Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with
The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: You have a lot of experience teaching Creative Writing. What advice would you give to undergraduates looking for MFA programs?
Will Cordeiro: My first piece of advice is simple: write. You have to take the time to sit down, peck at the keyboard, and make it happen. And after you write: revise, and then revise, and then revise again.
Besides that, read widely. Explore different genres, periods, cultures, forms, and styles. Be curious. Persevere. Nobody needs a degree to write. You can find a community of writers anywhere. I met some great writers in New York City and during my time in the program at Cornell, sure, but I also met some absolute world-beaters when I lived in rural Delaware, believe it or not. Look for opportunities to get involved. If opportunities aren’t there, create them yourself. Translate. Edit. Put on plays. Go to readings. Debate aesthetics. Take classes. Teach. Take up journalism; pen reviews. Keep challenging your own opinions. Don’t find your voice, lose it. Though there is an astonishing diversity in the work that’s produced today, contemporary writers tend to stick to their own cliques, schools, and scenes. If you’re formalist, collage some Flarf; if you’re an experimental writer, compose a rhyme royale; if you’re a novelist, play surrealist games. Be willing to trash your own most cherished principles. If there’s any road to glory—whatever that is!—it’s paved with one’s slaughtered babies.
As far as an MFA goes, don’t do it unless you receive full funding. In today’s marketplace, an MFA degree is unlikely to land you an agent, a book deal, or academic employment. Most academic positions beyond the adjunct level require a Ph.D. and/or numerous publications. So the only benefit of an MFA is giving you more time and resources to write. In fact, an MFA can do you actual harm if it saddles you with any debt. Plan on having a day job—and being at least two years behind your peers in your career field—when you get spit back out. While you’re in a program, write your hiney off. Don’t get hung up on rejections. Nobody tells how many fellowships, jobs, contests, or journals have rejected them, but, if they’re getting published, it’s a good bet they’re getting rejected by the bucket-load, too.
Reputation, faculty, and other factors don’t matter that much when choosing an MFA program, really. You can make yourself a good writer anywhere, and most programs are more similar than different. That said, recognize the potential biases of programs and teachers. Don’t go to a program just because your favorite writer is on the faculty there: your favorite writer won’t necessarily be the best mentor for you. The most important piece of any application, by the way, is the writing sample, which you should spend a serious amount of time polishing: in other words, see piece of advice # 1 above.
Ultimately, you need to write—and think—for yourself. Keep at it long enough, and you’re bound to figure things out in the process. Just make sure you have fun doing it.
RR: Your poem “Pitcher” features several instances of odd enjambment; how does form and the poetic line influence your work in terms of content?
WC: The line can be a measure of breath, time, sound, space, meter, meaning, image, syntax, or form, among other things. While most poems tend to emphasize one of these values, I often find it more interesting when these competing ideas of the line create interference patterns with each other. Conventionally, lines use end-stops or enjambment; however, I prefer to think of some of my lines as “jammed up.” By that I mean one line doesn’t smoothly flow into the next—in the case of “Pitcher,” the line placement literally bounces your eyes (and ears) back and forth. Similarly, the line breaks can create ambiguous phrasal units, which can be read one way in terms of the line itself and another in terms of the whole sentence. The reader might have to backtrack through the poem to adjust the intonation as it unfolds: thus, a double temporality is created, and the poem can be read both forward and backward—almost re-read in the act of reading it for the first time.
To break any line already disrupts the expectations of written prose, and thereby asserts that something else is going on, that a multiplicity is being created. Whatever meaning is carried by the words themselves, the line break foregrounds that there’s another shaping force at work. In this way, perhaps, line breaks are to poems what cuts are to cinematic footage.
The lines in “Pitcher” are meant to sound snappy, that is, both quick and quick-witted. The rhythm of the voice is modeled on drag queens “reading” each other, also called “throwing shade.” It’s a rhetoric that seduces even as it insults, and, in poetic terms, can be seen in the lineage of “flyting,” or trading extravagant put downs. The sound needs a certain dissonance, a sonic fuzz or growl that belies its simpering, coquettish moxie.
So much of English and American poetry—even today, even if unconsciously—is informed by the long tradition of blank verse. “Pitcher,” by contrast, is ghosted by a tetrameter rhythm. Not only does tetrameter sound fast, but tetrameter, unlike pentameter, is neatly symmetrical, divisible into two halves with two feet each. The first few lines use this neat symmetry in what are essentially dropped lines of tetrameter; once this expectation is in place, though, it’s soon broken. A hanging line or an elision of a beat can create emphasis, making a line sound punchier by tipping that neat symmetry slightly off-kilter.
Nick Demske, Patricia Lockwood, and CAConrad are some contemporary poets who re-imagine the line in intriguing ways. Demske’s lines seem to possess the viscosity of silly putty, stretching and recoiling across the page. Lockwood plays with lines like a DJ, as if inventing poetic equivalents of scratching, juggling, sampling, and spinback on the vestiges of meters. CAConrad’s Book of Frank uses almost uncomfortably skinny lines to create a jittery, twitterpated feel, reminiscent of Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito. Then again, as my last remark indicates, there’s plenty to learn from older poetry: the metrical stutter-steps in Richard Crashaw, the variable caesuras in George Crabbe that keep his heroic couplets from all sounding the same, or Amy Clampitt’s giddy rhythms that keep spilling over even as they interrupt themselves, for example, just to mention a few brilliant poets that nobody seems to read much anymore.
I’m invigorated by such formal possibilities. I don’t think of form as something abstract or imposed. At times, like Pope or Coleridge, I even dream in verse. Piano players say they have the music in their fingers—there’s a muscle memory for poetic rhythms, as well. The meters work themselves into one’s marrow. I would say that form is the very medium through which most poets express nuances of meaning; form’s not separable from a poem’s so-called content. Rather than having some definite intention to express, I just as often begin a poem by trying to find out what language is capable of, exploring its various sonorous and rhythmic properties.
RR: The placement and connection between images of sexuality and nature in the poem was engaging and fresh. What first inspired you to place these two elements alongside each other in the poem?
WC: Thylias Moss has a poem entitled “Approaching Venus’s-flytrap during a Hungarian Film: A Subtitle,” in which she describes the plant’s adaptation: “The trick: hinged leaves, fringed like obviously / fake lashes, wink snug around insect bodies.” If Venus’s flytraps resemble winking eyes, then a pitcher plant might be like a diva’s throat. Later, during a revision of the poem, I happened to visit the Tucson Botanical Gardens, where I saw a specimen and read more about the plants. In the back of my mind, I was probably also thinking of the Venus’s flytraps in Suddenly, Last Summer. Gore Vidal helped Tennessee Williams rewrite the script for the silver screen—boy, would I have liked to have been a fly on the wall during their gab sessions! The movie version, which I prefer, features Elizabeth Taylor and Katherine Hepburn; hopefully, a little of the pert audacity embodied by these campy femme fatales is captured in the poem, too.
Alongside such thoughts, the poem’s impetus came out of thinking about Trans*, Genderqueer, and Gurlesque poetics, including several poets in the recent anthology Troubling the Line. What is “natural” (authentic, given) becomes especially tricky in such contexts. Personally, I’m a white, cis-male who suits up in a tie and slacks most days; but writing is a realm that allows me to explore the neglected aspects of myself in which I’m also a little girl, a drag queen, a carnivorous plant, a robot, a swarm of crows, or an inanimate object. Indeed, I wonder if being trans* is actually the norm, in so far as genders are social constructs that have many dimensions, rather than simply being a fixed binary; most of us regularly transition across some of those dimensions. For example, guys who pump iron are actively reshaping their bodies—hence, they’re changing their gender construction; there are more genders than simply masculine and feminine. Women who diet to change their bodies are also transitioning and reshaping their gender. Anyone who uses steroids, takes the pill, is on menopause therapy, or simply drinks milk (with or without rBGH) is altering hormone levels, after all. Perhaps this is a radical position, but I think that if we recognize the ways that gender alterations and prostheses are commonplace, we as a society would be more accepting of the broad spectrum of gender identities and expressions. I would also say that this everyday transitioning is not only about the body—the intellect or emotions can transform, too: reading can acculturate one into a new mindset, a new relation to one’s self and world. I think of Woolf’s Orlando and Sarduy’s Cobra, for example, as novels where the characters’ changes in gender occur, it seems to me, through their quixotic appetite for texts.
In Mythologies, Roland Barthes says that we should try to scour the laws and limits that we think are natural in order to “establish Nature itself as historical.” So often what we assume to be “Nature” actually turns out to be a cultural imposition, and only by gaining a historical perspective can the artificiality of our false idea of “Nature” be revealed. Ironically, though, another way to reveal our own biases about “Nature,” I think, is to challenge our views of nature through reading and investigating science. While science can often be biased (with Western, Enlightenment values; with research funding driven by multinational corporations; etc.), it nonetheless can frequently upset our more conventionalized assumptions about the order of things, too. The more one looks toward complexity and contingency by going outside one’s purview, the less inevitable any situation begins to seem. The concept of Nature itself might start to seem alien or fabricated. Although science may posit laws, all we can really cop to are correlations, correlations which are always in the process of being re-examined in light of anomalies and further research. The Latin root of “fact” means “to do, to make,” similar to the Greek root of “poet,” or “maker.” In this sense, facts—poetic or otherwise—are created, and it’s perhaps what Shelley meant when he famously said poets were “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”: we think through the systems made by previous minds. Pope quips, after praising Nature, that “Nature and Homer were, he found the same,” inverting the mimetic order.
RR: You’ve completed several residencies located across the United States, including ART342 in Colorado, Blue Mountain Center in New York, and a National Park Service artist residency at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. These all look like beautiful places, but they have very disparate climates and scenery. What influenced you most during your weeks in residency? Was the surrounding environment reflected in your work?
WC: The manuscript I’m currently completing, “Trap Street,” is largely about different ecological terrains where I’ve lived or spent some time, from deserts to beaches, and the sedimented histories of their use. One section, for instance, contains many poems about the badlands of the Painted Desert, which I wrote during my months in the Petrified Forest. No matter how isolated and beautiful a site is, there’s traces of human cohabitation within its ecosystem: frankly, I’m at least as fascinated by junk and detritus as I am by the “scenic” qualities of such places. “Nature” isn’t elsewhere, over there in some more pristine state. Humans are imbricated in the fabric of their environments. “The trail of the human serpent,” as William James once said, “is over everything.” Restoration ecology, specifically, recognizes that ecosystems are constantly evolving; they’re not static, and so, paradoxically, preserving an environment also means keeping it dynamic. Humans are just one species in that larger flux. In fact, I might go further and say that we extend into the environments we shape much like a dam or a wasp’s nest are likewise fundamental to those creatures’ livelihoods.
Although many of my poems depict landscapes, I’m conscious that the very etymology of “landscape” implies a place that has been selected, bound, and altered by a proprietorial gaze. In poetry, the pastoral genre has been used to celebrate particular estates and grounds as well as to reify an equivalence between the country—i.e., productive, exurban land—with the country, that is, the nation-state and its dominant ideology. Yet, other traditions of pastoral have challenged such views. I think of Wordsworth’s “hedgerows, hardly hedgerows,” where the plants have been appropriated for property lines yet overgrow their marks and thus reassert their contingencies: in other words, the hedgerows begin to erase the line between what’s human and what’s wild. Something similar, for example, is happening in Detroit where there’s an urban space that’s being reclaimed by plants, where the tidy divisions between “city” and “nature” are effaced. In many poems, I’ve been attracted to boundaries where we can witness the negotiation between humans and their environments. I push back against the proprietary gaze of pastoral by, say, introducing geological time scales or microscopic features, shifting the poem’s discourse and attention away from the level of detail that would immediately concern us. Yet, these many levels of geography, though overlooked, are also important, in turn, for how they’ve helped shape our culture (even the word “culture” itself turns civilization back to its roots in the soil).
RR: There is a wonderful musicality to “Pitcher” due to word choice. What effect do you think this has on the overall piece?
WC: I would hope that a reader might be entranced by the sounds of the piece as well as the physical movements it makes in one’s mouth. The poem gives the reader lots of tongue; it’s a lullaby going lulu with ululations. Maybe the sheer pleasure of sound-play helps to obscure the poem’s incessant double entendres. The reader is like the fly beckoned by the siren-call of the poem: readers might not realize the meanings until they’re already in the poem’s clutches, as it were, tempted down this charmer’s beguiling throat. I want my poems to consume their readers—to lure them into an acidic bath that eats away their brains.
All meaning wears the mask of sound. Still, there’s a bit of striptease going on: through the veils of sound, we see the shadows and contours of the flesh. Words, like flesh, are too too solid things, which, nevertheless, end up melting—look up almost any word in the dictionary, and you’re sure to find a litany of different meanings, some of which are at cross-purposes. The poem tries to keep its sundry ambiguities alive without being sundered by them. Against such complex sounds and meanings, though, I hoped to balance the poem with a colloquial diction and flippant, streetwise attitude. The voice is direct. It has a little sugar and a little venom.
Will Cordeiro’s work in Issue 2.1: