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Emerging Poet Interview: Louise Mathias, Author of "The Traps"

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Anis: How long did it take you to write The Traps, and what were the major stages in its growth and progression?

Louise: Almost a decade. I don't know that there were necessarily major stages in its growth and progression, just a lot of ridiculous thrashing around. I will say that the title poem, one of the epigraphs (The secret of poetry is cruelty), and the title all came around the same time. They provided some general overarching direction for the book.

This is your second book. Can you talk about how putting together this book was different than the experience for your first book?

It was definitely easier. You learn to trust your gut. I also think the poems I wrote during this 9- or 10-year span were more unified in voice and obsession than those in my first book. With Lark Apprentice, I had this idea drilled into my head that you had to create a narrative arc -- maybe I read it in some awful article about how to navigate the contest system, who knows? With The Traps it was more about pacing -- I mostly wanted to keep punching the reader in the gut, rapid-fire style, with a few key spaces to breathe.

What are your most important poetic influences? Both in general, and in particular for this book?

Poets I was reading particularly closely while writing this book include Anne Carson, CD Wright, Lorine Neidecker, Martha Ronk, Liam Rector, Paul Celan, and H.D.

I particularly like the poems "Las Cruces" and "Bureau of Reclamation." Could you talk about these poems?

Las Cruces

It's no longer the heft of persimmons
that wreaks her heart. A small

and giddy thing
seems only small and giddy.

In the thicket of sleep
(you wanted the baby, don't you?)

all English is broken.
Border towns of citrus and blood.
He watches

her cleanse her palette.

Thank you. "Las Cruces" I would characterize as a rather unassuming soft-focus domestic dreamscape of intimacy, loss, and communication gone askew. Within the context of the book, I think it functions as one of those breathing spaces I mentioned earlier.

"Bureau of Reclamation" is set at the Salton Sea, an inland saline lake in the Colorado Desert, which I'm pretty sure is one of the strangest places on the planet. The documentary Pleasures and Plagues on the Salton Sea, narrated by John Waters, is a good primer for anyone interested. It's a sort of post-apocalyptic landscape characterized by an odd confluence of abject decay, huge (and stinking) tilapia die-offs, and unbridled beauty, mostly in the form of the light and the many migratory birds that pass through there. I was trying to capture some of that atmosphere through an erotic and sardonic lens. It's also a poem where music rather than meaning was leading.

Have you learned things during the composition of this book that you are either determined to repeat or not to repeat?

The writing of the book was a lesson in trusting my instincts -- and my process, which is organic, intuitive, and slow. I hope to keep that in mind as I gently ease into whatever comes next.

Can you name a few specific ways your closest readers and/or your publisher helped make this a better book?

David Dodd Lee, my partner, is my closest and most helpful reader. Many of my poems emerge directly out of our ongoing conversation about what constitutes the sublime.

Ryan Murphy at Four Way Books (who also designed the gorgeous cover) made a handful of astute suggestions, mostly reinforcing my impulse to chisel back -- which I enjoy so much I sometimes worry it gets out of hand. And both he and Martha Rhodes were generous enough to make sure I knew that it was ultimately my decision whether or not to take those suggestions. Working with them was a wonderful experience.

Who in the contemporary poetry landscape do you think comes closest to the aesthetic in this book? What do you think is the status of lyric poetry in an age when even the avant-garde has little means to surprise us?

The short answer to the first part of your question is that I hope I don't come particularly close to anyone -- don't we all try pretty hard not to sound like anyone else? The longer answer is that I feel kinship to many different writers for many different reasons -- I aim for (though I'm sure I don't always attain) the musicality of John Taggart, the compression and rapid tonal swerve of Graham Foust's early work, the biting quality and earthiness of Selima Hill, the subterranean eeriness of Larissa Spzorluk, the terse precision of Robin Robertson. This is a very abbreviated list, and of course the ratio of terseness/bite/eeriness/music varies from poem to poem.

In response to the second part of your question: Isn't surprise a function of execution, rather than of form or style? I can find really startling work all over the aesthetic map -- for example, as a reader I'm not predominately drawn to narrative poetry, but then Stephanie Brown dismantles and decimates any ideas I have about what a narrative poem can do with the sheer force and singularity of her voice. As for the status of any given type of poem, I tend to not worry about that much. I write the poems I am given to write and leave the rest to critics. I do think lyric poetry, whether it is postmodern lyricism in the vein of Martha Ronk, or the more mainstream lyricism of, say, Beth Bachmann, offers a kind of immediacy and intimacy that can make us feel more human.

What advice do you have for poets trying to make their way in the world of publication and recognition?

Channel as much of the ambition as you can towards the work itself, rather than the external rewards. I'm not saying don't go for things, but making external validation the goal is artistic suicide -- and, from what I've witnessed, can be the source of an awful lot of unhappiness.

Anis Shivani's debut book of poetry is My Tranquil War and Other Poems (NYQ Books). He has just finished a book of sonnets called Soraya and is writing a new book of poetry called Empire. His short fiction collection The Fifth Lash and Other Stories just came out from C&R Press. Look for his novel Karachi Raj in October 2013.