INTERVIEW WITH SHERRE VERNON
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We love the Joni Mitchell song “A Case of You.” How do you see those lyrics inflecting the poem? Does it have a personal significance to you?
Sherre Vernon: I used the excerpt from “A Case of You” to open “The Devil” because the song’s conceit is like a roadmap for my entire poem. There are lovers entangled in Mitchell’s song; the speaker recognizes her own fear of (and compulsion toward) the darkness; and yet she is drawn to others who live in their own fearlessness. She’s talking about a powerful and doomed connection. Those of us who know and love this song in its entirety are also privy to the fact that Mitchell is singing about a love that gets so far under the skin, that even after it’s lost, it holds an almost religious power over us. In some way, my speaker is recognizing that as well. And yes, I’ve had a love like that.
RR: In our previous interview with you, you mentioned having a project exploring the Tarot’s Major Arcana. Is “The Devil” one of the pieces from that series? If so, were there any particular challenges in writing about that card?
SV: You caught me. Yes, this is another poem in the set I spoke to you about last year. There were a few cards that were particularly challenging to write toward, as you allude to: The Devil, Death (which I approached as “The Angel of Death”) and the Hanged Man. They are hard cards to write about because their titles invoke a certain popular dread, even and especially for those of us with no experience looking at or thinking about Tarot symbology. What allowed me to write about these cards, and in the method that I did – telling stories about people – was to sit less with their title’s connotations and more with the possible readings that can be found in their images and histories. For The Devil, the card we are specifically talking about, there is an undercurrent of sexuality, of addiction, of attachment. All of those themes drive my poem. I also used some of the traditional imagery (chains, a pair of lovers, and an altar) in my opening stanza.
RR: We’re intrigued by the different moments in “The Devil” and how each section takes us somewhere new. How did you decide to bring together these settings?
SV: I’ve been writing most of my life, but it was just this year that a fellow poet pointed out to me how important geography is in my own writing—particularly geography of the desert. If you take a look back at “The Hermit,” you’ll see it, and it definitely shows up again here. For me the physical landscape is the door to the interior one; landscapes in nature are commentary on our rawest selves; when we are indoors, we are who we craft ourselves to be. Even as they are varied, the first three parts of this poem are much the same: sexual, exterior, reactionary, even explosive. Taken together, I hope they create a history for my point of view character, that they testify to the intensity and cost of what she ultimately gives up. I also hope that the reader finds them lush and compelling. Isn’t this the nature of young love, young lovers? It was for me, at least. That kind of love can also be innately stupid and completely blind to the need for boundaries. When you live like this you either keep going until there’s nothing left of you, or at some point you decide you want some agency in your life. You stop.
RR: The first three stanzas are wild and intimate, but the final stanza is so domestic. What’s behind this change? How did you balance this major shift in tone?
SV: At least part of this poem is in conversation with what it’s like to refuse our dearest devils, our addictions – maybe even our loves. How what we get in exchange is ordinary, mundane – but also safe. It pays the rent. It’s livable, and yet it’s a daily choice. Strong attachments are always within reach, there if we choose to turn to them. Alternatively, the shift in this poem can be read a little more lightly: it’s the turn we make when we grow up, when we aren’t willing to make the same risky choices for the sake of love or sex or approval, because we recognize what we could lose if we did. Growing up or letting go doesn’t mean we remain unmarked by our earlier lives. And it doesn’t mean that what we gave up was completely without beauty or value—even if it was harmful.
RR: In your bio you mention you’re “a seeker of a mystical grammar.” Can you tell us more about what that means and how you’re striving to find it?
SV: Oh, I have so much to say about this! Where do I even start? I’m such a lowly acolyte to a thousand artistic masters: Rumi, Hafiz, Leonard Cohen, Michael Ondaatje, Bradbury, St. John. Or better yet, the women: Saints Julian and Teresa. Margaret Atwood. Isabelle Allende. Catherynne M. Valente. Brenda Hillman. Toni Morrison. There’s a way they bend language almost to its breaking point, they push it just up to that place where we can find new words, new sequences of words, new uses for old words, where language begins to transform upon itself and offer some unexpected window into the human condition.
English is a lovely language for this sort of linguistic rebellion: nouns and verbs can exchange themselves at whim without the burden of grammatical cases or any verbal endings beyond a quite subtle “s.” Moreover, we have so many synonymous words, each with different connotations culled up from their original roots, across a variety of language families; we can choose them for their rhythm, for the sharpness or softness of their consonants and still convey our underlying meaning. Anyone who wants to revel in this sort of linguistic flexibility can’t be pedantic. Instead, we have to get behind the idea of a descriptive rather than a prescriptive linguistics. Linguist John McWhorter has a lot to say about descriptive linguistics for anyone who wants the science of it, but for the sake of brevity I’ll offer that it’s the argument that language will do what it will, no matter what rules professors and grammarians use to try to contain it. Language doesn’t sit still. It’s organic and driven by a forward momentum, an evolution of itself. I’ll add that language, particularly poetic language spoken aloud, can be an embodied and ancestral experience— a travelling backward as well as forward. There’s a palpable electricity in words if you allow yourself to get lost in them. That’s the sort of thing I aim for in my work: not a use of language that is so slippery that it divorces itself of sense, but a poetics that works upon the brain and body so powerfully that it prevents the reader from holding too tightly to what’s familiar; the language of a mystical space.
Sherre Vernon’s work in Issue 7.2: