Half-Hidden in a Shock of Story: A Conversation with Jan VanStavern
What I’m Reading
Flies by Michael Dickman, and Richard III by Shakespeare (honesty counts, yes?).
Living in the Pacific Northwest, with its rains and its greens, has influenced my work, as have becoming a mother and adopting my child from China. I look at my favorite poems that I’ve read or written and notice they are full of surprises at a deep language level and often about really violent transitions, ones where grief and joy are right there, often half-hidden in a shock of story. So I guess my poems and I both love big storms, moody clouds, changing landscapes, wet cold nights at home with Dr. Seuss and a child in my lap. I’d also add, yoga. Breathing is coming into my work and is part of what needed to be there, in the tighter, more crabbed lines that could fall flat and go narrative when they needed more energy.
Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris. Partly for personal reasons, for a writing workout, I also go to Elizabeth Bishop or Brenda Hillman. And for a mystical spa, I go to Hafiz (I like the Mitchell translation) or Red Pine’s The Selected Songs of Cold Mountain. And every poet should read Leave It to Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse.
Favorite line of poetry—ever.
At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
Hear me out: that which you call death
Indeed, I cheated and gave two sentences—four lines! From Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris.
On Contemporary Poets
Brenda Hillman’s work, from five books back to her more recent pieces, unglues me. I was immersed in Bright Existence for years, and recently kept Pieces of Air in the Epic on my bedside table. Her work is utterly surprising in language and insight, and has a messy and controlled beauty that pulls together old and unusual sources with overheard phrases, mystical and practical problems, and makes them all wander through the poem without any boring narrative spine. I love her mind on the page.
Judy Halebsky is a newer-to-publication writer who traveled to Japan for several years from her native Canada and from her other home, California; she writes poems that surprise and fascinate me—from poems of mild danger to poems as a language of suggestion, she uses English and Japanese to unveil weird emotional stories behind ordinary experiences. It’s really hard to explain what I love about them, but her new book Sky=Empty is so unusual and strangely familiar—a book I love and envy for its language and its half-exposed insights. It’s wise, but not trumpeting, a poetry of half-learned lessons. (If I were to pick a third and fourth, I am also utterly blown away by Natasha Trethewey, especially Native Guard, and I love the work of Kevin Young, especially Dear Darkness.)