Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week poet and educator Kimberly Ann Priest joined us to discuss the work of Rebecca Lindenberg, becoming a poet, poetry as a form of excavating memories. Thank you for tuning in!
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: During our email correspondence, you mentioned that Lindenberg’s Love, an Index was one of the first poetry collections you read when you decided to write poetry. How did this experience shape how you’ve approached your own writing?
Kimberly Ann Priest: Excellent question. I’m going to give you some background on my entrance into the poetry scene….
It was 2013. I was almost 36 and making a brave move to divorce a violent spouse while also pursuing my MA. I made $11,000 a year as a grad assistant instructor, plus child support, and found myself in the throes of exhaustion and grief and a new style of harassment from my soon to be ex. We had been married for 15 years and I had become accustomed to a semblance of romance, but mostly a list of reasons why I wasn’t a suitable romantic partner. About a year after divorce, my ex would come out as gay and continues, to this day, to assert that the violence of ‘the past’ was not his fault nor the complications it has caused me his responsibility. Getting out of this relationship, with two children in tow, was daunting and complicated as he and his family maintained control over all of my material possessions and the community around me, and continued to try to hold sway over my children’s perspective of the marriage. (Thankfully, on the latter, they were not successful).
All of that said to provide context to my state of being when I entered my grad program at Central Michigan University. I was worn to a thread and working diligently to rebuild myself and a career after having not been allowed to do so for those 15 years. I started my MA with a focus on Brit Lit, but after one semester realized that what I needed to do was write, not analyze others’ writing so much. I think it was October when I sat down with Robert Fanning, one of the poetry professors in the English Department, to inquire about the Creative Writing track in poetry. I remember how “chill” he was during our meeting and thinking that this is what I needed: chill. I needed something in my life to be less demanding and more therapeutic. Thus, I began my journey as a poet.
I don’t recall if we read Lindenberg in class, or if her work was recommended to me elsewhere. I took a lot of courses on craft and female poets so she may have been one of them. All I remember is getting her book and reveling in its steady beats and weaving of grief and romance. It felt like love. It felt like rain. In fact, Megan Devine says “Grief is love in its wildest forms.” It felt like that.
I was writing a lot of love poems then—an irony given my circumstances. But I think the earliest stages of my grief were marked by the loss of romance in my 20s and 30s. I was grieving the love I had felt for someone who didn’t love me back. I was grieving the death of the person I thought he was. The backstory of Lindenberg’s Love an Index is heartbreaking. The man she writes about and grieves in this book was her partner of several years who went permanently missing on an expedition to explore a volcano, something he loved to do. When I married, my partner was my best friend. Somewhere along the way, within only a year or so, I lost him. He went missing. No romance ensued and I found myself mostly alone in my homes with children, emotionally and economically striped to the bone. Somehow, Lindenberg’s work spoke to this early grief—the loss of romance I felt—because her connection to her partner was so raw and real and desirous. She does not hold back her feeling—even writing poems that reveal anger
and argument, regret and desperation.
And this is how her work shaped my early writing, and still shapes it today. My work is deeply relational and, I think, multi-dimensional. No relationship is all joy or all hate, all pain or all roses. Even my relationship with my ex cannot be flattened this way. In “The Language of Flowers,” Lindenberg turns love round and round and shows us both the beauty and pain of it, the sentimental and practical. I appreciate this about her writing. The emotional life is grounded in the reality that there’s a little hate in love, a bit of anger in desire, a lot of bravery in lament, and tensile quality strength in the tenderness and weakness born of agony. Lindenberg has helped me embrace grief in my work as an expression of everything I once loved and hope to love again.
AH:Why did you choose these poems specifically?
KAP: Both “The Language of Flowers” and it’s opposite “The Language of Flowers Revised,” as well as “Carnival,” take objects—flowers and carnival masks—and reveal their duplicity. Again, as I mentioned in the first question, love fueling both celebration and grief. [It might even be said that grief is another form of celebration.] In these poems, flowers are constructed of various materials, even glass and paper, to translate different facets of desire, wanting, care, heartbreak. All of it is love. And all of it is potentially deceitful. In “Carnival” the mask (not to be confused with pandemic masks) is understood as a facial covering both concealing and revealing beauty and pain [as if these are mutually exclusive] and it’s hard to know which it is covering and what it is doing just as it is hard to know our own hearts.
These poems suggest that no emotion is exclusive—or even assured. “[A] moon face” reads “Carnival,” “with a healed gash that means harvest.” What a line. The wound, the gash, is signaling a season of harvest, of plenty. Or how about in “The Language of Flowers where “Plum” means “lost in beauty” and comes right before “Poppy Red” which means “threatening pleasure.” Such a juxtaposition of getting lost in something desirable to the senses as a possible threat of pure bliss. Something is always at stake in Lindenberg’s expressions of romance.
Maybe the most difficult thing about loving someone who does you almost nothing but harm, is that you are unsure of your own love. The emotional self is constantly confused. How do you love someone that screams at you and pins you to walls or shatters glass at your feet only to watch you pick it up slowly so your children won’t walk on it? I only know I tried. Flowers never meant what they were supposed to. And unmasking my abuser was always turned on me in a vicious game. I listen to these poems and wonder what it’s like to write and read them as someone deeply in love with someone who also loved them back. I am so interested in the way they are familiar to me in their metaphors, yet different in their expressions. Or are they? I don’t know. I hope to find out someday.
AH: When asked why she writes poetry in an interview on McSweeneys, Lindenberg said the following: “I think, actually, that you write poems because you have something echoing around in the bone-dome of your skull that you cannot say.” Now I am asking you: why write poetry?
KAP: I appreciate Lindenberg’s answer. I’m not convinced poetry is about language at all. I think it is most certainly about what cannot be said, the silences. It is certainly that for me. I can’t tell you what it’s like to love someone who harms you, or long for romance for 15 years while caring for children, or grieve an abuser, or hate everything the abuser does, or want flowers to mean something wholly different from what they’ve always meant—but I can show you. I can write the wordless pain and desire. For me, poems are most certainly about what I cannot explain.
When I started writing during my grad program, I had no words for what had or was happening to me. In fact, I was in such a dissociated state that I barely even remember what happened those 15 years; I only knew it was bad. Writing, after my grad program, became about excavating those memories. All I could do was portray snapshots of moments and feeling. Many things were “echoing around in my bone-dome” that I could only access through the poem. So, yes, to Lindenberg’s answer.
These days, I don’t have memories to excavate. I have found all that I need. But the echo-ings will come again with new experiences. I feel this deeply. There will always be echoes that have no language; and for those, I will need the poem.
AH:Have any updates (about life, writing, anything!) that’d you like to share?
I just moved to Pittsburgh for a year as the James Tolen Writer in Residence at Writer’s House. Thus far, I am inspired by the squirrels all around. There are so many squirrels. I haven’t begun writing yet, but there may be some squirrel poems soon.
My next chapbook comes out with Harbor Review Press in March. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Allison Blevins, the press editor (who happens to have a new book out—Slowly, Suddenly). My book is called The Optimist Shelters in Place and was written at the onset of the pandemic. It’s my first non-trauma book so I’m excited for something emotionally different on the horizon. It tackles loneliness in America, among other things.
Other than this, I’m just calibrating to a new environment. I finished three full-length books of poetry this year and they are all going out into the world seeking homes. I moved through a lot of past territory in those poems and now I’m exploring the present moment, which is a strange, nice shift. While at Writer’s House, I’ll be doing some memoir pieces and other prose. And maybe just relaxing a bit… watching squirrels.
Rebecca Lindenberg is an American poet and educator. She is the author of Love, an Index (McSweeney’s 2012) and The Logan Notebooks. Her poems, criticism, and essays have appeared in Poetry, Best American Poetry 2019, Tulepo Quarterly, and Diagram, among others. She currently is teaching at the University of Cincinnati, where she also edits the Cincinnati Review.
Find her website here.
Read an interview about Love, an Index here.
Read “He Asks Me to Send Him Some Words (Home)”in Tulepo Quarterly.
Kimberly Ann Priest is the author of Slaughter the One Bird (Sundress 2021) and chapbooks The Optimist Shelters in Place (Harbor Editions 2022), Still Life (PANK, 2020), Parrot Flower (Glass, 2020) and White Goat Black Sheep (FLP, 2018). Winner of the2019 Heartland Poetry Prize from New American Press, her work has appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, Salamander, Slipstream, The Berkeley Poetry Review, Lunch Ticket, Borderland, etc. She is an Assistant Professor at Michigan State University and serves as an associate poetry editor for the Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry.
Find her work at kimberlyannpriest.com.
Find her new collection Slaughter the One Bird here.
Read Kimberly’s poems “This Much” and “About Blue.”
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a multimedia artist and writer. She has had work appear in Barren Magazine, Hobart, DIALOGIST, Rust + Moth, and The Shore, among others. She is the Co-Editor in Chief at both Mud Season Review and Juven Press, and reads for EX/POST Magazine. More of her work can be found at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.com