“I think birds are mysteries, and this is why poets so often bring their presence into poems. “
Erynn Rowan Laurie is a writer, poet, and professional madwoman currently living in Trieste, Italy. Author of Fireflies at Absolute Zero, she is inspired by the early Irish poetic tradition and the place of the geilt, the mad poet, in Irish myth and literature. Born in New England, she joined the Navy and traveled to Hawaii and the west coast, where she fell in love with western Washington and spent three decades getting to know the land, the waters, and the dreamscape of her chosen home. You can follow her Italian adventures HERE.
Jory Mickelson: How do you see your role as a poet? Is it to generate work that expresses your feelings/thoughts or is there something deeper there?
Erynn Rowan Laurie: That’s actually a tricky question to answer. I see the role of a poet, of myself as a poet, as something multivalent and polymorphous. Certainly I write poems that explore my thoughts and feelings, but that’s rarely the entirety of what’s going on in a given poem.
For me, the creation of a poem is a sacred act. I intend the poem and its composition to connect me to something outside of myself, as well as reaching very deeply into the core of my being to draw out something essential about my experience of life and of the world around me. Poetry is something I regard as a devotional act, as well, and many of my poems address deities and spirits, speak with their voices, or tell their tales. I’ve also done a lot of poetry steeped in dream imagery and the feeling of being in a dreaming state, with a sense of the surreal to them.
In addressing the role of myself as poet, rather than the types of poetry I tend to write, I am trying to follow the ancient traditions that place poets as seers and spiritual figures, and to touch the wellspring of that inspiration in a search for wisdom. This is as much an embodied, sensual wisdom of the flesh as it is of literary tradition and knowledge, or of the types of spiritual wisdom expressed in myth and folklore. I see my poetic purpose as, in part, burrowing into mystery and finding meaning in physical and spiritual experience.
In finding ways to experience and understand mystery, I also see my role as delineating a poetic healing path through the experience of trauma and finding ways to integrate that experience into a more functional life. There are poems that I write strictly for my own personal work on my issues, poems that don’t ever see publication because they are too personal and they’re not meant so much as art as they are intended as medicine in an Asclepian, magical, dreamwork sense. Some of this poetry may be nearly as artful and polished as the work I present for publication, but a lot of it is very rough-hewn and visceral, intended primarily to begin the work of speaking about unspeakable topics, bringing them into consciousness in a more-or-less safe manner so that I can work through them without having to voice them to other people before I’m ready.
Ultimately I see my poetic work as a way to speak deep truths into the world, and myself as a keeper of the sorcery of words. Words are incredibly powerful things and can be wielded in so many ways – as weapons, as tools, as seduction, as art, as glamour and illusion, as healing, as the making of ardent wishes. All of these things are revelations of truths of different sorts, or concealments of truth in ways that highlight the deepest roots of a thing.
That is quite a first answer! One thing a reader first notices about your poems is that they tend to be all lowercase and mostly without punctuation. Did this style develop naturally? Was it something that happened with revision? Can you talk a little bit about your decision to move away from typical grammatical structures?
ERL: There are a couple of reasons for that style. One of my favorite poets as a child was e.e. cummings, whose work usually lacks capitalization and has non-traditional structures. Later influences on my work include the Surrealists, and the Beat poets, all of whom have tended toward non-traditional structures, less emphasis on formal grammar, and lowercase typography, though each of those poetic traditions approaches their subject matter quite differently.
I also find that giving less attention to capitalization and punctuation leaves the work with a more stream of consciousness feel and can foster a more dreamlike atmosphere, which is important to some of the types of poems I write. Ambiguity can arise when the reader finds a lack of punctuation in some of the poems, allowing more room for idiosyncratic interpretations by the reader, and for multiple possible layers of meaning.
In German, nouns are all capitalized, and that lends a very different emotional weight to texts in that language than English has. If you look at the work of Rilke in German, your eye is drawn to the capitalization and to the nouns where, in English, that visual emphasis is absent. I think this gives German poetry a different sort of rhythm than poetry in English, and illustrates what I’m getting at to some degree.
Rather than a focus on traditional English language punctuation and capitalization, I prefer to work with sound and flow, with how things feel in the mouth, the vibration of sound in my chest or the air passing between my lips, and the various regular and irregular rhythms that can be generated through line or stanza length, or word spacing and breaks. Consonance and assonance within a line or a stanza or an entire poem can encourage particular emotional resonances, feelings of warmth or distance, or evoke feelings of connection with particular times or places. Some sounds are bright and sharp, while others are rounder and deeper, more resonant.
I think that some of this may be the result of my having spent years as a vocalist with different choral groups from the time I was a child until well into my adulthood. To me, language is very musical, and its sonic qualities are important. I can also liken certain types of sounds to various types of musical instruments in a poetic context, and strive to create poems that are reminiscent of different types of music. Some poems are percussive, with the driving depth of timpani or the complexity of a gamelan ensemble, while others are more like strings, or woodwinds.
If we consider poetry a form of sorcery, then sound sets the mood and pattern for the spells being woven and the realities being created. Some poems have a feeling of breathlessness and a rush to them, while others build slowly, layering on their power with repetition and emphasis. In these poems, capitalization can signal a shift in the power being touched and directed, the choice of a line or stanza break might place a breath as effectively as any comma or period.
In translations of the Greek magical papyri, there are words capitalized as voces magicae, as words of power, that stand out from the text in an emphasis of their potency, and these words or strings of sounds might be recited or chanted in ways distinct from the rest of the text, lending them a particular sense of uncanniness. My poem on Abraxas borrows a couple of those words – ARAI, LAILAM – and in the recitation of that poem, those sounds seem to come out of an abyss of magical vibration. Sometimes, when the sounds and the words are just right, I can feel the hair on my arms rise when I recite them aloud. For me, there is a liquidity in non-traditional structures that’s very appealing, and I find it easier to tap into that electricity, that potency, when I use those techniques.
I’ve done some work with traditional poetic forms and, as a prose writer, I’m very conscious of proper capitalization, grammar, and punctuation. Even in my prose work, though, I try to have a poetic consciousness as I approach the page. Nonfiction can absolutely have a flow and a feeling of artfulness to it that is, sadly, often neglected, particularly in academic writing. It’s possible to be factual and clear while still having a sense of the beauty of words or the resonance of sound, and to bring a poetic turn to the phrasing. Language should not have to be angular and utilitarian any more than architecture must. I think there’s a difference between clean lines and sheer, boring ugliness, but appreciating that and bringing out those differences can lead one to walk a delicate balance. How do you get your point across quickly and easily while still allowing breath and life to flow through the words? How do you engage the reader if your goal is clarity of communication?
I honestly thing most prose writers would be well-served by studying poetry and poetic technique, and that it would help bring something deeper to their work.
I would say that your poetry is lodged in landscape. Deeply. Do you find, now that you have moved to Italy from the Pacific Northwest, that your work is changing because of it?
ERL: The separation from a place that’s been so important to me for so long feels strange, but I’ve always been something of a wanderer. I miss the place, but am quite happy where I ended up. I’ve been spending so much time attending to the purely physical aspects of moving from one continent to another and establishing a new place to live that I’ve not yet had a lot of time to settle into the spiritual aspects of it until very recently.
Because of the physical demands of transplanting my whole life to a place so very far away, I’ve honestly not had that much time or energy to write, though I’ve done a few poems for an anthology recently. The anthology was a themed one, so it wasn’t really a chance to dig down into the place where I’m living now. I’m taking up the challenge of learning a new language, finding new friends, and trying to navigate a new city that’s not laid out in ways I’m used to. I’m slowly growing acquainted with the streets and alleys, the waterfront, and the green spaces of Trieste, where James Joyce and Italo Svevo and Umberto Saba lived and wrote. I’m finding a new pace for my life and developing new rhythms and habits.
Certainly, I think that being in a place so different is going to affect my poetry and my prose writing, once I’m able to get more comfortably back into that mental and emotional space. With the Adriatic Sea and the hills of the Carso surrounding me, there is a certain familiarity to the landscape, like the waters and mountains surrounding Seattle, but the entire atmosphere of the place is still alien in a lot of ways. I haven’t lived in a place with this much sun since Hawaii, back in 1980. I always felt like the rain and the mist of the Salish Sea helped cultivate a certain amount of my poetry, bringing forth certain themes. The weather in Trieste is very different — more humid, hotter, windier, and with vastly more thunderstorms. The levels of history here — Istrian, Celtic, Roman, Austrian, Slovenian, Italian — it’s a fascinating border mix and a brilliant weave of new things for me to explore. It’s all very exciting.
Writers, over the course of their work, tend to accumulate a set of repeated images. This is sometimes called their symbol horde. What symbols do you see reoccurring in your own work? Also, what would you say is the one animal that keeps appearing in your poems? Why do you think that is?
ERL: That’s an interesting question. I think things that recur in my work tend to be oceanic themes – waves and mist and things in and associated with the sea, for instance. Water, generally, but the sea in specific, and the Well of Wisdom from Irish mythology; the salmon of wisdom that lives there and migrates there from the ocean. Birds of many kinds appear, over and over, as messengers or as a mask of the poet or as sentient beings whose actions have meaning in an oracular or visionary sense. In the same way, plants are sentient spirits here as well. They all, to me, have mythic resonances and symbolic meanings, whether it’s the cedar that is central to Pacific Northwest cultures, or the hazel tree that dispenses wisdom in Irish lore.
If I were to consider which animal or animals keep showing up, I would say birds, as a class, tend to be what I see most often. They are filled with so much meaning, whether as symbols of freedom and independence, as in “Sugaring,” where the poet becomes the fledgling and grows feathers to fly, or as spiritual relations in “My Feathers Grow Out at Night.” They are hidden, otherworldly beings with human speech and nations in “their secret,” sitting around their fires at night when humans are not observing.
Birds fascinate me, and I’ve shared my home with many over the years. Birds have an uncanniness to them, able to speak in a literal sense and to converse with humans, but their ability to fly is central, and I think it touches on the poet as a shamanistic figure, flying on the wings of words. For centuries, pens were feather quills, filled with ink, carrying meaning in the trail of color left on the page. Birds are omens, they’re harbingers of birth or death, they consume the bodies of the dead; their cries evoke intense emotions of fear or delight or sensuality. We speak of writing as “chickenscratch” or think of the footprints of birds as letter-like symbols. Robert Graves spoke of how the flight of cranes, to him, symbolized the origins of the alphabet in shapes across the sky. The native songs and cries of different birds can sound like words of human speech, language echoing in a deserted landscape.
Look at what Wallace Stevens does in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” how he manipulates image and emotion through the use of that one symbolic creature. The poem is simple but so deeply layered. There is attention to the tiny shimmer of movement that is the blackbird’s eye in a vast, mountainous landscape; to the flight of a flock of blackbirds as a larger motion that takes up the sky; and even just the implication of blackbirds through a mistakenly-imagined shadow. There’s a fleetness there, an ability to mistake one thing for another when birds are involved, because they are, in so many ways, so alien to our experience. I think birds are mysteries, and this is why poets so often bring their presence into poems.
Do you find any other kind of art influencing your own work? Would you say that an art form outside of literature has helped to shape your work or specific poems and if so, what is the poet’s relationship to other kinds of artistic expression?
ERL: It’s funny you should ask this question because I just got back from Turin last week, where I attended a talk and panel discussion by Daniel Albright, a Harvard professor of literature and music, who was talking about his most recent book, Panaesthetics: On the Unity and Diversity of the Arts (Yale, 2014). He and a group of Italian academics discussed the intersections and unities of the various arts – poetry, music, sculpture, painting, literature – and it certainly both gave me a lot to think about, and affirmed many of my own thoughts on the topic.
I’ve always been influenced and informed by other arts in my poetry. One of my poems, “Duchamp’s Bride,” came entirely out of a dream. I wrote it down when I woke that morning, almost exactly as spoken by the dream-woman who represented the bride from Marcel Duchamp’s surrealist painting, “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even.” I had been recently listening to a musical album by Black Tape for a Blue Girl, “The Scavenger Bride,” which was likewise inspired by the visual and literary works of Duchamp and Kafka, and the “Bride” in particular. The visual and the musical both came together in that dream state to produce a poem.
The surrealists, I think, were particularly good at taking inspiration from and offering criticism of other art forms in their poetic works, whether literary, visual, or musical. Because they were reacting against perceived constraints of form and function, I think they were able to cross these lines quite consciously as they created their different works and interacted in their movement. Andre Breton, in his Second Manifesto of Surrealism, says, “The problem of social action … is only one of the forms of a more general problem which Surrealism set out to deal with, and that is the problem of human expression in all its forms.” Everything was gathered together through the medium of dream, and of other forms of randomization or symbolization – divination methods like tarot, or tools like automatic writing, for instance – then filtered into their poetic, literary, and visual work to produce art that retains something of that dream state.
In this sense, I’m inspired by occult art and symbol systems, by Siberian and Northwest Native sculptural forms, by petroglyphs, by architectural forms. Music speaks to me, and painting, and the Zen forms of Japanese gardens and bonsai. I’m sometimes inspired by images or characters in movies and television, as well. Is there anyone who doesn’t have a visceral reaction to the image of the false Maria, transforming in arcs of lightning and those Saturnian electric rings from machine to flesh, when her blazing robotic heart begins to beat, in the Fritz Lang film, “Metropolis”? How can these things not be given form in words? How can they not inspire poetic works?
Good questions indeed! Thank you for this wide-ranging talk on poems, poetry, and place!