Spotlight: Laura Sims
Interview by Melinda Wilson
[The following is transcribed from an interview held in Sims’s office in Manhattan on December 16, 2009]
Let’s start with the book’s title. The book is centered around the death of the speaker’s mother. So, at first, it seems that “stranger” wouldn’t accurately reflect the relationship between the speaker and her mother, but rather the relationship between the speaker and the world as it exists without her mother in it. How does the book’s title inform the reader about the collection?
That’s a really interesting reading of the title. I actually hadn’t thought of it in that way before, but I like it, and I think it’s perceptive. I personally think of the title primarily as a reflection of the speaker’s relationship with her mother. Even if my mother had lived – I guess I should say the “speaker’s mother,” but oh well – it’s so hard to really know your parents, and since I lost my mother when I was 19, there are a lot of gaps and blanks in my memory and knowledge of her. I have some stories that she told me, photographs, family home movies, and then I have what remains of my memories. But that doesn’t make a whole person, so part of writing the book for me was an attempt (primarily abortive) to put together a more complete picture of her and also to reflect on how much I didn’t know, and how painful that is to realize this person that you love, who is the most important person in your life, is in many ways a stranger – especially when they leave your life so early. And then, of course, there is death as the stranger, since a lot of the second half of the book is exploring what I conceived of as her death and her experience of death and the afterlife.
That’s really interesting, the idea that you can never really know another person, particularly your parents, because you know them in such a specific way.
Right. They’re not real people. At age 19, I was on the border between childhood and adulthood, and now, looking at how some of my friends’ relationships with their mothers changed when they reached their twenties and thirties, I can see that I missed out on that entirely – getting to know her as a person, not just a parent.
I also noticed that the book is divided into five separate sections. Though each section is titled, the titles – for example, “Another Country,” and “Elsewhere” – are somewhat evasive. They seem to suggest the unknown or at least the unfamiliar. What do these titles represent for the speaker?
I think they represent the unknown and/or the unknowable, just as you’ve said. Even as you’re trying to write about death and trying to delineate the experience of grief, there’s so much that remains beyond certainty, beyond human experience, so the titles gesture towards saying, “actually, this is more about what I don’t know and what I can’t know than it is about what I know.”
Are those sections purely chronological?
I think that they are now. When I was first putting the book together, they weren’t.
How did you decide on their organization?
My editor, Rebecca Wolff, was really influential in saying, you need to put this in chronological order because it’s already so abstract and suggestive that the lack of linear(ish) movement gets in the way of reader comprehension. And I agreed.
The poems themselves are deeply fragmented and sparse. There’s an abundance of blank space on most pages. How does the form the poems take reflect the narrator’s consciousness? What does the blank space indicate?
I definitely think that both the fragmentation and the blank space are – again, like the titles – indicative of this unknowable quantity, the blank spaces in our knowledge of life and death. At first, I was trying to write what I conceived of as a kind of memoir – this book has been around for fourteen years for me, evolving through different forms – but even though it started as something more recognizable as a memoir, it began to seem like a lie to tell it that way. My experience of her death was not this whole, satisfying narrative; it was fragmented and confusing and full of awful blanks.
Your mother passed away in 1992; this book was published in 2009. When did you begin writing about her, or when did you begin conceiving a book like this?
I started writing about her death while she was still alive, but very ill. And then in 1994, I wrote a series of poems about her death for my honors thesis in college – I think I called it “Offering” – cheesy! – and that was the first step down this very long road to writing Stranger.
Can you name some of the collections that influenced that first version?
Most of the books I read were by confessional poets; at the time, I didn’t know much beyond that kind of aesthetic in “modern poetry.” Robert Lowell’s Life Studies; Michael Harper’s Nightmare Begins Responsibility, about his infant sons’ deaths, and Frank Bidart’s Golden State, to name a few. A few years after graduating from college, I took the poems of “Offering,” or rather the idea behind them, and turned them into prose, so for many years I was working on this as a prose manuscript. And it still wasn’t quite right for me, and then in 2006 – this was after a long time of playing with it – I tried to make it into more fragmented prose pieces, and finished a whole prose manuscript, called List, but I still wasn’t satisfied, so I took List and used it kind of as a found text and wrote the poems in Stranger from those. And wrote new poems to supplement them as well.
That’s quite a process.
Yes. It was very long.
At any point did you just put it away and not deal with it for some time?
I think through those years I definitely did a couple times, but it was always there, in the background. I couldn’t let it go.
You mentioned some other collections that you felt influenced by. Who would you say are your influences?
Well, in general, especially in the last ten years, my influences have included Barbara Guest, Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen, Rae Armantrout, C.D. Wright, Cole Swensen and Robert Creeley, to name a few big ones. Stranger in particular was really influenced by prose writers, too – David Markson’s brilliant tetralogy beginning with Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams were very influential.
Yes, I felt a similarity between your work and Armantrout’s. I also noticed that one of the blurbs on the back of the book mentions Nietzsche’s belief that “Only that which does not cease to hurt remains in memory.” There’s a lot of memory in this book, or memorializing. There are photographs; there’s filming. The poems are elegiac. First, do you agree with Nietzsche’s statement? Secondly, can you elaborate on the function of memory in these poems?
I do agree, but it’s tricky because at the point – in 2006 or so – when I was finally forming the book as it is now, the raw hurt, for the most part, had abated. But I was working with material that had been written when I was still experiencing the acute pain of loss and grief, so the emotion is there in the lines, it’s just that I was manipulating the material at a kind of remove.
Memory functions in these poems in a number of ways; the shards of preserved memories – glimpses, moments, phrases, feelings, etc. – are crucial, of course, but on the flipside, the fragments, blank spaces, and uncertainties reveal those memories to be questionable at best. The failure of memory is foremost. This ties back, of course, to the idea that what is unknown is larger and more present than what is known. Memories are lost, or parts of memories are lost, leaving you with ideas of a lost person that are false or full of holes.
Memory is flawed.
Yes, very flawed.
Well, one poem that seems to speak directly to memory is “In her holiday dress for the world” on page 4. Would you mind reading the poem aloud, and then I’ll ask a question?
[Sims reads the poem]
In her holiday dress for the world
Whitewashed for her
[Her father filming the primitive living room dance]
Worn like a bonnet of lead
Above the world, the plain, and the barrow
[Still for a moment]
In pictures come softly, blurry and sweet
at the edges. She gets so close to the lens that her face
dissolves. What’s left is a red-and-white blur by the tinseled pine.
And her mother’s grin.
And her father directing her: backwards, forwards, a bit to the side. She
How am I?
It’s funny because what most readers think of as the second part (beginning with “dissolves”) is really (in my mind) a separate prose poem, but it’s impossible to express that on the page; they just blur into each other. But that’s as it should be, really.
I was going to ask you about that because as a reader the poems are complex to navigate. But my question here is about the distinct change in voice in the last few lines of the poem. The syntax of the line “How am I?” is surprising. What is the speaker experiencing in these final lines?
I think a lot of it is about the speaker’s (the mother, in this case) relationship with her father. This section of the book, called “Blank,” is supposed to show her development from early childhood to adulthood, so I was trying to show her at this very crucial point where she is becoming a young adult, becoming a woman. In those last few lines, she’s growing up, but she is also still seeking that approval that she gets very firmly in the first part from her father. She is still needy and uncertain about her identity, about who she is and if she is the way she’s supposed to be, according to him.
The book becomes an exploration, but more specifically, an exploration of death, and the speaker contemplates, maybe even attempts to resolve, some large questions. For instance, what happens to one’s essence after the physical body has expired. To what extent does the death of the body bring the death of one’s whole being?
I think that’s what I’m trying to figure out in the second half of the book in general. And of course there’s no answer. I think there is a hope present in that section of the book that the death of the body does not necessarily mean the death of the whole being, but the images of the afterlife in the poems aren’t exactly appealing, either. So there’s hope, but it’s mingled with fear and uncertainty, as it must be.
Let’s go back to the mother-daughter relationship for a minute. The mother-daughter relationship in this book is compelling. Can you speak about the significance of mother-daughter relationships?
Sure. I think that it’s the essential bond – I mean the mother-child bond – but that it can be especially potent (for better or worse) when you have mother-daughter, because they’re the same sex. It makes for another degree of closeness. For me, that was the primary relationship in my life for many years. I was an only child, and grew up with my mother alone after my parents divorced. She remarried when I was about 9, but until then we had each other. So yes, the relationship is significant, and when it is lost, especially at a relatively early stage, it can have devastating consequences.
Your mother was, as you said, the primary relationship in your life – you didn’t have siblings. Does that change the relationship, make it stronger?
Absolutely. When I was 6 and my mother started dating the man she’d marry a few years later, I remember (and here’s a tricky memory moment – I “remember” because my mother told me) telling her that she shouldn’t have any more children, but if she did, “it” would have to sleep outside. I had no interest in sharing my mother, and even my stepfather had a hard time winning me over. We had an intense bond.
You mentioned the word “border” earlier, and I’m very glad you did because many borderlands are established in the collection. For instance, crossing from life into death, from childhood into adulthood. The speaker finds herself facing a world without her mother; she finds herself suddenly on the front lines, without that protection, without that relationship. How does the loss of a mother or mother figure differ from the loss of others in one’s life?
I think, again, it goes back to the strength of that primary bond; nothing can compare with losing that, and in losing it you’re thrust into adulthood. I wasn’t that young when she died, but after her death I certainly felt older than most of my college friends who came from complete homes and still had that buffer protecting them. I envied them. A loss like that can throw you off track – instead of getting thrown off track, though, I threw myself into my schoolwork, and got very involved in school activities. I think of that time now as a kind of frenzied refusal to lose myself in her death, although I certainly grieved.
In the poem “What breaks,” the following lines appear: “From the public mind // Into wilderness.” Here is an example of a borderland that I was referring to. Can you describe that transition for the speaker from the public mind to wilderness?
It’s passing from life into death or whatever is beyond death, the afterlife. This is the moment of her death.
So, is that transition or that crossing of that border one that takes place solely for the mother? Does the speaker experience a similar crossing into new circumstances in her life?
Well, sometimes the speaker is the mother – and sometimes the speaker is the daughter, or both, or possibly someone else. In this poem, the mother is experiencing that particular transition.
There is constant awakening and reawakening in this collection, or interpretation and reinterpretation through different lenses. It almost seems as though the speaker is trying to decide on a specific interpretation that she feels comfortable with, that works for her. The following lines, “It stuns me / It stuns me to be alive / It stuns me to be alive in the waffle house” use repetition, but each line adds more detail. Would you call this an awakening for the speaker, and what might she be awakening to?
Yes. To the reality, the awful reality of life right after her mother’s death. It’s funny — that moment has lasted through every revision of the manuscript since 1995.
How about the poem on page 17? Would you mind reading it?
[Sims reads the poem]
[Is this what life
And then I existed
To the stairs
At the back of my head]
This poem reminds me of Mark Strand’s “The Night, the Porch,” but much more intimate, personal. It seems to speak of an intrinsic connection between the speaker and the universe, a connection that exists before birth and after death, through all time. How do you characterize that connection?
I think that’s beautifully put. This poem hopefully resonates with the first poem in the book, “Seemed to have crossed a dark lake,” which gestures towards the mother’s birth. I wanted to express this sense of coming from something eternal, something that exists before and after life, and the speaker (the daughter, then) is trying to reconnect with that something (desperately) in the “Elsewhere” section, later in the book.
The poems in the book are very human, and therefore easy to relate to. In the poem “Those not worthy are scattered wide,” you write, “Everything went on as usual, outside // I craved a great earthquake.” The speaker’s frustration is understandable; she feels alone in a difficult experience, but the poem allows the readers to share in the experience, so it seems that the poem itself might help to bridge that gap. In other words, how can poetry be an effective tool in working through loss or other hardships?
I’ve had really lovely personal responses to the book from people who have experienced some type of grief – which is most people – who say they identified with it or that it really captured what they were feeling, too. I think that’s possible, even though the experience is different for everyone. Hopefully there is something universal about going through loss and grief that people can identify with in Stranger, but that shouldn’t leave out people who haven’t experienced it…yet. As Elizabeth Robinson says in her blurb on the back: “…into experience that we all know, or will.” No one escapes this particular experience, unfortunately.
And the writing of the poems…I mean again, you spent so long with this particular material. Was it a useful tool for you?
It was. I think it was necessary, and it’s not like I sat down and said, “I’m going to work through this by writing,” but that’s what I did. It did help.
Will you read “She felt”?
Those hidden things
From the pervious
I looked for myself
And the woods were vocal
In the grudgingly unified
The second section of the poem especially demonstrates some internal conflict for the speaker. Is it possible to truly know oneself? We’ve talked a bit about the nature of relationships with others, but what about oneself?
It is very difficult to know yourself – and when you’re struggling to know yourself, especially if you’re an adult with relationships and responsibilities, you can’t exempt yourself from maintaining your interpersonal relationships, either. So here, the speaker (the mother) seems to be experiencing an identity crisis in the midst of a much larger crisis, but she has to, or thinks she has to, continue presenting a unified self for her daughter’s sake. I was trying to imagine how hard it must have been for my mother to put on a “brave face” when I know she was terrified and confused. I think it is very difficult, and maybe impossible, to fully know yourself, and that a crisis like this necessarily brings your identity into question – what has it meant to be “me” this whole time? And what am I now that I’m about to die? And, finally, what will I be?
How can that “knowing” be achieved? Or how do our experiences or inexperiences shape our understanding of ourselves?
I think life experiences, especially the big ones, good or bad, can help you – or force you to – understand yourself. For me, the primary way I “get to know myself” is through writing – what I feel, what I think, etc. It’s also a way to solidify that self-understanding – putting it down in words is reassuring.
Throughout Stranger the speakers are constantly attempting to absorb their own emotions, again, to make them understandable, knowable in some way. In an essay about Rae Armantrout, Stephen Burt writes, “there is no…uncorrupted language reserved for true sentiment … We do not make up the words we use; instead we take in and send out language in mostly unexamined pieces.” And I felt that the quote was not just applicable to Rae Armantrout’s poetry, but here as well. When writing poetry, do you find this statement to be true and how do you overcome or employ the ordinary or what we might refer to as “everyday” language?
Yes. I do find it to be true. Most of the language I use is what I’d consider “everyday” or “ordinary,” for that very reason: there is no unique, utterly original way to express “true sentiment.” However original we think we’re being, we’ve received the language from somewhere outside of ourselves, and it’s important to acknowledge that, especially if you’re a writer. Everyday language is the most appropriate language to use for these poems, anyway, because this is an everyday experience, really – as tragic and alienating as it seemed to me at the time, the loss of a loved one is one of the most common human experiences. So what better way to translate the experience than by using ordinary language?
It seems like some of the fragmentation in the book lends itself to making the language seem new and totally different. For me, that was one way that it felt so different, so unlike that everyday language.
Yes, I think repetition helps too, those little (but essential) techniques. They help denature the familiar language so the plainness of it is disrupted, which hopefully makes it new and unsettling for the reader.
Your poems in Stranger are remarkably compact, but at times they feel more like scraps or tiny transmissions of consciousness. Why did you choose to employ those short, sparse lines throughout?
Well, that’s really how I write these days – I’m not sure I can claim having made a conscious choice there. But the sparseness also came from my writing/editing process – I was dissatisfied with the book in prose because I felt there was too much language around what I really wanted to say, so I would pare down the lines to what I felt was essential, which usually left a short, spare line. The prose also seemed wrong because of the nature of the book itself – the fragmented, spare line reflected the dissatisfaction and uncertainty at the heart of the book, whereas those blocks of prose always looked too confident and solid.
It’s interesting that the less explaining you do, or the less language you have, the stronger the experience comes through, isolating some of those really important moments. Just to satiate my own curiosity, on page 32, is the line “The world is stuffed” at all derived from or inspired by Berryman’s Dream Songs?
No, but I love The Dream Songs. Is that a line from one of them?
It’s in the voice of Mr. Bones, and he says “is stuffed, / de world, wif feeding girls” in Dreamsong #4. It reminded me of the Berryman line not because of any of the experiences being discussed, but just the line itself – so I was curious.
That’s funny. Maybe I stole it unconsciously. I was trying to capture the aftermath of a traumatic experience – the speaker feels like she’s underwater – her vision is blurred and she’s temporarily deaf and dumb.
How did your relationship with Rebecca Wolff and Fence Books begin and develop?
Let’s see…I submitted to the Alberta Prize several times, and one year I was a finalist, another year I was a semi-finalist. I don’t know why I kept sending; I should have probably given up, but I didn’t. I’m stubborn. Then the third or fourth time I submitted, I got the Alberta Prize. That’s how it started. When I was finished with Stranger, I sent it to Rebecca and we wrote back and forth about it for a while. I made a lot of changes, and after about a year of doing that, she was happy with the manuscript (and so was I). Rebecca’s a great editor – she has particular ideas about what she likes and wants, but she’s always willing to hear me out and can be flexible if I’m not comfortable with a suggestion.
Do you have any readings coming up or are you done reading for this book?
Well, I’m reading in January, in Hartford, Connecticut, but I’m reading from newer work.
Is your new work anything like this in terms of tone or voice?
Maybe voice, a little. But it’s also quite different. I just finished a manuscript of poems about murder. I like to tackle all the happy topics. Some of the poems are told from the perspective of the murderers, and I’ve used a lot of found language from actual testimonies and letters that murderers have written.
Have poems from that collection been published?
Yes. They’ve been published recently in Aufgabe, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, The Raleigh Quarterly, and A Sing Economy (Flim Forum Press).
Is there anything else you’d like to say about Stranger?
Yes – it’s hard to say anything about this book, because it’s so personal. But I’m very happy that I finally finished it and that it’s out in the world – it was something I needed to write, and although it doesn’t adequately memorialize my mother, at least it’s a gesture toward doing that. She comes across in the book only as a shadow or as slivers of herself, but in life she was vibrant, beautiful, and kind – and a wonderful, loving mother.
Laura Sims is the author of Stranger and Practice, Restraint, which won the 2005 Alberta Prize. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in Boston Review, New England Review, Rain Taxi and The Contemporary Review of Fiction. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, and teaches writing at Baruch College in Manhattan. Read Melinda Wilson’s review of Stranger here.