Rachel Abramowitz’s poems and reviews have appeared in American Poetry Review, Tin House Online, The Threepenny Review, Seneca Review, The Kenyon Review Online, Crazyhorse, Tupelo Quarterly, and others. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Oxford, and has taught English Literature at Barnard College in New York. She lives in California.
Kristina Marie Darling: You are at work on what promises to be a spectacular first book, with a truly impressive range of literary forms: tercets, quatrains, sonnets, prose poems, and more. How do you create unity within a manuscript that traverses a range of styles and formal approaches?
RA: This is something that I’ve wondered myself! When I read poets who work within set forms, such as Neruda with his sonnets or Bashō and his haiku, form and style act as unifying forces, and the effect is almost mesmerizing, as if the reader has entered the poet’s body and adopted their particular gait. The reader can experience, within that body, a number of different terrains, slopes, obstacles, but always with the same proportion and calibrated balance of the same body. To push the metaphor, in my work, the body or the gait is not the unifying force, but rather, perhaps, the terrain. In other words, even though the subjects are different, the overall concerns are the same. I try to “embody” different structures to get at the terrain in new ways, to explore how this or that form might illuminate and constrain my experience of the path. A stone under the foot of this body will feel very different, and therefore may even be different, than the same moment felt by another self. So I hope that the terrain of the book unifies it, rather than form.
KMD: Your poems frequently appear in the guise of myths and fables. Why are personal and cultural mythologies — the stories that make us ourselves — more important now than ever?
RA: While I know I cannot speak to all the nuances of our cultural moment, I imagine I have been drawn back into myths and fables for the same reasons they were written in the first place: one must go into the woods, into the liminal spaces, not only to find whatever truths may be there, but to be able to ask the questions that can only be asked in a wild space. It’s pretty astonishing to see, in the political sphere, for example, how different figures are cast in and fully embody their roles as villains or heroes or monsters. This moment feels, even with the long shadow cast by technology, rather primeval. We’ve gone back to having to figure out what kind of society we want to be, and the forces of good and evil and of fear and transcendence are battling it out in the open. In addition, as many of us have been forced indoors, we haven’t been able to participate in our own regular stories, and so have become ravenous for fiction—to project ourselves into a structured narrative—in its many forms. The outside, which was once familiar and navigable, has become those dark woods, harboring monsters—and heroes! I read in a magazine recently that one of the things that is so difficult this year is that events are not unfolding according to the rules of storytelling. Where there should be climax and then denouement, there has only been crisis after crisis without resolution. We are waiting for the world to follow the right patterns, and it’s not, and it’s throwing us into existential confusion. At the same time, because our world has become so complex, we have simplified it into imagined mythological tropes which are, of course, analogies for the conflicts within our individual and collective psyches.
KMD: Can you speak about the importance of mystery and all that’s left unsaid in a literary work?
RA: Part of me just wants to answer this question with “I could...” and leave it at that!
But seriously, it’s difficult not to think of Keats’ negative capability when approaching mystery in a creative work—whether one is the creator or audience—in that one should always relinquish some control over total coherence or understanding, because that is where invention and discovery operate. In terms of reading poems, it is in the gaps between coherent images or thoughts where the reader participates in the creation of, and often completes, the poem. In that sense, mystery in art is inclusionary: the act of “completing” a work of art with someone, whether a film, painting, poem, etc., allows the parts of each person to meet within the work.
KMD: In addition to your work as a poet, you are active as a reviewer, editor, and curator. What has literary citizenship—and the presence of a larger community — opened up within your work?
RA: What’s particularly compelling about reading and reviewing contemporary work is noticing how the current zeitgeist is both filtered through and is shaped by individual experience. Even if one poet takes as her subject urban planning and another the exquisite shape of her great-grandfather’s tea cup, the concerns of the moment reveal themselves in diction and rhythm and urgency. On a sentimental level, this helps me feel less alone: there are other human beings out there trying to figure out how to be human! In terms of praxis, watching other poets be brave in their choices lends me the courage to conduct my own experiments and to share my own findings.
KMD: You are also one of the most diligent and assiduous revisers I’ve ever met. I admire the way you always strive to push your work in new ways. What advice you to have for poets who struggle with revision?
RA: Find your reader! I have been so fortunate to find a handful of fellow poets—and one brilliant visual artist (my sister)—who instinctively understand what my poems are trying to “do” and give the most practical and nurturing feedback. I want to emphasize this: it takes years to learn how to discern between useful and harmful critique. Some readers will just have different tastes and experiences of poetry so they won’t know how to feed and water your particular animal. Find people whose work you admire and ask (graciously) for their opinion. Secondly, I believe that a first draft is always going to be a reflection or product of something you have already encountered. If you want to make something surprising, you must try to get ahead of your brain’s desire to categorize phenomena. You have to live in your own future.
KMD: What’s next? What can readers look forward to?
RA: After moving to Los Angeles a few months ago, I decided to try to write a television script (when in Rome!), which is an incredible balancing act between strict form and wild creativity. For example, this shift has to happen on page 9 and then this twist must arrive ¾ of the way through Act III, etc., and while the formula is rigid, it actually—when done masterfully—lights up those deeply human, again primeval, parts of the brain that crave those fundamental storytelling structures. The best modern television shows have a lot in common with the best literary fiction; their creators understand and honor the rules while bending and breaking them. Watching TV can feel enriching, which is not really something we could say about the medium 20 years ago. I can’t wait for someone to invent a mainstream poetry channel.
A Folio of Poetry by Rachel AbramowitzA Folio of Poetry by Rachel Abramowitz