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Rachel Contreni Flynn
August in Indiana:
a heavy moon hung over space
where there was almost nothing
but one big town at dead center.
Grasshoppers popped under tires,
the trees swelled with grackles,
and I amused myself with windmills—
the solitary geometry of glint and spin,
slowing then standing motionless
until the sky raised its dark fist.
The autumn my mother left
a coldness opened . . .
Beans dried to snakes' tails in the fields,
and my chest filled with rust.
In the snow I walked the pastures
in an orange poncho
my father could see from the house.
Once I told him to stop waving at me.
Once I said maybe I'll just keep walking.
And once I slid the poncho
to the near-frozen middle of Moots Pond
just to watch him run from the house
barefoot and wild.
I sleep the smell of bricks and books,
the shucking of corn,
the porch swing on fire.
I sleep the wake of my mother's red thresher.
I sleep the business of gray cranes,
angry cats, bear pits.
In Belize, 90 degrees — I sleep a manatee mother
at the mouth of the Monkey River.
I poke her with a stick.
I'm sick in my sleep — a curl of caulk in the sheets —
I sleep mercury, tarot cards, ginger ale.
Over again, I sleep
lavender, camphor, hands,
(Her yellow dress full of strawberries? I sleep them.)
Fieldstone and gunshots;
a face over the flashlight, saying Cold
is the size of loneliness.
I sleep the front yard in her robe, waiting.
I sleep the front yard in her robe, waiting.
I sleep buckeyes and money —
gibberish and Jesus —
a brittle board over the cistern,
there I sleep jump-roping.
Falling. Algae. I sleep well
and metal pail — a dark circle, a pit
of lavender, camphor, hands —
in her robe
in the yard, waiting ... I sleep my fist
and raise myself, shaking.
-from Ice, Mouth, Song
BIO: Rachel Contreni Flynn grew up in a small town in Indiana then went to Indiana University in Bloomington where she majored in journalism and history. She went on to law school in Chicago and practiced in the city for a number of years. While a junior attorney, Rachel began to take poetry classes at the School of the Art Institute and soon enrolled in a low-residency MFA program.
Rachel's second full-length collection, Tongue, won the Benjamin Saltman Award and is forthcoming from Red Hen Press, and her chapbook, Haywire, was published in 2009 by Bright Hill Press. Her first book, Ice, Mouth, Song, was published in 2005 by Tupelo Press, after winning the Dorset Prize. She was awarded a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2007. Her work has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes, and she received an Illinois Arts Council Artists Fellowship in 2003. She is a graduate of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program and lives north of Chicago with her husband and two children.
A Conversation with Rachel Contreni Flynn by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Structure in free verse is something that fascinates me because free verse doesn't allow for any sort of fixed, traditional form in which to work and, as a result, the poet is forced to make his or her own. It's not playing without a net; it's fashioning one of your own from the materials at hand. "Sand in the Gas Tank" is a poem that is structured much like a spiral; meaning, the final image/narrative element of each line is picked up in the beginning of the next. Could you talk a little bit about this form you've found: why, how, where it might have found inspiration, etc...?
Rachel Contreni Flynn: Creating a meaningful scaffolding for my free verse poems is one of my favorite things about writing. Often, the subject matter, the rhythms, or the emotional undercurrent of the piece will suggest a "formula" that makes sense for the poem, and interesting things happen when you adhere to the formula. I've written some poems structured using images that repeat a geometric shape, interspersed Old Testament quotes that indirectly progress the narrative, formatting and language found in a public company's annual report. It's often helpful to me to use a template of my own imagining to order and constrain a poem - but I'm mindful not to stick slavishly to that template. If I'm not open to deviating from my own informal form, the poem remains at the stage of an exercise, even a gimmick, and the quirkiness, unexplainable joy or darkness of what the poem could be is shut out.
For me, the poem "Sand in the Gas Tank" enacts walking across Moots Creek, a slow, often sludgy waterway through the farmland behind my childhood house in Indiana. There, the creek bed was rock-filled, and my sister and I found ways to ford the creek step by step on rocks that were solidly embedded and would support us. The poem proceeds step by step, one image or reference moving over to the next stanza (for the most part) until we've reached the opposite bank, which looks a lot like where we started. Now, this pattern was my own fun way of sorting out the poem, of binding it together so that it proceeds in a logically pleasing way, at least to my sensibility, but I don't intend for the structure to be noticeable. I love it when readers see a bit of the scaffolding I used once the poem is built, or, surprisingly and delightfully, when readers find other patterns in my work. Then I have one of those funny moments of "Oh. . . why, yes! I meant to do that."
AMK: You use wonderful verb choices in all your poetry. A few examples from "Sand in the Gas Tank" would be ransacked, shoved, leafed, constructed, etc.... Is this something that comes naturally or via revision? Why does it matter to you that strong verbs find residence in your work?
RCF: I guess using this kind of language comes from growing up in the country with lots of books and a father who kept the Oxford English Dictionary at hand during suppers! I'd say that most often, diction is driven by sound. Where "ransacked" appears in this poem, I think it clicked in there to complement "Camper," "handfuls" and "sand." Sometimes I have to revise to take out these sound effects because I have a tendency to go overboard with assonance, alliteration, slant and internal rhyme. I want my poems to feel robust with sound and natural, not sing-songy. Every word matters. My poems are not typically discursive and rambling, so I end up pressing and condensing and whittling away because I love precision and brevity. I end up poring, still, over the OED for new and better and perfect-sounding words.
AMK: This poem is a prose poem that utilizes stanzas. Why is that?
RCF: I originally wrote this as a series of one or two line stanzas, but couldn't really get the linebreaks to work in a satisfying way in the multi-line stanzas. So, I suppose, now those line breaks work because it's a prose poem in stanzas! I wanted some long, conversational lines here to flesh out the literal situation but also to draw attention to the lines that are short and have more impact.
AMK: What can you tell us about prose poetry versus the line? It's the only form of poetry I've written in that, as I've written it, has failed to teach me much about itself. I tend to find that prose poems are poems that could have been broken into lines but simply weren't: I can see ways they could be broken rather effectively into lines even as they poet has chosen not to. Then again, when I write the occasional prose poem, it's typically because once I've found that structure I can't go back, even if line breaks are evident within the sentences I've put down.
RCF: I don't write much prose poetry. This form challenges and confounds me, mostly. Every time I teach prose poetry, I seek to see and understand more for myself about how these poems work, why the material is best in a chunk. I'm still thinking on this, and it truly is an inquiry individual to each poem.
There are a few prose poems in the collection "Tongue." The middle section of this book is a sort of fractured fairytale related through poems that make a somewhat cohesive (I hope) whole. A few prose poems show up here, I think, to move the story along, to provide point-blank information rather than the more elliptical stanzaic poems that slowly weave the story in place. I use prose poems, as, well, prose - to expedite a narrative, to engage in some "telling" that I want to quicken the pace and provide moments of a very direct voice in the collection.
In general, even if I've quickly drafted a poem that looks like a paragraph at first, I immediately slice and dice it into stanzas and lines. For me, there's just so much richness, mystery, suspense, double-meaning, and useful pauses that go into crafting stanzas and lines. I can't give those elements up.
AMK: "Story" is a sectionalized poem that utilizes a different stanzaic structure within each section. Why the sections? Why the different structures per section?
RCF: My husband has a technique he uses with his high school English students where, the night before the class, he goes through our house with a sack and gathers up stuff: plastic spiders, an ornate serving spoon, a mirror, a jar of olives, a little girl's polka-dotted hair bow, a few baseball cards, a sock. The students are then supposed to make a story out of these things. I think my poems-in-sections (and I return to this technique a lot), perform this exercise in reverse. A poem like "Story" takes the story and tells it by pulling out each item and examining it - the spider and the sock and the olives each get their own section, and since they each look and feel and taste and smell and mean differently, each section is tailored to reflect that.
AMK: I love how "Story" tells a story but from the side, its narrative merging more via minimalist implication and circling images, characters, and actions than, say, chronology or what we typically think of as "story-telling." At the same time, it's a very clear poem. We're not forced to "figure out" what's going on or to piece together the evidence you provide. What effect are you going for with this way of writing?
RCF: Most simply, I'm going for, in the end, a kind of poem that feels authentic to me, to my way of thinking and feeling. But I don't want a poem that is entirely inward-looking or so personal that I'm not connecting with others. I'm trying to build something out of language and emotion and situation that hangs together but is not sewn so tightly together that there's no space for interpretation or ambiguity. It's the difference between a quilt and a mobile - both are entire objects, but I prefer the mobile for my poems. Mobiles move, their dangling objects are diverse, but the shapes and colors blend. They can be made out of anything - forks, sea glass, plush toys, postcards, huge wedges of metal -- they can be hung over a porch or a crib or a grand staircase in a modern art museum.
In all with my poems in sections, I am trying to explicate an event, whether literal or spiritual, that organically makes sense given all the pieces of language that rotate, double back, and reappear throughout. I'm not trying to hide the ball or be smugly clever. That kind of poem pisses me off incredibly. So I try never to be elliptical in an exclusive or arch way. People bring themselves to my, and all, poems. I want to allow room in what I write so that others can sit down in there and think. Or, I guess, sticking with the mobile metaphor, to hang on and ride.
AMK: I love the unidentified "you" of "Hunger for Something Easier" and its fairy tale nature. The collection itself, Tongue, is rife with the mystery inherent in this poem. Tell us about the use of mystery in your work. What effect does the unidentified "you" have in this poem and in poetry in general?
RCF: I often perceive the "you" to invite a reader in, so that the poem is populated by "us." Often, of course, a poem that presents a couple is clearly a romantic or family situation, but I think the two people inhabiting "Hunger for Something Easier" are ambiguous enough to represent anyone and everyone, it creates a circumstance of togetherness and conflict that a reader could identify with and apply to her own life. I think mystery can bring in universality of experience. It can broaden the possibilities that readers bring from their own lives into the world of the poem. And it can weave in allusions to myth, fairytale, history. . . the trick is not to be so mysterious that the poem gets hogtied by its own elusiveness such that it is meaningful only to the poet.
I'm drawn to reading and writing poems that tap into the complexity of elemental emotions using sensory-rich imagery. And I like stories told at the famous "slant" - those that allow some murkiness and ambiguity while still evoking a clear feeling and intention. All this comes across as mystery, I suppose, where chronology may be blurred, where the narrative arc is wavy or jagged at times, where it's not readily apparent precisely who is doing what and why. I find it much richer and evocative when the poem's literal situation isn't laid out; for me, that feels like spoon feeding and closes down unexpected, imaginative connections that readers bring to the work.
Speaking of a poem's literal situation, I wrote "Hunger for Something Easier" about the time my older sister and I were chased across a field by a boar. To this day, she claims it never happened, and so I have to doubt my own memory of the event. For me, the poem is perhaps about how people save themselves, sometimes, by refusing to remember or by creating complete fiction, or both, but that's a personal meaning. Each of us can emerge from a poem of mystery with our own interpretation, bring away our own meaning.
AMK: We both seem to adore repetition in poetry. Why do you think that is? Is repetition an element of music, like a chorus, or is it so attractive for its qualities of incantation; something else?
RCF: I do adore repetition. As a child, I listened to a recording of Jesus Christ Superstar every night, several times, for months and months. Repetition of sounds and rhythms is at the core of human experience - it's what we hear in the womb, it's how we move and work, it is prayer and lullaby and dirge. Repetition can do heavy lifting. In poetry, language that repeats is immediately elevated. Especially in spare, compressed poems, repeated phrases work a strange magic - they're at the same time stabilizing and distressing, like all obsessions. Something repeated is something of a worm in the brain, or, I suppose, a chipped back tooth you can't keep from running over with your tongue. Again, repetition adds ambiguity to a poem: a comforting sound, but also an urgency.
AMK: "Hunger for Something Easier" is a powerful but unusually short poem given that it has so much power. I'm not particularly good at brevity. I tend to want to put every damned thing I can in a poem, but you seem to do the opposite. Why do you work in this way and how is it that you are so good at it?
RCF: For a couple semesters in my MFA program, I pushed myself to write extremely narrative poems, discursively, with long lines of exposition and extra detail. I was very unhappy, and the poems were stultifying and very not good. This style of writing simply did not mirror the way I think and organize my way through the world-- it wasn't my authentic inner dialogue at work, and so there was this disjunction and displeasure with the work. I admire compression and clarity - not necessarily narrative clarity, but emotional clarity. Even if the emotion being conveyed is one of confusion, I suppose. The way I get to this is by pressing on every phrase for its proper music and meaning and impact.
AMK: Tell us a little about yourself. My understanding is that you're a lawyer living in Chicago with two children. I ask because I'm wondering when you have time to write.
RCF: Yes, I work as an employment attorney at a company near Chicago. I've been a lawyer for about 17 years now, which blows my mind. It has been good for my writing - I have been able to write the way I want without worrying that I have to produce work that's somehow acceptable to the powers that be in order to make a living, make tenure, that sort of thing. It has been difficult, too, especially once my husband and I had our two terrific and high-energy kids. I find time to write while in traffic, while cooking, while on what I call my lunch minute, while, while, while. . . almost always in the midst of tending to something else. But then I have had the delight and deliciousness of some writers retreats where I sink in and churn out poems for a week or two at a time, an unwashed, pony-tailed, Fresca-drinking, round-the-clock thrall of pure love. This is how I birthed my last two book manuscripts. Speaking of pure love, I get tremendous nurturing of my poetry life from my husband, Patrick, who does lots of housework, is one of my best readers, and cushions my anxieties. That's a big job.
AMK: Do you ever find yourself stealing form the lives of your clients in your work?
RCF: Funny you should ask that. My current manuscript is full of work poems. But I have to say that I don't really borrow images or situations from my clients. More so my co-workers. They'll be so pleased. But here's where that mystery and writing at a slant come in pretty handy; and I am always, I think, much more self-revealing and self-deprecating than anything else. My portrayals of the workplace are predominately sort of funny, sort of alarmed, intended to be empathetic.
AMK: What do you like most about being a poet?
RCF: Simply the pleasure of doing what I am meant to do. Even though I do a lot of other things around and on top of and in order to support the poetry, my inner life always centers around the language, the story, the sounds, the importance of those. I feel fed and jazzed and comforted being a poet. I like the solitude and the peace of that. A very near second is the phenomenal people I've become close with - all these smart, quirky, loving, truly good people who are part of my life through poetry. To be able to have the beautiful solitude of writing combined with that kind of community is just what I've always wanted in my life.
AMK: What do you dislike most about being a poet?
RCF: I know that poetry has a sacredness to it. I don't feel it's naïve or Pollyanna to say that. And since I honor poetry - mine and others-in that way, I am always crushed and angered when I hear of people in the writing world damaging others' work or reputation or using any kind of power - publication or influence-type power - in ways that hurt writers. It disrespects and bruises the soul of poetry, and that's terrible. Listen, I've been knocked around by corporate America for a long time. It is what it is, dog-eat-dog, whatever, and you "man-up" as they say. That's fine, and the calluses form as they must. But poetry and its world is different. They should be. It's up to all of us to behave such that they are.
AMK: Thank you.