Tuesday, February 26, 2013

5 (or so) Questions with Oliver Bendorf

Former 9L staffer Eduardo Gabrieloff spoke with Oliver Bendorf about his poem "I Promised Her My Hands Wouldn't Get Any Larger," which appears in the Spring/Summer 2012 (vol. 9, no. 1) issue of Ninth Letter. They talk about gender, the surreal, and relinquishing control of your poem, among other topics. Enjoy!

Eduardo: "I Promised Her My Hands Wouldn't Get Any Larger" has a wonderful surreal magical sense to it, but I also get a sense that it is entirely factual. To what extent do you try to spice up reality in your work?

Oliver: Ideally, if I'm paying attention, reality doesn't need any spicing up from me. That's the whole thing, right? It's already so bizarre and magical if we have our eyes open. I'm trans, which in some ways is a surreal experience every day. I feel pretty aware of monstrosity, transformation, juxtaposition, feeling like a walking non sequitur... in a way that is entirely factual for how I move through the world. I wrote this poem at a time when my usual desires to able to plan and control were frustrated by just this huge sense of the unknown. I mean, I still don't know whether my hands will get any larger. (I hope my feet don't, because I can't afford a new shoe wardrobe!) So maybe I have no business promising anyone anything, but the desire is still there, for the beast to reassure the beauty. And that feels real to me. At the same time, when I wrote this poem, I remember being intentional about trying to grasp the kind of strangeness I wanted. I had to really work for that "busted headlights" image.

Eduardo: Your gender identity throws this poem in interesting directions. Can you talk about how you feel gender is expressed in this poem? Also, how do you think a person who doesn't know you're trans would read the poem?

Oliver: To me, this poem doesn't actually take on gender so much as the experience of being inside a body at the brink of change. And who isn't inside one of those? We all go through transformations in our body, big and small, and we all watch people we love go through these transformations, be it puberty, illness, aging, pregnancy, a new haircut, someone's kids growing up too fast. When I wrote this poem, I was most interested in the ways we react to, and interact with, those transformations, whether we're excited or scared as hell or uncertain or decide we're going to trace hands to feel better. None of this I think is particular to being trans, or requires knowing that the poet is trans, though of course transitioning can be one of those ways a body changes. I believe in a common denominator here without flattening experience into a universality. This is the first time I've talked about the poem publicly, so I think a lot of people have read it without knowing the poet was trans, and I feel confident that they did just fine. I think poets encounter and connect with the work of other poets all the time without having information about their identity. The hope is that our writing stands on its own.

Having said all that, this poem definitely feels related to gender, to masculinity, for me. The hands are something about power-- who has it, how to wield it, how it shifts. The other week I watched a video of the neuroscientist Ramachandran trying to help a man with phantom limb pain. The guy had one hand amputated and he felt like it was constantly clenched in a fist, but he couldn't unclench it because the hand was gone. So Ramachandran had him put his remaining hand in a kind of mirror device that reflected the hand over to where his missing hand was. And he was able to watch himself unclenching the fist because of the mirrored reflection. My professor Lynda Barry says that that's the same as what images do, in art, in poetry. Not a trick, but medicine. I don't know that this informs the craft part of making an image, but maybe it just happens accidentally, with our obsessions. Somehow hands became for me the mirror box that I kept turning to about gender. 

Eduardo: Let me ask you about the busted headlights image. To me, it helps take the poem outside the weird domestic space of this household and into a bizarre nature when coupled with the last line. You say you had to work for that image. What problems did you have getting to it or getting it to work?

Oliver: The first image I tried in this spot was so forgettable that I can't remember what it was. I didn't even save that draft. My housemate at the time read the first draft and suggested I make that image weirder, and she was right. But then I had to figure out what kind of weird. When I landed on the busted headlights image, I decided to keep it, though I'm not sure I knew why at the time, beyond that it felt right. I liked that it was a gaze both broken and ominous. Now, two years later, I can say things like: busted headlights know something you don't, have seen something you haven't. I can say: it's a power dynamic, it's about agency, who's in charge here? But at the time I was writing, I'm sure I wasn't thinking so analytically. I was coming up with possibilities based on sound and a gut feeling. "All problems are musical problems," said Dean Young. I think that was the case here. So when I landed on the image and it sounded right, I felt like I could move on.

Eduardo: I think this is a common problem for poets: relinquishing control of your poem to the poem and hoping you can hold on enough to understand where it ends up. Did you feel like you had to guide the poem to fit the image? Or did you let the image sit? Is this an issue you face in other poems?

Oliver: Guiding this poem, not really. Maybe suturing, in that one spot. Some poems need more guiding than others and with this one it was more a sense that I ought to get out of the way. I don't always understand how my poems end up where they do, planner though I am. It's too much work to be a completely omniscient poet, and never as fun to read. My first poetry teacher Caroline Manring explained the work of poetry as a "between Scylla and Charybdis" scenario: you have to navigate between two evils, two mythical sea monsters. One is the scattershot chaos that is, to some degree, necessary for generating creative work; the other is the kind of discipline and critical eye applied toward one's own chaotic creation. Ideally it's a light guiding touch. Too much chaos and you're a hot mess. Too much discipline and you're a bore. This is true of being a poet but also specifically for creating image systems. I think once we begin to write a poem, we are no longer in control; we can't be. I think this is why people sometimes compare making art to having a child: your heart is out there in this thing that came from you but that you no longer control. It's a spectacular ache.

Eduardo: I'm a parent currently trying to potty train a 3 year old: I like to pretend I had control at some point. But I just hope for the best and try as hard as I can to at least understand what's about to happen. But then your kid/poem poops on the floor at daycare. And laughs while doing it and you have to reevaluate everything.

You've had a lot of success recently. But with the constant struggle you describe between chaos and discipline, what would you say are the writing challenges you still face consistently?

Oliver: Where do I start? Does it suffice to say "the usual"? I don't take any poem I write for granted; for all the poems I've written, there's no recipe to show for it, no formula that works every time. For every new poem I write, I feel lucky because I wasn't sure whether there was another one coming. I know that sounds melodramatic. I'm a poet: melodrama is another challenge.

But aside from the challenge of actually writing poems, there is that other beast of figuring out how I want to be a poet in the world. I'm at the brink of graduating from an MFA program and living in uncertainty about what I will do next. I recently read John Muir's journals and letters from his Yosemite years and there's one where he's tired of the nomadic life, and he writes, "Last month brought... winter and rain, so a roof became necessary, and the question came, What shall I do? Where shall I go?" I kind of know what he meant. Should I fling myself at every fellowship application out there, chop up my calender into blocks of residencies, apply to things because I feel like I'm supposed to? Or should I stay in one place and start a farm with my girlfriend and our goats while I finish my first manuscript? It's hard sometimes, maybe especially for emerging poets, to see a big picture clearly through all the pieces of fellowships, submissions, Duotrope, deadlines, contests, AWP, etc... and it's complicated by the fact that a roof is necessary. I like writing poems. I like it when people read my poems. I like having time and money to write my poems. So how much am I willing to engage with the poetry business machine? How do I do it in a way that builds good will and doesn't suck my soul away? How public or private should I be? And, back to Muir's questions, what shall I do? Where shall I go? I don't have these answers yet.

There's an interview with Hélène Cixous from 1984 where she's talking about Kafka, and she says, "He is someone who, in the writing/living conflict, honestly said: writing should win, and so I lose my life. It’s true that, knowing writing should win, he laid down his life, he paid with his life, with his flesh, with his body, with his lungs, for knowing it. And what I find absolutely admirable and moving, is that when writing won, he wept bitterly.”

I want desperately to believe that I don't have to choose, won't be made to choose. I want it to be more of a dialectic. I want my writing and my living to push against each other in productive ways; maybe I don't even want to know, at a given moment, which one it is that I'm engaged in. Jack Gilbert won Yale Younger and then he chose Greece, you know? He chose love. He exiled himself from po' biz. But he understood that po' biz was not poetry. I want to write that on my own face or something so that I never forget it.

Thanks to Eduardo and Oliver for such a wonderful conversation! To read "I Promised Her My Hands Wouldn't Get Any Larger," pick up a copy of vol. 9, no. 1 in our webstore

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