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20 Sep

The Yale Review | An Interview with Elisa Gonzalez

In 2021, The Yale Review
published two biting poems on love and capitalism by the poet Elisa Gonzalez. I had first encountered her work years earlier and been immediately struck by the unlikely combination of feeling and self-possession I discovered there. To read certainly one of her elegies, for instance, is to observe despair and rage be drawn, with white-knuckled precision, under grammar’s superintending spell. Syntax, in a Gonzalez poem, is a skin pulled taut over the roil of otherwise unmanageable moods: a daughter’s righteous ire, a bereft sister’s grief, a lover’s dazed wonder on the body beside her. Ultimately, the poem is less a document of the sensation itself—though that feeling stays keenly present—than a self-conscious exercise in coaxing it into something that may very well be called beautiful. As she writes in her poem “Roman Triptych”: “Reader—I need you to know you’re reading a poem.”

This balance between formal control, affective intensity, and imagistic beauty animates Gonzalez’s debut collection, Grand Tour, out this week from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The poems’ settings (including Cyprus, Ohio, and Poland) and themes (including adultery, poverty, and survivorship) are dizzyingly various, giving the impression of a life made up of many disparate eras and selves. Yet a single set of preoccupations and methods propels the entire book, shuttling it nimbly between “untrammeled feelings” and the “engineer’s logic” that has formed them into poetry.

Gonzalez and I corresponded over email earlier this month. Our conversation touched on perfectionism, sex, and the ways in which storytelling and sisterhood interrelate in her work.

Maggie Millner

Maggie Millner The poems in Grand Tour are inclined to vault from sensory imagery to philosophical musing, and references to thinkers akin to Aristotle and Augustine recur. (There’s also a memorable moment when the speaker declares, “Death to philosophers!”) How do you concentrate on the connection between the disciplines of poetry and philosophy?

Elisa Gonzalez In a school poetry workshop, that fabled space of reverberating wisdom, someone told me that I “couldn’t fit Galileo and Aristotle” in the identical poem—i.e., a poem couldn’t bear the burden of two such august thinkers. As with many things I actually have been told to not do, my response was defiance. Why not? I’m definitely no philosopher, nor particularly well read in philosophy, but I think that poems can hold as much as we will imagine housing in them, and I think that poems can—I stop in need of “should”—think deeply and boldly. It might be a shame to depart that to the non-lyric disciplines.

MM Your poems are preoccupied with borders: the militarized frontiers between nations; the partitions between class positions, enforced from above; the one-way boundary between the living and the dead. Does poetry as a form lend itself to discussions of enclosure and separation, do you think that?

EG I believe I explore those preoccupations in prose as well, but a poem—especially if it’s relatively short, because the poems in Grand Tour are—does lend itself to meditating on exclusion, distance, division, etc. A lot must be removed to create a poem. A lot must be sacrificed. Because I revise rather a lot and are inclined to cut rather a lot within the revising, I feel most, if not all, of my poems are haunted, but I’m the just one who can see the ghosts hanging around the perimeters.

Poems also often seem to be shapeshifters to me, in that the leaps they make can transform what you thought you were reading, or writing, several times between a starting and an end—and in that way they challenge their very own borders.

It’s funny that you simply use the word enclosure
specifically, because after I was going through copyedits for the book, I spotted that I’d used the word enclose too persistently (I feel three or 4, but I felt just one could probably survive). I wondered what it was about that word, especially applied figuratively (a word “encloses,” I said in a single place) that appeared to exercise some draw for me. I don’t know if it was echoing the larger preoccupation or if there’s still something left to puzzle out regarding enclosure specifically.

MM The poems on this book depict a speaker moving between amorous affairs and marriages with men and women, including a tremendous verse-treatise on desire called “Epistemology of the Shower.” How do sexuality and self-knowledge inform each other in your work?

EG “Verse-treatise” is an attractive coinage. For just a few years, I forbade myself from writing about love or desire, because I kept entering into conventions like mud puddles, and I used to be bored by every part I made. Eventually, I spotted that walling that section of my life up, or out, was inconsistent with my want to at the very least attempt to make my poems address as much as possible. Sex is in every single place, and I do have it. Hence my poetry about it. I feel I worked my way back into writing on desire, sexuality, etc. by attempting to examine the situation, and the self within the situation, as closely as possible. In “Epistemology of the Shower,” for example, each time I believed I’d reached a conclusion, I asked, What else? In case you didn’t end here, what would you say?

Questions are perhaps the essence of my poetry—and of sexuality—for higher or worse. I’m glad that it is a book wherein the amorous affairs don’t really have a sequence or a hierarchy. Sometimes the speaker’s married to a person. Sometimes she’s very much not. It feels true to the anarchic core of poetry to throw sex in like that.

MM In certainly one of my favorite poems within the book, “To My Thirty-12 months-Old Self,” the speaker admits, with a touch of irony, that she has sometimes felt that her life’s “great project” is to write down not only “well” but “perfectly.” I’m reminded of Ben Lerner’s argument that a poem is “all the time a record of failure,” in some sense. Are you able to speak concerning the relationship between perfectionism and poetry in your personal writing?

EG There’s a biographical answer and a poetic answer, I feel. The biographical answer is that I wrote poems for a few years without really working toward a book in any serious way. I wrote poems, and I attempted to make those poems higher. I probably did think “perfect,” though I actually have enough sense to not say it to myself, except inside a poem. But I believed that the book would present itself to me as a sort of perfect object, nothing like all these flawed poems I had lying around. After which, in the summertime of 2021, my youngest brother was shot to death, and I believed, I’ll either make something, or I’ll make nothing. Each seemed equally possible and equally positive. It didn’t matter to me whether it was perfect anymore, because he was dead, I used to be alive, and the poems seemed each more vital and fewer vital, by some means.

The opposite answer is that the gap between the dreamed-of poem and the true poem is painful. Additionally it is, sometimes anyway, a stunning private thing, which nobody else can ever touch. However the pain often feels more present.

MM “To My Thirty-12 months-Old Self” is certainly one of three poems in the gathering that directly address a younger version of the writing self. What occasioned this sequence of “To My X-12 months-Old Self” poems?

EG Early in my writing life, I wrote long sagas in installments—Dickens style—for my siblings, which I read aloud, after which incorporated or responded to their feedback. To put in writing I often should trick myself back right into a playfulness wherein nothing matters. Later, writing poetry became a spot to talk secret thoughts that couldn’t be stated openly in my family. The play and the secrecy connect in that they require an imagined reader who will accept anything. A blank who loves me, I suppose, which isn’t how any real person is.

The series of “To My Younger Self” poems were specifically occasioned by rereading Brenda Shaughnessy’s magnificent Our Andromeda in early 2021. I used to be stunned, on this read, by the speaker’s addresses to a self at various ages, including in the long run, and it made me think concerning the specific conditions under which I would wish to consult with one other version of myself. What can be the purpose? What would you ask, what would you tell? It gave the impression of the straightforward thing to do—which Shaughnessy doesn’t do—can be to easily tell the long run or console someone concerning the past. It could find yourself very maudlin. So in mine I desired to complicate the connection between past and present, give the past at the very least a likelihood to speak back, give the speaker a reason to select those ages, those selves. Time travel should make your head spin a bit.

MM Grand Tour incorporates just a few elegies, including the opening poem, “Notes Toward an Elegy,” which could operate as a sort of foreword. Are you able to discuss your relationship to the elegy as a form? As a frame?

EG I do consider that poem as a presiding spirit, a sort of ghost proem or secret foreword. (In an earlier draft of the manuscript, it preceded the table of contents.)

In late 2020, a friend in Cyprus died of cancer, and the next summer, my brother was killed. Facing these deaths and the extra-loud presence of death on the planet, I actually have found myself resisting any version of elegy as consolation or reconciliation. A teacher once told me that an elegy needed to return the living speaker to life by the top. Fortunately, the genre as practiced is far less proscriptive and way more discontented with death. As an illustration, I might call “corpse poems” (wherein a corpse, human or animal, ostensibly speaks) elegies. A living speaker is ventriloquizing someone or something dead, perhaps themselves, though sometimes without explicit grief or any expression of mourning. However the engagement with the very fact of death seems to me the useful and salient aspect of “elegy.” It’s a unadorned thing. Within the presence of elegy, we will’t pretend anyone will live perpetually.

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