An Interview with Paula Cisewski

Cisewski 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 Paula Cisewski’s Ghost Fargo, winner of the Nightboat Books Poetry Prize. Cisewski’s other poetry collections include Upon Arrival and The Threatened Everything (which will be released in 2016 through Burnside Review Books), and her first collection of lyric prose, Misplaced Sinister, appeared in 2015 through Red Bird Chapbooks. She teaches both academically and privately, and curates artful literary events in the Twin Cities.

Andy Fitch: Could we start by placing alongside each other the three loose categories of haunting, inheritance, language? From its start, Ghost Fargo feels steeped in an upper-Midwestern idiom of strip mall, beet field, refinery stink—all of which, you say, preceded us (haunting us by shaping our present, perhaps prompting our dumb questions, our sloshy self-responses). This ghosted Fargo becomes place as symptom, as myth, as structuring principle, but also some specific locale we just might reach in real life, if lucky. Does that description more or less fit? Does it help to explain why, as this book’s last poem tells us, Ghost Fargo follows you wherever you go?

Paula Cisewski: The speaker is definitely steeped in a landscape throughout the book. And you’re right: it’s a landscape where she feels haunted and which she has inherited—everything you just talked about. And Lake Agassiz is a bit of a part too, which is the glacial sea that the Midwest was covered by. The speaker in the beginning of the book is almost obsessed with and overwhelmed by the hauntedness of everything that’s around her. Hopefully, by the end of the book, she feels more like she’s synthesized the idea that hauntedness is just a part of her, and she’s more actively part of the landscape that she’s inhabiting.

AF: So we move from one particular local landscape to broader questions of how everybody finds him/herself situated within place and time in awkward and overlapping ways?

PC: I think so. “Fargo” is a word that a lot of people are so familiar with. It has that long “O” in it. It sounds haunted. It sounds humorous a little bit, because of the movie and the TV show—that dark humor. But I felt like it repeats so often in the poems that it becomes almost hypnotic. That it can become almost non-meaning and stand in for other people’s landscapes and experience of middleness, of in-betweenness. Ghost Fargo was somewhat based on Dante’s Purgatorio in the beginning.

AF: As a Midwestern-born reader, certain details crack me up, such as when what starts out as a whole forest soon gets more realistically assessed as just one tree—your pet sapling grown from pine. But here and elsewhere, I wondered how Ghost Fargo’s “Midwest” gets read by different readers. Lines like “Lake Agassiz! I metal. Leather. Gun rack. Love you” or “As they say, You Can’t Happen In The Same Shit Twice” might stand out more to someone searching from afar for (in Eileen Myles’s phrase) a fresh young voice from the plains. But to me, coming from the Midwest, the indirect, antiquated, all-too-familiar ring of phrases such as “I didn’t care for it” (which starts a lyric), or “I begin to like her some” (which ends a lyric), or just “take care,” “what do you know,” “would be grand” provide the most pleasure. Does each reader by necessity select, construct his or her own Ghost Fargo?

ghostfargoPC: Maybe so. You’re the first person who has ever pointed out those specific phrases. So that’s fascinating to me. They definitely come up in my consciousness as part of . . . not eavesdropping but just the language you pick up here almost unconsciously. I guess, when this book came out, it was the first time that I started being identified as a Midwestern writer. Also it’s only my second book, so that was alarming to me, because I am a Midwestern writer but “Midwestern poetry” feels like a dismissive phrase that’s code for tameness or the bucolic landscape being overused as metaphor—which isn’t in my mind what the book offers.

It’s been a while since I’ve read from Ghost Fargo outside of the region, just because I’ve since written other work. I feel like any kind of “regional” poetry gets marginalized a bit. Is a Brooklyn poem universal somehow in a way that a Fargo poem is not universal? That doesn’t seem true.

AF: Well for me it seemed that, beyond an obvious Midwest that non-Midwesterners may find, you represent a more delicate, more elusive Midwest here.

PC: I was just going for a sparseness and definitely more of an internal landscape. But I have lived on the plains for a long time. So I’m sure it’s just that SPACE that’s here.

AF: Again, growing up, I heard a lot about Lake Agassiz. But I particularly appreciate your depiction of plains flatness as its own form of ocean bed. I picture Yves Tanguy beach scenes when surreal components arise amid Ghost Fargo’s physical landscapes—like the random-seeming forest beach, shoring nothing. And some Lake Agassiz descriptions could serve as an ars poetica: “For nobody’s gesture’s need be inelegant, / resembling a landscape overcome / then abandoned by sea.” Could you discuss whatever elements of taciturn defeatism, or optimistic dawn-to-come, or any other lyric inflections that meditations on Lake Agassiz still provide for you five years after publishing the book?

PC: There’s something about smallness that I hope I will continue to think about—just temporariness that I will always continue to write about. Nature as well. My forthcoming collection is called The Threatened Everything. The book is another kind of haunted landscape, but the work is more obviously environmental and maternal than other pieces I’ve written. I think that’s part of what I was getting at with Lake Agassiz. “Agassiz” is the name of a lot of things in Fargo. It is the Catholic school. It is a public building. The inhabitants didn’t necessarily know what it was. I feel like that’s just reality at this point. Ghosts are in our language. We’re deeply affected by them.

AF: Other tropes soon start accruing in the book. The mourning doves arrive early. The implicit pun on “mourning” and “morning” takes me back to Stanley Cavell describing Thoreau’s sense of morning/mourning. Cavell presents Thoreau addressing morning as kind of an endless improvisational newness and discovery, but with mourning as recognition of the unspoken, genocidal, ecologically devastating underpinnings of any American present. So America always evokes morning and mourning, perhaps like the flooding/receding Lake Agassiz. And I don’t have much biblical knowledge, but I believe a dove flies out first from Noah’s ark.

PC: As far as landscape goes, mourning doves are one of the brown birds. There are so many brown birds in the Midwest. They are plain and beautiful. Then something about the spelling of it—thinking that it’s “morning” without the “U” a whole lifetime, and then realizing that the bird is mourning with the “U,” which is so much more true and so much more accurate to the song of that bird. I think that does suggest a new perspective or relationship by the end of the book. You’re correct. I don’t know if I consciously thought about morning in Ghost Fargo, but I can see where the speaker is waking up in a more active or more able place by the end.

AF: Also in terms of mourning, amid a multitude of tangible absences in the book (from the former sea, to pronouncements like “My Fargo has gone missing,” to the X-Acto-knifed photo of a headless mother, the loss of a brother or the father of one’s son), could we discuss, however abstractly or concretely you wish, various ways in which the autobiographical does haunt these poems? And your more recent work examines America’s prison-industrial complex—a different form of absence/presence.

PC: That’s something that I’m looking at now: what “story”/autobiography is, and how it enriches or corrodes. There’s a missing brother who is somewhat autobiographically accurate in Ghost Fargo. I say at some point, “Would he like it? Standing in for every missing one?” There is also at least one poem, “Beloved Math,” about a missing father. There are not as many missing bodies being grieved as there literally could be in the book. There is at least one “brother” poem in every one of my manuscripts. And I am now working on a lyric memoir for the first time, which is terrifying. It more directly addresses the part about living with loss. It also looks more directly at punishment culture and the larger landscape of loss. It looks at how we as a nation correct and punish rather than accept or educate. It also does look at absence and presence and trying to trust or distrust memory and the fragmented nature of it.

AF: Returning to mythic Midwestern elements in the book, absence/presence manifests in Ghost Fargo’s performance of a scrappy improvisational lyricism, in passages such as “Pennies flattening on the track quick / think what else what else.” “Song of Free Dryers on Tuesdays” starts “Song with a now in it. A hey now now. / A sea chant. Song of drunken trees . . . The not-me / stuck in my head all day song.” I sense here an ever-emergent poetics beyond the pale of what poetry typically presents as culturally relevant. Laundromats and pennies flattening on a train track wouldn’t necessarily count elsewhere. But your book seems animated by, rather than ashamed of, such sparse facts. Midwestern absence perhaps provides for its own generative principle, for a different type of presence. Or when “Vintage Blue Anywhere” opens by stating “You think everyone knows / all about a thing so you don’t / write it down, don’t say,” I sense that old Midwestern shame, but also that, if we can overcome this shame, then we might discover a world we can speak about and have access to and find quite invigorating and enlivening.

PC: I remember growing up and realizing I was just going to have to figure out how to make my own fun. I think the book feels like that sometimes, with that homemade aesthetic. There’s also something defiant about living in a place that’s termed “flyover country” but which is home and obviously thriving and vivid. I’ve lived in Minneapolis longer than I’ve lived on any outskirts or in a smaller town. So I’m almost a tourist in that kind of silence now, too. Ghost Fargo was a little bit about that—revisiting that space. There is something (I don’t know if it’s particular or peculiar to the Midwest, but I think it is) about that strange silence where certain things are assumed off-limits. Breaking those silences is transformative.

AF: So not just physical space, but this cultural space as well (which again might for some suggest isolation or loneliness) can become for you a source of comfort and familiarity, a place where you find traction to do writing?

PC: It is. I have trouble writing even when there’s another person at home. Which seems a little bit spoiled. My husband and I are the only two that live in the house now. He’ll just be doing his own thing and I’ll have my door closed in my office. But I’ll still feel like I need some more space. So I definitely rely on the amount of solitude I am permitted here. I think I might be like that no matter where I live. I know other people, Midwestern ones, who certainly don’t need that same amount of room.

AF: If we could return here to communication, to language: cipher-like phrases appear throughout the book. “Love you” pops up often in those off-the-cuff flourishes I’d mentioned. Could you describe how “Love you” plays out here? Does it sometimes stand as meaningless cipher? Or does it always at least quietly invoke some essential, irrefutable lyric or elegiac utterance? Something weird often happens with pronominal shifters. The reader never knows, when “Love you” arrives, if he/she overhears strangers talking, if he/she has become the addressee, the beloved.

PC: For “Lake Agassiz! I metal. Leather. Gun rack. Love you”: that’s from the point of view of these characters called The Loverboy Girls addressing the lake, the sea. Then “Surf sound: dial tone: I love you:”: it’s the primary speaker addressing that gone sea. Silence again. I do say that a lot—don’t I!

AF: Sometimes it seems directed at a subject, but sometimes it seems simply the last phrase in a list of phrases.

PC: I’m paging through the book looking for more “Love yous.” I totally believe you that they’re there.

AF: Did you ever want your reader to feel implicated, to feel sort of addressed (and loved) and sort of not, or to ask when “Love you” became a hollowed-out phrase?

PC: It’s not actually a hollowed-out phrase for me. I know when I read aloud from “the poor choruses” (which ends with “I love you”), I look up to the audience and say it to them. I feel like it is directed. There’s a lot of loss in this book, but I felt the poems in some way were loving. That feels like a ridiculous thing to say.

AF: Loving of the reader? Of the world described in these poems? Or creating abstract, inclusive space where one (poet included) can feel loved?

PC: Yeah, so there’s a theme I guess, speaking of themes that might carry through to The Threatened Everything, the next book, where there’s a lot more of that love. There are a couple actual more direct love poems, and there are some places I can think of off the top of my head that say loving things. I think it’s about the kind of camaraderie of living through a silence or an absence or an alienation—that this is actually something we’re all doing together. So I think it is meant to include the reader, to connect with the reader or the listener.

AF: Through another form of silence, sort of? I guess I just mean: we have the problem in this interview of two Midwesterners talking about silences. But it interests me that your poems won’t provide a rationale or an explanation for why they love us. They just tell us in an offhand way that they do. So here I can picture relatives of mine who demonstrate little interest in my life perhaps, but nonetheless tell me as I leave that they love me. Of course to some this again could suggest absence, isolation. But sometimes that barely expressed or almost silenced “Love you” reaches us.

PC: Yeah, even with “Leather. Gun rack. Love you,” where it’s just fragments: cutting off the “I” there now seems like exactly what you’re talking about—that the subject, the “I” is even cut out from that in the Midwest. It’s just “Love you.”

AF: Right, which to me can suggest an atmosphere of acceptance, of foundational security, but which departs radically from what we expect a lyric poem to do. Like compared to Shakespeare’s “Let me count the ways,” “Love you” seems the opposite. But anyway, given our Midwestern reticence, can you offer any topics we have skirted, but that seem of special importance to this book?

PC: My eyes just landed on “tourism.” I think that’s an important part of the book actually. I don’t know if it’s overtly talked about. The speaker is in a lot of different landscapes, a lot of different areas and is never the first one there.

AF: Well, tying in here absence, the role of the lyric or the role of elegy (presumably more about monumentalizing, memorializing), I come across many statements that feel light, understated, but also resonant, almost aphoristic—like memorable one-liners: “The nearly constant / non-attendance of carnivals,” or “we momentarily glorious boxcars of nowhere” or “this plainness I play host to.” The elegiac, the enduring, for this book, seem to depend upon such processes of post-textual haunting. These lines don’t overdramatically state “This is an aphoristic statement.” But they seem designed to stay with us.

PC: That might tie in with the way I think about the odes as well. When I was working on Ghost Fargo I started to retrain my view about what an ode was, and what’s worth attending to. There are plenty of things that I have an uncomfortable relationship with in my day-to-day life. It seemed like I should either honor them or omit them if possible. So that’s another theme: Weltschmerz (I love that word), or sloth, or trying to hold absence, or to continue a loss even. Really looking at discomfort with loving eyes. Not necessarily loving the whole, but just looking honestly at something or the role it plays.

AF: Do you feel driven to make the scenes you see memorable or remembered? I don’t mean made big and important, but made enduring.

PC: Yeah, I want the reader to see what I see. Or feel what I feel. That it’s not a fly-over image.

AF: Again on the topic of certain motifs arising across the book: I like how they leave this authorial stamp, almost a residue. You may never directly foreground certain phrases or tones or objects, but I don’t think I’d ever forget them in relation to this book. As an example of these auteur-like, recurrent or idiosyncratic tropes, since we’ve already covered “Love you,” could we consider blood oranges? They appear multiple times, and for me offer a quiet Frank O’Hara reference. Painting remains important to you, and O’Hara’s “Why I’m Not a Painter” puzzles over oranges.

PC: It’s a little spontaneous as an image, but I think it appears especially in contrast to these frozen sparse landscapes, in some of these winter poems, with just that desperation for nourishment, sharpness or blood. It’s shocking to open a blood orange.

AF: Did you work, by the way, with Kazim or Stephen? How did your engagement with Nightboat shape this book and its iconography?

PC: I talked mostly with Stephen about the trajectory the book would take as a physical object. It was great. I couldn’t believe I would have some choice about the cover art. It’s a painting that my husband did before we were married that I couldn’t believe had a headless woman and a ghost tree. But the person who worked with me in terms of editing was Christina Davis. She was still at Nightboat at that time. Her aesthetic was beautiful. She had a light hand and she was really intuitive. Her ability to condense language was a beautiful gift. Her eye for looking for places I could cut was really helpful. She was on a train a lot when she was editing my book. She said that was perfect for her. I loved hearing that.

AF: Along the lines of Christina’s enthusiasms, I want to ask more directly about the term “Fargo.” I haven’t seen the film Fargo. I don’t know if the movie ever parses the syllables “far” and “go,” or prioritizes the long “O” sound you mentioned. For now, I can’t think of a sound more resonant of place than “Fargo.”

PC: Yeah, it really doesn’t have to do with the Cohen brothers. They have definitely helped that word gain some kind of cult status. But it’s the sound of it. It’s the words inside it. It’s the way that it moans with “ghost.” For me, it is a private landscape that I left on an autobiographical note. I think that particular flatness and silence is inside of me. It was a place I could go to. It is about a grounding and a physical place. I’m just finding that silence internally. The direct details of Fargo in the book are not always Fargo, either. Some are in Minneapolis. Some are in the small town where I was born. Some of them are in Tennessee. It’s not literal in that sense.

AF: Finally, could we get to “Fargo Bardo,” which has this spontaneous tonality that I love? Maybe as a point of reference we could focus on its insistent word “by.” I think of “by” as indication of attribution (by X author), or of adjacency (something close by), of timeliness (completing a project by X hour of the day), of purchase, of farewell.

PC: Or getting by. The Red River is another piece of real landscape that really does flood every year. It’s an emergency many years (for residents working with a piece of nature in a way that the nature doesn’t want to work). It’s an annual emergency. So there’s something about that. By doing this, by doing that. That kind of “by.” That human insistence and again that coming together, but to a place that’s a middle place again—there’s still waiting. The people who are protecting themselves, or ourselves I guess: we’re still waiting. That compulsion to protect that middle space, I think that’s pretty problematic and pretty human.

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