Ahead of the release of his debut full-length poetry collection, Age of Forgiveness, Caleb Curtiss spoke with Sundress Publications editorial intern Jen Gayda Gupta about the meaning of forgiveness, how memories rebuild, and the longing for stillness.
Jen Gayda Gupta: What does forgiveness mean to you? Whose responsibility is it to forgive?
Caleb Curtiss: In Judith Herman’s Trauma & Recovery, she writes, “true forgiveness cannot be granted until the perpetrator has sought and earned it through confession, repentance, and restitution.” I like her angle here. The onus lies with the perpetrator or the negligent party to be accountable to those they’ve harmed.
JGG: You write, “Like a body, or a memory, it has rebuilt itself over time.” How do you think memories rebuild themselves? What is the impact of this rebuilding on grief?
CC: Like dreams, I think memories have to be reconstructed in order for us to understand and grow from them. When we piece together our pasts, we do so with adult brains and in the highly-sensical language of adulthood. But when we experience loss, that highly-sensical language isn’t much use. We have to seek out new materials to build with, a language for our loss.
JGG: There appears to be a separation of the speaker from himself in poems like “Photo Shot on Undeveloped Film” and “I Am Whole, I Am Whole.” What does this separation do for the speaker?
CC: Because this book focuses so closely on my own personal loss, I was aware of, and maybe even sensitive to, how it might read to some as a kind of trauma dump. The poems you mention here, along with a handful of others, are meant to texture the connection between the authorial presence in Age of Forgiveness with its speaker. By presenting my speaker as a kind of character in these poems, I am encouraging my reader to hear him and his voice as a dramatic interpretation of the poems I’ve written for him.
JGG: There are five “Self-Portrait” poems and many references to photos in this collection. How do you believe photos—snapshots of moments—immortalize us and our loved ones?
CC: The simple act of recognition can be a powerful emotional experience. Even if I wasn’t present when the photo was taken, when I recognize the subject of a snapshot, it can transport me back to the moment it captures: spontaneous, fragile, and still somehow permanent. It’s either a mistake that the brain corrects within a few milliseconds, or a momentary little wish fulfillment that allows me to see people I have no way of seeing anymore, or a way to be in times and places that no longer exist.
Maybe you’ve felt this way before. It reminds me of the sensation I have the day after I receive bad news: right when I wake up, I can feel my brain contorting itself to keep the undesired knowledge out of my conscious mind, suspend it in the sludge of half-known truths so I can experience the world, just for a moment, as it is not.
JGG: Tell me about the visual poetry that separates each section. What is the significance of the rabbit that appears both on the cover and in each piece of art?
CC: One of the paradoxes I try to acknowledge in my process is language’s power to express the inexpressible even as it falls short of doing so completely. The visual erasures I made for Age of Forgiveness remind me, and hopefully my reader, of this paradox while also offering up a kind of shadow narrative that compliments and contextualizes each section. It might be helpful to think of the rabbit drawing I made as the main character of that shadow narrative.
JGG: Many poems contain imagined truths—reconstructions of things that happened out of the speaker’s sight. Can you talk about the role of truth and how it intersects with memory?
CC: Whether I like it or not, every day I have to concede that I share my own subjective reality with those held by the rest of the world. Poems that recall facts for the sake of bearing witness don’t interest me as much as those that aspire to build from their own subjective position an idea that resounds as truth.
JGG: There seems to be a longing for stillness in poems like “Possum” and “Still.” What is the benefit of being still?
CC: That’s a nice catch. I think I do feel drawn to stillness, especially when it appears unexpectedly. I remember when my little brother would pause the video tape I was watching to prank me. We did it to each other, I’m sure, but whenever he caught me, I would find myself in a kind of altered state, again, probably for only a millisecond or two.
It doesn’t entirely matter how long. What matters is, there was a moment when my brain would attempt telekinesis and will the tape forward before I’d catch myself. Moments like this are special, even if they’re a little scary, too: when the gears stop advancing the tape but light still passes through its transparency.
JGG: Can you speak about the role of absence in this collection? How does the absence of something or someone shape the space of our current moment?
CC: This collection looks at absence a lot like you or I might look at a blivet or a Magic Eye poster. There’s always something there.
JGG: You write, “the dead always, eventually, become tropes of the living.” What do you believe is the role of a writer in writing about the dead?
CC: I don’t think the living owe the dead anything. As it stands, they aren’t impacted when we express love or resentment or indifference to them. Of course, we are affected by these things. If anything, as a poet, I feel an obligation to the poem I am writing.
JGG: The final poem in this collection, “Doe,” captures a violence towards women that is shown in several earlier poems. What is the significance of the doe being mistaken for a buck?
CC: The rhetoric we generally use to discuss domestic abuse or gender-motivated violence comes from the necessity to determine and recognize accountability. In the world of “Doe” the rhetoric of justice, accountability, restoration, etc. doesn’t really exist. It’s a different place, different from any of the other places in the collection, even as it maps the book as a whole to some degree.
Could it be that the doe was in fact mistaken for a buck as it appears? It could be, but my hope with “Doe” is that its clarity grows, over time, out of its ambiguity.
When I started writing this one, the manuscript itself was still coming together. As it did, the poem changed quite a bit, from a sonnet to blank verse to hexametric couplets, and so on until it became a prose poem. The point being: as the book changed, “Doe” also changed.
Caleb Curtiss is a teacher and a poet from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. His poems, essays, fiction, and visual erasures have appeared in Image, American Short Fiction, New England Review, Passages North, Witch Craft Magazine, and The Southern Review. Age of Forgiveness is his first full-length collection.
Jen Gayda Gupta is a poet, educator, and wanderer. She earned her BA in English at the University of Connecticut and her MA in Teaching English from New York University. Jen lives, writes, and travels across the U.S. in a tiny camper with her husband and their dog. Her work has been published in Up the Staircase, Rattle, Jellyfish Review, Sky Island Journal, The Shore, and others. You can find her @jengaydagupta and jengaydagupta.com.
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