Interview with Frances Sjoberg on outcrop — January 30, 2009

Frances Sjoberg received her MFA from Warren Wilson College and her BA from the University of Arizona. She worked for the UA Poetry Center for just shy of a decade, and is now a JD candidate at the UA College of Law. In addition to her chapbook, outcrop, published by Chax Press in 2008, her poems have been published in Barrow Street; Alaska Quarterly Review; River City Review; Forklift, Ohio; Spork Magazine; and other fine places. Her love of poetry is outpaced only by her love of new and uncomfortable situations, like pigeon pose and law school. With practice, she hopes that her physical and mental selves will both become more pliant. (She has also stopped correcting split auxiliary verbs.)

Christopher Nelson: The language of outcrop is impressively compressed. Is that unique to this collection, or is that a feature of your other poems as well? And what attracts you to such compression?

Frances Sjoberg: Thank you for saying so. I hope that it is a feature in all of my work, though the poems in the first section of outcrop seem to me like an actual study of compression. To use the internal combustion engine as an analogy, the limited intake of those poems allows me to more closely experience how their mixtures combust. Deflagration, or subsonic combustion, is a thermal conductor, in which energy passes from one thing to another. Detonation, or supersonic combustion, creates shock waves. If I were an engineer (and I wish that I were) I would better know how all of this works, but it seems to me, looking at words that describe the thing rather than looking at the thing itself, that deflagration burns up its fuel, and detonation ignites and propels it outward from behind a shock. I think that my poems are deflagrationist.

On a non-analogical note, I find compression to be one of the poetry’s two great aims. Compression enables us to fully experience and appreciate a poet’s mastery of word choice, grammar, syntax, figure of speech, and musical control. The other great aim is clarity.

On a side note, one or two of the poems in outcrop may be, technically, more “whittled” than “compressed.”

Nelson: Which poets do you most admire for their abilities to compress language? (Having taken your class on the wee poem, I know you'll have some reading suggestions.)

Sjoberg: Well, Emily Dickinson is the definitive compressor. And Paul Celan, of course. One could spend a lifetime expanding and expending the language in their bodies of work.

Of contemporary poets, Heather McHugh is a master of semantic compression. In a different vein, Morgan Lucas Schuldt is doing incredible compressionistic work.

Others, in no apparent order and in very different ways, are Frank Bidart, Cesar Vallejo, Ann Lauterbach, Michael Palmer, Tedi Lopez Mills, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jorie Graham, John Donne, Josephine Jacobson, William Carlos Williams!, Nora Marks Dauenhauer, Dan Beachy-Quick, Robin Robertson, Robert Creeley, Andrew Marvell, Harryette Mullen, Elizabeth Treadwell, Marianne Moore, Jack Gilbert, and Thomas Ken, who wrote the doxology in 1674.

Nelson: I marvel at your syntactic acrobatics in “Self My With Is.” Will you let us behind the curtain? What was your process? In earlier drafts was the syntax normal?

Sjoberg: Really? Behind the curtain? I've never done this before but okay. The first draft wasn't a poem at all. It was a short, fraught email that, when sent, continued to agitate in my ear and in my mind. Language sometimes haunts me, as it did in this instance, and when it does I remember it, hear it, see it all verbatim. “Self My With Is” is a distortion of the words of that email, the result of an extended reconfiguration until the words landed in a sonic and syntactic pattern that settled down in my head. I guess you could call it an exorcising exercise. I think that I changed a verb tense or two, and I may have substituted a homonym for an original word, so I’m not sure it can be refitted perfectly to the original email.

The Poetry Center has an LP of Gertrude Stein reading some poems. If you listen closely, you can hear a clock strike one o'clock behind her while she’s reading a portrait of Picasso. It's not orchestrated. It’s just a moment in time that has attached itself to the silence behind her poem. There’s some sort of temporal wormhole, at least for me, in “Self My With Is” too.

Nelson: The second part of the book is “Rays,” a longer poem that contains a couple of fragments from an essay by the artist Man Ray. There are also allusions to St. Augustine and Igor Stravinsky. These presences, did they inform, haunt, inspire—or something else—the poem? And your images are so precise and yet extended; I wonder, is the poem also ekphrastic?

Sjoberg: Man Ray informed the poem. St. Augustine haunted it. Igor Stravinsky inspired it. The poem is ekphrastic. Each section describes a particular Man Ray photograph. (A friend of mine has a single handmade chapbook of “Rays” that has the informing photo on facing pages … or maybe on the page preceding the poem. She doesn’t like poetry very much, so I gave it to her with the visual cues to keep her interested.)

Nelson: You're studying law at the University of Arizona. How does your poetic intelligence inform those studies? Or what have you noticed about those two realms of language?

Sjoberg: There are five demands in the study of law that may bear strong relation to the demands of poetry: first, an understanding that language is an imperfect tool to adequately close the gap between what you mean and what I understand; second, an understanding that justice/art demands both absolute precision and also an aura of indefinition in order to accommodate that which we cannot anticipate; third, an ability to argue, with one’s whole heart, that a three-wheeled vehicle should be deemed either a two-wheeled vehicle or a four-wheeled vehicle for the purpose of a law whose drafter did not anticipate the possibility of three-wheels; fourth, a robust appreciation of paradox; and finally, an ability to take both roads in a yellow wood, and both roads that diverge from each of those roads, and to follow (or lead) each possible road to an intended destination because that makes all of difference. In sum, for one who loves the triumphs and failures of language, who believes that there is moral imperative to our mastery of and submission to it, the impulse toward law and poetry may turn out to be one and the same.

The flip way to answer this question is that I am, indeed, a first year law student. Ergo, that I have any intelligence at all is debatable.

Nelson: Lastly, why is the wren lovely and the hawk gorgeous?

Sjoberg: I'm not sure I can say why exactly. But maybe I can explain it by talking around it.

The silent w before a liquid r … lovely isn't it?

And the silent w before the hard k … it's gorgeous.

The hawk, riding currents in a canyon (a gorge?): the very thought of it stops my breath.

And there's more to gorge. Have you ever seen a hawk catch and eat its prey? It’ll tear another bird to bits, the seed falling out of the prey’s gullet to the ground. Wild, harsh, and gorgeous.

And wren, with its frequent modifier “house” … it evokes for me yellow curtains pulled back in the kitchen with tomatoes ripening on the windowsill. Domestic and lovely.

“Lovely” may seem diminutive next to “gorgeous,” especially when the word gorgeous drops a reader (or writer) off of the linguistic conveyor belt of this poem. But diminution may ultimately dominate.

For the hawk, I'm awe-filled, offalled, ultimately awful.

And finally, love is in the word lovely, which is itself awe-inspiring. And in-spyering (where a spy learns one’s secrets) and in-spiring (where a spire reaches up toward god). A spire is also the slender shoot of a plant. The oak cometh up a little spire, wrote Chaucer. I could eat that slender shoot of a plant, says the wren.