Poetry

Interview with Molly Spencer about her new book, If the House

Commentary by Amanda Moore, Contributing Editor

Molly Spencer’s If the House was one of the books I most anticipated in 2019. I was eager as a reader and writer to get my hands on a whole collection of her wise and astonishing poems so I could lose myself in the way she utterly transforms familiar landscapes and relationships into new territories through her deft use of imagery, instinctive deployment of craft, and unflinching inquiry into even the most the quotidian concerns. In a book as wide-ranging and stunning as hers, it is difficult to choose just a handful of poems to feature, and as I narrowed my focus to the small sample represented here, I wondered if I could do justice to the exquisite craft and composition of these glimpses into such intimate daily spaces. Because I have the pleasure of knowing Molly, I decided to engage her in the process of writing about her work, and our exchange was one of the delights of my winter.

 

AM: If the House carries several threads that weave together a wide variety of narratives and styles with wonderfully cohesive elements that appear repeatedly, including wintery images, silence, solitude, and space. Some poems are even more overtly connected—serial, multiple poems that call themselves “Elegy” and “Meditation,” for example, and others that carry “Disclosures” as part of their titles. And of course, these “Conversations,” which I am so enamored of. How did these related poems come about? Did you intend to write in series, or did the poems emerge more organically? What calls you to revisit an idea or a form multiple times, and in this case, how did you determine their sequence in the collection?

MS: I have no intentions when I sit down to write beyond showing up and following language wherever it leads me. So, while I do have a practice of writing multiple poems under the same title as a generative strategy, no, I didn’t intend to write in series. I would say, instead, that I relented.

Both the “Disclosures” and “Conversation” series began, as most of my poems do, with my mind getting snagged on bits of language and me giving in to those snags long enough to allow poems to coalesce around and through them. The “Disclosures” poems came about because I was selling a house, and the language of the seller’s disclosures paperwork fascinated and troubled me. The “Conversation” poems began with bits of language I remembered (or, more likely, couldn’t forget) from conversations I’d had or overheard. Only in retrospect could I see that these poems were series and that they embodied some of the collection’s themes: what is told or said, and what isn’t; whether language can bridge distances; how, if we let it, the “business” of life obscures the experience of living; and how the attempt to say something might be as (or more) important than what’s said.

The elegies and meditations are less series-like and took shape under various working titles. As the collection began to form, I saw that these poems could signal shifts of consciousness or perspective to the reader—moments of rest or reorientation. But the truth is that titles are hard for me. So, for these, I followed the advice I give my students all the time—“Use what’s in front of you”—and relied on poetic tradition and sometimes on naming conventions from music and visual art to assign titles. That is, I understood that the elegies were elegies, that the mediations were mediations, and so on, and titled them as such. The same is true for “Nocturne,” “Aubade,” and “Litany.”

As for how these poems are laid out in the collection, I’m indebted to my thesis adviser at the time, David Biespiel. The truth is, these poems and their connections to one another mystified me, and I had no idea how to order them. David kindly took a stab at it. For the most part, I kept his original ordering. Now I can see that the first section lays out the primary concerns of the collection—sets the scene, almost—and that each subsequent section is akin to the turn of a kaleidoscope that allows the poems (and the reader) to look at the same concerns, the same scene, a little differently—and a little differently again, and once more, a little differently.

AM: I love that you say you “relented” to these connected or serial poems—that gives such a clear sense of your process, which seems guided by resistance as much as persistence. One of the things I’m most interested in with the “Conversation” poems is how the line breaks and the lack of punctuation collude to create so many different ways to read the exchanges. You commented that “the attempt to say something might be as (or more) important than what’s said,” and these speakers’ aborted, unsuccessful, or confused attempts to say something to one another certainly communicate more about the state of their affairs than their actual words. I’m excited by the way the line breaks unpredictably break up dialogue and separate the speaker from his or her words, opening the door to new ways of reading the conversation and subtext. Take the first stanza of “Conversation with Shower and Vestibule,” for example:

From his side of the bed he says how do you feel
About the shower she says what do you mean
He says I mean getting in it together conflicted she says

 The sucker punch of that first line break—when his question that at first indicated concern about her well-being turns to a question about the mundane and ultimately, with another line break, turns into a sexual advance—is really delicious (and telling), and the way the tags “she says” and “he says” move around opens up new ways of hearing them both. Although it can be easy to overlap or confuse the two voices, the experience isn’t uniting, as it might be with a couple so close they finish one another’s sentences. Instead, the technique highlights the divide between them, the misconnection, and isn’t heavy-handed in doing so. By inviting in multiplicity, you make me think about how complex communication becomes when we saddle what we hear with our own desires and limitations. Can you talk a little about your decisions in regard to punctuation and lineation? How do you see these “Conversations” working structurally? What was your composition and revision process like? How are these to read aloud?

MS: My decisions about punctuation and lineation were not initially decisions, but instincts. When I’m drafting, I’m not deciding anything, just following language and sounds. I looked back at early drafts of these poems, and they lacked punctuation from the start. During revision, I began to understand that one of the things these poems are about is bewilderment, about having lost access to all usual landmarks and points of reference. As I revised, I worked to increase that bewilderment by breaking lines and stanzas, for the most part, in the places where the break would allow for the biggest slips in meaning. I say “for the most part” because, in considering your question about how the “Conversation” poems work structurally, I now notice a moment in each poem when the lineation makes meaning more straightforward by preserving a complete clause or two before reverting to highly enjambed lines. You know that moment when you’re talking to someone when you realize you had it all wrong, and now everything is utterly changed? I think these moments are like that. I was not conscious of this, by the way, even during revision. Sometimes we luck into things as poets.

I’ve heard from several people about how much these poems draw them in, and I think that’s because bewilderment requires the reader to participate in the meaning-making of a poem. Where meanings are suppressed or scrambled or slippery, the reader’s mind activates to fill in gaps.

As for what these poems are like to read aloud—they’re a blast. It’s fun to feel them rollick and slip through my body. I have had to practice extra for them, though, and make notations in my reading copy, as you might in a piece of music, so I remember where to breathe and where to keep momentum going at all costs.

AM: It’s not surprising that “house” elements are so prominent in these poems given how If the House as a collection centers the physical and emotional landscapes of various physical houses and ideas of home. Your “Conversation” poems contemplate and take place in communal areas such as the kitchen, intimate areas such as bedrooms, and the more cramped, confined, and even transitory spaces such as showers, hallways, and vestibules. The poems also reference decorative elements such as fireplaces and windows, exterior styles, and even the foundations and joists that hold the structures up. The speakers’ ideas about these spaces and their relationships to them often feel as at-odds as her conversations do. Can you talk a little bit about how you used or resisted the physical, tangible qualities of houses as both backdrop and topic in these poems? What did they offer you or challenge you with?

MS: I’m afraid that, once again, my answer is: I relented. The house is the default shape of my consciousness—what is that Anne Sexton line: “Some women marry houses. / It’s another kind of skin…”? I wouldn’t say I married a house, but like most of us, I was born into one. And the structures and objects, mysteries and silences, of that house became my way of conceiving of and organizing the world and my place in it. Gaston Bachelard writes about this in his The Poetics of Space, a book about how houses and other formative spaces shape consciousness and imagination. He says that the house is our first universe—both a shelter and “an instrument with which to confront the cosmos.”

About the houses of If the House and what you call their “at-odds-ness,” what happened is that my way of conceiving the world, the shape of my consciousness—the house—got complicated (as it must for all of us, I think) by virtue of the fact that I grew up. I left that first house and eventually had a family and a series of my own houses. The complication arose from the joys and burdens of running a household, especially of trying to make a home for my children amid multiple cross-country moves and also from a long illness that made it physically difficult for me to take care of a house. And also, it’s not all that uncommon for women—who still do the majority of the physical and emotional work of householding and childrearing—to have a vital but complicated relationship with domestic spaces, is it? I mean, I could write a ten-thousand-word essay about the space under the kitchen sink and what it means in the world and my life.

But at the same time, all the spaces and objects of a house—I believe in them (laughing). They are my small and not-so-small gods. That the windowsill is crucial physical and emotional territory, that the existence of a staircase matters—these are hills I will die on (more laughing). I’m laughing, but I mean it.

So again, I’m confessing to having relented to making the house, a house, any house, every house, both backdrop and topic in the book. The same can probably be said for my forthcoming collection, Hinge, although it’s much more backdrop than topic in that book.

AM: There is so much more I want to ask and know about your process, these poems, and your book, but we’ll have to save that for another conversation. In the meantime, I’ll continue to pine for updates to your blog, which has always given me such a wonderful glimpse into how your various roles and worlds collide as part of your poetry reading and writing practice. As my last question, is there anything you hope readers of If the House see, understand, or take with them?

MS: When there are so many terrible things happening—climate crisis, white nationalism, children in cages at the border, to name a few—and in a country whose leadership is racist, unstable, and corrupt, it’s easy to feel like all that matters is trying to fix the world “out there.” But I don’t think we can do a good job of that unless we’re also in touch with our minds, our values and ethics, our natural surroundings, our memories, our souls (to use an old-fashioned word). So, I hope there’s an implicit argument in the book for all of us to value our interior lives without divorcing ourselves from the world. And I hope there’s an argument for living life with intention, for making yourself a life that feels like home to you.

 

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