Sunday, July 12, 2015

Chapbook Chat: Rachel Trousdale Discusses Antiphonal Fugue for Marx Brothers, Elephant, and Slide Trombone

Antiphonal Fugue for Marx Brothers, Elephant, and Slide Trombone

Author: Rachel Trousdale

Publisher: Finishing Line Press

Publication date: Sep 2015 (available for pr-order prior to publication)

Young Peggy Plays Taps by Rachel Trousdale
South Dakota, 1967

She is sixteen. She’s waiting for her cue
to take her trumpet, leave the heated car
and walk out to the grave. She has to do

this often, skip a high school class or two
and play for someone. It’s not very far,
and she’s sixteen. She’s waiting for her cue

behind the snow drifts round the lot, the blue
Dakota winter afternoon. They are
familiar: they do what the families do,

they stand beside the cut earth like a queue
for bread or for a bus. The minister
will lift a hand, and out she’ll come, on cue,

and play him down, the drop six feet into
the end of snow and trumpeting and war.
That’s all she does, and all she’s asked to do.

It’s always someone that she almost knew,
and she is worried by and fearful for.
She is sixteen. She’s waiting for her cue
and for a better thing that she can do.

(Originally published in Literary Imagination)

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Rachel Trousdale is an assistant professor of English at Framingham State University in Framingham, MA. Her poems have appeared in Literary Imagination, the Atlanta Review, Rhino, and DIAGRAM, among other places. Her book Nabokov, Rushdie, and the Transnational Imagination was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2010, and she is now working on a project on humor in modern poetry. She received her Ph.D. from Yale University.

Author website



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[This interview was conducted via email in June 2015.]

NCL: Please tell us a little bit about your chapbook Antiphonal Fugue for Marx Brothers, Elephant, and Slide Trombone.

RT: It’s a playful little book, containing a poem spoken by a guy building a pyramid in his back yard, a comparison of migraine headaches to yetis, and a joke about bananas. And it’s also about art and death and family and the meaning of life. More specifically, one of the things Antiphonal Fugue deals with is how our work shapes and reflects (or fails to shape and reflect) who we are. This theme shows up in three longish poems that constitute about half of the book: "Isabel and Jimenez," about the unification of Castile and Aragon and the expulsion of the Jews and Moors from Spain; "Night Shift, Summer, 1994," spoken by four employees working late at a McDonald's; and "The Pyramid," about a man building a pyramid in his suburban back yard. All three poems are, in various ways, about how different kinds of work demand that we balance the practical, physical demands of life with our ideals—and how that balance can tip horribly in one direction or another, depending on the constraints we’re up against and what exactly our ideals are.

NCL: How did you arrive at the title?

RT: I woke up from a nap one afternoon with the title in my mind and an intense desire to write a poem to go with it. That isn’t something that happens often; I like dream-poems but don’t usually write them. When I was assembling the chapbook, I realized that the poem I had written under that impetus combined all of the things I wanted to place in dialogue in the manuscript: order and authority on one side (in this case, the dignified character played in the Marx Brothers’ films by Margaret Dumont), and humor and creative chaos on the other (the Marx Brothers themselves). However satisfying it is to mock Margaret Dumont, meaningful work (which here I guess means Duck Soup) draws on both sides. That dialogue is especially important for artistic work, which needs to make something really new and to grapple with other, older art, but I think the problem is relevant for most ambitious projects.

NCL: The subject of work and its hand in shaping identity factors into some of your poems in the book. In the introduction of You Work Tomorrow: An Anthology of American Labor Poetry, 1929-41, an anthology of poems written by workers and published in union newspapers during the Great Depression, John Marshal writes:
As the contemporary economist Michael Zweig puts it, “To exercise power, you need to know who you are. You also need to know who the adversary is…” (74). If they did nothing else, then, these poems reminded people who they were and who their adversaries were…” (19)
And in an interview with poet Philip Levine (Fresh Air, NPR, rebroadcast on 2/20/2015), one gets the sense that his earlier work as a manual laborer, with its adversarial relationship with “management”—those in power pitted against the laborer, heavily influenced the shaping of his identity. In your poems, what role does an adversary or antagonist play with respect to shaping identity? Is there a group or person or circumstance against which the speaker rails, some power structure that needs to be overcome? or perhaps something along the lines of shaping an identity, not on what one wants to be, but what one does not want to be? How are some of the ways that work “shapes and reflects (or fails to shape and reflect) who we are” in your chapbook?

RT: In “Night Shift,” the McDonald’s poem, work provides one of the central tensions in the poem: the speakers one way or another all discuss the difference between the low-paying, unrewarding work that they are doing (purveying burgers at fifty cents an hour above minimum wage) and the meaningful work they would like to be doing instead (making music, raising their children, learning). There’s definitely an antagonist in that poem, but how you define it (management? poverty? capitalism?) may depend on your politics. The disjunction between paid and chosen work, which is particularly jarring for these speakers, helps define who they can be, not just because spending eight hours a day at a fast food restaurant constrains how you use your time but because it also shapes your body, your relationships, and how you view human nature.

In “Night Shift,” most of the speakers don’t get to do their real work. In “The Pyramid,” the speaker goes too far in the other direction, becoming obsessed with his artistic project. He thinks it’s going to secure him a kind of immortality and a connection to other people, but if that’s what he wants, he’s probably going about it wrong. Once again, there might be different accounts of who the antagonist is here. Death? Or the speaker himself?

“Isabella and Jimenez” is about a much higher-level choice: what kind of ideal we serve in our chosen (rather than our necessary) work. Isabella wants a unified Christian Spain. The poem examines the weird combination of cynicism and idealism it takes to do her work—i.e., launching the Spanish Inquisition. Here the sides are clear: it’s Isabella versus the Jews, the Moors, and (implicitly, since the poem doesn’t address them directly but is mostly set in the year 1492) the Native Americans. Which party counts as the antagonist depends on who you are; in the poem I’m interested in examining what she was thinking and how her actions have echoed in Spain ever since.

In all of those cases, how an individual balances the interplay between chosen and necessary work shows us as much about them as what their chosen work actually is.

NCL: In addition to the motif of work, what are some of the other themes, metaphors, and elements of craft that you used to unify your chapbook?

RT: Craft: I’ve been playing with concrete poetry—kind of a reaction to my early training, which was heavy on traditional form. Though I haven’t walked away from form, either; one of my favorite poems in the book is a villanelle. Themes: Closely related to the theme of work is an examination of consequences--cause and effect--on the large and small scale, like Isabella’s effect on Spain. I’ve also got an alien anthropologist deducing all of human history from the first cave painting and a damaged girl’s life as a Rube Goldberg mousetrap unwittingly set up by the people around her.

NCL: What’s one of the more crucial poems in the chapbook for you? (or what is your favorite poem?) Why? How did the poem come to be?

RT: “Old Joke,” the penultimate poem in the chapbook, is important to me. It’s built out of a joke my grandfather told us shortly before he died. The idea of using that joke’s setup and punch line as the outer layers of a poem sandwich came to me quite abruptly, and when I sat down to write it I was shocked to find how much filling the sandwich had. The process of editing the poem, which I did with the help of Terrance Hayes’ workshop at Bread Loaf in the summer of 2013, was very much one of removing extraneous material. Here’s the poem:

Old Joke

An old man goes to his doctor and says,
Doctor, how long have I got?
            (This joke is to be told in a descending intonation,
            with echoes behind the voice of the man behind the fish counter
            calling number ninety two, and Mrs. Silber requesting         
            a nice piece of whitefish, and the whirr
            of the coffee grinders, and if it were
            possible for a voice to contain a smell it would have the tinny
            smell of refrigeration holding in check
            the thousands of dollars of imported cheese;
            this joke contains gold-wrapped three-pound bars of chocolate
            and apricot jam from Turkey and rye bread which can be sliced or left whole;
            when it’s done being told, this joke will be getting on the crosstown bus
            and riding with big plastic bags lined with paper bags
            through the park on 79th Street to the east side
            where the old women wear white sneakers
            beneath their long mink coats;
            this joke will walk four blocks north from the bus stop
            through the sliding glass doors, nodding to the doorman
            whom it tips well at Christmas, past the big vase of flowers in the lobby,
            up to the apartment it’s lived in for twenty-seven years,
            alone for the last eight, where it will wrap
            cheese and halvah and chocolate and a flat
            of smoked salmon in yesterday’s Times
            to overnight to a girl in college reading too seriously
            and not cleaning her room and from the look of her starving)
And the doctor says, well, I’m not saying you’re going to die,
but don’t buy any green bananas.

(originally published at Two Serious Ladies)

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

RT: When I read poems, I want play and precision and payoff. I’m writing for people who share my priorities. So maybe I imagine myself, but a self who didn’t write the poem and wants to discover something interesting in it. Perhaps that’s why the “I” of my poems is rarely me, or is me only in passing—I couldn’t write to myself about myself and think I was getting somewhere novel.

NCL: I read your essay “Humor Saves Steps: Laughter and Humanity in Marianne Moore” and the poems you link to on your website, some of which have a delightful humor to them. Can you speak a little about the role of humor in your poems? What has been your experience in publishing those poems?

RT: Thank you for reading! I think humor is one of our most complex emotional registers, and one of our most deep-seated. One of the first things a baby learns—long before language, before even sitting up—is to laugh. Humor is really fundamental to what makes us people. And our senses of humor, like our work, shape our understanding of the world. Is it a hostile place where we laugh at other people’s failings? or do we laugh out of glee, or surprise, or fellow-feeling? and what happens when those provocations to laughter are combined? Perhaps most importantly, humor is a wonderful way to discover new ideas and strange juxtapositions, which makes it particularly fruitful for poetry.

I’ve enjoyed looking for places to publish those poems. While I’ve placed some light verse in venues like Light, my more humorous work seems to do best with journals that publish experimental writing. I like that, because it suits my theory of humor, namely that it’s a way to be innovative, to get new places.

NCL: What are you working on now?

RT: Lots of things! I’m writing a critical book on humor in modern poetry. The Moore article is one chapter of it; other chapters are on T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Sterling Brown, Elizabeth Bishop, and a big round-up of contemporary poets. I’m also editing a collection of essays on the same topic. I’ve got a book-length poetry manuscript, which is about the ways that our minds and bodies shape each other. (One of the poems in the chapbook, “Five-Paragraph Essay on the Body-Mind Problem,” provides that book’s title.) I’m always writing reviews. My husband and I recently had a baby, so I’m also working on finding ways to write while we care for him—and on making him laugh, of course!

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