The Aural Heft of Words & “Ovid in America”: A Conversation with Averill Curdy
Averill Curdy‘s first collection is Song & Error (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013). Her poems appear in Poetry, The Paris Review, and The Kenyon Review. She is on the creative writing faculty at Northwestern University. She has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rona Jaffe Foundation, and the Fulbright Foundation. Read her poem “The Doubtful Place.”
Jacqueline Kolosov: You’ve been writing poetry seriously for some fifteen years following a career as an arts administrator and a marketing manager and technical editor in the software industry. What prompted the change, and how have your previous careers impacted your working life as a poet, editor, and teacher?
Averill Curdy: I grew up with a lot of poetry in the house, as my dad was a big reader of Jarrell, Roethke, and Hugo. (And I still have my Golden Treasury of Poetry from the early Seventies, edited by Louis Untermeyer and illustrated by Joan Walsh Anglund, who specialized in round-faced children without mouths, and including a bookplate of my own design with spotted toadstools!) Poetry became a genuine object of my attention in high school English classes with Mrs. Palmer, reading Donne and Dickinson, and I wrote my own poems throughout high school and college. So it was there, waiting for me. Ultimately, I think I was sort of “wounded” into poetry, as many are. I’d watched my mother die, and though she was incredibly stoic about the pain she was in, her anxieties about mortality, and so on, I found her one day in the middle of a passionate, private grief over all that she was going to miss, knowing that the end was near. (I’ve written about this for the FSG blog Writers In Progress, as well as in the lyric essay, “Westerly,” for Poetry). I’d always written, but after her death it became more urgent, existing in parallel with my day job, until it simply became more important than anything else; it wasn’t just that I was looking for the words for an experience, but returning to it as an adult I became entranced by questions of form. I think I was always looking for work that would use me up in the process, something that meant more to me than simply figuring out how to sell something. I was lucky because each small step opened a door, so that as my commitment deepened the outside world also seemed to be saying “yes,” revealing a way forward.
I’m not sure what effect my previous careers have had on my writing. I do know that my previous experience has had an impact on my teaching. Having come to poetry more indirectly or obliquely with many detours, I know that I can’t predict which of my students will be the ones who can pursue what is an often difficult engagement with an art whose rewards can’t be numbered conventionally.
In your Writers’ Statement for the NEA Fellowship in 2007, you referred to your first book-in-progress as Ovid in America, a collection built around a group of longer poems and sequences that “find their subjects through the voices of early American naturalists and explorers.” Six years later, the collection has been published as Song & Error. I am most curious about the growth of the collection since the NEA and the shift or evolution of its focus. Could you talk about this evolution and speak to the centrality of several of the longer poems, in particular the sequence “Ovid in America,” focused on George Sandys’s voyage to and experience in the Jamestown Settlement in the early seventeenth century?
I don’t think that the book has changed all that much, except that it’s perhaps less of an explicit “project” than the Writer’s Statement seems to suggest. I still really like the title, Ovid in America, but it came to feel too scholarly for the book. Also, the two long poems, “Ovid in America” and “Chimera,” took so long to write! I started “Chimera” as a graduate student at the University of Missouri, so it was probably in progress for about 5 or 6 years, and “Ovid in America” was in progress for perhaps four or five years. Now that I think of it, “The Fair Incognito” was also begun around that time. I’m sure that another poet would have been able to figure these poems out sooner than I did, but it took a long time for my technique to catch up to my ambition. Also, I really needed to figure out why these figures were compelling and try to make them compelling—at the unconscious level of music and the explicit level of idea and psychology—to others.
What compelled you about Sandys, seventeenth-century English traveler, poet, and translator of Ovid’s Metamorphosis? Reading this poem, I feel very close to him and to his concerns and found myself marking and re-marking several passages in which he reveals his fears at having journeyed so far from the known as well as his apprehensions of the possibilities involved in the unknown.
What isn’t compelling about him! His experience was so extreme, from shipwreck to enslavement, starvation, faith healing, trading, return, reward, rebellion, and finally back to Spain in chains. I thought of him as a kind of sacred monster, so different from the native peoples he encountered that they wanted to make use of that difference as a kind of power. I imagine that he started out like a conquistador, motivated by greed and the desire for power and reputation. But by the time he returned to Spain, I think he was no longer legible as a European to Europeans. I think I was interested in that dynamic, of being pulled restlessly forward in search of—whatever, experience, riches, discoveries—which are constantly remaking us, as well as evicting us from the world.
Along with Sandys, the historical personae in Song & Error include a range of characters from Thomas Jefferson to Álvar Núñez Cabeza da Vaca and Audubon, Constance Fenimore Woolson to Henry James in “From the Lost Correspondence.” What is your process in writing about historical figures? What kind of research was involved in making these poems? How did you choose a particular or particular moments from their lives on which to concentrate, and how did you find the voice for your speakers, specifically George Sandys and Constance Fenimore Woolson who, interestingly enough, each direct their speech to specific listeners? Did the fact of a specific listener—or audience—play a role in casting Sandys’s and Fenimore Woolson’s poems in the first person?
I love to read older collections of letters, diaries, memoirs, and what used to be called belles lettres, as well as unclassifiable things like Hakluyt’s Voyages. My favorite kind of place is a used bookstore with good travel, gardening, and natural history sections, or the house of a friend who has a deep library with interests different from my own. Almost all of the figures in these poems were encountered accidentally, through more or less purposeless reading when I’d read something that would just make me stop. I found an old reprint of Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book at a library sale and learned that after many months had passed the first entry following his wife’s death was a recipe for the preservation of meat (actually a kind of taxidermy). In “From the Lost Correspondence,” I was haunted by the image of Henry James trying to dispose of Constance Fenimore Woolson’s dresses by throwing them over the side of a gondola into the lagoon. But of course those large nineteenth century skirts belled up and kept the dresses afloat. I’d lived in Venice for a time, so the city was a part of my imagination. And since he’d destroyed their correspondence, I was free to invent her final letter to him before she commits suicide. Part of the process of writing about these historical figures is figuring out what it means to me, as I often don’t know before I begin. I just know that I’ve been captured by it. Ultimately, “From the Lost Correspondence” became a way to think about intimacy and loneliness as well as relationships between artists of different temperaments, each equally committed to their art, but one, perhaps, who lives more in and for art than the other. Likewise, because Sandys evidently never lived with his wife, I invented a male beloved for him to address because I thought it would allow him to say more and add urgency to the historical material. Fundamentally, I think what poems can do is imaginatively rescue the lyric subject from history, restore the subject who suffers history from the master narrative that history or theory supply.
I was pretty conscious at times of trying new perspectives, writing in second person, close third, etc. as a way of teaching myself. Often in revision if I’m stuck, I’ll change the point of view or change the line and see what happens. I liked the epistle form for its echoes back to Ovid, as well as for its intimacy. Also I’m compelled by the triangulation that occurs in the epistl—the loneliness of the letter-writer imagining an other, both of which are drawn from the poet with whose solitude they keep company.
The poems that focus on historical personae fundamentally explore, question, and often challenge the idea of the New World in and of itself and as it relates to writing and identity, both collectively but also individually. This becomes particularly provocative when one considers that the New World, and what later became the United States, so valued—and values—the idea of the individual and his / her power. Yet many of your poems call this power into question, and here I would single out Sandys’s lines from the final section of “Ovid in America”:
This arrival, so unforeseen, disorderly
As my hope you will not forget
Who I was, & am,
Unwildered, unwestered, constant, returning..
Of course, I can see how the poems might be read as being about the imagination, or about the writing of poetry. But that isn’t at all the thread that I was following as I was writing the poems, which I think would make them more self-conscious. I was interested in how desire shaped the imagination of the places they encountered. How their experience was often a failure of imagination, a failure to imagine how they might be changed by their experience, as they imagined experience as a transaction that occurred only one way, rather than as consent to the world that would also shape them. To the point where they thought that they could understand the language of the native people’s they encountered! Just as the people around George W. Bush at the time thought they knew how American intervention would be greeted. Desire shaped their understanding. I was interested in how people of an age that valued stability would be changed by an experience, made unfamiliar to themselves and others, making them homeless, in a way. I think as Americans we think we can “make” ourselves completely into what we imagine or want to be, without recognizing how experience—friction with the world, our relationships to others—shapes us. What we love, or what we give ourselves to, deforms us.
Ever since I first read your poems on the pages of Poetry, I have admired your intense musicality and your ability to bend syntax and bring together vocabularies from a multiplicity of sources and discourses, with stunning results. I could single out countless moments from the collection, but I think I’ll focus on these lines from “The Fair Incognito” (which not insignificantly contains a passage from John Ruskin, the Victorian art critic and writer who infused seeing with morality and so profoundly influenced nineteenth-century aesthetics):
.As nature denies
itself no ornament, nearly thirty species
plume the girls turning on
their gilded stage, like that
antique cabinet filled with humming-
birds. Arsenic-pounced and dangled
from wires, they flashed sapphire, beryl,
anthracite, and twin spurs of red—
as though in flight, a motion re-
collected in tranquillity..
Would you discuss music in your poetry and in the process discuss your influences?
I think my desire to give words the heft of objects comes from Hopkins, though I’d also name Donne and Keats as important influences. I love rhyme, as well as assonance and consonance, and I want the words in my poems to have edges. Even though many of my poems are meditations, they’re composed to be read or heard aloud. I think the music of a poem can be another route into a poem, one that occurs at a subconscious level. We often speak of grounding a reader, and usually we mean that in some thematic sense. But I think sound can function as a kind of ground, too, that creates traction in the poem for the reader that hopefully provides a kind of pleasure that makes them patient with some of the more obdurate aspects of a poem. When I’m reading work by other poets, I’m most often first compelled by the formal shape of a poem, its architecture and sonic texture, and only after a few readings do I respond to thematic elements.
Tell us about the title poem and how it informs and grounds the collection.
I think of both “Song & Error” and “Northwest Passage” as being two keys to the collection. Both are concerned with the relationship of poetry, of language and form, to experience. “Song & Error” is one of many poems that I’ve written about the death of my mother and it’s probably the messiest and the least literal in a way, with allusions to Ovid’s exile, Pliny’s description of Vesuvius’s plume of smoke (“storm-pine”), Herculaneum and Pompeii, Chernobyl, the Iran-Contra affair, and the alchemist Athanasius Kircher. I think in some way it’s reaching and failing over and over again to discover and grasp the metaphor that will make this experience of dying and death itself imaginatively available. At the same time the variety of historical discourses that continuously open the past into the present suggests, maybe, that the moment of death is not only a release from time, but of the body fom the place where “past and present” are no longer the terms, but “eternity.” So many of the poems in the book are interested in change, in transformation, to write a poem is to engage in one kind of alchemy, and, of course, death is the ultimate transformation.
You have just returned from a Fulbright to Istanbul! How did your year there transform (if I may be so bold) or at least inform your poetry?
Honestly, I think it’s too early to tell. I filled four notebooks with notes and impressions; I also studied Turkish intensively for 8 months, which is completely different, sonically and structurally, from English. I’m still sorting through everything and I think I’ve reached a point of inarticulateness, almost, about my experience there. That is, I’ve left behind the sort of accounts that I would give people when they asked how the year was. Now it feels as if that time and everything that happened is rooting itself in my imagination, in silence. I’m not sure yet how it will reveal itself in poems as image and metaphor. Istanbul presents to visitors a vivid and compelling surface, which is usually the city tourists see: Topkapi, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, etc. There are so many layers of history, but the city is also continuing to be reshaped by the building projects of the AKP (the governing party of Turkey whose leader, President Erdogan, was mayor of Istanbul), as well as the influx of internal migrants and refugees from Syria. I don’t want to be like some of the 18th and 19th century travelers I read before I left, those for whom the panorama of the city seen from the deck of their ship in the Bosphorus was enough—they didn’t want the beauty of that impression ruined by having to actually plunge into the confusion of the steep, narrow, winding streets. I miss it though—the light, the street life and sounds, even the commercial culture that is so different than our own. Yet it changes quickly enough that I think if I go back next summer, as I’m hoping to, I may wonder where “my” city has gone.