Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Interview with Four Way Author, Collier Nogues

Chris Miller in Conversation with Collier Nogues

CHRIS MILLER: I love how you begin your book, On the Other Side Blue, with an observation from an airplane. Can you explain the challenge of "distance," and maybe even "proximity," when trying to write about the loss of a parent? And would you mind sharing a little about your mother and your relationship with her? Did she also write poems?

COLLIER NOGUES: My husband pointed out once as he read the manuscript that for a book ostensibly about my mother, there wasn’t much of her in it—she wasn’t easy to get to know from reading the poems. I realized he’s right. The book’s not exactly about her, although who she was, the kind of person she was, is very important to it. Her mother was an English teacher, and so was she, and her whole side of the family is bookish—they’re all teachers or librarians or ministers. She wrote a master’s thesis on Poe, and always wanted to be a college professor, but she got married instead. She was a junior high and high school teacher, and she was good at it. But she loved being a student, too. She was always taking summer classes, ranging from Arabic to instructional technology. Once while I was in college she went to a summer poetry program, and came back demoralized—she said a famous poet (she wouldn't say who) had told her she would always be an amateur. I hope that poet has ashes in his mouth, whoever he is. In many ways, I think she would have liked to lead the life I do—as a writer and a college teacher. In terms of feminism, she was of the generation that saw my generation enjoying the turned tide. Her generation turned it, but she didn’t participate early on, and her later feminism developed very much through her experience in an unhealthy marriage, and leaving it. I don’t think she ever imagined writing as a possible career for herself, but she took a lot of pleasure in my wanting that.

MILLER: I'm curious about the role or significance of the structure, especially section II, in this collection. In terms of the arc, there seems to be a highly thought-out movement through the five sections. You begin with the immediate moments before and after the loss of your mother, and then move into a description of a temporary living space in "The Barn Apartment." Next, the poems explore a world of memory and family. The last two sections seem to focus on faith, wilderness, and continuance, or the way grief can become "less frighteningly central." It seems as the book progresses you are able to begin to talk/think about other things, but the loss of you mom or others you know, still pervades the poems. Am I getting at something with this description of the book's structure? Is this, at least partly, what you had in mind?

NOGUES: I think you’ve nailed my intentions for the structure. I like the way you describe the second section as being about a “temporary living space,” especially. That poem is about the building that my father moved into in his last years, when he was retreating from the world. I was sixteen when he died, and wasn’t living with him, so his motivations and experiences are less available to me than my mother’s were. As I was writing the book, it did seem strange to me that here was all this material about my mother, and my dad appeared not at all. That poem is for him, and about him. As I was arranging the manuscript, that poem seemed to belong by itself in a single section, and seemed to fit best just after the intensity of the poems in the first section. There was a vast space, to me, between the tone of those two sections, and the fact that “The Barn Apartment” is one longer spare poem balanced the multiple short lyrics in the first section. There was also no other way I could see to move forward from that first set of poems. “Anthurium,” which launches the third section, is too flip to come immediately next, but I knew it belonged at the beginning of the next move, in terms of the chronological and emotional arc the book has. So “The Barn Apartment” solved that problem, too.

This may actually be a way into answering your first question, the one about distance and proximity when trying to write about the loss of a parent. “The Barn Apartment” is so detached, comparatively—many of my friends had no idea it was about my dad (though my great-aunt did immediately, and wrote me a few memories of visiting him in that apartment). My mother was a much more proximate subject, and I knew her much better. I was a caregiver for her at times in my twenties, which meant our roles had switched earlier than they do in many families. We were friends in what seemed at the time a more equal way than many of my female friends and their mothers were. Also, I was an only child, and my mother and I lived together just ourselves after my parents divorced. This made us very close, though not always in a way I was happy with. So my relationship with each parent, and the circumstances of their deaths, were very different in terms of literal and temporal proximity.

But beyond that, I like that you generate this question from that first poem, “The Woman Who Left.” There is a sense of extreme, surveying distance in that poem, and also a sense of surprise and at the same time a defensive displacement—it’s not me, it’s not my funeral suit this time. But of course it is, too—that speaker can’t shake the funeral-suit feeling. The speaker in that poem has a kind of exhaustion-induced third-person view of herself moving in the world, but also wants to be the narrator at a far remove, seeing everything. Immediately after my mother died, and for a few months, I was aware that my life was moving forward, that I was moving forward, with less control over what was happening than I’d ever had in my adult life. I understood I couldn’t hope to understand much—and in retrospect, it was exactly like when I found out my father had died, except that with my mother I was grown, and there when it happened, which made it even stranger. It felt like I’d been swamped by a wave, and was left standing neck-deep watching the wave go into the shore. I was too deeply in it and also at the same time the force of it was gone, I was apart from it, too calmly, so that I didn’t trust my observations of what I felt. In fact I took some pleasure in being beyond what I could observe and put down on paper. I wasn’t worried, and it was the first time in years I hadn’t been worried. Around this time I talked to a friend whose father had died a few years before, and she said that while he was ill it had felt like a betrayal to imagine her life beyond his, to make plans more than a year in advance, for example. When he died, she could, and it was a relief. I felt something like that. Suddenly my horizon wasn’t in the same room with me anymore. And then later when I was able to write about what it was like losing her, my mother was both absolutely distant because she was gone, and also even closer, in a sense, because all I had of her was me. I was very drawn to the photographs I have of her in which we look like each other. And the poems I wrote then were very focused on single details at a time. I could only look at that much, and that single thing would unfold hugely. None of those ended up in the book, except “Hydrangea, Best Blue Flower.”

MILLER: There are quite a few eggs in the first half of the book? Any special reason?

NOGUES: I hadn’t noticed! Chickens, though, make it into my poems frequently. Also other farm animals, and cats. Perhaps this is because I lived in rural Texas until I was ten? My husband pointed out once that there are a lot of natural objects which are not very particularized—‘those trees,’ ‘the sheep,’ ‘the cat,’ but never ‘birches’ for example, so that they pass as real objects but are not, quite, visible or significant as the specific objects they are in the world.

MILLER: I was particularly intrigued by "Train Prayer" and also the line / idea, "I hate not having a faith", from your poem, "After the Avalanche." You also mention living uncles who are pastors. Can you explain more about your faith, or desire to have one, and how that entered into or shaped your experience of loss, and also your poetry?

NOGUES: My parents grew up Presbyterian and Methodist in southern towns where denomination organized social life, but when they married they didn’t go to church. I never did as a child, except occasionally with friends. My mother later explored Siddha Yoga and then Okinawan Shinto Buddhism (we lived on Okinawa during my teen years). I didn’t talk to her about her faith, or her search for it, though I think we shared the same general curious agnosticism. I like what Augustine has to say about talking about God, which is that language is no good, both because it’s temporal and successive (you can’t say everything at once) and God isn’t, and because language can’t describe God accurately anyway. So the only appropriate intersection of human language and God is speech to God directly: via prayer, or confession. The one-on-one communication experience is also what I love about poetry. A poet, really, is only ever talking to one person at a time, and that relationship is pretty odd. There’s a privacy about poetry and prayer both that appeals to me.

“After the Avalanche” talks about faith not so much in terms of believing in God as of having a specific denominational faith. I want “a faith,” with the indefinite article, in that poem because being a believer in a community of believers would ease grief, or help it make sense. But that poem also refuses to agree that it would be the belief making things easier—instead, the key is what’s made possible by shared belief: the comfort of a group of people grieving together, understanding grief the same way. I think I may have thought I’d grow into faith, or “a” faith, of the sort people like my Methodist pastor uncle have. I sort of hope I will, but I can’t imagine it.

MILLER: If you would like to share any thoughts about "The Party," I would love to hear. I thought that was a fantastic poem.

NOGUES: Thank you. I really like that poem, too. It owes a lot to the poet Sarah Manguso, whose book Siste Viator I was reading again when I wrote that. “The Party” is really a protest against unfairness, a protest which knows it’s being unreasonable, or at least that it’s looking in the wrong place for justice. That poem is interested in the unwelcome envy that comes from watching other people’s loving (despite being still messed-up) family relationships. And it’s interested in the unexplainable and arbitrary elements of the Bible—the elements that are so, anyway, to someone who is not a believer. Genesis offers no clear reason why God dismisses Cain’s offering of his harvest in favor of Abel’s of his flock. I absolutely sympathize with Cain. His frustration seems so warranted, and he gets no validation—he’s made to feel like a child with no power, trying to earn a blessing from an authority whose criteria are opaque to him. So he lashes out. I like Martin Buber’s writing on this. He points out that because there was no precedent of death so soon out of the Garden, when Cain struck Abel on the head he had no way of knowing that Abel might die. So Cain’s made an example of, but it doesn’t seem like justice. The speaker in “The Party” feels reduced to an envy she understands is unfitting for an adult, because it’s an envy of circumstances beyond anyone’s control, but it overwhelms her just the same. Maybe it is God back there being arbitrary and cruel; he has been before. The speaker sees Cain as an example, but she isn’t a confident believer. Here we are back at faith: the lines “I think there are two promises that will be kept. The first / is that we’ll be given the opportunity to fail or surmount. // The second is that we’ll have help” were the strongest statement of faith I could make at the time. I think they still are.

MILLER: My mother passed about three weeks after I was married. Your final poem suggests you were engaged after your mom's passing. Can you expound upon how the theme of marriage weaves into this collection?

NOGUES: I never thought I’d get married. My models for marriage, with few exceptions, weren’t strong ones. I never imagined it working, and how a project like that would get off the ground I couldn’t see. Also, I was an orphan at 29, which removed me from the trajectory of life events most people I knew were experiencing. Milestone events seemed unmoored from their proper order. But then, if your mother can die after having been alive, why not a wedding after all? So marriage in the book, I think, I approach with a sense of the unreal, of wonder that it’s even happening. My husband and I had met a few times while my mom was still alive, though we didn’t start dating until a year after she died. It’s comforting to me that I knew them both for an overlapping period of time, though they never met or even knew about each other. That sense of continuity feels important.

MILLER: Lastly, how do you think the loss of your parents, specifically your mom, will continue to manifest, interact with, and shape your poetry?

NOGUES: For a while during and after I was putting together this manuscript, I had to work to write poems about something not informed directly, to the point of mentioning, my mother or her death. I kept returning to the subject even after I felt I’d finished with it—it was habit. I wrote a lot of poems about God and ethics, which were the other subjects I found myself thinking about a lot. I don’t like many of them now, but they got me writing about something else. It took several years before I was past the point at which everything in my writing connected back to her.

The loss of my dad, since I knew him so much less well and lost him before I was an adult, means that I can imagine all kinds of things about him. He was a Marine and a Formula One racecar builder, and a country attorney and a heavy drinker. He liked people, and strangers, and got along well with everyone. I like it when I feel like him, which isn’t often. I think my interest in being able to understand something about other people, to reach them, to enjoy their company, as well as my interest in how impenetrable people are to each other, and also how deeply they can mark each other, comes in part from the early loss of my parents and my understanding of who they were. I’m working now on a manuscript about Okinawa, about the air base I grew up on and the island’s history as a colonial holding of China and Japan and now the U.S., basically. It’s a place haunted by military paternalism, and for me moving there just after my parents divorced, it was haunted by fatherlessness. The reason we ended up there was that teaching for the Department of Defense schools overseas was a great situation for a single mother. And of course my mom and I learned the place together, so my understanding of it is colored by that. But this book is not about my life in such an immediate way as On the Other Side, Blue is. So while I don’t foresee excising the loss of my parents from my writing, I think that my recent and future poems are likely to be much less directly influenced by that loss.


Interviewer: Chris Miller is a poet in his second year of the MFA program at Arizona State University. Film, music, the characters and stories of the Bible, science fiction, poetry, and classic literature, continually intrigue him.

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