Beth Bachmann's first book, Temper, was selected by Lynn Emanuel as winner of the AWP Award Series 2008 Donald Hall Prize in Poetry and won the 2010 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Her new manuscript recently won the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award. Read an excerpt here.
This interview with Beth Bachmann about her poetry book Temper was conducted during the spring of 2011 by eight poets: Danielle Burhop, Aaron Delee, Dane Hamann, Sarah Jenkins, Anthony Opal, Christine Pacyk, C. Russell Price, and Lana Rakhman.
Q: Many of the poems in the book feel restrained, in their messages and by the form (or in their lengths); you're always edging onto something, but cut away from it quickly. So, much of the book reads in what is not being said, rather than what is stated; the confusion, the mystery surrounding its central drama. Is there a particular reason you chose this route over lengthier and expository poetry?
Beth Bachmann:I love the short lyric form: Dickinson, Rilke, The Book of Odes. I have a strong appreciation of silence. And in a poem, of staged space.
Given such distinct choices in words, I was wondering if you had any words that you considered overplayed in poetry/that you might steer away from or ever rethink before using?
Beth Bachmann: A list of words off-limits in verse? I just received ED spam titled, your nether attacker. I'd probably avoid that phrase. Also, the word numinous. It's a good idea to consider each word at least twice.
Q: In interviews you have said that you titled the collection Temper before writing the prologue poem "Temper." How did you come to Temper as a title, and why did you feel you needed a poem with the same title in the collection?
Beth Bachmann: I wanted to slow the pace down, light the fuse before dropping the bomb. The word temper has the looking once and looking again I wanted; it's a seesaw, in terms of balance.
Q: There is an important balance of personal and forensic details in your poems. How mindful were you of this balance when you were writing individual poems, and then when you were organizing the collection?
Beth Bachmann: Forensic comes from forum, a public place. A purely private collection likely wouldn't be of interest to anyone, not even me. I suppose part of the art of a poem is getting someone else to read it. Thanks for reading it.
Q: In your interview with Nashville Review, you told how you had written one poem, "First Mystery of My Sister," and you were encouraged to go/write "deeper," which led to "Paternoster" and the rest of Temper. What was your process for writing deeper?
Beth Bachmann: It was simple, in that I decided to finally enter what I'd clearly been moving toward. Deciding to jump's the hard part. Falling: easy.
Q: Many of these poems have appeared elsewhere in literary journals, but now that they've been published as a book, do you believe that each poem can stand alone? One of the things that stood out in this book was the consistency. Is the consistency too strong to separate these poems?
Beth Bachmann: I was just reading Rilke: Whoever has no house now, will never have one. /Whoever is alone will stay alone.
Taking the objects out of the house doesn't change the objects, but it changes the room.
Q: In many ways you have created a complex and exhaustive landscape in this book. The panorama of violence, death, accusation, guilt, and innocence encircles the main focus of the book. As readers, we move by each tiny detail, learning past histories and cataloging the way these things have come to rest. What was your process in creating this landscape and how did you approach this process without drifting into mystery writing?
Beth Bachmann: I always wore my seatbelt and did not text while driving, avoided large machinery while drowsy. Clearly, I'm not high-risk for drifting into mystery.
The process is bit by bit. Same field, a hundred things to do there.
Q: In your collection of poems Temper, most of your poems are composed with long lines and you even include two prose poems. During the initial draft of a poem, does the form present itself to you as a means to experiment, or is form secondary to either the language choices you make or the thematic significance you're going for?
Beth Bachmann: They happen at the same time and one follows from the other: pacing, subordination, weight, surprise.
Q: In another interview you mentioned that you originally studied photography, which is hinted at through the vivid and often startling images in Temper. How do you think your work as a visual artist has impacted your poetry? Have you ever thought about merging the two art forms? What do you think this could mean for your poetry? For your photography?
Beth Bachmann: Oh, I gave up photography around the same time I picked up poetry, though I did shoot a short black and white film of Nick Flynn reading Tony Hoagland's black and white poem at AWP for my private archive. Photography involves a lot of waiting for light. Poetry is more immediate and independent of others for the movement and intonation I desire. Bergman's in my ear saying again. Again. Again.
Q: the girl the fawn strips like a fisherman's rose
where a female crawls/ to birth a litter
the opossum's tongue grazes her lip
something is always// moving, suggesting a harness
muse: an open mouth,/ a muzzle
There is a motif of animals in your work, both wild and tamed. Wild animals are a natural part of the landscape you describe here, but your choices are striking: it is not a coyote that feeds on the body, but a fawn; the opossum's meeting with the body seems quiet, reverential. Conversely, you introduce words like muzzle, and harness, which you apply to human behaviors: speaking the word muse, or "mining the sky/ to generate light". These choices, to me, seem to invert the expected: the need to control untamed behavior through muzzle or harness is transplanted from animals to humans. Was one of your goals with this collection to reclaim and question nature - to ask the reader to re-evaluate the essential qualities of life?
Beth Bachmann: I'm looking at extreme acts of violence, what we might be tempted to call inhuman behavior, but what might be more readily human nature. So, yes, the big questions: what makes us human? What to do with the animal in us? And how the human act of writing is attempting to harness these questions.
Q: Your collection contains constant movement and transformation of the speaker. There's the accumulation of knowledge which mirrors the heaven-to-hell progression, as well as the personal journey of the reader in real time with the speaker's. When you set out to write this piece, how did you decide to order it? Did you have a basic structure in mind or did one poem spark a series and then suddenly you had a constellation of poems?
Beth Bachmann: One poem sparked another, more like flowers, weeds, the beasts in between, but, in the end, I had to think more about the art of the garden, how to move the visitor through it, which again has to do with pacing, pause, light, competition, color, shade.
Q: What I love most about Temper is your ability to portray such vivid details without having to use any proper nouns whatsoever. The setting as well as characters become universal through their non-descript monikers such as sister, janitor, and the men at the club. Because this collection is so personal, why were there never any names (places or people)?
Beth Bachmann: I always conceived of it as a collection about violence, not about a person or place. Names seem irrelevant to the project.
Q: How did you choose the order of the poems? How did you put the poems into sections, and what were your thoughts when forming the arc of the book?
Beth Bachmann: I love the order of Tokyo, the gardens of Kyoto.
Q: You focused entirely on your sister's murder, instead of on your sister's characteristics, which makes for an intriguing read. How did you manage to veer away from the sentimental, even though you are so close to the subject matter?
Beth Bachmann: My end goal was never memorial. If it's elegy, it's lamentation or howl.
Q: What is your understanding of the poetic line-- is it primarily sonic, visual, rhythmic-- and how does this understanding inform your writing process? Can you talk specifically about your use of longer, syntactically broken lines, opposed to shorter, enjambed lines?
Beth Bachmann: That's a tough choice. I'd say it's primarily about pause, which is all three. I suppose the length of my line is determined by how long I want to hold a gaze and who's the first to break it, and then the lure, linger, and consumption.
Q: What are your thoughts on MFA programs? How helpful has outside criticism been to the development of your poetry?
Beth Bachmann: Very. I wish I had an MFA.