Snapshot with Christie Ann Reynolds
2006 was the first time I heard a Christie Ann Reynolds’ poem. We were both enrolled in a workshop class taught by Prageeta Sharma. Enamored with her work, I introduced myself to her after class and we’ve been friends ever since. Over the years, we have exchange poems and manuscripts, have curated a reading series, and have sat on a panel for AWP together. There has been a lot of poetry and a lot of poetry talk. Below is an email interview where we discuss her debut collection of poems, Sylvia Plath’s influence, the concepts of beauty and ugly, and the poem as a séance. Enjoy.
“I Say: Everything Is Female In The Dark”
Snapshot: Christie Ann Reynolds
SK: Congrats on your first book, Revenge for Revenge. How long did you spend writing it? When you submitted it to Coconut Books did you consider the book done, or did you spend a significant time revising and reshaping the book after it was accepted for publication?
CAR: Thanks Steven! I suppose I wrote all of the poems between 2009-2012. I spent A LOT of time editing. But with that said, there are some poems I’ve never touched. The content of second and third parts of the first section were barely edited. I played around with spacing and capitalization but the lines are essentially the way I wrote them in 2011, on a bench in the Tate Modern in London while drooling over the Jenny Holzer room. If you want to get into the idea of crossed destinies (a theory provided to me by a musician friend) I have to say I think Jenny Holzer and I are connected by an apocalypse that occurred inside my being. I have a physical reaction to her work. When I have needed “guidance” or “direction” I turn to Holzer, as well as Plath and Fiona Apple. Their work exemplifies two things I admire: organization and freedom. I appreciate when both have no assigned entrance. In addition, there is a femaleness on the forefront and a fearlessness with which that is demonstrated.
When I submitted work to Bruce Covey, I sent him two manuscripts and the final book was a conglomeration of the two. However, I had a lot of poems in the first manuscript that were in previous chapbooks and I decided not to include them, so the cutting was not tedious. What was tedious was trusting myself and Bruce’s guidance because it was so hard for me to step back from the poems and see them as apart from me. It was difficult to have someone else say, “These are good! I want to publish these! And the order is great!” I was elated when my book was chosen. But in many ways I also felt like someone died. I think now it was just about the Me in that book. It was free.
SK: Let’s talk a little bit more about Plath since she’s so central to your relationship with poetry. Do you remember what the first Plath poem was that stunned you? I remember a workshop class I had with Crystal Bacon and she read “Daddy.” I was fairly new to poetry i.e. poorly read (outside of the Beats and a little Whitman) and remember thinking Wow! poems can do that? Looking back, I realize that most of the reading I had done up to that point (freshman in college) was probably all very “male”( thinking about this in relation to your comment of “femaleness on the forefront and fearlessness”)– luckily I had amazing professors who generously made me reading lists which included Bishop, Plath, Sexton, Stein, etc.
CAR: Actually, the first Plath I read was The Bell Jar. I didn’t know any “Esther’s” but desperately wanted to. Where were all the girls with dark and serious thoughts? I only saw them in books. From there, I found her poetry and her journals. The first poem I remember reading over and over was “Lady Lazarus”. At the time, poetry was still a very secretive thing for me. I didn’t actually show anyone my poems until high school, even though I had been writing for a number of years.
SK: Crystal Bacon followed “Daddy” with “Lady Lazarus” and by the time she finished it felt like all the air was sucked out of the class- it was bad-ass! Let’s talk about the organization of your book which is comprised of four sections which contain untitled poems that spread out across pages, as well as poems which seem to be written towards a title (“Revenge Poems” and “Mirage Poems”). Could you talk a little bit about your writing process?
CAR: Most of the organization process happened after. Many titles came first or were applied later when I realized, hey, this is a “revenge” or “mirage” poem. The first two sections were written quite organically and never had titles. I did organize the book as if to take a tour through stages of grieving but it was never on the forefront. I didn’t intend to do that to force meaning, but in the back of my mind, it was important for me to exhibit different head-spaces or emotional vernacular, because many of the poems are all really about a similar feeling.
I did think about dispersing all of the poems, even those with similar titles, throughout the book. But each section felt completely like its own person. I didn’t think I could deconstruct my grief in a way that was fair to the poems. All of the “revenge poems” and “mirage poems” and “mirror poems” really needed to be with each other, in my mind. When you take them out of context, they still survive on their own. But for me, putting them together was a way to overwhelm reader in the way I wanted to overwhelm. I like repetition. I like overdoing things. I like a kind of disaster inside false perfection. The false perfection being sections.
SK: I love this idea of “disaster inside false perfection”! Can I steal it- haha.
CAR: I’ll share any secrets with you, Steven!
SK: Riffing off this idea of repetition and overwhelming the reader, I had read a lot of the poems as they were published in journals, so was pleasantly surprised how different my experience was when I read the book! The poems, one in succession of the other, built a power as if wave after another were crashing down on me. I think the arrangement of poems and sections in the book make a powerful experience for a reader. One feels as if they have just sat through an opera where both our intellect and emotions have ping-ponged from the utter depths of despair and extreme heights of ecstasy.
CAR: Wow, Steven, thanks. I think that’s a really interesting point–the ping-ponging between despair and ecstasy. Those emotions are so very close and there’s a very fine line of self-awareness that often becomes invisible in times of chaos.
SK: I think one of the more astounding things about your book is its ability to speak and seethe. You’ve managed to harness language without losing any of its emotional electricity. In many of the poems, there is a constant embracing of ugly such as in “Revenge Of All That Is Capable Of Being Revenged,” “I’d like you to be so ugly/ That no one in the audience will listen/ To me because they’re busy telling their love/ How ugly you are and how if you were beside / Someone uglier/ Or just as ugly/ You would cancel out/ Like the light through a prism/ And both of you would become the base of all that is beautiful/”. There tends to be a turning point in many of your poems, especially the “Revenge” ones where this “ugly” seems transformative. In a way, your book makes a wonderful argument for blurring the lines or collapsing the ugly and the beautiful. Can you talk a little bit about the embracing of ugly or questioning of the beauty that happens throughout your book?
CAR: I’ve never understood beauty as a purely positive thing. Especially as a child. Beauty was our crystal blue pool water made clear by chemicals–appropriately called “shock”–that my dad would toss into the murk after a winter. In an hour the pool would be magically clear and enticing but we weren’t allowed to swim in it for like three days until it was “safe.”
Beauty was the sky after Hurricane Gloria that hit Long Island in 1985 that tore the trees from our yard, devastated my childhood beach and had us sheltering in our basement for days.
Beauty was the thin stream of blood running from the open mouth of a deer that hung from the ceiling of a friend’s garage, and the venison we later ate, how we stared, unfazed, at the carcass that was on its way to the taxidermist.
I was simultaneously drawn to and revolted by the paradox of these images and events. I remember learning at a very young age that nothing was pure or innocent–even my beloved dog Tara, who once tore into a nest of tiny bunnies right in front of me. Of course, most of my feelings about beauty/ugliness seem to be rooted in the physical world and I think poetry is a place for me to give those feelings and contradictions a body. I’ve always tried to remain aware of how beauty and ugliness might redeem their faults when pressed face to face.
I was a huge believer, and still am, in Sylvia Plath as my “master” writer. I was drawn to the idea that ugliness and darkness have so much power–both because they cannot be ignored but also because they require light. And so I feel beauty in poetry, and in my poems–and also resilience and redemption–are only possible because of what’s terrifying.
In seeking “revenge” especially against myself, I wanted to uncover what can be beautiful and necessary about a loss. Tragedy is also a kind of beauty. I recently spent a day on the beach in the fog with an artist friend and we are about to embark on a collaborative film/writing/performative piece that glorifies the beauty of tragedy. Of course, it is really all about love–first loves.
I have to say I wrote most of these poems as a way to work through negative feelings and experiences, as a way to understand the mirage–that things are sometimes exactly what they seem. At times I wrote the poems as a way back to what I lost. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion believes she can write her late husband John back into existence. For a while I thought if I tried hard enough, I could do a similar thing. Write something back into my life. The problem is then the poem is just a séance–the mirage or ghost of what was can be conjured but never held.
Overall, the turning point you mention is what I’ve come to see as maybe, a subconscious realization that it was impossible to will something to return through a poem.
Poem as séance.
SK: Since the release of the book, you’ve managed to do few readings. Where have been so far? Any upcoming readings planned?
CAR: Oh! I love readings. I sort of burned myself out this fall and held off on a lot of readings until this summer when I read for Gigantic on Governor’s Island for The New York Poetry Society Festival. This past year I traveled to San Francisco, LA, Denver, Boston, Raleigh, Baltimore, D.C., and will read this upcoming year in Madison, Miami (when you invite me!), hopefully Providence and at Emory University in Atlanta. I’m taking things as they come but I enjoy readings–reading to people and meeting poets all over the place.
SK: What’s next or what are you currently working on?
CAR: That is a secret, ha, ha. I’m writing poems more slowly since I started a full time teaching position at a demanding private school this past year. But I’m also working on a sort of young adult/fictional-memoir. I’ve been taking notes on it for years and these past few weeks have had me working on it more diligently than I thought. I think it is difficult for poets to create stellar characters because we are so great with imagery and setting. I’m trying not to have a whole book about the setting of this one magical place I spent part of my adolescence. It is going slowly but I’m enjoying “writing sentences.”
I was also awarded an Editors Choice Award to travel to Vilnius, Lithuania to attend the Summer Literary Seminars. I took a poetry workshop and seminar class with Eileen Myles (thrilled!) and a photography class with Andrew Miksys. The real art was in the fact that Jenny Zhang and I shared an apartment in the city center. We almost lived together about year ago and now my dreams came true.
SK: Would you rather be in the cast of Girls, Revenge, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
CAR: GIRLS! I already live in their ‘hood.
SK: Greenpoint Represent! Who or what were you in your past life?
CAR: Oh, no. This is not something to be shared.
SK: If a film was based on your life, who would play you: Christie Brinkley, Agatha Christie, or Christie Ann Burson?
CAR: Hahaha. Um… My namesake is Christie Brinkley but I’m way more of an Agatha Christie.
SK: Would you rather be a bunny or a lion?
CAR: I’m a Leo–so lion!
SK: Would you rather be a warlock or a soothsayer?
SK: Would you rather be a famous unicorn or salty old dragon?
CAR: Famous unicorn.
SK: If you were in a band would you be the lead singer/rhythm guitarist, lead guitarist, bass player, or the drummer?
CAR: Lead singer.
SK: Final question, if you were a tree would you be a deciduous or a coniferous?
CAR: I would be a tree that has evolved to exist as both.
Christie Ann Reynolds is the author of Revenge for Revenge (Coconut Books 2012). She grew up on eastern Long Island and lives in Brooklyn. Christie Ann has a BA from Hofstra University, an MFA from The New School and is a Poets & Writers Amy Award winner (2012). She is a past curator of Stain of Poetry reading series and currently co-curates TOTEM, a multimedia series. Christie Ann teaches writing and science at a middle school in Manhattan.
Steven Karl writes for Coldfront Magazine. His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Keyhole, jubilat NOÖ Journal, and Typo. His debut book, Dork Swagger is forthcoming from Coconut Books and he lives in Miami, Florida.