2009 National Book Award Finalist,
Wesleyan University Press
Interview conducted by Craig Morgan Teicher.
Craig Morgan Teicher: First, how did it feel to find out you are a National Book Award finalist?
Rae Armantrout: I was completely amazed. It wasn’t even on the radar. I got to work and my message machine was blinking so I pushed play and the massage sounded kind of faint and fuzzy, but it sounded like it was from the National Book Foundation; I didn’t even realize what that meant—I was thrilled.
CMT: This year’s finalist list is unusual in that most of the poets are associated with what’s typically called “experimental” poetry. Does you think that signifies any kind of shift in terms of how the culture around poetry is changing?
RA: It’s a great list, and it’s always exciting when things open up. Right now poetry that would have been unrecognizable can now be recognized. But I’m not crazy about any of the words used to describe this poetry—experimental, innovative. We’re really talking about poetry that pushes buttons, that just wants to engage the complexity of the world, and maybe the world is more ready for that because people are tired of reductive simplicity lately. I often start a poem with a sense of puzzlement. Instead of starting with an answer I really start with a question. I think that part of what’s called being experimental.
CMT: Your poems are often made out of small parts that the reader comes to realize are somehow, almost magically, related. What’s the process of writing them like?
RA: I take a blank book with me—I’ve got it in my hand right now—and I make notes about things I see or think or hear or read or watch on TV. Once in a while a poem falls out from top to bottom, mostly, they’re a pastiche of these notes I make. Eventually I realize there’s some relation between parts—one concept echoes a concept somewhere else in the notebook. I put the things that seem related together, play with the order, then revise. Other times, I’ll come up with one idea or one part I’ll get really interested in and then I’ll go out and look and see what I can find that relates to it. Sometimes that might take a couple of weeks. Usually I can get it, but I have to be stubborn. I’m sort of a collector. I go out and collect bits. Sometimes I use found language, but I seldom make a whole poem that way.
CMT: This collection deals in part with your battle with cancer. Was writing it very different from writing your previous books, which tend to have less autobiographical material?
RA: Obviously, it was a different experience in that while I was writing at least half of it, I believed I was dying. But actually, I never set out to write a topical book. When I started writing the manuscript that I thought would be Versed, I thought I was getting out from under the shadow of dealing with my mother’s death, and I thought I would be moving into a new mode. Then as I got a ways into it, I was diagnosed with a cancer I’d never heard of, and I felt fine at the time I was diagnosed. I Googled it and found out this form of cancer had a 5% survival rate, and I had to have surgery within a week. I took my blank book with me to the hospital and started making notes for what would become the poem “Own.” I actually started making notes for it in the ICU and so I was sort of hallucinating, and later when I got home I started making the notes into the poem. Then I kept going. At first the poems were very much about the illness and the realization that my life was going to be short. Then as I got into the poems that would become the section “Dark Matter,” I was still thinking about illness. I wasn’t one of those people who said, “I’ll beat this thing.” I didn’t think I would beat this thing, because those were the odds. I was just trying to enjoy every moment, went on some special trips with my husband. That went on for a while, and I didn’t die. I’m still healthy and it’s been three years. When I finished “Dark Matter,” I made a break with it and now I’m working on a manuscript called Money Shot, which is something different.
Craig Morgan Teicher is a VP on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. His first book of poems is Brenda Is in the Room and Other Poems. A collection of fiction and fables called Cradle Book will be published by BOA Editions in the Spring. One of his poems appears in The Best American Poetry 2009. www.craigmorganteicher.com