Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: The three poems, “Cinema Virgil,” “Virgil Imagines Space,” and “Dust” feel very much connected. Do you find it easier to write poems in series? Or do you find that it just naturally happens as you’re writing?
Rebecca Macijeski: I do tend to see my poems as part of longer projects. I feel more of an impulse to create if I have a larger idea or exploration I’m working toward. I’m really interested in the ways poems can gather layers of meaning when they’re in conversation with each other, so I have that goal of accumulation and resonance in mind. Part of the work for me is identifying what my obsessions will be in a given project so I can pay attention to how those images and themes present themselves as I’m drafting; then when I’m building the larger project there’s the new discovery of determining what order or poems will present those obsessions in the most dynamic way possible. I expand further on some of these ideas in my response to question three.
RR: Can you tell us a little about how Virgil has made his way into your poems?
RM: Virgil presented himself as a character when I was completing the first year of my PhD. I was doing a lot of formal things for the first time–teaching, writing seminar papers, reading new poets, living in an entirely different part of the country–and Virgil arrived as a kind of antidote to that. His persona became more fully fleshed out later when I set him in the dust bowl era, but when I first wrote him all I knew was that he is a fiddler, a solitary and unruly wanderer. He makes his own time. He learns in a different way–not from books and professors and the like, but from music and experience and making his own way in the world. He became a way to explore and challenge the nature of knowledge itself, how academic or intellectual knowledge and personal or experiential knowledge are often at odds with each other–or valued differently and measured differently
Virgil’s musical instrument is a perfect representation of this since whether you call it a violin or a fiddle depends on entirely different systems of tradition and learning–one elite and classical, the other casual and colloquial. There’s that debate going on in the Virgil poems, but there’s also the pure imaginative fun of seeing what he sees, of putting myself in a different time and place through attention to what kind of world a rail-riding fiddler would experience in the 1930s. That world itself became an important character in later drafts of the larger manuscript. As the project developed, I knew I needed to be careful not to glorify a time of great tragedy and loss. The task became about establishing Virgil’s dust bowl as a metaphor for how knowledge grows–in good ways, bad ways, habitual ways, and all ways in between.
RR: We’re interested in the variations and range of formal structures in your work. What is your approach to form and its relation to content in your writing?
RM: When I’m working on poems that build a larger world within a collection, especially a project as tightly focused as the Virgil poems, I try to think about how the use of varying poetic forms can provide access to various ways of knowing. It’s very important to me, for example, that my poems utilize both narrative and lyric strategies; this allows poems their place as part of a larger story, but also allows individual poems their own moments of strangeness and reverie. It’s a matter of partnering narrative context and lyric intensity. I’m also playing directly with the awareness of what goes into a reader’s experience–pacing, visual progression down and across the page, engagement with certain expectations of how poems or language, in general, should operate.
I see my poems–when they’re working at their best–as invitations to read and think differently. Part of my work toward achieving that goal means structuring my ideas in dynamic and varied ways. Variation is critical to sustaining attention in a longer work. In some ways, I see the Virgil poems almost like episodes in a tv series or chapters in a novel; some are linear, some more experimental, some have more humor, some have more drama, some have the cadence of a folk tale, and others (like “Dust”) make pretty direct social commentary. I love building poems into each other this way. One of the single most interesting challenges for me as a poet is writing poems that can both stand alone as individual pieces and gain higher levels of meaning when put in a community with other poems.
RR: We understand you have both an MFA and a PhD in poetry. How did you decide to pursue an academic education in poetry?
RM: I went into each degree with a different set of concerns and goals. In the time just before my MFA I realized I wanted to grow more serious and more dedicated to my writing, but I knew I needed mentorship and direction to bring things together. My time at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) enabled me–for the first time–to take a very active role in designing my own course of study. I learned tons about myself as a writer. I learned what I care about at the core of my writing practice and aesthetics. I learned what it means to me that I am a poet, and how to cultivate that sensibility in my life and work. My time in my MFA program let me explore wild tangents; I read sometimes dozens and dozens of books a semester. I entered hungry for that kind of study, and I left clearer and more determined to write.
The PhD story is a little different. I didn’t think I wanted one. I was getting pretty burned out toward the end of the MFA, but my thesis advisor at VCFA suggested I consider a PhD. I knew I wanted to teach, but I had very limited experience at that point. The PhD, my advisor mentioned, would be a chance to get teaching experience, become further credentialed, and give a few years of relative stability for continued writing and exploration. I am extremely grateful that that has been my experience with my PhD. While the MFA was about creative discovery and honing my aesthetics, the PhD offered the chance at further professionalization and career readiness. Both degrees were critical for me in the development of my poetic identity, and in building a life that allows me to teach and write.
RR: How has being a musician impacted your writing style? Do you find that you see rhythm and pacing in a different way with your violin background?
RM: My experience as a musician is absolutely critical to how I write my poems. This is true in many ways, especially in the cadences and movement of individual phrases. When I’m writing poems, I’m always conscious that I’m using words both to communicate ideas and also to create an experience for readers that is built from sound and time. Sounds in words can lull us, call us to attention, create or interrupt quiet moments, bring us back to childhood or send us forward into old age. It’s often the sounds of a poem that comes to me first, even before language content. My tandem studies in violin and poetry highlight for me the differences and overlap between musical language and verbal language; this allows me to intuitively sense when an idea is out of sync with its music or when the music of the line is there but the content isn’t quite yet fully rendered. I often draft a placeholder word into a poem so I know what rhythm I’m looking for in the eventual word.
I play this way with accents and syllable counts, too, though this work feels more to me like plotting bowings in a Copland melody or a passage from a Dvorak symphony than making those little tic marks above stanzas. It’s all, for me, about creating a flow of words and sounds that match the intention in the flow of time and ideas. I use monosyllables for directness and simplicity, and mumblier words for a washier sense of things. I love big strong words, but I’m also entranced by the subtler ones, the dreamier ones. I’m drawn to the push and pull, where direct meets indirect, how melodies and harmonies merge to create a single ineffable whole that lingers in our memories like reverberations from a final major chord before we’re left with our own silence–for better or worse–and the desire to fill it or break it again.
Rebecca Macijeski’s work in Issue 5.3: