When we started brainstorming for Structure and Style’s third birthday on July 22, we wondered what else we could do differently. And then S had a great idea: let’s talk to some of our favorite poets! (If they’d let us.) Carmen Giménez Smith was the first to graciously accept our request for an interview via email. Here, she responds to R’s questions, especially regarding Milk & Filth.
Structure and Style: I noticed allusions and references to older poets and poems while reading several of your poems: “Lady Lazarus” (you explicitly mention Sylvia Plath in “Parts of an Autobiography,” too), “The Road Not Taken,” “Diving into the Wreck,” and Sharon Olds. How much of your time is spent reading classic/canon poets versus your contemporaries? Which “master poets” do you recommend every aspiring poet study?
Carmen Giménez Smith: When I first started working on this book, I thought of how influential those poets you mentioned were, and I also wanted to acknowledge how important the canonical feminist anthology No More Masks was to my feminism and my aesthetic, so I spent a lot of time thinking about poets who were formative for me. I actually do read a lot more contemporary poetry than canonical poetry, although when I need to return to a specific comfort or influence I’ll read the poets that shaped me. The poets you mentioned are very important, and so are Gillian Conoley, Emily Dickinson, Louise Glück, Mina Loy, Stéphane Mallarmé, Alice Notley, Alicia Ostricker, Wallace Stevens, Cesar Vallejo, and James Wright. I return to again and again: Rosa Alcalá, Daniel Borzutsky, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Julie Carr, Eduardo Chirinos, Shane McCrae, Danielle Pafunda, Claudia Rankine, Denise Riley, Sarah Vap, C.D. Wright.
S&S: What is your writing process for each poem? Do you start with a line, an image, a theme, or an idea? And does it vary from poem to poem?
CGS: I start with sound, with words. The words fall into syntactical slots that also offer me music, and then I try to find how to move ideas and images forward. I’m often at work on a couple of books at a time. It keeps me from stalling, and because each book is its own empire of language, the books stay more or less really different from one another.
Some poems happen because I have a question, like a divination, and so I try and write whatever’s in my head then push it towards some structure.
S&S: Do you revise as you write or do you try to get an entire first draft of a poem on the page and then revise as a whole?
CGS: I try to get what I think is a whole draft, a piece of writing that has some type of rhetorical arc, and I work on it as a completely provisional space, a place to push past the surface of a poem.
S&S: How do you determine the form a poem will take?
CGS: I’m lineating a poem right now that started as a prose poem. I changed it to free verse stanzas of nine because the poem has a pattern that lasts about that long. I needed the tension of an end stop to work as a transition in a couple of places. Because the sentences are variations of one another, I’m looking at ending mostly on end-stopped lines to comment on that music. I don’t know if any of these decisions will stick, but that really is how I work these things out: little micro-changes that create effects on the language.
S&S: In reading “Parts of an Autobiography,” I was struck by how much your poem resembled creative nonfiction (thus the “autobiography” in the title). How did you decide to make this a 111-part list poem instead of, say, an extended essay like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets? (Or would you consider this a hybrid of genres?) How long did this poem take to write and revise?
CGS: The poem is very influenced by work like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and I actually started it to describe the poetics behind another manuscript, what I was thinking of as the radical autobiography of artists like Ana Mendieta. It really was an exercise to push into what felt confessional and shameful about my female identity. The book itself is an homage to the aesthetic experience of second wave feminism, especially when it came to writers of color. This poem took a couple of years to revise. I wrote much of the early stuff very quickly and showed a different form of it that included photos to my friend and hero Rosa Alcalá, and she gave me really wise guidance. I took out a lot of the fripperies that was holding it back. I was in the midst of the editorial process with Arizona when my sister committed suicide, so I added her to it, and I think a much a clearer vision of rage and purpose.
S&S: You seem very honest when you, as the speaker, call yourself a “Shitty Parent” in “Parts of an Autobiography,” or when you say of your daughter in “Rosy Complexion,” “She will be filthy.” (I read that line as both literal and metaphorical—messy, complex.) I was cheering you on throughout these poems. On some level, do you worry that confessional writing like this, especially because it is feminist and honest, will be held against you in jobs/job searches or with other parents? Do you ever struggle with self-censorship?
CGS: My struggle with self-censorship is primarily how to quash it. I’m trying to create political circumstances for myself that might feel like a sort of ship has sailed, that I’m on my way toward really difficult and profound work. I think I’m old enough to appreciate being an acquired taste, something that was more difficult when I was younger, and more afraid.
I was also reared on the work of artists like Ana Mendieta, Nan Goldin, Karen Finley, Francesca Goldman, and Holly Hughes, Divine and also comedians like Joan Rivers once upon a time, Phyllis Diller, and others. All of them drew power from their vulnerabilities.
S&S: What is the role you see between politics and poetry?
CGS: I think they’re inextricable. Being a writer hasn’t exempted me from the obligations that I have to my fellow citizen, in fact, I think it heightens my responsibility because I have a type of agency that fewer and fewer women have.
S&S: When I wrote about "Something New" on Structure and Style, I said that it was not overtly feminist and yet it very much fit into your feminist worldview as apparent in your other poems. Are you ever conscious of projecting this worldview, or is it so ingrained in you that it comes out naturally? Do you have any advice for someone like me, who is struggling to be true to her worldview/politics in her writing?
CGS: My intention was for this book to be overtly feminist, to summon up the spirits of the second wave, so my intention was to be very overt. It’s very difficult to be a feminist when so many people oppose it over superficial questions. I’m mother to a young girl who’s about to enter the Internet as a community. Although the Internet has been an important space for feminist discourse, it’s also the site for some out of this world misogyny that gets adapted into worldviews. I want to oppose those worldviews for my daughter and my sisters’ daughters. I think the stakes are so high for women right now. All feminist victories have been hard won and easily lost because of a sexist system that’s being actively reinforced by both the government and the private sector. I guess I would say that this is your chance to stand up against that.
S&S: My co-creator of Structure and Style is particularly interested in the function of the poetic line, and she really pays attention to where the lines are broken. She was particularly intrigued by your poem “And the Mouth Lies Open” and “Radicalization,” among many others. What, do you think, is the function of each individual line in a poem and how do you consciously work to strengthen the lines of your poems?
CGS: “And the Mouth Lies Open” was meant to evoke the line length of poets like H.D. and Mina Loy. It’s a little bit about Virginia Woolf.
S&S: In consideration of the poetic line, then what is the strongest aspect of poems that contain prose-length lines or even lists of statements (like “Epigrams for a Lady” and “Parts of an Autobiography”)? To my co-creator, it reads like each statement or numbered item could be a poem itself, but is there more to it than that?
CGS: I like the silence that those long sentences have as their own space; I love the sentence. I love the opposing force of the beginning and end of a sentence, and that epigrammatic force really brings it on. I learned how to really use it from the poet Mark Wunderlich. The numbers in “Parts of an Autobiography” are more functional as visual elements. I wanted them to summon up a treatise, but the tedium of them out loud is too much to ask of an audience. I’m still working that out.
S&S: I noticed a lot of references to pop culture in your poems—Lolita, trigger warning(s) as a title of a poem, the Black Eyed Peas (lovely lady lumps), Ana Mendieta. What’s the link between poetry and pop culture?
CGS: I was reared on pop culture. I think Buzzfeed lists are poems. It’s the landscape of my dreams, so I use it in my work. A lot of contemporary American poetry (and European poetry) through the 20th century has had a deep relationship with pop culture, so surely it’s filtered to me through Joe Brainard’s I Remember, Denise Duhamel’s Barbies, and Claudia Rankine’s screens.
S&S: There’s constant discussion about whether or not poetry matters, and as a craft, it is constantly evolving and changing. What do you think is the one most important reason everyone should read poetry? Where do you think poetry is headed in the next tend years?
CGS: Poetry is access. Poetry makes you smarter.
S&S: Which poets should we be on the lookout for?
CGS: I’m very lucky because as an editor and publisher, I get to read tons of amazing poetry and sometimes publish it.
Poets I’m obsessing over this summer: Lucas de Lima, Kim Hyesoon, Angela de Hoyos, Ruth Ellen Kocher, Krystal Languell, and Daniel Tiffany.
We want to thank Carmen Giménez Smith for being such a badass lady poet and for letting us conduct this interview through email.