Interview with Heather Christle

by Madeline Vardell

Photo by Justin N. Lane

Are you still writing your book of prose on crying? Could you talk about what prompted the collection and when you decided to write essays rather than poems? I’m wondering how different the prose will be from, your poem “Aesthetics of Crying” in Heliopause. (I too look at myself in the mirror when crying––something about my puffy face validates the whole act and usually keeps me crying, so I can get it all out.)

It is very nearly complete, and will be published by Catapult in early 2020. (That date looks imaginary!) I began writing the book because I was wondering what it would look like to have a map of every place I’d ever cried. At first I thought I was writing a prose poem, or perhaps a short essay, but then the more I researched the subject, and the more I began to notice the submotifs emerging—the unexpected connections between crying and elephants and the moon and gravity and race and parenthood—the more it became apparent that I would need to write an entire book in order to let those connections take root and grow. So, I did. That poem you mention was an early exploration of some of the ideas that served as seeds for the crying book, and both are interested in what it means to be a crier and an observer of crying, sometimes simultaneously.

I imagine that the crying book has taken you some strange places through research, interview, observation, and introspection. What are some things that have surprised you the most when composing this book? Or, what might your readers be surprised to find when they read it?

I was surprised and delighted to learn that emotional (or “psychogenic”) tears have a chemical composition that differs from those of basal tears (the ones that constantly lubricate eyeballs), and of irritant tears (which bodies use to flush out irritants, like a bit of dust, or onion fumes). Emotional tears have higher protein levels, which renders them a little more viscous. It slows down the rate at which they fall, increasing the chance that they will be noticed and tended to.

I know that poems—writing them, reading them, sharing them—can sometimes extend my sense of the possible in ways I then carry into imagining and enacting more tender paths through the many horrors of now.

I am really fascinated by the way your early collections of poetry differ from Heliopause, which I find to include more texture, or what I feel like are collaborations––in terms of the erasures, the NASA recordings, and emails with Seth. Do you see this is as a way your work is evolving or only unique to Heliopause? Is the crying book thusly intertextual?

The crying book is deeply intertextual, even more so than Heliopause. In many ways it is a memoir of reading, of learning. It’s interesting that you use the word “collaborations.” I think my first two books were very much about learning how to collaborate with language itself. I am still learning this, but language and I are now fairly used to one another, so the learning has since grown to incorporate other participants. The new poems I’m writing now—which began to surface as I approached the end of the crying book—are learning something else, though what that is I can’t yet entirely say.

Years ago, I attended a reading that you gave at the Big Big Mess series in Akron, Ohio. Before or directly after the reading, you made it a point to go around the room and touch everyone in the audience on the shoulder. I think as a way to make a connection. At the time, this was how it felt to me. It was such a small, surprising thing that broke the distance between reader and audience. 1. Do you remember doing this? And was this something you did/do at all small readings? Or only for promoting The Trees The Trees? And 3. have you watched Cecilia Vicuña’s performance “I am just the little drawing”? (You can find it on YouTube.) In it, she goes through her audience, drawing lines from one person to the next, an act of connection that feels sister to me to what you did at the reading.

I had not witnessed “I am just the little drawing” before, but I just did, and it made me cry. Quiet work often does, quiet tender work. Thank you for sharing that.

I do remember that reading. I remember the room feeling wrong to me, that the space was not open to the reception of the poems. It was afternoon in a long dark bar, and people were clustered here and there at the back of the space. There were not many people present, and the distance between everyone felt to me ungulfable. I think I invited everyone to come closer, which is something I’ve done before when an audience is small and scattered. I always want it to be possible for the energy of the poems to reach from my body to other people’s. I think usually people have a better time that way, but—for all kinds of reasons—audiences make semi-conscious decisions that work against the possibility. So, when I saw that my verbal invitation was not changing the situation I decided to go a step further, to go out and bring people into the possible space. It is interesting to me that you remember it only as a touching on the shoulder! In my memory, the touch was one of guiding to the front, of gathering people closer.

Tend to your art as you would to a relationship with a beloved. There may be times when great intimacy is needed.

Are you working on any other writing projects besides the crying book? Some poetry collection perhaps?

Yes! I have been writing a poem nearly every day since February. Some of them will become a book together, but I haven’t told them that yet.

What are you reading right now? And/or are there any forthcoming books that you are excited about?

I’m really looking forward to Ashley Toliver’s Spectra being in the world. I love the makings of her smart, tender, intricate mind. This morning I re-read Emily Toder’s Science, whose poems meant so much to me when we were learning together at UMass Amherst’s MFA program. The poems hold up, and are hilarious. I’ve also been reading John Berger’s Hold Everything Dear and I’m about to start Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular, after having read and absolutely adored her account in Granta of attending clown school to conduct research for a book about laughter.

Do you mind talking about a few lines from your poem “Circumvention” coming out in AI’s issue 5?

“Sometimes I have not read, / have only looked at words / like I am at camp and

 someone / short-sheeted the bed—”

I keep going back to these lines, trying to work out what they mean. Maybe because I’m not quite sure what it is to be short-sheeted. But I think, it’s that there’s a disconnect for the speaker between seeing words and understanding them, trying to read is as impossible as a short-sheeted bed (Because it is hard to get into, yes?) Which seems like a theme among all three of your poems in this issue. Perhaps most overt in “AFTER CHURCH,” where the speaker cannot distinguish between difference and distance. Where does/did this anxiety over failed discernment come from? I can’t help but think politics––the unchecked media––but perhaps it is something else altogether.

Short-sheeting is a prank you can pull on a person, which makes it impossible for them to put their legs all the way under the covers. Here are instructions, should you want to try. Sometimes when I am reading I have the sensation I have failed to get all the way in, that I could utter the words aloud, but have no ability to make meaning from them. This can happen even with very straightforward texts. As for anxiety over failed discernment, I’m not entirely sure I know what to say. I do know that I experience both joy and distress at mistakes. And I think generally it is good to practice making the edges of things a bit wobbly, to know that the world contains a great deal of fuzziness, and that to be in error can be a gift.

Lines from “YOU SAID YOU WEREN’T A BRONTOSAURUS…” also bring me back to politics––American idiocy and fake news phenomena:

“a draft of the cable network / so dominantly pretty that to gaze / at anything else would have destroyed us / gradually, meaningfully, letting purpose / embroider tropical scenes on our foreheads”

I might be misreading these lines as political (please chime in if so) but do you feel that poets have a role to play––as advocate or recorder or revolutionary––when it comes to political/current events? And if so, what is it or what might it look like?

I wrote that poem in the Bush era, shortly after his re-election, and certainly had some political concerns in mind as I composed. (I also was thinking about a then-soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, who got really angry with me when I—lovingly, to my mind!—made the brontosaurus comparison.)

I cannot utter with certainty the “role of the poet.” I am interested in what poems can do. I am interested in what Rodrigo Toscano said in a recent interview: “I don’t want to ‘attend’ to the current moment, I want to be another moment.” I know that poems—writing them, reading them, sharing them—can sometimes extend my sense of the possible in ways I then carry into imagining and enacting more tender paths through the many horrors of now. I do not think that poets or poems are unique in this work. The work of prison abolitionists comes in particular to mind, especially Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes’ ideas in “A Jailbreak of the Imagination.”

Has your writing process changed over the years? Or does it differ between writing prose and writing poetry? I read how you write and revise poems usually together, as a single act––does this also occur as you write prose?

My process for writing poems has changed almost not at all for fifteen years. I wake up, drink coffee and read poems by other people, stare into the dark until I get the sense I could write something, write words in pen on a loose sheet of unlined paper, revise as I go, make a title, and then type it all up. Writing the book of prose about crying was entirely different. I worked during the day, I traveled to archives, I read and taught myself as much as I could, I discovered some things I needed to learn but which did not belong in the book. I tested the balance of threads, their tension, I listened to the smart words of friends. It has been much less solitary, in a way, though it has made me also feel far lonelier than writing poems does. Perhaps that is because of its subject. And the writing of it—and the revising of it—has occurred across over five years, no “single act” about it.

Any advice for young/emerging poets and writers? Or were you given any advice from a past professor, friend, or mentor about writing that has stuck, shown by time to be true?

I think it can be helpful to tend to your art as you would to a relationship with a beloved. There may be times when great intimacy is needed. There may be times when you wish to go out together in the world and be amongst others. Everyone must find their own balance, of course, but I would especially say do not forget to guard the intimacy, to be able to whisper to your art and receive what it whispers back. Or—to use a differently bodily metaphor—to be able to feel the particular electricity of when a poem gently presses its fingertips against the small of your back.

HEATHER CHRISTLE is the author of Heliopause, What is Amazing, The Difficult Farm, and The Trees The Trees, which won the 2012 Believer Poetry Award. Her poems appear in recent or forthcoming issues of Boston Review, London Review of Books, New England Review, and The New Yorker. Three of her poems appear in issue 5 of The Arkansas International

MADELINE VARDELL is a poet and translator from Cleveland, Ohio. She is currently pursuing an MFA at the University of Arkansas. Before joining the program, she lived in Mesilla, New Mexico, where she completed an MFA at New Mexico State University.