Interviews January 2009

Lyric and Narrative

Poet Linda Bierds talks about her career, her new collection of poetry, and her perpetual quest to capture "the grand ineffable"

How does form factor into your writing process?

For me, the poem almost always asks for the form. Rarely does formal structure create subject for me. In First Hand, the poem “DNA” about the double helix, for example, really wanted a pantoum. A sonnet crown seemed appropriate for the way my life and Gregor Mendel’s circled back on each other in the same book.

Is that also true of the poems with looser forms?

Yes.  Most of the poems that I write using looser forms—and there are many—stem from the poem’s mission. With the Curie poems I mentioned earlier, line lengths and stanza patterns were as different across those free verse poems as tone, pacing, and point of view. Their missions were different and asked for different presentations. That said, more and more I find myself resisting my old “ragged” structures and striving for poems that are balanced visually. I enjoy that constraint. Nonetheless, I realize that these choices influence how the reader receives and interprets the poem, and I don’t want to fall into patterns simply because they’re pretty.

The visual arts play such an important role in these poems. Do you make visual art yourself?

No, I’m dreadful at it. But whenever I have a free afternoon, and especially if I’m traveling, I often go to galleries and museums. I can’t tell you how many poems in this selection have begun from paintings, although a poem is not always held so tightly by a painting that I need to acknowledge it.

What is it about paintings that you find particularly inspiring?

The fusion of matter and vision—the slow fusion of matter and vision. (Though photography inspires me too, and there the fusion is instantaneous.) The end result is, of course, that condition of transcendence that has always drawn people to art, but I’m also inspired by the process, the melding of the artist’s insight, the conditions of light, read or applied, and the materials at hand. My poem, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaas Tulp,” is about these ideas: Rembrandt coating his canvas with the glue of rabbit skins, mixing his pigments, then painting the body of a cadaver, the body of death made eternal by the oils, sulfurs, and roots of the living world.

Many times inspiration comes from an interaction between my journals and a painting.  My journals are filled with what I call orphaned images, images divorced from contexts or metaphor. Sometimes I’ll have one or two in mind as I’m looking through a book of paintings. Now and then the possibility of an odd alliance stirs. I read once that hunters used to wrap their horses’ hooves in sackcloth to quiet them during the hunt. I was thinking of that while looking through a book of van Eyck’s paintings. I stopped at his painting of the Arnolfini marriage. What sounds might the bride and groom be hearing outside the window on the painting’s left wall? Horse’s hooves? My poem “The Wedding” grew from the fusion of that unrelated journal entry and van Eyck’s painting.

I was struck also by all the Northern European settings of these poems. Is there something about that location that’s especially inspiring to you?

I’m not sure why the Northern European painters are the ones I’ve turned to so frequently. Before I wrote that very early poem on “The Anatomy Lesson” I hadn’t been interested in Rembrandt; I associated him with darkness and a kind of off-putting gravity. That changed. Now I think he’s unparalleled as a painter. I also admire the Italian Gothic painters, Vivarani, Giambino, and—swing forward five centuries—the German Expressionists, and so much in between. But the painters who most frequently inspire poetry within me do seem to be northern European:  Rembrandt, van Eyck, Vermeer, Durer.

I’m not an art critic and can only speak to this in a personal way. For me, the combination of the northern cultures, landscapes, weather and light creates a certain tone within the paintings that attracts me, whether the scenes depicted are indoors or outside. I’ve only been to their regions once, but I spent my very early childhood in Alaska, and I believe that exposure to snow and ice was a primal experience for me  In my early book, The Stillness, the Dancing, there is a concentration on ice and the frozen regions, and the way that snow takes away the definition of the world. Certainly my poem in the voice of the artist Hendrick Avercamp was written because I was drawn to the metaphoric implications of his paintings of skaters on frozen rivers. And I wrote “The Geographer” in part because I was fascinated by how the Dutch dried their flat, flooded fields. And Vermeer!—a “spiritual” use of light that, it seems to me, could not occur without all of the above.

There are a few poems in the book where an “I” appears who seems to be autobiographical. How do these poems take shape, as opposed to the others which are more impersonal?

There are “I” poems that seem identifiable as me, but the vast majority of them aren’t autobiographical. For example, there’s one poem called “Memento for the Hours” whose speaker goes into a storage room chilled by an underground brook. There are cut flowers and apples and she sits there with her mother. The poem is set in the 19th century and comes from reticules, folklore, ancient refrigeration techniques. Still, many people who read that poem will say to me, oh Linda, your romantic childhood:  a brook running under a stone house, and you and your mother sitting there . . . but actually, I grew up in Seattle. My father was a vice president for Alaska Airlines. One of my friends from high school read my “rural-setting father poems” and said “I don’t remember Mr. Bierds on a tractor!”

Some poems in Flight are based on my own life, but I wrote them more to enhance a book’s mission than to experience the benefits of autobiographical self-expression. My own life just doesn’t interest me very much as a subject for my poetry.

Do you enjoy other people’s poems that are self-expressive?

Yes, absolutely! I’m glad you asked that, because it can sound as if I’m saying, Just take that whole segment of the poetry world away. I do enjoy reading seemingly autobiographical poems—in fact, probably more than I enjoy reading I-absent poems. I’m just inspired by other sources.

What do you like to read in general?

I read a tremendous amount of contemporary poetry. I subscribe to a number of journals and part of my workday is devoted to them. In my free time I read novels and occasionally non-fiction. I’m reading Edward P. Jones’s The Known World right now.

I was imagining you devouring science journals.

Only during research. The triggers for my science poems come from less predictable places. Archimedes was not able to discover his theory of buoyancy by reading about buoyancy—he had to get into the bathtub. So it isn’t by poring through the journals that I come up with these poems; I’m in the tub, so to speak, and an image or a rogue idea comes, and then the research begins. And I only do enough research to help me make that particular poem. I have no deep knowledge of science; I’m sure what I have would be laughable to a real scientist.

Do you find that teaching influences your writing?

Yes, but not in terms of style or subject matter.  I teach graduate and undergraduate workshops almost exclusively.  I see my role for the students as that of a serious reader of their work.  I try to show them precisely what I am receiving from their poems and why—how the techniques they’ve used and the decisions they’ve made about structure, image, sound, voice, and so on affect my reading of their poem.  I try to instill in them, in addition to practical skills, a sense of responsibility for those choices, and above all a sense of responsibility to the reader.  And the discussions we have in class help me be responsible to my own readers.

Presented by

Sarah Cohen's poetry is published or forthcoming in The Paris Review, Indiana Review, and Pool. She received an MFA in poetry in 2006 from UC Irvine and is now working on a PhD at the University of Washington.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In