1. What is your personal/aesthetic relationship to the poetic line? That is, how do you understand it, use it, etc.
For the past few months, I’ve been only writing prose poems; these days I find myself most interested in questions of the phrase, the sentence, and the paragraph. The experience of listening to and shaping language seems richer, more compelling, just now, in paragraph-long or page-long prose. I suspect it’s a way of refreshing my writing, since I’ve written so many lineated poems over the past twenty years.
When I do write in lines, my poems seem to find a couple of basic patterns. Often my lines are between eight and twelve syllables—not regularly iambic, but distant cousins of blank verse. Often, too, my lines have an odd number of syllables. These lines will tend to group themselves in patterned stanzas of various sorts—couplets, triplets, quatrains, or verse paragraphs—sometimes flush against the left margin, sometimes in varieties of patterned indentations. But occasionally, too, my lines are of very uneven length, arranged in open field composition. This is especially the case with the longer sequences made of short sections that I’ve written, like my poems “Mississippi” or “Dream Cabinet” (the title poem of my fourth book) or the book-length poem in three parts that is my third book, Carta Marina.
No matter what sort of line, I’m always thinking about its interrelations with the sentence: whether the sentence jives with the line via a terminal caesura, or pulls against the line via medial caesurae and enjambments; whether lines and sentences are approximately the same length no matter how the sentence is broken, or the sentence carries over many, many lines; whether line breaks are syntactic or asyntactic; whether the rhythms of the line are smooth or jagged—and, I’m sure, many other things as well. Sometimes a poem comes easily and I know right away that it has found its proper shape; other times, it takes a great deal of experimentation and revision, fiddling around in ways that would seem absolutely insane to anyone who did not share a passion for poetry.
I love to play with free verse forms. Every poem wants to take a different shape, breathe and move a different way—just like every body. Lines are intuitive, and are much a matter of listening, as the poem comes into being.
2. Do you find a relationship between words and writing and the human body? Or between your writing and your body?
Some years ago I noticed that nearly every poem I wrote had images of leaves and/or hands in it. From this I realized two things: first, that I really am drawn to trees and flowers and the whole natural world as much as I thought I was; second, that for me, it’s all about the body. Sometimes, as in the poems in my new book Dream Cabinet titled “Family Gatherings,” “The Getting-Lost Drive,” and “Cicadas, Summer,” I write directly about the body—but even when the overt content of a poem is otherwise, my sense of the body informs everything I write. I feel supremely lucky to have lived a rich and full physical experience, both literally and metaphorically touching and being touched.
We live in a physical world and would know nothing except for our senses. Yet so many elements of our culture devalue and debase the body, and systematically starve—or else over-stimulate—our senses. I teach Environmental Studies, and I’m always surprised by how students scurry around campus on their cell phones, failing to notice, say, the dogwoods and magnolias in bloom, the ants marching up a tree, or even the hawk swooping down on a squirrel. One of my students’ assignments is to keep a nature journal, which simply involves choosing a place in nature and spending at least an hour there alone every week, just being there, writing—and it is wonderful how often they end up feeling that this hour, which they had thought would be wasted, gives them the greatest sense of peace they experience all semester.
I also teach yoga. “Yoga” comes from the Sanskrit yuj, “union.” To me the practice of yoga is not just a physical discipline but a way of experiencing the union of flesh and spirit, and—through the flow of prana—the union of the self with everything that is. Sometimes my poetry comes from this place; sometimes, instead, what comes from this place is silence. My truest sense of life is of being deeply grounded—the human body connected in every possible way with the body of others and the body of the world—and I think my poetry reveals this.
Poetry is deeply physical. Writing, reading, or hearing it, we experience it in the body. Writing, we stare or rock or pace, trying to catch the rhythm of words. Our lips move; our breath quickens or, lost in thought, we almost forget to breathe. The breath, the heartbeat, are as much involved in the process of composition as the mind. Reading, we lean forward, lean back, fidget, according to whether we are entranced or tired or bored. If we are moved, the hair on our arms stands up, the tears spring to our eyes. And what an odd thing clapping is: smacking our hands together to indicate approval, one final way of dancing with the words we’ve just been listening to.
As Galway Kinnell once remarked, “The body makes love possible.” Without the body there would be no poetry. Without the body there would be no love.
3. Is there anything you dislike about being a poet?
I dislike writer’s block and I suffer from it. I dislike getting poems rejected, but that is just par for the course, and I’ve pretty much learned to enjoy the great parts and let the rest go. There is not much else that I dislike, and very little compared to the parts I like. I love writing poems, having people read them, giving poetry readings, publishing books, sharing my work, reading great poetry that has been written through the ages, and taking part in all this beauty. What good fortune.
Ann Fisher-Wirth’s fourth book of poems, Dream Cabinet, has just come out from Wings Press. Her other books of poems are Carta Marina, Blue Window, and Five Terraces. Also she has published three chapbooks: The Trinket Poems, Walking Wu-Wei’s Scroll, and Slide Shows. She is coediting The Ecopoetry Anthology, forthcoming from Trinity University Press in 2013. Her poems appear widely and have received numerous awards, including a Malahat Review Long Poem Prize, the Rita Dove Poetry Award, the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Poetry Award, two Mississippi Arts Commission fellowships, and twelve Pushcart nominations including a Special Mention. She has had senior Fulbrights to Switzerland and Sweden. She teaches at the University of Mississippi, where she also directs the minor in Environmental Studies. And she teaches yoga at Southern Star Yoga Studio and Blue Laurel Yoga in Oxford, MS. She is married to Peter Wirth; they have five grown children and five grandchildren.
Over All a Mist of Sweetness
I cannot gather them all, the thousands
and thousands of berries
these warm September days
keep pushing forward. Behind every
glossy, nubbly sugar-tip at the end
of every branch, the little ones
line up, still green, awaiting their turn
to ripen in what has become
the diminishing summer. And of these
trailing thorny branches, some in forest shadow
are still decked out with faintest
lilac blossoms. I wander from bush
to bush in a mania of abundance.
Every afternoon I lean my body
gingerly against the prickles,
plastic bucket in my left hand,
my right hand snaked around,
between, reaching for just that perfect one,
the fat one thrust up behind the spiderweb,
or there, that cluster, hanging black
with juice against a cloudless sky.
So thick are the berries, when I
look back across the grassy field
and squint against the sun,
the landscape’s smudged, inky. Yes I know
others have written of blackberries,
but these are my fingers gently twisting
the tender, knobbly fruit from the hull,
this is my hour and cherishing, I breathe
blackberry into every cell of my body.
Bees love me. They come to buzz
and hover around my crimson fingers.
In this stained, thorn-pricked
meditation, nothing needs
to happen. Then the chittering of a bird,
reeds slowly rustling in a sudden, fitful breeze.
The barred owl lifts heavy
from a nearby fir,
a yellow beech leaf drifts downward.
Published in DREAM CABINET. The title is taken from the Bardic legend “The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal,” performed by Robin Williamson.