Octaves, Ovations: A Conversation with Karen Volkman
Academy of American Poets: Who do you consider your most significant poetic influences?
AAP: What specifically interests you about the prose poem as a form?
Volkman: I started working with prose poems partly as a reaction to the use of line lengths and stanza shapes as formal devices in Crash's Law. I was curious to see what happened if I did NOT have those resources for shaping the poem—what would make the piece a poem at all (according to my own demands on my writing—obviously what makes a poem a poem varies hugely from poet to poet). But basically it started just by playing, trying out something new, and then became a kind of obsession with seeing what shapes these blocks could take based on inner tensions, musicality, fragmentation, syntactic swervings, etc. Prose poems are fascinating in part because they tease our standard readerly expectations—that a block of prose will be discursive or expository or linear—startling us with unexpected movements that throw emphasis on the sentence or phrase, giving them a renewed presence and weight.
AAP: The poems in Spar seem very much of a whole. Can you talk about how you imagined the poems relating to one another—from one poem to the next, and as a collection?
Volkman: In terms of the book's structure, I imagined the poems tensed against each, offering oppositions of tone and movement, with the reader in a sense repositioned or asked to adopt a different stance from poem to poem. I wanted to give a sense of a movement of mind from poem to poem, a range of articulations and engagements being played out and tested. The supreme work of this kind of dance of tonalities is George Herbert's The Temple, a book I had in mind when structuring both Spar and my first book, Crash's Law.
AAP: What authors or books do you find yourself constantly returning to?
Volkman: Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus was a constant touchstone for me in writing Spar. When struggling to finish the book, I decided to aim for fifty-five poems to echo the fifty-five sonnets (I fell one short). I also turned often to Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation and to many of the poets I mention above. Surprisingly rarely to actual books of prose poems, though Andre Breton’s longer prose works, Nadja and Mad Love, were a source of fascination, as was Rilke's deeply strange The Notebooks of Malte Laurides Brigge. Simone Weil's Gravity and Grace and Maurice Blanchot's The Writing of the Disaster also figured in the work. And an old prose translation of Virgil’s Eclogues. And some anonymous Renaissance songs. And Hans Christian Anderson, and Bruno Schulz. A lot of these books got lugged back and forth across the ocean a few times because I couldn't not have them on hand in case I needed to look at this or that poem or passage.
AAP: The epigraphs of the book all deal with "not knowing." Many of these poems, written in prose, seem to be a search for form, or as A. R. Ammons said, "the shape / things will take to come forth in." Can you reflect now upon what sort of discoveries you made in writing these poems, this book?
Volkman: I discovered a great deal about a poem's amazing ability to make connections by engaging with language as a material—in other words, to think for itself. Relations of sound became a way to establish connections leading to completely unexpected insights, and even to unexpected aspects of the mind and emotions—it was in all ways a humbling experience. I think this is why the poems' speaker is not a consistent self, but a mutable figure buffeted by tenderness, terror, irony, or lust into elaborate evasions, exclamations, verbal hijinks, and lyric flights—the speaker exists only in this kind of amorous relationship to words, in relinquishing at least partly the role of creator to become a created and stranger self. This is a submission to the unknown, including an unknown otherness of our own possible selves, that creates both ecstasy and dread in the book—Spar's title suggests both resistance and aspiration, the simultaneous allure and danger of that unknown.
AAP: What would be the one thing you would like a reader to take away from the experience of reading Spar?
Volkman: I'd hope they would take more than one thing, of course, but initially I would like readers to feel an increased freedom in responding to the poems on a purely sensual level—and to see that form of engagement as being valuable and sustaining. The poems do present mysteries and difficulties, but I believe one of the jobs of poetry is to allow readers to discover different and more complex ways of engaging experience, including the experience of their own inner lives, partly by surprising them into developing new modes of response in their reading, new freedoms. And it's my hope that pleasure and intense sensation and a shock of strangeness will be part of how they get there.