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Featured Poet:
Teresa Cader

Interview by Jennifer Flescher

Teresa Cader is the author of two collections of poetry. Guests, 1991, won the Poetry Society of America's Norma Farber First Book Award and The Journal Award in Poetry from the Ohio State University Press. The third section of her next book (The Paper Wasp, TriQuarterly Press, 1999) won the Poetry Society of America's George Bogin Memorial Award. She is on the core poetry faculty of the Lesley University Graduate Program in Creative Writing. She has just completed a third collection of poems.

Jennifer: History is such an important theme throughout your writing. History in all its facets – personal history, language history, time and place. Early on in Guests you began experimenting with historical montages as a framework of the poem, and the newest manuscript, History of Hurricanes, expands this concept to the framework of the entire book. History and historical figures take on very personal voices and import. How do you see the idea of history as it relates to your work?

I’ve been influenced by Emerson in my approach to history; that is, that historyis inseparable from the individual. We are made up in part of accretions of history, of the lives lived before us. The green tea on the Japanese American restaurant table is loaded with history by its very placement. All beginnings are a consequence, as Valery would say. There are no mysterious historical forces wandering around the planet like robot-piloted bombers. Look around you at your friends and neighbors and family. Look at yourself. I imagine historical characters—those not related to me by bloodlines—very vividly. I feel their presences; they’re in my head. They’re not cardboard props for ideas. I think poetry has always been a vessel for memory, collective and universal. A safe storage for the human and perishable life of a specific place or people, first, then a meeting place for communities and individuals across time. History is different inside that vessel; it’s not a collection of dates and –isms, but voices, many voices that bear individual witness to what happened as they experienced it. And the voices have breath; they live.

I’ve heard you talk about research as a place to take a poem deeper – mining in a way, maybe for the layers of meaning – embedded or possible. Could you talk about your relationship to research?

I don’t research anything in order to write about it. If I am drawn to something—even a word—I try to be alert to levels of meaning and associations that will extend the resonance or the dissonance of the word and the poem. While writing the poem “History of Hurricanes,” I became curious about what meanings the word “hurricane” might have, other than the obvious. I discovered a slightly bizarre definition in the O.E.D. that fit into a section of the poem I’d already drafted: “ a large, crowded assembly of fashionable people at a private party.” In a poem dealing partly with memory, I had just written about the ninth graders in Lexington who had never experienced a serious hurricane, for whom terms like velocity were abstractions. The O.E.D. definition of hurricane fit them well. I often suggest that my students do the same kind of exploration to see if they can make their poems speak outside the ordinary parameters of association and to discover connections the poets didn’t know existed.

In my second book, I have a section that examines birth from many perspectives. I had started a sequence of sonnets about it when I was a fellow at the Bunting Institute at Radcliff College. I was aware that not a lot of quality poetry had been written about birth and that most of it looked at birth from a physical, rather than metaphysical or phenomenological viewpoint. I stumbled on the odd fact that many terms related to birth also related to grammar (“contraction” is a case in point). That sent me straight to a grammar book, which in turn helped me form an argument in a subsequent poem.

In that same book, I have many poems about the invention of paper and printing and about language as an invention. All of that came from a seminal experience when I had an artist’s studio in the Munroe Center in Lexington where I was the only writer. I was wildly jealous of the other artists who always seemed to have something to do—stretch canvases, mix paints, fire pottery, dye cloth, scavenge in the woods for bird feathers, whatever—while all I had was a piece of paper, a pen, and some books. And often, no ideas for poems. One day I held the paper up to the window, turned it in all directions and realized I didn’t really know what it was, where it had come from. And this was my medium! I stared at a few words that had somehow plummeted onto the page and the letters of the alphabet looked like camels struggling against a sandstorm. What were these? Where had they come from? How could it be that I was using 26 abstract shapes to say everything I wanted to say? I felt submerged in mystery and intellectual passion. For me, that’s always visceral—my spine undulates or something—and I knew I had embarked on a very personal artistic journey. Of course I had to do research—since I really was quite ignorant—but I’m lucky that the things I learned turned me on emotionally, as well. I looked for just the amount of detail and fact I needed. I wasn’t writing an academic paper. I found one paragraph on the inventor, T’sai Lun, but I loved him and imagined him onto a terrace in ancient China. I still feel very close to him (or the him I imagined, based on the few facts I had). His status as an outsider, his idiosyncratic vision, his persecution and the maliciousness of the petty neighbors and villagers still stir enormous compassion and caring in me. And he seems all too contemporary. The key to using research, from my view, is to inhabit it imaginatively.

In one poem in Paper Wasps, “A poetics of birth” the poem says, “language aside, it’s death/ to make a poem of ideas ... and believe me, I don’t have the slightest conception/ of how to get myself out of this mess artfully.” Could you talk a little bit about the traps of research?

Well, I just said a lot about how I use research. I feel very deadened at times in other people’s poems if I sense that the poem exists to explicate the history. Why not write an historical essay and be done with it? I feel the same way when people try to show off a kind of learning that is fresh from Scientific American. For me, a poem has to be an experience that moves me through its use of multiple angles, sensibilities and devices. I think research can be useful to bring something alive, to uncover what hasn’t been seen or understood. Robert Pinsky is a poet who uses history and obviously does research here and there, but both are in service of something much larger and, paradoxically, much more intimate and language-driven. I guess one of the worst traps of research is that it can make people feel superior—like on the playground, “I know something you don’t” and then they start strutting on the page. To be contrary, I’d also say that we wouldn’t have Eliot or Pound without their hunger for knowledge, traditional and esoteric, and their willingness to study.

The line you quoted is from a poem called “Poetics of Birth,” a sestina that argues for a metaphysics of birth, displays abundant frustration about not being able to establish that without a diatribe, and finally parodies the enterprise, in the process arriving at the deeper connections between art, birth and death. The poem struggles, and I hope succeeds, at finding a way through the morass of received ideas and language about birth.

In Guests, especially, personal history and story are very much at the center of many of the poems. I think it’s a tricky thing – this question I would like to ask. There is much talk in interviewing about the personal history as it relates to the writing. I would like to ask you about Poland – and where that writing started for you. I suppose that skirts dangerously close to assuming that the author and the speaker are the same in your poetry – but I feel that Guests is really grounded in this space of personal history, Could you illuminate the connection between your life, the work and the history.

Guests is the only book of mine in which this figures, but it is not surprising that it was a series of obsessions with exile, immigration, lost identity, the making of an artistic self, and the massive suffering of both World Wars that laid the bedrock for these poems. In the first lengthy review of this book in The Journal, which had awarded it its annual first book prize in 1991, the reviewer noted that many poems take the stock characters in much contemporary poetry—“mother,” “father,” “grandmother,” “grandfather,” and the “self-absorbed, ubiquitous “I,” and drive “beyond their concrete and emotional immediacy into the world of ideas.” This reviewer also noted that the poems “drive us into confronting history, into confronting its ramifications on our present moment and into what it has made us become.”

But let me put it in my own words. I do not see any individual as separate from history. Biography and history are completely entwined. In that sense, I have a very Emersonian view.

If you are asking about my personal history in relation to Poland, I’m happy to answer that, but it’s complicated. I feel that I am a product of two cultures, Central European and American and that I don’t belong to the same shared cultural experiences that many of my peers have. I don’t write about American pop culture because I grew up in a house that didn’t allow it. We didn’t have TV, went only to classic foreign films, lived in a working class neighborhood and had books like Leaves of Grass and Poems from the Chinese. And yet, we were fairly poor and ethnic. My father was born in Poland in 1913, my grandfather escaped in order not to fight for the Austrians in WWI (Poland didn’t exist; their section “belonged to Austria), and after a lengthy stay during the period of independence, my grandmother and some relatives escaped just as the Nazis were invading. Polish is a language in my blood. Part of the family didn’t speak English. I grew up with history as a personal companion, not an abstract idea. I won’t recount the losses and horrors. It was a complicated history, too. We became Protestants, my brother later converted to Judaism. When his cantor greets me, it’s in Polish with an admonition—“Why aren’t you speaking Polish to me?!” He was saved by a Polish family. When the realities of WWII all became more universally discussed, I had questions for history, arguments with history, and confusion about identity.

In your second and third books you move away from Poland to a great extent. In some ways it seems like a trend of poems in general – a shift between the 80’s and this time we are in – in part too a shift of age. Could you talk a little bit about the shift from writing about ancestry to writing about the personal history as it unfolds?

I don’t discuss Poland at all in The Paper Wasp and I never intended to write about ancestry, per se. When Guests won The Norma Farber First Book Award, Mary Oliver talked about the book’s concern with loss of country, consequences of war and the disassociation of people from people. My mother’s side of the family is Irish—my great aunt looks like Seamus Heaney in a black funeral dress—but I don’t write about them because I can’t feel the larger consequences of their history. I know about that, of course, but the suffering wasn’t present-day enough for me to incorporate it into my identity. I do have a set of very odd stories to tell but no interest in telling them in poetry. I’m beginning a project to translate Polish poems—because Polish poetry is among the best in the world, not because I called my grandmother babci. I’m suspicious of trends because I’m afraid of mass thinking and proscribed ways of being an artist. I don’t think it’s a question of age, although younger poets do seem to write more familial poems. Later, most of those people are dead.

I think I explained earlier how The Paper Wasp came to be written. Obsession. Being turned on to things I don’t understand. Wanting to feel a mastery over birth, as opposed to being made to feel out of control. Weird—but ideas turn me on, too. Not as good as sex but somewhere along the continuum.

I didn’t see the book as personal history. It was criticized once for not being intimate enough. Before the birth sonnets, I was writing a long sequence on the Russian poet and historian Eugenia Ginzburg who spent 18 years in the gulag and lost her son. Being pregnant, I found that the material depressed me. I had read her journals, which are marvelous, and I was obsessed with finding out how she managed to survive. I had to put that sequence down. After the birth of my daughter and the taming of my fears about whether she was choking or suffocating or having SIDS, I returned to Ginzburg and saw that Eugenia had survived because she had memorized so much Russian poetry. It’s something I think about all the time: poems as saviors, literally. Poetry about what you might have when almost everything else has been taken away from you.

The newly finished collection, History of Hurricanes, has a poem about the link between the civil rights movement in the U.S. and the Solidarity movement in Poland which was prompted by my visit to a club in Krakow playing James Brown and by listening to my Polish friends sing every verse of “We Shall Overcome.” But there is history in this book: I live one block from where the American Revolution started. I imagined a Minuteman losing his child to a hurricane, having no idea that such a storm was coming. I imagined a couple in contemporary Japan, etc. Those people are very real to me. I imagine that’s the way a playwright experiences life.

I do find that I am obsessed with capturing certain movements of my mind and my language. This book also deals more directly with personal suffering, but got at through various, non-linear angles of vision, not straightforward narrative. I am interested in the way fragments can unleash new language; I explore different kinds of leaps that can be made when I refuse the proven. I am a poet of connections, so while I am not interested in arriving at a unified thought or non-conflicting reality, I am fascinated by finding connections that arise from disunity, multiplicity, previously unidentified coherence and dissonance.

I like the multiplicity I find inside myself. I like to be traveling on several different wavelengths simultaneously. I’m interested in spare multiplicity, too, that is, allowing contradictions to form new meanings, but in the terse, breakneck speed of an insight.

In the new work, you have continued writing with a combination of historical figures juxtaposed with the present day grounded personal narrative. The first and title poem, for example, moves from a minuteman to a man in Kyoto, to “ninth-graders in their cut-offs.” There is really a tapestry effect created in the poems. With sections as dividers, the characters weave together through repetition like braiding. Could you talk about how you see this working, and what purpose it is serving for you?

I don’t see the traditional split between past and present. Time is not linear, nor is history, nor is your life nor mine. Now you’ve got me wondering how I came to think this way, aside from the traumas of history I witnessed in the daily lives of my father and relatives. And I think I have one clue: I grew up obsessed with Colonial America and early American history. I read volumes and volumes of biography and was really thrilled by it. Those figures were the mainstay of my imaginary play: they were people I felt close to, whose clothes, habits, ideas, candlesticks I knew deeply. Of course, it was romanticized. I had no idea about slavery in the colonies. I think this obsession helped me to separate from my working class, impoverished life (again, if going to Ingmar Bergman movies equates in any sensical way in American culture to being working class). Neither of my parents went to high school. But I found a world of high-principled ideals and risk-taking that suited my personality, my deeply instilled ideas about justice, fairness and democracy in the new world. I never connected this before with the colonial characters weaving through my third collection.

I do like braiding strands of things. Juxtaposition creates new and unexpected meanings. I love the effects of tapestry. Very little is certain in a vacuum. Tapestry is a way to access complexity, ambiguity and multiple interpretation and response. It can also be revisited, each time yielding new entry and exit points, new paths through it.

Historical characters themselves become the metaphors in your poems. In one poem you even say, “the way a myth harbors what is true” – could you talk a little bit about your relationship to the other characters you include?

Myths are crucial as a way of getting at the truth but truth is multiple, not singular, as well as evolutionary, and cannot be contained in any vessel. I mentioned the Minuteman who doesn’t know a hurricane is coming. I think about those people when I watch Weather 5 and Dickie Albert showing me a radar image of a hurricane that is headed toward Boston. They’re buried all around me. Apparently Native Americans could read the storm signs better. But then where are their graves? I experience a sense of their loss every time I cross the town Green. There are also the ignorant teens who don’t comprehend history repeating itself. And that is both a life cycle issue and a cultural one. In “Anywhere,” a Zen Scholar and Master are having the same conversation in the past that the speaker is having with her daughter in the present. Emily Dickinson’s solitude stands for a wonderful ability to preserve one’s work, but for me the peace in her room was transcendent. The Asian artist, poet and fishermen represent a Taoist way of approaching nature and the mutability of our lives. I don’t choose characters so they can represent things—I’m too engaged with them for that—but I do often see the link afterwards. I had to have Eugenia Ginzburg give me her survival skills.

Shifting now to language – Especially in your newest collection, History of Hurricanes, You use very simple language, juxtaposed sometimes with very formal language, and sometimes with slang. For example, in “Spoon, Fork, Plate,” a poem that quotes Erasamus of Rotterdam in his “On Civility and Children,” you say, “My children lack manners, think the rules suck rotten eggs.” How do you gauge the different registers of language?

It was fun to put that quote in a section focusing on Erasmus’ treatise on children’s manners. I like language that moves through multiple registers—I love opera and street talk, Shakespeare and Bobby McFerrin, Kiri Te Kanawa and Latin—and I like the way they make themselves present in a poem. I hear an echo and it’s right—that phrase seems right for this poem because one of the subjects is class manners, wanting a little mobility based on a wide range of class-distinguishing manners. I like to be many people when I write a poem, to notice how my sensibility processes different kinds of language. I enjoy unexpected juxtapositions that create wit or genuine surprise. Finally I like to mix up the sense of where the poem is coming from, to defeat predictability.

You’ve said that you grew up in a house where you were mute to survive. I am very interested in this as it relates to the nature and the impetus of many writers – myself included. I think the question has to do with the relationship of voice to silence – what noise do we make when silence is the norm. So what is the question – What voice do you feel writing has given you that you had not found before?

I felt that I didn’t fit into popular American culture and that had a silencing effect. At home, there was a dividing line of sorts; my father and I shared a number of intellectual passions that my mother and brother did not. My early writing, poems and short stories, seemed to exaggerate the gap. At least I thought they did, so I learned a second level of being mute. It seemed safer—and I was protecting myself as a writer. Recently, I read about how Emily Dickinson’s father encouraged her intellectual genius but was horrified when she wanted to publish poems, he didn’t consider it proper for a woman. It wasn’t that way in my house, but the culture on the shelves and elsewhere was one of famous men doing anything for the sake of their art—a sort of divinity denied women. Class issues do not totally go away, either. It’s a long leap from parents who didn’t go to high school to applying for college oneself. Now try vocalizing the fact that one wants to be a writer. But the only real way I can get at what I think is to write it. Only a fraction makes it into speech—an exaggeration, of course, but I often worry nothing is going to come out of my mouth.

I know the story of the saving of the poem “Aria” from the trash bin. I wonder if you could recount it here.

I don’t know how specific to be. I was showing a fellow poet a group of poems I was considering trashing and he not only liked “Aria” a lot, he suggested sending it to Peter Davison at the Atlantic. Peter accepted it and said it reminded him of Thomas Hardy. All poets benefit from other eyes. I distrusted the poem because I wrote it in a few swoops of the pen, but also because I thought it might be too easy or simple. Actually it seemed to write itself without any conscious direction from my brain, so my brain was not pleased.

I would like to ask you, too, a little bit bigger question about the nature of trusting your own work – you said of “Aria” you didn’t trust it because it was too easy. And so I am wondering, with the backdrop of what we have been talking about of research, if you could talk about the nature of effort and layering as verification or validating to the poems. Is it hard to trust the writing? Is it hard to trust your own voice? And furthermore, how do you work through the times when that trust waivers?

I do trust my own voice. I like the multiplicity I find inside myself. I like to be traveling on several different wavelengths simultaneously. I’m interested in spare multiplicity, too, that is, allowing contradictions to form new meanings, but in the terse, breakneck speed of an insight.

In the new manuscript, History of Hurricanes, there is a long series poem entitled “Hand-Stitched Notebook.” Could you recount the story of this poem, this notebook for us?

One night I opened a hand-stitched notebook I found on a shelf near my bed and decided to write in it. I had no plan. I usually write on the computer. I loved the feel of the pen again. After a throwaway page, I begin to write in the book each night. Right away, the writing became a response to the notebook itself. I read on the flap that the binding was Coptic. That reminded me of a lovely Coptic Christian woman from Egypt I’d met at a party years ago. I let my mind associate. The work arrived in couplets. I was moved by the simple painting of Ma Lin on the cover, the short lyric by Wang Wei, the notion of the Tao in brushstrokes. My poems began to take in more of the notebook, its own separate integrity. I was in dialogue with it, listening and responding. I planned no encounter in advance. It took about ten days to write. In many places the book turns intimate and self-revelatory but always as part of the dialogue, with Wang Wei and Ma Lin, and the poem and painting as presences I felt keenly. Of course, I did a lot of editing, of moving sections around and changing titles. I dropped two sections. I wrote the sequence in bed, just before sleep, so that my sleepiness would make it easier to ride an alpha train of images and associations.

When you first told me about this poem, you said that you felt like you were writing beyond yourself – could you describe this state of writing?

Good writing is about being alert, to yourself, to what lies just beyond your comprehension. Hopefully, in a given book or collection of books, you’ve mastered what puzzled and prompted you, what wouldn’t give you a break. And then, quietly one day, there you are. The buzz saw is resting on the log. You’re leaning back and noticing the quality of the air. Something is done (for now). Writing beyond your last work means not intentionally hanging onto the work that now seems right—in order to keep reproducing it—but rather opening oneself again to the unknown with its obsessions, experimentations, discoveries, and journeys of the self. It should be an organic process, a matter of living as a poet, not simply a higher rock course on the poetry wall.

Many of your poems work from the outside in. Starting far away or with a location or setting – this seems in some ways to counter a trend in much work these days of beginning a poem from it’s power center – could you talk a little bit about this construct?

Actually, there is no construct. I use a lot of imagery. I like to blend sensual and intellectual matters, to create feeling-infused thought. I think of place as intimate. If I can’t treat it that way, it’s decoration, a stage prop. Each of my three books is quite different, however, and some of my earlier narrative poems evolve in a way that the poem’s discoveries are more embedded or bottom-heavy in terms of where they occur in the poem. In my recently finished collection, History of Hurricanes, many poems are, for example, elliptical and begin at odd angles, already deep inside the work yet to be written. In my poem “For years,” my title is followed by the opening line, “I kept the secret hidden from myself.” That seems to be the poem’s power center. My strategies and language are often metaphysical. It’s the way things come together in my head and on the page. Lately, my speakers just start talking, but their speech is loaded with mundane and esoteric, traditional and eccentric phrases and questions. I am a poet of context, however, a poet of history. My temporal and spatial planes intersect all the time, sometimes wildly.

I would like to ask some questions about motherhood. Being a poet and a mother can be a very tricky combination. The first is a career question – I know that you are in a sort of second phase of your career now. I wonder if you could talk about the career as it has developed through your time as a mother of young children. Your first book came out just after your first child was born. There are so many added constraints on women as they maneuver careers and raising a family. What has doing both meant for you over the past 15 years?

Actually, I’ve had two careers. My first poem in a major publication, TriQuarterly, was published when I was a Master’s degree student in public administration at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. (I was also a research assistant at MIT in new communication technologies, taking courses in things like telecommunications technology and public policy.) I had gone to the Kennedy School after a Master’s degree in English and after many years working in anti-poverty programs. I served as associate director of the Massachusetts Artists Fellowship Program. By then, I was writing seriously and looking for a way to do consulting part-time to support my writing. I honestly believed the cable companies’ lies that arts and community programming would become serious venue on cable. After working as a consultant in an international firm assessing new communication technologies, I became associate director of the Kennedy School’s new multi-million dollar national awards program on innovation in government. After three years, I was publishing regularly and I wanted to stop administrative work. I was lucky: I received my first fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a fellowship from the Bunting Institute at Radcliff. While at the Bunting, I wrote major parts of my first book and gave birth to my first daughter in 1987. My book came out in 1991. After that I did consulting for the Ford Foundation and Harvard and taught at MIT and Emerson.

I have a complicated view of the poetry/motherhood issue. I partly resent the fact that we have to ask the question—obviously there’s divorce, financial struggle, social and emotional crisis, health issues, etc. that can entrap a mother—but I think women and society keep leaving the partners off the hook and keep demanding that only women bear the brunt of the burden of care. France has wonderful, cheap, government-subsidized childcare. Some men really do try to equalize home responsibilities. Women writers, though, have to treat their writing like a career when they have kids: the work, as well as the artist really suffers otherwise. I was no model of what I’m espousing: we moved from Cambridge to Lexington and yes, I published an award-winning book, but I was also losing ground in an insidious way. After the birth of my second daughter, I realized I didn’t have the solitude I needed. I published my second book, but within five months, I got a serious and mysterious neuromuscular illness after contracting Lyme. I lost some years in there, when I didn’t have the supports to take care of myself, my writing and my family.

The short answer is that I absolutely need to write. I adore my children, but I think I could have fought back against those constraints and been more creative about circumventing them. I could have gotten much more help than I did. I would offer the suggestion that women with children treat their writing as a job they have to show up for, making it a two-career household right away, if two adults are there. Bill Matthews singled parented for many years; he got up at five, or started working at ten, or whatever, but he kept writing –and teaching. Now if you think about that, isn’t it absurd that a female writer with children who has a partner isn’t getting or demanding time to work.

I would also love to hear some of your thoughts on writing about your children. In the poems, you look at many of the situations of life with children in a very blunt and honest way – do you think about your children as the readers of your work? Does it worry you?

My children have read my first two books. They’re also savvy about the way poems speak. I don’t think I have written anything to worry about. On the other hand, I feel a natural sense of boundaries around them—their private life, their foibles and successes, their hurt and anger are off limits. I would never write anything that would shame them. Of course, everything I do embarrasses them, but that’s different.

Thank you so much, Teresa, for sharing your observations and insights with Perihelion.

Teresa Cader's poetry can be found here.

Order here.




Jennifer S. Flescher holds a Master's degree in Journalism and an MFA in poetry. Her publications include The Harvard Review, The Boston Globe, Agni-Online and The New Hampshire Review, with work forthcoming in Jubilat. She teaches writing and theory in the Communications Department at Lasell College in Newton, MA.