“Poetry is about play”: A Conversation with Terese Svoboda about Theatrix: Poetry Plays & a Short Film – curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Terese Svoboda is the author of 19 books of poetry, fiction, memoir, biography and translation, and has won a Guggenheim and the Bobst Prize for fiction, the Iowa Prize for poetry, an NEH and a PEN/Columbia grant for translation, the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, a Jerome Foundation prize for video, the O. Henry award for the short story, two Appleman awards, and a Pushcart Prize for the essay. She is also a three time winner of the New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, and has been awarded Headlands, James Merrill, Hawthornden, Bogliasco, Yaddo, MacDowell, Hermitage and Bellagio residencies. She wrote the libretto for the opera WET that premiered at L.A.’s Disney Hall.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Tell me about Theatrix:  Poetry Plays.  How did this project begin?

Terese Svoboda: I’ve always felt that poetry is about play, both in the sense of playing with language – I can’t resist a pun — and the play as drama, that “the line is a stage,” to quote my professor George McWhirter at the University of British Columbia. In the late seventies, I took a class with Marilyn Hacker, and under the severe formal constraints for which she is famous, I discovered that voice-driven poetry was too confining to be truly authentic, at least for me. I wanted a whole chorus. I also attended one of Mac Wellman’s Pataphysics writing weekends where my inner dramaturg dug itself new holes. Wellman, who is a poet as well as a distinguished playwright, abandons plot and character for speech and conflict and spacemen. “I like it when people talk about what’s going on in a play. Sometimes it’s more interesting than trying to enact everything,” was an important persuasive Wellman comment. I began to honor this impulse in the last section of my Selected, When The Next Big War Blows Down The Valley.

KMD:  Your recent hybrid collection has garnered comparisons to Samuel Beckett, Shakespeare, and the golden age of Greek tragedy.  What can poets learn from creative practitioners in the dramatic arts?

TS: The ape that beat his chest most interestingly got the mate. Quite a bit of poetry’s power with the spoken word was stolen by theater, and only partially retrieve by spoken word performances. Poets have to keep thieving to push to the edge.

Although theater has the advantage of gesture, poets on paper don’t have to flail – they have space and its estrangements, they have little clubs of punctuation, the hissing of consonants, the cacophony of association without the problems of setting, cast and duration.

The avant-garde troupes Elevator Repair Service and Mabou Mines use background sound, camera and video alongside actors as additional characters to suggest more eyes, more I’s. In poetry, punctuation feels like those stagehands who wear all black that you’re not supposed to see. I’ve used variants to provide more voice, the sotto voce in brackets and parens, the stage direction’s mutter– in all ranges: jokes, tombstones, clarifications. I’ve provided a continuum of experimentation from flush left voice-driven naturalistic poetics to “scatter force” choices that reflect the potential of every sign on the page. I trust readers to make leaps accordingly.

KMD:  In addition to your formidable achievements as a poet, you have also earned acclaim as a biographer and nonfiction writer.  How can poets use research and the archive to strengthen their craft?

TS: Who has the credentials to speak? In violation of the rule that one writes what one knows, poets don’t have to be slaves to their own experience. A relatively new branch of poetry, documentary, uses much research in claiming the authentic. Sean Singer, in his second book Honey and Smoke, uses big chunks of research to stabilize long poems, their weight summoning a dance with authenticity. The resultant widening gyres pick up historic parallels that resonate to make the poet and reader feel less alone.

KMD:  It was a pleasure to hear you speak at the Santa Fe Writers Lab, and I continue to be intrigued by our conversation about experimental writing.  When is innovative writing an inherently feminist endeavor?

TS: As experimental poet and critic Rachel Blau DuPlessis says, “very little in this world is inherently so–maybe gravity!” one has to throw out “inherently.” Experiment inherently tossed off inherency. Lola Ridge, the subject of my biography, Anything That Burns You, gave a speech in 1919 entitled “Woman and the Creative Will,” arguing that “woman is not and never has been man’s natural inferior.” Spurred by critics praising the poems in her first book as “masculine,” the speech was ten years ahead of Virginia Woolf’s paean to androgyny, “A Room of One’s Own.” This was also two years after the Russian Revolution, when Ridge believed the world was headed toward “not merely toward reorganization and reform, but toward the construction of a completely new social and economic fabric” and was wholly engaged in and promoted the revolutions in the modernist experiment. “The [artistic] period we are now entering,” she declared, “will be known to future historians as the Woman Renaissance.” Women’s poetry did flourish in the 1920s, and it was often experimental – even the term “woman poet” was synonymous with experimental at the time. People snapped up new volumes, hundreds of thousands of women’s poetry books were sold – in 1931 Edna St. Vincent Millay sold 66,000 in one year. Often the subject matter of these women was the sexual, which accounted for some of the interest – and, as articulated by women, definitely put the work in the experimental category.

I bring up this one hundred-year-old example to show how history shapes what is considered innovative in writing – and feminism. With the relatively recent contemporary discovery of gender’s fluidity (or public acknowledgement of it), the question of what is feminist arises. As for what is experimental, these days plenty of writing of all genders, as Karla Kelsey puts it, “is written in an “experimental fashion,” that is, it conforms to contemporary avant garde rules formed in opposition to whatever’s now considered the norm. Or as DuPlessis writes, “innovation is created in a relationship; it’s not a fixed stylistic bucket of stuff you pour over a text.” We’ve recognized the continuum of sexuality; it’s time to allow language the same freedom. Will chaos result? That’s always the fear promulgated by those who have the most to lose. So given the question, “When is innovative writing an inherently feminist endeavor?” after discarding “inherently” and “feminist” and “innovative,” one is left with “when.” Maybe a hundred years ago.

Are there instances when writing experimentally doesn’t necessarily serve social justice?

TS: Writing experimentally by eschewing meaning does not serve social justice because meaning in poetry will always have referent to this unjust world.

KMD:  On a related note, what is the relationship between writing and community for you as a practicing literary artist?  What can innovative poets and writers do differently to cultivate community, dialogue and exchange?

TS: Covid puts community in deep shadow. You would think writers craved this kind of isolation but no, that’s not true, especially at the end of a page-heavy day, when company is everything. I turned down a residency in Florida this January because a residency is less about the unfettered time and more about having spontaneous chats with other artists deep into projects. There was only going to be the meal tray and none of the talk. Even if other artists in person have nothing in particular pertinent to one’s practice, their peculiar focus is inspiring. Why, the two of us met at a residency! Your diligence and good conversation were most inspiring, as are these questions.

That said, I’d like to see zoom be put to better use: fewer people talking from the screen as if it were television, as old-fashioned as that, but using it more as a tool, rooms where a few can have exchanges or be exposed to confusion. I know my academic friends have been forced into innovation, not to mention my family members over the holidays, but so should the organizers of “readings.” Why not have write-a-thons with the screenshare, poets reading to their dogs, voting in the chat boxes – all kinds of trouble.

KMD:  What’s next?  What can readers look forward to?

TS: My agent’s just approved my second memoir, Hitler and My Mother-in-Law so I’m hoping someone will publish it. I’ve been commissioned in Britain to write the libretto for another opera. Yoo-hoo! I have stories! Not to mention a manuscript of poems about the Ark.

A Book Trailer for Theatrix: Poetry Plays