Paisley Rekdal is an American poet whose work has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Civitella Ranieri Residency, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Pushcart Prizes (2009, 2013), and Narrative's Poetry Prize. She grew up in Seattle and graduated from the universities of Washington, Toronto, and Michigan. In May of 2017, she was named Utah’s Poet Laureate. She is the guest editor for Best American Poetry 2020, and her newest work, Appropriate: A Provocation, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton.
"The Pity Behind Violence", an Interview with Paisley Rekdal
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Nicholas Femiano. Of the process he said, “Paisley Rekdal’s poetry is really something special. As intellectually ambitious as it is emotionally compelling, Imaginary Vessels continues the long fight for equality on the feminist frontier.” In this interview, Paisley Rekdal talks about our relationship with violence in the world, the influence of Mae West in her poetry, and the importance of feminism in her life and in her work.
Superstition Review: Your latest book, Imaginary Vessels, is a profound take on the nature of public identities. Can you describe the process of imagining these vessels? How much research and/or personal experience went into some of your more isolated voices?
Paisley Rekdal: Lots of research went into each of the poems. For the Mae West sonnet sequence, I read two complete books: one biography, Ain’t No Sin, which was a hoot; and She Who Laughs, Lasts, which was a critical take on her humor and how we might “read” her public persona. I also did research on W.C. Fields. For “Monticello Vase,” I read two biographies of Jefferson, one of which—American Sphinx—proved essential to the details I chose to imagine and include in the poem. For the skull sequence, I was reading the work of Shannon Novak, a forensic anthropologist who did work on sites of trauma and memorialization. I did a lot of reading about memorials, actually, including several critical essays about the Vietnam War Memorial, and Nothing Ever Dies, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I read a lot of nonfiction, and lots of literary criticism, and often this reading filters through the poems, but hopefully not in a way that feels outside of the poems themselves.
SR: I noticed these poems often speak out on a violence that is acted against each vessel. One example, in the poem “Letter From The Pribilofs,” you write about seals and the violent nature of their mating ritual. Can you discuss the role of violence in this poem, and also in the collection as a whole?
PR: I’m fascinated by violence, as much as I’m repelled and frightened by it. The violence in “Letter” is meant to highlight the sexual tension between Libby and the Senior Agent, and also suggest that this sexual tension will eventually lead to real violence between the Senior Agent and Libby’s husband. The fact is, Libby’s presence on that island put her husband and many other men at risk: her desire to be seen as an equal partner in her marriage and a liberated woman does not come without consequences in a world that, for various reasons, is not willing to accept her presence or her values. In that sense, the violence is realistic and a reminder that even our most noble and ethically progressive ideals don’t come without costs we have to reckon with. No one is simply going to hand over Libby’s equal rights, no matter how correct she is that she deserves them: they will have to be fought over, and some of the people who will fight will be really wounded. That’s the case, I think, for the collection as a whole: violence is part of our relationship with the world. In “Vessels,” the pearl cultivation process is a violation both of the oyster and now the mussels which must become vessels for the seed pearls, since the rising ocean temperatures are destroying the oyster and pearl industry. Olive Oatman is violently taken—twice—from her society: once when her biological family is killed, and again when she is forcibly removed from the Mojave family that has adopted her. Violence also happens when we “overwrite” the stories of other people with our own stories, or our own imagination of other people. There are innumerable small and large violations that occur when we interact with each other and the world. Some of those violences are unavoidable, but many are not; that’s part of the fascination and the pity behind violence.
SR: What about Mae West initially inspired you to write a collection of poems from her perspective? Will you discuss the societal implications of these poems and how they relate to gender issues today?
PR: We wouldn’t have Madonna, or Marilyn Monroe, or Lady Gaga or even Miley Cyrus without Mae West: she was the ultimate blond bombshell at the time, someone very open about her sexuality, the power she had over men, and about her love of material, consumable goods. She was the ultimate material girl, in the words of Madonna, and like many of these other performers I listed took great pride in the artistic control she had over her persona and her career. She also never, ever broke character—not in interviews she gave, nor in any of the films she made. Essentially, she perfected this seamless performance which implicitly conflated feminism with capitalism: in West’s portrayal of the liberated female, men are just as delightful, as purchasable, and expendable as a diamond necklace. Her feminism was extraordinarily self-centered, ethnocentric, and self-serving: it was the epitome of what today we’ve come to criticize about white feminism and its blindness to the negative role that capitalism has played in non-white communities. So she’s both a figure of fun for me and a figure of consternation. I grew up idolizing her, but over the years I came to recognize how dangerous an ideal she really was.
SR: I thought it was rather creative and unique that you wrote a section from the perspective of unearthed human skulls. How did you first come up with the idea of this? Why did you choose to write these poems in the sonnet form?
PR: The idea came very slowly: I thought I’d write one sonnet, but then I kept on writing them. The sonnet form is ideal for devotional or meditative or elegiac poems. The structure of the sonnet (the ways, in particular, it breaks down to quatrains and sestets or couplets by the end) forces you to think about the rhetorical structure of your writing: the rhymes keep one thought in place, but when those rhymes change, so too does your poem’s focus. The sonnet structure is also a process of thought, as well as sound, and as these were poems that were thinking through issues of memorialization, elegy, violence, and erasure, the sonnet form seemed like a natural poetic form to work with. Also, sonnet sequences allow for a kind of narrative to develop over discrete moments of lyric time. Taken individually, the sonnet is a lyric form. But 15 or more together, suddenly you have a narrative.
SR: In the poem, “Vessels,” you write about a mussel being prepared for eating, and how the mussel is forced to “become what no one/wants to:/vessel, caisson, wounded.” What is the larger significance of the mussel’s preparation? How are the various definitions of the word ‘vessel’ relevant here?
PR: The mussel is actually being prepared to accept a cyst from an oyster that will, inside the mussel, eventually develop into a pearl. It’s a way of expanding the natural system of production, by planting a bit of this cyst in another creature, suddenly you have two mollusks—the mussel and the oyster—producing pearls. Obviously, vessel is important because of the title of the book, but it’s also important because it reminds us that each of us is a container, ultimately—of bodily fluids and items, yes, but also of memory, imagination, and cultural meaning. We like to share or transfer these “items” with each other, and sometimes that process of sharing can be painful, even violent.
SR: There’s a passage in your poem “Freedom” that reads, “To slide on your armor means to fake/away what hurts.” Could you talk about what feminism means to you and your work, and perhaps this poem in particular?
PR: Mae West’s extremely open and extremely pronounced sexuality was unrealistic to most movie goers in the 30’s and 40’s, and to some extent it’s unrealistic now. To be a woman who is willing to declare (a LOT) that she likes sex, she wants to have as much sex with as many men as possible, and she never wants to get married or have children still, I think, puts her in a largely negative social category. Mae West, in that sense, promulgated an idea of feminism that really only worked for her, and also frankly ignored the possibly violent costs to her actions. I’ve lived a fairly open life, and this has come with risks—including the risk of physical violence and rape. West’s performances never acknowledged that her vision of female sexuality was, in large part, an unattainable fantasy. While our portrayals of women have progressed so much since Mae West’s heyday, we have not socially progressed as much as our filmic portrayals of feminism would suggest. The fact that 1 in 4 women in America is likely to have been raped, and that 1 in 3 women (and 1 in 4 men) in America have been victims to domestic violence in their lifetime suggests that we are still living with tremendous problems. As for what feminism means to my work, it means everything. Feminism means I was educated, that I am literate, that I have a job and can inherent and earn money. It means that I can drive a car, travel on my own, make my own financial decisions, and buy a house, among many other things. I literally could not be a writer without feminism. No woman could.
SR: The last poem of this collection is called “The History of Paisley,” which I thought was an intriguing choice. How did you decide to close the book with this particular poem?
PR: Well, frankly, I just thought it was funny. But the poem is also a response to Agha Shahid Ali’s poem “The History of Paisley,” and is itself a poetic consideration of aesthetic lineage and connection. How might my writing self, my career, be—accidentally or not—the “vessel” of another writer’s ambitions? If I like another writer and learn from him or her, how much of that writer do I “contain” and how does my own poetry become a vessel that helps carry that other writer into the future, or into obscurity? It seemed like a natural series of questions to ask, and to make me the final vessel at the end of the book also seemed fitting.
SR: How has your experience with the University of Utah shaped your writing? Can you describe the literary community in your circles: in the your department, your town, your state, and in the US?
PR: I have been tremendously fortunate to work at Utah: my colleagues’ critical work and their own intellectual curiosity and passions have helped to make me a significantly better writer. By reading the literary criticism of my scholarly colleagues, I’ve deepened my approach to my own work, my editing process, my ideas of poetry. I feel like I have a better understanding of what makes a poem truly resonate over time, which has absolutely shifted the directions I’ve recently been moving in. I’m grateful for my teaching job and my colleagues. People always complain about “academic” poetry, or suggest that the academy stifles poetic inspiration, but teaching has had the exact opposite effect for me.
SR: You have now published five poetry collections, as well as two works of nonfiction. How has your writing process changed since your first publication? How has your vision as a writer evolved since then?
PR: My vision has expanded, I think: I’ve become more intellectually ambitious, rather than personally ambitious, and this has made me happier. The questions that drive me now are larger than mere personal experience. I want to include personal experience, of course, but have this be in conversation with more expansive problems, too. I recently finished a nonfiction book on trauma and legacies of war, and now I’m writing a series of critical essays on the poetry of war. These are questions I never would have tackled in my twenties or early thirties, because I didn’t have the poetic or intellectual skills to tackle them with any kind of real depth. Now I feel like I have those skills, that particular patience.
SR: What does your writing space look like?