A conversation with: Karen Rigby

First Book Conversation
Chinoiserie by Karen Rigby, Ahsahta Press
Karen Rigby is the author of Chinoiserie, winner of the 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowship, her work has been published in journals such as Washington Square, Meridian, and failbetter.com. She currently lives in Arizona, and co-edits Cerise Press.

1. We begin your book with a poem that moves through various parts of the body, and your first three poems all contain the word “bones.” Why is the body the starting point for the book?

I think every poet arrives at his or her own series of talismanic words that are returned to again and again, and at the subconscious level, such repetition must mean something. Bone is a way of expressing the elemental. Something pared down to bone. White as bone. Bone-chilling. During the time I was working on the manuscript, the word kept appearing. In retrospect, a different sensibility might have struck it out, but for me, those small word-to-word linkages from poem-to-poem are what create the scaffolding for a book (or at least this one.)

2. What do you resist most in your work? What do you think you’d struggle to include in a poem?

The autobiographical – not because I reject it as material for poetry, as there are marvelous, rending poems that draw from real experiences, but because I’m more curious about the past that I don’t know and haven’t lived (hence, poems inspired by 15th century art…) than I am about what I’ve already gone through. Turning an eye inward to discover a new angle is closer to memoir for me; more room, for starters.

3. Many of the poems in Chinoiserie are ekphrastic, but others are cinephrastic. How does film figure into your work?

The films depicted in the book – Sunset Boulevard, The Lover, Splendor in the Grass – all feature female leads who are facing the challenges of the body and its boundaries: an aging actress; a teenager in a passionate relationship; and a teenager who eventually experiences a breakdown. There are other brief references (to Rita Hayworth, and to a character, Isabelle, in a Bertolucci film.) The poems were written separately at different times, but once the process of assembling the manuscript began, they seemed to belong together. Film plays a role in much the same way as paintings, cities, or any other topic: if some kernel about them has sparked an image or line, the poem begins.

4. All of the blurbs on the back of your book mention beauty in one way or another, and your images often are incredibly ornate and elegant. What do you think is beauty’s role in your work?

Beauty is primary – I seek it – but in much of my work, it is also a counterpoint for darkness. A poem on black roses can hold burgundy, ironwork, and vellum just as easily as larvicide, thorns, and the Vampiric. I find such tension more interesting. Beauty alone has its pleasures, but that would not tell a whole story.

There are lines in another poem in the book which read: “everything I know about beauty I learned / from the body’s ruin.” We don’t live in an Edenic world. That a sense of the fallen would imbue everything makes sense to me, yet in spite of that, the search for beauty continues.

5. I’m almost afraid to ask about “Knife. Bass. Woman,” but I have to know. The final simile is so stark; if you can say, what’s the story behind this poem?

The poem — the oldest in the book— was written in my early twenties. It was inspired by “Frying Trout While Drunk,” which had been introduced in a poetry workshop. At that time, and even now, I was amazed by the way darkness seeps into the poem, which recounts a complicated memory while describing the simple act of cooking. Describing the speaker’s mother, the poet writes:

And mother, wrist deep in red water,
Laying a trail from the sink
To a glass of gin and back.

“Knife.Bass.Woman.” began as a loose response, an exercise considering each item in turn. Over the course of a few drafts, the poem acquired an ominous tone. The final line appeared in that hauled-out-of-nowhere way that happens when the imagination unlatches. It is a line that relies on the reader’s associations to complete the image. That leap into the bizarre is the kind of risk I tend to trust when it shows up.

6. I’ve been writing recently about how publication changes writers. How do you feel the publication of Chinoiserie has changed your approach to and perception of your writing? Do you feel publication has changed the way you see yourself as a writer?

Publication is satisfying, but it isn’t a major departure. A writer is a writer. The same challenges in generating new work remain. At best, maybe now there is more confidence – if there was one book in me, there may be another. Asked the same question tomorrow, however, I might respond with the opposite, which would be the worst – maybe those were all the words I had left!

7. What is the next for you? What’s the next frontier you hope to cross in your poetry?

More poems. Hopefully with a new depth that comes with time.

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