An Interview with Juliet Patterson

Patterson Photo
by Andy Fitch

After publishing my Sixty Morning Talks interview collection, I have begun work on a more focused, single-press interview series, offering a comprehensive oral history (a cinéma vérité, in prose) of Nightboat Books’ diverse and ambitious output over its first decade of publication. For this newer project, it particularly interests me to track interpersonal and intertextual constellations that have helped to shape the work done by Nightboat’s authors, publishers and designers.

This present talk focuses on Juliet Patterson's The Truant Lover, winner of the first Nightboat Books Poetry Prize. Patterson’s latest collection of poems, Threnody, is forthcoming from Nightboat in October. Her recent awards include the Arts & Letters Susan Atefat Prize in Non-fiction, the Lynda Hull Memorial Poetry Prize, and fellowships from the Jerome Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board.

Andy Fitch: Since your book’s back cover so clearly indicates several literary influences shaping this debut collection, could we start with those? First, for Emily Dickinson: the presence here of an abstracted lover-like figure (I think of your “Dear She” and such) evokes Dickinson’s master letters, with you sometimes adopting the role of this lover’s wife, with this lover also found inside oneself. Then by the time we reach a sensuous lyric like “Origin,” which closes on “a lover with you / without you, without a / You,” we approach Dickinson’s asymptotic pursuit of love as quasi-spiritual quest. So given these varied relations between the “I” and the “you,” I wonder if we could discuss how relationality plays out in this book—first alongside Dickinson’s poetics.

Juliet Patterson: Just an early love of mine, she is and was. So I guess the way you articulated how Dickinson mutates around the position of love, lover, loving is so fascinating to me, in that her poems feel sort of private and sometimes clouded or veiled. Other times they feel so piercing, depending for me as a reader on how I’m encountering them from my own shifting position of mood or emotion. As a poet I was really wanting to try to achieve . . . although one could never achieve her brilliance, in my opinion, but I wanted to achieve at least that effect of having a narrator or speaker who feels somewhat fluid. And Dickinson offers permission to hide, but also always to be bald-faced in terms of emotional stance or in terms of at least creating a response in the reader that’s emotional.

I mean that’s the main aim I think: to strike at the heart of emotion. It’s less about meaning or reason or intellect. Really I’m trying to stir some kind of movement in the reader. That’s ultimately what Dickinson does for me. Certainly I can puzzle over her semantics and try to unpack her meanings, but what draws me to her work so deeply is the fact that you’re impelled by the emotion of it. To use her phrase, the top of your head gets blown off. That’s what I think I was after.

AF: For this “I” that in some ways echoes Emily Dickinson’s “I,” did that evolve throughout the putting together of this book?

JP: Yes, I would say so. Like any young poet, in the beginning I was probably writing pretty confessional work. I was never a very heavily narrative poet, but I had some teachers who really pushed me in that direction. Then when I started working more narratively and more autobiographically . . . it’s almost like my skin bristles at the thought. So I wrestled with those sorts of modalities for quite awhile, before I could figure out how to be more slippery but also to be honest. To stick to the truth, but not be so autobiographical, because that didn’t really interest me as a poet. Again I wanted the effects of that. I wanted a narrator that’s convincing and authentic, but I wasn’t so interested in telling my “story.” That’s another thing about Dickinson. There is the story of course behind each of those crystalline poems that she makes. But it’s not the story that’s important. It’s the moment of the poem that’s important.

AF: You used the terms “piercing” and “private,” wanting to combine both tones. Here Wallace Stevens comes to mind, most sharply crystallized, for me at least, when “Half-December’s” opening somewhat rewrites “The Snowman,” pushing towards the phrase “snow packed with personification.” But more generally, in relation to Stevens, when you offer a seemingly straightforward assertion such as “There is a rabbit on the lawn,” I rest assured that the literal and the allegorical will get entwined in complex ways. Does Stevens help with that particular type of rhetorical vector?

JP: Precisely. My first impulse as a writer is to lay down images or descriptions which for me evoke an emotional state or feeling. The reader may or may not pick up on that unless there’s some sort of anchor. As I said, I was pushed in a much more narrative direction for a while and I didn’t feel happy with that. So rereading Stevens over and over helped me see that you can use rhetorical devices and somehow begin to fuse that more imagistic emotive state with something that might approach a narrative state. Stevens also gives a lot of permission obviously for just being highly imaginative and nonsensical. I don’t think I’m by any means making the kinds of leaps that he does in terms of rhetoric or narrative, but I was just so excited by that in his work. Also the precision he has with language and image itself. The bald-faced image in a sense, which is a little bit opposite of Dickinson, who is a little more ornamental in the way she describes.

AF: Yeah Stevens’s images often seem bald-faced, as you say, but ultimately ungraspable, whereas Dickinson might come across as more veiled, though the emotional impact stays quite immediate. You also said you had a period of rereading Stevens. Simply because I once had to read through all of Stevens, and many other people seem to have done that: did you by chance ever read through all of Stevens, and let Stevens wash over you, and became someone slightly different afterwards?

JP: Yeah. I think all three poets mentioned on the back of this book are people I studied in that way. Sort of of my own accord. Each of them . . . their voices kind of penetrated me in a way that few others have. You know, with my first book, the hope is that I’m paying homage. I’m obviously also a beginning writer at this stage and I’m being somewhat derivative, but it is an homage in the sense that I felt, bodily, as though I had absorbed those voices, and so not simply imitating—that I had absorbed them and sort of matched them up and represented them in a way.

AF: Reading through so many Nightboat authors right now, I’ve lost any sense of the term “derivative” serving as a pejorative. That just doesn’t register, because so many different poets of course rewrite traditions that intersect in complicated ways. And for your own book I’d love to bring in Lorine Niedecker as well. “Prayer for Lorine Niedecker” takes its subtitles, your notes tell us, from Latin butterfly names. Again, as with Niedecker, I appreciate here how textures of sound, of elliptical affect, of visual detail first seem to capture the physical referential world, but then also seem to eclipse it, just as the phrase “morning dove” disperses amid the call for more, more. This lovely movement reaches just beyond the referential, towards some implicitly ecstatic pursuit.

JP: That could basically be my mantra for my aim as a poet on Earth. Just knowing I am an image-maker primarily, that’s sort of my greatest strength. That impulse in me can be maybe decorative, pushing towards metaphoric or highly figurative language. Why Niedecker was so important and also Oppen and the Objectivists in general was their way that they pushed against that, and used such seemingly simple language and seemingly simple standing images. But as you say, they operate in an eclipse. That world that they’re sort of describing can create a new world. To me there’s nothing more exciting as a reader.

So I’m just trying as a writer to create what I enjoy as a reader. But for this process you’ve described: I think often that’s missed. I have had the experience of readers telling me that that sensation isn’t coming through for them. Everyone is different, but I think a very potent question for me as a writer is: how does one describe and articulate (to quote Stevens again) basically the ineffable? But to do it, you create a new world, right? I’m not trying to replicate reality. I’m trying to create a new world which has physical elements, spiritual elements, emotional elements and even intellectual elements. It’s a tall order but that’s always sort of what I’m reaching for. So the position of the speaker isn’t necessarily being revealed. Much like Niedecker, right? Although maybe Niedecker is a little more overt in her persona “I” than I am at times.

truantloverAF: Well maybe bringing in Francesca Woodman would make sense here, as we constellate some of The Truant Lover’s most prominent points of reference. In this book, the pieces that seem most ekphrastic often contain anaphoric lines or clustered repetitions (I think, for instance, of “copy, copy, copy”). When those moments help to shape a poem, they offer something like an embodied act, almost how painting or drawing would make use of such repetitive physical gestures. But then late in the book the line arrives: “repetition denies being.” So what does repetition create then—does it create artifice? And where would you place Woodman’s constructions of identity, which often take the form of self-portraiture, maybe displaced self-portraiture, often in the idiom of the nude?

JP: Those poems about Woodman’s work came in late, when I was putting the manuscript together, because I realized I did have a few ekphrastic pieces. Obviously the book is very image-driven, and to me it seemed to be at least questioning or talking about the power of image or the power of seeing. And I’ve long admired Francesca Woodman’s work. I was really just trying to fill some gaps in the manuscript, and I just took a shot at trying to talk to some of her photographs. She also I think kind of stood in . . . not consciously, but I would say in hindsight I think she as a figure in this book sort of metaphorically stands in for that idea of a lover or someone that mutates a bit. There’s also a lot of silence around her work.

AF: Critical silence? Or silence in the work itself?

JP: A little of both actually, but more in the work. A melancholy and a silence, I guess, if I had to use two words to describe what I thought my own book was aiming at. As well as beauty obviously. And these are just placeholders, abstract nouns that are placeholders. But somehow Woodman’s work just became really important. So to get to your question about repetition: I do think I was trying to use the device of repetition rhetorically as a kind of gesture, as a sort of painterly gesture, to use your metaphor. But I also recognized the weakness of it. It’s like a rabbit hole. If you go too far down the rabbit hole you can’t find your way out.

I was puzzled over this idea of how repetition works in an artifact, in a piece of art, as opposed to the way it works in real life, in real time. I think we’re comforted by repetition, certainly if you think about children. They sort of thrive on repetitive scenarios. But there’s a way in which, as an adult, repetition can bind us spiritually—in the sense that are we as present to our experience if we’re just repeating things over and over? So I think that’s where that line “repetition denies being” comes from, and that’s something that I was puzzling over in my own sort of personhood, but at the same time, as an artist, loving the idea of repetition, being a more lyric poet, loving the idea of refrain of song that repeats, of something that you’re coming back to, that notion that you’ll land on something familiar.

Then getting back to Woodman: if you look at the stances of her nudes, the portraits that she does, the self-portraiture, that’s a highly repetitive gesture in terms of the position of light, the position of the body. There’s a lot of repetition and yet there’s always something new going on. Somehow her photographs, in the way they look and think about the body, just seemed very poetic to me. “Revelatory” might be a better word, but even that’s not a very good way of explaining it. She haunts me. I guess that’s what I’m saying. She’s in here because there are a lot of characters who haunt me personally in this book.

AF: In terms of haunting, Jean Valentine’s introduction brings up Robert Creeley as a potential stealth presence. Your first poem’s “immaculate white bed” recalls William Carlos Williams’ “Nantucket.” When I encounter “milk peas” I can’t help hearing Keats. Then for “New Year’s Eve,” when the poem gets transported by this postcard-based pivot to the tropical, Elizabeth Bishop surfaces, in the suddenly semi-present, semi-estranged “other” that the poem invokes but doesn’t really address, or doesn’t deliver to the reader I guess. But you also list any number of correspondences between your poems and contemporary writers’. Could you describe the importance of some of these literary relationships with contemporaries, and/or the more general drive in your poetics to write through/alongside/with others?

JP: One of my teachers, Olga Broumas, used to say to me: “Every word should fit in your mouth.” I sort of took that to also mean that for certain lines, certain phrases, certain poems (individual poems by some of the poets we’ve discussed and also by some contemporary poets you see my lifting from), there’s bits of language that I cannot forget. I’m not the best at memorizing whole pieces. Sometimes a line, a word, a phrase or a single image will just haunt me. So I guess I thought certain authors influenced me in that way, that those are bits of experience I carry with me. The language is so embedded in my psyche that way that I consider it an experience. So it has moved beyond the experience of being a reader and reading a fine piece of literature. I’m actually having an experience with that voice, if you will. At least in The Truant Lover, which you know sort of echoes, samples or collages sometimes, I think that was my way of trying to embody this experience.

AF: Sure, and Cindy Sherman, let’s say, could have played a very similar role to what Francesca Woodman plays—in terms of these dispersed, semi-referential forms of self-portraiture that also provide social commentaries or reference past images. But Cindy Sherman doesn’t play that role here. Francesca Woodman does. Does this fact of selection depend upon the haunting process, so that Francesca Woodman becomes the right person to bring in, whereas Cindy Sherman does not? Or could she have been?

JP: I don’t think so. I mean it’s also sort of a sense of feeling that I have as an observer. So when I look at Cindy Sherman’s work, I don’t have anywhere near the same feeling that I have around Francesca Woodman’s. I’m not saying it’s better or worse. It’s just a different palette of experience. So yes, I would say that maybe with all of these writers and artists I have selected, there’s certainly a sense of silence. What’s not said is equally as important as what’s said. You might say that’s true of all poets, but it probably isn’t. Secondly, there’s a sense of high level of attention to language. Again, you could say that’s the case for many poets, but there’s a wide continuum of how people exercise rhetoric, syntax. Most important is what we talked about in the beginning of this conversation, which is I guess sort of getting back to: how does one achieve a sense of real presence on the page, yet without divulging personal experience?

Thinking of Jean Valentine’s work, I’m so fascinated by the gaps and the fractures in her poems. Those are the moments that totally excite me, and in Jean’s work, there are many. Yet the poems are often anchored by that speaker speaking directly and very gently and very honestly to you. What’s interesting is what’s missing. So for Francesca Woodman, there’s a lot missing in her photographs. Even in the frames of her pictures. She’s often shrouding or covering or distorting the face in some way. If you’re a person doing self-portraiture, that’s a very interesting gesture to explore, versus Cindy Sherman, who is very much more focused on what can be seen in the face. So that’s what initially comes to mind.

AF: In terms of what remains hidden, what never attains presence, how important or how elastic do you consider unities of place and time in your lyric poems? I can give an example of what I mean. For “Off Bernay,” you offer coastal references. The poem seems very much to capture a specific place, a specific moment. But . . . do you still live in Minneapolis?

JP: Yes.

AF: For some reason, perhaps because I too come from the Midwest, coastal waterscapes from the Midwest also seem present in your poem. And often your poems will immerse themselves in an immediate, at-hand, lyric self, but one that drifts as well—just as, in our own lives, when one really immerses oneself in a given moment, one also always realizes how multiplicitous and how diffusive and not temporally focused any momentary selfhood remains. So we’ve kind of talked about this all along, but could you describe rendering the specific, immediate scene, yet knowing that doing so actually scatters you across time and place?

JP: I think that’s really true. Going back to Emily Dickinson: you know by all accounts she barely left her house, yet had these large landscapes embodying her work. For me, it could be also just that, being from the Midwest, born and raised here, living here most of my life, there is nothing more compelling than the ocean or the coast. Whenever I’m around it I think I’m more inspired to write. My second book though is more anchored in one place. So I don’t know how to answer your question. I would say that for The Truant Lover, and given the concerns we have articulated, I was most interested in a place that was more temporal—that wasn’t so grounded.

The second book is more grounded, at least in a season, in winter. So it happens to be more descriptive of the Midwest. It’s funny: I know I work hard to have the ingredients of place in my work, but I think the first impulse is much more ephemeral, that it is lyrical in the sense that it almost is disembodied in terms of a landscape. But that’s also why the Objectivists and people like William Carlos Williams are so important to me. They remind me of the ingredients of real time and place.

AF: And again, just to clarify, I don’t mean only to bring up points of literary reference from the past. A contemporary queer sensibility certainly starts to solidify in the book, often around elliptical tropes of marriage, culminating perhaps in the pre-Obergefell cake-of-soap wedding ring. Also whispers of a breakup accrue. So I don’t want to overlook the personal component present in this book by only asking intertextual questions. We could address the place of the autobiographical in your poetics. But we also could just look at a specific line. The book ends on: “In forgiveness, one might easily believe all poems / were about her.”

JP: I want readers to attach as little or as much biography to the speaker or to me the writer as they need. That’s the hope. Certainly I won’t disavow my sexuality. These poems are sensual. They’re based in a body. At the same time I honestly didn’t know how to tackle that head on, let’s say in the way that maybe an Olga Broumas would. Or Jane Miller. They’re two really influential poets to me in my early writing life. I wrote The Truant Lover at a time in history when queer poetics was waxing I guess. Personally I felt a little resistance to being this sort of overtly queer poet, but at the same time I wanted to handle that delicately. I guess I would describe myself as an elegiac poet. So a lot of my concerns in this book did revolve around relationships of all forms, but certainly there was a large important singular relationship that was a breakup, and I was kind of in a bad state. So some of what’s being addressed speaks directly to that.

AF: Here we also could address this book’s title. Can The Truant Lover refer to you, to someone else, to some composite figure? What place does “true” have in “truant” here? And maybe this only happened for me, among all of your readers ever in history, but I had Madonna’s “True Blue” in my head for the rest of the day because . . .

JP: Wow, that’s maybe not good.

AF: No I don’t mind the song. But I blame your book’s blue cover.

JP: I honestly hadn’t thought about “true” as a microcosm of “truant.” I only thought of truant in the literal sense of being late or tardy or . . .

AF: Skipping? Playing hooky?

JP: Yes, and the title I guess I would assign more to me or to the speaker of this book than to the other. Although it certainly could be assigned to the other. Maybe ultimately I feel like it guided the book in the sense that this book confesses the desire and hope to . . . or confesses that one is a hopeless romantic, but at the same time is failing at that project and being tardy so to speak. Maybe there’s a meta-narrative about owning one’s truth too late.

AF: That’s interesting, to think about a hopeless romantic failing at her hopeless project. Is that even possible, I wonder. But also, returning to the cover: with that crack in the pavement, “Tru” gets cut off from “Truant.” And then “Mutant” comes to mind with how the colors split and reflect.

JP: That’s probably more the brilliance of the designer than me.

AF: Well in terms of Nightboat: this book won an annual Nightboat contest. Contests can provide for a sudden, surprising, sometimes disconcertingly fast-paced relationship. Could you place winning this contest on a personal trajectory, or on a continuum of affinity with other books you admire in the Nightboat catalog?

JP: I was actually their first contest winner. I’m the first poetry book. Kazim and Jennifer were co-editors. It is a little risky sending to a new press but, in any event, they took such extraordinary care with the book and the whole process. It was just an amazingly positive experience. So I’m just lucky that Nightboat has flourished and changed in the way that it has. Stephen’s presence has widened the aesthetic of the press, and I admire the marriage of intellectual and urban-based material that he’s brought and mixed in with this more lyric work. I’m really lucky that they’re going to do my second book. I can’t think of a better home for me.

I think at the time of the first three books certainly, or first three contest winners, I felt a deep affinity with their aesthetic. I felt like at that time (it’s already been 10 years) that what those poets were up to was already a little out of fashion, if you will. It wasn’t the kind of work that was necessarily getting a lot of play. I feel tentative saying this. In a way it’s like this high aesthetic beauty and high lyricism was sort of, not disappearing, but other things were taking over. I think that’s still kind of true right now. But I felt like I was in such good hands from the very beginning, and that they had such a vision for creating a stable of writers—which is also a little out of fashion, given the politics and the economics of the poetry business.

A lot has changed in 10 years, certainly with the appearance of micropresses and a lot of small alternative presses which are re-supporting young poets and poets that might not be in fashion with whatever aesthetic seems to be leading the charge. And this press runs at such a high level of integrity. I’ve been writing a long time, and I’ve heard a lot of nightmarish stories particularly about the contest environment, but also about small, mid-list presses. I just think they’re doing such high-quality work and they’re doing it well.

An interesting story is that you had to submit two copies of the manuscript, and I had xeroxed my manuscript, and Jennifer and Kazim were reading the manuscript separately. Jennifer put me in the final pile and Kazim didn’t. They started talking about the book, and I think she said he needed to read it again or something, and he said “But I was reading the book and there was some big gap right in the middle.” As it turns out, my xerox copy was missing 10 to 12 pages, so it didn’t read well. They emailed me in the process, because they looked at Jennifer’s copy and realized that that was different. So they emailed me: “We’re looking at your manuscript and we just want to make sure, were these pages missing, or—?” That’s an example of . . . they didn’t have to do that. They could have just thrown me out the door for that mistake alone. So they have good hearts.

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