Adrienne Raphel’s debut collection of poetry, What Was It For, careens on the edges of nonsense—which are also the disquieting edges of nursery rhyme, riddle, and song. Its humor is by turns blunt as a groan and subtle as a sniff; “I like to go into the soggy weird leafmeal,” one poem declares, and much of the book revels in a landscape of “crumpled-out faces” and “trees with electrical sockets.” In this interview, we discuss how the influences of Old English prosody, The Simpsons, crossword puzzles, and Cole Porter combine in Raphel’s poetry to generate what Robyn Schiff has described as “the terrifying, unspooling energy of a maypole rewinding in eternity.”
Zach Savich: Many of the poems in What Was It For have a palpable relationship to traditional forms, especially to the ballad. But they’re free of the pat elegance that readers might associate with dutiful formalism. Rather, their music is often tuned so tightly it pops. In “Confession Two,” for instance, there’s not just off-rhyme but off-line, off-focus, off-almost-everything; the final line of the second stanza wonderfully thuds, defying the expected, storybook rhyme and also avoiding the more subtle echo one hears between “are” and “car”:
Steve pushed the toy car and did siren noises
Alex got freaked and red in the face
At the first real party where we are
Like the pale-faced kid sister I am
What is your history with traditional metrics, formalism, forms? More basically, why write this way? I feel like many discussions of prosody are out of date by a generation; they follow the model of poets who offered icebergs to the ships of Victorian/academic style. But you seem to be among some current poets—Anthony Madrid’s recent book Try Never comes to mind—who are approaching things differently. Perhaps by taking inspiration from poets who pre-date Pound? And/or from more recent conceptual work? Is Gertrude Stein a poet?
Adrienne Raphel: Forms, formalism, metrics—I’ve been obsessed with how words sounds and the shapes they fit into for forever, I think. I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read: I guess I’ve always needed to be able to take part in this system of complex communication going on around me, whatever it was. Maybe there’s something in the fact that I’ve been reading music for almost as long as I’ve been reading words, and music and poetry inextricably pull on the same parts of my brain. There’s also something in performance—practicing technique, isolating certain bits, that arc of anticipation and catharsis when you go on stage. I’m a shy person who relishes the competitive adrenaline of performance to get anything done, which could be part of the tension in my work—it wants to earn all the gold stars, but it also wants to hide.
I’m glad you mentioned the anticipation-then-thud thing. I’m obsessed with that effect. It’s like in those old Road Runner and Coyote cartoons, where Coyote is chasing Road Runner, and he’s running and running, and suddenly Coyote looks down and finds that he’s gone off the edge of a cliff––and yet he’s still been running, as though on solid ground, but in thin air. But before that dawning, sickening, pit-of-the-stomach moment of recognition, Coyote has no idea that he’s run himself into such danger. Only when he pauses for a fatal moment and realizes that he’s suspended in space does Coyote plummet.
I want to send us over the cliff into that thin air that we believe is solid ground: what is that space? How did we get ourselves there? Are we just pretending that we’re okay? Is it better, in that split second of consciousness where we realize what’s happened, to let ourselves fall, or should we close our eyes and sprint to the other side of the chasm? Play seems like it’s safer than the real world, but what if the escape is more terrifying? What if play is not an escape, but a mirror in which you have to confront yourself, all the time? And sometimes it’s an infinite mirror that traps you in an endless hall of yourself. Or it’s a funhouse mirror that contorts you back at yourself in a shape you’d never recognize, except that you do recognize it. And sometimes the mirror shatters into a strobe light, a disco ball, a kaleidoscope.
Lewis Carroll is an enormous influence for me, as is Emily Dickinson (the slant rhymes, the hymns, this incredible ability to suffuse every word with purpose)––and Elizabeth Bishop, and Marianne Moore––I discovered Gerard Manley Hopkins in high school, who cracked open my world: sound can do that? You can do that with sound? The fact that everything meant something––that a poem was supercharged with meaning and revelation, that the whole thing had a live wire running through it¬¬––became more apparent to me with Hopkins than it ever had. I could feel what a poem was, without needing to dissect why. When I was fifteen, a teacher handed me Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs and said, “Here—you need this.” Berryman taught me about voice and trusting wherever voice could take you. (I mean, I still don’t know who Huffy Henry is, but since I trust his voice, I trust that whatever he’s saying is exactly whatever he needs to say.) Berryman taught me about repetition with a difference, about immersing yourself into a character, about trusting the reader to be with you rather than illuminating everything in advance.
In college, I fell in love with Old English poetry, particularly the riddles, which range in subject and tone from theological meditations to dick jokes. Old English poetry operates in alliterative half-lines, and there are pretty strict hierarchies governing which types of half-lines are allowed to come at the beginnings of lines, and which ones can follow others. I’d been playing with rhyme for ages, but these rules opened up another dimension of sound and linking, like doing algebra but realizing that the language wants you to do calculus.
I actually really didn’t read much contemporary poetry until my MFA program: most of my reading had stopped right around 1965. At Iowa, one huge thing for me was learning how to read poetry from John Ashbery to the present. I was used to deflecting what I felt through form and music, but I realized that was often becoming a way for me to create danger that I knew how to escape from: I was hiding myself in the lines rather than putting myself on the line. I also learned how to keep pushing what form was, and what it was for. (It feels relevant to mention that Iowa also gave me my first and only Ouija board experience to date, inevitably, while reading James Merrill’s Ouija epic The Changing Light at Sandover in a seminar with Jim Galvin. Some friends and I did the Ouija board on stormy night in Iowa City, and my great-uncle appeared as a guiding trickster spirit. As Galvin would say, I don’t know what it means, but it means something.)
I also learned how to feel, I think, from reading my peers at Iowa. I got so lucky to have their words around me all the time: how to speak in a different language that makes more sense than our own from Sara Deniz Akant, Dan Poppick, and Catherine Blauvelt; how to live more fully in a line break from Jessica Laser and Margaret Ross; how to make form meaningful from Hannah Sanghee Park and how to make meaning into form from Alex Walton; how to walk the line between the past and the future from Jake Fournier and Chris Schlegel; and so, so many others. Writers like Anthony Madrid, Chris Spaide, and Lindsay Turner also keep me honest musically these days; it can be tricky to hear yourself in the middle of the noise.
So—form. In whatever this current historical age we find ourselves in is, I’ve been thinking a lot about form and honesty, and what it is to be a human being participating rather than an automaton doing the same things she’s programmed herself to do. I can be a creature of routine: I do routines to feel like myself, and I become addicted to the surface control in order to maintain my balance.
You mentioned an iceberg... maybe instead of Coyote running off the edge of the cliff, we’re trying to figure out how to close the ever-widening crack in the Antarctic Ice Shelf without skidding off the ice, or without realizing we’re the Titanic careening into the iceberg.
And yes, Gertrude Stein! There’s this great little tiny knotty sequence in her Stanzas in Meditation––“I’m winning I’m winning I’ve won”––how does she will herself a) into the idea that she’s playing game, b) into the fact that she’s winning, c) into the existential state in which she has to win, d) into the triumph that she’s won, e) into the empty ecstasy of realizing that not only her winning but the game itself are both completely made up, and f) that maybe she’s not “won” but “one” and alone. That’s the cliff and the thin air.
ZS: Do you have a favorite example of the “anticipation-then-thud thing,” from another poet? And/or of Old English rhyme patterns that helped open things up? Behind these questions, I’m thinking about a conversation I had with some students about your poem “Hobson Jobson,” a poem from the book that might particularly bring Carroll to mind (“A hubbledy bubbledy day! / Make way for the Junkaneers,” it advises). We were talking about whether “thuds” and related effects are thrilling because they offer variations on specific expectations or because they give the impression of dismantling or defying expectation altogether. That’s the difference, I guess, between a cartoon coyote whose fall sometimes twangs off an intervening branch and one who might, at times, find himself in plain air and fall up, or combust.
AR: It’s fantastic to hear about your students’ responses to the poems! I love their ideas about why the “thud” and other anticipatory-reversals work inside us. Emily Dickinson is the ultimate master of the skid—her off rhymes don’t thud so much as boomerang back and pierce you in the heart. The first stanza of “You’ve Seen Balloons Set – Haven’t You?” goes like this:
You’ve seen Balloons set – Haven’t You?
So stately they ascend –
It is as Swans – discarded You,
For Duties Diamond –
That “diamond” is crazy: it’s a slant rhyme in total parallax. Instead of the neat upward tick of the iamb “as-CEND,” we get this knotty gem that’s pronounced as a “DI-mond” or a “DI-a-mond.” If we’re reading for the rhyme purely, we want it to be the former, a trochee to mirror the iamb. But in the context of the rest of the stanza, the trisyllable “DI-a-mond” makes the line itself scan more regularly. The ballad meter and rhyme train the ear to expect particular rhythms, yet “diamond” manages to cut brilliantly through both expectations while ALSO still being a perfectly conventionally acceptable slant rhyme for “ascend.” But maybe the most astonishing thing is that the thud doesn’t actually turn into a thud—it gets picked up into a regular rhyme by the next two lines:
Their Liquid Feet go softly out
Opon a Sea of Blonde –
Maybe every thud is not a thud but an immortal diamond.
Musically, I can never get used to the truncated fourth line in every stanza of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” Keats never veers from his abcb rhyme scheme, so you know that last line is going to click into place with the second one, and you know that the first and third lines are going to scan identically—yet there’s something in the particular alchemy of these certain uncertainties that makes me feel like I’m in one of those Tilt-a-Whirls and the bottom has just dropped out.
Another animation-world example that comes to mind is that sight gag in the opening of “The Simpsons,” in which Bart writes a repeating line on the chalkboard as punishment, but the line he’s writing always changes. (“TINTIN DOES NOT SUCKSUCK,” e.g.) That, to me, would be variation within a very tight specific expectation—we know we’re going to get at Bart Aphorism, but we don’t know what kind. SANDWICHES SHOULD NOT CONTAIN SAND tells us about a prank Bart is presumably atoning for; I WILL NEVER LIE ABOUT BEING CANCELLED AGAIN is the voice of the show stepping in for a meta-joke; NEXT TIME IT COULD BE ME ON THE SCAFFOLDING is a moment of existential crisis descending on the board from the void, or spoken, in prosopopoeia, from the voice of the chalkboard. You know that you’re expecting a particular type of thing, and the suspense comes because you know that you’re getting something, but you have no idea what that something is going to be. You’re primed for something funny, so the ones that are serious or weird punch you in the gut. Tonal shifts are easiest to get this effect, but the best of the funny ones, too, can do the sucker-punch of variation on a set expectation.
On the other hand, if Bart flipped the chalkboard and turned it into a massive skateboard, or if the chalkboard were replaced by the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, or if the animation suddenly switched to actual film—that would seem to be the coyote-falling-up example.
Stein (again!) defies expectations really subtly but shockingly in Stanzas In Meditation through punctuation—in the whole book there’s virtually no punctuation other than periods, but she will extremely occasionally introduce a comma, which changes all the rules of the game.
William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All or (even better) Kora in Hell is an example of the defying-expectations thing, generically speaking. Or Lolita or Moby-Dick, for that matter; books that suddenly invert into another medium, a list, numbers, technical language, footnotes—the instant messenger moment in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, the images in The Rings of Saturn. I think these are less what we’re talking about, though; to me, these sort of DJ-sampling shifts among forms have a different effect than the emotional shifts you get by mixing around within a form.
I grew up listening to musical theater obsessively, which is partly where, I think, the ballad structures and heavy rhymes got burned into my psyche. In Finishing the Hat, Stephen Sondheim’s annotated collection of lyrics from his musicals, Sondheim describes an unexpected lyric from a song in the show Gypsy: the song has a whole bunch of rhymes in groups of three, so that’s what the audience comes to expect. Suddenly, a quadruple rhyme gets introduced into the mix. When Cole Porter heard it, he reportedly gasped in astonishment.
I’m also curious, and would love to hear what you and your students think, about the opposite of the thud: the too-long rhyme. “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” is the Hopkins poem that comes to mind here: the alliteration is so densely jam-packed, the consonance and assonance so intensely concentrated and so defiantly drawn out, that there’s also a huge musical suspension being created: how long can we go on in this vivid, jewel-tone world? There’s a certain kind of bravado here—is this the opposite of the thud, or a variation on the same kind of anticipation-reversal thing? Is the anticipation-reversal always a reversal, or a reveal of the underlying assumption you didn’t realize you knew was there?
Oh—Old English metrics! One thing I love playing with is the half-line that’s crucial to all Old English poetry: in the middle of the verse, there’s a caesura, a little mini dead space that can either be a bridge or a chasm between the two halves of the phrase. Alliteration typically bridges across: an alliterative doublet gets echoed by a word across the caesura, like you’re yelling in a tunnel and the last word you say bounces back to you. For example, “weorc wuldorfæder— swa he wundra gehwæs” [‘the work of the Father of Glory, as he creates wonders’] is a line from Caedmon’s Hymn, the oldest recoded Old English poem. Caedmon was an illiterate farmer who opened his mouth one day to find himself filled with a divine poem of creation. In this line, you can hear how that alliteration from the first bit infuses the second bit. This is helpful for bards or cowherds memorizing poems; this is also helpful for poems that want to create the magnetic effect of rhyme but across rather than down the poem.
ZS: How do the poems you’ve written after What Was It For take up these techniques and themes? What’s next for your writing?
AR: One way that I try to approach the impossible idea of what comes next is to think about what came before What Was It For. I wrote a long group of sonnets, ranging from the formally traditional to fairly mutant, that centers on this woman, Irene, who lives in a house shaped like a ship. Each poem is in one of the room of the house – In the Kitchen of the House Shaped Like a Ship, In the Bedroom of the House Shaped Like a Ship, etc. Some rooms get visited multiple times. (Biographical footnote: My great-grandmother, Irene, lived in a house shaped like a ship; it got torn down when I was a child, but some of my earliest memories are digging for clams on the semi-abandoned property.)
Over the past several years, as I’ve been putting together the poems that became this book, the Irene poems were always some subset of the whole. Sometimes, they were their own section; other times, they wove through unrelated poems. I knew that What Was It For was finally done as its own collection when, for the first time, there were no Irene poems at all in the manuscript. It wasn’t because the poems in this book are necessarily better than the Irene poems – they were just cohering as their own music, not as different ways of embracing or evading Irene.
The House Shaped Like a Ship seems like, in a way the shadow book to What Was It For. Writing the house gave me a pattern and a purpose. I knew what I was going to do when I thought about “writing a poem”: I had a shape (the sonnet), a place (the house), and a presence (Irene). I was writing other poems concurrently, some of which are in What Was It For, but these were both more exhilarating and more terrifying, because they felt like luck, not like a process. Sometimes, the seeds of these other poems would come to me vividly (“Boardwalk Block” is one of those ones that came in a flash—it’s one of the first poems I wrote in this collection—as is “The King of Plums.”) More often, some piece of language would be floating around and around in my head, or some feeling or image that hadn’t worked itself through my body (that’s what happened with “What Was It For,” and “Imogen and the Beginning of Color,” for example). Often, the work I was attempting outside the Irene series just fell flat. Sometimes, they provided the inspiration for another poem. Occasionally, they became poems.
What Was It For feels like it was able to start growing because it was coming through, or against, this much more permanent structure, then finally became its own form (which maybe it was all along?). I think the poems came together because each one individually needed to exist for me—and when the poem didn’t need to exist, but was just nervous energy, or was a repetition of an old feeling, or was done from habit, it had to go away.
I’m working on how to deal with poems that need to be written – and trying to push myself towards both ends of the bell curve, to get more fractured, to go into fractals and fissures––but also to get clearer (maybe within the same poem)? Basically, take the necessity that ended up feeling like the driving force of What Was It For and keep moving, even though that’s kind of uncomfortable and scary.
Right now, I’m also working on a book about crossword puzzles––I want to see what happens when I can grapple with these questions of form and lunacy and obsession in both isolated moments and in the actual world. What is the mind on crosswords? Why did this form latch onto us at the same moment that Joyce and Eliot and Woolf and Stein are building ways to get themselves in and out of their own puzzles of language? I feel like this project is also forcing me to confront myself as I’m working to do in poems: to use language that seems like it’s build as an escape hatch, but turn it into a relentlessly necessary path forward.
Zach Savich’s most recent books are The Orchard Green and Every Color (Omnidawn, 2016) and Diving Makes the Water Deep (Rescue Press, 2016). He teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia.