Karen Rigby, winner of the 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize for her collection Chinoiserie, is also one of the founding editors of Cerise Press. Her work has been published in Black Warrior Review, Quarterly West, and New England Review, among other journals. Maryanne Hannan reached out to her on behalf of TriQuarterly recently to discuss her award-winning work, the interaction between poet and reader, and the risks that poetry takes.
TriQuarterly: Chinoiserie is a powerful, complex work embedded in widely varying cultural references. Who do you see as your ideal reader?
Karen Rigby: The book’s title page begins: “Dear reader: What I started to tell you / had something to do with hunger . . .” When I wrote those words, the reader was unknown.
My poetry won’t suit everyone. It has been described as dense; I’m aware of that response, so I wouldn’t say “I hope everyone reads it.” There is seldom an “everyone”—more often a specific someone, ideally the person that needed to find the work. But there is another kind of reader, too: the one who begins with reservations and ends in surprise. One reader prefaced a comment with “I typically like poetry that is more concrete and accessible . . .” and went on to write that he reread the book after finishing it. That, for me, has been the most sincere compliment. If there is one person with such a response, the journey has been worthwhile.
TQ: It would be hard to imagine poems more concrete than these: barely a line without a striking image or two! But to your point: perhaps a reader who would experience the journey along with the poet? What is the relationship of poet to reader in “Dear Reader”?
KR: Poetry readers are vessels for poems they have read. In this case, Odysseas Elytis’s “The Demon” and Toi Derricotte’s “The Minks” were influences. The address to the reader came about during the drafts. It was a natural move: a sudden admission more than midway through that what I had started exploring (the minks) eluded me and turned into something else.
I view the poet-reader relationship as distant—two figures across time that may never meet—but also near. Reading is such an enclosed, private, quiet activity—how can that transferring of thoughts not be personal?
TQ: Interesting. Poet and reader will continue to meet on the shared page across history. That remains a constant. Can you comment on your use of white space in this book?
KR: White space can be read into. It is for silence and emphasis. It also indicates time or a shift in place. On occasion, white space mirrors content. For example, “After the Bell Has Called the Women from the Fields,” a poem on lavender, contains the lines “Wind carries / low notes / through lavender / aisles,” and the poem, which staggers the lines so that they appears as two columns, contains aisles of white space. In Chinoiserie, which gathers image after image, white space hopefully provides a lacework and a visual rest.
TQ: In choosing your manuscript for the Sawtooth Poetry Prize, Paul Hoover praised how you capture “the magic of things shaped by language.” I feel you shape the savagery of things with language and this fresh, almost nurturing use of white space. But the savagery remains. What brings the reader back? Or is it not the poet’s job? Maybe you could answer in the context of “Knife. Bass. Woman.” in which the narrator says: “I understand why a man rapes / before dawn.”
KR: That is the one line I’m asked about most! With any brutal act, there is bewilderment. “Understand why” is at most a removed contemplation. Perhaps of dominance, power, fear. It isn’t the same as understanding a man himself, which would be direct, personal, and far more challenging, as it would imply at least a certain acknowledgment of the circumstances, emotions, and experiences that make up a life, if not empathy.
To separate a person from their actions—to consider their humanity, however depraved or confused it may seem, while not condoning what they have done—that’s a grace most of us don’t have. Because it is tough. I don’t have that. I don’t think the fictional speaker in the poem necessarily has that capacity, either.
Poetry takes risks. That includes stepping into realms that are difficult, whether it is the poet who adopts personas—not always pleasant—or the poet who writes on harsh topics. One might wonder, what good does it do? Why not remark only on the praiseworthy? There’s a place for that kind of poem, but poetry is large enough to hold everything. To exclude part of reality out of fear of discomfort would seem strange to me.
Returning to your question —what brings the reader back? I’m not sure. Trust that however dark a line or phrase may be, there is something more behind it than just a nihilistic sensibility. I think readers can tell the difference. I won’t succeed each time, but I do think language plays a large role. There is a savagery to the collection, but it is a counterpoint. There is hopefully beauty, too.
TQ: Yes, I see your point: what are our options in the face of depravity? Unfair to provide a facile answer; maybe even dangerous. Beyond that, if the language of the poem succeeds beyond one’s wildest imaginings, the poem can still be charged with the “aestheticization of horror.”
But maybe it is not the presence of that one line but the accumulation of lines, of which that line is just an exemplar, that left me feeling savagery sometimes had the upper hand.
KR: The “aestheticization of horror” is problematic for many reasons. Part of it is outrage at the idea that anyone could gild the truth—to make it palatable, to cloak it in euphemisms, to diminish the severity, to deflect. But I don’t think poets set out on a course to make things seem not so bad after all. I do think poets occasionally get caught up in doing everything they can in service of a poem—tinkering with music, line breaks, metaphors to the extent that the heart is polished right out, or that they forget what must be done in service to the larger subject of the poem. There are aesthetically pleasing poems that still don’t linger in one’s mind.
Does savagery have the upper hand? It is up to the reader to decide. There’s a line in the poem “The Story of Adam and Eve” (referring in part to a page in an illuminated manuscript) that runs, “the book revealing what bereft means.” I’ve come to think that it may encompass the book (Chinoiserie), and not only the book inside that particular poem.
TQ: How about “Red Dress,” wherein “every woman has read scandal / in a red dress”? Can you comment on the line?
KR: Red is an unmistakable, energetic color. It comes with associations that will differ from culture to culture. It is a color of warning, of passion. Of The Scarlet Letter. Thus the line “every woman has read / scandal in a red dress”—women have judged other women, leaped to conclusions, made assumptions (often unfounded). In the poem, the line is one more association for the color.
TQ: Let’s go back to your comment on “bereft.” Not only does it anticipate my next question, but it has that recognizable truth tingle around it. “Bereft” may be one of those happy accidents that the poet notices after the fact as an organizing principle. Or not? Can you comment on how you structured Chinoiserie, and more particularly why you chose “The New York Botanical Garden” as its final poem?
KR: I write poem by poem, rather than thinking in terms of a book-length project from the start. “Bereft” came about long before Chinoiserie existed.
At the same time, there is also the thought that many poets are writing one poem in many guises. That is probably the case for me: no matter how varied the topic, I’m searching for something (which I may not be entirely aware of) that remains essentially the same. It’s not surprising that one line could be extracted to reflect the whole.
As for the arrangement – when topics are varied, there are too many choices, such as whether to group similar poems or disperse them throughout the book for continuity. Instead of gathering all of the poems on place one right after another, I wanted to create a feeling of return. Thus a New York poem appears near the beginning and again at the end, and “Orange/Pittsburgh” and “Greentree Hotel, Pittsburgh” are also separated in the book. There are also connections on a smaller scale. One poem, for instance, may end with a line that relates to the title of the next.
TQ: Has anything surprised you in the aftermath of Chinoiserie’s publication?
KR: The generosity of others. Hearing from readers who found their way toward the book has been exciting.
photo by J. Huang