Movement. Metaphor. Sound. Meaning. Poet Annelyse Gelman’s collection, Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone, addresses and implements all of these things. No—challenges all of these things. No, wait—they wrestle, dance, embrace and question all of these things. They do all of that and more. In other words, Gelman’s poetry surprises and awes the reader to engage in a world full of sound and image, purpose and wondering. Here, Gelman discusses her approach to poetry, as well as how movement, sound and imagery play together to create a sense that we know how to live our lives—and part of that knowing is to question it.
Chelsey Clammer: Along with very intriguing concepts, your poetry also has some really enlivened imagery going on in each poem, on each page. I’m curious about your writing process in regards to imagery. When you write, do you concentrate more on image than sound or do you work on both simultaneously?
Annelyse Gelman: I think they’re intertwined; an image will often feel right because of its sound, and vice versa, e.g. the sonic simplicity and plainness of the word “cup” – which conjures up tea parties, colorful plastic, sippy cups, smallness – vs. the hardness of the word “glass” – fragile, hefty, transparent, adult.
More subtly, a word always takes on some meaning based solely on its sound, even outside its context and connotations. There’s a famous psychology study on this, where the vast majority of participants chose a soft, open name for a blobby and round shape – “Bouba” – and assigned a name with hard consonants, “Kiki”, to a sharp and angular shape. Obviously, the causality there is muddied – I wouldn’t try to argue that the sharpness of consonants is inherently analogous to visual sharpness – but they have a kind of linguistically/culturally determined relationship.
The emphasis also depends on the poem. Sometimes an image (or a series of images) takes precedence in a more narrative piece, and sounds tend to be a priority in – ironically – more imagistic poems.
CC: In the first poem of your collection, “Ars Poetica,” you write “I’m pretty sure / everything is a rough draft.” Can you comment a little bit more on this in relation to writing and how we experience the world? What do you think viewing our lives and function in the world as rough drafts does for our self-knowledge and identity?
AG: There’s that famous Celan quote, often translated as “a poem is never finished, only abandoned” (on n’achève pas un poème, on l’abandonne). I think everyone’s had this experience – creativity as an asymptotic approach. Whether you’re making a painting or a poem or a song, or coding a website, or organizing your fucking fridge, there’s always room for improvement. I’ve never finished anything; I just decide at a certain point that I’m not going to work on it anymore. I have no idea if this attitude is healthy (and I certainly don’t read other people’s published poems with the presumption that they’re rough drafts, so there’s some element of hypocrisy in it, too) but the alternative seems to be an endless struggle to perfect old things – which carries the opportunity cost of pursuing new and exciting and maybe riskier stuff. Fittingly, publishing “Ars Poetica” was a way of signaling (to the world, but more importantly to myself) that I was moving on from it. At the same time, rough drafts are always open doors, available to return to at any moment – maybe I haven’t moved on. Burning bridges makes me nervous. You have to keep in touch with your exes!
This is related to another concept I’m obsessed with, that of naiveté. Everyone’s seen/heard Ira Glass talk about it by now – the taste/ability gap, and the helpfulness of being oblivious to your own suckiness when you’re trying to overcome that gap – and a lot of other people I admire have talked about the same idea. Steve Martin, for example, in his autobiography: “Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity: naïveté, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do.” The boldness of plunging forward despite inexperience is the same boldness as plunging forward despite the inevitability of imperfection.
CC: The voice presented in each poem feels very open, and your poetic observations teeter between sounding vulnerable and yet also having a bit of highly delightful sass! When you’re writing, do you discover the voice through the poem or do you feel as if your poetic voice is where your poetry starts from?
AG: Definitely both: the initial draft, the spark of the poem, has the search in it, and the edit identifies the discovered voice and hones it, tunes it. (I’m talking about them as if they’re separate, but almost always, the “draft” and the “edit” happen in the same sitting – simultaneously, indistinguishably.)
I rewrote almost all of Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone after the manuscript was accepted for publication, and a lot of that involved scrapping poems that lacked that balance. Vulnerability – yeah, that’s exactly it. I’m looking at comments from an editor: “Make us know something or cut this whole poem out.” You can only make the reader know something by discovering it yourself, through the poem, as you write – and you can’t do that without being vulnerable. And vulnerability without sass can come off as whiny or pedantic or just insufferable. Who wants to be the wise woman coming down from the mountain? I want to be in the village. Talking, listening.
CC: Moving away from craft and into concept, I’m curious about the ways in which you approach the topics and observations in your poetry. For me, each poem feels like an inquiry into a larger concept or event. What are the ways in which you feel like poetry can be a great medium to approach these concepts?
AG: I’m skipping some context because it’s boring and if anyone reads this they’ll probably know how to use a search engine, so here’s a quote: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” You mentioned discovery before – I write to investigate, to follow my curiosity, to see what might happen. There’s a lot of uncertainty and mystery in it. All (good) writing has that discovery, to some extent, but other forms demand their own kinds of logic: the intellectual logic of an essay or interview, the emotional logic of a diary entry. A poem’s only logic is its honesty, and that can take a lot of forms and isn’t dependent on truth. If you pursue a series of images, sounds, impressions, etc., you’re allowing meaning to emerge rather than dictating it – like a Ouija board – and hopefully you end up with meaning embedded in the very specific tone and structure and voice of the poem itself – something that must be exactly what it is. I feel like maybe I’m not answering your question because all of these things seem true of all kinds of creation (a good painting must be a painting) – so why poetry and not another medium? I write music – why isn’t Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone an album? I don’t know. I heard someone ask Miranda July (also a multidisciplinary artist) this same question a few weeks ago, and she didn’t seem to know, either. Let’s take comfort in that and just keep making things.
CC: A good amount of your poems touch on, describe, or directly address different types of movement. In “Six Reconstructed Dreams,” the narrator states, “I want this to feel like falling / down a staircase then lying / dazed at the bottom / trying to assess / the damage.” In “An Illustrated Guide to the Post-Apocalypse,” you write about the “search for a heart that open / -swings like a gate.” And, my personal favorite, in “Autobiography” you poetically state, “We move our skin from room to room.” (My god that’s beautiful!) In what ways do you think movement functions in your poetry? What do you think about how movement can and/or cannot shift a poem’s sound or meaning?
AG: This is such a kind, generous question! I suppose I’m interested in the movement of thought – if I have loyalty to anything, it’s that – and there’s an obvious connection there with physical movement. A mental association can even feel like activity, like exercise – and I guess it is, on a neural level: we’re traveling pathways, reinforcing them, allowing others to become overgrown and disused and inaccessible. “Autobiography” touches on this more a couple of lines later: “what passes must be progress or else / nothing meant, so never mentioned.” Is a memory that’s never remembered still a memory? How do our muscles imagine an impossible action? Movement in a poem also creates a wonderful sense of space, and can do a lot to locate the speaker/reader in an actual time and place. And in an actual body, an embodiment. It has a grounding effect.
CC: In your poetry, it is very apparent that there is a strong connection between playing with language and presenting different metaphors. How do you think a poem’s success does or does not rely on metaphor? Do you think metaphors are an integral aspect of poetry?
AG: I’m terrified of the broadness/definitiveness/prescriptiveness of that last question and I think the answer is probably No, but I definitely think metaphor – real, organic, cage-free metaphor, not the “poetic”, obfuscatory dressing-up of thoughts or facts that could otherwise be stated plainly – is essential to the poems in this book. Metaphor can do so much legwork – creating allegory, doubling or diffracting – see? – meaning, getting serious without getting preachy. I was talking to my friend Peter about this recently – the fact that clichés really are true and worth talking about, but that you need to be able to access a truth in a new way if you want to really be able to appreciate it. Almost all of my metaphors are accidental. Even “Giraffe”, which is super blatantly an extended metaphor about (human!) social justice and privilege, really was just about giraffes when I sat down to write it.
CC: What are you working on now?
AG: I’m finishing a series of 25 cento poems culled from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and writing/arranging new songs with the current lineup of my band Shoulderblades, and writing a poem every day, which is nightmarish.
This past week, for Valentine’s Day, I worked on a kind of mini-project of inviting strangers to request poems from me for people they care about. I hand-wrote and illustrated these and sent them in the mail as surprises. Hopefully it made people happy!
CC: Is there anything else you would like for readers to know?
AG: This interview is ten million pages long already and whoever has actually read this far is probably on the cusp of death. I hope you enjoy what little time you have left.
Annelyse Gelman is a California Arts Scholar, the inaugural poet-in-residence at UCSD’s Brain Observatory, and recipient of the 2013 Mary Barnard Academy of American Poets Prize and the 2013 Lavinia Winter Fellowship. She has new work in Indiana Review, Swarm, the PEN Poetry Series, and elsewhere, and is the author of the poetry collection Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone (Write Bloody, 2014). Find her at www.annelysegelman.com.
Chelsey Clammer has been published in The Rumpus, Essay Daily, The Water~Stone Review and Black Warrior Review (forthcoming) among many others. She is the Managing Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review. Clammer is also the Nonfiction Editor for Pithead Chapel and Associate Essays Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. Her first collection of essays, BodyHome, is forthcoming from Hopewell Publishing in Spring 2015. Her second collection of essays, There Is Nothing Else to See Here, is forthcoming from The Lit Pub, Summer 2015. You can read more of her writing at: www.chelseyclammer.com.