Brief Q&A w/ Michael Boyko

Michael Boyko: "In Gentle Now, Don't Add to Heartache," as in other work of yours, there is a lot of listing and repetition going on. Could you talk about how this specifically relates to the themes of nature and turning from nature also present in a lot of your work?

Juliana Spahr: I like the list. I like lists because they are inclusive. You can keep sticking things into them. And they don't require categorization. So each item in the list can be as important as the others. I especially like the list as lament. As a sort of recognizing or call out of what is becoming lost. In these poems with lists of plants and animals in them I am thinking of poetry as a place for storing information. I am thinking of the age old uses of the list poem as a way of keeping knowledge that needs to be kept.

Michael Boyko: How were these lists generated? How did you decide what to include?

Juliana Spahr: In various ways. For the one in "Gentle Now" I used a list that I found online in A Guide to Ohio Streams (published by the Ohio Chapter of the American Fisheries Society). I supplemented it with various other notes that I took as I read about streams.

Michael Boyko: Could you talk about point of view, the very complicated relationship between "we" and "I" in this poem? (I have a lot of thoughts on this, but wanted to hear your side of things, why specifically you made that POV shift when you did, what you believe it accomplished, etc.)

Juliana Spahr: I keep thinking pronouns all the time. Somehow pronouns have become the most loaded parts of language for me. I started with "we" because I wanted to start with together. It is the idyll part of the poem. "We" is humans and animals and plants. It is also knowledge when you are a child. You learn with and through others. And I wanted everyone to be there in the poem. I wanted "we" to include those who read it. And then I wanted when I turn to "I" to talk about how that moment of becoming individuals, becoming distinct and disconnected, is part of the problem. And I wanted more specifically to talk about my own complicity with this. I wanted to think how I went from someone who was very connected with "nature," and who wouldn't have noticed the distinction between nature and society. To someone who does very unnatural things all the time now. And I also felt I needed to use "I" because I wanted the poem to be local to Chillicothe, where I grew up. I guess I felt I had to stand up and take responsibility and be there in the poem at some point. That I couldn't hide in the "we." And I also wanted the reader to think about their individualism with me.

Michael Boyko: Where is that song at the end of the poem from?

Juliana Spahr: Euripides. But it came to me from Gail Holst-Warhaft’s Dangerous Voices: Women’s Laments and Greek Literature which came to me because Allison Cobb was talking about it.

Michael Boyko: I get the sense that your work is highly engaged with recognition. As if it is resisting the urge to try and fix a problem and is instead trying to fully identify what is going on. Could you talk about identification and recognition as forms of action, and how this relates to poetry in general?

Juliana Spahr: I probably want to argue that recognition is a form of action. But I also have to admit the limits of this. I like poetry because it helps me think. It helps me resort data. It lets me list things and then think about the shape of the list. I am not sure I can make poetry do much more than this. I don't trust poetry when it tells me what to do without resorting the way I see things first.

Michael Boyko: Do you feel like talking a little about what you are working on currently?

Juliana Spahr: I'm working on something that is part memoir, part critical study, part literary study, part cultural study. I guess it is prose. It is about three people who move between Hawai‘i and New York in order to speak more broadly about how issues of colonialism and the at-risk natural environment of islands are interconnected and shape our relations with other humans. I can't seem to finish it. It gets longer and longer.