“Pour Forth Into That Vessel”: A Conversation with Camille Guthrie, curated by Lisa Olstein

Camille Guthrie’s most recent book is Diamonds (BOA Editions). Her previous books are Articulated Lair: Poems for Louise BourgeoisIn Captivity, and The Master Thief (all from Subpress). Her poems have appeared in such journals as At Length, Boston Review, Green Mountains Review, The Iowa Review, The New Republicand Tin House, as well as in anthologies including The Best American Poetry 2019 2020The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood, and Art & Artists: Poems. Guthrie has been awarded the Isabella Gardner fellowship from MacDowell and a residency at the Yaddo Foundation. She received her MFA from Brown University and her BA from Vassar College. The Director of the Undergraduate Writing Initiatives at Bennington College, she lives in rural Vermont.

Lisa Olstein: What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?

Camille Guthrie: Who am I, and what the hell am I going to do with my life? When I moved to rural Vermont from Brooklyn almost thirteen years ago, I was pregnant with my second child. I had thought that a midlife crisis was a cliché of masculinity, but I was very wrong. I began writing these poems out of a painful time—a separation and divorce, and the consequences: moving houses and needing a new job. A time of loneliness, anxiety, change. I also fell in love—that was a real surprise! When I began the poems in Diamonds, I decided to write from that raw place—to take some risks and expose what felt vulnerable. I felt cracked open. Like a lonely lady lost in the middle of nowhere—and there were bears outside. But I wasn’t alone. I was surrounded by my girlfriends, old friends and new ones, and so the book is for them. When the title poem went viral—twice—the response was another big surprise, and people wrote to me about their experiences with divorce, parenting, dating. (I want to add that this is poetry-level viral, not kittycat-level viral.) The poems engage with the hyperbolic drama of the lyric poem, and, in revision, I wanted to keep the sense of thinking-and-feeling-in-the-moment. There are other obsessions, too, such as art, love poetry, history, country life. I guess the ultimate question is always Can I write a good poem? 

LO: “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson, and I believe her. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work?

CG: I agree with you and Anne Carson! I also love John Ashbery’s simile that writing a sestina is ”rather like riding downhill on a bicycle and having the pedals push your feet.” There are various forms in this book: sonnets, dramatic monologues, ekphrastic poems, lists, apostrophes—and a sestina is the final poem. Traditional forms give me the relief and pleasure of structure and constraint—a discernible form in which to put one’s messy ideas and feelings, that allows the unconscious wisdom of words to pour forth into that vessel. And, my simultaneous strategy is to undermine those restraints, to ask what happens if I, let’s say, write about the anxiety of influence as a modern woman reading Yeats in a sestina about being a young writer and encountering an older, successful poet. Or write a blazon for my boyfriend and reject poetry itself. Or write an ekphrastic poem with questions about looking at Orientalist paintings in a fancy museum. To use the forms to upend their inherent expectations.

Lately I’m especially interested in the dramatic monologue as I’m enamored of Robert Browning’s poems, in particular “My Last Duchess,” a wicked portrait of the male gaze. “Love, Madame du Barry” is a response to that poem after I saw a dragon-shaped sleigh from the court of Louis XV in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. What if this exquisite object was the ride of the king’s mistress en route to destroy her rivals? The discourse of female rivalry and friendship are other preoccupations. And, the apostrophe is a wonderful literary device—to say in a poem, Hey, H.D., Virgil, Sei Shönagon, can we chat? A way to have friends through time and space.

LO: Did you have in mind any identifiable recipients for the utterance of this work? Did your sense of how or to whom the work was speaking evolve?

CG: I didn’t have anyone in mind other than the friends who have been my writing companions for a long time. But, that’s not entirely true. I was also in love with someone, and while we’re together now, I thought it wasn’t to be. And, when one is writing a poem in response to an artwork or artist, there is already a recipient in a way. All that said, the drafts grew out of the wish to write in a new way. That Rilkean “You must change your life” moment. I felt enormous shame when my life fell apart, and it wasn’t until a friend told me, “Congratulations!” when I told her I was getting divorced that I realized I had forgotten all of my feminist training! I had read that Smith College’s library has Sylvia Plath’s prom dress, which seemed to me to be a magical object. So, I thought, what if I write about feeling shattered? What if I put on that dress? I’m still resistant to writing confessional poems, so the poems rely on humor and hyperbole, which is my kind of self-help. When I started reading the poems, people came up to me and told me very personal things about their lives. It’s lovely and generous, and it changed my sense of audience.

LO: What’s the relationship between the speaker’s “I” and you, yourself? How is the book’s “I” informed by your I and/or eye? 

CG: Oh, there are so many ways to address this complicated question. Most of the poems are about my life as a woman, professor, reader, mother, girlfriend, fan of paintings, person living in Vermont. But poems are not memoir, of course. As I teach Visual Culture, feminist theory, and Ekphrasis, I’m often talking with my students about the gaze, interpretation, authority. About what Roland Barthes calls the image-repertoire (in A Lover’s Discourse). About W.J.T. Mitchell’s description of ekphrasis as “something done to something, with something, by someone, for someone” (in “Ekphrasis and the Other”). 

I’ll take one poem, “A Young Daughter of the Picts,” the image of the cover, which I wrote in my version of her voice as a To Do list. The miniature by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, circa 1540–1593, has a convoluted history of being misattributed to another artist, of being copied by other artists, of being a misreading of its ostensible subject in the first place. The object brings up the anxiety about copies that Plato writes about! The Picts were Early Britons living in Scotland in the Iron Age—legendary for painting themselves for battle. The artist imagines her naked in floral tattoos, gently holding a spear—a fantasy of her as a “primitive” woman with parallels to the European fantasies of indigenous Northern American women, as he had made a trip to Florida with a French colonialist expedition. Everything about her is wrong! I find her so charming and witty, nevertheless, so I wanted to try out some ekphrastic prosopopoeia and let her speak in the way that Keats has the urn talk at the end of his ode.

LO: What’s your sense of the aural life of this work? What role did sound or music play in the generative process, in revision?

CG: The aurality of the poems reveals itself to me in revision. For me, and I’m sure many poets, the soundplay happens unconsciously when I’m writing in negative capability mode (I hope!), and I often make those decisions according to pleasure. In “My Boyfriend, Keats,” I wanted both the rhythm and sounds to enact the flirtatious playfulness of the speaker’s bossy desire for the zombie Romantic poet—almost like a stand-up comedian. It’s not funny to explain jokes, especially poetic ones—or worse, puns—but the heart of that poem for me is Fanny’s bonnet and its rhyme with the Terracotta Bucket near which the speaker makes out with Keats.

I also made word choices that were more humorous than factual. When I read “Virgil, Hey,” people come up and tell me the hilarious and awful things their kids have done, and I am caught in the predicament of explaining that it’s not nonfiction. I was also listening to a lot of music that made me want the poems to sound like performances, too. So, speed was a concern. The lyric poem is such a kind instrument for the emotional to be in tension with the technical delights of constructing the poem.

LO: What kept you company during the writing of this work? Did any books, songs, art works, philosophical treatises, snacks, walks, or oddball devotions contribute to a book-specific creative realm? 

CG: Oh yes! I wrote the book listening to Kate Bush, Mary J. Blige, and softrock from the seventies. One poem is called “Be More like Björk,” which I wrote inspired by the video for “Black Lake,” in which she sings on her knees in a volcanic cave. That is what it feels like to go through a midlife crisis! There are writers, artists, and characters who stay in our minds, like friends and mentors, and Björk is certainly one for me. I saw that and realized: oh, okay, I need to make something out of these feelings.

I like to approach the anxiety of influence as a pleasure, a conversation with the books and art I love, a serious engagement or a casual flirtation. And, the act of reading comes up a lot in the poems. There are poems apostrophizing Foucault, Judith Butler, H.D. Poems about reading Milton, the Romantics, Mina Loy. Poems about Rembrandt and Bosch. A poem about identifying with Queen Gertrude in Hamlet. This book was written on too much coffee and salted dark chocolate.

LO: How has it been to shift out of the creative space of this book? What are you working on now?

CG: It’s a bit like looking at an old photograph of myself. Everything has changed. I wrote the poems before the He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named administration, before I was officially divorced, before the pandemic. Biden and Harris are in the White House; I have a wonderful partner; we are vaccinated. Much damage has been done, and there’s much to be grateful for. I decided to keep the book as it is—rather internal—and keep newer work for another book.

I’ve been working on a long prose project and some collaborations with friends—and a few poems: about a giant sloth, Hilma af Klint, Caravaggio, the myth of Danaë, and the movie Roadhouse