Part II: An Interview with Jill Bialosky
By The Editors on 4.24.09
Jill Bialosky is the author of three volumes of poetry (Intruder, Subterranean, and The End of Desire) and two novels (The Life Room and House Under Snow). The following interview focuses on Intruder, Bialosky’s most recent work, published by Knopf in October 2008.
Poems Out Loud: When I read “Music is Time” in Intruder, I thought of Robert Frost and his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Like all your poems, “Music is Time” is very accessible, and so someone without much experience reading poetry could easily appreciate the sound and rhythm of the lines, but a careful reader is able to marvel at the deceptive simplicity of this work. With that said, I have to ask you—because I feel his presence in your poems—whether you see Robert Frost as an influence on your aesthetic.
Bialosky: I have been engaged by Frost’s poems since I was a young girl and my fifth-grade teacher read us “The Road Not Taken.” I was struck by the last two lines of the poem where the speaker chooses the road less traveled. I marveled that a poem could pack such a punch and take me along its journey, and there would be meaning in it. A new way of seeing, which in a sense is a definition for poetry. I suppose I was drawn to Frost’s work initially because his poems tell stories. There is narrative drama and tension. I don’t think a winter goes by when I am not reminded of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which is as melodic as a lullaby. “I have miles to go before I sleep, / miles to go before I sleep.” All of which is to say that Frost has been a hero of mine. I admire the cadence and music in his poems and the great American voice in his work that is strong and prescient. I also like the clarity of his poems and the way in which clarity can still provide mystery. I often aim for that particular kind of clarity and story in a poem.
Poems Out Loud: I want to ask you a slightly complicated question because I was most struck by the sort of mystical thread running through Intruder. I’m also hoping that your answer to this question will provide the right context for a follow-up question. So, here we go. In his introduction to The Book of J, Harold Bloom argues that Yahweh (Jehovah) is a complex and troublesome extended metaphor for speech and thought. He suggests that we may think of Yahweh as the “awakened imagination” of the female figure “J.” He’s saying that there’s poetry or some divine fire, and that the poet is a channel through which these things flow. How do you see that relationship (God-prophet, muse-poet) informing Intruder?
Bialosky: I love this question because the subtext of many of the poems in Intruder is about the pulls and seductions of art. How far can we go in the imagination before we need to be pulled back, and what are the dangers of going too far? In one poem called “The Poet Contemplates Her Calling,” I evoke Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus travels to the underworld to rescue Eurydice. If she follows him into the light, she would be changed from a shade black to a woman; but if Orpheus doubted, if he looked back to see her, she would be lost to him forever. That myth enchants me because without doubt, no good art can be made. In other words, it is often the balance, the fear of going too far and not going far enough, the artist must walk. I was playing with this theme when I was writing that particular poem and in general many of the poems that make up Intruder. What are the risks? And perhaps a form of Yahweh was awakened and transformed into my “intruder.” It’s a splendid conceit, in any case.
Poems Out Loud: Let’s talk about the title poem of Intruder. “Intruder” is really a gorgeous poem, and I found myself enchanted by how you’ve compressed a very particular emotion and tone into a very fine shape. The lyricism and precision are striking. The intruder here changes shape, seems to be myriad voices (child, love, muse), pulling the speaker of the poem into some dissociative space. And in the last line of the poem the intruder is “dressed in his cloak of many colors,” a clear allusion to the biblical story of Joseph. As you obviously know, Jacob gave the “cloak of many colors” to his favorite son, Joseph. Joseph’s brothers, in turn, were enraged by their father’s show of favoritism and responded by throwing Joseph into a pit and then selling him into slavery. So, the cloak, which at first appears a blessing, leads to enslavement. That in mind, could you discuss the pull the intruder has on the speaker in this and other poems you’ve written? Is the speaker, at some level, fearful of the intruder?
Bialosky: In the book the “intruder” threatens and seduces and provokes the poet. In a sense, the intruder challenges the self so that the self might recognize the different layers she inhabits. Perhaps fear is related to recognition. We fear that which we cannot see. And so the intruder appears almost at times as a double, or mirror or muse or imagined lover for the self. Who are we stripped of our many guises—mother, wife, lover, poet?
Poems Out Loud: Do you see the intruder’s pull on the speaker as the primary source of tension in this collection?
Poems Out Loud: In “The Poet Contemplates the Nature of Reality” you play with transport, and you shift time and place in a way that could be disorienting but isn’t because of your precision. The speaker of this poem is in some indoor space overhearing her son practice his violin, but at the same time she’s imagining or remembering a scene of a deer in winter on the side of the road. For the speaker, it seems, an imagined life has always completed with reality, and it’s as if the only thing that can pull her out of her fever dream—some interior vista where she sees the frozen deer—is the sound of her son’s violin. I find this so interesting because here the speaker is trying to leave her creative space or imagined life behind, feeling the tug of the real world (her son), and yet at this very moment her son is trying to inhabit some creative space as he learns “Au Clair de la Lune.” What’s happening here? Has a muse been transported from mother to son? Is the intruder now pulling the speaker toward son?
Bialosky: That is such an interesting and evocative interpretation. When one is working on a poem, we can’t know where the poem will take us, or what we will discover in the journey. One of the mysteries of poetry is the way in which a reader can enter a poem and see things in it that the poet may or may not have intended. When I was writing “The Poet Contemplates the Nature of Reality,” I was thinking again about the creation of art and the imagination, and the importance of a self in poetry, whether an invented self, or the self of the poet, and also about self-knowledge, which is a gift the poet in the poem wants to pass down to the boy. E. M. Forester has this wonderful passage about the unknowable self in his book Aspects of the Novel: “For human intercourse, as soon as we look at it for its own sake and not as a social adjunct, is seen to be haunted by a spectre. We cannot understand each other, except in a rough and ready way; we cannot reveal ourselves, even when we want to; what we call intimacy is only a makeshift; perfect knowledge is an illusion.” This is part of the tension in the poem—the poet’s awareness of the “unknowable self” and her desire to capture it for fear for her boy.
Poems Out Loud: There are images of snow throughout Intruder, not to mention the image on the cover, which looks like blurred snowflakes caught between faint light and a camera’s lens at night. And, of course, your first novel was called House Under Snow. Could you talk about snow as a presence in your work?
Bialosky: Snow is beautiful and haunting and ethereal. In Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” the landscape of the poem evokes the loneliness of humanity. Perhaps that is one of my associations with snow. It certainly was a big part of my childhood growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. But perhaps I’ve overused it in my work. I must try and write a book without snow in it! I have a long poem at the center of Intruder called “The Skiers.” In this poem a snow-filled mountain is almost a character in the poem, the way in which New York becomes a character in a Woody Allen film, for instance. The poem was inspired by several skiing trips in the Colorado Rockies. I was struck by the elemental beauty of those mountains, and again, the dangers, pulls, and seductions of the natural world. I was going up the chair lift one blizzardy morning and it was very desolate and I thought of “Paradise Lost,” and suddenly the idea for the poem came to me. In the poem a pair of lovers are skiing, and an intruder attempts to part them. Perhaps it is my most biblical poem yet!
Poems Out Loud: You’re from Cleveland, Ohio, and I think you’re often asked about your path from there to New York. I’m interested, though, in how the landscape of Cleveland might be present in your work. I ask because you’re a very elegant writer, and whether or not it’s fair, I find your elegance on the page at odds with my own (mis)conception of Cleveland. How do you see place—Cleveland or elsewhere—inhabiting the form of your poems?
Bialosky: One well known writer, I think it may have been Garcia Marquez, once said that childhood is the basis for all of his work. Again, elemental stuff. But there’s truth to it. And landscape and place indeed informs who we are: our moral center. Cleveland is an industrial city and I suppose it will never recover from the time, I think it was in 1969, when an oil slick and debris in the Cuyahoga River caught fire. It’s a beautiful metaphor for the city. I grew up in the suburbs, in Shaker Heights, and I was always struck by the dichotomy of the poverty in the inner city and the opulence of the suburbs. I’m not sure how that factors in my work as a poet, but I think there’s something to that tension. Of course, those in my family were misfits. We lived in a safe and secure suburb, but there was nothing safe or secure about my childhood, marked by the early death of my father.
Editor’s Note: For more from Jill Bialosky, read Part I of her interview with Poems Out Loud.