Debra Nystrom is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Night Sky Frequencies and Selected Poems (Sheep Meadow, 2016). Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including AGNI, Kenyon Review, and the New Yorker. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Virginia.
This interview was conducted over email by Max McDonough in the spring of 2017.
NR: Your new book begins with an epigraph from the artist Joseph Cornell, famous for his box assemblages, wunderkammers. I feel like we’re all carrying around our own Cornell boxes, in our heads, in flux. As we edge toward summer in this already crazy year, what’s in your mind’s wunderkammer?
Debra Nystrom: It has been a crazy year so far, for sure, full of urgent issues, including preservation of responsible news, and of truth— the need to fight for the clear and accountable use of language, which seems to be in more peril than ever before. To address your question about preservation in interior ways, though, I’d say that after trying in Night Sky Frequencies to bring big swaths of prairie and weather inside very compressed poems, often sonnets, I’ve found myself more recently stretching out the spaces I’m working in, trying prose poems with more expansive lines and juxtapositions of time frames, landscapes, continents… intertwining memory with long strands of history or art history, or others’ lives I’ve wanted to honor— a school friend at Saturday confession in my hometown’s Church of Saints Peter and Paul drifting away into Bellini’s Sacra Conversazione, Madonna with Saints Catherine and Magdalene whispering in a Venetian room —or a sentence that starts in my eighth-grade boyfriend’s trailer-house at Christmas and ends up with a boy waiting that same week in Saigon for a bus that would take his family out of their ravaged country for good. Wunderkammer opening up to the world, maybe like Cornell’s interiors speaking across the ocean to Bronzino’s or Vermeer’s, or to Andromeda— if I could be so lucky.
NR: Interesting to imagine Vermeer portraying Cornell in one of his checkered-floor rooms. I read somewhere that you used to paint. Do you still?
Debra Nystrom: I’d love to see the awkward, retiring Cornell turn round from Vermeer’s portrait-of-the-artist- with-his-back-turned and face the viewer: Cornell wearing that extravagant black velvet coat. When I first went to college I thought I wanted to be a visual artist, and I took art classes— but before long it seemed that writing was much more suited to my temperament and skills. I haven’t painted in years, but I love looking at others’ paintings and photographs, and am very fortunate to have some artist friends whose work and suggestions about where to look and how to see have helped my poetry enormously.
NR: I’ve heard you call some of your poems “sort-of sonnets.” I remember Claudia Emerson called hers “ghost sonnets.” Could you talk more about how you consider the sonnet? Has your idea of the sonnet changed over time?
Debra Nystrom: There’s something so compelling physically about the sonnet shape, especially the Italian sonnet, whose proportions are so close to the Golden Section, that arrangement found all over in the natural world, like the organization of petals on a sunflower, the structuring of the human body— as well as the in world of painting and architecture —the distinct relationship of parts to the whole that appeals to and affects us in unspoken ways, and can give a sense of clarity and reassurance when approaching concerns of great mystery. Claudia’s term “ghost sonnet” is a wonderful way to consider the fact that this form haunts us even in many poems one might not initially recognize as sonnets. Her remarkable sequence of “Metastasis” poems in Impossible Bottle, poems dealing with the effects of cancer, of dissolution of the body and the self, develops as a crown of sonnets that are very ghostly, not immediately apparent as sonnets, but as they link up to become the crown you begin to feel the subversive, magical, familiar ordering that offers a kind of resiliency against the loss and sorrow with which those poems contend. It’s that opportunity for affecting a reader bodily, unconsciously, through the workings of sound and rhythm and syntax under the surface of what a poem’s images focus on— that’s what’s most exciting about form. The reader’s physiological suspense about when or how a certain sound might return and echo can give a poem tremendous power, simultaneous with and interacting with the power of a poem’s drama or imaginative surprise. This is what still ties poetry to ritual and spell; how it can take possession of you, as an old teacher of mine used to say. It’s true of any form handled well, but the sonnet seems to have had the strongest appeal for so many poets, certainly for me. Almost all of my early experiments with the sonnet turned into free verse poems, but fooling with the poems as possible sonnets helped me be more attentive for recurrence of sound— and when you’re listening in that way, the sounds and rhythms themselves will often call up words and phrases and images that your conscious mind wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. As long as you think of form as a shape to try out, to see what it might offer, whether or not you keep it, it becomes generative. Thinking of form as constricting is an attitude to be turned around. You don’t necessarily have to be answerable to the design; you can instead see what it might find for you— “sort-of” can be a way of giving yourself permission to do that. Over time I’ve found, especially in my last book, that the sonnet’s way of unfolding has often been a help in discovering where an initial poetic impulse wants to go— as long as I’ve felt free to make use of partial rhyme, to lengthen or shorten the lines, pay attention to what the poem seems to be calling for. And there’s great energy to be harnessed by playing syntax against musical structure, making use of enjambment and caesurae to manage momentum and pause, speed up and slow down, allowing the form’s arrangement to remain fairly submerged. Seamus Heaney was a genius at finding vitality in the interplay between music and syntax, keeping the physical effects on the reader as something happening sub rosa. His “Clearances” sonnets for his mother are a master-class in how the patterns can take effect in ways that feel utterly natural— like what happens when you drive past a field of sunflowers bending together in wind, and have to pull over for a minute to take it all in. Heaney rendered such experience brilliantly in his County Clare vision, “Postscript,” a sonnet-plus. You stop the car and look out, not thinking about mathematical equations; you’re absorbed in what’s happening in front of you, around you, inside you. The Golden Section working on you in that ghostly, reassuring, unnerving way is much more thoroughly affecting than if you look down and figure out the arithmetic on your phone’s calculator.
NR: Our phones— how do you handle and process the seemingly endless stream of images, benign and horrific alike, beamed to us indiscriminately on a daily basis?
Debra Nystrom: I don’t always have the phone right by me, and am not on Facebook, but yes, the images are always beckoning from the edges of our attention. The Internet assumes that if it has found something we can’t look away from, that must mean we all want car crashes all the time. It has to be closed off when you’re working, or when I’m working, anyway. It’s been hard this year, with Trump in the White House, to keep from checking back regularly about the latest emergency, to make sure American democracy hasn’t been erased while I wasn’t looking.
NR: You write, “…fire lit to the grasses, bitter scent of ash twisting in dust Ellie could smell / like her own name unraveling…” It reminds me of the Charles Wright line, “All forms of landscape are autobiographical.” I wonder if you could talk a bit about the Dakota landscape, about being a human body with all that space and geologic time pressing in.
Debra Nystrom: Charles is surely right about landscape as rendered by humans, and your “pressing in” is an apt phrase for Dakota. The landscape there inspires feelings of expansiveness and confinement simultaneously, with nothing but horizon visible in every direction. And yes, growing up there it was easier to find T-Rex bones than a radio station that played rock and roll. As teenagers, we’d have to wait till it was nighttime, then we could tune in to KOMA with its big tower in Oklahoma City, to hear something other than country music— though I did love some country music. Bruce Springsteen’s “Radio Nowhere” captures the experience. At the same time, in a landscape whose scope is so vast, you do feel yourself as part of it, but a tiny part: awareness of your human smallness in that setting is inescapable, and is salutary. I love Bishop for the ways she communicates that sort of awareness in relation to Nova Scotia’s and Brazil’s landscapes, and to the sea. Knowing that cliff swallows and rivers, antelope and grasses have been there much longer than you have, and will be there when you are gone, is a strange and powerful reassurance.
NR: T-Rex bones remind me of your pantoum “What We Believed.” “…once by the creek we found rocks with shells in them / listening to bug-hum and bird-chatter and watching bubbles // then carried the rocks back for Uncle Ralph to examine / the surface of the water trembling / the prairie had been a giant sea he told us…” The verb tenses become so wild: the present participle kind of suspended over, or stitched between, past and past perfect and present. That quality, paired with the form’s complete repetitions of lines, seems to call forth something elemental and quietly vast. Then, the wonderfully strange irresolution of the final two lines: “in the hide of a buffalo whose fur brushed us / none of us sure what we believed.” How did you arrive at this particular pantoum? And, I’ve been wondering, how does one “exit” a pantoum?
Debra Nystrom: Your reflection on the interweaving verb tenses is lovely— thank you for that. I think the kind of discontinuity that the pantoum form allows, along with its incantatory imperative, makes it a particularly good form for capturing the timeless quality of child-mind, and the magical thinking of kids. I had experimented with pantoums before, and for this evocation of kid-experience it seemed a natural thing to try a pantoum. The spell of the form seems something you don’t so much exit as find a way to make reverberate further by choosing the right final line, one that will echo beyond the other echoing. That’s how I wound up messing with the received structure and kind of reversing it— I knew after a while that the poem needed to end on the “none of us sure what we believed” line, so I wound up re-arranging. There are a few different ways to end a pantoum, but usually the “left behind” lines of stanza one are allowed to finally repeat in the end and point back to the start. I didn’t want the poem to be entirely circular, though— I adjusted the repetitive structure so as not to close the poem with its beginning. That sounds more mechanical than the writing really was; the truth is, I find working in form a kind of enchantment in itself.
NR: Favorite Fleetwood Mac song? I have a guess.
Debra Nystrom: That’s a surprise question. “Landslide” comes to mind… Fleetwood Mac I certainly heard a lot of growing up. If you’re thinking of echoes… in spite of his New Jersey origins, Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” or “Thunder Road” speak to my sense of origins as much as any music. —Or Patsy Cline, whose voice echoes all through my childhood soundtrack.
NR: Ah, I’d have thought “Dreams.” Or would’ve guessed, superficially, in reference to Night Sky, which is interested in dreams, it seems to me, as worlds in which imagined “stuff” happens, with real consequences. Something like poems. Why did you decide to use dreams as a recurring effect?
Debra Nystrom: Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” would’ve made more sense here, you’re right. It’s so great to have those old body-memories of a song rekindled immediately, once the initial phrase comes back. I heard a neuroscientist yesterday on the radio say they think humans made song before they made speech. I think poets have always worked according to that belief. I love your idea of dreams as “worlds in which imagined stuff happens, with real consequences.” It’s true, and poems attest to it. In Night Sky Frequencies dreams function, as they do sometimes for all of us in real life, as a medium linking the living with the dead— even the very-long dead— and also potentially connecting those alive who hardly know each other, yet share something on a particular, ineffable frequency. Dreaming also allows us to re-enter the element of our primal awareness of nature— knowledge that operates in a dimension we don’t often apprehend consciously.
NR: One of my favorite moments in the book is Ellie’s asymmetrical star quilt for Robert, Cornell’s younger brother who suffered from cerebral palsy. “On his bed now, a little damp with salt wind, [Ellie’s] shimmering mapwork / of firmament, chart of bewilderments from the dark.” I think at one point Ellie calls it the “heaven quilt [she] might never finish.” But she does! Did you think of “The Lady of Shalott” while writing these poems? Stitchwork and poetry— in what ways do you see them as interrelated?
Debra Nystrom: “The Lady of Shalott”— I didn’t have that in the forefront of my mind, but it’s one of many works of literature tied in with the long history, across many cultures, of association between stitching/ tapestry/ weaving and the communicating of subliminal or subversive messages, especially by female figures. I guess the dangers of isolation might be another element of association with “The Lady of Shalott,” and with Penelope too, of whom I was probably thinking more than anyone, in terms of literary recollections. But in truth I was more focused on the many women “stitchers” related to my mother— some of European descent, some also Lakota—who did and still do so much sewing, knitting, tatting, crocheting, quilting— often making something new out of remnants of what’s old, and using images and patterns to convey personal, familial and cultural messages.
NR: Thank you so much for doing this interview! What’s next for you?
Debra Nystrom: Thank you so much, Max! What’s next— well, rangier writing, at the moment, looking to see what prose might discover that can’t be found in sparer structures. We’ll see.