Poems Like Poured Gasoline–an Interview with Beth Bachmann

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These days, I’ve been gobbling up first collections faster than fun size Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. One that I can’t get out of my mind is Beth Bachmann’s Temper. It is chilling, startling, memorable–all things that I crave in poetry. Temper was awarded the 2008  AWP Award Series Donald Hall Prize (chosen by Lynn Emanuel) and the 2010 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Sometimes, I read prize-winning collections and think, “Really?” Not this one; I read it, read it again, and came back to it, each and every time noticing something new and wonderful. I wanted it to win more awards. Because I can’t give it one (that will matter), I will share my good fortune with the lovely people who read this blog–an interview with award-winning poet Beth Bachmann.

DM: What impressed me most about Temper is that, for a first collection, the narrative arc is exceptionally tight. How did it come together?

BB: I knew that I had lit certain fuses in the first section that I had to return to but I didn’t feel the desire or obligation to do this in a linear way. My uncles used to make gunpowder firecrackers. We’d go out into this dark field and sure there would be the requisite blasts of light but in between there would be voices and shadows and fireflies and after-images and debris.

DM: So many of the poems deal with the speaker’s sister’s death, yet all of those poems are unique. How do you keep the experience of writing new for yourself?

BB: That must be a character trait of the poet: not tiring of one’s own poems, at least while writing them. It probably has to do with artist narcissism or mania. I think of Bergman. It’s so clear he’s never bored. Note here the narcissism through which I compare myself to Bergman. I’m obsessed with Bergman.

I guess I wasn’t so much interested in making it new as much as holding the gaze. At the time, psychically, nearly everything triggered a threat of violence for me so it wasn’t hard to keep it ‘new’ in that way. If anything, I probably took a dull pleasure in the indulgence after years of refusal.

Photo by Brian O. Bachmann

DM: I heard Nick Flynn speak at Poets House recently, and he noted that he doesn’t write poems about death for catharsis, but rather, for cathexis. Did writing Temper provide either for you?

BB: Ah, yes, catharsis. Nick and I talk about that a lot. The thing about catharsis is that its root comes from purging in an effort to purify and I’m certain that aesthetically,at least, that was not what I was after: pure vomit. What I mean is I wanted the violence to remain dirty, not clean, as a way to honor it.

I think Nick talks about Aristotle as only promising catharsis for the viewer, not the maker. I know I’ve found deep calm in Nick’s poems, so maybe he’s right. Aristotle, I mean.

As for cathexis, I am really interested in energy right now. In my new poems, energy is almost displacing my fixation with tone. Cathexis has ‘holding’ at its root, which to me does seem more akin to the act of writing, holding the poem in the body, in the breath, in the mouth and ear and hands.

DM: One difficulty I’ve had while compiling my thesis is organization; how did you embark on organizing the poems into the three sections that comprise Temper?

BB: Once everything’s written, it’s not hard to know where everything goes. The hard part, for me, was figuring out what needed to be written. Reading army manuals led me back to my father and from there out of the book (in poems like “Evasion,” “Tracking,” and “Supple” in the final section). They gave me the after-image I was after.

DM: How did you know that the collection was complete?

BB: The title poem was the last poem I wrote. I knew I had everything. I even had the title Temper but I knew I wanted a poem “Temper” to define that space. This took about a year of waiting for it to arrive. Then it was fall and I was nursing my baby and reading about California wildfire. I wrote while she slept. The poem felt like poured gasoline. It was just the place I’d been longing to enter.

To purchase Temper, visit Beth’s website. After you read it and fall in love with it, drop her a line and tell her so.

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About In Verse the Feet Went Bare

The more I struggled to be plain, the more Mannerism hobbled me. What for? Since it had never truly fit, why wear The shoe of prose? In verse the feet went bare." ~James Merrill, The Book of Ephraim Danielle Mebert is a poet with an MFA from Adelphi University and a manuscript that has been collecting dust. Her work has been published in Buzzard Picnic, Writers' Bloc, Write Room, Gloom Cupboard, Barefoot Muse, and The Body Attacks Itself. She lives in New York.

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