Lindsay Turner is the author of Songs & Ballads (Prelude, 2018). Her translations from the French include Ryoko Sekiguchi’s adagio ma non troppo (Les Figues, 2018), and Stéphane Bouquet’s The Next Loves (Nightboat, forthcoming), as well as several books of philosophy. She lives in Greenville, South Carolina. We corresponded about her work in May 2018.
Zach Savich: Often the poems in Songs & Ballads intricately establish and deviate from rhythm and rhyme. As a result, I start to hear almost every phrase as though it might be establishing or deviating from significant music—or seeding a potential refrain. How do you think about the prosody of these songs and ballads, about its science, its intuitions, its subtleties, its lineage? About the difference between songs and ballads?
Lindsay Turner: This book has a strange—for me—backstory, which is that I began writing it in Paris when I was jet lagged and excited and couldn’t sleep. I was in some half-dream state and I began to see these poems literally just as forms, as boxes to be filled in with words and rhymes. For some of them, I’d even sketch out the end rhymes and go from there, as you’d write a sestina. At first Songs & Ballads was just a working title, but then as I went on I realized that the book was about what it was to write like this, among other things, and the title stuck.
Something else I realized only a while after I had finished the book—this is actually tremendously obvious, but I’m slow at introspection—I grew up in northeast Tennessee, and while I’ve never thought of myself as a “southern” poet (though in what I’m writing now I’m beginning to grapple with this) I’ve always known that regional inflections shape the sound of my work, and that I hear or scan things differently than some others might. I don’t really have an accent but I say in-surance, um-brella, Thanks-giving. Also I grew up with the Protestant hymnal and all its 4/4-ness. I listened to a lot of country music in the swim team locker room and a lot of old-time and bluegrass music by choice. Until about halfway through college, I played traditional Scottish and Irish fiddle music. So definitely there are rhythms and structures and rhymes that run deep. I wish I didn’t feel a little conflicted about claiming this as a background for the book: it’s a little scary, I think, when a place and a culture you left—deliberately, dramatically, emphatically—surface unexpectedly. But it’s there.
There are other musics in the book too, though. I love the strange ways writers like Emily Dickinson and June Jordan and Gwendolyn Brooks use ballad forms and rhymes and off-rhymes. In Brooks’s “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till,” for example, there’s that run of “taffy / coffee / sorry / prairie”: a set of quietly shifting wildly heartbreaking sounds I’ve spoken through over and over again: I still can’t figure how there’s so much social and emotional space in them. In a different vein, there’s this touchstone thing I learned from John Keats, in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” about what happens when you set up a pattern and then you take something just a little bit away, as in:
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
“Loitering and sing” are supposed to rhyme, and it’s true this is technically a regular 4/3/4/3 quatrain. And yet the first three lines trip along with lots of nice little syllables, while the last one is—different. The “and” here is more like a breath, and then the three accented words thud horribly and there’s a terrible stripped-down sense of loss. I suppose there are supposed to be some unstressed syllables in the silences between the words but they just aren’t there. I think there’s something in here about the way form can make you feel loss—feel it physically and hard. As a person in the world right now, I think writing loss is important. As a reader, I am pretty into this feeling. As a writer, it’s a little bit of a power trip, but I’m into that too.
ZS: Your description of complexly “seeing” and “hearing” in relation to an eventual text reminds me that you’re a translator, too. How has translating work by others affected your writing?
LT: I’m so glad you asked about translation! It’s something I fell into almost by accident around the same time I was writing this book—basically, I read a book of poems I loved and could “hear” in English—and I have a lot to say, a lot to work out how to say, about translating poetry. I do think there’s something strangely similar in the mechanisms of this particular book and the translation process: the wonderful thing about translating poetry is that it’s a formal exercise as much as anything else—that is, the forms are there as the shapes and sizes and features of the poem in its first language, and it’s my job to do the same thing, or something like it, in a different one.
So translating and writing poetry are intimately connected for me, because translating sends me back to that most fundamental material engagement with language that’s at the root of both activities: just getting the words on the page, really grappling with them as material, moving them around, making them feel and sound. I think this means it can’t be bad for my own work. Also translating poetry is immensely satisfying, almost dangerously so—it’s like writing new wonderful poems every day that you didn’t even have to write! I have a tendency to want to be writing poems all the time, but if I write all the time I churn out really bad work, so sometimes translation feels like a sort of decoy work—or a real work, used as a fake decoy—to stave that off.
But I haven’t really answered your question about how translating work by others has affected my own writing, have I? I’m sure that working so closely with other texts and other voices has done something, but I’m...not sure what! Ask me again in two or three or five or fifteen years, I guess.
ZS: Getting back to Songs & Ballads—traditional ballads often recount community lore, specific catastrophes. In this book, disaster can feel more diffuse. “The urban center is disintegrating into dust,” one poem says. “The celebrated town is just as empty as the other towns,” says another. This can make crisis feel more systemic, both economically (“the problem of bills,” “civic expenses”) and environmentally (“for when the water rises”). “System Song” suggests one way to think about this: “All systems go,” it begins, and I hear “go” as both “ready, functioning” and “busted, gone.” How did you arrive at this approach to public history, to social experience? Are there thinkers/poets/artists who were particularly influential for these ballads of “exchange rates” and “industrial cloud”?
LT: I’m glad you make the link between the ballad singer and the communal or social body: it lets me return to something I ignored in your earlier question, which is the difference between “song” and “ballad.” In fact it was pointed out to me as I was finishing the book that there’s only one poem called “ballad” in the book, the last poem. I guess I’m a lazy taxonomist here: I didn’t worry too much over the distinction between the two. I think there’s something ballad-y in many of the poems, even the ones I call songs, which is actually kind of the opposite of what you suggest in the opening of your question. That is, I think of the ballad as a form that has been good at voicing exactly that diffuse perspective, in and around the specific stories it can tell. I’m following Susan Stewart’s wonderful essay called “Lyric Possession” here, in which she describes the ballad singer as “radically haunted by others.”
In these poems, I want to reclaim that “radical” in the sense of a radical politics: alongside and in concert with poems of individual experience and subjectivity, I’m also interested in what happens when a poem can hover and register and synthesize—can sense and think structurally, in a way. Maybe the ballad form (or versions of that form) help get at a sense of “something in the air,” which is not always but sometimes what I feel I’m writing about. Also I really love the word “ballad”: it seems to me to dance and swing a little, and to be a little archaic, both in and out of the present time. Ballad, ball, ballet, ballade, se balader...in French people use the verb “se balader” as a way to say something like “to go for a walk,” but it contains more motion, more pleasure and less duty (or so I think).
As far as poets / thinkers / artists go: there are so many of them I’d like to talk about present in the book—friends and poet-friends, too. There are many, many more on some subterranean levels I’m probably not even aware of. When it comes to things like “exchange rates” and “industrial clouds”—well, I’m not sure what I meant by “industrial clouds” and I definitely don’t know anything about exchange rates! But for what shapes the world in ways I don’t always know how to think about—for naming and parsing and historicizing the things I and all of us sense and feel in different ways at different times and in different places—I often turn to criticism or theory. A partial list of some (really amazing and beautiful) books I was reading during and around writing Songs & Ballads includes work by David Harvey, Silvia Federici, Fred Moten, Angela Naimou, Paul B. Preciado, Kristin Ross, Saskia Sassen, Christina Sharpe, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing...
ZS: These are also poems of rapture and rhapsody, though those moments can feel variously ecstatic, rattled, ironic, at-risk, uncertain, tender, sly. “Meanwhile the sky!” the first poem declares. Perhaps, one dynamic involves “the everyday enchanted with / material degradation,” which invites a reader to hear a phrase like “all lofts abandoned” complexly (the abandon is effusive, the abandon is void). When you look back at this book, do particular enchantments stand out? Enthusiasms or obsessions that were vital to its composition?
LT: Hm! This is a great question. Many of these poems were written when I was feeling, or things felt, absolutely and thoroughly catastrophic: some of them in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I was teaching in the fall of 2014, in the middle of a succession of university and community failures, total failures, to address real problems with rape, rape culture, and anti-Black racism on and around campus—and then some of them on the west coast of Ireland, where I lived from January to May of 2015, feeling pretty lonely and extremely damp. If this feels like a depressive book, well, it kind of is one.
But I am obsessed, as you say, with the beauty of this world, without which sometimes it seems to me that none of us would survive any of the places we live in. I sometimes feel as though poets are supposed to be obsessed with “interesting” things—the biology of creatures that live at the bottom of the ocean, the history of the convertible, I’m making these up, who knows—but my obsessions are with pretty obvious and mundane things. I’m obsessed with the feel of humid air in the south in the summer, when the evenings never end—actually one of the best things about living the south is the way days and seasons stretch and swell. It’s not at all like being in New England, say, where you wake up and suddenly it’s dark and then it’s winter. From Ireland, I miss trying running, or trying to run, along the seaside promenade. Sometimes you’d have to turn around immediately because of the wind—or you “couldn’t turn around and go back if you wanted to,” that’s true, also because of the wind—but once I made it out of town and as far as a little nature preserve with a swan sanctuary.
The moment when you become aware of glimmering possibility—of something outside your current or ordinary field of vision or thought—seems important to me. Maybe there’s a formal parallel here, versions of both straight-up repetition and of repetition with a difference. On the one hand, there’s such true pleasure in steadiness and sameness and getting to say the same word or think or do the same thing, over and over again, even stupidly, as many times as you please. But then there are also the moments when you know the patterns of the world or the poem, and then they change on you. Sometimes this is caused by or results in a feeling of loss, but sometimes—and maybe these are not mutually exclusive—it happens as real beauty. As in: the sky! I’m always obsessed with the sky, especially when it does something surprising, like turn colors or do a thing with light I’ve never seen before. There’s something about the sky that seems fundamental to experiencing the world, period: sky as aesthetic commons, or something like that (which is not to say that we get to take seeing it for granted...).
ZS: I love this way of thinking about experience as form—and about loss’s bearing on astonishment. Could you say more about how your thinking about the “pretty obvious and mundane” contributes (or doesn’t) to your “sense of a radical politics?”
LT: Oh, well, there’s a strong—and again, pretty obvious—feminist underpinnings here: if “the personal is political” is still not a tired slogan, and I don’t think it is, it’s because it’s true. Maybe one of the things I’m writing about is that layer of the personal / political fabric that’s hard to see. I was just reading a text by the poet Pat Parker from 1980, in which she talks about how hard it is “to have a clear understanding of what imperialism is and how it manifests itself in our lives”—how it’s sometimes easier to have a sense of the political (in the sense of what the decisions made by our government and / or the corporations who control vast parts of it actually mean) as it operates in the lives of other people and places than in the texture of the everyday. In a different vein, I’m also reading a book by the French philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman that makes a point about learning to see what’s not there when you look at something, as well as what’s there, which seems related and important. Anyway, yes: looking and writing about tiny ordinary changing things in all their beauty and weirdness as a political poetics, I stand by that, keeping in mind that there are so many viable and very different political poetics.
(This seems especially important to insist on when I’m home: in the south, as in certain circles of US poetry, certain people like to fluff up and settle down in their calm little “non-political spaces”—like, oh just looking at the sky / just writing about language / just going to a football game / no politics here—and of course those spaces have never, ever, existed.)
One more slightly tangential thing here, speaking of the mundane and the ordinary: when I got to college I had no idea, really, that writing poetry could be a thing anyone did seriously. During college, I figured out that I’d read a lot less than everyone else, and that good poets had read more than anybody else, and so I reasoned that I’d just better read as much—specifically, as much in the Anglophone poetic tradition—as possible! All of Spenser and all of Wordsworth, all of Donne and all of Keats, etc. And I’m really glad I did this (also I got a PhD in literature, so I sort of had to). But I don’t think it’s true that all you have to do to be a poet is read a lot of older poetry or have a lot of arcane knowledge: that’s a tired and old white male supposition, and a dangerous one. I mean, I adore Spenser and Keats, especially! But there’s also the poetry that comes out of really living—looking and listening and walking and working in other ways and taking care of people—that’s maybe a realer thing. I’d like to say these are not mutually exclusive versions of poetics, and maybe they’re not—this is a bigger question—but the point is that they get posed as such by people who still have a lot of historical literary and institutional power, and so I feel like it’s important to insist on the quotidian side.
ZS: These poems can feel similarly ambivalent about “older poetry.” One ends with a classic refrain, cast in the past tense (“summer was coming in”). One suggests we might “suspect the pentameter,” which differs from breaking it entirely. Another asks “did you ever hear from Philomel,” as though wondering if the ancient figure ever calls. “Storm Song” considers a lyrical vision that’s “stuck between image and rhetoric.” Here’s the final stanza, which you refer to above:
but what if it’s an actual swan
batted my lashes a few times at the ocean
couldn’t turn around and go back if we wanted to
like handfuls of gravel
the storm couldn’t turn around if it wanted to
is what it is
couldn’t turn around and go back if it wanted to
The phrase repeats, while denying return. That suggests one way to think about history (and refrain), and it reminds me of other passages in which repetition both propels a poem forward and anchors it in a phrase. When writing a poem like this one, how do you decide how much to repeat, how exactly? What intrigues you about refrain?
LT: All cards on the table, first: I’m pretty sure I stole the shape of this stanza from Thomas Hardy’s poem “During Wind and Rain,” although the poems aren’t that alike, and now I can’t remember why—maybe I thought it’d be more fun to steal that shape than the title, which is clearly why I liked Hardy’s poem in the first place? Anyway, refrains.
Perhaps what I like about refrains is how many things they can do or be at once. There’s the structure they give to a poem, as something solid to circle back to, a framework or background in the rest of the chaos. But then there’s the way they disrupt structure, when you use them to stop a forward-going poem in its tracks, unexpectedly. There’s the role of the refrain in the work song or the lullaby (in my critical work I think a lot about the relationship between making poetry and other forms of work—as something that’s important to foreground and think about) and the idea of the refrain as something everyone all says together. But maybe the most important thing to me, still, is what I was talking about earlier as the play between sameness and difference, constancy and loss, and the pleasure of repetition itself. Even though nothing in the world feels very steady or certain, a part of poetry for me has always been that feeling of having a line stuck in your head, one line, or even a phrase—of stomping around a city or your house or wherever just muttering it over and over and over again. You mentioned a poem from the book (“May is a Popular Wedding Month”) that also includes the line “I’m only trying not to lose the names so pretty to repeat”: I really just like saying the words I like.
Zach Savich’s latest books include the poetry collection The Orchard Green and Every Color (Omnidawn, 2016) and Diving Makes the Water Deep, a memoir about cancer, teaching, and poetic friendship. He is also the author of the poetry collections Full Catastrophe Living (University of Iowa, 2009), Annulments (Center for Literary Publishing, 2010), The Firestorm (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011), and Century Swept Brutal (Black Ocean, 2013), as well as a book of prose, Events Film Cannot Withstand (Rescue Press, 2011). His work has received the Iowa Poetry Prize, the Colorado Prize for Poetry, the CSU Poetry Center’s Open Award, and Omnidawn’s Chapbook Prize. His poems, essays, and book reviews have appeared in American Poetry Review, Boston Review, A Public Space, VOLT, jubilat and other journals and anthologies. A former editor with the Kenyon Review, Savich teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, and co-edits Rescue Press’s Open Prose Series.