An Animated World

by HRM on May 30, 2013

Interview with Poet Arda Collins

Arda Collins

Robert Frost once said that poetry is a way of taking life by the throat. The abrupt, vivid violence of this metaphor is integral to the work of Arda Collins, albeit with just a touch more mystery.

Collin’s poetry is a way of taking life by the throat, nearly strangling it, then letting go before embracing it tenderly, stealing its coat, leaving it gasping for breath on a suburban street corner just as the day turns to night. All as a silent bystander watches from inside a house.

In fact, Collin’s poetry is full of mysteries. Her poetry ensnares you in a world that is a mix of the familiar and foreign, the commonplace and the obscure. The title of her chapbook, It Is Daylight (winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize) is an example of Collins’ talent of casting a normal occurrence in a kind of light that reveals its uncanny nature. Collins’ ‘daylight’ falls over the pages of her book like a spotlight, searching out strange happenings in dark corners.  Below, Collins discusses It Is Daylight, the strange power of everyday objects, Bambi, and poetry.

– Carolyn Supinka

CS: I find your poems seem so suspenseful because in many cases, even objects have agency. In ‘Department Store’, a woman lays out her skirt on a chair, and while the woman slept, the skirt ‘didn’t pray’. Can you talk about this type of characterization, and how you see objects in your stories?

AC: Yeah, objects are very important to me. It’s something – especially when I was writing those poems – I didn’t know that was happening. You write what satisfies you, or what feels good, or what feels good because it feels bad, or because it feels necessary.  And I didn’t notice until a lot of that was written that that was something that was happening.

I do feel the world is animated in a way. And in terms of objects, it used to be much worse. I used to have a lot of stuff. [laughs] I was able to separate from it, but in that poem, it’s not that I think the skirt is really gonna pray, or that the skirt is cartoonish, but really it has more to do with the idea that objects have an energy around them. Even trees and animals and water, those are not objects, but…everything is made out of the world.

So I do sort of have this feeling that you can feel something from what surrounds you. I get kinda superstitious about it. I do have a strong feeling, of material surroundings as having an emotional quality.

This is not meant to be a flaky story, this is real, but objects retain something important about them. There was this time when I was sleeping in the backseat of a friend’s car and we were driving home late at night. She had this plaid blanket, and I wanted to use it because I was cold, but even in that sleepy state, I was like…I don’t know if I should use this. I had a feeling it was involved in a car accident. This blanket was giving me all kinds of feelings. I said something to her about it, something about the blanket, and she said “Oh, I was in a really terrible car accident”. There were nuns involved, and I don’t remember exactly the details of this, so this story has a ghost story quality about it. But I don’t think of it that way. It makes perfect sense that you can perceive the life of this object. I don’t know as a scientist [laughs] how this all works, but it makes total sense to me. There was all this intensity of emotional and energy that this object – not absorbs – but maybe retains as part of its life in the world. So I guess I think of everything as having something like that. So the world is alive in a way. Oh I’m blanking on the author’s name…there is this story is called Street of Crocodiles [editor’s note: the story is by Bruno Schultz] and the characters have this refrain where they keep saying “What is alive” and there’s a similar relationship in that too. There’s this whole idea of what becomes of us when we die, what becomes of all of humanity, us as physical beings, and what is their relationship. And that there’s only so much matter in the world.

CS: I remember hearing once that there’s a word in Japanese for objects that have been used for so long for one purpose that they become that purpose, they take on a character themselves. They have this aura attached to them, even though they aren’t physically living.

AC: Yes, an aura is a good word. A hammer comes into being a hammer! [laughs]

CS: Or a blanket, or a skirt. So I read your essay Poetry As Process of Inquiry at the Poetry Society of America. You talked about the process of inquiry and how that leads to poetry, and to quote you: “It is intimate and private, and is also meant to be witnessed in the larger privacy of the shared space of our psyches”. I liked that, taking something so intimate and a part of yourself and sharing it with the wider aura of other people’s shared space. Can you talk about the shared and the private in your own work and how those two might interlap and overlap?

AC: In terms of that, the idea of the shared space of our psyches – there is a feeling that poetry or your imagination is a shared space, and become a shared space, because the poem makes it so. Whenever you read a poem, you’ve entered the world of that writer’s imagination and emotional life. You have a –it’s not even a parallel experience, it’s that you’re able to enter a space that would otherwise be invisible to you. If you look at someone else and you can see in their face and physical being that there’s thinking and imagining and perceiving. If you were standing in a landscape with someone, and you could feel that you were comprehending this something together or simultaneously. The poem allows this other further articulation of that imaginative experience. And also with people who are dead or invisible now.

CS: How did you start writing poetry? Did you start by reading it, or experiencing it, or did it just sort of happen?

AC: I always read a lot as a kid. That’s what most people say, but that is what happened. I read mostly stories and novels, and short stories especially. I think I always thought I wanted to write, and I did write, and I wrote bad little stories and then bad bigger stories and then I stopped writing stories [laughs].  I read a lot of fiction and I still do, but it was probably at the end of high school and in college that I took my first poetry workshop, and I left the fiction workshops behind. I was writing poetry, and my first workshop was with Charles Simic. He was a wonderful teacher—ooh, I hate that word, ‘wonderful’!

CS: Really?

AC: Well it was different:  his class was different than wonderful. I found it deeply comforting to listen to him. He would tell a lot of stories in class, and the way that he would tell stories and the way that that would tell you what was going on in your poem and whether or not anything worthwhile was there. His way of seeing the world I found very comforting. And by that I mean the presence of being in a class like that made me feel like I could write whatever I wanted to write. I felt he understood the world in a way that was important to me.

But really I became serious about writing poetry in college. Before that… I remember having this thing where I was a kid, when I was like, wouldn’t it be so great if there was a job where you could just think about things and say stuff and there was no plot and no characters and you could just say whatever you wanted! I thought that would be cool.

CS: You found it.

AC: [laughs]I mean I had read poems, but I didn’t make the connection that this is what that was. It took me a while to see that. So that’s how.

CS: At AWP this year I was listening to Tracy K. Smith during an homage to Seamus Heaney. She was talking about her class with him, and how he viewed poetry. She said his class made her think, oh I can make anything be poetry, and it gave her more access or she felt more empowered by what she could touch and affect with poetry.

AC: Yeah definitely. A really great class can do that, or even a not great class can do that. Seamus Heaney is also mind-blowing. Tracy K. Smith is pretty mindblowing herself.

CS: So sort of in the same vein, can you talk about some poets who have inspired you, and what do you think poetry can do for readers that perhaps other mediums can’t?

AC: Well I liked Charles Simic a lot but it made a large impression at the time because it was the first poetry class I took, so it opened up this whole thing I never had. I have taken a lot of workshops because at this point I have a PhD in poetry, and I don’t want to name names because I’ve had a lot of great workshops and I have learned a lot from pretty much all of them.

I went to the Writer’s Workshop for my MFA and Denver for my PhD. But also with those workshops you learn as much from the other people in the class and their work as you do from the person teaching the class. And those places, I know people were doing great work and being able to read that every week was a huge experience.

CS: So you got your MFA from Iowa Writers Workshop, and you’ve completed your PhD. So what are your current projects? What are you working on now?

AC: I’m working on two things right now. I’m working on a manuscript that I’m winding up, and then I started this other one that is…well, usually I have always written one poem at a time, or a cycle of poems, without trying to see it as a manuscript until there was a larger thing of it- but this thing, I do feel the larger world of these poems formed very quickly in my mind.

CS: So talking about place. You’ve studied in a wide range of places, and is there a place you’ve traveled to in the past that has affected your writing? You can interpret that literally, or like how we talked about earlier: the feeling of a place.

AC: Yeah, I’m very affected by landscape. So living in Denver was very different from living in Iowa, and I don’t end up writing about that landscape necessarily, but what that landscape does to your emotional life. So I felt affected in that way. I like Denver a lot and I like living in the mountains, but there was too much sunshine for me. Relentless!

I mean Denver is known for that. It’s sunny for something like 320 days a year and it can be great, in some ways that feel terrific, but I do like moody cloudy east coast weather.  I also love the Midwest, I love living in Iowa.

I there’s something about the Midwest that I love. It’s stark, and the flatness is so beautiful. The quality of the light there is very lovely, and in the spring and the fall there’s a thunderstorm season. It’s – have you ever seen Bambi? It’s a fantastic movie. So Bambi has the April showers song, where it rains and it’s great.

CS: Yeah it drips from the petals at first, and then-

AC: Yeah! I taught Bambi at our seminar last semester.

CS: You can teach Bambi?

AC: You can teach Bambi! I mean, it was in conjunction with a lot of other things but Bambi was on the reading list. I think the movie was supposed to take place in Maine, but there are a lot of deer in Iowa and there are a lot of beautiful thunderstorm s and because it’s so flat there’s nothing to block the storm, so there are really amazing, energetic storms –it feels like it’s going to shake the house down sometimes. I’m excited about it. Anyway landscape definitely, I do feel very affected by that.

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