Tuesday, July 3, 2012

An Interview with Poet Christine Rhein

[I originally posted this interview on 30-Jun-2012 on Poetry Matters.]

How little, really, we decide in life, how wild the impact,
what gets learned by heart …
from “Washing Windows,” Christine Rhein

As mentioned in my recommendation-review of Wild Flight, I was introduced to Christine Rhein's poetry by way of Molly Peacock. (Thank-you Molly!) There are many things to appreciate regarding Christine’s poetry, including the way she weaves science, technology, and math into her verse, her gift for the lyric as well as narrative, and her engagement with the world through the daily news. Wild Flight contains a number of poems inspired by, or based on, the news, such as
“In the Morning Paper” about Mohammed Sesay of Sierra Leone who had his hands amputated by those in the Revolutionary United Front, and the poem “‘Another Good Kid Shot Dead in Detroit’,” which takes its title from a newspaper headline and incorporates phrases from the news article. I found such poems to be especially compelling since I have a blossoming interest in the related subject of documentary poetics (the use of news reports, ads, texts in the public domain, etc. in the making of poetry). So in the interview below, you’ll see I jump right to that subject in the first question.

A former mechanical engineer in Detroit’s auto industry, Christine lives in Michigan, where she conducts workshops, leads poetry circles and works one-on-one with writers. Her book Wild Flight was the 2008 winner of the Walt McDonald Poetry Prize (Texas Tech University Press) and her work has appeared widely in literary journals including The Gettysburg Review, The Southern Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review, and has been selected for Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The Writer’s Almanac, and Best New Poets. Her poem “One of those questions” won the Michigan Quarterly Review Laurence Goldstein Poetry Prize in 2006 (judged by Alicia Ostriker) and was included in the Best New Poets 2007 anthology (chosen by Natasha Trethewey.) Christine also serves as an advisor to UniVerse: A United Nations of Poetry.

This interview was conducted via email in June 2012.

—Nancy Chen Long

You’ve written a number of poems inspired by, or based on, the news, such as the poem “Sparrow’s, Poet’s Death,” about the Afghan poet Nadia Anjuman who was beaten to death by her husband for writing poetry. What impulse(s) move you to write a poem from the news? Of course, a poem is not a news report. Since it’s art, how do you navigate between the impulse to stick to the facts and the impulse to remain faithful to the emotional truth of the poem?

CR: Sometimes a poignant news story stays with me for weeks or months, compelling me to write a poem about the person involved. Although such poems can’t change the tragic circumstances they address, I like to think that, in some small way, I am honoring an individual’s life, and inviting my readers to do the same. Poets hope for connection. My poem about Nadia Anjuman was recently shared in Kabul with members of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. It means a great deal to me that brave women writers in Afghanistan know of that poem. When writing about serious news stories, I do stick to the facts, but I strive to weave and build on them in a way that expresses more than information, more than sorrow.

I am intrigued by your persona poems. In Wild Flight, you write in the voice of your father, for example in “What I wished for at Fourteen” about your father when he returns to his home in Silesia at the end of World War II, and “Imagining Her Letter,” in which you write in the voice of Louann Mims, a 78-year-old woman who experience the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Patricia Smith, in an 2007 interview in Torch, said this about the persona poem: “… eventually, if you do it correctly, the poem will begin to tell you how it wants to sound.” Has that been your experience as well? Have you ever started a persona poem and had the poem take a turn away from persona to the personal? Are you writing any persona poems now?

CR: The two poems you cited were written in other voices so that I could get out of the way, allowing for a direct telling of the stories, similar to the way I heard them told by my father at the dinner table and by Louann Mims on the radio. My new manuscript contains several persona poems, which were written out of a sense of adventure. Persona poems give me the freedom of pretending to be someone else, of imagining events I’ll never experience (such as posing for artist Lucien Freud). I’m finding that “trying on” different perspectives, attempting to look through the lens of someone else, often leads to seeing something new within me.

The epigraph to your poem “My Father’s Geschichte” is “die Geschichte means both story and history.” You have a gifted way of marrying the narrative with the lyric. Is this fertile ground of the intersection of history, story, and autobiography one that you are especially drawn to? Is this in any of your current work?

CR: The poems in Wild Flight are largely autobiographical, which, it seems, is often the case with a first collection. After putting much emphasis on memory and family history, my current work deals a great deal less with autobiography and the past. That said, I continue to strive for balance between narrative and lyric elements in my poems. It’s important to me to delve into story, but equally important to employ the most condensed, heightened and musical language I can muster.

A good number of the poems in Wild Flight are about, or reference, birds and flight. I was wondering if the theme of birds and flight arose organically, or whether it was a conscious crafting on your part. I am curious if birds specifically “spoke to your condition” at the time, or whether you generally feel an affinity for them? (I have the epigraph to section 5 of your book in mind as I ask.)

CR: While I’m not a birder, I enjoy watching and listening to birds—and yes, they certainly found their way into the pages of Wild Flight. In addition to scattered references, there are half a dozen poems in my book that involve a specific kind of bird (crows, a wren, a woodpecker, chickadees, etc.). Four of these poems were written randomly, before the collection began to take shape. However, once the working title of Wild Flight jumped out at me (from a line about fireflies), I began to consciously write more poems about birds and also about various forms of flying (on airplanes, in helicopters, in dreams). I also explored notions of “nesting”—ways of building a home, a marriage, a family, a life—hence, the Jules Michelet epigraph describing a bird using its chest and heart to press and shape a nest.

You have a degree in mechanical engineering, which one does not generally associate with those who write poetry. In the “Acknowledgments” to Wild Flight, you write “A mechanical engineer doesn’t become a poet without a great deal of help.” How has your education and training in engineering impacted your writing?

CR: It’s easy to view poetry in stark opposition to engineering. After all, engineers deal with facts and data, while poets draw heavily from creativity and imagination. However, there are similarities between the two endeavors. A poem, like a car, has many features and components, all of which must function together to power the poem and produce the best possible “ride” for the reader. Crafting a poem, like tackling an engineering project, involves intuition, design work, trial and error, and a great deal of problem solving. When writing, I try to merge those logical efforts with letting my mind wander into the wonderful “accidents” of metaphors and language. Drawing from my background, I also include themes of science, math, and technology in many of my poems.

When you write, do you imagine a reader? If so, what type of reader?

CR: I tend to imagine a reader who is pressed for time and, therefore, looking for a reason to stop reading my poem. As I write, I try to keep that reader glued to the page. In reality, it’s me who wants to stay glued. Robert Frost’s famous quote—No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader—is not only true about emotion and discovery, but also about curiosity and suspense.

Generally speaking, how do you approach revision? Do you use a checklist or have any tried-and-true practices?

CR: My first poetry teacher’s mantra—“Writing is rewriting”—quickly became mine too. Revision, for me, is the central task at hand, outshining the bout of inspiration that produces a first draft. It’s through the digging-deeper work of revision that a poem emerges in its strongest form. As I read a poem-in-progress again and again, I try to distance myself from it, evaluating each line the way an objective editor would. Even poems that come together relatively quickly go through countless versions over several days of solid work. More often, I tinker with my poems over a period of months—or sometimes years. Of course, the trick, after all that tinkering, is to make the final result seem natural, almost effortless.

Lastly, what advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

CR: Job #1 for any aspiring writer is to read. When I work with beginning poets, I encourage them to discover poems that make them say “Wow” and “I wish I had written that!” Through rereading and studying such poems, one absorbs a wide range of approaches, skills and methodologies. It’s also important for writers to seek out writer-friends by taking a class, attending a conference, or joining a workshop where writing is shared and discussed. For me, meeting with other poets has been an invaluable source of feedback, growth, and camaraderie.

Read more of Christine’s poems on-line:

Nancy Chen Long works at Indiana University and lives with her woodsman husband and blue-eyed dog in a small cedar cabin in the forested hills of south-central Indiana. At this time (June 2012), you'll find her recent and forthcoming work in RHINO, The Louisville Review, Roanoke Review, and Adanna Literary Journal.

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