Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sandra Kasturi Interview, Part Two

Question 4.  “Palelemon sunstreaks”...echoes of the “thick Teutonic languages, the languages of augurs” (as you put it in “Augury”).   Similar echoes throughout your poetry, for instance, in your “October Country”:  “the flotsam joy of the petal storm,” “purple-buttered thistle,” “deranged-yellow heat,” “that pan-cracked, brittle, ice-slippered sweet,” “its red-leaf-feathered, burnished golden limbs.”   Yet, hold on, strewn among the Germanic thicket are latinate flowers (“joy,” “deranged,” “burnish”) and blooms from the Greek (“petal,” “purple”) and Persian (“lemon”).   Talk about word choice and especially whether you think that being a poet from an officially multilingual country has made you more alert to the inner life of the words you choose.

Kasturi:  Well, with "palelemon sunstreaks" and other things of that ilk, I am probably cribbing a bit from the feel of Earl Birney's wonderful poem, "Anglo-Saxon Street" in which he evokes those old odes in a very modern setting. I always thought that poem was really funny, so it probably infused some of my work.

Language has probably always been important to me, though not in a conscious way. I was almost a polyglot growing up: English was my fourth language, after Estonian, Singhalese and German. I'm still fluent in Estonian, but Singhalese is completely gone, and German is like listening to a radio station that's not quite tuned in. I also have a smattering of French from the Canadian school system...but I think those early languages probably altered the way I think at a very young age. Some languages have concepts that simply can't be that probably gives you interesting pathways in the brain. I sometimes make funny typos when writing really fast--I'll start to spell something the Estonian way, and then when I look back, I go, "Whaaaat???" My favourite one was when I wanted to write "used to" and started typing "juust"--which is how it would be spelled in Estonian. Actually (felicitously!), "juust" means "cheese" in Estonian, so I had this weird bilingual typo/joke going on that probably only other Estonians (or maybe Finns) will find funny.

So yeah, maybe living in a multilingual country has helped? Cultural mosaic? Speaking a bunch of languages at an early ages? Nature/nurture? Who knows. But I love the sounds of words and I love stringing together things and making entirely new words. I was influenced in that by my friend, Carleton Wilson, who's a wonderful poet. He said in one poem something about "the branches of trees gnarcing..." I adored that. "Gnarcing" isn't a word, but of course you know immediately what he means. So perfect!

Question 5.  Words and images, and how to separate the dancer from the dance.  Which comes first for you: the words, summoned from the hoard in the middle of the night, needing then the image to clothe them in the light?  Or the image, born in those palelemon sunstreaks, needing the proper words to adorn them?  “Hummingbirds don’t fly south for the winter.  They just freeze/ where they are in the air, mistaken for speckles of winter/ sunlight, or, sometimes, low-hanging stars” (from “Hummingbird Hagiography”).   “You are black as bees,/ dark as the spine of a prison tower” (“Black as Bees”).  “Here is freedom, strange as irregular/ knitting.  The other side of the wall is static/ with bald poets, wry madmen and bizarre/ women flapping their arms in the attic” (“The Soft Key”).  “...a smile fifteen years in the making” (“Cryogenics”). 
Kasturi:  "Hummingbird Hagiography" is another cheat, I'm afraid, in that it was done for this wonderful poetry exercise called "Twenty Little Poetry Projects" by Jim Simmerman. I highly recommend it, especially for when you are creatively blocked. ( I wasn't blocked when I wrote that; we just did it in a poetry workshop I was running with David Clink. We also gave a 15-minute time restriction on writing it--a lot of great stuff came out of that exercise from a lot of people.

Generally, though, I think words come to me. I think in titles or in first lines, and they float around, and then the rest comes. I don't really think in images, but if the words help create the image, I guess I've done my job? Though I've done some ekphrastic poetry based on paintings or other images--but they're never as good, I feel. I guess my brain just doesn't work that way. I'm bookish to the core.

Question 6.  You’re funny--­I laughed out loud several times while reading Come Late, and chuckled often.   Daedalus spinning the story of Icarus in “Obese Mythologies,” the Avian High Supreme Action Committee requiring a special license for caged-bird keepers (shades of Monty Python!) in “Bird Logic,”  the European Bee-Eater going hungry because the bees have moved to condos in the city (“Regretful Orbits”), in your shoe the bee (“a sort of dirigibly-fat, apian/ ghost ship, damned for whatever sins bees/ commit.../ a bumbleship”) in “Big Bee Cosmology.”   Do you set out to be humorous or does the humor suggest itself as the poem emerges?
Kasturi:  I think I'm just weird. I don't usually set out to be funny. In fact, I've had poems receive huge yuks (like "After Misreading Emerson" which is my earlier collection, The Animal Bridegroom), which I've actually thought were sad poems. But then people laugh when I read them aloud. Go figure! Or maybe I just had my skirt tucked into my underpants or something.

But I do confess that sometimes there are things that I'm so enchanted with, and so charmed by, that I really hope other people will feel the same way. Bumbleship! Who wouldn't like that? It's adorable.

Like many other people, I think I find the universe and existing in it to be this kind of absurdist comedy, so maybe that comes through?

It's nice to hear I'm funny, though. Feel free to tell me that, often.

Question 7.  Humorous yes but often tinged with sorrow, with longing for the unattainable, with la musica del amargue:  “Just as you and I wish to be birds...wish to listen to the fabled echo, the faint/ but steady pull of birdsong, that brags/ to landbound mammals about the joys of flight,/ the sweeping pull of wings” (“The Movement of Men and Gods”);  “Let us end this tyranny/ of waiting, of longing to fly/ south for the winter, to imaginary/ countries where it only rains/ lullabies...” (“Let Us Begin”); “We are not wading,/ but are treading water carefully/ in a narrow sea” (“Godwit”).  Does writing poetry ease your yearnings, or enflame them?
Kasturi:  I've felt lost for much of my life, I think. Or maybe I read too many fairy tales. That's also possible. It's not surprising that Sondheim's "Into the Woods" is one of my favourite musicals of all time. I love stories and reversals in stories and tales that go wrong.

I often feel like I'm homesick for places I've never been or that are long past, or places that don't even exist: Agatha Christie's England, Michael Gruber's voodoo-riddled Miami, Hogwarts, 1920s Paris. Narnia. Middle-Earth. Though I look at that list and realize that all those places were filled with terrible things. Murder, racism, dictators, evil and abuses of all sorts. I always thought the Germans would have some sort of giant compound word for "longing for places that you have never been" but I haven't found it yet. I just finished rereading The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time, but for the first time in my life, I wept at the end. What's that about? Sorrow at partings, at journey's (and book's) end? Yearning for magical things? Yearning for the time in my childhood when I first read it? Knowing I can never re-experience that first sense of wonder again? Nostalgia, that criminal muse? God, it's all so terribly sentimental and maudlin, isn't it? I'm ashamed of myself!

I think writing, for me, gets the yearning on the page. Does it ease anguish? No, I don't think so. But maybe it gives it parameters. Here is the very thing that is breaking your heart: you can look at it cleanly. Does doing this mend you? No. But knowing a thing can help.

I don't reread the sad poems like "Godwit" much. Elegies are often too hard and the memory is (cliché alert!) like probing a sore tooth. You become like Laurence Olivier doing terrible things to your mouth, muttering "Is it safe?" Why do that to yourself? Of course I do it. We all do it. That terrible, delicious anguish of loss and memory.

Question 8.  Along the same lines, I recently ran across this statement in Mary Ruefle’s “On Beginnings” (in her collected lectures, Madness, Rack and Honey):   “Gaston Bachelard says the single most succinct and astonishing thing: We begin in admiration and we end by organizing our disappointment.”   Your reaction to this sentiment?
Kasturi:  Ha! That's wonderful. It's such an enormous statement on so many levels, I'm not sure I can even answer properly. My initial reactions: Hilarious! Awful. Apt. Why can't I say anything that profound? Depressing. Is that my own humdrum little life? Do I admire myself and my work only to find it all terribly disappointing? Embarrassment and shame at the possibility of admiring myself too much. Not done! Off-track. What did Daniel ask me? Oh yeah, that quotation. Hilarious! No, sad. Do I understand it? Or myself? Or my writing? Maybe not.

Maybe that's the best example of how my squirrelly, self-absorbed little brain works. Show me something profound, and all I can think of is how it relates to me. Quel horreur!

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