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by Russell Bittner
Interview with Angela Shaw

April belongs – take your pick:  to showers or to the tax(wo)man.  Angela Shaw has just enough of a drip in that lip to suggest you might prefer showers to an audit.

I owe my acquaintance with Angela to Rose Carlson and Jim Schley at Tupelo Press.  They very kindly sent me Beginning of the Fields, I read a few pieces, and I was hooked on Angela for April.  I e-mailed her, she answered, and here we are.

As always, and before we get started with your taxes, Angela’s bio:

I found this first piece, “Children in a Field,” at a Website called Elegant Thorn Review, but it is also in the collection The Beginning of the Fields (Tupelo Press, 2009) she mentions in her bio.

RRB:   Angela, forgive the cheap shot – but I notice you’ve attached yourself to “W” in this piece.  Would it therefore be appropriate to call this poem ‘wistful?’  If so, please give us some background…  What drove you to it?  How long did you work at it?  Was it primarily inspiration, perspiration, or ‘worsification?’

AFS:    I wrote this poem several years ago while I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  I loved Cambridge, but found myself homesick for the rural West Virginia landscape of my youth—and I turned to the work of the American painter Fairfield Porter as a source of inspiration for my writing.  The three poems that open my collection (including this one) were inspired by three of Porter’s landscapes by the same titles.  When writing each of these pieces, my goal was not so much to be descriptive of the painting itself, but to create a voice that seemed to speak from within the moment of the painting.

In Porter’s “Children in a Field,” there is a feeling—for me at least—of the two girls being nearly enveloped by the high grass into which they walk, of almost being erased by it.  And yet, I don’t think the painting itself is as plaintive as the poem turned out to be.  Most of the poems in my book were written before I became a mother, but my first child had been born by the time I wrote this poem, so a mother’s perspective may have contributed to its particularly wistful tone.

I tend to spend a long time—weeks, months, in some cases, years—gathering the language I’ll use in a given poem.  Then, when the time comes, I compose relatively quickly—in a day or two.   As I recall, this poem was written in that way; perhaps the first line was the hardest to come by.  I remember that some lines came to me while I was walking at dusk in what was probably November, and I remember that I finished it in a satisfying rush while sick and a little dizzied with the flu.

RRB:    “I tend to spend a long time—weeks, months, in some cases, years—gathering the language I’ll use in a given poem.  Then, when the time comes, I compose relatively quickly—in a day or two.”

Interesting—and this brings me to a question I’ve often wondered about, but to which there may be no right or final answer:  Do you think the poem you write today, this instant, on a given subject is the same poem you’d write tomorrow, next week, next month—or maybe even in the next ten minutes?

For what it’s worth, I don’t.  Your research and forethought notwithstanding, I think there are thousands of variables that “determine” our choice of words and thoughts in a given instant.  Alter any one of those variables, and we’ll write a different piece.  It may be on the same subject, and it may reflect our general world view.  However, salmon and white wine for dinner might (and probably would) result in a very different piece from one produced by Beef Bourguignon and red wine.

Needless to say, the follow-up cognac(s) to either will also take a toll on the spin of a given piece—and may propel it right out the window and into the garbage.

AFS: I’ve often felt that many of my poems—or at least their initial impulses—happened completely by accident, the circumstances of which couldn’t be replicated at any other time.   While I’m laying the groundwork for a poem, I try to give myself permission to wander quite a bit, to look up words or research subjects at random, to follow any number of seemingly illogical leads.  I might be spurred by something I happened to have read that day, a radio report, or some eavesdropped piece of language.  So, yes, I’d agree that poems tend to be shaped by the countless variables that comprise our days.

It’s also been eye-opening for me to look again at the poems in my book —many of which were written over a decade ago when I was in a completely different stage of life.  As a forty-one-year-old mom, I marvel at the preoccupations of my twenty-five-year-old grad-student self. I’m certain that my approach to any given subject—or even my decision to take on a subject at all—is vastly different today than it was fifteen years ago. 

RRB:  And yet, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…”.  At the time, I’m certain those preoccupations didn’t seem trivial.  They never do.  For instance, parents who dismiss a child’s first love as mere “puppy love” do themselves a tremendous disservice—especially when that first love goes sour.  And so, if you wrote love poems back then (and who among is not guilty of having written love poems at some time or other?), I’m sure whatever pathos you might’ve dressed them up in was appropriate to the ball.

And speaking of love, lust and the like, this next piece could never have been written by a grad-school student.  Unless I’m misreading it, the cynicism seems to sit on the piece as thickly as the make-up on Elizabeth I’s face.

AFS: Perhaps I was a particularly cynical grad student.  Funny, though, I’ve never really thought of this poem or of its speaker as especially cynical—a little jaded, a little desirous, a little lonely and longing, somehow, for solitude.  And yet, I can see how her world-weariness—which I hope is tempered by the poem’s final lines—could be read as cynicism.

RRB:  Yes:  ‘tempered’ it is.  I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise.  But also ‘revelatory,’ if you’ll allow—as all good poetry should be.

In your next piece, “Small Pleasures,” you’ve once again done a lot with sound.  “All girl, all groan”—just for starters—is hardly gratuitous.  Please take us through this one, step by step.

AFS: This piece, too, was inspired by a painting.  In 1993, I had the good fortune to view Wassily Kandinsky’s “Small Pleasures,” which was on exhibit at Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum. I was drawn to the painting’s small instances of recognizable imagery—a ship? a city on a hill?—within a large and foreboding abstraction.  I also loved how the painting’s dynamic lines and sweeps of repeating color seemed to suggest the artist’s pleasure in the process of its creation.  And so, I wanted to try to do something similar in a poem:  to move from one small recognizable image to another within a larger, more abstract piece, and to use sound —particularly assonance and alliteration—to suggest the (often sensory) pleasures inherent in the writing process itself.  Oddly enough, this poem appeared in a special issue of Indiana Review focusing on religion in America.  I hadn’t intended to write a religious poem at all when I began, but it turned out to be a poem filled with various kinds of desire—spiritual, perhaps, and otherwise—and with a joyful sort of seeking.

RRB: Not odd at all, Angela.  And the joy is entirely ours in reading it.

RRB: Your next piece is an altogether different beast.  Color plays a prominent role—as does speech.  I’m also particularly intrigued by “Now the house confesses, disclosed her like a rumor, vague and misquoted.”  And elsewhere, we find mention of “false tongues.”

This piece is quite abstract, and we may need a bit of help to understand it.  Please lend a hand.

AFS:  I’ve always thought of this as a fairly straightforward lyric/narrative in which nothing much happens:  a young wife, disillusioned with her marriage, waits for her husband to come home, smokes a cigarette (“she rolls her own from the blue/can of Bugler”), sits on her porch at dusk, and walks out into the field near her house. 

Coincidentally, Kandinsky comes up again here.  I’d seen an exhibition of his watercolors, and I was as captivated by some of the paintings’ titles (“Brown Double Sound” and “In the Heavy Red” to name a couple) as I was by the paintings themselves.  I remember scribbling down a few titles, thinking I would “borrow” them for something I was working on at the time.   But despite this source of inspiration, the prominence of color in this piece was not at all deliberate.  It’s a bit embarrassing to admit that it wasn’t until years after completing the poem that I realized it begins with “yellows,” ends with “red,” and has a little pink, black and blue thrown in for good measure.  I did hope, however, to create a vivid picture of a rural dusk, to capture the feeling of the “heavy red” light that seems to suffuse everything at that time of day. 

I don’t mean to be deliberately evasive, but I hesitate to offer my own reading of particular lines for fear of shutting down other potentially valid readings.  (All those colors escaped my notice for years; clearly I may not be the most astute reader of my own work.)  But I’m happy to tell a little more of the poem’s provenance. Shortly before writing it, I’d fallen in love with William Matthews’s gorgeous poem “Mood Indigo,” and I wanted to write something that replicated that poem’s languorous rhythms.  I imagined Matthews composing to Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo,” so I believe I had Ellington on continuous repeat as I wrote—in the hope that it would help me to capture the sort of slow, sensuous pacing I was after.  And, lastly, never far from my thoughts as I wrote this poem:  memories of my grandparents, not their actual lives or circumstances, but their gestures and possessions—my grandfather’s can of Bugler tobacco, my grandmother’s beloved back porch swing.

RRB:  Angela, Angela!  No need to apologize.  No one is an astute reader of his or her own poetry.  Sheesh, girl!  That’s why God invented editors.

Okay, quick now.  Give us some background on both “Pornography” and “Garden Party,” and we’ll call it a wrap.

AFS:   “Pornography” was inspired by a meditation on the etymology of a single word.  I had recently learned that “pornography” comes from the Greek “pornographos,” meaning “writing about harlots,” and I wanted to write a poem in which the working girl possesses a degree of agency in the creation of her own narrative.  I wanted to blur, just a little, the boundary between subject and object.  A line from Whitman’s “To a Common Prostitute” got me started: “And I charge you that you be patient and perfect till I come.”  The poem’s final line belonged to an earlier-abandoned poem; when I came to the end of this one, I suddenly realized that the line had found its new home.

“Garden Party” is a poem I wrote purely for fun; it was inspired by an assignment I’d given to my creative writing students.   Because beginning poets can so often feel overwhelmed by the enormity of their task, I occasionally like to give an assignment that removes at least one of the variables, by providing the language—the raw material—they’ll use to create their poems. For this particular exercise, I’d asked that my students write poems using words and phrases I’d culled from a J. Crew catalog, and I decided to try the exercise myself.  My goal here was simply to write a playful, sexy, warm-weather poem.  I believe every word came from the catalog copy.

RRB:  Angela, it’s been an enormous pleasure.  I can’t thank you enough.  G’night!

Angela Shaw was born in New Jersey and raised in West Virginia.  She earned a B.A. in English Literature from Swarthmore College and an M.F.A. from Cornell University.  She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, not to mention of fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the National Endowment for the Arts.  Her poems have appeared in such journals as Poetry, Field, Chelsea, Pleiades, and Indiana Review and have been anthologized in The Beacon Best of 2001 (Beacon Press); The Best American Poetry series; and The New Young American Poets (Southern Illinois University Press). Her first collection of poetry, The Beginning of the Fields, was published in June 2009 by Tupelo Press. Angela has taught creative writing at Cornell University, Swarthmore College, and Haverford College.  She lives in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania with her husband and their two children.
They don't wade in so much as they are taken.
Deep in the day, in the deep of the field,
every current in the grasses whispers hurry
hurry, every yellow spreads its perfume
like a rumor, impelling them further on.
It is the way of girls. It is the sway
of their dresses in the summer trance-
light, their bare calves already far-gone
in green. What songs will they follow?
Whatever the wood warbles, whatever storm
or harm the border promises, whatever
calm. Let them go. Let them go traceless
through the high grass and into the willow-
blur, traceless across the lean blue glint
of the river, to the long dark bodies
of the conifers, and over the welcoming
threshold of nightfall.

The air grows thin.  The men are less bewitched
of late, no longer appeased with flagrant
dessert set aflame, nor wowed by shellacked
tenacity of my coiffure.  Tumid
and ruthless, they loosen the latitude
round their middles, visibly bored.  Someone’s
perfume, they sense, glided through here, fragrant
and vacant.  I dull like silver.  My jokes
mold.  The little dinner party’s carnage: 
thick, residual soup puddled in low
bowls, pumice-rough edges of bread, sottish
remnants of rum-laced cake.  Now the onset
of sweet, swift red wine headache, my face
still stiff where I fit my simper.  The plaster
holds though cold aspic un-gels and candles’
drip hardens to sculpture.  In the sofa’s
leather the dim imprints visitors leave—
buttocks and thigh—turn vaguely lurid.  Sad
ghosts of my lashes on scented tissue:
delicate mascara moth wings.  Life pools
in the shallows.  Later, unlaced, what breathes
in slip and stocking feet.  Left to settle
what rich, indecent cream resurfaces.
Small Pleasures

The Wurlitzer stirs, all girl, all groan
and moment, everything pretty

and pregnancy.  Little furls
of lipstick, little wiles, sausage
curls beguile the makeshift

dusk, the boys, their pretty head-
over-heels makeshift liftoff.
Laughter curdles in the throats

and limbs of late-
April magnolia.  A tree full of pink
wishes, each bud clenched

in its private
tantrum.  Other petals spin
a tarantella:  kleenexes

and kleenexes dropped in approximate
ladylike gesture.
On a high stool a lady or high

school girl tipples and swithers,
all purr and murmur, working
her clumsy rosary of car

keys and house keys, making the dim
room do her fast
dancing.  Elsewhere cypriniform

fishes suck at the rough
creek bottom, muttering
leftovers, leftovers. 

In the backwater Catholic
pucelles swelter
in their lycra-spandex Sunday

all prayer and murmur, lip-
synching my soul

is thirsty for you O Lord,
and the bored organist kindles his bored

for the misses, dizzy
with Jesus and little visions
of their own late-night

acts of mercy.  The brimstone
boy, his mason jar full of snarling
bees, wades into the soft-core

porn of moths where they wallow
and dissolve in the dogbane,
knees and faces

glazed with pollen.
Nightly birdsong,

and uvular, suggests the indelicate
would she let her Texas

blues infect my red,
her wily
silences potent as jukebox

in the low
dusk of the bowling alley

where the Wurlitzer
stirs, all girl, letting Motown
down easy.

Yellows cast their spells:  the evening primrose
shudders unclosed, sells itself to the sphinx
moth’s length of tongue.  Again a lackluster
husband doesn’t show.  A little missus

eases the burnt suffering of a cat-
fish supper, undresses, slowly lowers
into a lukewarm tub.  In her honeymoon
nightgown she rolls her own from the blue

can of Bugler, her lust a lamp the wick
of which is dipped in sloe gin.  Hands
wander to her hangdog breasts, jaded Friday night
underpants, hackneyed nylon in heat.

Now his black taxidermy out-stares her, the stern
heads of squirrel and deer.  Now the house confesses,
discloses her like a rumor, vague and misquoted.
From the porch, from the glider she spies rose-

pink twilight flyers—sphinx moths drinking
the calyx, the corolla, the stamen
dry.  The stuttering wings, the spread petals
suggest an interlingual breathing, a beating

back of all false tongues.  She thinks of the chaw
lodged in his lip when he talks or her husband’s
middle finger in the snuff box and rubbed
along his gum.  She walks, wanting him, into the latter-

math, into the primrose, the parched field itching
with critters.  She walks, wanting and unwanting
him while birds miss curfew into the thick of the thigh-
high grass, craven and dangerous, in the heavy red.

Painted, perfect, patient, I couch myself
in lace peignoir.  I author the slouching hours
after dusk, bidding the sun go down
over Tucson or Memphis, conjuring love-
rooms from a little perfume, a little blues,
a little bourbon.  Every romance opens
at the neckline.  Every night a voluptuous
story line is teasingly unveiled, stocking
by stocking, exquisitely unfastened
at its climax.  There are infinite methods
of table setting, of letting backdrop foretell
the spread, the dizzying lick of the graceful
fellatrix.  A neatly banked fire is both action
and circumstance.  I practice an interior
design, appointing the chamber with chance
reticence:  the hush of a thick rug, the space
that embraces the furniture’s curves.  I rhyme
slipcover with pillow talk, the jaded wallpaper
with my eyes.  My body lies to tell the truth,
each gesture disguised as stillness, each over-
wrought posed happening toward aftermath.
My past is strapless, hook-less, and eye-less.
I freelance, unlacing the vintage syntax
of seduction.  My patron sated, I compose
myself—painted, perfect, patient as paper,
falling open like a book to my best parts.

Garden Party

Is that shirt flirting with you across the cotton
lawn?  Not a shirt but a veritable whisper,
a sort of relaxed swagger, a seedy
allure.  The man with the seersucker

ease is prone to softly silk-like talk, mellowed
stuff.  You try a look that might provoke, a sally
in the opposite direction:  cabanas at noon, the blues
of a slow-turning fan.  Who would guess your underwire

disquiet, the half-life of your shelf-bra?  Peacock-
mean in your fitted little half-body you
dazzle.  The spare design of your butterfly
kiss passes as dress-up.  Subdued, he harbors

a cooler-come-evening, loosened silhouette, a barbecue,
utterly unencumbered.  A few graceful steps further
into the wilting summer.  Plenty roomy.  Down south:
a beautiful hang, an extra measure:  you may just settle.