Michael T. Young: Thank you, Renée, for accepting my invitation for an interview. It’s a real pleasure to have the opportunity.
Your last collection, The Verbs of Desiring, was it conceived and written as a collection from the start or was each poem written individually and then collected into a coherent book? I’m particularly curious about this because of both the linguistic daring and the cohesion of the collection. Could you comment on how you achieved this?
Renée Ashley: It’s interesting that you ask…That is how I write my books: by the book. I usually begin with a title and I’m obsessing about some thematic or craft issue and that becomes the engine that drives the manuscript through to completion. The Verbs of Desiring is really a chapbook, though, and the poems are culled from two unpublished full-length manuscripts: The View from the Body and Because I Am the Shore I Want To Be the Sea. I had a suspicion that those last two manuscripts weren’t as different from one another as my previous books were from each other… That’s so interesting! Because I Am the Shore… is primarily prose poems now. In the larger arc of my work, then, these last two are truly transitional manuscripts. That’s sort of cool! I haven’t done that before—and I certainly didn’t do it consciously this time. I can see such clear distinctions between the earlier books. Salt, the first, is very narrative and lyric, grounded, I’d say, wholly mainstream (except for one prose poem); I was learning what a poem is back then. The Various Reasons of Light is still mainstream, but it was my effort to learn to ground abstract thought. I had these heady-floaty goings-on in my mind and needed to anchor them to the ground. In The Revisionist’s Dream I went back to my Comparative Literature roots and played a bit with Homer and Ovid, trying to take on some of those ideas as my own. Some, quite obviously, remained theirs. My style was still conservative I think. Basic Heart, however, was written after many years of … unrest; I think of it as my nervous breakdown book—which is a bit misleading but close enough to the truth that I won’t back off from it—and that work seems to have manifested itself in a sort of embodied turmoil. That’s the shorthand I use anyway. Perceptions and syntax were shattered. So, the poems in Heart could be called more experimental, I guess, looking at them from the outside. Though writing them felt more like fuck it than experimental. Making them felt like enactment or at least an effort to enact. I wanted the poems to be states of mind rather than to be about states of mind. So, long way around, I guess, the poems in The Verbs of Desiring are poems of adaptation. I’m coming back to a more balanced breath now, I think. A better outlook. That’s not to say there isn’t that breakdown hangover hovering in the newer poems, but I don’t believe they’re as deeply distressed. Let’s just say they’re recovering. It’ll be interesting—to me at least!—to find out where these transition books are taking me. At the moment, I have no idea. I haven’t been working on the new poetry collection; I’ve been pulling together some essays for a book.
Michael T. Young: In reading The Verbs of Desiring, I was struck by the unpredictability of the language. Each poem seemed to shift its linguistic stance so each poem was a readjustment, a reorientation. What was the intention of this?
Renée Ashley: Wow. Once again, I don’t really know! I never thought of them in those terms. Are they really that different from one another? When I write, my intention is always to make the best poem possible with whatever skills I have at the time—I’m after a seamless and sharp-edged poem, a poem that has … balls. Also, a poem that surprises me into a truth, and, if I’m very lucky, pushes a bit beyond the limits of my previous skill set. Of course, I’m not always successful, but that’s the ideal. And I bore easily—so boring myself seems wacky, right? To write a poem that’s crafted well but suffering from such control that it bores the writer as well as the reader? I don’t think so. There’s enough of that stuff out there already; the world doesn’t need any more. But that you, as a reader, had to readjust is possibly good news. If I gave you even footing and just went la-la-la poem to poem through the book, all on the same note or tenor, you’d get bored too. It’d be soporific, right? Something has to rise up and struggle, knock my pins out from under me—and yours from under you—or what’s the point? And I don’t mean that as shock for shock’s sake. I have no interest in that. But more the shock of some discovery—linguistic or life-explaining—made during the act of writing.
Michael T. Young: “Nothing” seems to become a presence in the collection, so that phrases containing the word “nothing” or the phrase “no thing” take on multiple meanings. At one point in my own reading I thought of the Tao Te Ching where the void gives birth to the one and the one to the ten thousand things. What do you see as the significance of “nothing” in the context of this collection?
Renée Ashley: I’m afraid my belief system, if you can call it that—I’m a resentful atheist—gives me a lot of nothing to think about. I would love to be a believer. I’m just not. So I’m constantly banging into some existential door or other which swings back after the initial impact and smacks me a second time with another nothing. I’m not even an optimistic atheist. But, on the positive side, nothing may be the one absolute that I can comprehend. I certainly can’t comprehend infinite. Nor can I get a grasp on forever which of course is party to death. When I was eight, I drowned in a motel swimming pool. I’m pretty sure I drowned and came back. I’ve never lost that experience of nothingness. It’s what I believe death is. Of course, too, there’s my cognitive dissonance of knowing that, once, I saw a ghost and, two other times, things that did not appear in human form but were definitely somethings belonging to the otherly. I confuse even myself, Michael. I’m sorry. But there it is. Contradictions and all. I contain multitudes.
Michael T. Young: I especially like the poem “Oh Yes Tomorrow Expect the Ordinary.” It seems to say that the ordinary is a kind of nonbeing out of which we create ourselves. It reminded me of something the philosopher Unamuno said, “To fall into a habit is to begin to cease to be.” Do you find this to be true? If so, what do you think helps us to rise out of that common nonbeing into a true identity?
Renée Ashley: Unamuno’s theory is interesting, and I suppose that’s one way to look at it, but in my experience it’s backwards. In habit I know I am, I have time and therefore opportunity to assess the state of me, to see just how variant I’m being within that matrix. When I’m in a state of panic or experiencing an unusually sharpened awareness at some godawful horror or newness it’s as though my molecules come unglued, fly apart, and are spun off, each separately, but all in a single burst, into the ether and I become panic or alertness rather than who I believe myself to be, the me I know when my reptile brain isn’t blowing me up and scattering me out into the solar system. I do get what Unamuno’s saying, I understand the trope, and I can see that in the abstract it can be true, and that some folks feel it must be true. I know people who feel that way. But to me it feels like a literary statement rather than a phenomenological one. Abstraction is a sort of generalization and my experience—as I experience it—isn’t in the least general or abstract. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be argumentative; I’m trying to work it out. But I just don’t feel Unamuno-ish. I don’t believe the ordinary is some vast tureen of soup in which we are denuded of our individuality. Ordinariness is just funny! It cracks me up. We’re such a bunch of lunkheads! We occupy Quiddity Central. Think about it—this is an over-made argument but I still subscribe: our parents, most anyway, tell us we’re special, our early teachers tell us we’re each special in our own way, and the parameters of special keep growing smaller and smaller and thinner and weaker. I think it’s hooey. We work so hard to separate ourselves from the crowd—but we are the crowd. Good grief. Emergence theory, etc. Hell, if you listen to those voices in bulk, being special is ordinary. I just don’t understand the hooha about it. We ought to be investigating the ordinary if we want to find out about ourselves! What was the old cartoon strip that said, “We have found the enemy and he is us”? Pogo! It was Pogo! Well, same goes for the ordinary: We are it. But you have to understand, and in this may reside the difference between Unamuno and me: I have no adventurer in me at all. I’m a coward. I play everything safe. I keep my world small. I follow the rules as they are dictated to me by authority. I’m really, shall I say, infinitely timid, infinitely ordinary. I find comfort in habit. Habit of the body, habit of the place, habit allows me to function in an almost autonomic mode; it allows my head to do the serious wandering. However, that head’s such a tightly sealed vessel that I do, periodically, get claustrophobic. But escaping to some degree—exercise (which I detest), a short trip (if I can drive), a longer trip over large bodies of water (shoot me), or a change of focus of some sort—lets my head off the hook. I have to deal with the traversing and the new place or thing, figure it out, make my way; I have to focus on something outside my head. I don’t know… Is my monkey mind a “true identity”? Perhaps I’m simply not advanced enough to be able to consider something like true identity, I’m so busy grappling with the apparent one. It’s entirely likely I have no idea what true identity might be. Or maybe it’s like all the American poetries: there’s a whole slew of true identities for each of us. I just don’t know.
Michael T. Young: The collection also seems to suggest that our efforts toward creating an identity are never clean, that the chaotic mess we rise from is part of us, as in the line “No one’s endearment//is tidy.” Or in the poem “Simple” where it says,
. . .The whole white sky descends a grain
at a time – I with it and the threshold dis-
appearing. That we can find ourselves
Do you find this true? If so, how do you think that untidiness influences what we make of ourselves?
Renée Ashley: Absolutely true! Hail the human midden! First of all, there’s nothing tidy about language because no matter how precise we are we can never know if our listener/reader understands it exactly as we meant it. It’s that sealed vessel again. It’s our own private bell jar. The Alexandria Quartet changed my life at a very young age. The Roshomon effect. Literal point of view. Futility. And there’s an Einstein thing, right? about depending on the observer’s position in relation to the moving train, the train’s moving at different speeds? That always baffled the hell out of me until I drew the parallel between that and the language problem. So, is there really a right answer? Slickery, as I see it. And on top of that, supporting or perhaps sponsoring the idea of untidiness, I’m a slob. I don’t think I used to be a slob—I remember telling a friend when I was in my twenties, “If you can’t find it you might as well not own it!” Very smug in an unpretty, uncompromising way. That was a lifetime ago. (And I was way too old to be such a prig.) Now I can’t find a thing: the filing I haven’t filed for the last decade, my prescription, my watch, my keys, one of the books I need for class, my other shoe, my good black pants—and that’s just last week. My walls are literally covered with paper and pictures, art and scraps, my office door is layers-deep with cartoons and quips and a great bumper sticker my best friend, the insanely good narrative poet Catherine Doty, gave me (which I keep digging out and taping to the top layer again): I’m not myself today. Maybe I’m you. And my desk! Oy. But it’s all a mirror of what’s going on in my head. Sometimes I get all the crap momentarily cleared away and my thinking clears up, my posture gets better, my priorities clearer, my strategizing becomes more orderly, etc. It’s bliss—for a very short while until entropy strong-arms me again. I know there are people who are not slobs and whose thinking is precise and whose articulations are beyond exact, but even before I became a slob I wasn’t one of those. My friend and colleague Harvey Hix (H.L. Hix) is one of the exact ones. He is fastidious in every way imaginable. He’s always fresh-out-of-the-box brand-new-looking and articulating with the utmost clarity. But of course I can’t get inside his head; there could be a trash heap in there that would unstarch me—but he has clearly found a method of orderliness. I find him miraculous. But whatever he’s got, I don’t have it. It seems that in this second half of my life I’m centrifugal. So with that and the way I see people interact and my observations of the physical, outside-of-my-head world and what we do to it, hell, yes we’re a mess! Things flying outward every which way. Untidy is the least of it. I have found the untidy and it is us. At best, I think, we as a species are approximate, though there are exceptions, certainly, like Harvey and you, Michael—your demeanor and presentation when we met and your method and articulation in this interview were and are divinely clean, crisp, logical, and tightly ordered—who seem to have gotten some dispensation for this. But overall we’re a sloppy tribe and most often our attentions are perfunctory and/or wrong-headed. Bottom line? As I said, I’m not an optimist.
Michael T. Young: Dogs seem to appear in your poems frequently. Outside perhaps a love of dogs, what significance do they have for you in your poetry? What do they symbolize for you?
Renée Ashley: Dogs ground me. There’s nothing approximate about a dog except, maybe, his aim. They contend with what’s in front of them. They’re immediate. And they do not have the kind of language that strikes me as … slippery. And, of course, they’re dependent. They need us. I have no children and have no literal family except my husband and my one-hundred-and-one-year-old mother who lives a continent away. Dogs let me love them. And they’re perfect ballast; they hold a poem to the earth.
Michael T. Young: You seem like a poet that is deeply stimulated by ideas, by philosophy. Do you read philosophy? Do you have a particular branch of philosophy or group of philosophers that you like and that inspire you?
Renée Ashley: Oh, I wish I could read philosophy! I’ve never taken a philosophy class and I’ve tried to read some ultra-simple stuff a couple of times, but, well, let me put it this way: there seem to be no dogs in it. It appears harrowingly difficult as well as abstract. My mind wanders off. I can’t hold all the increments of an argument in my head at one time. It’s probably too orderly for me. My monkey mind won’t let me linger. But two of my favorite poets/writers have degrees in philosophy: Kathleen Graber and the aforementioned H.L. Hix. My attraction to their work probably comes from the fact that they render their ideas concretely rather than articulating them blatantly. (And they both have dogs.) I think you have to be way smarter than I am to read philosophy with any success. I’m one of those Oh, look! Ooooh, shiny! people. Or like in the movie Up! when the dogs yell Squirrel!!! in the midst of their serious business (shouldn’t seriosity be a word?) and go berserk, their reptile brains snatching up their minds and bodies like … well, snatchers. I’m distracted at the drop of the proverbial hat. I lose my train of thought often when I’m speaking, as well as those keys and pants I mentioned before. And my coffee cup. I’m always losing my coffee cup. With my coffee in it. And I probably have twenty pair of reading glasses and never have a pair at hand either. Along with half a dozen open cans of Diet Coke sprinkled around the house. Here’s the gist: it’s the order/chaos thing. I seem to fall on the side of chaos. Too chaotic to be able to grasp philosophy per se. But writing, you see, allows me to render something that’s swirling inside me and put it in some sort of order on the outside of me—and along a different avenue of speaking than philosophy takes. It’s such a relief to see something you feel out there, for it to be still and sharp. It takes a load off, it really does.
Michael T. Young: Do you have a favorite poem in this collection? Which one is it and what is significant about it for you?
Renée Ashley: I do have a couple of favorites, though I must add that they’re emotional favorites. I think the title poem is hilarious! The Verbs of Desiring. Nobody ever laughs, so I lamely try to explain it to people, and my friends think I’m horrible when I bust myself up because I think I’m so funny (it is shameful)—but I do knock myself out on that one. “The verbs of desiring” is a phrase used to describe the subjunctive—and the poem is a poem of desiring and ends on the subjunctive. But even when I explain it nobody cracks up—they laugh, but they’re laughing at me, the woman standing there whose cheeks hurt from cracking up at her own joke, rather than laughing at the play in the poem. And I get it. It’s OK. I love that weird sort of disjunct. It just makes the whole thing even funnier. I like “Mostly There Is Mostly I Do” too. I’m mother-phobic in many ways. And “An Art Like Any Other,” which is a prose poem and, though I haven’t checked the dates, may be one of the first of the prose poems that ended up being in Because I Am the Shore I Want To Be the Sea. I’d been wanting to write prose poems for a very long time before that one found me.
Michael T. Young: You’re an editor at The Literary Review. What do you see as the state of contemporary American poetry? Do you find it vital or sterile? Are there any young poets you find especially exciting to read and to watch out for in the coming years?
Renée Ashley: Oh, I don’t think I could even guess at the state of poetry from TLR submissions! The submissions vary, of course, from fabulous to ultra-way-too-premature-what-could-they-have-been-thinking. I don’t think of “contemporary American poetry” as a single thing—it’s many varied things and some of those things are vital and some sterile, and a mind-numbing percentage exists in between. We have so many different poetries! And I think my taste is pretty catholic as far as styles/schools/aesthetics go. Probably less broad regarding agendas. If the agenda is more prominent than the art I’m not going to be interested. I’m interested in poems, not propaganda. I do want a poem to let me in, and I want it to have teeth. I want it to surprise me with language and/or elegance and/or image or angle of approach …. I want a sort of tensile strength in it. The poem, for me, has to rise up off the page, has to be bigger than the poet, has to have some sort of torque and fire. I don’t necessarily have to like a poem to admire it though. But to come across, in the slush pile, some vital, crisp, surprising work by a writer I’m not familiar with is so exciting! If I start naming names, I’ll leave someone out and feel terrible … but Weston Cutter is one that comes to mind immediately. And Steve Heighton, a Canadian writer—though I should have known his work. He’s widely published in several genres in Canada. Let’s see… Lisa Ortiz, Scott Withiam, Mariana Toscas. Those names were all new to me. And, the folks I am familiar with … well, let me just say I think we publish absolutely, excruciatingly, extravagantly good poems. So the state of American poetry? There are so many fantastic poets working now! I buy their books the way the dogs in Up! chase and bark at squirrels. It’s a good time for poetry. A good state to have real estate in even if it’s only the tiniest of pied-à-terres.
Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that have noticeably influenced your work as a poet? What are they? Can you say in what way you feel this work or works influenced your poetry?
Renée Ashley: Of course everything I’ve ever read has in one way or another influenced me and therefore my work as a poet and writer. I can only work through what I am. I’m the product of everything I’ve experienced including what I’ve read. Certainly John Briggs’s Fire in the Crucible had a big effect on me. He articulated for me the idea of themata, the themes a writer will work in over and over during the trajectory that is her life’s work. To acknowledge my obsessions as a part of art-process—even though I’m sometimes surprised by them—has been an enormous help. When I was in grad school, my professors were Jungians, and much of what we read and pondered and listened to (though I walked out of class the day Dr. Wiseman played Wagner’s Tristan—it nearly pulled my heart up and out through my throat!). Oh, and The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks! Joyce’s Ulysses. I still have the little bar of lemon soap that Dr. Bratset gave me! I did gain a strong sense of pattern and archetype, and though I do think pattern I rarely consciously think archetype except in critical mode. And as I said earlier, Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet changed the way I see language, but I was very young when I read that. The lesson stuck though. I tried to read Justine again recently and couldn’t get through it. It seemed so … purple. I was devastated—I’d lost access to the source of something terribly important in my life. I’ll try again someday. Certainly David Foster Wallace. And I’m reading Gaddis’s The Recognitions right now and it’s tying in so much with the poetics of information that I’ve been thinking about since some colleague’s gave a workshop on it last year. I read a lot on creativity and creative process; I rarely remember facts of brain science—and I never remember statistics—but I do come away with a sense of having had something familiar articulated or sourced for me and that’s heartening and strengthening. I read novels, memoirs, nonfiction. Don Quixote! Madam Bovary! And of course verse: Ovid and Homer. My poor mind boggles at everything I’m not acknowledging… How could any of it not influence me?
Michael T. Young: What do you like to do that has nothing to do with poetry or writing?
Renée Ashley: Watch TV, alas. I watch way too much TV. NCIS, Bones, Rizzoli & Isles. The Big Bang Theory! British mysteries. And I’m a cartoon addict: lots of noise and bright colors moving … I’m there. Though I’m burned out on Spongebob Squarepants. He just irritates me now. I still like Phineas and Ferb and Aaaaaah!! Real Monsters. Fraggle Rock was genius, absolute genius. I’ve got every episode. I loved The A-Team, the TV series, not the movie (which was fine but faux). Howling Mad Murdock! Wembly Fraggle, oh my. Jim Henson was a god. Is still a god. And Elmo. Oh I love Elmo! Though I never watched Sesame Street; it had way too many humans. I have to admit I even was fascinated by the Teletubbies and they were really weird. I had a friend who wouldn’t eat tomatoes because she said they hadn’t made up their mind whether they were a fruit or a vegetable. The teletubbies were like that—what the hell were they? Somewhat unformed and seductive and possibly menacing—underground hideouts and Big Brothery loudspeakers! I couldn’t take my eyes off them. However I absolutely hated that real baby that gurgled in the sun. That was nasty. Creepy beyond just normal creepy. Really, seriously icky. My job is teaching writing, I edit the writing of others, my art is writing. What isn’t linked to the work? I do read a lot: poetry, criticism, creative nonfiction, novels, essays… But reading is so closely related to writing they’re almost the same thing, another form of the same thing anyway. I do have an opera subscription with a friend, though—does that count? Sorry… I, too, sometimes wish I were more interesting.
Michael T. Young: On the contrary, Renée. You are quite interesting and I truly thank you for a wonderful interview. Let’s close with one of your favorite poems the collection.
The Verbs of Desiring
How tired the self is of the self, its earth twirling in the air and
not-air and I know a woman who ate only bread until
of bread. Oh the where-is-she-now. Which is not a question.
Which is a noun of circumstance.
…………………………………...............And disquietude: lovely
word. And hairsbreadth. Stupor mundi. Kettle-of-fish-that-
………….........…………You are returning from an alphabet ran-
sacked by thirst, by the gamut of implication neatly sung:
a tongue that speaks
…………….........……….body. A punctuated earth. You who are
resolute of hungry brutes and fooled by the beggar’s bowl of
moon, tide of scat, of pellet and flop
………………………………............………and the body’s dead-
end is an assured apostrophe.
………………………….............……There are more way to mean
than you can make note of.
……………………………Look! Something is pretty in the sky
– it might just be the sky – though installation’s been askant.
Or what it sits upon is opposed to the level eye.
……………….....................…………………………………A panoply of
…………......…..all those bears pirouetting in your penthouse!
Oh if it or they were only.
………………………............….Or if you. And, or if I.
Find more information about Renée Ashley or her books at her website: http://reneeashleyatwork.com/