Michael: Continuing in my campaign to foster creative cross-pollination among contributors to Reckoning 1, I asked Aozora Brockman, whose poem “Kill or Be Killed” is forthcoming on the site in a few weeks, to interview Chloe N. Clark about her poem “Sidelong Catastrophe”.
Aozora: I love that your poem “Sidelong Catastrophe” surprises us in the opening line (“I’m not sure who the sky is / when it’s not the sky”) by giving the sky a dual identity—at once a “who” (human-like) and an “it” (object-like). In the poem, the perceived boundary between human beings and nature are blurred: a river was once a beautiful woman, and clouds show human-like emotion when they “weep the ghosts / of rivers for days on end”. What, to you, is the boundary between humans and nature? And what can a poem that blurs these boundaries open up?
Chloe: This is such a great question but I’m not sure I have a cohesive/at all well-thought out answer for it. I’ve always been fascinated by boundaries and the blur between them (my love of fairy tales is probably to blame with all their liminal spaces between boundaries). I also think the boundary between humans and nature is a liminal one, or at least a shifting one. I grew up closer to nature than many, because of where (and how) I lived as a child. So to me nature has always been something I exist in, not against or beside, and thus the boundary is something non-existent. However, obviously, this changes—I think in cities, there’s probably a much more defined sense of the boundaries. But maybe that, even, is false—since the natural world still interacts with all landscapes (something that we’ll likely notice more and more as climate change increases the disruption of what we think of as the norm of weather and natural cycles).
I think poetry is always about blurring boundaries. A poem itself is a liminal space—existing between the writer’s intent and the readers’ interpretations. So maybe a poem is the best way to shake us from the boundaries we imagine are there.
One of the coolest aspects of the MFA program I graduated from—Iowa State University’s MFA in Creative Writing & Environment—is that it kind of forces you to constantly be thinking about this in your writing.
Aozora: There is a tension between power and powerlessness in your poem. At one moment you are dreaming of the possibility of solving all of the problems of the world (“sometimes I imagine / that we can solve everything” ) but, a couple lines later, are wholly without hope, drawing “scenes / of decay because that is what / we know”. As humans we know that we have great power over nature—after all, we are the ones that have systematically destroyed our environment. But at the same time, it feels impossible to halt the poisoning of soil, water and air. We are, at once, extremely powerful and extremely powerless—and your poem lays bare this contradiction and tension. As a poet (and a person), when do you feel powerful? When do you feel powerless?
Chloe: I’ve always felt the most powerful, day-to-day, when I’m focused in on something. I cook and bake, so that’s a meditative act but it’s also one where you can feel powerful because you have this mastery over what you’re doing—especially once you became more and more skilled at it. That’s an exquisite feeling. When I’ve felt powerful in writing is when I hit that sweet spot between the last few lines and the ending, when you can see the writing coming together and everything feels like that stomach-jumping feeling you get when an elevator drops a little too fast but you know you’re still safe.
I think there’s so many situations when I feel powerless as a person (which maybe is why I write). It’s that moment when someone you love is hurt and you can’t do anything, or when you’re walking alone at night and the darkness seems a little too shadow-filled, or when you watch the news and the world is so filled with horror. It’s easy to feel powerless.
As a poet, the only time I ever feel powerless is in the poems I haven’t yet written—the ones about emotions that I haven’t figured out or events that are still too close to see right to put into language.
Aozora: What do you think is the role of a poet writing about the environment and natural world? What impassions you to write? And how can we change the world through poetry?
Chloe: I don’t know, to be honest. I think that writing purposefully about the environment and natural world is good, but when people set out to do so—it often feels like just that: something they made themselves do. I’m far more interested in writing that can’t help but be filled with these things. Where it bleeds into every line. So the role might be as witness, more than voice.
Chloe: The things that impassion me are so wide that it’s almost weird to think about: I write because I can’t not (I think I’m stealing that from somewhere, but it’s true). I’ve always been fascinated by stories themselves and I think of poetry that way—as a story, just told in slightly different terms than fiction.
I want to say we can change the world. But often I think I agree more with something Wilfred Owen wrote back during WWI: All the poet can do today is warn. Sometimes warning is the most we can do. But, I hope we can also offer some bit of hope: if only because someone else is noticing the same things as you, or finds beauty in the same place as you, or makes a joke that makes you laugh. I think that can be a lot.