Mary: If you were to tag these two books, what subjects would you choose? My guesses would be: astronomy, weather, winter, Buddhism and Christianity, dogs, the female body, family history—what would you subtract or add to this list?
Ann: For Sugaring: New England, Vermont; For St. Agnes: women’s experience; and for both: the sacred in the everyday.
Mary: Both books are full of suburban landscapes. There’s “rain on a dirt road,” the “sky on my skin,” all full of color and smells (pine trees) and very tactile (you describe yourself as bread in the rain). But in all of the poems you describe the visceral body feeling of being in a landscape, how it feels. You also gravitate to winter and rain (“heaven is meant to break wide open”). In “Magnetic North” you describe “my own winter” and winter in your poems seems to symbolize coldness, death, “eyes blizzarding.” How does living in New England serve your material in terms of weather and landscape? And how does it serve your raw feeling about those things?
Ann: In New England, weather is fierce—it can bend 100-foot pines or create a crater in a dirt road. Hurricane Irene rearranged houses, riverbeds and local landscapes in less than 12 hours. So Vermonters have a certain respect for weather—you don’t try to outrun or second guess it. Given its scope—from the hermit thrush’s twilight call in summer to white-out winter blizzards, there is lots of fodder for poetic interpretation. Like many poets before me, I can ascribe the complexity of human emotion to this ever-changing force, or address my own awe and understanding of it.
Mary: Astronomy has a place in both books as well. You describe the moon at windows to “rattle the insane” and in “Amateur Astronomers Asleep on Pine Island” you talk about the Veil, the Milky Way, the violence and the terror of space. In “Aurora” you express sympathy with an aurora and the violence of its needs. Many poems juxtapose what’s going on in the sky with what’s happening in our consciousness (astronomers asleep, humans feeling vulnerable), or the science juxtaposed with religion. Did you come to astronomy as a sideways passion through your husband?
Mary: Has your interest evolved?
Ann: Yes. I feel very at home looking at the night sky, being able to identify planets and constellations as humans have done for centuries. It’s a pleasure to be driving along and to see a sundog in the sky and know what that is, or to watch the International Space Station glide overhead at a predetermined hour. Anything that a person learns about—be it art, music or astronomy—increases the sense of connectedness and pleasure.
Mary: How do you feel astronomy and religion work together in your poems?
Ann: Astronomy is all about the tension of what we know vs. what we don’t know. You see this breathless excitement animating scientists who address their work in documentaries. Astronomy and religion, at their core, celebrate mystery. People separate science and religion—but both originate from the same source. I love the mystery in either case.
Mary: In both books you deal with the family story. I love the names by the way (Lovrien, Jules, Isadora, Alfred). In St. Agnes, “the dead want our breath” and in Sugaring you describe the family like a painter’s canvas, one that won’t re-bend around a frame. Can you talk about the emotional (and technical) complications of writing about family? How does your family relate to you as a poet and artist?
Ann: Artists are naturally complex people, and I grew up in a family of them. It’s been challenging to find a vehicle to write about their experience and relationships and how all that has impacted me. “Northeast Kingdom” finally gave me an opportunity to “frame” that, my understanding—and appreciation—of my father’s family.
I am not sure my immediate family really “gets” my role as a poet. That said, I am not sure most of the public understand what motivates poets. I am grateful that my husband, Michael, a gifted guitarist and songwriter, has always encouraged me, and offered insightful feedback and guidance.
Mary: Your relationship to animals is threaded throughout both books, especially experiences with your dogs and issues of care-taking and communion with them. In Sugaring you talk about stray coyotes (“he owns me now”), a bear, you express likeness with a frog in the rain, and in St. Agnes you find yourself talking to an ant in “Anthem” (awesome title!). Did you have pets growing up? How can you trace your interest in writing about animals?
Ann: I suppose I have always had this sense of connectedness with the natural world and its denizens. I had two goldfish and one ornery yellow parakeet briefly when I was growing up. I didn’t have dogs until midlife, and they were a revelation.
Mary: The love story of the title poem of Sugaring is amazing; it really pops open idea of a sweet love, talking about maple syrup and strategies of mating. In St. Agnes you talk about the wet contact of marriage as you discuss the back and forth of voyeurism in “The Boys of Iona Prep.” Can you describe the challenges of writing about an intimate partner? Does it help to come at the subject from the idea of something tactile like sugar or leaving for work and having an intimate moment in front of school boys?
Ann: Thanks for your comments on “Sugaring”! Yes, any poem benefits from another angle or comparison to something tactile. I rarely say, “I am going to now write a poem about my intimate partner.” Instead, an opportunity presents itself—like a visit to Sugar and Spice, a restaurant in Mendon, Vermont, which does sugaring in addition to serving delicious pancakes; or a moment when I am kissing my husband good-bye at the train and catch the eye of a hormone-laden adolescent.
Mary: As a book, St. Agnes feels more personal, heavier in a way. The first poem “Landfill” is about a near-death drowning and in recovery being “ravenous for…a mooring’s late night knocks” and the “the silver net of chance.” The book also follows up on themes of winter, the funeral in “February” (in fact “February” is the only poem in both books), and explications of grief. In “Irradiation” you describe grief scientifically with words like radioactive and plutonium. You also describe grief as “vibrating like an electric current.” Did you feel any shifts in emotion or topics between the first and second books? Did working through these darker themes have an emotional impact on how you experienced grief? How does science help you write about emotion?
Ann: It’s said that poets either write about love or loss and I definitely fall into the latter. Grief is a complex emotion that can take a person to dark places. After I experienced a series of losses, writing poetry helped me locate and anchor myself in a world that had changed. Science, which is so left-brained and logical, offers rich metaphorical opportunities for addressing such emotional complexity. After focusing on art much of my life, I find the poetic possibilities in science striking.
Mary: Both books lightly touch on the female body and the feeling of being in one. You talk about your uterus, the free feeling of motherlessness, breast imaging and a biopsy and also poems about makeup where you describe a mall-counter makeover (“Let someone else define me”) and your mother’s makeup table. We’ve talked about this previously. I can’t remember exactly what but it was almost, in my memory, like a poet’s guilt over use of makeup. Love of TV and makeup made us somewhat unusual at Sarah Lawrence. Am I remembering this right?
Mary: Is this celebration of makeup a mark of your rebellion against stereotype?
Ann: No, I don’t think of it that way. It’s much more mundane.
Mary: What is the allure of makeup for you? How does it give your body meaning? Or meaning to the whole female experience?
Ann: Makeup is my cultural inheritance as a woman born mid-century. We see women in other cultures piercing their noses, stretching out their bottom lips, or putting a red dot on the forehead, and we say, “How lovely that they adorn themselves this way!” I get up in the morning and put on sunscreen, lipstick and mascara. That’s my tribal routine at 7 a.m.
Mary: Also, does talking about your body feel like you’re taking ownership of it in some political way?
Ann: Yes, most definitely.
Mary: Or do you feel you are just exploring the experience of living in a female body?
Ann: That too. Much of my long poem “Demoiselles 7” (Feminist Studies 37.3), based on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, asks why western religion has avoided or shut out the female body as a container or vehicle for expressing spirituality. Maybe Anne Sexton started the whole theme of writing about the female body but poets have not yet explored that enough.
Mary: I love your take on topics of modern life, news events (“Runaway Bride”), the hospital name change from the religious to a more generic name in the title poem of St. Agnes, which is told with humorous grim reportage. You describe your working landscape in New York City (“Express”), the shoe department (“First Job”), taxis, trains, “schedules like mobiles,” Grand Central Station, “bodies like loaves of bread”, ecstasy at the price club with “paper plates in southern columns/do I want, do I want/transubstantiation in corn flakes.” How does humor enter in to your discussions about current events? Does it happen at the onset or does it come as you work over a poem?
Ann: I would say it happens at the onset of a poem. Playful insight into an idea or event always draws me to write about it. If there is any humor, it grows out of that perspective.
Mary: In St. Agnes you also have some very arresting historical poems, one about a dead soldier whose book you are reading in “Shrapnel” (“Your No. 1 pencil so delicate, so willing to be erased.”) and “Velocity” about the pre-death of JFK. I loved these and was wondering if you plan to do more historical poems in the future?
Ann: I would love to write on my grandfather, Julius Gregory (1875-1954), a noted architect in his day.
Mary: What I really like about your poems is how you get a clear line of your thought process. These are poems about a person thinking. Mulling over the natural absurdity and beauty of things with logic and metaphor and some bit of ambivalence. Would you agree with this?
Ann: Yes, that’s a great description.
Mary: For this April's National Poetry Month, you did a project called Pulitzer Prize Remix where you excerpted 30 found poems from a Pulitzer Prize winning novel that was assigned to you, Now in November by Josephine Winslow Johnson (won in 1935). Did you do blackout poems or did you find found poems in their entirety?
Ann: I condensed the narrative and plucked different words from the passages to keep the story line. It was a fantastic exercise into what makes poetry vs. prose.
Mary: How do poems get started? Do you have the proverbial notebook of ideas? What does a spark of inspiration look like to you?
Ann: Mary, I have thought long and hard about this. As a poet, I have access to moments that seem to resonate on a deeper, fuller and richer level than those in ordinary time. When that happens, I have already entered the poem. It’s a matter of capturing it in a journal or notebook.
Mary: Can you describe the act of bringing a poem to completion? Do you start with notes or begin with a sentence and proceed from there? Do you free-write?
Ann: After writing down what I have experienced, I will pull out what seems poem-like and rewrite it until it starts breathing on its own. I craft it to the best of my ability and then share it with poet-friends who suggest edits.
Mary: Can you describe what a good ending feels like?
Ann: The proverbial door clicking shut.
Mary: How do you approach a title?
Ann: I want titles to add depth and resonance; sometimes double-entendre or a wink at the reader.
Mary: How did you go about organizing your poems for a collection? Do you organize chronologically or by theme or tone?
Ann: I spread all my poems on the floor, and then group and shuffle them by tone. I want the pacing, from serious to funny to sad, to flow naturally, like the arc of a good plot.
Mary: What were the most challenging parts or points of frustration putting the books together?
Ann: When I was putting together Sugaring, I ran out of New England poems—so I had this momentary gap. Fortunately, I turned to my astronomy poems which fit in perfectly and supported the overall theme.
Mary: Can you share any help you received from mentors in either book project?
Ann: Remember when we went to the West Chester University Poetry Conference? Robert McDowell of Storyline Press gave a workshop on poetry manuscripts. He said more or less: “Find something you love to do. Give service to your community. Have a life rich in friends and family.” That was the best advice I ever received for writing a book—basically a commission to live fully and well.
Mary: How does your work in painting influence your poems and visa versa?
Ann: While I no longer paint, many people have commented on the “painterly quality” in my work. That’s a compliment I love to receive. Lovrien, my artist-grandmother, always said that good painters didn’t need a trained hand as much as a trained eye. That’s true for poets too.
Mary: You mentioned Frida Kahlo in Sugaring…do you get inspiration from her and what are the painters and other artists who have influenced you and why?
Ann: While I admire Kahlo, I am more drawn to colorists such as Matissse, Rothko and Wolf Kahn. I’ve always loved vivid color and can’t explain why. My interest in Picasso shows up in my poems “Guernica” and “Demoiselles 7.” That’s because, as a high school student, I was in the next room at MoMA when an Iranian protestor spray-painted Guernica. That experience somehow imprinted my psyche.
Mary: Do your poems and art pieces share themes? If so, which themes?
Ann: What they share in common, if not themes, is an intense focus into a specific time and place. Like Degas said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Whether it’s a still life, landscape, portrait or a poem, I want others to enter into the subject as I have.
Mary: I want to ask you about the book Hence This Cradle (Seismicity Editions), the book by Hélène Sanguinetti you translated from the French in 2007. How do you approach the translation of a poem?
Ann: It’s pretty systematic—I go for a literal translation first, and then shape the poem to more closely approximate the text or poetic meaning.
Mary: How do you get into the cadence and tone of another poet?
Ann: I look at the word choice and determine which English word would come closest to the sound as well as meaning. Is the word multisyllabic or one syllable? Delicate or harsh? Translation is this ongoing dialogue.
Mary: At a reading of the Sanguinetti poems in 2007, you spoke about the differences in sounds of English and French words. Can you speak about that and how the two books read differently due to the sound qualities?
Ann: My natural inclination toward lyric narrative made the translation much smoother in sound than Sanginetti intended in the original. She describes the language in Hence as raclé or “scraped.” To realize that took me by surprise.
Mary: How would you describe Sanguinetti’s poems to a new reader?
Ann: Challenging and enchanting. My shorthand is sometimes “crazy” or “difficult”– and I mean that respectfully in the sense of taking risks and being faithful to one’s originality.
Mary: To speak on the shapes of your poems, I notice St. Agnes experiments more with indenting than did Sugaring (only “Aurora” uses indenting). Can you talk about the evolution of your use of indenting?
Ann: Translating Sanguinetti influenced my patterns of indenting and spacing. She considers space on the page to be an integral part of her poems and plays with it in outrageous ways. As a result, I like to see visual diversity in poetry collections, including my own.
Mary: I love your very individual usage of italics. They seem to work much like overheard words and phrases or daring things spoken out loud. (Hug a tree. Why not?/Try/Use your wings/Yes/Take your time/I’ll think about it or phrases the dogs would say. Sometimes I get the feeling you are being sardonic. What is your take on your choices in italics?
Ann: I use them where other people might use quotes to indicate direct speech or thought.
Mary: The greater amount of your poems have long lines with thin stanzas. However, your poetic voice make judicious use of articles and words and the poems retain an efficient, almost Spartan, quality that differs from, for example, the list-making repetition of Walt Whitman and his long lines. It feels almost like an optical illusion what you do. How do you think about your line breaks?
Ann: I like breaks to have a page-turner quality—that is, to make someone want to keep reading. Also to create surprise when the next line reveals a different meaning. And I like to use stanza breaks to reinforce ideas of separation or physical movement in a poem.
Mary: I want to say your one-word titles feel New Englandy. Is that off-base?
Ann: I’d never considered that—but there is a Shaker-like tidiness about a one-word title.
Mary: I loved the poem “Kerning” in St. Agnes where you defend the double space after the period (“Good fences that make good neighbors”) and when you say “text is tantric.” Can you elaborate on that great line and your feelings about typography?
Ann: The old two-space rule after a period seems to be going the way of the dinosaur although my poem “Kerning” argues for it. It seems we should be able to take a breath at the end of a sentence. You have to question the pace of a world that eliminates that extra space between thoughts.
Mary: What books are you reading now, poetry and non-poetry?
Ann: The Wanted by Michael Tyrell and no non-poetry right now.
From the Proust Questionnaire…
Mary: What is your favorite virtue
Mary: What do you appreciate most in your friends?
Ann: Constancy—the ability to pick up right where we left off although time may have passed.
Ann: Still, which contains both sustained action and immobility.
Ann: James Agee—mostly for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men which documents 1930s tenant farmers down south in poetry, journal entries and prose. The work not only represents social activism but is amazingly experimental for its time. It’s a historic narrative of two artists—James Agee and photographer Walker Evans—who must respond to the relentless pain and poverty they encounter.
Mary: Who is your favorite poet (and why)?
Ann: CD Wright, who writes poetry which is both accessible and experimental. One with Others (2010) is much in the vein of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—it is an innovative, social activist work. The book addresses a 1969 civil rights march through small towns, documented in the words of observers and participants. It’s like a literary collage, culturally significant, creative, and fulfilling.
Ann: Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970). Whenever I hear “Purple Haze” or “All Along the Watchtower,” I am reminded how he gave himself completely to his music, to his gift, in that moment in time. There’s a saying that a person ought to burn themselves up completely so there’s not even smoke left—and that’s what Hendrix did. He makes me want to write exquisitely and daringly.
Ann: I don’t know if any come to mind. I might choose Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.
Ann: Donna Reynolds and Tim Racer, founders of Bad Rap, who were instrumental in saving more than a dozen of the Michael Vick dogs, while bringing national attention to the true nature of pit bull-type dogs. Jim Gorant details their contribution in The Lost Dogs.
Ann: The No Kill Movement, which is helping legislators create laws that reverse routine neglect and mass killing of homeless animals that takes place at shelters across this country.
Ann: Grateful and complete.
Mary: What is your present state of mind?
Mary: What are you working on now?
Ann: A work about my dogs.
To Learn More About Ann Cefola
- St. Agnes, Pink-Slipped at Kattywompus Press
- Sugaring at Dancing Girl Press
- Ann's translation from the French of Hence This Cradle byHélène Sanguinetti at Seismicity Editions
To read her Pulitzer Prize Remix poems, visit nowinnovember.blogspot.com.
You can receive her free monthly poetry + arts newsletter at www.anncefola.com.