Interview with Annie Guthrie on THE GOOD DARK — December 16, 2015
Annie Guthrie is a writer and jeweler living in Tucson. She teaches courses in Oracular Writing at the University of Arizona Poetry Center and is private mentor to apprentice students in cross genre writing.
Christopher Nelson: You have taught a series of classes called Oracular Writing, and an oracle is a recurring voice in THE GOOD DARK. Can you tell us about your oracular approach to poetry and how that might have informed or shaped this book?
Annie Guthrie: Under the guidance of a teacher, I worked very closely with an oracle for many years, which is, in essence, to engage in a practice of asking questions. Over time, I began to develop a relationship to the inquiry itself, eventually understanding its integral relationship to clarity. A mind posed in inquiry is perhaps restored to its best shape, one that is in a state of observation. I believe these skills (attentivity, bright-mindedness) are vital components of the writing process, which requires complete participation and wakefulness. So the classes are designed to integrate these efforts, to engage in a practice of attention, and to begin to understand writing as a relationship that exists on a continuum, rather than something we are not doing and need more time for. We are writing all the time. I try to guide students back to this knowledge.
I read an article the other day about Louise Bourgeois, describing her advice to artists to “set out with something to say,” and I would modify this to say “set out with something to ask.” I am interested in realms. Realms of thought, realms of being. We can only get there by turning inside out (asking). The poems in THE GOOD DARK are a trail of evidence of where I’ve been exploring, where I have participated, where I have been listening, what I have been asking. More than task and design, I'm receiving a path.
Nelson: I imagine that the kind of inquiry you are describing requires making peace with bewilderment and uncertainty; but doesn't it also find reward in not knowing—as you suggest, questions being more important than answers?
Guthrie: That is precisely part of the discovery the speaker is coming to over the length of the book, ultimately mirrored in obliteration of self —“how the spaces, they flame up / lightspliced” and “belief in nothing collecting”—for, of course, the self is an unanswerable question we must keep asking. If we were try to make a map of subjectivity, we would have to draw it out again each day, all the time. While conversely, if we were to find the meaning and location of consciousness, it would change the very nature of what we found out about ourselves. And we might have to start all over again.
Nelson: Do you regard THE GOOD DARK as three long poems comprised of brief parts, or is the book in three sections, with each section comprised of brief poems? The distinction might seem merely academic, but I think it affects how the poems are read. Do they progress like frames of a film, or are they discrete but in concert, like jewels on a string?
Guthrie: Walking into a progressively deepening darkness through psyche, subconsciousness, into questions about consciousness itself, the edges of the frames may certainly start to fray, the path that is unfolding may no longer reveal its discrete characteristics, but it is there, and there is a certain progression happening across three sections. So I would say more than stringing jewels into a necklace, we are hopping stone to stone, into deep places of unknowing. Loss and getting lost are inevitable. In the field of physics, “the observer effect” states that “what is observed will be changed by the observer.” In this book, this sort of law would result in a compromised subjectivity, because the self is what is under investigation. The book can be read as one long poem that is broken into three sections. We are essentially moving through tangles of mind, spirit and body. The sections do mark new areas of exploration.
Nelson: I love that "the self is what is under investigation" here—and that the investigation is multifaceted: you aren't asking only "what is the self?" but how, when, and why as well. What you've said makes all the more relevant to me the Gertrude Stein epigraph at the beginning: "Why am I a little girl / Where am I a little girl / When I am a little girl / Which little girl am I" Do you regard Stein as one of your progenitors?
Guthrie: I think any poet of any stripe can benefit from a lifelong apprenticeship with the work of Gertrude Stein, who obviously was a master craftsperson. As a jeweler, I occasionally or frequently reach a point when I need another pair of eyes, or another pair of hands: I might have questions about how to do what I am trying to do, or maybe I can't see how to correct for structure, I might need to observe someone else’s technique. I might just plain old need help. This is exactly how I turn to GS. She says, “It is not clarity that is desirable but force.” I'm interested in language that has both force and clarity, as this sentence of hers in fact does have. But also I want to explore the arrival of clarity, and what kind of language and structure we use to reveal those travels. So maybe alongside "we are finally with me," as GS asserts, I'm interested in accumulation and accretion, the forces that can build over time, over the time of the page. There are a lot of ways to make writing “happening,” and, of course, Stein’s writing was the very enactment of the enjoyment of the question.
Nelson: One of my enjoyments of the lyric is its brevity. Several of these poems are three or four lines long, and none is more that twelve. What does a short poem do that a long one cannot? How can more be less?
Guthrie: I am not sure I can generalize about the short poem doing anything by sheer virture of its brevity. In the case of this book, the poetic actions I engaged in were seeking, sifting and essentializing, which are actions that, seemingly by nature, result in short poems. I am currently working in an opposite way, away from condensation or distillation, toward expansion and inclusion.
Nelson: Let's close by talking about the evocative cover photograph by Rosanna Salonia. Why did you choose it, and how do you see it in relation to the poems?
Guthrie: I own the original photograph, I am a longtime collector and admirer of Rosanna's work. The photograph is very painterly, treated with layers and layers of wax, color, and consideration. It has a special place in my kitchen art gallery, above where my son Olmo eats in his high chair every day. I like to think about the relationship of nourishment to the figure in the photograph, who seems to be caught eternally at a threshold. I like to think about staying permanently in the mindset of one at the threshold. Which of course changes the nature of that place. The ambiguity of the figure calls in
the voice of each viewer to contribute to the meaning of what he is facing or considering, which is indeed how I like to think of writing, as a conversation, as a collaboration with the reader; I believe some kind of partnership is necessary and desirable when confronting the abyss of great human limitations in understanding, such as the meaning of consciousness and existence.
Nelson: Wonderful. Thank you, Annie, for the conversation and for your beautiful book.