CALYX, A Journal of Art and Literature by Women
Summer 2012, Vol. 27:2
INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Rebecca Lindenberg
The first book in McSweeney’s new poetry series, Love, An Index, is Rebecca Lindenberg’s multitudinous rhapsodies of love and loss. The sudden and unexpected disappearance of poet, Craig Arnold, leaves Lindenberg, his partner, to begin the urgent excavation of their past. Readers who crave sharp intelligence, unbending sincerity, and lush language can rejoice that Lindenberg’s much anticipated debut is of daring proportions—exposing what can and cannot finally be expressed through poetry, narrative and recollection.
Rebecca Lindenberg is the recipient of a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Grant and residencies from the MacDowell Arts Colony and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Utah.
CALYX editorial member Bethany Haug approached Lindenberg to discuss poetry and learn more about her exciting debut collection.
HAUG: When did you start writing poetry?
LINDENBERG: For as long as I can remember, I have been the kind of person who tries to find language for things she observes, experiences, lacks, longs for, and for things that compel, perplex, exhaust, frustrate, and intrigue her. (Her being me.) And as a very young person, new words for things always really delighted me. I remember all my fury being instantly defused by my mother calling me “belligerent,” andhaving to go look up “belligerent” and discovering one of my favorite words, “bellicose,” in the process. I’ve also always been a sucker for a well-turned phrase and have loved reading letters between great writers, sometimes mining them for aphorisms.
HAUG: What female writers have influenced you most?
LINDENBERG: Well, let me first address this question of influence. Because when I talk about my influences, I never talk about people I would like to sound or seem like—I talk about people from whom I learn (in their poems, in their conversation) certain things that have become very important to me.
That said, I still don’t know where to begin. I suppose, the beginning? Sappho’s fragments that deploy lyric intimacy as a resistance to traditional epic values are really important to me, though I love her mostly for her simultaneously complicated and unapologetic writings toward another human (or immortal), and for her ability to evoke so much with what very little we still have of her words.
I’m utterly taken with Sei Shonagon, too, for some similar reasons—Sei Shonagon was a contemporary and rival of Murasaki Shikibu, authorof the romantic epic The Tale of Genji. Unlike the epic Tale of Genji, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon is lyrically intimate almost to the point of conspiratorial. It is a keen record of female interiority—smart, witty, and tender, and since it’s written in lists and micro-essays and vignettes, it’s tremendous fun to read.
I’m also completely in awe of Emily Dickinson, who has been totally misrepresented editorially and biographically—as women writers often are. Where we feel comfortable giving some of her more pithy pieces to American high school students, who generally perceive them as vaguely hysterical nursery rhymes, the truth is, she was a fiercely and deliberately experimental poet with a powerful command of her language, and she was probably a complete horror to live with but not because she was a delicate recluse. She was hyper-intelligent, probably more than a little manipulative, and chose for herself that thing most elusive to women even now—the life of the mind.
Skipping ahead again, I’m deeply drawn to the writing of Anne Carson, whose work is erudite and experimental and accessible all at the same time, and to C.D. Wright, whose projects are a virtuosity of different modes, but have in common a deep soulfulness and often address female physicality and sensuality with a beautiful, sinewy candor unlike anyone else. Claudia Keelan is another contemporary woman whose work I really admire—her poems hold a lot of different languages together, from the language of the news to a sacred rhetoric of liberation theology to a deeply intimate conversation, and I love that.
Kathryn Cowles’ first book, Eleanor, Eleanor, Not Your Real Name, shares a kind of serious whimsy with Gertrude Stein (though Kathryn is more readily comprehensible) and takes a range of forms that give unmistakable shape to—and at the same time radically destabilize—the poems’ unique story-self/self-story. And Jill Essbaum’s terse-but-ecstatic word love is totally sexy. And, again, that’s just for starters. I haven’t even rhapsodized about Denise Levertov, or Brenda Hillman, or Lorine Niedecker, or Eleni Sikelianos, or Mei Mei Bersenbrugge, or HarryetteMullen, or, and, and, and…
HAUG: How much has your experience of gender shaped your identityas a writer?
LINDENBERG: Well, in the sense that it has centrally shaped my identity as a human, I’d say it shapes my identity as a writer quite a lot. And like it or not, I think the truth is that in writing as in all things, women and their work still encounter a degree of mostly unconscious skepticism from people—male and female—who are in positions to select or publish (or praise) our work, or give us jobs, or claim us as influences.
If you think about it, much of the language we negatively associate with poetry criticism (sentimental, soft, melodramatic) and the kinds of cliché language we’re least tolerant of often have strongly feminine resonances, whereas the language we use to praise poetry (sharp,edgy, fierce, muscular, intense, powerful, and on and on) is a more masculine-inflected discourse.
Certain kinds of subject matter are treated very differently when men approach it and when women approach it—Robert Creeley claimed, “I am committed to the hearth, and love the echoes of that word. The fire is the center.” He, with others, was often praised for his candidaddress of the domestic. But women writers who do the same are often suspected of having nothing else more to say, or of re-treading well-worn carpeting.
I somewhat insist on speaking as a woman in my poems, especially as someone who writes a lot of love poems (a tradition in which women were mostly the silent and even anonymous occasion for a male writer to show his quality, a receptive but not responsive “beloved”). And I aspire to be the same kind of poet as I am woman/human—educated, inventive, generous, curious, ethical, attracted to quick wit and drawnto big, ambitious ideas, and maybe a little sassy, when the price is right.
HAUG: Much of your book, Love, An Index, refers directly to your relationship with Craig Arnold and his disappearance. What has it been like to have your first book be as personal and intimate as this?
LINDENBERG: I think most books of poetry are personal and intimate, and I suspect I would feel that about any book I’d written. It is not the intimacy I felt but the urgency that I think is really different—these poems are meditations in an emergency, in the realest sense. But there remain, after all, many things about our life I have not disclosed, and probably never will.
HAUG: “Carnival” introduces the idea of masking early on in the collection. How does this idea play out in the rest of the book (specifically in the “Girl with” poems)?
LINDENBERG: While the usual way of imagining masks has to do with concealing identity (think: Batman), another way of thinking about masks has to do with donning an identity. We all do this in the world in various ways—often deploying language as the mask. The way I talk to my students is not the same as the way I talk to my partner is not the same as the way I talk to my very old friend is not the same as the way I talk to the nice man in the home loan department at the bank. But all of these are me—aspects of me, at the least.
Putting on a bad British accent doesn’t make me British, but it makes me somebody willing to look silly in order to get a laugh out of a friend or a kid. There are poems in the book that deploy accents and affects (film noir, the Sopranos, Shakespeare-in-the-Park, etc.). And there are the Facebook poems (just think of the name Facebook—your face is a book? an open book? or hidden behind a book?) that investigate the question of address—am I talking to my mom, or to a former student, or to a complete stranger? And what then is it okay to say? What isn’t it okay to share? Why?
HAUG: The title poem “Love, An Index” feels very large and ambitious. As a reader, I was surprised by how many memories from within the poem lingered and resurfaced after reading, in the way that private memories do. What reasons did you have for using this form? Were there any surprises or unexpected complications that you experienced when composing this poem?
LINDENBERG: This form, like most of the forms I use, suggested itself because it solved a lot of problems for me. On one hand, there was the problem of the passion-intellect binary—I wanted to write a poem that used a form we conventionally associate with scholarly writing to tell a love story, as a way of proposing that unwieldy emotions are not only not antithetical to intellectual investigation, they are a primo subject for intellectual investigation. And to show, simultaneously, that intellectual investigation is an impassioned enterprise, or at least it ought to be, I think.
The form also acts as a kind of admission—I knew I could not possibly tell the “whole story,” since half of that story was missing, and I knew even if he was around the medium of language itself poses a problem. As Lyn Hejinian so smartly articulates in her great essay, “A Rejection of Closure,” language does not map neatly onto the world, there is no clean one-to-one correspondence between the language we use and the experience it purports to describe or evoke.
I did feel I had a kind of story to tell, but I was very resistant to putting it into any kind of traditional narrative form. I didn’t feel comfortable with the way narrative suggests causes-and-effects that might or might not function that way, nor did I feel comfortable with the way narrative inevitably suggests hierarchies of information and incident—that some experiences or activities must be more important than others.
I did not want Craig’s disappearance or death to eclipse the significant details of his being, his work, his love, his influence—not in the book, not in my memory, not in my life, and not in his life.
HAUG: Of sentimentality, you write, “I don’t know what this word means. Sometimes it means maudlin, sometimes it means kitsch. What is the opposite of sentimentality? Is it restraint? Is it silence?” How does this relate to love poetry and, specifically, your project?
LINDENBERG: I think contemporary poets have become a little bit fearful of receiving certain kinds of criticism and so a lot of poems are being written a little defensively. When I say this, what I mean is that the poem consciously or unconsciously anticipates a field landmined with criticism and tries to write a path around all of those possible disapprovals. The result is a very safe poem, but I have never had the ‘top of my head taken off,’ to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, by a safe poem.
I think at times my poems risk sentimentality. And I know there are imperfect poems in this collection—I made a choice to leave a few of the original rough edges.
These are elegies, after all, so going back and sanding out all the knots felt almost creepy to me—like a widow overdressed for the funeral. But also, having written that bit you quote above, I have already started to change my thinking—not about sentimentality, but about silence. I had been thinking of it as something oppressive, or oppressed. But more and more and more, in a world that is full of words and of noise, I’m interested in silence. My new work is interested in how to represent silence, much the way this book is interested in how to represent absence. I’m beginning to think that silence is impossible, and is everywhere.
HAUG: Your last poem in the collection, “Marblehead,” is very honest in its admittance (some things you do make me so nervous) and direct in its revelation of a relationship’s complexity (I don’t think you are always talking to me, my love). Can you describe your choice to place this poem at the end of the book?
LINDENBERG: I’m so glad you asked! I’d actually written this poem very soon after Craig disappeared, while visiting my friends Kathryn Cowles and Geoff Babbitt, who had just moved from Salt Lake City to Ohio. I was spending most of each day in their big red chair, reading their books and writing my poems, and in the evenings reading each other poems—our own and others. This poem was one that I wrote there and read to them. But then I kind of put that poem away and forgot about it for a while.
It wasn’t until many, many, many months later, when my editors and I were all a little flummoxed as to how the book should end, that Geoff asked me whatever happened to the poem that ends with the green olives. It engages directly and very presently with the person and story of the book, but ends in a way that feels green, promising the possibility of renewal without having to give up (or give up on) anybody or anything.
And as a part of the process of making the book, it’s yet another argument for the importance of a good coterie of friends and collaborators. However much we “live as we dream—alone,” writing is hardly an activity of isolation. It is an activity of conversation. It is an activity of reaching, and sometimes, of being reached.
Copyright 2012 by CALYX, Inc., a non-profit corporation. No part of this publication may be copied or reproduced without written permission from CALYX.