Darlene Pagán – Setting the Fires
In Darlene Pagán’s latest poetry collection, Setting the Fires (Airlie Press) fire manifests itself in many forms, both literal and metaphorical. For this week’s Late Night Interview, poet Annie Lighthart talks with Pagán about the themes explored in this collection as well as the wide array of influences, from childhood to motherhood, cultural isolation and belonging, to the magic of language itself, that have shaped this collection and Pagán’s development as an artist.
Pagán and Lighthart also speak frankly about the challenges of the writing life, and the importance of maintaining that “fire in the belly” to sustain one’s vision through those periods when self-doubt strikes more often than inspiration.
ANNIE LIGHTHART: In Setting the Fires, fire seems not so much an organizing theme as an unruly yet tutelary god whose presence dazzles as much as it disfigures and burns. Its various manifestations shape the book and its sections. In a book with a number of intriguing characters (disappearing uncles, a sexy farrier, and Great Aunt Irene, to name a few), fire takes on its own personality. Even when it’s not immediately felt in certain poems, the idea of fire irresistibly (forgive me!) glows like a potent ember. How did fire come to play a part in your writing and the creation of the book?
DARLENE PAGAN: I love the image of the ember as potential, literally for fire but figuratively for creativity, joy, passion. There’s a fire giantess, a queen in Norse mythology named Glöð, which actually means “glowing embers.” Life’s potential rests in those embers and the subtle choices we have to create fire or let an ember die, not in a negative sense, but in terms of what we choose to give fuel to or let go. Our lives are magical, remarkable flames and fragile and whether we give birth to children or to inspiration we have the ability to reach out to create embers everywhere. Fire wasn’t something I wrote consciously in the book. It was something that was always present, but once I saw it, I could hardly see anything else, and it became a way to think through the organization of the book before it was quite finished. In fact, in at least a dozen poems I’ve written since the book was accepted, some image of fire continues though the subject matter is very different.
AL: In her comment for your book, Dorianne Laux wrote how she admires the scope of your subject matter – from the personal to the political. So often readers, even fond ones, pigeonhole writers into either personal or political and then choose between them. I’d love to hear your thoughts about writing on that spectrum.
DP: The personal has always been political for me, an idea drawn straight from 1970s liberal feminism, even before I had any awareness of it as a movement. All of our choices have consequences, and I saw this most profoundly at a young age when my mother made the bold move to return to school to earn her GED and then a nursing degree. My parents met in a factory working on an assembly line, and while life was not easy that one choice on her part changed the course of all our lives. Our roles changed and I remember clearly being resentful at the age of six when I had to cook dinner. I needed a stepping stool to use the stove, but I look back and I marvel at her sacrifices and fortitude to return to school with three children under the age of seven. It’s baffling and awesome. As a working mother, I hope to simply understand the consequences of my choices and accept that even those that might seem negative can have a powerful and important larger purpose. And ultimately all of our choices are connected to the web of the larger world. They simply begin in our homes.
AL: So often in your poems I get the cinematic sense that different worlds are operating at the same time – dangerously close, but strangely distant. In “After the Fire,” for instance, a mother sleeps while next door a house collapses on a child. In “Heat” a couple comes together in an underground cave while a hitchhiker smokes up on the surface, and in “The Quarry” teenagers unknowingly dive into water contaminated by radioactive material. Have you trained your eye to notice such juxtapositions or does poetry call that out naturally?
DP: Time and experience have helped me to see these and I think poetry also calls juxtapositions out naturally. The power and thrill it was to give birth to my first child, for example, was beyond anything I had experienced, and yet, almost simultaneously I was filled with a dread I had never known, a dread around my own mortality and the fragility of my son’s life, of all life. Anything can go awry at any moment for any one of us. There’s a breathless magic to life that makes me weepy with gratitude for every moment, but also deeply affected by those whose lives are randomly cut short or full of hardship and suffering. The Syrian refugee crisis, for example, is devastating to watch unfold. I don’t know how else to cope with such juxtapositions other than to write about them, and in my own life, give what I can, however I can.
AL: You’ve written that you associated storytelling with the forbidden from an early age. Your book is full of intriguing, tempting things: watching green flames, stories that may or may not be true (for example, Russian astronauts who took guns into space to shoot bears in case they landed off course), bread from a homeless man, an ember of a campfire opening “its smoky eye,” a girl named Regina Castellano. Please tell me more about your connection with storytelling and the forbidden!
DP: As a child, I created whole worlds with stories, from ghost stories that landed me in hot water because they frightened my younger siblings to stories about gnomes that helped me relieve those same siblings of treasures like chocolate. I remember the timidity with which they approached blackberry bushes because that’s where I’d told them gnomes lived. What a stinker I was, and manipulative! Though the more positive spin is that I was precocious and imaginative. We had no television, no video games, and spent our days outdoors. We were warriors in those worlds, pirates, athletes, hostages, movie stars. It was exciting and powerful and exhausting. As I grew up, I saw how keenly the real world was full of imaginative possibilities in more vivid color than I thought possible and full of even worse mayhem. It was then I became more interested in telling true stories, but without exploiting real individuals or experiences.
AL: I want to thank you for introducing me to amazing words: razbluito, akathorasbhagarvakomala, hyggelig, and even savyiore, which made me laugh out loud. As you write in the poem “Razbluito,” some words are rich with memory, some have meanings that turn out to be just a matter of urban legend, and some are recited in case they startle a poem into being. Tell me about your relationship with words.
DP: Sorry, but I have to quote Dumbledore, who says, “Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic.” How fun to imagine that writers might actually be wizards! In truth, I believe words are magical and even healing. My brother and sister and I can say a single word that would be nonsensical to anyone else like “Schmanky,” which was the name of one of our dogs. We can say just that dog’s name to one another and elicit laughter. It’s a word that has no meaning outside of the fact that we associate the word with joy and a host of stories about a particular time and place in our lives. We go back in time and relive our history with one silly, made-up word. How is that anything but magic?
AL: Dorianne Laux wrote that your poems are “fully American,” a description that intrigues me. What does that phrase mean to you? What’s at stake in being “fully American” and how does it apply to your poems?
DP: Frankly, the comment intrigues me, too. My parents’ interracial marriage (my mother is of German/Czech descent and my father was born and raised in Puerto Rico) meant that we were fairly isolated, by family because my parent’s marriage was forbidden by their families, by friends because we were not allowed to have company or visit others except rarely, and in some ways, by mainstream culture because we did not watch television or listen to the radio growing up. Moving frequently didn’t help either. Though I had friends, I always felt like I lived on the margins of various social groups, that there was some language or lingo, some playbook or set of rules I didn’t know about that made me feel awkward in my own skin around my peers. We were very poor for a number of years, too, which I believe results in its own kind of isolation. Growing up, I see now, most of my enduring friendships are with individuals who are ethnic or religious minorities or not U.S. citizens. The poems in this collection don’t address my bi-cultural background, not as a conscious choice, but because those poems didn’t fit in this collection, and yet, they feel to me, as part of the immigrant experience, even more “fully American.”
AL: As an artist, you have amazing range: you’re not only a poet, you also write essays and study drawing and cartooning. When you sit down with a blank page, how do you decide what form will appear there? I’m curious if poetry summons certain subjects and essays others, or if inspiration stays fluid until it finds its own form.
DP: The longer I’ve been writing, the more clearly an idea occurs to me in the form it is intended. Almost always, my writing takes the form of narrative poetry though after I’ve written a poem I will sometimes recognize it needs more explanation than the poem can tackle. Mostly, an idea for an essay comes to me as an essay idea. In some cases, I have both a poem and an essay that have a similar core spark but different contexts. My drawing is still in the early stages and crude, truly, but that creative impulse is also tied to imagining a particular project in a particular way. It did not come out of a general interest in drawing though I very much enjoy drawing. I read a lot of graphic books and I really enjoy the art of that form. It’s been frightening and also very interesting to watch my own project unfold in a form I’d never considered or practiced before. A fool’s errand, I’m sure!
AL: In one of your epigraphs, you quote French author Jean-Paul Michel: “One must live like fire. Burn the wretchedness of days. / give warmth and light. – Give.” It strikes me that writing might be a canny way of living like fire, a way of changing thought and experience into form and illumination. It strikes me too that to live or write like fire would take not just tremendous courage, but also an enormous amount of energy as well. In addition to being a writer, you are also a teacher and mother – all jobs with seemingly endless details that consume the hours of a day. What is your advice to writers who want to live and write like fire?
DP: My family, on both sides, is strictly working class but from my parents especially, I learned to work hard. Faith in hard work was all I had when I doubted my talent and abilities. When I was debating whether or not to attend graduate school, especially given the intense competition for acceptances, one professor, Curtis White, told me that there were many smart and talented students but “few with fire in the belly.” That was my turning point. I clung to that comment like a lifeline and only now do I see the image of fire that connects to most all of my choices since then. I’ve doubted everything at some point or another but I’ve always believed in the fire in my belly, its ferocity. At some point, you have to decide that it doesn’t matter whether you are a strong enough mother, a good enough friend, a smart enough academic, a talented enough writer. You have to decide to commit to whatever you do, most especially when you suspect you aren’t performing at your best. It’s not the success or failure that pulls you through but the effort. What a shame that effort is so clearly a secondary consideration when it comes to grades for elementary kids!
Find a copy of Setting the Fires here.
Darlene Pagán was named after her grandmother, a woman who was arrested and jailed twice before the age of twenty-one, first, for armed robbery, and second, for breaking and entering and theft. She has thus always felt an affinity with the notion that all writers are liars and thieves since it always seemed a more plausible endeavor than becoming a published author or an academic. Somehow, she has managed to keep her record clean and publish poems and essays in journals such as Field Magazine, Calyx, Hiram Poetry Review, and Literal Latté. Her chapbook of poems, Blue Ghosts, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2011, and her writing has earned national awards and nominations for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. She teaches writing and literature at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.
Annie Lighthart started writing poetry after her first visit to an Oregon old-growth forest. Iron String, her first poetry collection, was published in 2013. Her poetry has been read by Garrison Keillor on The Writer’s Almanac and chosen by Naomi Shihab Nye to be placed in Ireland’s Galway University Hospitals as part of their Poems for Patience project. Annie has taught at Boston College, as a poet in the schools, and currently with Portland’s Mountain Writers. She lives in a small green corner of Oregon.