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What Once Was Deadly: An interview with Corey Van Landingham about form, revision process, and the relationships between poems.

Corey Van Landingham is the author of Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens, forthcoming from Tupelo Press, and Antidote, winner of the 2012 Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. Recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Wallace Stegner Poetry Fellowship from Stanford University, her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, Boston Review, and The New Yorker. She is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing in Poetry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a Ph.D. candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati, and a Book Review Editor for Kenyon Review.

Corey Van Landingham was a Poet-in-Residence at Interlochen Arts Academy from January 14-18, 2019, offering a series of master classes to Creative Writing students. Interlochen Review editors Ash Freeman and Miracle Thornton conducted this interview with Corey following her visit.

Ash Freeman: I’m really interested in your poem, “The Chair & The Birdcage,”  in your collection Antidote. They debate the pastoral and whatever the chair says is what the cage does. The birdcage is personified as to have hips that swivel. How does this poem fit in with the rest of the collection which is so bound in grief, limerence, and anger?

Corey Van Landingham: This poem has somewhat odd origins. Like almost all of the poems in Antidote, I wrote this while living in Indiana (my first time in the Midwest), and I was fascinated by its weather, its seemingly constant tornado warnings and sirens. “The Chair & The Birdcage” began imagining these two figures trapped together inside a tornado (a fitting metaphor for a claustrophobic relationship?). But as I returned to that poem, it seemed there was, perhaps, too much going on, and that the figures might seem lonelier, and even more in peril, if radically exposed—hence the new landscape of the field, the pastoral.

Thematically, I see this poem in conversation with others in the collection that explore the complex, messy, sometimes insidious power dynamics of a relationship. Perhaps it’s somewhat of an ars poetica, as well, with all the projections onto what surrounds the chair and the birdcage—the sheep, the shepherd, the river. Points of distraction from the violence and grief underscoring all of this.

Miracle Thornton: Thinking about the skeleton of the collection, how did you go about piecing everything together? Did you start out with sections/individual sequences and then splice? Did linear progression or lack thereof have any say? And, lastly, how did you figure what should begin and end the collection?  

CVL: My incredible mentor at Purdue University, Donald Platt, was invaluable in the process of putting together this manuscript. One evening, we met on campus with all the poems that I wanted to include and, one by one, spread them out on a long conference table. At the time, the manuscript had three sections, and my homework was to have picked the poems that I wanted to begin and end each section. From there, we built each section from each end, moving slowly toward the middle. The physical process of standing up and seeing each poem together, of reading aloud last lines and seeing the different formal patterns of each poem next to each other helped immensely.

After I removed the sections, though, I still saw the manuscripts as being in parts—mainly because of having three poems titled “To Have & To Hold,” three poems titled “Valediction Lessons,” and three elegies. The entire time that I was working on putting together the manuscript, I wanted to avoid its becoming a project book. Don’t get me wrong: I think those can be beautiful and luminous and quite valuable. But I didn’t want it to be a dead father book or a breakup book or a surrealist self-meditation book; I wanted it to be all those things. The simultaneity and multiplicity of themes kept me interested, kept me motivated, and prevented me (I hope!) from writing the same poem again and again. But, in a way, this made the entire process of choosing poems more difficult. In the end, it came down to pairing and contrasting tonal registers and, I’ll admit, trying not to have too many couplets together.

I also gave myself the task of reading a lot of first books by women poets, and I know that many of them have been quite influential—especially Anna Journey’s If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, Nicky Beer’s The Diminishing House, Traci Brimhall’s Rookery, Arda Collins’s It Is Daylight, and Mary Szybist’s Granted. Though it’s not a first book, the most important book for me while writing and organizing my own book has been Joanna Klink’s Raptus.

As far as what begins and ends the collection, I’ll answer honestly—I truly don’t remember how I decided on those two poems. I know that I wanted to begin the book in difficulty, in subject as well as in the experience of getting through the poem, and “Autonomy, Landscape, Terrible Love” makes a reader dive straight in, no hand-holding.

MT:  Taking a look at the poem “Dirge: For Pompeii”, I’m curious about the relationship between form and title, the way the poems wiggles across the page almost melodically. Do you find a container for your poems as you write or is that something comes about afterwards? Particularly with this piece, did you find yourself writing towards that slithering structure an,  if not, how much did you have to sacrifice for the poem to fit the form?

CVL: What a weird little poem! This had a completely different shape initially—left-aligned, multiple stanzas—which wasn’t really doing much for the poem. A professor of mine suggested thinking about something like an earthquake curve vector for the poem, which demanded slimmer lines, and I had to cut a lot of the language away to make that visually appealing. In the shifting of forms, the dirge-like feeling became heightened—less narrative filling, more lyric compression.

AF: What was your revision process like for Antidote? How has it changed as you work on other projects?

CVL: Recently I looked back at an old document of “poems”—first drafts, fragments, scrap piles—origins of Antidote. The poems were all scrubbed, draft after draft after draft, in weekly meetings with my MFA mentor. When it came to the manuscript, however, other than taking out the sections, a couple additions and subtractions, the book was very close to my MFA thesis. I had moved to Texas, I wasn’t in direct contact with many writers, I was working full-time waiting tables, and I had little time, or energy, to think much about poetry. Sending the book out for publication felt like little pulses of light, tiny bursts of possibility, in a dismal year. If it hadn’t been accepted somewhat early on, I’m sure I would have kept working on it, but maybe it would have been a different book, not quite as raw, as nervy.

In some ways, this might always be the case. I’m quite relieved that my second book wasn’t accepted the first time I sent it out in 2014. It took four more years, of revising, re-sending, revising again, and it’s so much better for that time and space to develop and mature. We grow with our poems, our books, and the longer you live with something, the more it will change. Publication in some way is an arbitrary thing—without it, would we consider anything truly finished? I’m not sure. I still revise poems from Antidote during readings, and though it feels like an entirely different person wrote that book, I try to be good to her.

AF: How did you decide on the epigraph at the beginning of your collection? What does it add? Did you decide on it before or after you finished the collection.

CVL: The epigraph came late late late, and, honestly? I was just searching the Internet for things that had to do with antidotes. No great mystery, no long origins, no love affair with Donne. But that one, once I found it, felt perfect. Death, hair, feathers—it was already part of my book’s world, its cabinet of curiosities.

I hope it adds some complexity to the poems, and even a small gesture of hope—that what once was harmful, was deadly for humans is now used to heal us.