Poetry Around Us With James Ballowe – Christina Pugh

An interview series with featured poets of Fifth Wednesday Journal

 Writing and Reading Poetry: An Interview with Christina Pugh

pughChristina Pugh
is the author of four books of poems: Perception (Four Way Books, forthcoming in 2017), Grains of the Voice (Northwestern University Press, 2013), Restoration (Northwestern University Press, 2008), and Rotary (Word Press, 2004), which received the Word Press First Book Prize. Her poems have appeared in The Atlantic, Poetry, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, and many other periodicals. In 2015, she was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry, as well as a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. Her previous awards have included the Lucille Medwick Award from the Poetry Society of America, a poetry fellowship from the Illinois Arts Council, and the Grolier Poetry Prize. Her critical articles have appeared in Poetry, The Emily Dickinson Journal, Literary Imagination, and The Cambridge Companion to Poetry Since 1945, among other publications. She is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and consulting editor for Poetry.

(Photo by Davide Acquinita at the Bogliasco Foundation.)



On July 1, a beautiful, cool day, Christina Pugh and I sit on the patio of the Dollop Coffee and Hoosier Mama Pie Company at Kedzie and Chicago in Evanston, Illinois. We’ve found a shady spot and talk poetry over the occasional rumble of the passing truck or El train. Several of the poems in this issue of FWJ are from Perception, her fourth book of poetry, scheduled to appear in 2017. Three others, “Linden,”“Solve for Tulips” and “Hot or Cool Media,” are to be included in a book currently in progress, titled Stardust Media.


Fifth Wednesday Journal: Thank you, Christina, for giving us an opportunity in this issue of FWJ to read poems that will be included in forthcoming books. I just read your essay “The Contemporary ‘Mainstream’ Lyric” that you published in The Cambridge Companion to Poetry Since 1945, edited by Jennifer Ashton, 2013. There you say, “In American poetry today, ‘mainstream’ lyric is the school that has no name. Perhaps more precisely, it is the school that is not a school.” Could you elaborate on that for a moment?

Christina Pugh: One of my hesitations in writing that essay was exactly that nomenclature: “mainstream lyric.” I discussed it with the editor and we came to the conclusion that I could use the term “mainstream” in quotation marks, as I do throughout the whole essay. My problem with the term is that “mainstream,” in many contexts, is somewhat pejorative. It’s as if “mainstream” is being defined in opposition to something else, say, avant-garde. Something more political, etcetera. My point about “mainstream lyric” is that it performs all kinds of cultural and political work within the confines of the traditional lyric, however we might define that in the twenty-first century.

It’s true that most poets working in the “mainstream” would not call it that. They would just call it poetry. It’s mostly more experimental poets who are going to be looking into this body of work and calling it “mainstream” or “mainstreamed.” And so I really wanted to get at the incredible possibilities within this somewhat amorphous group of poets called “mainstream,” who are taking their place in a long-term literary tradition of lyric poets who have performed a huge amount of philosophical, cultural work. That’s essentially where all of this is coming from.


FWJ: In the article you find a distinction among Language poets, New Formalists, and “mainstream” poets. And you mention throughout the essay various “mainstream” poets, among them Emily Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Charles Wright, Auden, and Homer. And you talk about Lyn Hejinian, who is critical of “mainstream” poetry. Some of our readers may consider themselves “mainstream,” Language, or formalist poets. Is poetry a larger canopy that includes all three?

CP: Yes, of course. Poetry is indeed a larger canopy that includes all three. It’s a question of what the poet values aesthetically, and to some degree politically or philosophically, under that canopy. Generally, Language poets tend to be very skeptical and critical of things like musical closure, of things like a stable speaker, of things that have been the mainstay of the traditional lyric since time immemorial, shall we say. So usually the broad distinction is going to be between traditional lyric and Language poetry.

Within traditional lyric, you are also going to have some subsets. One of those is the New Formalist movement which, interestingly enough, has had its own thrust, with an emphasis on a plainspoken communicability, which is great. But not every “mainstream” or lyric poet is going to be valuing that. So it’s not as if you have the “mainstream” poets, the New Formalists, and then the Language poets as three separate entities. I do consider formalists to be, as you are so well describing, under the lyric poetry canopy. But their emphasis on maintaining or conserving a relationship to rhyme and meter along with a certain relationship to communicability really distinguishes them. And one of the things I have found in a lot of this New Formalist writing is that they are not as interested in poets like Emily Dickinson, for example, who was not as concerned with that straightforward communicability, even though she was concerned with rhyme and meter. So it’s a really interesting, wonderful geography. And I would emphasize what you started out with, which is that all of these things are approaches to poetry.


FWJ: Reading your poetry, Christina, sometimes makes me think of a poem that I read many years ago when I was on the editorial board of Accent: A Quarterly of New Literature, founded by Kerker Quinn. In 1957, we published a short poem by a Toronto poet by the name of Peter Miller. It is titled “Journey into the Interior.” The opening lines have stayed with me all these years: “and for the long trek inward / what gear to wear?” Not that a poem requires a long trek inward. But what gear do you wear when you begin one of your poems?

CP: What gear to wear? That’s so interesting because when you first said it, I was envisioning a gearshift in a car. That’s really interesting to me — that that was my first association when I heard that word. But I understand the question. I would have a microscope, a telescope, and an amplifier. The microscope is clearly for seeing near, for seeing something in a magnified way. The telescope is for getting a more panoramic view of what’s around — including, on some level, the cosmos. The amplifier is for listening to language and listening to every inflection that happens within the poem, and that means everything. That means the difference between “a” and “the,” the difference between “in” and “of,” along with the more rarefied vocabularies that my poems sometimes use. I guess those would be my gears. At first I was like, “Should I be in neutral? Should I be in high gear?”


FWJ: Well, let’s turn it around to the reading audience, to see what gear you might expect them to wear for your poetry. Most poets can’t pick and choose their readers. Readers are diverse. Would the gear a reader needs to have depend on a single poem or one of your books?

CP: Right. I think my ideal reader is a reader who is going to be curious and willing. And sometimes that means a reader who is willing to step outside the poem, to do a little research, to learn something new. You know, that’s something I think is good for a reader to be willing to do. So I think the ideal reader’s gear might include a dictionary as one of his or her instruments. And the other thing I think a reader should be equipped with when reading my poetry would be quiet, silence, focus; so the ideal reader should be — I don’t want to say in a sensory deprivation chamber or anything like that — but able to divest him- or herself of all of the distractions that get in the way of being able to enter a poem. So maybe the gear that readership should have might be earplugs and a spotlight that focuses on the page. (Remember that we are talking ideals here, not reality. A good reader can read anywhere.) But the best reader would be focused, curious, willing to concentrate and to follow the lines of poems in a very invested sort of way.


FWJ: And to be isolated with the poem as much as possible, without distractions?

CP: Right.


FWJ: Thank you for that generous answer. You say in “Profit Margin,” the first poem of your 2013 collection Grains of the Voice, “. . . I will worry / with you in the burrow of forever.” Does worry help define what the reader and the poet are doing together?

CP: I think there is an intensity around that last sentence that does speak to the intensity around the writing and the reading of these poems. There’s a hunkering down into language and into the poem that you’ve usefully drawn our attention to. What’s interesting about the verb worry there is that it has a near rhyme with the word burrow. And to some degree the word worry was generated by that relationship of sound. And it also speaks to where we are in culture, I guess, too. The poem is thinking about things that are ancient as well as things that are contemporary. Worry is a very contemporary feeling, a very contemporary emotion. We wouldn’t necessarily say that Achilles was worried. It feels really germane to our time, and that’s part of the challenge of writing these poems; that is, to maintain that span. But it always has to be one or the other. So the idea of having an emotion that doesn’t feel classical or doesn’t feel as if it belongs to time immemorial, but does seem very contemporary, was important for the opening of that book as well.


FWJ: In your book Restoration (2008), you write about not just restoration of painting, but also of the soul and many things that people must attend to, sometimes with the help of professionals who aid in the restoration process. There are a couple of ekphrasis poems that describe not the finished painting but the painting in the process of restoration. I think that you don’t talk about being restored without knowing the process of restoration. Is that correct?

CP: Of course. What a wonderful way of thinking about the book. And it’s true that there are poems that do that very thing, of thinking about the restoration process. I think restoration is one of those words that have so many valences: the restoration of painting, the restoration of the body (the new retina that gets installed in a patient’s eye, in a poem called “The New Retina”), and, of course, restoration of the soul. Part of what the book is doing in the first two sections is dealing with the dispersion of the psyche, of the soul, in a certain way through dream life and through the Dora case history. And the third section is subtitled “Restoration: The Senses.” So it’s about being restored to waking life after dreaming in ways that felt either disorganizing or just confounding or puzzling to the speaker who keeps trying to figure it all out. And so it’s happening on the level of the poem, and it’s also happening on the level of the book with the three sections of dream, case history, and awakening. That’s how it was intended.


FWJ: Your poems fit the titles, or your titles fit the poems. In your book Grains of the Voice (2013), you title section II, “Interlude: Recto and Verso.” It’s as though you are using an entire section to talk about how the voice resonates within itself.

CP: Yes. That’s a good way to think about it. I was fortunate to work with Northwestern University Press. They laid out the poems on recto and verso pages. The way it’s published, it’s clear what corresponds with what. It’s amazing to me, though — different readers have pointed out to me relationships between the different versos and rectos that span the individual poem, relationships that I had not even seen before and that were lovely to understand. Yes, the idea is that the versos are absolutely resonating in different ways, that they are meant to be spoken and not just to be seen as printed matter on a page. So the idea that you can fish for certain words, that you can take them out and reconfigure them differently — in a way, what those poems were also thinking about was the essence of the recto poem that it corresponds to, what is it not saying; or, in particular cases, it would provide an entirely different direction to go in with some of the same words. So I tried not to be too pedantic about the relationship between the recto and verso. But absolutely, I emphasize that it is about sound and the contrast between the recto and the verso.


The full interview with Christina Pugh is available in the fall 2016 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal. To purchase a copy, please visit our store.



James Ballowe, an FWJ founding editor, is Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Bradley University. Northern Illinois University Press published his biography of Joy Morton, A man of Salt and Trees: The Life of Joy Morton, in 2009. In 2010 the University of Illinois Press published his anthology Christmas in Illinois. This is his thirteenth interview of an Illinois poet for FWJ. Learn more about him: www.bradley.edu/academic/departments/english/contests/essay/ballowe.dot








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