ISSN 1545-2859






Rebecca Seiferle’s third poetry collection, Bitters (Copper Canyon, 2001), won the 2002 Western States Book Award and a Pushcart Prize. Poems from Seiferle’s previous collection, The Music We Dance To, won the Hemley Award from the Poetry Society of America and were included in The Best American Poetry 2000 and The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women (Columbia 2001). Seiferle is also the author of The Ripped-Out Seam (Sheep Meadow, 1993) which won the Bogin Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Writers’ Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, the Writers’ Union Poetry Prize, and was a finalist for the 1993 Paterson Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in over twenty anthologies of contemporary poetry.

Seiferle is also a translator from the Spanish. Her translations of Alfonso D’Aquino and Ernest Lumbreras are included in Reversible Monuments: Contemporary Mexican Poetry (Copper Canyon, 2002). Her translation of Cesar Vallejo’s, Trilce (Sheep Meadow, 1992) was the only finalist for the 1992 PenWest Translation Award. Her translation of Vallejo’s The Black Heralds was published by Copper Canyon Press in late 2003 and has been favorably reviewed in The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

Seiferle is Founding Editor of The Drunken Boat, a magazine of international poetry and translation, online since April 2000. Her essay “Illuminated Pages” is included in WithoutCovers:/literary-magazines@the_digital_edge (Purdue University Press), a collection of essays on internet publication.

Seiferle will be Jacob Ziskind Visiting Poet-in-Residence at Brandeis in 2004-2005. She has previously taught at the Key West Literary Seminar in 2002 and 2003, the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, Gemini Ink’s Summer Festival, Tebot Bach, as well as private workshops throughout the Southwest. . She has taught at San Juan College since 1990 and is listed with Tumblewords, the New Mexico Arts Program.

Tryst Interviews Rebecca Seiferle

Tryst’s interview with Rebecca Seiferle was conducted via email over the course of eight months beginning June 2003, when I first approached Rebecca with an invitation to do a feature. I want to make note how important this feature meant to me for several reasons:

First of all, Rebecca, as the Editor in Chief of the highly successful online zine, The Drunken Boat, undoubtedly has to be one of the busiest editors all around. Just to give you an idea how much is involved with editing a zine, it’s more than a full time job—time and a half and more into the ungodly hours of the night. Add to this editorial position, Rebecca’s role as a mother, teacher and writer, when does she have time to write let alone grant an interview!? Oh, and by the way, she just won the Pushcart Prize for her third collection of poems, Bitters; as well, numerous other awards. Her work is online and in print, as well, in over twenty anthologies including The Best American Poetry 2000.

Then, in the time since I’ve known Rebecca, she’s translated a second book of poetry by César Vallejo, The Black Heralds (Los Heraldos Negros) published by Copper Canyon Press in 2003. The first book, Trilce was released in 1992 by Sheep Meadow Press. I mention these two books because they are the only ones of Rebecca’s that I do not own. I’m saving those two books for another possible feature with Rebecca in the future when and if I can catch up with her again.

Finally, Rebecca was one of the very first editors who inspired and encouraged me as a writer when I first began to submit my own work in 2001 after a very long hiatus from writing. Rebecca actually took time out to critique my work and made some wonderful suggestions for improving an essay of mine. Who knows what role she was fulfilling at the time, and why, because it was way beyond the duty of an editor, way beyond the call of a professor. I like to think of that memorable encounter as a fortuitous happenstance, but what would it hurt to acknowledge that Rebecca is simply a wonderful, warm and kind-hearted person? Anyone she considers as her friend is indeed blessed. On that note, I am honored to present Rebecca Seiferle.

Mia: Rebecca, I want to discuss César Vallejo as a lead in only because I’m curious about Vallejo. First of all, you wrote in one of our earlier correspondences:

I don't know if you know Vallejo's work, this volume [The Black Heralds] has only been translated once before in its entirety so many of the poems are unknown even to those who do read Vallejo, but I think you would like them, they are full of love and anguish.

I have to admit my ignorance all the way around. I wasn’t familiar with the writing of Vallejo until you mentioned him in that email and I’m still very much in the dark about him. Since then I have looked up some of his work translated by Robert Bly (only because I have been a long time fan of Bly’s translations). One of the things that stood out for me was that Vallejo’s work is very much proletariat—a poetry for the people by the people. I can’t say that I was overly impressed by Vallejo’s poetry over all, though—at least what I have read of his work. Either I missed some critical message, lyricism, or passion in the words, or the translations simply were not succinct enough for me. I also read one of Neruda’s poems (the title escapes me at the moment) in which he basically wasn’t “fond” of Vallejo when he was alive, but admitted that he respected some of Vallejo’s political, poetical views. My questions are these:

Why were/are you drawn to Vallejo? Can you give me an example of a poem, or quote lines from a poem of his that exhibits love and anguish?

Rebecca: I first read Vallejo in translation by Robert Bly and James Wright and Clayton Eshleman in the early 70’s. Eshleman’s Poemas Humanos had Vallejo’s originals en face, so for the first time, I could read the Spanish. I read him in Spanish for many years but didn’t attempt to translate him until I was in the MFA program at Warren Wilson and wanted to write some annotations of his prose poems and realized that to do this I would first have to translate the poems, since I felt the translations available didn’t capture my sense of the originals. I have read him for over thirty years and translated him for fifteen years or so, and it has been a long and passionate entanglement with his work. I’m always struck by Vallejo’s intensity of feeling, which is always present all the while the intellect may be baffled, or the mind stammer over his language. I’ve found in reading his work in the original and in translation at various places, that that intensity of feeling can be felt even when the reader or hearer may feel that the language has a kind of incomprehensibility at times or a kind of density. He’s a very embodied poet, embodied in language, so that the words become almost elemental in feeling, like stones broken off that contain several geologic layers of meaning, historical and cultural and linguistic intersections intersecting with that intensity of feeling. I think reading him as a proletariat poet, an argument which can be made given his political views which cost him so much, can be useful, but no more useful than reading him as a Latin American modernist, influenced by Valery and Mallarme; in other words, his work has been most often read and presented in terms of a theory, rather than engaged with simply as the poetry it is. Most recently, I translated The Black Heralds, his first book and so I’ll include this poem as an example of one that includes “love and anguish,” though it is not without its humor, its argument with God and time, monogamy and marriage. It’s this complexity of intersections that I also find compelling in his work.


          I came to confuse myself with her
so much...! Through her spiritual turns,
I kept right on playing
among tender strawberry patches,
between her matinal, grecian hands.

          Afterwards, she'd arrange the black
bohemian knots of my scarf. And I
would go back to watching the stone absorbed
in thought, the graceless benches, and the clock
that was winding us in its spool,
to the stroke of its interminable wheel.

          Those former good nights,
that today only make her laugh
at my strange way of dying,
my pensive way of rambling.
Sugar pastes of gold,
bridal jewels of sugar,
that, in the end, are crushed in
the gravestone mortar of this world.

          But to the tears of love,
the stars are lovely, little handkerchiefs,
that the heart soaks up.
And if now, there's so much bitterness in these silks,
there's a tenderness that is never born,
that never dies, it lets fly
another great, apocalyptic handkerchief,
the blue, unedited, hand of God!

Mia: Then in looking up some biographical information on Vallejo I came across this quote:

'The perfect kind of revolutionary intellectual is the man who struggles by simultaneously writing and being a militant.' (http://www.blythe.org/peru-pcp/newflag/nf9801/vallej.htm)

Was Vallejo objecting to apathy or laziness of the bourgeois class and how does all this relate to his writing? Do you feel in any way that Vallejo may have compromised his art for his political views?

Rebecca: No, I don’t think Vallejo compromised his art for his political views in any sense. After he left Peru for Paris, he was not to publish any further collections of poetry, and the difficulty he met with in publishing his work, of any type, was partly due to the antagonism and apathy with which the work was met. Even when he was most actively engaged in politics, to the degree that he was under continual surveillance by the Paris police and had to report on his activities to the authorities periodically, his poetry maintains its integrity as poetry. His work never became a mere vehicle for political views; this criticism might be more aptly leveled, though it seldom is, against Neruda at certain points. Vallejo was committed to political activity and involvement, but the issue of the politics in his poetry is another matter. He seems to me to be one of those writers who felt the presence of power structures and inequalities in the language itself, so that from the beginning, when he writes a poem, even if it is a love poem, he engages with the language of power, the historical weights that perpetuate various inequalities and violences. So that in writing a love poem, he must engage with the weight of Christianity as a wounding of sexuality. I think that this is because Vallejo was a person of mixed heritage, both in the culture and outside of it, always hearing in Spanish, the other’s language, that “thread of indigenous blood” as he called it.

Mia: On Amazon.com I read an online review of The Black Heralds by “tthepoet2” and I’m not certain if I’m allowed to cite his/her review, or how long these reviews are up at Amazon; in any case, I want to discuss several points by this reviewer:

1) The reviewer gave your book a favorable review although he/she hadn’t even read the book yet. Then, the reviewer wrote, "Los Heraldos Negros did have another English Language publication, contrary to what the book review above is telling you: in 1990, by Latin American Literary Review Press (Richard Schaaf & Kathleen Ross were the translators)."

Let me clarify that the review in question by Ivan Arguelles, Univ. of California Lib., Berkeley was probably written before Schaaf’s and Ross’ translation of The Black Heralds, released in 1990. So yes, there was another translation of Los Heraldos Negros prior to Rebecca Seiferle’s book, and no one is disputing this fact.

Rebecca: Yes, the first translation in the US was Schaaf’s and Ross’s 1990 version of The Black Heralds, and Barry Fogden’s translation of The Black Heralds in the UK also predates my translation. I’m not sure what the review is, though there are reviews more particular to my translation in Edward Hirsch’s column of The Washington Post and Carol Muske Dukes’ column in the LA Times.

Mia: Secondly, the reviewer wrote, and I want to break down each of his/her points:

Point A: "Vallejo's Marxist beliefs are nowhere to be found in his poetry. This is the sort of thinking one associates with people who are only marginally aware of what Vallejo is trying to say and who thus confuse it with his later activities while in France (Los Heraldos Negros was composed Before the move, not after)."

Rebecca: Well, I view it differently. I think Vallejo’s Marxist’s views, like his interest and involvement in APRA, the movement in Peru to restore power to indigenous people, and which he was turning with renewed interest, planning to return to Peru, before his death, were outgrowths of his particular worldview that is reflected in different ways of engagement of his work. He believed in the human, and so his poetry is a human poetry, just as his political views are based upon his sense of the human, “the Indian, before man, and after him.” It’s the same worldview, the same intense intersection of experience and historical, social, cultural ideologies and weights and wounds that finds expression in the body of his language or his political involvements in the body politic, though the language and the means of embodiment are necessarily different.

Point B: "The best advice here is to ignore Vallejo's public pronouncements at all times and concentrate instead upon his Poems; these will tell you what he [was] actually thinking as well as why. You will also avoid the embarassment [sic] of linking it to any sort of politics or theory."

Rebecca: Yes, I do think it is a mistake to read his poetry in terms of ideology, whether political or literary theory. One of the issues for me in translating The Black Heralds was this sense of trying to find Vallejo himself, in his own words, on his own terms, beneath these various presentations of him, as a Christ-like figure of suffering, as a political activist, as a naïve surrealist, etc.

Point C: "Suffering is Vallejo's political affiliation, his literary theory, not the Marxism he was later drawn to because he could not bear to live in a world completely devoid of all practical hope. We should always bear this in mind when we recall his poetry: that he could not live without love (hope) and so chose to devote himself to Marxism because it seemed to him (then) as the best hope for a just future. That it was not only deepens the sweet/sad content (trilce) of his indisputably great poetry."

Rebecca: Well, there are a couple of stories clustered around Trilce, his second and greatest and most difficult work. One is that he wanted to change the title (the original title of the work was Bronze Skulls or Craniums of Bronze, depending on how it’s translated) and his name to Cesar Peru, a common practice among Latin American poets, for Pablo Neruda’s birthname was Neftali Reyes until he took the name of a Czech writer and made himself a generic and representative everyman “Pablo”. The printer said it would cost “tres libres” even then not much money, and in stammering at the unaffordable cost, Vallejo came up with Trilce. Later scholars have suggested that the word combines “tres” three, that number of the trinity that often occurs in Vallejo’s work, with “dulce”, another word that frequently occurs with its “sweet” which is a child’s sweets but also the sweetness of sexuality. But Vallejo himself said that he could find no other word and that “Trilce” “wanted to say nothing.” There’s a brief interview he did where he mentions this, my translation of it was published at Masthead (Australia).

Mia: I was so inspired by “Bat in a Jar,” from your book, The Ripped-Out Seam that I wrote up a book review. Here is the link. The Ripped-Out Seam was published in 1993. What is most startling about this collection is the distance you maintain, almost from a clinical point of view in which the narrator observes her subject matter at all times. I think because of that distance your writing is objective and crisp throughout. Exactly how many years of writing are included in that collection? In other words, what is the “oldest” poem by date?

Rebecca: Well, the oldest poem by date is probably 1984 and the latest is probably from 1991. All of my earlier work, for I wrote a lot from the time I was 14, I burnt. The Ripped-Out Seam is actually two books, the first section of the same title is the later work, the poems in the second section “Volte” were the earlier work and finished while I was in the MFA program at Warren Wilson, where I attended from Jan. 1987-Jan. 1989. I was living in the desert then with my family, from 1982 on. We had 9 plus acres and I raised Alpine dairy goats. It was very remote, on a gas well road that would be washed out in the rain, and we had to haul our own water and generate our own electricity. That objective distance is I think that sense of living in such a beautiful remoteness, “the great faraway” O’Keeffe called it, trying to describe her feelings of the New Mexico landscape. The eye lives in the blue of the sky, in the distance of the horizon, in the dusty blue berries of the juniper trees. It’s the presence of the earth that is that objectivity and distance, the self so far from the self. And I don’t feel that I wrote anything ‘real’ or ‘true’ until I came to that particular intersection of place and being, for the landscape so corresponded to realities within me.

Mia: Is most of your work influenced by direct personal experiences? Can you give us an example of a poem(s) and what event inspired it?

Rebecca: Well, I have nothing but my own head to work with, in a sense, but it’s seldom that a direct personal experience is itself enough for a poem. The poem is always an intersection of many realities impinging upon me in an unbearable way, and I mean by unbearable, that pressure to speak and which I resist as long as is possible. There’s always an intersection of something else with that personal experience, the impersonal intersections of history, myth, language and other texts, some way in which it seems to be not so much a personal experience as an impersonal one, impinging on the skin of the world at the same time it impinges upon mine.

“Bat in a Jar” for instance could be said to occur in the personal experience of the time I was working at a motel and someone found a bat hanging in one of the alcoves, which set off all sorts of worries about rabid bats, etc, so one of the houseboys caught the bat in a jar and brought it into the laundry room. I was looking at it closely and it was wheeling around and around in an ever increasing distress, and I realized that its own sonar, bouncing off the concave sides of the glass, was killing it, so I persuaded someone to let it go into a nearby field. But I was so struck by that perception of being killed by one’s own sound, how one’s own gifts could become lethal if confined and captive. And yet the fact is I don’t think I would have, or could have written the poem, from that experience alone, for it would have been merely descriptive and lent itself to various ‘meanings’. I didn’t write it until a few weeks later, I had been reading poetic theory and some philosophy of which I remember nothing in particular just the sort of soup it created in my brain, for reading often seems to me like that, like creating one of those ponds of the primordial ooze full of compound elements that a bolt of lightning gives life to. And I loved someone then who wrote me a long and pained letter that was like a knot of confined and pressurized feeling which I felt was impossible to answer, so I didn’t know if that person or I was the bat in the jar or if reality itself, “this” life, wasn’t such, and out of that unbearable pressure, I wrote the poem and the image of that bat came back to me as I did so. And yet it also has something to do with my sense of this person’s writing as a kind of confinement, that it was caught in that contemporary solipsism of being confined to one’s own mind. It’s interesting to me that you mentioned that reading it makes you cry, for I guess in looking back at it, it is also a jar full of tears. But even that seems to me not unconnected to my poetic argument with Wallace Stevens’ poem “A Jar on a Hill in Tennessee” that confinement of being and poetry in a jar.

Mia: From, “A for Anathema” section 5:

In Denver, in front of a church
I rolled him over, his eyelids convulsed
as if dreaming, trying to blink out
the limitless sky. With his shirt stuck
to the pavement by vomit and sweat,
it was hard to imagine he had chosen
this sidewalk, lifted
its bottles to his mouth. He was ‘like’
nothing. His body’s sour and fermented field
defined a distance into which only he
was disappearing. I could have said
he was a broken tabernacle, but the truth is
he was shivering.

...the last three lines have kept me awake as to their meaning. I could have asked in an email what that meaning was, but I decided to ask you in this interview. First of all, why would the speaker admit she "could have said he was a broken tabernacle"? Is this to imply that the person here is merely human? Fragile, capable of feeling?

Rebecca: It’s a sort of commonplace among the religious of various beliefs to say that we are all “just broken tabernacles” when misfortune happens to us. I had heard this on any number of occasions, and I suppose at one point was even drawn to that feeling, that sense of the holiness of the body and of being, that tabernacle which is broken. But in writing this poem, I felt that granting of the sacred to such states of ruination was itself an avoidance of the truth of them, that it was that way in which we always try to grant ‘meaning’ to pain. It’s like Merton said, I think it was Merton, that the only sin in suffering is to try and make it “mean” something. So the poem is casting off all those ‘likes’ as the man tries on the coats shaped by grime and wear to someone else’s body, the poem tries on those various “likes” the similes and metaphors by which we distance ourselves from the body in pain or the self in suffering, eliding those truths on behalf of the meanings that appear to grant significance but actually deprive of truth, and then casts them off. For the truth is he was only shivering. And that act of casting off of the meanings of suffering occurs in the speaker while speaking.

Mia: Your second book, The Music We Dance To, published in 1999, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and dedicated to your father, Arthur Mase Seiferle. The collection seems to offer an intimate, softer side of you, many written in the first person, the “I” narrative. Reading the poems about your son, “Peaceable Kingdom,” “Boy with Snake,” and “The Scent of Skin,” this book, for me, seems centered around your father and son.

What was happening at this time of your life and what were some of the impetus behind the book? Do you sense there was a change and how would you account for it?

Rebecca: Well, that book was written while I was in the underworld. A number of things happened. My best friend, and fellow poet, Beth Stahlecker, whom I’d met at Warren Wilson died unexpectedly from liver cancer; the title poem is an elegy to her. Another good friend from WW, also a poet, died in a short time from another form of cancer. And then my father died in 1993. So when I look back on that particular collection, it seems to me to come out of a period of time, some four years or so, where I was basically living in the underworld. The preoccupation with the ‘father and the son’ may be because my son was born just five months before my father died. For the book is preoccupied with the intersection between death and birth, the way that they seemed to me two expressions of the same face. When my father died, I read The Tibetan Book of the Dead aloud to his spirit for weeks afterward, and in that work, too, death and birth are two faces of the same reality. And the softer side is perhaps that softness that death breaks us too, but also the softness of birth, which breaks into the softness of new life out of being torn.

Mia: “A Broken Crown of Sonnets for My Father’s Forehead” strangely reminds me of Whitman’s “voice”—maybe, his cadence, or movement. Is there any influence here, were you reading a particular poet that inspired this poem? Perhaps, your father, even?

Rebecca: Oh, that’s interesting, I hadn’t thought of Whitman at all. Well, I did my master’s thesis at Warren Wilson on Whitman’s Calamus poems, a sequence of very short poems, so perhaps there’s some undercurrent of influence that I wasn’t paying attention to. No, I was only reading The Book of the Dead and the Bible and trying to get through my father’s death; well, I should say that I would read these aloud as if I felt my father were listening to me read them to him, wherever he was by then. Perhaps it’s the Bible that’s the hint of Whitman, since he was much influenced by the King James Version, so perhaps some of those parallelisms and rhythms are in both.

I never read my father’s poetry, for he gave it up before I was born. When he met my mother, they moved to Concord, NH where he wanted to commune with the spirit of Thoreau and be a poet. The poem on the dedication page of The Music We Dance To was the only poem he ever published, and then in a few months, he gave it up and they moved to Long Island so he could handicap horses and then in a few months, it was back to Colorado where I was born and he worked in a lumber yard. My father did keep writing, he wrote a few westerns, and he also wrote these books of sayings, sort of like Kahil Gibran which I never read; he kept them to himself. On his kitchen table, when we went to clean his house after his death, there was a scrap of paper on the table that had a golfing tip to himself, a note of an errand and a saying "first the soul must pass through a terrible darkness" which seemed most prophetic. Actually I wrote most of those poems in the days after his death, and had a hard time knowing what to do with them, I finally thought of them as a sequence and while that worked better, it still seemed not quite right, so then a couple of years later, I was looking at them, just the shape on the page and realized they were incipient sonnets. I’d not written, or wanted to write, sonnets before, but knew that I would have to. And then in thinking about a crown of sonnets, where the last line of one becomes the first line of the other, I realized that I wanted that, but a broken crown, only part of the line is repeated, because it was a form more fitting for the broken crowns of my father and I butting heads together, in that playful way he did when I was a child, and then in more difficult ways. The only ‘literary’ view that I brought to bear upon those poems was the wrestling with their form, which is perhaps integral to their meaning, for I remember being haunted by this film of Tibetans wrestling with a corpse, folding it up into a fetal position, sewing it into a white cloth.

Mia: I read somewhere that you attended 20 different schools and that at one point you lived on an indian reservation—is this information correct? Can you tell us a little bit about your earlier childhood, and perhaps, your family origins?

Rebecca: Yes, my father liked to move. He was a linotype operator, a trade that was always in demand in those days, when every newspaper was done by traditional methods, so he could always find a job. He would sometimes come home with boxes and say “we’re moving tomorrow”, and off we went with whatever mattered enough to fit into those boxes and leaving the rest behind. So by the time I graduated from high school in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1969, I’d attended over twenty different schools throughout the country, most of them in the West, but also New Hampshire, Vermont, Kentucky. I remember when I was nine in Brattleboro, Vermont, my father spread a map of the U.S. out on the kitchen table and asked me, “where should we move?” I waved my arm through the arm and plunked my finger on a spot, and that's where we went: Thermopolis, Wyoming. My father’s parents both emigrated from Switzerland, and his mother died when he was five, so his father put both my father and his older brother into an orphanage in Chicago where they grew up. As a result, I think he was always looking for ‘home’, an idea which exerted both emotional pull and mystical significance, for it was that place where he could become who he was, though he was never certain of who that was. My mother’s family were English and Irish on one side and German Dutch on the other and she grew up on the family dairy farm in Colorado.

And, no, I haven’t lived on an Indian Reservation, though the towns in this area of Northwest New Mexico are bounded by them. The life that I lived in the desert, hauling water, generating electricity, access in or out dependent on the weather, raising goats, was very much the kind of life that is lived on the reservation, though the differences of having the choice are more significant.

Mia: I just want to play around with a theory that there are three types (not genres) of poetry: 1) The “I-poem" rather solipstic, is centered around the writer’s experiences, whether actual or imagined and would include confessional poetry. 2) The second type of poetry is made up of “pure” objectivism as a vehicle for reporting external events, a journalistic approach. 3) And lastly, this is the “category” into which I feel most of your poetry falls: The narrative poetry told by the story teller which could be handed down for centuries and becomes the stuff of myths and legends. Do you think my theories are too simplified, generalized?

Rebecca: Not much given to theories of poetics, there are these definitions to some degree, though I would add “but furthermore” to all of them. For instance, there’s no such thing as pure objectivism in my opinion, since the presence of a perceiver alters what is being perceived no matter how much one may attempt not to. It’s like those sub particle experiments in physics where the mere presence of an observer alters the interaction among the particles. And “I” poems may be as much a fiction as anything else, in a number of ways, that they may be written from a particular moment of feeling that is contradicted by other moments before and after, that in writing an “I” poem, I always have the sense of creating the speaker who speaks the poem as much as what is being spoken, that that speaker is not synonymous with me, and may even be contradictory to other realities and feelings in me. The “truth” of poetry is to me the truth of the feeling embodied in it.

But having said all that, I’m most interested in your sense of storytelling. I remember at one reading, a young Navajo woman came up and told me that I was a great and true storyteller, which is the highest of compliments in that culture, and, I was glad for that. I am also glad too though that in that culture, storytelling and the truth are not considered to be contradictory, as they are in Western culture. Storytelling is different I think than narrative of personal accounts, though it may also include an “I,” since storytelling always implies in an oral culture telling only those stories that have an impersonal and continuing cultural significance rather than merely personal accounts or narratives of experience. And it may be in granting some significance to storytelling that this artificial division between the storytelling impulse (perceived as fiction’s “lie”) and the truth may be corrected.

Mia: In your third poetry book, Bitters, my first reaction to it after reading it completely through was that it was so much forward—meaning that I felt the writer’s presence more in this book than in the other two. I think this is one of the strengths of this book in that the writer is so much more present, as if simply refusing to become a backdrop. First of all, am I imagining this change? What caused this change? It’s inevitable wouldn’t you say that a writer becomes stronger, surer of her voice eventually if they continue to write?

Rebecca: I wrote most of Bitters in a period of two, two and a half months. I could not not write it. And I guess I should say that I only write if I have to, for that reason I’ve never been able to come up with anything but desultory scribblings out of workshop exercises. So there’s always that way in which I resist writing until impelled or compelled, or whatever the word is. But even so, Bitters was intensely necessary. And, yes, I think there is a change, for the first time I read at an event any of the poems from it, following poems from my earlier works, it felt like another language in my mouth. I don’t know exactly what caused it, perhaps not unconnected with some sense that I could exist, could be, in some way I hadn’t been allowed to before.

Mia: In Bitters I sensed more anger, irony, sarcasm, dismay and more judgment than your two previous books. For example, “Voice in the Whirlwind” who is the voice of authority here? Who is the “I”? And in these poems, “Reproach,” “The Lesson” and Let us Go then, you and I”—a parody?— I get the feeling you have formed opinions on education, writing and poetry.

Rebecca: Well, to give the thumbnail sketch, ”Reproach” “The Lesson” and “Let Us Go Then, You and I” are each variously preoccupied with the teaching of poetry and the valuations of it. “The Lesson” is a kind of reaction to graduate school, to having attended the MFA Program at Warren Wilson college, and the way it intersected with my previous experiences in school, which always varied between disgust and despair. “Let Us Go Then, You and I” was written one morning, after reading a number of contemporary poetry journals, and being interrupted by the sound of the trash truck pulling up in front of the house. “The Lesson” was born of an awareness of a certain sort of idea which values one’s “art” as the rarest of aardvarks, at the expense of the human; that emphasis upon the ideal work at the expense of the human. All of these are about various ways of being wounded by the word and the way it is ‘taught’ or valued in the world. there is a certain parodic element in these of those ‘other’ so loud voices. “The Voice in the Whirlwind” is the voice of God as in the story of Job, except that it’s switched in that the voice of “man” has become God, and God is while reproving man, reproving him as once Job reproved God, “now I see how you truly are, I tremble for all that breathes and lives” on behalf of the wounding of the natural world.

Mia: I read on the back cover that “Bitters was an extended argument with God” and for me, I thought the two books prior to Bitters questioned God more. My reaction to Bitters was that the persona incorporating most of the poems had come to terms with God and the argument had thus ended – not necessarily on a humble note; moreover, I found that the argument was one of a celebratory song—truly “a wild music beyond the self” ("Autochthonic," pp. 149-150). What do you think of these two polar views?

Rebecca: Yes, I think there’s some truth in what you’re saying here. Bitters confronts the issues of God and belief in a more direct way, in part because the argument is coming to an end, in the sense that it is a “talking back” as children “talk back” to their parents at that age where having grown up, one has to only listen.

Mia: There are a lot of angel themes in your poetry. I know that sounds like a rhetorical statement, but angels in your work take on the form of flies, cockroaches, maggots, people, idols, religious icons, beliefs...etc. Do you think that your birth marked you in some way? First, do you mind telling us more about your fated birth—weren’t you born a stillborn and brought back to life? Isn’t that significant and do you feel that it gives you some special insight into the “other” world?

Rebecca: Oh, I was one of those kids born dead with the cord wrapped around my throat and since it was a Catholic hospital, they baptized such children so their souls wouldn’t go into limbo, and my grandmother always said that in the font, I came sputtering back, and in my childhood, there were other otherworldly experiences, convulsions until the age of four, a mysterious illness at five, an overnight coma at nine. I grew up experiencing any number of threshold states, so I don’t know as it has given me any special ‘insight’ into the other world, but I have often felt that I have been in it, or that it is just there at my elbow, the presence of death, the presence of something else beyond this, as if the membrane that separated this world from the next was so thin and transparent that with a breath I could cross over it, a sort of osmotic state of being. In writing the opening poem of The Music We Dance To, I suddenly remembered all those threshold states as if they were some kind of other or truer or at least equally true reality of being and becoming. I also remembered how my father as a young man had been struck by lightning and in some imaginative way felt that perhaps that lightning had continued in my cells, as if birth and death were some seamless reality. As Michaux said “there is another world, and it is in this one.”

Mia: Rebecca, let’s say you walk into a classroom. How would you go about teaching your students to love poetry? In other words, what are your thoughts about how and when students learn to appreciate poetry? What would be your advice to emerging writers?

Rebecca: Well, I often do walk into classrooms! and of all ages. Mostly I think love conveys love and that most of the love of poetry is conveyed in the reading aloud of it and in the response to it. I think most often people learn to love poetry at earlier ages. I did several residencies in schools years ago where I worked with bunches of kindergarten kids or third graders, etc, and I’ve been here long enough, so that I’ve had a number of them in my college classes, and I’ve been struck how all of them still love poetry, feel that it is open to them rather than some difficult English puzzle or assignment, have an ease of reading and writing it. And many writers first loved it as I did, as children, stumbling upon a book, one’s mother reading it aloud before bedtime. But one of the difficulties of teaching poetry is all the various fences erected between the reader and the poem, many of them occurring in the teaching of English where poems are presented as difficult texts that have to be figured out and which make many feel stupid in comparison or that it’s the sort of thing one would only read if one had to for an assignment. So part of teaching others to love poetry is dismantling these various fences, letting poetry just be a human expression among other human expressions.

Advice to emerging writers? I don’t know, the only advice that I really followed was really a wish, on a card that a great aunt sent me when I graduated from high school, I didn’t know her well, having met her only once or twice when I was little and having forgotten, but what she said struck me in some way “may your life be shaped by what you love.” And it was a dream that made me become a poet, I was 14 and dreamt of this ancient man with the usual long white hair and beard who asked me in that way of dreams, not in word, but in feeling, what I wanted to be, what was my heart’s desire, and I said to write, and he answered, after some pause, “yes…but.” And I understood everything that I was asking then, the “yes” of affirmation, the “but” of the difficulty and how it would wound me in various ways, the cost of it, but that was enough. So in my life in every sense, I have followed nothings, less than butterflies really, questions that unravel in one’s being. So I have no advice, no answers, but only the grail of uncertainty that I’ve followed about everywhere and who would want to drink of it, except one who already has and become intoxicated with the taste?

Mia: And speaking of the writing process, how many revisions do your poems go through? Is the first draft pretty much what ends up at the end? What kind of time do you put into your poems—for example, do you set aside certain hours of the day, do you make mental notes or do you simply wait for the muse to strike you?

Rebecca: I don’t know, this is always changing, I used to revise a great deal, twenty times on average, and I revise with different minds, with gaps of time in between, for the mind that looks at a particular word is not the mind that writes the first draft which is often dragged along or racing to keep up with the movement of the whole thing. I’ve always thought of it as sculpture, in a way, that there’s this block of words at the beginning in which I discern the shape. Part of it is finding the form of the poem, which is always organic and incipient and particular to that poem. I go to my desk everyday because I figure it’s like a love affair, if you’re not there sitting at the table of that café, you won’t be there if the other shows up, though that also means many days staring into the dregs of a cup. And most of the hours that I give to this have been found around my children’s schedules, writing late at night when they were young and after they had gone to bed and the quiet was mine alone, or now in the morning after my son goes off to school. But sometimes I might be going upstairs to dump the trash and something will come into my head, so the actual writing might be in the midst of anything. I don’t make written notes, if I have something come into my head, a line, a phrase, and that’s too simple really for it’s not just the words but the feeling and music they drag with them, if I can’t write then, I just let them, as they are, I don’t try to go any further or imagine ahead or race along with the feeling. It’s like giving birth in a way, if the baby intends to be born, it will be, but if it’s just a pang of muscle then all the thought in the world won’t create it.

Mia: What’s in store for you, next? What if someday you win the Pulitzer Prize? Is there anything else you’d like to discuss? Thank you.

Rebecca: I’m thinking about putting together a new collection of poetry and about continuing with my so far desultory translating of Jose Garrostiza’s Muerte sin Fin, Death Without End. Oh, I don’t know about the rest of this. Thank you, but I don’t know. And I’ve already said more here than I’ve said for the last two weeks, so thank you.

Copyright © 2004 Tryst3.com, Rebecca Seiferle. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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