Monday, March 2, 2009

Interview with Rebecca Loudon re "Cadaver Dogs" (a wonderful, wonderful book of poems)

This is the transcript of an email interview I conducted with Rebecca Loudon re her book of poetry "Cadaver Dogs."

This is the author's note that Rebecca provided:

"Rebecca Loudon lives and writes in Seattle . She is the author of Tarantella and Radish King from Ravenna Press, and Navigate, Amelia Earhart's Letters Home and Cadaver Dogs, from No Tell Books. She teaches violin lessons to children."

You can find reviews, blurbs, etc at No Tell's site

RK: In the bio of Cadaver Dogs I see that you're a violinist and that you teach the violin to children. Your writing is then of course (to some extent or other) going to be influenced by your violin mind-life. And the titles of some of the poems in Cadaver Dogs might well be descriptions of pieces of music: "Romance #1 in G Major" for example. Also, I'm no musician and I'm probably tone deaf but sometimes your lines or phrases come to like violin strokes. I am thinking most specifically here of the short crisp bow-like strokes of "Dear Extinguished Individual." Am I full of shit? And, yes or no, can you talk a bit about the interplay of your poetry and your playing and teaching the violin? Some of the interplay must be unconscious. But sometimes I'd imagine you'd want, consciously, to bring the two together. Or consciously have to work to keep them apart. Your thoughts, please.

RL: Everything I do is influenced by music - the music in my head, my love of teaching music to children, my study of early music history, my daily practice and my absolute belief that mastery of practice should be the ultimate goal of every artist whether a musician, a poet, a dancer or a painter. I have been told that my poetry is full of music. I'm asked how I go about achieving that. Honestly, I have no answer for that, and I'm not even sure what it means, except that I have a natural and easy sense of sound and rhythm that I don’t have to work for. Perhaps it's something as obvious as my dedication to practice (writing/music/drawing), perhaps a sense of musicality has leaked into my poetry from studying unaccompanied Bach partitas and sonatas for practically my entire life. Maybe it is more subtle - a kind tissue memory, the way I rehearse Mozart, and I rehearse and rehearse and rehearse, and finally Mozart is out of my head and resides in my fingers and I can play the concerto by just getting out of the way and allowing tissue memory to do the work for me. Like divining whether a pregnant woman is going to give birth to a boy or a girl by holding a crystal on a thread and letting it twirl clockwise or counterclockwise over her belly. Tissue memory. Writing poetry is like that for me. I practice every day by writing in my notebook or working on poems or writing my blog, and when time comes to put pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard, tissue memory takes over and my head can get out of the way. But practice remains an absolute for me, as far as art is concerned. This is not to say I don’t use the language of music consciously in some of my poems. Romance #1 in G Major is a piece by Beethoven for violin and orchestra. That specific poem also invokes the great singer Wanda Coleman. L’Orchestra du Roi Soleil, Raymond Scott, Sibelius, Mozart, The Beach Boys’ song In My Room, and the gravicèmbalo col piano e forte all make appearances in Cadaver Dogs, as well musical terms like hemiola and tactus. These words were the foundation of my first language, and it is no surprise they appear again and again in my poetry. As far as creating poetry that often looks like music on the page, this is sometimes intentional and sometimes unconscious, so you are by no means full of shit, but perceptive in asking your question.

I began writing poetry at an early age and I also began playing the violin while very young. Both the language of music and the English language felt the same to me, and I was lucky to be young enough to live inside my magical self, the self that doesn’t create boundaries where art is concerned. As I grew as a musician, I was told by teachers that if I wanted to be a great violinist I had to eat and breathe music, and nothing else. I ignored this advice and kept writing. As an adult I attended art school and learned how to paint and this too added itself to the landmass of art in my head. I still refuse to believe there are divisions in the fine arts. All creative energy comes from the same place. Only academia insists on separating the arts into individual countries.

RK: God. Your author photo (yes, I’m one of those dorks who pays too much attention to Bios and photos) shows your face half hidden by a copy of a book titled “The Messiah.” The voice of Cadaver Dogs leans towards God and sometimes this feels almost religious or spiritual. But more so, bleakly and blatantly, cold-stone, fire and fur, the narrator is a “talking dog” leashed to (and looking for) God who is also an animal—the “lap-red tongue of Christ.” Can you talk about the Cadaver Dogs God-View? The tension of concurrently yearning toward it (“oh lamb of God, I come, I come) and seeing it in such a plainly and basic feral light? (“it” being God).

RL: My author photo was taken by my son, Page Loudon, who is a professional photographer (Hepcat Photography). Reb Livingston (the editor of No Tell Books) wanted an author photo, while I resisted the idea. I am, by nature, a recluse, and after many years of pulling away from people, I have come to believe that being reclusive is not part of my pathology, it’s just who I am. At first my son took several photos of me standing looking terrified, angry, growly, scowly, rabid or like a badly stuffed (as in taxidermy) Miss America. Finally he came busting into my bedroom right after I had showered one lazy Saturday afternoon and was reading in my bed, and snapped the photo. I tried hiding my face behind Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah, and the photo turned out to be the only photo in the bunch that made us both happy.

I’m glad you caught the God/Messiah reference which I have never really written about or talked about, even though its presence snake dances through every single one of my books. In a review for my previous collection, Radish King, the reviewer called the presence of Jesus in my book a whiny bother. In Cadaver Dogs, the idea of god comes through as the animal in us, the protector, the giver of unconditional love, as well as the beast with teeth, horns and a long jagged tail. God as animal shows up in the book’s first poem, Double-plush Wolf in a Hungry Age, where the reader is told to go to hell. Later in the poem, the reader finds transformation (salvation) in

Lemon juice
Breast milk

In the poem Dear Extinguished Individual, the narrator becomes god by transforming dogs into talking beasts

I replaced the dogs’ throats
with radios
my most lovely artifice.

My poem The Greenest Body, claims a genuine piece of THE TRUE CROSS as a portal. Other portals that appear throughout the book include Glenn Gould’s chair, and a list of things the narrator would take through such a portal, which may or may not be a way to reach god. Christ is invoked in Victorville Carnivàle, and The Reptile Monarchies. In Arthur Murray’s Dance Dictionary in Common Time, the narrator visits god’s house in a variety of disguises

A wolf’s head sewn to my head
beetle-rich moss.

There are baptisms in this book, one of the narrators talks shop with Jesus, and the fork-ed tongue beast and goaty head man are engaged.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic, baptized into the Catholic church, but later took a severe left turn and ended up in a Bible thumping holy roller version of a 4 Square Gospel Church that believed in spirit filled congregations, lots of singing, lots of swaying and fainting and thumping about on the floor in a way that looked eerily like people having seizures while white suited preachers shouted from their pulpits about a girl just my age (this would have been 11 or 12) who was wearing her nightgown one night, and was good and pure and loved the Lord with all her might but never accepted Him for her PERSONAL SAVIOR and of course that very night, that poor girl sure enough walked away from the church (or tent in the summer), and got hit by a train and went to ETERNAL HELL for her mistake in timing. All these sermons, it was always young girls, they were always wearing nightgowns and the deadly train was always only a few feet away. They were good girls but they still went to Hell. I never could figure out the nightgown thing unless the preacher thought it made the girls seem more like pre-angels or there were so young they were super close to their bedtime and the sermons were like late night TV, and I never did figure out how so many of them could be so stupid as to get hit by the very same train over and over. I didn’t buy into any of it. But it was great theater, and I got myself baptized yet again in the Spokane river, just to hedge my bets.

Being raised Catholic all we did was lower our heads when the priest said Jesus or the nuns snapped the rubber bands wrapped around their prayer books, stood, knelt, stood, knelt, etc., and made out with the boys at Gonzaga Prep. But the theater of the evangelical church stayed with me. And the music. At the end of each sermon the congregation and choir all sang Just As I Am, a song sure to bring tears to the eyes of even the most hardened Catholic or thief or prostitute or runaway girl or just a regulation girl in a nightgown inching toward a train, or any other type of sinner. The song ended with the words Oh Lamb of God, I Come, I Come, always used as an alter call, and people would come streaming up the center aisle to give their hearts and wallets to Jesus, night after night, tissues flying, old ladies squatting on the floor, their pantyhose cutting off circulation to their upper bodies, their helmet stiff hair never moving as they sobbed and thrust tiny bibles and Chick tracts and plastic crosses and mustard seeds in hermetically sealed packets in the sinners’ direction. Some of my friends got saved night after night, enough for a baker’s dozen of eternities at least. I remained unconvinced but I did enjoy the show. As I shortly made my way into the world at the age of 14 (the age I was thrown out of my house), I realized that animals were my true comfort, my true joy, my honest confessors and my best friends. They didn’t judge, they didn’t condemn, they didn’t ask for prayers or sobbing or hysteria or faith, they were just there warm and breathing next to me in the dark allies back seats of cars and rank hotel rooms I called home. They protected me and have ever since. The titular poem of Cadaver Dogs is central to the book, and central to my life as well. It is the most personal poem I have ever let romp out into the world, and it is the poem around which the rest of the book came into being. In that poem, Dog is indeed a feral god who keeps watch over the narrator, and sings when the missing girl’s voice is silenced.

RK: I'm suffering, these days, from a strange kind of disease. Most everybody I see reminds me to some extent of someone else (famous or just famous to me or not famous at all). Sometimes a "new" face (body, gesture, eye-glint, etc) suggests several others: church bells ringing in several churches. A mind-sky disfigured and excited by bells. Reading Cadaver Dogs I was nudged and thrust variously and sometimes concurrently into lots of other voices, images, feelings, memories, etc. The pure figures of pain (body in woods imagery, kneeling, on all fours, etc) brought to me Jack Gilbert (going down to cry among the trees after Michiko died) as well as Anne Carson (the visions of nudes in Glass, Irony and God). The stitched wolf's head, Clayton Eshleman's Juniper Fuse (separating the human, painfully, out from the animal, or vice versa i guess. but, thank God, without the childish tit-whining he's often guilty of). The bright fierce light of desire and high-strung disjointed voice-narratives-- Beckian Goldberg Fritz's "The Badlands of Desire." And the animal horror-world and sometimes rough language and end-poem gestures of an early to mid-career Ted Hughes. Is this all coincidental or have any of the above been anything of an influence on you? All of the above is probably, then, just a lead up to me asking you to talk about your influences: poetry, fiction, non-fiction, movies, t.v., paintings, cartoons, whatever, as you wish.

RL: None of the poets you listed above have influenced me and I am not familiar with their work, My poetic influences have been poets whose music climbs out of their poems and shakes me; e.e Cummings, Sylvia Plath, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sharon Olds, Brenda Hillman, Robert Lowell, Linda Bierds, Wallace Stevens, Amy Gerstler, Cal Bedient, Lara Glenum, Maxine Kumin, Charles Bukowski. I am as strongly influenced by novels as I am by poetry. Charles Dickens, Jeanette Winterson, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Tolstoy. I was spoon fed on Robert Heinlein and I reread his books over and over every year. I love Toni Morrison’s work, Margaret Atwood, the Brontë sisters, JG Ballard, Rick Bass, the list of novelists I love is pretty much endless. I read like my life depends on it. Magazines, cookbooks, bus advertisements, pamphlets, chapbooks, road maps. I read them all with my mind open to the poetry inside them. I don’t watch much TV but I’m strongly influenced by movies, especially David Lynch, John Waters, Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson, Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Greenaway. Photography is probably my favorite visual art form. Diane Arbus of course, she who molded my brain when I saw her retrospective show in New York in 1971, and about whom I’m writing a fictional novel. Other photographers who move me are Sally Mann, Gregory Crewdson, Francesca Woodman. The painters Kandinsky for color, Larry Rivers for New York the way I remember it, Basquiat for his incorporation of text into color, Balthus for his cats, Camille Claudel for standing up to that bastard Auguste Rodin, and for sculpting many of his hands and feet and never getting credit for it. And last but not least, Bach, Mozart, Mahler, Beethoven, Raymond Scott, Fats Waller. The endless list of music and musicians who fill my every waking and most of my sleeping hours.

Along with poetry, music and film, I take a great interest in what goes on around me every day. The conversations exchanged at my job, the movements of the tides, playing in the dirt, baking bread, watching clouds, knitting, dancing. I love to watch people though I rarely interact with them. This is probably my greatest pleasure in life, the simple things that happen in my city under my nose. I find the more attention I pay to them the richer my life, and therefore my poetry, becomes. I really don’t think poetry has much to do with poetics or writing. It has to do with how a poet sees.

RK: Revision. You say that you like to write with your head "out of the way." By instinct, gut, feel. Through your body, through "tissue memory." Can you talk a bit about your revision process a bit? Revising it would seem should bring more critical and engaged faculties to bear. Or do you revise also with your head out of the way (or kind of at least), sounding-out as it were by feel. Or is some sort of combination of tissue memory and critical application? (Some writers at a certain point in their careers say that they don't revise at all even. Some I think are telling the truth)

RL: Once I draft a poem, (with a pen in a crappy beat up notebook, this is important), I post it to a private (non-public) blog and let it stew. I am not overly fond of word-drunk poems, though that’s how I create rough drafts. I use the private blog for revision because I am terrible at document management. I used to revise my poems in Word™ documents, but I ended up having 40 revisions on my home computer and 15 revisions on my work computer, all in different folders, and I’d lose things and be looking at one poem while a completely different revision was waving its flag at me from some forgotten electronic corner of the universe. Now I revise on the blog and transfer my revisions to 1 Word document at home. I am a severe reviser and I believe that art and craft are different beasties. Art is what I get what I find what I create, and craft is how I make a poem viable, livable, a dynamic thing as opposed to a static bunch of words on a page.

This is how I revise. Does the poem have a galley? A loo? A comfortable place to sleep? Does it leak? Is it seaworthy? I revise a poem anywhere from twenty to seventy times. Often I revise poems after they’ve been published. I write long drafts and cut and cut and cut. It’s much easier to cut than trying to build a keel after the fact. My knives are sharp. I slap a piece of duct tape over the internal blasted critic/editor’s voice in my head when I write my drafts, but the tape comes off with a loud and painful riiiiip! during the revision process. This is why I always have to give my drafts some room, some time. Walk away from them while we’re still on honeymoon. I don’t believe that every word that falls from my pen is a diamond. I dislike the saying kill your darlings. They’re not my darlings. Not in that form. Not until I clean them up, strip them down, sand their edges, test their sea-worthiness and send them out on open waters. It is a tricky process and a difficult one. There is always the danger of revising the spark out of a poem. I think revision is the hardest part of writing but also the heart. It’s when my head moves back into the boat and starts cleaning up. There are a lot of metaphors in this paragraph and I apologize for them.

I used to go to poetry workshops. I brought my poems and the groups read them and responded. I did this for years. I lasted 4 years in one workshop and 2 years in another. As I grew as a poet, I became less dependent on outside feedback. The feedback in fact, became a negative thing when I found myself bringing more and more accessible poems to workshops so they would be easy for my readers to understand. I was dumbing or, according to Word™ spell check, dooming down for my readers. Once I realized that my revision process was intact, I realized I no longer needed the workshops or the feedback, though I miss the wine and cheese. But seriously, I think a poet has to learn to craft his or her own work eventually. And I had heard some pretty inane things over the years. Don’t ask a question if you don’t answer it at the end of the poem. Don’t ask a question if you answer it at the end of a poem. Don’t use italics unless you use italics somewhere else in the poem. NEVER USE EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!! Who the hell thought up all these stupid rules? And that’s exactly what I would ask the critic. Who the hell thought up all these stupid rules? The answer was, that’s just the way it’s done.

Artistic communities are good for some people, but they are no good for me. I’m not a social creature. I am never comfortable in groups unless I’m playing music and even then, I am in my own world inside my head. In complete disclosure, I’d like to add that I presently teach 2 poetry workshops, The Wallingford Irregulars and The Foundry. The Wallingford Irregulars workshop is 11 years old, The Foundry is 2. The difference between the workshops I teach and the workshops I attended, is that when I feel a poet has the tools she needs to revise thoroughly, when she brings poems that are consistently strong, I tell her that perhaps it’s time for her to fly the nest. My workshops are not social gatherings. They’re classes where we learn craft together. You can’t teach anyone to write poetry. You can ask them to read and teach them the basics of craft, but you can never teach them to have an interesting world view. You can’t teach them a sense of humor. Nurturing is about all you can do. Most poets need to be nurtured. And read. That’s what makes poets happy. I give my poets food and tea and I build big dangerous fires and I invite them to take their shoes off and I tell the truth and I encourage them to send their poems out into the world. And we laugh like hyenas because an artist who takes herself too seriously will sink. We are not ARTISTS. We are artists. The work is ongoing.

RK: You've talked about God in your life and God in your poems. Can you talk about enchantment now? Of the sort of magic (white magic that seems to be an important part of your world--you and your poetry.) You are as you say, "by nature, a recluse," and that animals are your true "comfort" and "joy." Your "honest confessors" and your "best friends." This all brings to mind the image of a witch out in the woods, stitching heads and performing other strange operations. You also talk, here in this interview, about "divining whether a pregnant woman is going to give birth to a boy or a girl by holding a crystal on a thread..." The enchantments though seem all to be natural ("different-natural" perhaps, rather than supernatural, in the way I understand that to be.) In "Thank You Dr. Grafenberg" you even suggest "maybe" that you ARE an "enchantment." (as well as a "criminal" and "a talking dog.") Some of this is overlap to what you've said already in response to my God question but can you please talk about enchantment here: how you are enchanter and enchanter (like you are in a way both master, wolf and dog), etc,...

RL: Enchantment is a large part of my life but maybe not your typical garden variety Leprechaun or even fairy tale types of enchantment. I did not come from a happy suburban family, but I don’t write about my upbringing, my family of origin. My enchantment, my idea of enchantment, my ability to be carried away to other worlds through enchantment (animals, books, music) was a gift I was born with. As a child I would collect bees in Mason jars and carry them to my bedroom or under the porch and I would pet their delicate fur and speak to them and I truly believed they understood me. I always set them free and I learned that once you have captured a bee in a jar, you can remove the lid, but the bee won’t fly away for an entire day after that lid is removed. I learned how to view and absorb the natural world by collecting bees and frogs and tadpoles and stray cats and vicious dogs who came to me and jumped on me in joy. My grandfather had two horses and I rode them from the highest hill in Coeur d’Alene Idaho, rode them every weekend down into the forest where I spent hours playing in the creek or simply talking to the horses or brushing them or singing to them. I found bears and wolves and cougars in that forest, but they never frightened me. I didn’t do so well with humans. Humans in my young world were dangerous. Animals were magic, yes. They brought comfort. They spoke a language I understood. I recognized their souls. Am I an enchanter? That’s what my birth name means in Hebrew; Rebecca, captivating, knotted cord. But I think there is something more complicated here. Pat Conroy once said that it is a great gift for a writer to be born into a horrible family. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps this forces the writer to see things differently, through different lenses. Perhaps an unhappy child can indeed find her way through the forest, fearless and alone, and come out the other side as a changed thing. After all, the key to being a great poet is to be able to see a world no one else can see and then tell that story. Can we become poets if our feet are never held to the fire? Maybe. But not me. I had to take an unknown route. I had to carve my name into the top of the tallest damned tree even if I fell out and broke my wrist and lay shivering in the ferns, until my horse came to find me.

As I get older I care less and less about my human nature and more and more about the land around me, the secrets the sea screes into my salty mouth, the dance between water and oil, the beauty of the unloved, the hungry, the ignored holy. I have become entangled with a homeless man, a spitfire of a guy who gets in lots of fights and has many knife scars and sells newspapers for a dollar a piece outside of a fancy grocery store. We have long intense conversations. I have told him that I am bipolar, an embarrassing disease for a poet these days since it is so popular, and every single poet who has a downlow day seems to lay claim to being bipolar. My homeless friend understands that it is a terrifying world and yes, enchanted sometimes. I tell him how difficult it is to trade my natural creativity, my burny little fire, for calm days and being able to function in the adult world. He has days where he is so high he can’t open his eyes, but he stands in front of the store selling his papers. If he sees me he asks if I’m still on my meds. I tell him the truth. We have found that in each other. Is this part of an enchantment? I can’t see from here. Not yet. But he has entered my dreams and now he has entered my poems. He is yet another wolf in disguise from whom I have nothing to fear. There is always something brand new to see every day every minute, if we just open our eyes.

RK: Okay, this is the trickiest question I've asked. And by "trickiest" I mean I've struggled most in figuring out how to ask it. In fact I've struggled most in making this question clear to myself. You say that "Cadaver Dogs" (the title poem) is the most "personal poem" you've ever "let romp out into the world." It's interesting that you use the word "romp." I just looked it up on Merriam Webster on line and "high-spirited, carefree, and boisterous play" is the clause that I think seems to fit (though other parts of the definition are not irrelevant either.) "Romp" suggests, too, for me an animal and it's the "animality" of your poetry that I'd like you to talk about. "Animality" versus "personality." Even when your poems are "personal" they seem to have a personality (voice, character, etc) that seems to be to more "of animal" than "of person." (Of course people are animals. I least I think so, and I believe you agree.) Okay, again, your poetry, carried along by music, its shifts (image, perspective, etc) seems more animal than human. And this for me, and others I'm guessing, is very strange and exciting. Again there's overlap here (with respect to your wanting, when writing, to get your head "out of the way") but can you please respond to this directly, indirectly, whatever. (And sorry for the fuzziness of how I've laid out my sketchy thought-feeling here.)

RL: Once upon a time, a 14 year old girl was forced out of her house to live on the streets of a deeply enchanted icy city. Her only companion was Brown Dog, a large terrier who never left her side. Brown Dog provided warmth, protection, conversation, love, acceptance, and a magical kind of healing when he licked the girl’s hands with his rough tongue. Brown Dog and the girl ventured to the city’s heart where they slept in abandoned cars, empty churches, and dangerous hotels with dangerous men. Brown Dog never left the girl’s side. They ate when they could, sometimes finding food in dumpsters or behind restaurants, sometimes stealing it from grocery stores, sometimes being given meals by kind strangers. Eventually Brown Dog and the girl banded together with other lost children, and they broke into a boarded-up house in the heart of the city’s industrial area. The house had no electricity, but it had a wood stove, so every morning the children took turns chopping wood and feeding the fire for warmth, and the occasional bath. Brown Dog slept by the fire and guarded the door in case the children were discovered by police or other thieves. The girl easily made friends with criminals, the insane, librarians, animals and outlaws. She was not comfortable around normal people and they mostly would not have her even though she had a gentle spirit, and all she ever wanted was to make music and write poems. Eventually Brown Dog and the girl made their way out of the enchanted icy city, and found a home near the ocean and the mountains. Brown Dog grew old and ill, and his fur started falling out. He died in a park in the deep heat of summer with his head in the girl’s lap. The girl grieved mightily, because she knew she would never again find such a loyal friend, but she made music and she pushed words together and discovered that moments of joy and moments of sorrow aren’t all that much different.


Ivy said...

Fantastic. Brava!

Collin Kelley said...

Rebecca even gives glorious interview responses. She's brilliant!

peter said...

I kind of like Rebecca's poems and I have a ton of respect for the presses she's published with, and I try not to be a negative guy, but interviews like this are why most people don't like poets and poetry. this is all ego and i'm so great and special and artsy! aren't I original and fantastic. I'm practically magic! it's all a little much for me....

Radish King said...

At least I never listed my occupation as "Imaginer." *snort*

I am so sorry for the lost boys who have misplaced their magic.

Thank you, Ivy and Kelley.


peter said...

actually Rebecca, you're right about the "imaginer" thing. i just changed that as it did look silly.

no need to feel sorry for me as i'm neither a lost boy nor a magician.

as a matter of fact, it's the idea of the magician artist that bothers me.

but, hey, i guess we all have ideas.....

Radish King said...

The magic and enchantment are, in fact, a part of the book, but not my life. The book is not me nor am I the book. Nor any of my books, though this one comes closest.

I guess by the time you get to your 4th book, they start writing themselves, not in a magical way, but by the writer's practice, which I stressed several times during the interview. Nothing magical about practice. I think it's absolute necessary and not much fun and it's where art evolves.

I would have laughed at your "Imaginer" had I run across your blog accidentally rather than following it from here. You should have left it up.