By Cameron Norsworthy
Cori A. Winrock is the author of This Coalition of Bones (Kore Press, 2014), which received the Freund Prize from Cornell University for a first collection. Her poems have appeared in the Best New Poets anthology, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Colorado Review, The Journal, From the Fishouse, and elsewhere. She won the Summer Literary Seminars' St. Petersburg Review Award. A former Visiting Professor at SUNY Geneseo, this fall Winrock entered the Creative Writing Ph.D. program at the University of Utah as a Vice Presidential Fellow.
West Branch: Your background in neuropsychology offers a medical, analytical approach to human emotion that is often metaphorized in your poems as ailments or diagnoses. In crafting one of these pieces, does the “emotional” subject of a poem (grief, worry, togetherness) precede the scientific interpretation (x-ray, anesthesia, seizure), does the science precede the emotional subject, or is it a subjective sort of back-and-forth?
Cori Winrock: My approach to emotion and science shifted over the course of writing This Coalition of Bones and has again in writing my second manuscript. I went to grad school straight out of undergrad and as such straight out of a particular kind of exposure to scientific inquiry. I had been reading a lot of Dickinson and many of the earlier-written poems take on science more as a subject than a lens. For example, the second section takes its topical foundations from Daniel Schacter’s The Seven Sins of Memory and in many ways is a series of arguments with Wallace Stevens. The further I fell into writing poems in connection to memory the less I saw science as a discrete topic as opposed to a language and landscape that could transfigure other emotional spaces. I took on scientific vocabulary, but in less expected spaces, to architect a different kind of resonance. For example, the opening poem, “Portrayal, X-Ray,” was actually the last piece written for the collection and I feel gets at the actual marrow of how the processes of science can elucidate the personal.
In my current manuscript, which is primarily elegies, I am absorbed by questions of how/where grief functions in relation to the medical/clinical. In one of the new West Branch pieces “Ostentatious Still Life with Hospital & Body of”—I’m intrigued by how science fits into grief, and whether there is room for scientific interpretation in grief (or vice versa) for people who don’t come from a scientific background. In “Ostentatious Still Life” part of what the speaker is trying to cope with is how to conjure/create the ghost of someone in spite of not necessarily believing in ghosts. It is not reassuring to hear that the dead are always with you, watching over you, if you can’t summon that as a reality for yourself. The speaker doesn’t want to take the idea of finding no ghost as an answer that there is somehow less to her view of grief. Personally I can’t always remove the medical and analytical from how I perceive events of grief and medical trauma. And this has caused me to feel isolated at times in the grieving process from people who are able to feel totally comforted by the reassurance of ghosts and reincarnation and a sense of the spirit as being physically with you. I carry the dead with me in the sense of what they have taught me, but I can’t conjure them wholly.
In the newer work I am heavily invested in folding reoccurring scientific vocabulary and images into the pieces until they become emotional characters themselves. While the X-ray crops up a few times in the first book as a process, in the current poems it’s more of an emotional marker that reappears, interacts with other images and narratives, and snowballs over the course of the manuscript. The language of the medical as adapted into a fairytale. I am fascinated by the hospital and the clinical as both a technical landscape and a sentient, responsive one. Adrienne Rich’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” is a piece I am consistently returning to that taps into this the space of clinical :: emotional. Her speaker’s lament: “I want you to see this before I leave:/ the experience of repetition as death/ the failure of criticism to locate the pain”—gets at the minotaur in the maze. It’s not just about the medical or scientific versus the emotional but the struggle of language to locate the pain.
WB: How do you employ form to conflate physical (such as in “Ostentatious Still Life”—an ambulance, a party) and lyric spaces that ultimately represent the “ghost” of the elegy? Can form assist in the “struggle. . .to locate the pain?”
CW: Many of the pieces in This Coalition of Bones are physically pulled taut, either in shorter lines or in arrangement. The poems have a bit of the clinical about them structurally, though the content is focused on breaking that sterility through the lyric and image. When I first started trying to write toward what would become the new manuscript, and specifically to write elegies, I was still in the space of obsessive couplets and tightly controlled organization. My impulse to contain things was keeping the poems from doing the work they needed to do: anguish is messy and wild and expansive. And spacious poems with longer lines scared me—which is what poetry should do as you are writing it. While I was in Lithuania as part of the SLS program I started to realize I needed to consciously write myself out of a hyper clean-lined frame. And though at first it felt nearly-painful for me to be messy with language or form, it has been such a relief to see the poems open out textually, and as a result, emotionally. At first I consciously forced the lines to reach the edge of the page. And then I started to see how disrupting the column made me see the force of the poem shift. There are more than a few pieces in the current series that have taken up a landscape view of the page—a sense of the space as a physical organization and disorganization.
The rearrangement of space on the page also parallels the superimposing and swapping of physical locations in the poems—which is often about displacing/conflating the natural and the domestic. Elegy itself is a representation of a landscapes of grief—what does the landscape look like at differing points and how could a piece take on a speaker who was exploring hybrid emotion-to-landscape spaces without making them superficial—keeping the forest the forest. In other words, I desire an element of the surreal, but a surreality that is literal rather than conceptual. I want the hospital beds to be in the woods and the garden to be in the living room and a child to be hothoused in a wedding dress—and not unexpectedly. This is what the combination of the elegy and the postmodern pastoral becomes: a microcosm where the natural and the domestic can clash and coexist and invade.
In “Ostentatious Still Life” I was initially concerned with how this genre of art manifests in poetry and how death feels like a full stopping of individual moments. But the still life as setting wasn’t enough—so I turned to the subgenre of the ostentatious still life. In turn, I couldn’t write myself into a structure where the still life was working on the page in a straightforward lineation and the left margin wasn’t enough to hold the action or actual space of the ambulance, the hospital, the party, or the lack of ghost. I centered the piece in order to take a visual artistic element as a starting point and then exploded it out—to draw the eye to the central issue and then away. (You can see some of this same visual rearrangement in “Elegy as Duchamp’s Bride Redressing.”) “Ostentatious Still Life” was actually a marrying of two separate poems and I couldn’t figure out how to remove the seams from the hinge moment. A good friend suggested sections and suddenly the conflation of the physical with the lyric space clicked—the poem needed to get wider-lensed. White space and section breaks allow for a mini dynasty of images to stack and develop. The ghost of the elegy comes forward, surprisingly, not just in sparseness but in the allowance for language to take up space, for what is not said even in those expansive moments to be part of locating the pain.
WB: Do you have recurring impulses while drafting? Do you often find yourself "marrying. . . two separate poems," cutting one piece into multiple poems, seeking friends' guidance in revision?
CW: I tend to draft in concentrated batches and take long breaks between flocks of poems. I have a couple people that I schedule poetry challenges with every few months—where we agree to write seven poems in seven days (or some variant of this) and send them off by midnight. The focus isn’t on responding to each other’s poems so much as on making the time to really dig in, to pound out work. I’ve found that writing poems in these mini series leads to pieces that are in conversation in more fascinating ways (and these conversations in turn shape how a manuscript comes together). I do sometimes regret not having written more during a particular run of writing—it’s difficult to parallel park back into an exact mindset. But I also think the intense writing sprints allow me to obsess and retreat in productive ways. As a compulsive revisionist, when I’m working on a piece it’s all consuming. I write and revise as I go, ending any given writing session with twenty or more drafts of a piece. The upside to this kind of extravaganza cluster writing is that by the end of the week the pieces I’ve written often feel finished and ready to be sent off. I admit I rarely make it through a full seven days of a challenge—but the poems I write shimmy from messy to polished in a less sterilized way than when I write single pieces at a time. For some reason I find it easier to let myself be startled.
Part of the reason I take on these challenges is that I am a ridiculously slow writer in terms of how much I produce overall. I spend a massive amount of time collecting and thinking and fixating before I physically get to the page. The consequence is that almost nothing can afford to be scrapped for good. I wouldn’t say that I often tend to marry two separate poems in quite the way I suggest in my previous response, but there is definitely an element of transplanting or grafting to my work. For example, when I was living in London I wrote a group of polaroid poems engaging with what I was seeing on a daily basis but the project never fully solidified. Now every one of those poems’ images has found its way into another piece, into a totally different landscape-context than the initial conception. Poems that I feel end up “failing” are still built on images that are emotionally striking/haunting me in some way. I don’t even sit down to start a piece unless I have an image in the abyss that I am writing toward.
I haven’t been in the habit of seeking too much direct guidance on individual poems since finishing my MFA. I do have a handful of people that I seek help from when I’m stuck, but I’m more likely to engage with them in particular discussions about poetry or about books we are all reading. For the past three years I’ve been a visiting professor at a small liberal arts school, but I’ve decided to head back for a PhD in Creative Writing this fall in part because of the conversation I had about “Ostentatious Still Life.” It made me realize how much I have missed the environment of pressure-cooking pieces with other people and how critical engagement can rearrange elements of syntax. I’m thrilled about the opportunity to be immersed again in a creative writing community with its hothouse of language.
WB: In the same way that you engage in bouts of "cluster writing," do you engage in cluster reading? Or, rather, do you write, draft, and read simultaneously?
CW: When I’m not writing I go through extensive phases of “silence radio” where I’m all about gathering and hunting instead of broadcasting. When I’m in this silence radio mode, I cycle through different styles and kinds of reading practices. I try to follow advice Ilya Kaminsky once gave me to read clusters of contemporary work weekly while choosing a single ancestor poet to follow for a three-month block who serves as a kind of mentor. I can get burnt out on reading full collections all in row so I also rely heavily on reading boatloads of literary journals. I find that when I’m looking for poems that really knock my socks off and back on again it’s easier to be fully open when reading a journal than a whole collection—there’s less guilt and risk in not connecting to a bunch of pieces. In a journal I can read four or five different pieces that aren’t sparking for me, turn a page, and find a poem that makes me want to do cartwheels.
I read a little less ravenously when I’m at the moment of putting the pedal to the metal. At the beginning of a poetry challenge I’ve been consuming for weeks (or months!) and it’s important for me to interact with my own sense of language and syntax, to let what I’ve been reading and researching ghost through. Creating room for distance lets the silence radio influences materialize more as the wet rings left on a coffee table than as the physical glass. In this phase I definitely return more to poems and poets whose work represents my full faith in poetics as opposed to reading new-to-me poets. For instance, Alice Fulton’s Felt is a book that travels with me everywhere.
Since I’m working on a series of elegies at the moment, I’ve been digging into the history of the form and thinking about what contemporary poetry is adding to the timeline. I am concurrently reading elegies by a lot of contemporary writers such as Aracelis Girmay, Anne Carson, and most recently Douglas Kearney’s Patter, as well as a broader history—Jahan Ramazani’s Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney has been my go-to text for the past few months. I’ve also been reading research sources outside of poetry: art history books on self-portraiture and critical texts on photography have figured heavily in the rotation.
WB: Final question: if you could have any deceased poet act as your editor, who would you choose?
CW: So brutal to narrow it down to a single poet! When I daydream about ancestor-editors gathering at an awesome dinner party, some of the first people that pop into my head are those who have helped usher phenomenal work into the world but that weren’t necessarily poets (or even necessarily writers): Virginia Woolf, Lou Andreas-Salomé, Vera Nabokov. In considering poets in particular, my first inclinations were toward writers that might offer fascinating modes of engaging with contemporary language and elegy—Sappho, Rilke, Charlotte Smith. Then I jumped to more modern/contemporary poets that I would love simply to have the occasion to talk with about poems—Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Lucille Clifton. But when I really laserbeam my criteria to language and punctuation and topics that I am engaging with in writing the current collection, I feel fully wed to wanting to work with Emily Dickinson.
I came to (or really became entranced by) Dickinson through my first neuroscience course in college when the professor opened the semester with one of her poems. And there it was—the ineradicable connection between science and poetry. I was lucky to then have the opportunity to study more comprehensively with the phenomenal Dickinson scholar Jed Deppman my senior year. Much of what Dickinson plumbs are foundation concepts for my views on why poetry matters and what I believe it can accomplish. Dickinson’s interest in the boundaries of human experience and understanding as both complicated and heightened by science, her sense that to detail the world via science alone was to pull oneself out of experience, her ability to mash the architectural and scientific with the sensual and emotional and colloquial—all of it is nothing short of the wonder and intricacy of our own anatomy. That she was writing about science as it was first really permeating a traditionally religious society also interests me—historically these kinds of precipices produce such interesting art. Dickinson’s syntactical identity, the magnificence of how she drafted and dashed, are definitely elements that I would swoon to have in an editor. Not to mention—what better editor to choose than one who didn’t know her alarming and brilliant reach in her own lifetime?