Interview with Ryan Biacree for The Interrobang
At the center of your most recent collection of poems, Eye Against Eye, is a series of poems in response to Sally Mann’s landscape photographs; poems of yours have also appeared alongside sculpture, painting, and photography by various artists. How does the ekphrastic or collaborative experience influence the writing of those poems?
My relationship with Sally Mann developed over a period of years. At some point, I became very interested in writing about her work, in addressing what I loved in the photographs, and I wondered if I could do that in poetry. I went on shoots with her, watched her work in the dark room, and I kept returning to Rockbridge County where she lives and where I spent summers as a child. So the poems came about as part of a very intentional involvement. The same is true of the collaborative books I’ve done with the Fresian artist Tjibbe Hooghiemstra whose work I first saw at DNA Gallery in Provincetown, and also with American photographer Ray Meeks. Most recently, I’ve written a sequence to accompany a series of photographs by Dan Borris of vacant soccer fields—las canchas—in rural Mexico. The collaboration appears on a Belgian webzine (www.alligatorzine.be/).
Your poems are striking for their visual impact, your concern for the page as an object. Does the shape of a poem, for you, come as a natural consequence of writing it, or is the form usually premeditated? Is there a correlation between the content of a poem and how it appears on the page?
Just as you suggest, Ryan, and as Creeley noted decades ago, the form’s an extension of the content. In my case, it comes about in the act of writing. I don’t start out thinking: this poem will be adjusted to the left margin. I’m obsessed with the way that poetic structures and rhythms might modulate and articulate perception. But it’s only in the writing of the poem that I begin to feel—so my body is deeply involved-- the measure that will accommodate the emotional and intellectual movement particular to the poem that isn’t even a poem yet and maybe never will be. I’m listening for it to happen, tuning myself to what I’m given, adjusting, and not just listening but, as Miles Davis would say, listening into.
You have been described as both a “Southern writer” and a “poet of place,” and the landscapes of the South and your native Virginia figure prominently in your work. Living now in Rhode Island, do you feel the way you regard and write about these places has changed?
This is a question I ask myself too since nostalgia is so ruinous. I don’t want to be mooning over a place I left more than twenty years ago. But the fact seems to be that for some people, for me, the landscape of childhood has the deepest and strongest roots. I still spend time in Virginia every year, I can tell a Virginia forest from a Rhode Island forest in two seconds with my eyes closed, the intimate knowledge of the geography where I spent my youth is like an armload of chiggers I’ll carry until I die, but I’m not quite sure I know what it means to be call oneself a southern writer in the 21st century.
How does a book develop for you? At what point do you realize that the group of poems in front of you has become a fully realized manuscript? Eye Against Eye especially seems to have an essential structure and arc to it.
It often takes about four years for a manuscript of mine to come together. It’s a lot like the process of writing a poem, just practiced at a bigger scale. I don’t look over my shoulder at what I’ve written and don’t try to determinedly master a structure for the book early on. In three or four years of writing, possibilities and relationships begin to suggest themselves. I think it must be something like composing an orchestral piece where you might realize you have several strong runs, but you’re missing a bridge here or a decisive exploration of the lower register somewhere else. You try to get a feel for the shape of the whole work, where the energy concentrates, eddies, channels out and quickens. I want the book to be an experience larger than the sum of the individual poems.
Your marriage to fellow poet C.D. Wright has lead to your being considered a “star couple” of the poetic community. How has sharing a life with another artist, especially one in your field, affected your work and working habits?
It’s a great privilege. We’re intensely interested readers and good critics of each other’s work. We like talking about poetry—not necessarily our own-- and politics, friendship and art. The conversation has been good for twenty years. I don’t think the word “star” means much when applied to poets, but it calls to mind a terrific book by Roberto Bolaño called Distant Star. It’s a novel about a poet who skywrites his poems—as the wonderful Chilean poet Raul Zurita used to do. But unlike Zurita, who was brutalized by the Pinochet dictatorship, the poet in Distant Star is a fascist. Bolaño’s a great novelist who writes obsessively about poets.
Are you working on anything right now?
Princeton University Press just published The Night, a wildly mysterious poem by the Bolivian visionary Jaime Saenz. Kent Johnson and I translated it. In 2008, New Directions will bring out my translation of the selected poems of Mexican poet Coral Bracho and a book of mine that may escape genre description—a melding of poetry and prose, incantation and narrative. It’s called As a Friend. Anything else I’m working on is shapeless and without much scent at this point.