Elise Partridge’s debut poetry collection, Fielder’s Choice (Vehicule, 2002), was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for best first book of poems in Canada. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Fiddlehead, The Walrus, Canadian Literature, The New Yorker, Poetry, Slate, and elsewhere. Her upcoming collection will be co-published by the University of Chicago Press. She is an editor and teacher in Vancouver.
Dani Couture interviewed Elise Partridge in early 2009.
In the title poem of your collection, Chameleon Hours, you write: “Better a burger-wrapper / tumbleweeding down Broadway / than a dignified boxwood / sheared to the same oblong / June after June.” How tightly do you think people hold onto simple routines and rituals — from shaving to gardening — with the idea that they keep them safe and are proof of their having “lived?”
It would be hard for me to generalize, as it’s so difficult to imagine what life is really like for someone else — what another person’s motivations and rewards might be for sticking to routines, for instance. If you let your hedge straggle over the sidewalk or your beard plummet past your navel, there might be consequences to regret. On the other hand, we all know that while routines can be necessary, comforting and stabilizing, they can also perhaps be obstructions to freshness or intensity of experience. Scientists are discovering that varying one’s route home from work even by a street or so can provoke the creation of new neural pathways in the brain. Friar Laurence says to Romeo, “The world is broad and wide,” and one wants to remember that. It’s good not to try to protect oneself too steadily against surprises. This particular poem grew out of my own fears of stagnation and enclosure, fears that were stoked after my cancer diagnosis It’s a human privilege to keep consciously taking risks and changing. The poem is dedicated to my youngest brother, whose energy and courage in meeting and seeking experience I admire very much.
A number of poems in your new collection focus on your struggle with cancer. Many writers have said that they cannot write about a location — be it a city or a country — until they leave it. Do you feel the same sentiment rings true with personal illness?
What an interesting question! Again, while I should speak mainly from my own experience, I would imagine it might be difficult for many people to write while they are still getting their bearings after a diagnosis of serious illness, or if they are in the midst of some kind of battering treatment. I know for me the shock of learning I had cancer was so overwhelming, and there were so many related things I had to think about quickly — treatment, work arrangements — that I didn’t initially feel I had the wherewithal to write anything except letters. Likewise, while I was in chemo, which researchers have proven can affect one’s brain function, I had very little inspiration or mental stamina; it took a lot of energy just to keep going physically. Someone else’s capacities in medias res might prove very different, though. And the minute my head started to clear from my last round of chemo, and while I was still undergoing radiation, I started to write as hard as I could a couple of poems about my husband, because I was afraid I might not have a chance to put into words things I cherished about him and our experience together. Other poems that drew on the experience of illness did come after more reflection, in a year or two, or more. One thing about serious illnesses, including the one I was treated for, is that unfortunately in some ways after you have been to that country and even if you want to leave it forever, it may be very difficult to shake the dust off your feet — the illness may return. And even if you’re lucky and have been given a clean bill of health, you probably won’t ever leave it entirely behind. This can affect you in sometimes wasteful but understandable ways — fears of recurrence — but in good ways as well: a heightened sense perhaps, as Strether says in Henry James’s The Ambassadors, that you “must live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.”
I agree that routines can be both necessary and obstructions to new experiences. Do you feel the same way about form in your writing? Are poetic forms both necessary and sometimes, perhaps, obstructions?
I don’t think of poetic forms as Platonic abstractions, though I suppose something like meter could be seen that way; I think of form as being intimately linked to what you want to say. Form — perhaps including proportion, repetition, balance, and so on — is of course a crucial feature of art, but it’s also of course not necessary, as modernism in part taught us, that a successful form require something like strict symmetry. There are many good Canadian poets who use particular forms that involve strict symmetry, and many good Canadian poets who don’t, or usually don’t. And yes, form can be an obstruction; one can start a poem in a certain stanza and find that the form is forcing one in the wrong direction and isn’t appropriate for the feeling or the subject. This is something I know very accomplished writers have struggled with too, not just those of us trying to learn our trade; I think of Robert Lowell saying, about the transition in style between his first books and Life Studies, “I couldn’t get my experience into tight metrical forms.” He kept searching and experimenting till he found looser forms that he believed suited the expression of that material; he said later he’d learned a great deal in this quest from poets like Elizabeth Bishop and William Carlos Williams. But form of any kind can also be liberating instead of confining, and the process of writing in any kind of form bountiful instead of restrictive. You can get away from yourself. The heuristic value of a particular meter or rhyme scheme or whatever stricture you’ve chosen is that it can lead you places your imagination wouldn’t have gone on its own. You try a word and it won’t work in that line, in that stanza, and you have to come up with something else. Thus using form can evoke the pleasure, and also, in Yeats’ phrase, the “fascination” of “what’s difficult.”
In an interview I conducted with Carmine Starnino in 2006, he mentioned one of your poems in a response to a question I asked about the relationship between form and meaning. He wrote that what moves him in poems like “Buying the Farm,” or Steven Heighton’s “Address Book,” is “…hardly its sentiment, but the astringent mode of its narrative, the varying tones and tensions of its grief-logic. Poems are driven by emotion, yes, but the poetryness of poetry, if you will, is about finding equivalences between sound and feeling.” Do you, as Starnino has suggested he does, see “…emotion as syntax, as an arrangement of consonant and vowels.”
That was very generous of Carmine to say what Steven and I wrote moved him partly because of the way it was constructed. No, I wouldn’t say exactly that I see “emotion as syntax, as an arrangement of consonants and vowels,” but I understand Carmine mostly to mean here that in poetry, sound and syntax help carry the feeling. This is an issue that is difficult to generalize or for that matter particularize about, and obviously one that so many literary experts have debated: can devices like vowel-color and so on really express meaning? There’s something inexplicable about it all, but I would certainly agree that syntax and sound can. Would the Duke in Browning’s “My Last Duchess” have such icy control of his syntax if he were despondent about his late wife, rather than angry enough to have had her murdered? If you look at the syntax and listen to the sound in sections of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A. H. H.” or his “Now sleeps the crimson petal,” for example, you can make an argument about how vowels, consonants and syntax help convey such emotions as resignation and despair or tenderness and eager anticipation.
In your poem “Two Cowboys,” you write: “Let me not find him years on / tossed, broken by bulls.” You’ve taught literature and writing at the university-level. Does teaching ever bring about the same fear?
Certainly as a teacher one is aware of students’ vulnerabilities and of how harsh both the immediate and the waiting world can be. But I’m usually just as aware of my students’ gifts and accomplishments and all they have to offer the world, and thus I feel mostly a sense of excitement and hope about them making their way. Of course, many of the university students I’ve taught have been very fortunate; compared to many people on the globe they’ve already been given a lot and have a chance for a very good life. The two “cowboys” I saw on the street in downtown Vancouver might have been dealing with much more difficult things. But yes, sometimes with my students I’ve remembered those Tennyson lines from “Ulysses”: “There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail: / There gloom the dark, broad seas.” You hold your breath and wish them luck.