By Kaitlin Scagluso '16 and Meghan Carroll '16
Corey Van Landingham is the author of Antidote, winner of the 2012 The Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. A former Wallace Stegner Poetry Fellow at Stanford University, her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Best American Poetry 2014, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. Originally from Ashland, Oregon, she is currently the 2015-2016 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College. She runs through the battlefield, can’t stop reading “For the Union Dead,” and is considering getting “It is altogether fitting and proper” tattooed on her arm.
Van Landingham’s poems “Great Contintental Divide,” “Love Letter to , Drone Operator,” “Exegis,” and “Leaving Fort Barry” appeared in West Branch 78, Spring/Summer 2015. Her essay-review “Between Apollos,” on Mary Jo Bang, Philip Metres, and Quan Barry, appears in this issue.
West Branch: The title of your book is Antidote and one of the poems is also titled "Antidote." What made you choose this as the title of your book and does this poem hold special importance to you and to the book? In what way is poetry an antidote?
Corey Van Landingham: A good friend of mine, poet Brittany Cavallaro, was helping me out while I was in the midst of a titling crisis. Things were looking fairly gloomy. I was asking if I could just call the thing Untitled. Once we touched down upon Antidote, however, I found some hope. I loved the idea of an antidote being taken against something, and the tension that arises from that. And I wondered, what is poetry taken against? In a collection of poems including elegies for my father, and other forms of valediction, I was interested in how art can, or, perhaps, cannot, assuage suffering, assuage grief. How, instead, maybe it transforms grief, but doesn’t lessen it. As an imaginative act, I think poetry makes grief an experience in which one—the poet, the reader—can walk around. This doesn’t make it any smaller—in fact the inverse might be true—but opening its cabinet doors, touching its walls…if one can participate in their own grief, or that of another, I think it helps to endure it. And that’s at least part of the role of art, no?
As for the title poem, I wrote it after I had found the title for the book, and had that phrase “given against” swirling around inside my head. The poem, for me, explores the impossibility of wiping love clean, the difficulty in leaving behind even the messiest of relationships. While the phrase is repeated over and over again, tries to become an incantation to summon some kind of an antidote, ultimately none is named, none is found. Perhaps this is bleak, but, then again, I guess the book is, too!
WB: You mentioned how poetry can serve to "transform" grief by allowing both poets and readers to "walk around" and "touch" grief--in other words to participate in their grief and endure it, without necessarily lessening it. What is it about the "imaginative act" of poetry that allows poets and readers alike to "touch" and "open" certain issues and experiences they would normally keep closeted away?
CVL: Donald Hall once wrote that “the personal may need to believe that it is general before it will be spoken.” It is that imaginative act, that world-building, I think, that allows those experiences to come forward. Despite all its mystery and evocation, the poem is ultimately a made thing. The façade of the general, the construction of the “I,” seems to me a more craft-based, technê-type level of the poem, whereas what seeps into that—I’ll say the personal, but by that I don’t mean confessional, more the personality, view-point, nuanced way of rendering the world unique to the poet—that’s the art. The general level of the poem—the fictive democratization or distance of experience that allows the poem to get onto the page, the rhetorical force, the form—that’s the head. The personal? That’s the heart.
I don’t at all mean to create a hierarchy, however. I think great poetry needs both. It makes me think of Keats’ idea of negative capability, which I worry is often misconstrued and used toward a kind of passive poetics. “It seems to me that we should rather be the flower than the bee,” Keats wrote in a letter. I would argue that we should be both: as poets, we should be both active in our arranging and interpretation of the world onto the page, in the use of sometimes performative rhetoric (the bee, the head), and passive in how we receive that world, how it transforms us, and allows us to access the world in unforeseen ways (the flower, the heart).
WB: In your poem “Eclogue,” you say that “wild is a process that has to be learned.” How did you, as a poet, learn this “wilding process,” and how is this wilding process involved in creating the rich nature images present in many of your poems?
CVL: I’d say that I’m still in the process of learning that process, and, I think, always will be. There is nothing natural about poetry—we just try our best to make it appear natural, appear inevitable. And human wildness is never quite wild—it’s at the periphery, or is a simulation. The social impedes our wilding. So it goes for poetry. The constraint of the public realm—the reader, the page, what have you—necessitates taming. Breaking through that, that’s the lesson to be learned, to keep learning.
I simulated poetic wildness for many years through imitation. I would copy out poems I coveted and replace their words with their types of speech: “The (noun) never (verbed) to (noun) or (noun), / Like a (noun) (adverb) (noun), (verbing) / Its (adj) (nouns).” That would be my weird Wallace Stevens Mad Libs (“The water never formed to mind or voice, / Like a body wholly body, fluttering / Its empty sleeves”), and I’d shuffle in my own words, sometimes at random, to try to create some kind of fresh sound and sense, while learning from the poet’s syntax. I’m a sentence-level poet, not a poet of the line.
But that’s beyond the point. As for the images of nature, that all goes back to my personal and psychic geography, to how and where I was raised. I grew up in a small town in Southern Oregon, right at the edge of a forest. My mother was a microbiologist and my father was a photographer—both trained to look closely. In fact, their vision was so trained on looking closely that I resisted that for a long time, especially in regard to the natural world. My father never photographed people, or anything manmade. I remember stacking rocks at the beach and wanting him to photograph it, but he preferred the unadorned, the unaltered, the wild. Funny, too, now that I think of it, how his art had to tame it, to capture it in the frame, how his was an unnatural art. Anyway, I resented this in my youth, as one does, but, in my education as a poet, this attention and predilection forced its way into my writing, into my life. I’ve still never been one for the sustained image—my attention gets strained. I’m too greedy. But an eye for, and an appreciation of, nature, of the wild—that was certainly formative for me as a young poet.
WB: You describe poetry, and art in general, as a sort of illusion of the natural world. You say that “there is nothing natural about poetry” and that human wildness is not wild but is rather “a periphery…a simulation.” Do you think it is ever possible for poets and artists to move beyond this illusion of the natural, into a space where they can fully connect with the natural world?
CVL: This is going to sound cynical, perhaps, but no, I don’t think poetry can ever fully connect with the natural world. This, because we are bound inextricably to language. As language is always, in a way, a failure to access the thing-in-itself, poetry takes up the distance between language and experience. It both acknowledges and threatens that void. Its failures, though, present their own unique opportunities. If poetry cannot (and, perhaps, should not) replicate the world, it can offer instead a translation of the world, a way of making meaning askance, dismantling our knowns through other approximations. That, I think, is poetry’s great mystery, poetry’s longing, and poetry’s grief—it is an elegy to the world it can’t fully connect to. This is our burden—language—and our gift.
WB: Many of your poems in Antidote contain a heightened sense of the natural world, yet your poem “Love Letter To , Drone Operator,” which was included in West Branch’s Spring/Summer 2015 issue, has more of a technological bent. What compelled you to depart from your normal subject matter to engage with the technological and political subject of drones?
CVL: In Antidote, I have one poem, “The Making of the Prophet,” that introduces this idea of drones. It’s one of the last poems that I wrote for that book, and I suppose one might say that it doesn’t quite belong, that it would fit better with my new manuscript. But I’ve found myself enjoying having poems as bridges into what comes next. Yes, this might unsettle the sacred space of the book as a complete product, as something unwavering in its trajectory. I suppose it is a form of hope for me. There is such a deep depression that forms, in my experience, after finishing a book. Having this one poem that steps outside, that signals a new direction, a new path of interest for new poems—that’s necessary for me to move on. I’ve done that with this new book, too, by including a poem set here in Gettysburg. It’s my yes-there-will-be-others poem.
As far as the initial interest in this new subject matter, though, it started with my fascination in and discomfort with the way that technology increasingly mediates our experiences of the body, and, along with that, how it mediates our interactions with each other. The absence of touch—in acts of war via the militarization of the drone, or in acts of love via the sext—becomes in itself a form of abstraction, and a way to make the body and experience easier to process, thus ignore. The recent release of the Senate’s report on C.I.A. torture shocked the general public with its detailing of the inhumane, and illegal, treatment of prisoners. Yet since 2004 the leaders of our country have for a variety of reasons—financial, legal, ethical—shifted their focus from techniques of detainment and torture to, with the increasing reliance on drone strikes, war from afar. Officers violating prisoners up close with their own hands will, of course, receive a greater amount of scrutiny than a machine killing an individual from miles away. It is this remove—the anaesthetizing and dehumanizing distance from the drone to its target—that I find utterly terrifying. And, when sight itself becomes a form of violence, what does that mean for the image, for art?
WB: Can you speak more about your new manuscript and what its particular focus and aesthetic is, as compared to Antidote?
CVL: Its focus is on distance (in violence and how we receive information of violence, in love, in sex, and in their intersections), drones, desire, love letters, sexting, California, figures of power (political and literary), and received lineages of myth and poetry, as well as their possible failures to navigate these aforementioned subjects.
As far as its aesthetic, I would say that in contrast to Antidote’s associative leaps and surreal landscapes, these poems are more grounded in our “real” (and, at times, hyper-real) world. There is little natural imagery, instead focusing on the man-made. There are more layers of realities, too. Instead of residing solely in the dark recesses of my mind and imagination, this new work depends upon history, philosophy, and art. A social project, I guess.
I wouldn’t say, however, that I’ve moved on from past subjects—there are still poems about my father, about love—but I do hope that I approach them differently. I hope they’re smarter, and I hope they’re better—can I say that? It’s a real desire, though, to have made some degree of progress.
WB: You mention your desire to have “made some degree of progress” in your new poems. How do you measure progress?
CVL: Gosh, good question. Perhaps feeling like I know what I’m doing a little bit more? Trusting the poems? Recognizing moves I would have made in the past, and knowing that they’re too easy? Having the ability for someone to tell me to scrap a poem, and to be like, nah, this is good stuff? But really, for so long outside influence dictated how I felt about poems. That’s not to say that it’s vanished, nor that it isn’t also helpful. But knowing that I’ve become somehow more objective… (or that at least I have more small moments of objectivity that shine a little bit brighter than before). I think that’s one of my markers of progress, of poetic growth.