| Feature || Poetry ||
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.
Tryst Interviews Laura Sims
||Can you tell us a little bit about your background:
Where you grew up, what your childhood was like, your education,
||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.
||How did you come up with the title of your book: Practice,
||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.
||What was your reaction when you found out that your book
won the 2005 Fence Books Alberta Prize?
||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
||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?
||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.
||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
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?
||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).
||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
||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.
||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?
||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.
||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?
||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
• Spirited Away
• Donnie Darko
• David Lynch’s films
• Russian Ark
• George Washington
• Rear Window
• 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
||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?
||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.
||By the way, have you ever acted in a movie? I googled your
name and Laura Sims came up in the IMDb, “internet
||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.
||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?
||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
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!
||Where do you go from here?
||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.
Copyright © 2006 Tryst3.com