someone


Committing the city? Someone in plaid

Drew a knife from the ham saying, “this one” . . .

Besides it being one of my favorite poems, I have no idea what it’s saying, (well, I do have some idea). I just love the sound of it, and what I have noted is the non sequitur feel to some of your work. I like the way your poems jump in at any given point and yet give away nothing. Also, that your work seldom ends on a tidy conclusion. I don’t know how many poets, myself included, fall into this trap of wanting to end a poem on some great epiphany, lesson or tie it up neatly. Let me venture here and say that you must have found your quiet place, because that’s what I hear in your work: the quiet stillness, what someone described as “ambiance.”

Laura: I’m glad you like that one. For some reason I haven’t thought about this poem in a long time, and I rarely read it at readings. Maybe because it’s an older poem? Also, probably, because I’ve moved away from the more blatantly non sequitur construction in much of my newer work, and maybe that’s why I hesitate to revisit it. As for the ending, there’s always that impulse to want to tidy things up, isn’t there? But life isn’t tidy, so why should poetry be?

I don’t really think that I’ve found my quiet place in general (I wish I had), but poetry gives me quietude, if only in the relatively brief time when I’m working on a poem. I’m not religious and don’t do any praying, but writing is what comes closest to prayer for me; it puts me in touch with something larger than myself, something inexplicable and expansive.

Mia: Do you see your style changing, and if so, in which direction do you think you’ll explore? In other words, have you tried form/sonnets, prose, narrative?
Laura: I think, frighteningly enough, that my impulse is to become even more of a minimalist than I’ve been up to now! It’s not something I’m consciously aiming for, but it’s something that’s happening, and I can’t stop it. I’m not really interested in trying on forms, like sonnets, villanelles, etc. – I think because I was forced to play with those forms in school, and I certainly learned from them, but I also learned that they just don’t fit. I encourage my students to play with form – I think it’s a necessary part of any writer’s education – but I no longer practice what I preach.

I’m very interested in writing prose, and I have written some critical pieces and book reviews, and also a little fiction. In the coming months I really want to write about my own aesthetic in an essay that blends poetry and prose. I want to write something that helps me work out for myself (and possibly others) why I do what I do.

Mia: Your interview with Chicago Post Modern Poetry, you said, “honestly, other art forms influence my poetry far more than poetry does...especially fiction, non-fiction, music, and movies.” You mentioned Donnie Darko as one of your favorite movies; mine are Dr. Zhivago and Wings of Desire (by Wim Wenders) because they are poetic. You get to choose a movie that you feel is poetic, what movie would that be?
Laura: Winner: “Eureka,” written and directed by Shinji Aoyama. This is a four-hour Japanese film that was released in theaters in 2000 and has yet to appear on DVD. It stars one of my favorite actors, Koji Yakusho, and it follows the lives of three people thrown together during and after a bus hijacking. It starts in a place of terror and violence, and ends with ambiguous beauty – it’s probably the best ending I’ve ever seen. The whole thing is filmed in sepia, except for the very end. It’s quiet, looks gorgeous, is socially relevant, and profound.

I have to list runners-up, though, because it’s way too hard to pick just one! These are in no particular order:

• Spirited Away
• Donnie Darko
• David Lynch’s films
• Safe
• Russian Ark
• Ratcatcher
• George Washington
• Rear Window
• Vertigo
• Room with a View
• La Double Vie de Veronique

In general, I love directors who know when to shut up – or rather, when to have their characters shut up and let landscape, eyes, facial expressions, space in rooms, etc., speak for themselves.

Mia: Following this line of thought, if you could make a rendition of one of your poems, (or a favorite poem by someone else) into a movie, write a script around that one poem, which poem could you see in film format; and, could you describe what setting, panning, choreography, music arrangement you would set it to?
Laura: I really don’t know how to answer this. It’s a great question, but every time I think of one of my poems, or someone else’s poem as a movie, I see this really annoying art-house flick filmed in black-and-white, no dialogue, with a strident, fragmented soundtrack and over-gesturing actors. Really depressing. It’s funny, but I have no problem thinking about translating film to poetry, but translating poetry to film…I just keep hitting a wall.
Mia: By the way, have you ever acted in a movie? I googled your name and Laura Sims came up in the IMDb, “internet movie database”.
Laura: No, I haven’t, but I really wish I had. There’s also a Laura Sims in New York City, a famous storyteller/performer. And another Laura Sims who’s written a book on Marbling – it’s strange because I’m fascinated by the paper arts and book arts, without having talent for either, so that Laura Sims is living out a great parallel life for me. So is the storyteller – that would be fun, too.
Mia: You get nine lives, (along the lines of Orlando with Tilda Swinton). Would you indulge me and briefly describe each one of those lives you see yourself playing?
Laura: My nine lives (in no particular order):

1. A medieval queen – someone like Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was wise and cunning, and manipulated others (including her husband) to secure a powerful place for herself.

2. Nancy Drew, girl detective – I have to list this in honor of my childhood obsession. And it still kind of holds true, which leads me to number 3…

3. FBI agent: cold, focused, work-obsessed, tracking serial killers every day – like Jodi Foster’s character in “Silence of the Lambs.” Steely but vulnerable.

4. A warrior of some kind, preferably one with a sword! A samurai? Maybe. Maybe the updated version of this – Uma Thurman’s character out for revenge in “Kill Bill.”

5. A reclusive genius, a writer, someone like Jane Austen or Emily Dickinson. I used to imagine that this would be my ideal way of life, secluded and creatively productive, but I think I’ve grown up enough now to realize that it would be pretty miserable .

6. A beloved indoor cat. Then I could have nine more lives! Seriously, I would love to be as beautiful, pampered and petted as my own cat is – and have nothing to do but eat and sleep. Lovely.

7. A famous actress (not so different from #6, really). One of the classy, cool ones from the 30s / 40s / 50s – Frances Farmer (sans lobotomy), Rita Hayworth, Bette Davis, Grace Kelly. In the modern-day, someone like Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, or Samantha Morton – the ones who are uniquely beautiful, actually talented, and rarely, if ever, take crappy roles.

8. A medieval mystic – like Hildegard von Bingen, Julian of Norwich, or Margery Kempe. They were artists, in their own way, and were very dramatic about it.

9. Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs – or some other really cool, charismatic rock star. It would be great to be Thom Yorke for a while, too!

Mia: Where do you go from here?
Laura: Well, in just a few weeks I’ll be moving to Japan for six months to have some absolutely free writing time for the first time in six years, thanks to the JUSFC/NEA Creative Artists Exchange Fellowship. I’m a little nervous because I generally need some kind of external routine or schedule to pull the writing out of me, something to write “against,” but I’m determined to use this time as fully as possible. I also feel like it may work now, especially after my hectic teaching year. I’ll be working on my new poetry project, tentatively titled “Corrections,” which is excerpted here. So far it’s been coming slowly and I hope to work more steadily on it while I’m in Japan. It’s a book-length project instead of a collection of individual poems like Practice, Restraint is, so I’m relying on a very different process, one that lends itself more to a regular writing routine. I’m also thinking of working on a young adult novel while I’m over there, but we’ll see how it goes.

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