Spotlight: Melissa Kwasny

The Possibility of Wholeness

Interview by Melinda Wilson

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Melissa Kwasny’s first three books regularly engage various thinkers and “philosophies of the land.” Her fourth book, The Nine Senses, uses her earlier work as a launching pad to something fresh: an enactment of “what [she has] learned.” The spellbinding prose poem series is a can’t-miss in 2o11; the following interview was conducted by telephone and e-mail in May 2011. Kwasny’s other three books are Reading Novalis in Montana (Milkweed Editions), Thistle (Lost Horse Press), and The Archival Birds (Bear Star Press).  She is also the editor of  Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry 1800-1950 (Wesleyan University Press) and co-editor, with M.L. Smoker of the recent poetry anthology in defense of global human rights, I Go to the Ruined Place (Lost Horse Press).  She lives in western Montana.


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MW:  During our phone conversation, you told me a little bit about living in Montana —  the very long winters and the fact that there can simultaneously exist “mounds of snow and buttercups.” How does the sometimes contradictory nature of your surroundings impact your writing? And how did it change or inform the writing of your latest collection The Nine Senses?

MK:  Montana is, on the one hand, a recreationist’s paradise, and on the other, the site of massacres, of the military defeat of native peoples and a take over of their land. It is a place where pictographs and petroglyphs from visionary ceremonies a thousand years ago and more still mark the stones and caves and cliffs around me, though they are now often the site of beer parties and racist graffiti. As a white person, this contradiction—knowledge of the painful and on-going history of American colonialism along with a sense of the beauty and power of the mountains and rivers—is felt as more immediate in Montana, what with its seven reservations and its twelve tribal Nations. It is a contradiction I live with and write with. In my own work, what I have learned from the American Indian people I encounter as friends, artists, colleagues, as well as in the diverse literatures that make up the body of what we call traditional and contemporary Native poetry and fiction, exists alongside Western European traditions and poetries, especially in regard to ideas about how to forge a meaningful relationship to the earth.

My previous book Reading Novalis in Montana was my most direct engagement with these contradictions; studying early Romanticism, with its notion of a correspondence between the natural and spiritual worlds and its emphasis on the dialectic between inner and outer realms of thought, made me aware of its similarities in world view with many American Indian beliefs and practices. (I have often wondered if the fascination and popularity with which Europe greeted the discovery of tribal life in America in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century played a part in the development of thought in European Romanticism.)

In The Nine Senses, I pay less attention to naming the continuities and discontinuities among philosophies of the land, less to mapping them, and more toward actually living what I have learned. What might it be like to live in resonance with the natural world? In the epigraph for the new book, I quote the eminent Sufi scholar Henry Corbin speaking of a way to imagine the earth that seems akin to the visionary practices of certain American Indian tribes: “It is much less a matter of answering questions concerning essences (‘what is it?’) than questions concerning persons (‘who is it?’ or ‘to whom does it correspond?’) for example, who is the earth? who are the waters, the plants, the mountains. . .?” In the poems that make up The Nine Senses, I am trying to enact that switch in pronouns in my own consciousness, asking of all those I encounter, including the non-human, who are you?

You also mentioned that you write early and everyday. Can you talk a bit more about your writing process?

I know someone who makes her living talking to animals, often when they are ill or bad mannered, hired by their owners who cannot figure out what is wrong with them.  Whether one believes in this ability or not, I recognize something of my own practice in hers: she simply begins by asking the animals if they will talk with her. Then, she pays attention to thoughts on the margin of daily consciousness, to dreams at night, to insights and intuitions until she feels that they have said yes, that she has established a connection. When I am interested in something, whether it is a particular flower, a shell, a grove of bamboo, or something larger, like the inner mysteries of illness or the history of shamanism, the difference between a city of art and a city of love—all subjects in The Nine Senses— or when I am worrying something I read, I put out the call. Well, really, I don’t know who initiates the conversation, attention being one of the holiest of mysteries. The poem becomes the collaboration between us. I talk into the Image. I have faith in an individual and intimate response. Much occurs in the writing itself, of course, the writing by hand, the writing out of doors, in particular the doors of the self.

Both Reading Novalis in Montana and The Nine Senses reference the work of philosophers Novalis and Henry Corbin. How and why were the poems in these collections informed by their ideas?

Novalis, as you may know, was a German mystic poet who lived from 1772 to 1801 and was one of the early proponents of what we have come to call Romanticism.  The German Romantic idea—one that greatly influenced poets Wordsworth and Coleridge and through them, writers like Emerson and Thoreau—was posited on the notion of correspondences, that the natural world is a mirror or lens or double for the divine presences symbolized by it, a correspondence between inner and outer worlds.  Reading Novalis in Montana is an exploration of those correspondences as well as a dialogue with other writers—Romantic and otherwise—who have thought about our relationship with nature, asking the question of what it might mean, in this country, at this time, to read the images of the inner and outer world.

There is also the notion of a lost world, not an Eden, not a paradise taken away by a god but one lost to our modern consciousness, one where humans spoke with animals and plants and where we were, thus, more whole. (The poet “blends himself with all the creatures of nature, one might say feels himself into them,” Novalis wrote.) Novalis, like many Romantics and later modernists like Ezra Pound in his Cantos, Joyce in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, H.D. in her Trilogy, Eliot in The Wasteland, believed in the possibility of wholeness, that if we could amass enough knowledge, if we could just see the larger picture, we, as creative beings, could see into the mystery that is the wholeness of the world. Novalis was collecting fragments toward an Encyclopedia of Universal Knowledge when he died, in his twenties. Pound famously said, “I cannot make it cohere.” Eliot talked about “these fragments I have shored against my ruin.” Novalis said, ” The incomplete still appears the most bearable.” In Reading Novalis in Montana, I am exploring some of these Romantic and Post-Romantic ideas through the lens of living in contemporary Montana, a place, as you say, of many contradictions.

In The Nine Senses, I wanted to expand my attempts to “feel” myself into the many forms of non-human life I encounter. Henry Corbin, whom I mentioned earlier when speaking of the epigraph to the entire book, is my preceptor here, in so much as most of his explanations of Iranian mysticism, i.e. Sufism, center on the visionary properties of the Image. In many marvelous books that have framed my thinking on the dialectic of inner and outer image—Spiritual Body, Celestial Earth; Alone with the Alone:  Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi: Avicenna and the Visionary Recital—he articulates a creative process that begins with the image as “an organ of perception.” If, as Novalis and the Romantics would say, all appearance has an exoteric and esoteric presence, an inner and outer being, how can the imagination be a tool to navigate between them? The Image, Corbin would explain, is a door, a way to see that opens up to the fullness of being. In the Sufi meditations which Corbin speaks of, which he calls “visionary recitals,” the mystic brings the outer image inside, converses with it, sees herself in relationship with it, a method of utilizing the Creative, as opposed to passive, Imagination. In this way, he distinguishes vision from dreams. I find this to be a wonderful description of what can occur within the experience of writing a poem.

Incidentally, the title of the book, The Nine Senses, comes from something I read in a book now lost and forgotten, but one also about the Sufis. It said that, for them, there were nine senses. In addition to the five with which we are familiar, there are four more: telekinesis, telepathy, teleportation, and clairvoyance. I am sure that there are many more. I think of the poems in this book as a result of my own practicing of this kind of “recital,” albeit far less disciplined and more westernized in its approach.

These two collections also differ in many ways. The first things I notice, for instance, are the visual representations of the poems on the page. The long lines of Reading Novalis . . . obviously contrast with the block prose poems of The Nine Senses. What do you see as the two books’ primary differences?

In addition to what I have spoken of already, there is the obvious formal difference: lined lyric verse vs. the prose poem. It seems obvious to me only now that I have been moving from the short-lined tight lyric of Thistle to the longer line in Reading Novalis (which allows me to say more and more widely) to the next step, that of prose. But there are other differences, perhaps generated by change in form—H.D.: “A new cadence means a new idea.” I learned much from the Imagists when I was young, especially from H.D., who was an early love, from her Modernist museum of moments caught of light or wind or weather. But, as I say in a poem in Reading Novalis, “Even she knew that image was not enough.” One sees an Image. One responds. A knowledge comes out of it, not explaining it, but disclosing something else. My response lets me see more, whether the response is intellectual or emotional, and hence, the progression of images and responses in what becomes a weaving—or sometimes careening—back and forth between inner and outer perception, something that seems fitting for the prose poem. Image as ongoing revelation in ongoing syntax. Placing things next to each other as our lives do, and moving on. As the Syrian poet Adonis writes, in his Introduction to Arab Poetics, “The image is a becoming, a change of state.

What attracted you to the prose poem style which you used in The Nine Senses?

The Nine Senses is very much influenced by my reading of René Char’s poems, both the prose poems and the aphoristic sequences in Leaves of Hypnos. During the years I was writing the poems in this book, my friend Robert Baker was translating a late book of Char’s, The Word as Archipelago, forthcoming from Omnidawn Press. Every few days, or weeks, I would get an exquisite newly translated poem in the mail, a quiet and slow, almost liturgical way to read and absorb poems of such mastery and complexity. I saw that Char was doing what I had wanted to learn to do, i.e. follow the image into its mysteries. He is able to leap from image to statement to image, each disclosing the other, in a form that is always surprising, never narrative:  “An earth that was beautiful has entered its death throes, beneath the gaze of fluttering sisters, in the presence of insane sons,” he writes in the poem “We Have.” It seemed to me an internal language, a shamanic language—in the aforementioned book, he has a series of poems inspired by his visits to the cave paintings at Lascaux—one emerging out of trance and great pain, one that seems to come from the earth itself.  Helen Vendler once said of Char, “he writes with absolute candor, but in a secret language.” I continue to learn much from his employment of this secret language, though my poems do not pretend to reach his heights and depths.

Many of your poems also speak to the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Can you describe this relationship and perhaps comment on the role of plant life in the new book?

The Persians had a language of flowers, which was a sacred language. Flowers were seen as instruments of contemplation; as I say in the first poem of the book, entitled “The Language of Flowers,” they are “the liturgy of the angels.” Plants have always been a source of healing for me, not only in their medicinal power, but also in their beauty. Shape, color, fragrance, even the names of flowers set us dreaming–rose, hyacinth, lavender, violet, iris—as if by merely saying them we could move from the ordinary into the magic.

In an essay on the flower image in a manuscript I have just completed, entitled “Earth Recitals: Essays on Image and Vision,” I reference an article I read by John Felstiner about Paul Celan. In it, he speaks of a form of Romanian folk elegy called the doîna, wherein a specific plant is matched to a specific grief. He writes that Celan often did this, as if the presence or name of the plant could mitigate some of the pain. I do this, too, albeit not so consciously, but it is rare to find a poem of mine without some plant in it. They are a touchstone in my days, their world one I am always paying attention to.

The poems in this book are pensive. “The Nightingale’s Excuse,” for instance, contains the lines, “Our lives have changed. How is it we didn’t notice? We are gray haired, wandering among the ruins,” alluding to questions regarding mortality, loss and the passing of time. But in the poem, the speaker notes, “Perhaps we are at the end of time.” What is the speaker feeling in this poem?

“The Nightingale’s Excuse” is inspired by the epic Iranian poem “The Conference of the Birds,” written by Farid ud-din Attar in the twelfth century (I write more in depth about this poem in an essay with the same title, which appears in this summer’s issue of Pleiades). In the poem, all the birds are summoned to go on a quest for god, but they each have their excuses. The pigeon has its work to do. The owl wants to stay within its ruins. The nightingale cannot bear to leave the rose. I was thinking of the feeling of being too in love with what one knows to venture into the unknown, in this case, into the bewilderment of new love, specifically new love when one is not young. In the Iranian poem, “the conferences and talks and discourses of the birds ” take place in what is called the 6th valley, the Valley of Astonishment and Bewilderment. Love asks us to give up what we know, whether it is our time on earth, our way of being, or the self, which often makes us lose our orientation. This is what the poem ends with, the image of the self as a “nest constructed of field grass and flower paste,” one that , if we want to continue to grow, we must give up.

You mention many different artists throughout this book—poets, painters, filmmakers, philosophers. Which have had the greatest influence on your work, and why?

Well, Morris Graves is certainly a tutelary presence in the book. Known as one of the Northwest Metaphysical painters, his titles, like those of Paul Klee, are poems in themselves: Little Known Bird of the Inner Eye, Bird Maddened by the Sound of Machinery in the Air. I appropriate some of his titles in the poems, especially from the last series he did, which were paradoxically, for someone engaged with depicting spiritual reality, of bouquets of flowers: Ground for a New Goddess. Winter Bouquet. What drew me to Graves was, naturally, his love of both inner and outer vision, his capacity to paint flowers in the street market that look as if they are glowing with spiritual light. Char, Corbin, and, of course, Gaston Bachelard, whose thinking about the image is brilliant in one of the touchstone books in my life, The Poetics of Space, where he says that the image allows us “to think and dream at the same time.”

How long do you typically work on a collection of poems before you feel the manuscript is complete?

There is no typical. The first book, The Archival Birds, was the longest, possibly because it took so long to be accepted and I just kept writing new poems and throwing the weaker ones out. On the other hand, it took me over a year to write the long poem entitled “The Directions” in Reading Novalis. It felt ceremonial. It felt as if I had to live each stage of it before I progressed to the next. Right now, I’m writing poems focused on pictographs and petroglyphs I have been studying and visiting here in Montana, Canada, and other parts of the Northwest. I have been doing this for over two years. I don’t see the end of it.