THINGS WE’RE DYING TO KNOW…
Let’s start with the book’s title and cover image. How did you choose each ? And, if I asked you to sum up your book, what three words immediately come to mind ?
I always feel like I struggle with titles. I want readers to be intrigued, but at the same time, I don’t want to give too much away. Because this is a book of found poems, I went to the text that I was working with, which was the transcripts from the film (Grey Gardens). I don’t remember how long it took me to find what could be construed as a throw-away line; a description of how “Little Edie”’s voice sounded in a particular exchange…but that voice is huge. The cover was designed by Kristy Bowen, who runs Dancing Girl Press. I gave her a photograph of Edie Beale, in which she is holding a mirror in front of her face. She is wearing a hat, not unlike one that her mother wears in the film. I wanted very much to use this photo for the cover, and I contacted Maysles Films about using it. I didn’t receive a reply, and I was concerned that there might be copyright issues. I sent the photo to Kristy, and she came up with what I think is a great image: a hat and a mirror. It’s succinct, and very right, because costume and appearance were huge in Little Edie’s life. She had modelled when she was younger, and was still (I think) a beautiful woman. If I could give you my book in three words, it would have to be voice, mother, and daughter.
What were you trying to achieve with your book ? Tell us about the world you were trying to create, and who lives in it?
On one level, I was trying to do a complete reversal from my first chapbook, The Country of No, which seems unrelentingly heavy and dark. I wanted to try inject levity into my work, and I don’t know that I can do that (yet) when writing about my own life. However, in adopting the personas of these two women--who were very much alive--I was able to do that. That isn’t to say that Edie isn’t serious, or doesn’t hint at dark things, but it goes about it in a different way. As for creating a world, well, the Beales had already presented their lives to the world. It’s been made into a musical, and a kind of backstory appeared in the Jessica Lange/Drew Barrymore film. Perhaps I was trying to approximate what would happen if Little Edie wrote a book of poems; she speaks about writing a book during the film. I think that I wanted to show that their home, Grey Gardens, was not only a physical place, but also a state of mind that was difficult to leave.
I read in another interview where you said that the poems in Edie (Whispering) came quite easily to you. Why do you think that is? Of course, Grey Gardens, which explores the daily lives of two of Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ eccentric female relatives—Edith Bouvier “Big Edie” Beale and her daughter Edie “Little Edie” Beale—who rarely leave their Long Island estate and essentially live in the past, is a story of two very captivating women.
I think it was easy for me because in a way, I knew this story of a daughter and a mother who lived in their own world. Without going into too much detail, I had lived this. Certainly not to the extent that the Beales did, but a variation of it. The material was very close. I also feel like I was finally listening to Edie when she spoke in the film; there’s a cadence; she’s performing. It is its own strange poetry, and it was a matter of getting it down.
Talk to me about found poetry—in Edie, you created stunning poems from the conversations that Edith and Edie had with Grey Gardens filmmakers Albert and David Maysles. Get ready: I have a few questions. First, how did you discover found poetry? Second, describe your process for creating these poems. Third, what do you say to critics who label found poetry as unoriginal?
I discovered found poetry in a workshop that I took with Ravi Shankar at the Wesleyan Writers Workshop in 2009. He talked about the cento, which I had never heard of. Examples were presented, and we were urged to try our own. I am also interested in collage as an art form, and this struck me as a kind of verbal collage. I would write non-found work, but I would come back to found poetry every so often, and I wondered if I could sustain it for a whole book. In 2013, I was given the opportunity to participate in The Found Poetry Review’s National Poetry Month project, Pulitzer Remix, in which I created 30 found poems out of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Since then, a great deal of my work has been found. My process for the Edie poems had me watching the film more than once, and ultimately had me “hunting and gathering” lines from the printed transcripts of the dialogue (the Beales speak rapidly, and while I took notes when I watched the film, it was difficult to keep up). I debated about using erasure techniques, but decided not to. I wrote down lines, focusing on a theme for a poem, casting some of the lines aside, bringing in others. I would try to encompass some that might not have worked in one poem, and put them in another. I took a break from the material for about two months; this is a hermetic world, and I needed critical distance to finish it, and make it as good as it could possibly be. As for critics of found poetry, all I can say is that it takes as much work, or perhaps more, to construct a found poem. It’s citing sources. Searching through pages of text. If one is making an erasure, that might mean blacking out a block of text with a marker, or daubing white-out over a line (if you aren’t working with Photoshop; and that takes a deft hand, too). For the Pulitzer project, 85 of us had to make poems that were completely unrelated to the books that we were working with. That’s not original ?
Can you describe your writing practice or process for this collection ? Do you have a favorite revision strategy?
My writing process for this particular collection involved, first of all, watching the documentary Grey Gardens. When I watched it last year, I listened to the rhythms of Little Edie’s voice, the repetitions. And then, BOOM! It occurred to me that she was speaking in poems. Her daily speech, how she was interpreting, and living in the world, was colorful, imagistic. Her life, and her mother’s, would be insane to most of us. I wanted to capture some of that ability to transform her existence into a kind of performance. I then found a book which was written by Sarah and Rebekah Maysles (the daughters of David and Albert Maysles), also entitled Grey Gardens, and which contains all of the transcripts from the film, along with photographs and illustrations. I went through the text, sifting for lines that would make up the poems; I tried not to become repetitive in terms of word choice. In terms of revision, I frequently gather miscellaneous lines and see what works in an almost jigsaw puzzle fashion. It’s a piecing together of elements. There are times when it seems clear, and at other moments nothing comes. Patience for the reveal is key for me.
You don’t explicitly identify which Edie is speaking in the poems. Sometimes it’s obvious that’s the elder Beale or the younger; sometimes it’s not; and sometimes it’s an intermingling of voices in these poems—these two misfit women with huge, engaging personalities. Did you have a specific intent in treating the poems that way?
There are times, in the film, where each woman gets a hearing, times when they are fighting each other, and other times where there is some harmony between them, however briefly, and still other moments where they are speaking to each other, but are clearly not listening, or hearing only what they want to hear. I wanted to keep that in mind when I wrote the poems. I kept asking myself whose voice I wanted to give more weight to. It probably came down on the side of Edie, and it was trying to temper both of their personalities. Sometimes I felt like I just wanted to give them both free reign in the poetic space, so I did.
How did you order the poems in the collection ? Do you have a specific method for arranging your poems or is it sort of haphazard, like you lay the pages out on the floor and see what order you pick them back up in ?
I don’t know that I had any specific plan in mind when I arranged the poems in Edie. I numbered them. For example, “Grey Gardens Poem One,” and I just kept going for the duration of the writing of it. I liked the order they were in, and I don’t think that I rearranged them. I wanted to have the stronger poems at the front of the book. For my first book, it was a matter of putting the newest material at the front; it represented a kind of culmination of everything that I had written up until that point. There was probably more tinkering involved. I tend to shuffle papers around, rather than, say, put them on the floor to see what kind of order they should be in.
There’s an interesting dynamic at work in the poems. The Edies both are trapped by certain aspects of their lives, but then stay in their self-imposed confinement. “Big Edie” lives in her past, yearning for the woman she says she was (in “One Sings,” “Bring in the orchestration./my voice/the way it was when I/was/forty-five years old.”) “Little Edie” struggles against still living with her mother and never marrying, but seems to rationalize that with her fears of madness (in “Not All There,” “they were trying to prove I was/ Craaazyyy.”) Please tell us about how that idea of confinement/yet moments of contentment in those confines plays a role in the chapbook. Are there other themes that you would like readers to recognize?
Well, the relationship between the Beales, and the house they share is symbiotic in its way. Big Edie is determined to stay, and rule over this place, but yearns for the singing career that might have been hers. Little Edie harbors the young woman’s dream of running away to the big city and making it on the stage (and she did indeed have a cabaret act after Grey Gardens was sold), but where else but that environment could she give free reign to her dances, her recitations, and musings ? The house both nourishes and destroys. The house is a stage, and that’s where the contentment comes in. But then it becomes a trap, with holes in the roof, wild animals in the attic, and fleas so thick that the Maysles brothers had to put flea collars around their ankles during filming. This was a completely made-up world that existed in parallel to the more staid one of the Hamptons. I wanted to offer a glimpse into that. I don’t know if I did. I also wanted to people to be aware that this is, at its core, about a daughter and a mother; there is genuine love, and genuine loathing on display. Yes, I think that there was a certain “playing up” to the camera, but for the most part, I think that that was what is like when the camera wasn’t there. I think that I also want readers to be aware of the undercurrent of loss. I wanted humor, yes, but this is a world, and people, who are wedded to the past.
What do you love to find in a poem you read, or love to craft into a poem you’re writing?
When I’m reading , I like to find things that stun: a phrase, maybe; an image. Does it haunt me? Make me laugh (although this is more rare)? Does the writer love the language? These are all things that I wonder about. As for my own writing, I tend to write from a place of obsession. I’ll have something that’s stuck in my head, and I wonder how it might come out in writing. It sometimes approximates what I thought. In many instances, however, it morphs into something far different. Can I say it in a concise way? Poetry, for me, demands a kind of precision. Sometimes I reach that, but it’s frequently a case of “failing better,” to paraphrase Samuel Beckett.
Can you share an excerpt from your book ? And tell us why you chose this poem for us to read--did it galvanize the writing of the rest of the collection ? Is it your book’s heart ? Is it the first or last poem you wrote for the book?
The Best Costume
A lady is a lady is a lady,
don’t like women in skirts.
I can’t help it: I
like to wear certain things.
A kimono, a cape, pants
under the skirt, stockings
up over the pants----
I have to think these things up, you know,
this is the best thing to wear for the day.
I chose this poem because in listening to Edie Beale talk about her clothing, I realized that yes, I could make poetry out of her dialogue. It wasn’t the first poem that I wrote for the book, however; it was the third, but it some ways, it did galvanize the rest of what I wrote. It was perhaps then that I realized that I could keep going with these poems; that it was a viable project. I think that there are many hearts in this book. But this is probably one of them. In her own way, Edie Beale has become a fashion icon, and her clothing is very much a performance. Fashion is also a huge part of who I am, so I felt very close to this poem.
Your use of line breaks is very strategic, and gives the poems a certain cadence and sense of space. Do you do that consciously, and if so, how do work the breaks to fit your intentions to guide how the poems are read ?
When I was starting out writing out, I feel as if my poems were longer. As I’ve gone along, the lines have gotten shorter, the breaks more staccato (at least to me). At times in the film, both women could be very expansive, and then lapse into silence, or veer into an epic fight. I wanted to see what I could do that might mimic that. There are times, I think, where the poems are having conversations with each other, as the Beales did, and at other times, it’s definitely a lone voice addressing an audience. Perhaps the breaks make things more dramatic. I also think that “Little Edie” could be quite breathless in her speech--it would all come out in a rush, and you can’t keep up--and I wanted to be true to that as well. It was important that I honor the voices of these women.
If you had to convince someone walking by you in the park to read your book right then and there, what would you say ?
I might tell them about the history; the women's connection to Jacqueline Kennedy. I might also say that while this is in many respects a bleak story, it also has its humorous moments. I’m out of practice when it comes to heckling strangers to read books. I used to be able to persuade people (friends and strangers) to read Richard Yates.
For you, what is it to be a poet? What scares you most about being a writer? Gives you the most pleasure?
Being a poet, for me, means that I can tap into this kind of mystery that’s going on all the time. It’s like being a kind of tuning fork for language. It allows me to make sense of the world, or to reorder it. What’s scary about being a writer is being confronted with the fact that it will never be perfect; I will never hit it exactly as I want it. What I do after facing that moment is where whatever talent I have comes to bear: How do I solve the problem ? It is, for me, a running off of that proverbial cliff. But there is also great joy to be found in that leap. I love the happy accidents of language. With this project, they were everywhere. I felt, from the beginning of it, that there was something amazing at work. To be able to see that, and not let go, that is what gives me joy.
Are there other types of writing (dictionaries, romance novels, comics, science textbooks, etc.) that help you write poetry?
I read a lot of novels and non-fiction; this can take the form of history, memoir, or biography. I look at a lot of art books. I pay close attention to song lyrics and screenplays.
What are you working on now?
In all honesty, I am casting about for a new project in terms of poetry. At the time that I was working of the Grey Gardens material, I didn’t really share that I was working on it. I held it close. I have some ideas, however! I am also making notes for an essay about Depeche Mode’s Violator that I am going to be writing for the RS 500 project. It will be published in March.
What book are you reading that we should also be reading?
I’m reading Garth Risk Hallberg’s epic of 70s New York, City on Fire. He overshoots sometimes, but the story is compelling enough for me to keep going. I like getting lost in novels. I also just started Bernard Sumner’s autobiography Chapter and Verse: New Order, Joy Division and Me. The music that obsessed me as a teenager still preoccupies me. I like to know the people, and the places, that it came from.
Without stopping to think, write a list of five poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least write in permanent marker on your clothing, to take with you at all times.
1. Sylvia Plath. 2. Emily Dickinson 3. John Berryman 4. Anne Sexton 5. Radiohead.
What’s a question you wished I asked ? (And how would you answer it ?)
Is poetry a spiritual practice for you? I would say that yes, it most definitely is. It pierces the veil of the world. To be granted that is a gift.
Purchase Edie (Whispering): Poems from Grey Gardens (dancing girl press, 2015).
Sarah Nichols is the author of Edie (Whispering): Poems from Grey Gardens (dancing girl press, 2015), and The Country of No (Finishing Line Press, 2012). Her poems have appeared in The Found Poetry Review, Thank You for Swallowing, and Right Hand Pointing. A passionate cinephile, her film criticism has appeared in Senses of Cinema and desistfilm. She lives in Connecticut.