Iterations and interstices

Endi Bogue Hartigan on fields and crowds and more

Note: It was a brisk spring night when I went to hear Endi Bogue Hartigan read as part of the Loggernaut Reading Series in Portland. What struck me about her person was a quiet intensity; her work, with its eerie incantatory power, unsettled me. I admired this, found it refreshing in a time when a lot of poetry readings have a light or casual tone — with poets starting out with jokes or stories, or if they are from out of town, something they like about Portland. While I enjoy those readings, too, I was drawn to her work partly because the way she read aligned brilliantly with the collection’s strong aesthetics of muscular repetition and urgent complexity. I decided to approach her about an interview because I wanted to know more about how this collection came into being. What follows is an interview conducted over email, stringing out over several months as we slowly found an afternoon here, an evening there, to keep the conversation going. Eliza Rotterman

Eliza Rotterman: In forming questions about Pool [5 choruses], I turned to your previous collection One Sun Storm and looked for inlets. The following two lines from “Tiger Entries” struck me as significant to my experience reading: “I have wanted all my life to create a field. / If anything my life is to be a field in which a person may speak.” Did you think of Pool [5 choruses] as a realization of this line, and if so, how is a field like or unlike a chorus?

Endi Bogue Hartigan: I do love fields, how you can’t help but see far beyond you, and also the weeds at your feet. There is a walk I take pretty often out at Sauvie Island by some agricultural fields, and sometimes discover tiny things, like little bits of quartz in the gravel. I often turn around at a particular piece of litter, a deflated foil balloon, and, standing there, I sometimes let my eyes follow the swells and expanse of the field. I like that range of scale. I was in a short workshop recently with Eleni Sikelianos and after looking at some recent poems she commented on an attention to scale in my work, which I hadn’t exactly seen before but it felt so obvious once she said it. In One Sun Storm, I was interested in a kind of burning point of perception, how any personal singularity inevitably becomes expanded, multiplied, prismatic — the orientation or disorientation of a voice moving in this context was, is, infinitely interesting to me as an exploration of being. I was seeing language as a touch-point, speaking as a touch-point, so how do we touch within this immeasurable expanse, or beside a yellow foil balloon?

In Pool, the encounter — or the field — was much more public. I started writing this book when we were first getting into the Iraq war and what felt like a pressurized time in terms of public voice, which sometimes became a kind of din to me. I wrestled with what it is to contribute language or voice within that, and the chorus became an avenue both to explore the complex relationship of individual and multiple/public voice and multiplicity on numerous levels. I would not exactly say writing here was like speaking in a field — I mean, it felt more like writing from a piece of gravel along the field edge, or writing in a field that grows loudspeakers, or writing among other pieces of gravel, or writing as the grey of the gravel blurred, or writing as the small amount of air still inside that foil balloon. To enter these poems took sometimes a kind of sideways ingress, or a questioning of entry (i.e., where does your voice begin and end?). But the chorus and the field have similarities in that they are a different scale — wider — buzzing with more insect wings, more tilled, or more weeded than the person who stands within them even when it is the person who speaks/sings. I think the quote you pulled out speaks to a similar hope in both books; it is not the same hope exactly, but a similar hope to create a world through poetry that makes experiential a sense of field, that any traversing of subjects or of scales of touch-points also moves within such expanse, or maybe makes it more possible.

Rotterman: You mention above that you began this book when the US invaded Iraq in 2003. I’d like to hear more about how this moment spurred a shift in your approach to writing and your interest in the scale of public voice. Do you feel an imperative to create a language that comments, and what writers or artists have influenced this choice?

Hartigan: I was troubled by our entering the war, and once we were in it what was troubling to me felt even more complicated. I was reading a lot of daily news at the time partly through my work, and in addition to feeling exposed emotionally to the graphic stories, reports, atrocities — I remember a continual questioning and filtering and reckoning (how do I read this report? what am I part of, and what am I not?), and a certain sense of people blurred together by this reckoning. Meanwhile, there are other kinds of “reports,” reports of perception, the intricate touch-points of seeing starlings and raising kids and trying to figure out how to exist, period. At the very beginning, I wanted to write within what I sensed as a pressurized noise — the public rhetoric of the news, elections, etc. — without merely contributing to noise. In retrospect, I see that initial prompt as an impossibility, for any number of reasons, including that the lament and shock from that war was a vivid, unquiet thing. The pressure this public environment put on language made me realize almost immediately that I needed to branch out from an individual lyric to more multiplicity, and the possibilities of the chorus entered the work here.

I don’t exactly feel an imperative to comment since I don’t intend to answer through poetry, but one of my hopes is that it can show us possible ways to move. In a culture so pervasive with the language of report, opening up the liminal intricacy of interstices, connections, and breakages among individual and multiple voices felt important to me. In terms of influences, there are so many … I think of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s work for its ability to move deftly to help us see into cognitive emotional gaps and shadows. Of course there are those famous hopeful lines about the news of poetry that W. C. Williams expressed in “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower” — and Williams’s poems can make the world feel like the world. 

Rotterman: After viewing Field of Poppies by Charles-François Daubigny, I reread your poem “Slippage and the Red Poppies,” and noticed more keenly a compulsive gesture to define.

A crowd today is what can happen in a crowd



Alertness had grown into fear, already.
It is a depiction of the field.
It is a 19th century pre-Impressionist depiction of their red-blotted
proliferation on
the swelling of the field, to which she steps closer for closer resolution.

I’m fascinated by your definition of a crowd, and it strikes me that the increasing frequency of violence in crowds — school shootings, car bombs, drone strikes — and the location — groceries, movies, schools — has made our daily routines suddenly capable of containing the most devastating of tragedies. Is this how you began to see Daubigny’s pastoral painting as charged with violence, or is there a historical significance to this painting and the theme of crowds, fear, and violence?

Hartigan: I am so glad you saw into that — and yes, I was thinking about that common experience within any type of thick crowd with the post-9/11 heightened security measures, negotiating a way to exist with this possibility of unspeakable violence in our world, the skin-thin reality of having to find a way to be within that awareness and without it too, and to exist with wonder at the same time.

The Daubigny painting does not in itself feel charged with violence exactly, but I think this and a number of poems in this book layer disparate kinds of perceptions that touch edges or seep into each other. I had returned to this painting many times (it is at the Portland Art Museum in their permanent collection), and I honestly don’t remember which subject came first in the writing of this poem, the notion of crowd presence or the painting, but they quickly became a common exploration and movement — the voice kind of arced through them. The painting was enchanting to me for a certain loudness inside its quietude: it is a pastoral view, but the depiction of poppies is partially differentiated in some places and blurring together in others, and the movement of the figure on the horse have a certain urgency that I can see as emerging or receding, or both. If there were a manner to explore a new way of being, I thought singing through that painting might provide as much a clue as any.

Rotterman: I’m curious about your use of poppies, lilies, and kelp to portray crowds, voices, and perhaps, more obliquely, restlessness and unrest, confusion, and injury. Can you talk a little about how you began to see natural landscapes in this way?

Hartigan: If you’ve been to the Oregon coast — or really almost any coastline — you’ve probably seen tangled heaps of kelp, those drying, gelatinous, fly-ridden, stinky, wonderful heaps. I often end up reading “kelp chorus” when I give readings from this book, partly because of the sound, and sometimes I ask people to imagine these kelp mountains as an embodiment of voice, but multitudinous voices, tangled. I am pretty sure when I wrote this poem that the kelp and the chorus were a clustered entity from the start, so it is hard to see one as reflection of the other, exactly. I always liked how the chorus in classical literature could exist both inside and outside the narrative of the theater at the same time, so in the context of this poem, I imagined this kelp mixture at the shore edge in that similarly paradoxical space, where voices may or may not touch, and there is sting in both distance from and closeness to this tangle.

The entry point is different with each poem that touches on natural forms of course, whether they are lilies, or other forms, but I’m definitely drawn to poetry that has physicality to it — whether through music, thought, or imagery. I’ve been fortunate to live in pretty amazing places (I have spent most of my life in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii), so it’s easy to use language drawn from this environment as a kind of material paint. But it is more than just paint; it is not secondary but intrinsic. The kelps and lilies and shorelines of the natural world are a nuanced place to explore complex, public subjects like crowds and violence. It is also a way to say that “confusion and injury” inevitably occur in the context of this lushness, that they are simultaneously the material.

Rotterman: In an interview with Rusty Morrison, you discuss repetition:

I don’t actually think of repetition as a thing in itself in the course of the poems. It’s like one organ among all the other interconnected organs of sounds and sense — which move together as one animal, as if it is living. I like how repetition can move me through a series of orientations; it can calibrate and recalibrate a meaning or phrase subtly in different contexts. If it’s a human animal, maybe repetition is its gait.

I’m interested in your use of repetition. It seems to provide you movement through and access to the voice of media culture, which can be characterized by repetition as well. Can you say more about this?

Hartigan: One of the reasons I am drawn to repetition is that it is a great way of simply letting things in. It signals time and its permeability since each repetition brings with it a new vantage point; also, it can imply that this particular item repeated is not fully realized in its first instance (it needs to be turned over in a new space), so repetition invites more and more into the dynamic of the poem and expands it. When I think of references to media culture in this book, I think of the language of reportage or advertisement or sociological numbers — common forms of language that aim to reflect or convince us of real things, actual touchable things — but how this language can also minimalize its subject and fail to touch us. The poems in Pool include — or at times, comment on — the slippage points or limits for this type of language. I say slippage because in some ways I wasn’t differentiating mass culture perception as distinct from other perceptions as we move through them. Perception of things we call mass culture — say, something taken in from a TV ad — can bleed edges with the specificity of our lives, i.e. a speckled starling, and this bleeding was interesting to me.

Like I said in that interview with Rusty, repetition is very much interconnected with other elements of each poem, but I am definitely drawn to it, partly for its iterative and incantatory effect which propels forward. It can also be very sense-rich, and a way of moving forward tangibly (through sense) through new arcs and exploratory “fields.”

Rotterman: I love to read “Ocean Interstice” aloud, and I think this is because the poem so perfectly creates the experience of encountering an “interstice” in cognition (likely accomplished by the formal choice to begin each line with a prepositional phrase), while at the same time a swift, compounding current (restless, somber, plaintive) is fast around my knees. It’s really a beautiful moment, reading this poem aloud, and it reminds me that poetry is a living art and a single voice has retained its ability, at once primitive and nuanced, to create vulnerability and connection. I’m curious about your process in composing this poem, as well as an elaboration of your ideas on the ability of sound to evoke experience — specifically in contrast to noise, which is defined in the book’s epigraph by the Worth Health Organization as “unwanted sound.”

Hartigan: Thank you so much for your kind words and for describing your very rich reading of this poem. This was written as a love poem for my husband, Patrick. I’m glad you point this out, since not all the poems in this book are oriented toward that more public political din of a chorus — multiplicities are interior also, and love is here too in the poems — its intricacies. Patrick and I have now been married seventeen years, and I wrote this at our ten-year anniversary. Being together for this long means being together on so many different layers of experience, and writing from the breadth of these layers of time together was part of the challenge that created this poem. I felt that a more positioned voice in time as a love lyric could easily be too singular, somehow not sufficient, and I realized that this sense of difficulty at the breadth was important to me to keep and express. I decided to experiment with shifting the position of the voice with each line with the incantatory “to the left of, to the right of …” to get at this expanse in some way. Once I was writing, unexpected movements of sound occurred and the turning of images — delphinium, choruses, sand, so there is a kind of tumbling forward momentum which I listen for, and follow. I hope this poem enacts how sound can carry us the way people carry us, inexplicably forward, which is how love carries, in my experience.

Sound is not always this, of course — it is sometimes cacophonous material we do not wish to be carried in — but yes, poems are read with our living bodies, and I am so happy to hear your connections. In terms of the World Health Organization quote in the epigraph of this book, how we orient ourselves toward sound (and noise) seems to matter in some way — even noise can be seen merely as “unwanted sound.” How we orient ourselves and move within it, how softly we listen, and what we make of this seems to be a place of opening and possibility.  

Rotterman: While you work very intensely with sound — and to tremendous effect — I wonder how often you think about silence(s) in your poetry. Is this something you have explored in the past or see yourself exploring in the future?

Hartigan: Your question made me think today about watching old Western movies — the way they can feature those haunting frontier “silences” inserted into the drama — but if you think about something like a still prairie scene, it is actually a little more silent if you hear a rustling through the grass and then nothing. Silence is always to a degree, of course, and in a context, like sound. The space in which there is not language can be experienced as a true break or as an emotionally charged tightrope (or anything in between) — so silence can be so many things in context, is malleable, and yes, I hope to keep exploring and experimenting with this. I think about the white space of the page and the impact of it on the language. In terms of process, I tend to consider and play with this quite a bit before finalizing a poem, and while sometimes the spatial relationship is clear to me from the start, often reading the poem to myself over and over helps me to feel out cadence and then to consider where in that cadence I experience gaps, or want to leave spatial openings for the reader. I would like to keep thinking of it as an active space, but what that activity is can change from poem to poem.

In terms of future work, lately I have been writing a series around clocks and time, the interstices and swirls and gaps of measured and in some ways unmeasurable days. It’s too early to say how silences will play into it, but your good questions have given me much to keep thinking about, Eliza … these are the best kind.