“What if the day is beautiful regardless: A Conversation with Virginia Konchan about Bel Canto” — curated by Tiffany Troy

Virginia Konchan is the author of four poetry collections, Bel Canto (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2022), Hallelujah Time (Véhicule Press, 2021), Any God Will Do and The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon, 2020 and 2018); a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017); and four chapbooks, as well as coeditor of the craft anthology Marbles on the Floor: How to Assemble a Book of Poems (University of Akron Press, 2023). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Atlantic, American Poetry Review, The Yale Review, Best New Poets, The Walrus, and The Believer. Bel Canto, Konchan’s latest collection, features polyvocal female voices thinking through the personal, the historical, and the political, reclaiming a world through language play and a recasting of song and the imagination. 

Tiffany Troy: How does the opening poem set up the reader for what is to follow?

Virginia Konchan: The first poem in the book, “Terra Nova,” means “new earth” in Latin. I saw it as a creationist lyric or a creation story, yet with a female creator. She appropriates language from Genesis in the Bible, in saying, “I, too, divide light from darkness./ I, too, create animals of land and sea.” There is a suggestion of an authoritative speaker, even if it’s just a human being, establishing a tone and feeling of discovery and post-apocalyptic creation. I also wanted to foreground the work of language and representation vis-à-vis self- and world creation as the subject matter of the poem, and collection (“Is language a boa constrictor or a valve?”)

I introduce high art forms (opera), even if they’re reinvented in the collection, juxtaposed with low culture, and drug use (“I might be a junkie”), which is another prevailing theme in the book: contrasting the speaker’s desire for life in all its lofty and forsaken or renegade forms.

“Why can’t it all be opera, heroine
 dragging her voluminous dress
 across the floor?  Captive me.
Croon explicit lyrics in my ear.”

The final stanza in the poem juxtaposes a “trial by fire” with reference to a famous quote by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who assumed Presidency at the depth of the Great Depression and helped the American people regain faith in themselves, as asserted in his Inaugural Address: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  Roosevelt used the rhetorical device of chiasmus in the same way I did with the line about fire (implying that the only trial is trial by fire): the lines read, “The only trial is by fire:/ the only fear is fear.”  Thus, “Terra Nova” begins with reference to our contemporary moment (attempting to “inhabit” a “digital cloud”), signaling the need for not more “infinite space,” but a return to a “new earth,” and ends with language play, suggesting what would happen if someone were to speak fearlessly to our times, or question systems of authority, like technocapitalism, religion, society, or culture, using only voice to drive them.

TT: I love the idea of the female creator in juxtaposition of and parallel to the male idea of God, and thinking through structures of power in this poem and throughout the collection.

VK: You always have little to no idea how your ideas about a poem or a collection correspond with that of the reader, so that’s wonderful to hear.  There’s definitely a lot of playful, loving or even reverential engagements with religion and spirituality in the book, but from a position more of equality, I guess, at least in terms of vocalization, than subservience or blind obedience, or even faith (in the sense of faith as accepting things without questioning). I have faith, but often exercise it through poetry, in conversation with power structures and law.

TT: What was your process like in writing this book and putting together a collection?

VK: The writing process took place over three years in two different Canadian cities, and three different residences. It began in Montreal, where I lived from 2014-2020. Some of the poems were written in 2019, and the last poems were written in Halifax, where I moved just before the pandemic (and moved from in 2022). It’s a pandemic book, in the sense that the whole span of the pandemic occurred during most of the time of the writing.

I wrote it feeling scattered and displaced from the States, where I intended to move back sooner, and between the end of my marriage and beginning of a new relationship (now over). The poems, therefore, came from a place of urgency, and questioning of the personal, cultural, and historical, as well as metaphysical concerns. They took the form of internal monologues or dramatic monologues because that was the form of self-questioning or other questioning that the speaker wanted to engage with. They were written episodically, and I didn’t really see the book as a whole until I sat down, in the eye of the storm, and asked myself if I had a manuscript.

I edited out about half the poems that I had written, after seeing an arc to the themes, music, and questions that are brought up in the book. I hope that, despite the pressurized nature of the language and the poems, which were mostly written on my laptop between part-time jobs, there is some kind of cohesion or coherence in the reading experience, on the other side.

TT: How did you organize the collection into its three sections?

VK: While there are not three distinct movements, or tonal shifts, per se, I saw the poems (whose forms include psalms, odes, epithalamions, epistles, nocturnes, homages, elegies, ekphrastic poems, and an ars poetica) as centered around the themes and tropes of music, specifically lyric opera, and how that relates to the history of lyric poetry and occasional poetry.

Several poems overtly reference music, opera, or the art song tradition (“Vocalise,” “Hymnody,” “Space Aria,” “Lullaby,” and “Bel Canto”); others, forms of prayer, scripture, or sacred literature (“Psalm,” “Pater Noster,” “Yoga Veda,” “Theodicy,” “Theophany,” “Via Negativa,” “Anno Domini,” “Last Supper,” and “Resurrection Games”); and yet others engage with family and other relationships (“In Memoria Aeterna,” “Wheel of Fortune,” “Patrimony,” and “The Matrix”).  But the arc to my mind followed that of a lyric opera, containing the text (libretto) and the music, the singing and the staging of opera themes such as tradition, family, and love, yet contemporized. 

I wanted Bel Canto to be less a collection “about” opera but inspired by the movements of opera, musically and lyrically (much like Patrick Donnelly’s 2019 collection Little-Known Operas), so the three sections all include some play on recitatives, arias, duets, overtures, and interludes, as well as containing poems of closure (such as “Addendum” and “Afterword”).  The title Bel Canto, Italian for “beautiful singing,” alludes to a style of singing that originated in Italian singing of polyphonic (multipart) music and Italian courtly solo singing during the late 16th century and that was developed in Italian opera in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. Using a relatively small dynamic range, bel canto singing was based on an exact control of the intensity of vocal tone, and distinction between the “diapason tone” and the “flute tone,” indicating vocal agility and clear articulation of notes and enunciation of words.

The first section involves more poems about personal memory as opposed to historical memory. I saw the second section as engaging more with argument, conflict, and cultural and structural critiques, gesturing back to memory and love. The third section, a kind of recasting, contains poems about my parents, living in the sixth mass extinction, planned obsolescence, crises of faith, belief and ideology, as well as contemporary crises such as global warming. In the operatic sense, I brought the collection to a close by alluding to tragedy, on a global scale. 

How do you close an impossible argument, like debating the existence of God? Or asking whether there is life after the Apocalypse? There’s really no way that you could answer those questions logically or discursively. I resorted to thinking about and trying to write about, and through, music, love and meaning, because that’s how I see those questions being (un)resolved.

TT: How does form inform your collection?

VK: Many of poems are in block stanzas, in terms of their stanzaic forms. Others are in couplets, tercets, quatrains or combinations thereof.  The collection is pretty traditional in terms of how the forms work structurally, and in their use of white space. I see most of the poems as being closest to the sonnet form, or the sonnet-ballad, invented by Gwendolyn Brooks, without following the sonnet’s metrical or rhythmic constraints. 

Sometimes I think I write concrete poetry because the line breaks matter as much to me visually as they do in terms of enjambment choices. There’s a lot of internal rhymes and end rhymes in these poems. I’ve inherited iambic pentameter, and can hear it in my head, and even though the poems don’t follow any kind of strict metrical form, the internal music of the poem, and the visual appearance of it, are as important to me as the poem’s content or expression.

They’re mostly voice-based rather than formalist poems, heir to the dramatic monologue, in the work of John Berryman, Brooks, and Sylvia Plath.  I’m interested in the idea of speaking to a reader or audience without interruption, to reveal something about the speaker’s situation or emotional state, but without being confessional, and how that relates to Greek tragedy and also Shakespearean soliloquies, liturgy, homilies, speeches, and other forms of oratorial address.

I borrow from the Romantic, metaphysical, and post-modern traditions, in content or subject matter. But in terms of form, as I came to poetry from fiction, I’m interested in engaging with narrative and tradition (historical, cultural, and literary), and in creating dialogic forms wherein I can tease out an idea, ask rhetorical questions, or explicate a personal philosophy.  And play into as well as resist epiphany, as I think many of the questions I ask are not answerable. 

TT: Do you find yourself choosing a form, and then fitting your idea within that form? Or do you find that the form come naturally as you write in that dialogical space?

VK: Whenever I hear the word “form” in poetry, my brain automatically wants to know if we are we talking about metrical forms, fixed forms, or poetic structure. 

I consider metrical form intuitively in Bel Canto, like most free verse poets, but Eliot’s “ghost of meter” is ever-present, as metrical patterns in all kinds of verse contribute to meaning.

I sometimes write toward a fixed form (such as the poems “Epistle,” “Nocturne,” or “Ars Poetica”), but most often, if I do engage with a fixed form, it’s to reinvent or circumvent it.  I have a difficult time writing topically or purposively, in poetry, so the forms my poems take are more spontaneously conceived, in alignment with my life, ideas, or others.

For me, titles almost always come after the poem, so again, the poems are driven by voice or content. Then after I write a poem, I’ll see, for example, how the poem is “about” or centers around themes of nostalgia, reminiscence or loss, and so maybe I’ll decide to call it “Elegy,” or “Elegy for ____.”

My titles are usually short and often grafted from cultural terms, as well as Greek, Latin, or French. I like superimposing another language on a poem in a title rather than within, such as “L’Heure Exquise” (“the enchanted hour”), because that poem subverts the idea or feeling of an enchanted hour.  English is a profoundly idiomatic language, and French is also a language rich in idiomatic expressions, so I wanted to capture and reenvision what it means to live within a language, its idioms and metaphors, and therefore its ways of thinking and being in the world.

TT: Do the language choices or choices with syntax, punctuation or diction contribute towards the motif or theme of the poem?

VK: Most of my grammatical and stylistic choices are intuitive, ritualistic. I love how colons can set up a phrase. I never split infinities, especially not on the line.  My diction is often baroque, and colloquial, but not decorative. When I use an epithet, it’s only because there is no other, or better, word (I’ve had great conversations about this with Diagram editor Ander Monson, and my Carnegie Mellon University Press publisher, Gerald Costanzo).

Whenever I receive edits about syntax or punctuation, I usually reject them, because every grammatical choice I make has a reason or an argument behind it that I could make for why I chose that word, word order, or punctuation, and how it contributes to the poem on the level of the line or the poem as a whole (or the collection, in terms of repetition and refrain).

How these choices contribute to the motif or theme of the poem is a wonderful question.  For me, form and content are on a continuum, like time and space or the fluidity between any other opposite or binary.  A poem about loss might have a more staccato rhythm, more terminal punctuation, shorter lines, and embody a diction of grieving.  A poem of spiritual seeking might be more earnest, penitent, or supplicatory in tone, include more theories, questions, and cris de coeur, borrow diction from religious traditions, or use more traditional rhyme, like a song ballad.  A poem about music, on the other hand, might feature flights of lyric expression or digression.

In “Carousel,” as an example, I wanted the syntax, punctuation, and diction to convey the vertiginous feeling of whirling around on a carousel, debating life, listening to the tinny music.  The speaker, flummoxed that she’s riding on a mechanical horse and what that signifies, looks into the mouth of the horse, and “hypnotically sway[s].”  My formal and language choices contribute to this idea of seeking momentum, or orientation, while in a state of existential crisis.

Learning French shaped how I approach syntax.  While in French, the simple sentence is still in subject-verbobject order, like English, but the adjective-noun order is inverted (the adjective comes after the noun in French), nouns are gendered, different future and conditional forms are used, as well as object pronouns, and there are two different verb forms for the past.  And English is a West Germanic language, while French is a Romance language from the Indo-European family.  In French, I learned that grammar is a system of somewhat arbitrary “rules” that are codified as conventional usage by history, custom, government, and human behavior.

 Consequently, as much of my work is about lyric subjectivity and the subject-object relation in grammar (and in life—Martin Buber’s “I/It” and “I/Thou” concepts comes to mind, in determining how we approach relationships with ourselves, other people, animals, and the earth), it’s deeply invested in the question of how grammatical choices contribute to a poem’s meaning.

I don’t think they are the poem’s meaning, however:  I see them as parts of a whole.

TT:  Do you conceive the different female speakers as having a consistent voice or different voices in the collection?

VK: I see the collection as being polyvocal. Whether it’s a stable “I” or nonfictional “I” or an “I” that relates back to the author and not the speaker, I think often about how even we are ourselves as humans are, every seven years, completely different beings cellularly, to say nothing of personally, and I think that even if the “I” in a collection appears consistent (in a speaker or across personae), it can also be fluctuating and self-contradictory.

As Whitman showed us in Leaves of Grass, the “I” is a naturally fluid, fungible thing.

Unlike in my previous collections (The End of Spectacle and Any God Will Do contain persona poems in the voices of Dolores Haze, Coco Chanel, Virginia Woolf, Mary Shelley, Madame Bovary, Mata Hari, Helen Keller, and other female speakers), the “I” in Bel Canto is not a persona, but a speaker, albeit one that’s prone to interrogation, of self, others, and world.

I see this as a progression in my four collections (from multiple personae, male and female, to a first-person female speaker), and one that speaks to the work of self-authorship and authorization I mentioned at the beginning.  But this emergent “I” is more of a shifting signifier or linguistic placeholder of an “I,” as distinct from a stable self or persona (textual or actual).

In sum, I use the first-person “I” consistently, but only to be inconsistent.  It’s a reliable narrator that is trustworthy because of its transparency and willingness to wrestle with doubt.

TT: Do you have any closing thoughts for your readers?

VK: I think contemporary poetry is in a place where a lot of people feel pressure to write onto (topically or thematically) rather than into a subject, whether because of cultural pressure or the better marketability (and iterability) of a project-focused collection.

The poems, poets, and collections I love are weird and idiosyncratic in a way that heighten the subjectivity of the poet, and their voice, which form can support and engender.

“Psalm” speaks most directly to the trap of representation, not politically but culturally and linguistically (the latter in the Platonic sense that poetry is twice removed from reality, and in the Derridean sense of the trace and différance, in that signifiers defer the illusive signified):

“What are mirrors, cameras, even words—
the whole damn work of representation—/
but the operatics of being, twice removed?”

I saw this book as being a questioning of systems of representation and language, and I see the relationship between writer and reader as a friendship: I don’t like circumscribing meaning or interpretation in my poems, not to shroud them in obfuscation, because I want to involve the reader in their enactment, and hopefully make them laugh, or just genuinely feel.  I am genuinely grateful to every reader of this book, and what I hope them to find is themselves.