The following interview with Paisley Rekdal was conducted in 2013 by Sheila McMullin as part of the Poetry and Literature Center’s online Interview Series. The series featured emerging and established literary writers in dynamic and thought-provoking conversation. Though the series is no longer active, From the Catbird Seat is reprinting these interviews to bring them new light.
Your opening poem “Strawberry” in The Invention of the Kaleidoscope ends, “. . . to fail the way I’ve failed / in every particular sense of myself, / in every new and beautiful light.” Would you talk of how this differs from the cliché of failure as a creative pathway to success?
On the one hand I think this moment might fall in line with the old saw that our failures are what make us human and thus beautiful. On the other, there is grammatically a difference between where this beauty lies—outside the self in the light as the line reads—and where failure exists, which is inside the speaker’s sense of self. Personally, I vacillate between wanting to believe the cliché that failure is a creative pathway to success and actively rejecting it. We all know that people can fail without there being anything redeeming in the failure itself, and it’s good to remember this, and be empathetic to those who fail—especially when we are the ones who have—because ultimately the rhetoric of success-via-failure doesn’t really hear the frustration of the person experiencing it. It’s no good, when you’ve finished a book that fundamentally doesn’t work (as I have: and no, it never got published), to hear, “Oh, but I bet you learned so many new techniques from sucking for 250 pages!” That really is the worst thing to hear, but it IS the best thing to believe, otherwise you might never get out of bed in the morning.
Your newest poetry collection, Animal Eye, takes place largely in museums and zoos. How does the speaker in these poems distinguish her/himself from the people she is observing, who are themselves there to observe?
This is a great question. On a very literal level, the speaker distinguishes herself by talking: she’s the one who gets to observe through words, though she is herself (as we all are) observed. But on the larger level, the book is about the difficult problems that perception and imagination raise between observer and observed, who themselves sometimes become seamlessly (if frighteningly) “intertwined” in the book, or are each socially and arbitrarily seen as “other.” In the poems, as in life for me, I think it’s hard to distinguish what makes one individual truly different from another in a way that might be understood as organically authentic, rather than artificially imposed. Being mixed race, possibly these questions are more pervasive for me than for other people. Being a third-generation mixed Asian American, what makes some part of me “really” Chinese versus “really” Norwegian/European? These questions can’t be answered, but they raise issues of perspective and perception, observer and observed, from which most of our social identity (sadly but understandably) stems.
Poems in Animal Eye often highlight distinctions between laws of human civilization and laws of nature, such as the accepted necessity of animal violence. In the poem “A Small Soul-Colored Thing” the speaker uses fantasy to participate in this animal violence—could you talk about addressing this taboo?
It’s interesting: I never would have used the word “taboo” since the poem, for me, is the fantasy we (I) might have of entering into a purely animal, reactive state in which problems of extreme self—consciousness, language and meaning—something that affects and shapes human identities, but not animal ones—get erased. The animal figure I imagine myself turning into as well is a hybrid: both deer AND dog simultaneously, as well as a host of other possible animals. There is violence, but I wouldn’t characterize that kind of violence as taboo except in the human realm. But as you noted, this poem is a fantasy—a longing to become part of a world that, by my classification as human, I can’t truly be a part of.
Your recent book Intimate: An American Family Photo Album combines poems with memoir and photography. Why did you feel the need to go beyond poetry, and what did this hybrid form ultimately offer you?
Poetry left out the ability to explain and lecture and question and debate. At least, my skills as a poet weren’t good enough to let me do this. The more I worked on Intimate and thought about photography, the more I realized that portrait photography and lyric poetry have a great deal in common: they tell (at their best) wide-ranging narratives about a single subject in static time. But ultimately, they are posed, highly artificial and focused on encapsulating emotion in ways that nonfiction is allowed to question more openly and at length. The book was meant to be poems, then it was meant to be poems interwoven with an essay on Edward Curtis, then it became poems interwoven with essay, fiction and memoir. It was incredibly daunting, but each genre allowed me to do, and say, wildly different things. Poems alone would have been too limiting.
Paisley Rekdal is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Nightingale and Imaginary Vessels. She is also the author of a book of essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee, and the hybrid memoir Intimate. Her newest work of nonfiction is a book-length essay, The Broken Country: On Trauma, a Crime, and the Continuing Legacy of Vietnam. Rekdal’s honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Civitella Ranieri Residency, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She teaches at the University of Utah, and in May 2017 was named Utah’s Poet Laureate.