The poetry editorsRappahannock Review: Your decision in “Museum of Natural History #37, Helen {Keller}” to compare Helen Keller to Helen of Troy works excellently. How did the idea of comparing these two figures come about?

Sasha West: Thanks for saying that. The research for this poem came from a wonderful Cynthia Ozick article in the New Yorker many years ago ( I was struck by how often Keller’s contemporaries read her through the lens of mythology, renown, immortality–so the Greek mythology seemed a part of the field of reference as I was wandering around in early drafts of the poem. (Maybe I heard the echo of Annie calling her “my beautiful Helen”?) Once the idea of Helen of Troy came to mind, it created new discoveries as I mapped her mythology onto Keller’s story. I knew there would be golden apples, for instance, and fleets of ships. It was fun to think about how those could come into the poem.

RR: “Museum of Natural History #37, Helen {Keller}” contains a multitude of judgements of both Helen Keller and Helen of Troy. Could you elaborate on the role that the public eye play in this poem, and particularly, the judgement of beauty and authenticity by men?

SW: Part of my interest in the comparison was in how the public eye functions in creating aesthetics—whether of form or of language. Those aesthetic decisions govern what we know about the two Helens. Helen of Troy is this mute, beautiful presence in the Greek literature. Those two things seem to be related, as everything can be projected onto her. Now we know the phrase “a face that launches a thousand ships” as a measure of beauty, without feeling the full echo of the violence behind it. Helen of Troy is blamed for the war—though it was other people’s ideas about beauty that gave her face its value even before the kidnapping. I think you can hear in this that the poem’s concern about beauty and authenticity is more about how culture constructs those concepts—and how some people get caught in them—than it is about those things sui generis.

Keller gets to refute Helen of Troy’s silence—by speaking for herself, telling her own story—only to be told by other people what she should speak and how. That means she is still made into an object; people looked at her, judged the ways she was speaking, decided if she was doing it right. In both these cases, we are talking about worth—how much value a culture is willing to give a single person. How much currency she has.

Because men were still largely the arbiters of culture in Keller’s lifetime, this meant it was largely men who kept trying to figure out if her language was an act of parroting or plagiarism. Those accusations are so interesting to think about, since we all learn language through imitation. But Keller’s epiphany about words is made visible to us—Annie’s hands teaching her the word for “water” as the water runs. It lays bare how language happens. But if language is largely imitation, then when people accuse Keller of purple prose or plagiarizing the way things were described by others, they are really accusing the age in which they live. She is just the visible site for that angst.

There’s a great detail at the end of the Ozick piece about Keller eventually having glass eyes, which intrigued me in terms of beauty as a surface. She also controlled how she was photographed because one of her eyes protruded. It’s interesting to think about her having control over her own image, her portraiture. Now of course that’s common for celebrities, but they are also consuming the images of the self they produce. That’s not the case for Helen Keller’s photos.

RR: Judging by the “#37”, “Museum of Natural History #37, Helen {Keller}” appears to be part of a larger series. Is this an ongoing project of yours?

SW: I’ve been working on poems in the series for at least five years, though I’m not quite sure what box (book) will end up containing them. A lot of the Museum of Natural History poems take up the space of dioramas—where we try to take one aspect of culture and make it visible and fixed—and the relationship that process has to the real thing it represents. I have an unpublished manuscript that is largely interested in true and false making (forging a piece of art versus building your character in a forge of self) so in that context they feel very much about art and culture. The Helen Keller piece in that context takes up the issue of forgery—was she herself an artist or merely a reflection, a copy? But the book I’m currently writing is dwelling deeply in the ideas around climate change—In that space, these numbered dioramas are starting to function as elegies—or, more hopefully, as spaces that will give us back the value of the world in a way that makes us want to act to save it. All of them are interested in the act of attention and in the project of saving something to be looked at.

RR: Structure clearly plays an important role in both “Museum of Natural History #37, Helen {Keller}”, and “Siberia”. Could you explain your process when it comes to choosing a poem’s form?

SW: Sometimes a form seems to arrive via intuition and sometimes it comes through trial and error. I was really lucky to take a great year-long forms class in graduate school. The first half, taught by Greg Williamson, led us through the traditional forms—iambic pentameter, sonnets, villanelles, pantoums, you name it. I thought of it as forms boot camp. The second half, taught by Tom Sleigh, looked at forms in larger ways—line lengths, number of lines in a stanza, patterns of indentation, slant rhyme, internal rhyme, invented forms. I can only hope something about the way those two brilliant poets engage form left some residue in me. If something feels off about the form in an initial draft, I’ll just keep changing line breaks and stanza structures, until something starts to feel organic to the content. “Siberia” felt compact, claustrophobic even, and so the long lines and quatrains seemed to build dense, boxy rooms to capture the characters in. The Helen Keller poem felt like the unfolding of an epic, so I liked the way tercets could echo Dante or William Carlos Williams’ longer poems—a dancy, elegant progression sort of like a waltz. Now, these forms seem the right fit, though both poems went through multiple other versions before arriving here.

RR: “Siberia” carefully weaves the use of parentheses into the poem, a feat that isn’t always easy. Could you describe your decision to use parentheses, particularly if it affects perception and narrative in the poem?

SW: I wrote this after finishing a series of poems that all had coordinates structures in them—parenthetical statements (actually braces like in math) that existed alongside but not in the narrative—things that complicated or explored or commented on the central poem. Asides are a wonderful technique to widen the poem’s space—a way for the work to refuse a central, coherent narrative. My hope for poems that employ this technique—both as a reader and a writer—is that they feel like they exist on multiple planes. If they were visual art, I think they’d be collages, or paintings with layers peeled back, or encaustics with various objects/images stuck in different layers of the wax.


Sasha West’s work in Issue 2.2: 

“Museum of Natural History #37, Helen {Keller}”