Interview: Claudia F. Savage

Poet Claudia F. Savage’s debut book, Bruising Continents, was published by Spuyten Duyvil in May 2017. This incredibly intimate portrait of relationships both beginning and ending flourishes in a natural landscape also constantly in flux.

I talked to Claudia about the book, her writing practice, and inspirations.

Lisa Birman: The natural world is such a strong theme throughout your book. I was always aware of water, both in abundance and in lack, and of fire, both as danger and fuel. In addition to narrating the world around you, you tell the stories of the body through stories of the natural world. Can you talk about your connection to the landscape and elements and how they speak to love and changing seasons/relationships?

Claudia F. Savage: My compositional process is deeply connected with being outside. I almost always begin my writing practice by walking or hiking. Words flow from movement. For me, that always involves being in fresh air and taking in the trees, the sky, the color of the earth. I’m keenly aware of how the natural world is a balm for me. Years ago I wrote this poem about my first experience escaping NYC for the Adirondacks. I was a Girl Scout, probably 7 or 8, on a backpacking trip. My friend and I walked away from the group and laid under some maples in full autumn fire. We ate chocolate bars and stared at the leaves. I can still feel that moment in my body—the sweetness of the chocolate, the cold air, the crunch of the fallen leaves under my back, the brightness of the leaves still on their stem. Maybe I’m always seeking that moment where every sense awakens. Writing poetry, after a long walk in the woods, attempts that. Everyone always talks about the Trancendentalists, but I’m drawn more to Brenda Hillman and Inger Christensen and Lisel Mueller. They are all very different, but they see the natural world in all its complexity. I’m thinking of Christensen:

I think up a sorrow
and where it fell
the bird has again
hung a nest
as big as the sky
for my mind to live in

Perhaps this growing
is the same
as living in the dream
No sorrow can prevent
imagination and bird

Isn’t that amazing? I remember when I first started reading her work, I was struck by its immensity. It’s like that living in a body, too. What can describe this bizarre container except the larger container of the world?

Recently, I showed my daughter the inside of a piece of nutmeg. All those circular patterns. And, then, the smell hitting your nose when you grate it. Writing my love story felt a bit like that. The unexpected combining with the familiar. The emotional content of falling in love felt familiar, but, then, there is this other person who is unfamiliar and unpredictable. And, the body of this new person feels completely foreign after so many years with another body. One of the poems that everyone comments on the most is the poem, “Composition,” where I compare both men’s bodies and my confusion and desire to combine them into one body. I say, “I’ll take your lower lip, its shelf swollen for the upper’s outstretched wings…But, then, his forearms, bulbous gourds of blood….”

For me, seeing a tree leaf out in summer, then color in autumn, then bare itself in winter, was comfort in all the madness! In moments of doubt and despair, the only thing that felt consistent was the wind, the mountains, the cold air as it joined my warm breath. All of these sensations, then, were intertwined into my poems.

LB: I was particularly struck by how you present fire as a necessary destructive force. How that destruction or loss might lead to something even more vibrant, but the loss is still a loss. The metaphor comes through especially in the section Thick in the Throat, Honey, with the Everglade fire burning while you’re falling in love. Can you talk a little about how those twin forces or destruction and creation come through in your work and your life.

CFS: I was asked a similar question in another interview. Maybe this is the big question! Does destruction lead to rebirth? Is destruction necessary? The answer we want (desperately!) is that after destruction growth occurs. Seems like every culture talks about it—the Phoenix, Inanna, Kali. But, I don’t know. With all the wars happening all over the world at the moment and so much unbearable loss, I would never say that destruction is necessary. My new book has many poems about Syria. I’m tormented by the suffering of the Syrian people. I think about them constantly. The devastation they have faced and continue to face is unimaginable.

Maybe I’ve always been obsessed by fire because it feels inevitable. Everyone experiences deep loss. The idea that our loss will lead to something vibrant isn’t necessarily true, but it does lead to something else. I like that you use the word “might” in your question. That uncertainty feels true. Something will shift after a loss. Maybe that’s why the notion of fire is appealing to me. It can’t be controlled. It requires surrender. Being a Westerner for so many years I was struck by the way every summer forests burned, due to negligence or lightning. Either way, containing them was often illusory. There would be destruction, it was mostly a question of how much. I felt that way as I was entering my love affair. I was so consumed. I wanted to believe I needed that. I have a poem where I say: “last night your voice turned me/ dense forest./ Are trees terrified of lightning?/ I have not slept. Waiting.” This poem was written when I was anticipating a visit from my lover and thinking about how the lodgepole pine needs fire to germinate. Some things in nature do need it. It is just that for them to exist other things must die. That death always feels impossible.

While I was in the middle of my love affair, it was summer and I was camping a lot in Wyoming, Colorado and Montana. I would see fires raging on some ridgeline far away. The smoke burned my eyes and lungs. It felt like me, leaving my long-term partner and starting something impractical and dangerous. I was destroying my life! Now, years later, after the loss of my mother and brother, I realize that the fires of our lives have very different levels of intensity. My love affair and divorce feel like a camp fire compared to the destruction that I suffered later. But, at the time, everything felt immense. The Everglades burning that spring were me. I say in that poem, “I was the flame.”

LB: I’m a little obsessed with your use of pronouns. The he and you of two loves, and the how the use of third person might be intimate if not for the far more immediate pull of second person. Did you find yourself using these pronouns in the initial writings or was it an editorial decision? Do you tend to write in or to certain pronouns?

CFS: The pronouns were a very specific problem for me to solve. I often write in second person because I find that many of my poems are written with a beloved in mind. Not necessarily in a romantic way, but more in a devotional way. I love the intimacy of poetry that always seems to be speaking directly to the reader, assuming the reader can picture themselves as the “you.” It has been a long time, but I think I started out referencing both men as a “you” and realized that it didn’t work. I had a discussion with my beloved writing teacher, Max Regan, about the problem, and he suggested referring to them differently in the book. I can’t remember if we had agreed upon how to fix it, but he was instrumental in pointing out that I could do it. Part of the eventual answer, then, was not just in the pronouns chosen, but in how to arrange the poems so that the pronoun choices weren’t confusing. I found myself going from “he” and “him” to “you”—in other words, I found myself moving away from the former beloved to the current beloved. In a way, third person helped me distance myself from my ending relationship, helped me place that relationship in time. For me, second person will always have the immediacy of the present moment.

LB: Also on pronouns, we and us are both used very sparingly, though the book is so much about how the I relates to he and you. I found this created an observational space, that the I is considering the he and you rather than joining with them, until, of course, she does. Was this distancing and then bridging of distance something you intended or relate to?

CFS: Thanks for noticing that. It wasn’t intentional but I’m glad that was the outcome. I mean, that doubt, that distance, was intentional in my life, but I didn’t necessarily know if that would be seen in the poems. In a love-triangle there is a sense of both being crushed and unmoored/tethered. I wrote the poems as these emotions emerged for me, but when I finally put the book together I struggled with how to represent these opposing feelings in terms of sequence. So, I went with the notion that the “I” was both alienated from both men and also a part of them, too. The distancing you felt makes me feel like I may have succeeded on some level.

LB: I’m not one for assuming poetry is autobiographical, but this work presents itself as such. And it’s very intimate material. Was there a writing or editing process that you needed to work through in making the private public? And were there pieces you needed to create to complete the narrative arc of the book?

CFS: I’ve said this before, but I don’t know if I’ll ever write something like this again because many of the pieces were first written to seduce someone. It is an interesting process when you write poems to someone knowing they will never be seen by anyone else. Or, at least, to start with that intention when composing them. I wanted to stir the blood of my long-distance lover. As a result, many of the poems I wrote I abandoned when I put the book together. Writing while being high on lust is like being drunk. For me, being drunk doesn’t make very effective poetry. But it does make me prolific. I wrote sometimes 5-6 poems a day! I wanted to drown my lover in adoration. This was my first time feeling this way. I wasn’t much of a romantic when younger. So, I was pretty excited about the work at first. And, my lover, was, too. It was pretty flattering stuff.

Once I made the decision to make the work public, I started writing and going through pieces I had once written for my ex-husband. It felt important to represent both parts of my life and show how the journey of falling into and out of love wasn’t linear. I was often in love with both men, in very different ways, throughout my love affair. One love was the result of being known a long time by someone, going through a significant portion of my life with them. The other love was a result of infatuation and immediate connection. So, it took me a while to realize that the book wasn’t only going to be about the new love.

As I’ve been reading the book in a variety of places in the country, many people have come up to me and said thank you for not making my love affair a “cure all.” People often love the pieces about my ex-husband more. They feel more for him, because, maybe, writing those pieces took a lot more time and maturity. There is a lot of questioning in those pieces. I say, “Here, in the mountains,/ even shadows are blown to rags,/ so I should cling to him as it howls./ The pulse of our years/ is in his neck.”

I wanted to articulate the feeling that sometimes we leave people not because our relationship is abusive or awful, but because a relationship with someone else would bring more to our life. So, the reader gets to witness that process of guilt and acceptance.

In one poem, I say:

I could stop this.

Admit that every bell
is first silent.

It takes a blow
to prove its singing.

LB: Collaboration is a huge part of your work. Many of the pieces feel like a score. Sometimes adhering to a form, sometimes breaking into the open field. Do you compose out loud? Do you see where the words fall on the page? And in performing the pieces, both with and without music, do you find yourself adhering to the score on the page or improvising? Finally, has performance changed the way you write?  

CFS: So many good questions. I’ll start with the last one. Performing has definitely changed the way I write. Working with an experimental, improvising musician (in my duo Thick in the Throat, Honey) means you never really know what is going to happen to your poem. So, my writing has become way more playful and looser in terms of composition. I use more rhyme and rhythm. I’m more open to breaking form, too. It does often feel like a score as much as a poem. I realize that I tend to shy away from poetry collections that adhere to the same form throughout the entire book. I’m thinking of the amazing collection, Olio, by Tyehimba Jess. The way he works with form, then recreates it. His work demands to be read aloud. To be performed. I’m drawn to the work of Douglas Kearney for the same reason. Or, Kathleen Fraser or Monica Youn or C.D. Wright. Too many to mention! But, they all have this performative quality that I strive for in my own work.

As a result of memorizing my work for performance, I tend to repeat words and phrases more than I used to, to be obsessed with the way word play and alliteration can create mood. And, I find that I’m more comfortable using interesting sounds in the middle of a piece if the performance warrants it. I’ve been using drums more in performance, too, specifically a Persian frame drum. Performance, both with and without my duo partner, John, has become a chance to convey the fullness of a poem. A friend who attended a solo performance of mine recently, and who had only ever seen me perform with my duo, was shocked by the level of music in my work without any accompaniment. The last piece of my book, “Folklore,” was revised specifically for a performance I did at the Improvisation Summit of Portland one summer with John. John played this drone on his saxophone and I recited the poem in the dark with a lit, transparent scroll unraveling. I wanted the piece to live as a proclamation or prayer about the Pacific Northwest and to show how my love for John was symbolic of my love for the land of his ancestors. The music solidified that mood, but the breathless form of the poem, with strange enjambments and caesuras, I hope, created a sense of endlessness and expanse for the listener.

To answer the other questions, I think as a writer I’ve always used other people’s work as a way to be inspired and to collaborate. But, there is a huge difference between reading the work of Dean Young and then working on a poem, and sharing something with a composer who will start riffing on it and ask you to change three stanzas! I don’t know Dean Young. When I use his work as inspiration, he doesn’t talk back!

That said, I often write in either complete silence or to really loud music. I’m working on a series of pieces about jazz improvisation right now and listening to musicians work through a wild idea helps me write and revise with intensity and purpose.

Collaboration has freed me to take certain aspects of my work less seriously (first drafts can be terrible!) and others more so (when you are making work with someone else, you want to give your best effort). It is such liberation to know that so many people are making art right now. To know I’m in the stream of that river. Whether I work with a visual artist like the wonderful Jacklyn Brickman (we’re collaborating on a show about motherhood, called reductions, that premieres in Chicago in 2018) or musicians or other writers, I’m always stretched in my poetry beyond what I would have conceived of alone. Entering into collaboration allows me the chance to let go and laugh at myself. It is also really wonderful to have an artist from another discipline see things in your work your poetry friends never notice. Really, I want to end on love. Being married to my collaborator means my daily life is full of great conversations and play. I’m constantly reading about other partnered collaborators for permission to acknowledge and enjoy my life fully. Because I do. I really do.

Lisa Birman’s debut novel, How To Walk Away, was awarded the 2016 Colorado Book Award in Literary Fiction. She is the author of For That Return Passage— A Valentine for the United States of America; editor of Dearest Annie, You wanted a report on Berkson’s class: Letters from Frances LeFevre to Anne Waldman; and co-editor of the anthology Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action.

Claudia F. Savage is one-half of the improvising performance duo Thick in the Throat, Honey. Her poems have been published recently in Water-Stone Review, NimrodDenver Quarterly, Columbia, and clade song. Her interview series, “Witness the Hour: Conversations with Arab-American Poets Across the Diaspora,” is in Anomaly. She is the author of Bruising Continents (Spuyten Duyvil, 2017), The Last One Eaten: A Maligned Vegetable's History, and The Hour of Anjali, a chapbook by four poets about the senses. Her collaboration reductions, about motherhood and ephemerality, with Detroit artist Jacklyn Brickman, is forthcoming in Chicago in 2018. She lives with her husband and daughter in Portland, OR, where caffeine is a necessity.

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