Thinking Big: An Interview with Heather Christle

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Heather Christie is the author of What is Amazing (Wesleyan University Press), The Difficult Farm (Octopus Books, 2009), and The Trees The Trees (Octopus Books, 2011), which won the 2012 Believer Poetry Award. Her poems have appeared in publications including The BelieverBoston ReviewGulf Coast, and The New Yorker. She has taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and at Emory University, where she was the 2009-2011 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry, and she is currently the Web Editor for jubilat as well as a frequent a writer-in-residence at the Juniper Summer Writing Institute. A native of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, Christie now lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. I recently had the opportunity to ask her a few questions via email; what transpired is below.


It was great to hear you talk a little more in depth about your relationship to cognitive neuroscience and cognitive linguistics in your Lisp Service interview.  What do you perceive as being the most important breakthrough in cognitive neuroscience in recent years that has the power to challenge our conception of “reality”?  Or, to put that differently, what are some developments in either field which regularly challenge your conception of reality?

I’m no good with keeping up with the actual latest discoveries or breakthroughs—my reading has been far too haphazard for that—but I think that the most reality-shifting ideas I have encountered have been in the field of conceptual metaphor. Once I became aware of how to listen for its influence and effects, I began to hear it everywhere. Someone says “I get it,” and this reveals something about the content of their thinking—they “understand it”—but even more so it reveals the structure of how they imagine knowledge, as a physical object one can grasp, obtain, possess. It’s easy to take these structural metaphors for granted, but by becoming aware of them it’s possible to imagine other metaphors, or to glimpse ways they might limit our thinking.

V.S. Ramachandran’s work on mirror neurons has also enlivened my understanding of what goes on when we read the world, or a poem. These are neurons that “fire” when we perform an action ourselves or when we witness another performing the same action. Theoretically, they could explain social emotions like empathy, shame, pride, and so forth. (In the new issue of jubilat, Lee Ann Roripaugh has a fantastic essay exploring how mirror neurons can help us understand our experience of reading or writing elegies and other poems marking loss.)

Nick Sturm asked you the following question:  “What do we mean when we say a poem is a machine,” and you provided a three part response.   In the first part of your response, when speaking to the phenomenon of “our bodies mov[ing] through the literal and the figurative simultaneously,” you conclude thus:  “When Williams and Valéry write that a poem is a machine, I am happy to take them at their word. There is no other place from which to take them.”  In saying that—and in thinking about the making and reading of poems—what happens to the distinction between sign and referent, or between signifier and signified?  What you’re suggesting seems to encourage a collapse between the word and the thing—but isn’t that very distinction what allows us to think propositionally or consider speech acts as just that, speech acts?  To sum:  How is the notion of the poem as a machine different from the old New Critical notion that a poem should not mean, but be?

The collapse is incomplete. A poem should both mean and be. Or “should” doesn’t even come into it, I suppose. A poem both means and is. I want so much to say “a poem both means and bes.” When I say their word is the only place from which to take them, I do not mean that we can only understand them literally, just that any reading must begin with the words used. Of course I know that the words are also figurative, but I think that one can slide fairly easily between understandings. It certainly makes life more exciting.

Another way to clarify this point would be to invoke J.L. Austin’s point in How To Do Things With Words—that certain forms of words are actions or effect “realities” as well, such as saying “I do,” in a marriage ceremony or “I apologize” to a person you’ve harmed.  But these performative utterances are the exception, not the rule:  like actions, performative utterances are neither true nor false, whereas most speech acts are true or false.   This is all to say:  cognitive linguistics seems to contradict speech act theory, yet because the former is backed up by studies (and a lot of big-dollar research grants) it gains more traction in the public arena.  Is there a danger, do you think, to a return to a scientific model which presents empirical data as “true” and in unique possession of “scientific fact”? 

I believe it is not only because of funding that cognitive linguistics receives more public attention than speech act theory, but then, I’m only passingly familiar with the latter. From what I understand of it, it seems to lack the scope, imagination, and potential of cognitive linguistics. There’s also a question of what’s meant by “public attention.” Certainly a good number of literary theorists have paid attention to (and spilled ink over) speech act theory. I know that sometimes people in the humanities are suspicious of science’s purported authority, and some suspicion seems warranted. On the other hand, there’s so much incredible work being done right now—in cognitive linguistics and in neuroscience generally—that it does seem a shame not to allow those discoveries to shape our thinking in some way. And it’s not just those fields; there’s quantum physics, evolution, genetics. I want to think big. I want to understand my own insignificance and all the ways that the world is not what I intuit. For me, science provides a scale of ideas that allows new thoughts to occur. In the end I’m simply interested in what excites my imagination. I am not demanding that anyone else pursue the same course. Like Shelley, I go to science to “find new metaphors for my poetry.” (And again, I believe those metaphors are not only or merely figurative.)

With all this talk of propositional versus actual realities . . . I’m wondering where your tastes in fiction lay. 

I read an abominable amount of detective fiction, a healthy amount of nineteenth and twentieth century English and American novels, and a reasonable amount of contemporary fiction. I love Charles Dickens, Lydia Davis, Joy Williams, Virginia Woolf. I just read Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and could not understand the fuss about it, especially in light of his very fine poems. Teju Cole’s Open City is next on my list.

As Louise Gluck says in her essay “Against Sincerity”:  “The true has about it an air of mystery or inexplicability.”  Do you think fields such as the ones just mentioned or of cognitive poetics do some necessary work of “demystifying” poetry?  Do these accounts of cognition ever seem short-sighted to you or in danger of rendering a reductio ad absurdum on what can’t be known?

I think it’s often possible and useful to examine the air of mystery. It can vanish in the midst (in the mist!) of explanation, but usually pretty quickly returns. Our brains and our consciousness like to create feelings of eeriness and mystery. It’s a habit they have, and so even as we learn more and more of how they make those feelings, it’s pretty well impossible to just turn them off. (And I would not want to.) I suppose I think it is possible to experience doubts, mysteries, and uncertainties within the same frame as (let’s not say irritable) reaching after fact and reason. We can see the old woman and the young girl. Or we can blur our vision to the point where we see simply the shapes that produce both sensations. This does not prevent the sensations. Why not try to see as much as we can? To return to Gluck’s essay, I appreciate her take on negative capability:

Keats’s theory of negative capability is an articulation of a habit of mind more commonly ascribed to the scientist, in whose thought the absence of bias is actively cultivated. It is the absence of bias that convinces, that encourages confidence, the premise being that certain materials arranged in certain ways will always yield the same result. Which is to say, something inherent in the combination has been perceived.

I think the great poets work this way. That is, I think the materials are subjective, but the methods are not. I think this is so whether or not detachment is evident in the finished work.

The opening of the poem “Soup is One Form of Salt Water” reads:  “I am making borscht/ please do not laugh at me/ I seem to have ruined my soul . . . ”

Moments of genuine pathos can be found throughout all three of your full-length collections. You’ve spoken previously about your desire for “reciprocal engagement” from your audience, a commitment beautifully demonstrated by your telephone project in July 2011, in which you spent two weeks reading poems from The Trees The Trees to anyone who called you up.

Am I correct to call this a moment of “genuine pathos”?  How do you think readers are equipped to respond to such moments in our post-everything (including irony, and sincerity) world?

Yes, it’s a moment of “genuine pathos.” It’s also, I think, “very funny.” Readers, oh my, there are so many different ones. My abstract readers (whose imaginary bodies sometimes end up coinciding with actual ones) vibrate back and forth between irony and sincerity so quickly that the difference becomes unimportant. The world is neither ironic nor sincere. Same goes for the Internet. One tab has death and one tab has cats plus language. I love and will suffer and also believe my love and suffering have no meaning beyond themselves.

John Darnielle said of The Trees The Trees:  “If you’re thinking about a new tattoo, may I recommend dropping your finger onto any random phrase in Heather Christle’s new book?”  This is clearly wonderful praise—any passage from any poem in that book is worth of being made flesh—but I wonder—do you perceive your own work aphoristically or able to be parsed discretely like that?  While we’re at it, are there any other monikers you’ve been assigned in the last few years that particularly resonate with you—or not? 

I can’t imagine having words tattooed on me. I think I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Language is so loud. I know that there are units within my poems—lines or phrases—that sometimes pop into my consciousness to be reapplied in a new context. The same thing happens with lines from other people, of course. So it does seem possible to lift bits out, though the act necessarily shifts their meanings. At the same time I’m not a big collager in making my own poems; the words were composed essentially in the order they appear, and so for me they have a strong feeling of sequence and completeness. One bit must follow another bit until a bit is an end.

Monikers I’ve been assigned: New Sincerity/New2 Sincerity, Neo-Surrealist, Eighth-Wave UMass Neo-Surrealist. None of these resonate with me in particular. I did get my MFA from UMass, and I do believe that I would not write as I do had it not been for Surrealism, but that’s as far as it goes. I’d very much like to get beyond the question of sincerity. I do believe that there is much afoot here in Northampton, and I do feel an affinity with it, but I don’t think it can be limited to UMass, Surrealism, or sincerity. I’d prefer to keep it geographical. And too, whatever I am a part of, it is still growing. I’d rather name it once it’s reached maturity—or death.

“I like an authoritative gasp of the absurd.”  These are your words out of context.  Could you speak briefly to who or what in terms of literary tradition informs your aesthetic choices?

This changes. The Difficult Farm was deeply influenced by the French Surrealists, the Russian Absurdists, and to some extent John Ashbery. The Trees The Trees engages a bit with Creeley and Olson, most notably in their ideas of form and the line. What Is Amazing borrows some of Tsvetaeva and Mayakovsky’s energy, the latter at times by way of O’Hara. The poems I’m writing now are learning a lot from Inger Christensen, Karl Krolow, James Schuyler, Andrew Marvell and Aram Saroyan.

In your HTML Giant interview with Kyle Minor, he wrote his questions to you as text and you responded with video, and our interview is being conducted via Skype capture.  You occupy such a fascinating interstice between embracing technology and wanting to preserve elements of the human, such as the sonic qualities of the poem, or what Barthes called “the grain of the voice.”  “Before I was a reader I was an abstraction,” you noted, “imagined by everyone who has ever written anything I’ve read.  As I step out of the abstract I bring with me noise.” 

Do you see poets being or having the potential to be at the forefront of a kind of resistance to cyber or textual realities which deny the force of actual human presence (the face, the voice)?

I don’t see why poets should resist cyber or textual realities. I mean, I suppose we could, but it would be like resisting the alphabet. I have desires to step away from my devices and lie underneath the trees, just like any other anxious 21st century American, but I have no plans to stay there. We’re already forever transformed. We might as well incorporate the devices. I’m afraid this might make me seem evil. I want to emphasize that I love to have a beloved read to me in the dark. I love that human voice. I just don’t imagine that the book or spoken language are somehow more authentic than the screen. So I am participating in everything, letting the poems go through whichever channel they find.

You’ve said (I’m paraphrasing) that confident if misguided statements excite you more than pretenses to bewilderment (or actual bewilderment), and you’ve defended the idea that a poem is a machine, albeit one “whose doings one cannot wholly predict or understand.”

There is a line from a poem by Michael Palmer:  “Poem, don’t be so strange.”  The concept of defamiliarization or “ostranenie” is central to my teaching and my own sense of how good poems work.  But there’s a line, for me, between the “strangeness” of a good poem and the willed foreclosure of meaning, or complete absurdity.  To venture a confident if misguided prescriptive statement:  do you think poems should bear, like photographs, an indexical relationship to the world?  Or would you argue that the world is itself, onto-phenomenologically, not what it seems?

The world is often not what it seems, and so a poem that indexes the seeming world is bound to be mistaken. That’s great. Our perceptual limitations are, I think, fascinating and moving. Moving in both senses: they stir up emotion, and also are in the process of changing.

That line you mention, everyone seems to have one, no? And when someone believes a poem you admire is over the line then you can write him off as a hopeless philistine. When someone else writes poems that cross your line you can write her off as hopelessly obscure. I think it’s just a way we have of dealing with the overwhelming amount of poetry out there. It’s a coping mechanism. I often fail, but I’m trying to keep my line sketchy. Or I am trying not to think of the line as such. I’m trying to think in circles, in Venn diagrams. Or to erase all my conceptual geometry and encounter poems one at a time. I know this is basically impossible.

You are, among many other things, an accomplished and established poet.   Have you ever dreamed of being something else?

When I was a child I wanted to be president. Now I sometimes want to be a mail carrier. They’re similarly public positions, I suppose. That actually surprises me, as I’ve been feeling overly public lately. Why would I want more of that? Or perhaps there is real privacy in carrying mail. You would never have to reveal your own words, just deliver the words of others. I think I’d find that very calming.

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