“Lying down among the daffodils I am composed / but not the daffodils because I crushed them! Not / as an act in itself It was auxiliary...”
The poems in Heather Christle’s new collection What is Amazing look at the world with a bit of childlike glee (“When I return as a giraffe” she writes in the same poem). And like children, the poems delight in destruction as much as they do in creation. The world ends in What is Amazing, but it ends with an excited exclamation mark.
Read the last Bookslut about dance bars in Bombay in Sonia Faleiro's 'Beautiful Thing.'
But there is also a sense of awe that permeates and a joy at living in this particular world at this particular time. It’s not an awe provoked by a religious sense, but by the improbable wonder of the natural world. It just so happens that the natural world includes sharks, spiders and death, as well as daffodils and giraffes. But those darker elements are no less amazing, just because they might frighten us.
Christle and I discussed how awe can come without belief in God, the importance of connection, and why her poems greet the end of the world with such joy.
There is an unbound optimism that shows up in your poetry in this collection. Exclamation marks start off the book, and other poems take on the feeling of a mountaintop vista—expansive. Is this optimism, or maybe enthusiasm is a better word, something you share with your poetry?
I do think enthusiasm might be a better word than optimism. This new book closes with a poem about the end of humankind, a kind of cheerful one, but not one I'd call optimistic. I think that yes, I do share that enthusiasm with my poetry. I don't believe in god, but I do believe in being in awe of this world and all it contains. I get stunned by both at fairly regular intervals. On the other hand, my poems are probably a bit more unhinged in their enthusiasm than I am in my daily life. They make much more noise.
Yes, the end of humankind, which also reminds me of your poem "To Kew by Tram," wherein you deal with the destruction your human body does to the earth, just by moving through it. And yet, again, an exclamation mark and a bit of joy. Is the joy masking anxiety about these things? Or, is the joy simply the result of the awe and an acceptance that this is how the interaction between human and world works?
I think the poem is excited, perhaps, rather than joyful, in the way that disaster excites one. There's a poem Arda Collins wrote, "January," which deals with that feeling a bit, in this case following a fire that burns a house down:
like the world has happened the thing
not like it loves me, but like,
"I know, I know,"
it says, "calamity,"
like, "why not for you, too?"
To be included in the world, in its calamities, is a thrill for me. To be included in its ordinariness is also exciting.
You say you don't believe in god, and yet there are a few conversations with the stars in your collection of poems. I was reminded of a line by Carl Sagan: "By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night." Is that resonating with those conversations your poems are having with the cosmos? A sense of awe with the god part taken out?
I actually hadn't thought of the pattern of conversations with stars, but you're right, that does come up a couple of times. When I'm writing I find my poems wanting to converse with so many things—trees, stars, other people, sharks—and each of them can instill in me a sense of awe.
So, too, can a box of cereal, for that matter, when I begin to think of all that has occurred to make it exist as it does right before me. Perhaps the awe comes not from the thing itself, "the clear night," but from the act of looking. That we humans are capable of such looking—and of then considering our own looking—feels like some kind of miracle.
With your last book you gave out your phone number so you could read poems to your readers over the phone, and with this book you're driving around on a proper nationwide book tour. How important is audience engagement—real, human engagement, not virtual—to the way you work?
Audience engagement is crucial to me. I imagine it from the moment I begin writing. This work of written language, it's utterly social. So to me these other ways of bringing poems into the world—whether over the phone, face to face, in a printed book or through Skype—are very logical extensions of the act of putting words down on a sheet of paper. I know that my voice and body are one means of transmission, and that I only get so long to use it, so I want to participate in that transmission as much as I can for now.
Yesterday I learned about a neurological disorder called "telephone syndrome," which occurs when people in an apparent coma are suddenly capable of normal conversation when handed a phone. I like to imagine poetry working in a similar way: Keats comes to life when we read his lines. We are calling up the otherwise silent. I suppose I am making an argument that however a poem is delivered, there can always be reciprocal engagement.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.