CONTRIBUTOR SPOTLIGHT: INTERVIEW WITH CORTNEY LAMAR CHARLESTON
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “Poem Where I Bide for the Birds and the Overcoming” has a unique form, and we’re drawn to the way white space shapes the cadences on the page and in the ear. Did you start writing the poem with a clear sense of form, or did it develop organically as you wrote?
Cortney Lamar Charleston: The poem, like the vast majority of those I write, started only with the text, rather formless. But what happens once the words stop flowing is that I revisit them and the shape of the poem begins to reveal itself to me. It’s a very intuitive thing. I break where I feel one is needed, create space where space is needed, and in the end pull back from the page and just look at it. I can tell when the poem looks right and when it doesn’t, when I’ve photographed it the way it prefers to be photographed, so to speak. The only time this tends to change is when I’m working in a traditional or received form that already has set rules… unless I’ve intended to purposely break those rules, which I’ve done from time to time.
RR: The language and imagery in “Between Lafayette and Panola I Have a Fever Dream” builds to create a strong sense of fear and unease by the end of the poem. What did you use as inspiration to tap into these emotions?
CLC: Honestly, I couldn’t stop thinking about cotton. It haunts my imagination, considering the historical trauma so closely associated to it, a trauma that inhabits my body, was passed down. A couple years ago, in my first trip to the Deep South in a long while, I was kind of taken aback to see it out there, growing from the soil, so present and present tense. I can never see it hanging from a stem and not be transported; the sensations are uncomfortable for me and troubling and yet there is the physical object, so soft and delicate. I used that conflict and anxiety to enter into the poem and, from your question, it seems I was successful in generating a feeling I intended.
RR: We love how the titles of both poems feel unorthodox in their length and immediate sense of the speaker’s voice. What’s your process for creating titles for your poems?
CLC: My experience with titling has been so wild and varied. I often try for brevity but have really taken to longer titles at times, particularly because I don’t think of the title as being separate from poem but part of the poem (whether it functions as the poem’s first line or not). Therefore, it is something that I want to carry a voice, no matter how short or long the title is, that feels consistent with that of the speaker. I try different combinations of words until I get it just right, usually working with a specific image in mind, trying to capture in words the feeling of it and the description of it simultaneously. Titling any piece of writing is truly one of the most difficult things I feel I do.
RR: There’s a clear attention to language and detailed imagery in your writing. Can you tell us about how you approach the interplay of image and voice in a poem?
CLC: I kind of alluded to this in my response to your previous question, but what I’m often trying to do is translate an image that’s been filtered through my emotional field. That translation has to be true to both what I’ve observed and what I’ve experienced in that observing, which then leads to really intense focus against the descriptions and the sound of the poem. That balancing is what makes a poem really specific to me, I feel, like I’m notarizing it or something. And that balancing act, also, is what I feel helps a reader habit the interiority of the speaker, however temporarily, a little bit more.
RR: We imagine that you have come across many different styles of poetry as an editor for The Rumpus. How has your role there influenced your work as a poet?
CLC: You know, before I took that role, I wondered how it would impact my how my own work looked and felt. Rather than feeling like it’s changed my work in that way, I believe it’s been more consequential in giving me an opportunity to not only see what work I truly want to be in conversation with but also informed how I can enter that conversation more uniquely, not in terms of what I say (because there’s nothing original under the sun) as much as how I say it. It’s been a thoroughly rewarding experience and I’m glad I decided to jump into that work despite my (perhaps unfounded) reservations about my ability to do it well.
Cortney Lamar Charleston’s work in Issue 6.2: