Claudia F. Savage: Bruising Continents
In Bruising Continents (Spuyten Duyvil Press), poet Claudia F. Savage charts an intimate personal landscape of love and longing with the unflinching resolve of an early explorer venturing into the unknown. Natural imagery abounds as Savage’s narrator gathers the courage to abandon the familiar for the deep, uncharted wilderness of new desire. And, as she lets go, the poems themselves take on a more playful, experimental form, as though liberated from their formal restraints.
We spoke with Savage about Bruising Continents, the rewards and challenges inherent in transforming the personal for a wider audience, and the integral roles that artistic community and collaboration across disciplines play in keeping her work both playful and searchingly honest.
ANNE RASMUSSEN: I particularly responded as a reader to “Immolate,” how the narrator walks an emotional tightrope between two lovers, the past/present “he” and the present/future “you.” Much of the second half of Bruising Continents explores this state of suspension, the dangers inherent to letting go of something that still has value to reach for an uncertain promise of more. “There are those of us who want too much,” you write and there is such narrative tension contained within that line and the pages that follow. There’s immense cultural pressure for women not to name what we want, a sense that to want more may cost us what we already have. Even knowing how this particular story ends for you, I held my breath through the second half of the book. I’m always curious about how the creative process fits into tackling autobiographical material; whether you begin writing–formally or informally–about these experiences while they are happening or need time and perspective to put yourself back under that microscope and shape the experience for a reader. What was your starting point for writing about something so deeply personal, and at what point did you realize you had the makings of a collection?
CLAUDIA F. SAVAGE: The book I thought I was writing was a collection of pieces about my cooking clients (at the time I met the “you” of the book, I was a personal chef for people going through chemotherapy). But, like most of my creative process, my life just starting seeping into pieces I hadn’t intended. When I was writing about the people I was cooking for I was also writing about my mother, who had been extremely ill for years, and, then, when I wrote about the family members of my clients, their grief and overwhelm, I was writing about me, too. And, in the background of all these poems I was writing poems about my love affair. Just for me, I thought. Thank you so much for acknowledging my line, “there are those of us who want too much.” That’s one of the most intimate things I’ve ever written but I think it might be the most universal, too. When my marriage ended so many women revealed to me that they were also unhappy in their relationships. My divorce gave them permission to be honest! On a whim I sent that piece to Nimrod and when it got accepted I thought, oh, maybe I’m writing something different than I thought. Or, maybe the thing I thought I was writing just for me is now the public thing. I tend to be extremely prolific in terms of what I generate, but very selective in terms of what I put out for publication.
Also, I’m very private. My closest friends didn’t even know I was having trouble in my marriage. I was incredibly embarrassed about it because my ex-husband is a lovely, generous man. Our problems felt complicated to me because I thought I should be happy and wasn’t. But, then, as I say in one poem, “I could lie, he was always cruel. But it is simple./ You brought me berries./ I claimed sugar.” Sometimes it isn’t that one person is horrible and another is fabulous. It’s just that one person satisfies more of what you need in your life. So, part of what happened for me in the creation of the collection is I had to get far enough away from my marriage (both physically and emotionally) for the poems about that part of my life to feel honest. Also, I wanted people to feel the same level of confusion I felt, bodily and emotionally. There’s that great line by G.C. Waldrep from his book Testament, “The body wants to be art and fails at it. Error is what sets the body free.” I fell in love in all the ways you dismiss as a feminist as romance crap. All the ways that were supposed to be false and wrong. Lightning bolts. Knees buckling. Being swept away by both lust and intellectual fascination. So, I was writing piles of poems from a place of complete adoration. I used those pieces to seduce. I became one of those romantic poets that I’d loved as a 15-year-old, Shelley and Byron, without the ancient Greek. I didn’t care that my crush was thousands of miles away or that I was married. I wanted to consume and be consumed.
Eventually, though, as I realized some of those poems would be part of a collection, I realized I needed pieces that represented the other side of my life. My marriage. The mess I’d made of my life. So much of my extended community fell away when I divorced. I was a disaster, but I still didn’t want those pieces about my ex to all be negative, because our life wasn’t all divisive. We had moments of grace. He was a man from Appalachia, both white and Cherokee. He was a devout Christian which, in his case, meant he was constantly giving everything he made away. Generous to the point of madness. He upended every idea I had about Appalachian people growing up in the northeast to a Lebanese American dad and a Jewish mother. He was accepting and brilliant and taught me a lot about difference. His grandparents were some of the toughest, kindest people I’d ever met. They never complained about having so little. Even though our relationship didn’t work, I wanted to honor his complexity in the book, and it took me a long time to get mature enough to do that.
AR: I love the recognition of the risks, even dangers, that are necessary for significant growth both in nature and in the personal here. So often we are socially conditioned to avoid risk, to seek security in relationships over fulfillment (or to view security as fulfillment–an end in itself.) But this narrator wants more, and as you observe, life and death, growth and decay, violence and beauty are often inextricably tied. “I could stop this,” you write,
Admit that every bell
Is first silent.
It takes a blow
To prove its singing.
This narrator sees ecstatic joy where another might see danger, in the dance of “the bees/ that have invaded the roof/ of my neighbor’s house.” She sees, as her ex-partner cannot, how a forest fire leads not only to destruction but also to new growth. I imagine the work you might have been doing nourishing people at the end of their lives may have contributed to this recognition as well. Can you talk about the interplay of natural destruction and beauty, the embrace of risk, even violence, in these poems?
CFS: This probably speaks to the romantic, hopeful part of myself that seems to only come out in my poems. I’m not much of a romantic in the other areas of my life. But, I’ve always been fascinated with myth–Inanna, Kali, Lazarus (I have a Lazarus reference in the book). The way every culture seems to create meaning, or even necessity, around destruction or death. There is always so much suffering in the world and we feel so impotent in the wake of disaster, whether that disaster is a loved one having cancer or our home being decimated by a flood. I would never presume to know what it felt like for some of my cooking clients to lose their family members, even though I’ve lost loved ones to cancer, too. Grief is such an individual experience. My book let me create my own myth based on that need we have to have our individual experience mirror that of the larger world. For me, my marriage was ending when it was spring and summer, and, in the west, that means fire. There have been many times in my life when I felt the destruction of the natural world within my body. This was, however, the first time I felt my emotional state was fully manifest. I wanted to live in that space of fire for as long as possible, to surrender myself. The mystery beyond destruction is that you never know what will arise next. It could be bliss. It could be despair. I had no idea where my love affair would lead. I hope the poems hold that sense of mystery and wonder.
AR: I’m struck by a moment, almost halfway through Bruising Continents, when the more formal stanzas of the first two sections give way to something wilder—words scatter across the page, find space to breathe, there’s a playfulness, a sensuality, and also a sense of abandonment of form. It’s no coincidence that this poem, “Thick in the Throat, Honey,” marks our introduction to the new lover at the center of the story. I loved this shift, the way the look of the words on the page mirrors an emotional letting-go of the more constrained forms that precede it. I also noticed a gradual return to more formal structures towards the end of the book (particularly in “Coda.”) I’m curious how you thought about form, both in writing individual poems about this experience and as you brought them together to shape the overall narrative arc of this book. (I’m not sure I’m making sense other than to ask, from a writing perspective if you chose the wildness of the form or if it chose you?)
CFS: Oh, man, you’re catching all my struggles! It was incredibly hard for me to put together these disparate pieces because I use whatever form the poem dictates. I believe what Brenda Hillman says, “that the poem is going to undo your intention.” Sometimes I’ll start out with a sestina or pantoum and other times I’ll put a huge piece of paper on the wall and write across it. In fact, the Coda, or last poetic sequence called “Folklore,” was created through recitation. I sometimes work a poem out loud for a long time, adding stanzas and refining it as I take walks. I love memorizing my work, so this method works well while I’m revising, too. Also, the poetic sequence in the “Thick in the Throat, Honey” section was originally written as a response to a score of John’s (my husband and collaborator). I wrote on his score, so the form was in and around various notes. I do this quite a bit with him now, but at the time it seemed pretty novel and sexy. Thanks so much for loving this section and understanding the shift. It is my favorite of the book.
Since this book was written and rewritten over a decade, I think the narrative arc didn’t occur to me at first. I originally organized the pieces based on natural phenomena–rivers, clouds, and fires. Several poets, including Max Regan, Rachel Weaver, Jessica Cleeves Dwyer, and Ana Maurine Lara, helped me see that I was reaching towards a beloved, what became the “you” in the book. Then, two years ago when John asked me how long it might take me to do a final revision (I had revised the full manuscript dozens of times at this point), and offered childcare for two weeks, I placed all the poems out on a very long table and began making form changes based on the emotional and narrative arch I was creating. Many poems fell away in this last revision (10 or so) and I saw how some poems naturally were more closed in (I’m thinking of the “Circadian” section) and others more open, like the ones in “Immolate.” I’ve always been super conscious of rhythm and breath in my work, but this particular book seemed to demand more attention to these ideas than usual. I wanted breathlessness at certain points in the narrative. That feeling you get when you’ve just seen your lover but all you can think about is more. And, then, that feeling of being so alone you might drown.
The final sequence is tight and more rigid, I think, because I wanted it to have the quality of a formal love poem to both John and the place his family has called home for generations. It was written as a kind of declaration of intent. Portland, hear this, I will love you and accept you with all your flaws! The native Portlanders who’ve heard it really like it, but I haven’t yet read it to anyone from, say, Nebraska. I suppose people from Nebraska have their own Nebraska-love-declaration, maybe written by Ted Kooser.
AR: There’s something really fascinating to me about that process, as you put it earlier, of moving from a private seduction to a more public one. At first, you are writing to “seduce” an audience of one, maybe two—your new lover and yourself—but building this collection turns the poems into a performance for a much wider audience, both your readers in general and others who may know you and the other players in this story. You want to be fair, you want to justify. Having trusted peers to offer insight and perspective can be invaluable. Is there a particular point in your process that you are ready to receive constructive feedback on a new piece, especially something this personal? Were there insights that you may have resisted at first that ultimately rang true as you revised?
CFS: I want to answer this one in terms of artistic community, because so rarely is there one person who changes everything for an artist. That is the myth isn’t it? One teacher. One mentor. But we’re both our teachers and our peers. It seems obvious, but who do we spend the most time with? Who influences us the most? My longtime teacher, Max Regan, looked at this manuscript and gave me wonderful advice about what he saw in terms of the intimacy in the text that I was trying to casually sidestep. He, like most amazing teachers, didn’t so much tell me what to do, he gave me the confidence to question my motives and do something. To be braver. As I worked on the manuscript for several years and dozens of revisions, it was my far-flung writing community–Rachel, Jess, Ana, Stephanie Heit, Joanna Preucel, and Gabrielle Edison–who influenced me the most through their writing and thoughts. Not all of them saw the manuscript, and those that did saw a very early version of it, but I took their thoughts, our discussions, their writing into my body and was changed. For instance, I remember Stephanie performing a work of hers while dancing (this was years ago), but it has always stuck with me, the way space can inform language even more than the words themselves. I also remember my friend Jess, an amazing botanist, telling me to include maps in the manuscript, and how that thought made me think about the ordering of the poems and the manuscript as a kind of terrain to be crossed. Or, a chapbook Joanna did that was this phenomenal red. I held that color in my chest for a long time. Or, the time Rachel and I talked about the word “leaning.”
Sometimes it is just being around other writers that changes your work for the better. My friend Gabrielle, a meditation instructor as well as poet, has a way of sitting with you that makes you think time is moving more slowly. You can really absorb the moment with her, That’s just as valuable as getting poetic feedback. That attention and stillness is the poem.
I’ve never been the kind of poet that adheres to a regular feedback schedule. When I’m really cooking on a project I tend to just do it and let myself be the guide. It is only after I’m incredibly stuck or know it is as complete as I can get it that I get feedback. I’m kind of a pain in the ass in writing groups. I love giving feedback, but because I often work in a longer form, I have trouble stepping away in the middle of the process. The three wonderful women I trade work with regularly know this about me and forgive me. However, I do constantly talk with my writer friends about process, what we are reading, and how we can laugh at ourselves more. Everyone I mentioned above is expert at that.
AR: I’ve had the pleasure of hearing you perform your poetry, both on its own, as well as part of your artistic duo, Thick in the Throat, Honey, and I realize that this is the first time I’ve encountered your words on the page. It got me thinking about the balancing act of poetry– navigating the form on the page while thinking about the sound of the words spoken–how much do you create a visual map for the reader to hear the poem in his or her head, and how much does a performance add to or change what’s on the page? Do you feel or imagine the audience/reader differently depending on whether they encounter your words on the page or in performance? And how has collaborating with a musician influenced the writing you do that is not part of that collaboration?
CFS: My first artistic discipline was music. I played piano from the time I was four and, later, cello, too. And I’ve always loved dancing. So, rhythm and sound are two of the things that give me that shiver of delight in poetry and I’m very drawn to poets like Yusef Komunyakaa, Wanda Coleman, Alice Notley, Terrance Hayes, Nathaniel Mackey, Dan Beachy-Quick, Khadijah Queen, Jamaal May, Jill Alexander Essbaum, and so many others I’m not mentioning who have sonic intensity and you feel compelled to read them out loud. I remember reading one of my classes a selection of Mackey’s work. They couldn’t stop laughing in joy. His internal rhyme is so subtle and brilliant you rediscover English. So when I make work I’m always creating from a place of mouthfeel and sound. Definitely living with a musician means I have music around me all the time. He’s a woodwind player, so I hear various saxophones, flutes, and clarinet–everything collecting and moving air through the house. Our collaborations have always been a place of freedom and fun for us. We have so many other artistic projects going on that we don’t take ours too seriously which gives us lots of spaciousness for experimentation. That playfulness has carried over into the work I make on the page. It also allows me to see whatever I create in several dimensions–both as a visual piece, a type of score for the reader, and as a possible collaboration with music. Terrance Hayes once said something like, “I have poems that live on the page and others made for air.” For me, all poems should do both, with the performance taking preference over the one on the page. I adore a visually beautiful poem (those sonnets of Tyehimba Jess in his book Olio are remarkable). But those stunners by Jess are also rich with sound. And he is a beautiful performer of his work. In truth, I always want people to hear me perform my work. That is poetry’s magic, I think. That witnessing of urgent language moving through another’s body.
AR: It seems everywhere I look, in Portland and beyond, you and John are performing, recording, blogging, teaching, offering creative coaching, and collaborating with fellow artists across genres. I understand you have a collaboration with a visual artist forthcoming later this year. Can you share any details about this and other projects that are currently in the works?
CFS:Yes, you’ve discovered my Achilles’ heel! I tend to always have way too much going on. Creating is so much fun. John would probably disagree with me, but I’m doing better with managing my schedule. I have three new projects that I’m especially excited about. I don’t tend to talk much about my books in the works until I’m closer to done. (There are two that I hope will be finished by the end of 2018.) But, in terms of collaboration, I’m working on a project about loss, Syria, and the refugee crisis with John. He is composing some work and figuring out the instrumentation and I’m still completing some poems, but I hope we will start performing it in spring 2018.
The second project is one that I’ve been working on for several years with the visual artist, Jacklyn Brickman (formerly from Detroit, but now in Columbus, Ohio). It is called reductions and is about ephemerality and motherhood. Jacklyn and I met at the Jentel Foundation artist residency in Wyoming in 2007. She is a sculptor who also works with video and has an ecological bent like me. She’s phenomenal and now balances all this with raising three kids. Neither of us had children when we met and we have both found motherhood invigorating and enervating in equal measure. The collaboration has been great because she is the rare artist who is incredibly focused and prolific, but also really playful and open. Every time she would send me something she’d made in response to a poem, I would just howl with happiness. Seeing how another artist’s mind conceives of a similar concept gives me intense joy. We will be exhibiting our show in several places, starting with Chicago’s HUME gallery in summer 2018.
Lastly, John and I, through our moniker Thick in the Throat, Honey, have a podcast and blog that we are excited about (check out thickinthethroathoney.com to subscribe to both). Our focus is parent-artists and we are having some amazing conversations with artists about creativity, process, and childrearing. One electronic artist admitted to us that she decided her kid would just have to sleep through noise because there was going to be a lot of it in the house! Our schedule is currently one podcast and blog a month. The blog will let us peer into the parent-artists’ home studio and also link to their projects. We are really excited to support and highlight parent-artists we love, expanding their visibility and community.
Also, as part of Thick in the Throat, Honey, in late 2018, we will be releasing two albums a year of poetry-music collaborations through our label Thrum Recordings. Right now the 2018 lineup will be a poet and percussionist and a poet and sound artist (electronics). John and I are really excited to curate the series and have conversations about collaboration with the artists. At a time when it feels like everything around us is trying to stop creativity, freedom, and love, I just want to be the voice of permission.
Find a copy of Bruising Continents here.
Claudia F. Savage is one-half of the improvising sound-poetry performance duo Thick in the Throat, Honey. Her poems and interviews have been published, most recently, in BOMB, Water-Stone Review, Denver Quarterly, Columbia, clade song, FRiGG, Cordella, Late Night Library, Bookslut, Iron Horse, Nimrod International, and Forklift, Ohio. Her series, “Witness the Hour: Conversations with Arab-American Poets Across the Diaspora,” is a 2016-2017 feature in Drunken Boat/Anamoly. Her column about balancing parenting and art-making, “Leave the Dishes,” can be found on VoiceCatcher’s blog. She is also a 2015 Pushcart and Best New Poets 2016 nominee. She’s garnered awards from Jentel, Ucross, The Atlantic Center for the Arts, Hambidge, Oregon State University, Brush Creek, and Portland’s Regional Arts and Culture Council. Author photo by Jane Portnoff Photography.
Anne Rasmussen has edited the Late Night Interview column since 2014. She has taught writing in jail, advised graduate students, and constructed giant bear costumes worn by Rockettes. Her fiction has been featured in Split Lip Magazine and was selected as a Longform Fiction pick of the week. She sympathizes with unreliable narrators.