Energies of Sound and Song

A Conversation: Karen Donovan, Diane Raptosh, Daneen Wardrop, H. L. Hix

TRIO: Planet Parable, Run: Victoria Woodhall – A Verse History, Endless Body Karen Donovan, Diane Raptosh, and Daneen Wardrop (Etruscan Press, 2021).

HH: In the “Trialogue” at the end of Trio, responding to a question about publishing three books together in one volume, Karen says she feels that “everything I say is overheard in a much more intimate, shared space.”  That observation reminds me how radically the conditions of the experience of a poem affect the experience: it’s a very different experience to read a poem to oneself in privacy than to hear a poem read aloud to an audience gathered at a bookstore for a reading, and it would be another very different experience to overhear one person reading a poem to another. 

Because those words, “overheard,” “intimate,” “shared,” do apply to my experience as a reader of this volume, I wonder if, rather than my posing a question, our lingering over those words offers a transition from the conversation that is Trio into this conversation.

KD: Hello, everyone! Harvey, thanks for your opening comment. Perhaps, in being called to respond to my own words, I can start us off. As I sit here in my tiny office, in this tiny house, in the tiny state of Rhode Island, I am surrounded by bookshelves that were knocked together with pinewood by my husband when we moved in. When I run my eyes over the thin and thick spines of my books, I swear I can hear the spectrum of voices streaming out, the same way I could tune from station to station on my grandmother’s old analog radio on the nights I would sleep over, lying there in the dark in her spare room after she had washed up dinner and turned out the lights. The voices might come from anywhere, from down the road in Providence or even from Boston, and if the weather was right I could pull in sound from very far away, faint but real, a human voice traveling through the air to me as I struggled to stay awake and listen, warm under blankets sweet with my grandmother’s perfume.

This is what I think about when I look at my shelves of poetry books. They are all speaking at once in every wavelength. To hear any single voice, I need to scale space and create an intimacy that allows listening: I pull out one book and open it. What Etruscan has done with Trio is scale an intimate space that includes three voices. It’s like a breakout room. We can overhear ourselves and one another very well in this shared space as our books reflect and absorb echoes, and we can invite others to enter and hear the reverb.

HH: I can see and hear and smell those rooms, the pine-board bookshelves, the grandma-scented blankets.  Your memories evoke memories of my own, as they must for Diane and Daneen as well.  I’ve never been to either of the rooms you describe here, but I feel now as though I have been, as though they are part of my experience, too.

It’s beautiful how fluidly it happens that literal rooms that host literal listening become figurative rooms for figurative listening.  I’m thinking of the rooms and the listenings in the poems of Trio.  The speaker in Karen’s “This Noon,” watching a spider on the window screen and listening to “a dove out there, cooing, / still calling from somewhere.”  Diane’s Victoria, listening to the room and the people in it, to hear the voices of Odessa and Delia.  The speaker and LiLi at the dinner table in Daneen’s “Caesura,” listening as “Paper wind ruffles / paper sheaves.”

Listenings that create intimacy?  Listenings that are intimacy?

DW:  Oh my gosh, we’re talking about sounds in a room!  What a hallowed subject, given the autonomy—and the history—of that poetic room.  Those sounds depend on the acoustics of the room, too, the ways each poet sets up her room/poem/stanza, with its own set of shapes and baffles to enhance the sound.  Karen and Diane use combinations of dashes and Rukeyser-like punctuation, as in the colon, (among many other punctuation effects) to create certain acoustics and bring out their music—as a recording studio engineer will nail egg cartons to the walls in some areas to absorb certain frequencies but leave other more bald sonic textures in the room to let other sounds rip.  Karen’s sound is so big she even writes, “If the Sound Is Too Big for the House . . . Rip the Roof Off!”  (Karen deals in such elemental forces—marl, clouds, water, that she can hazard such powerful sound effects.) In some poems Diane actually times her lines—as for instance in a sequence that ticks through hours, starting with Victoria Woodhull (who ran for president) and ends up several hours later with Shirley Chisholm!  What a gorgeous way to set up the click track to create the rhythm in that room!   (In addition Diane will at times square a colon so that it exists as a kind of multiple of itself—and presents a risky and beautiful feed-back effect.)  

DR: I have said this elsewhere: All day I incubate sounds to be newly carnated. This is not entirely true: It is rare that I get to do this all day! But it seems honest to think of poems as incubations of sounds that birth and enliven both writer and reader. The room I read and write in is small too, so I thrill at the title of Karen’s poem, which Daneen had mentioned, “If the Sound is Too Big for This House We Can Blow the Roof Out.” In the room where I read and write, I sit next to a wall of family photographs: of children and grandchildren, ancestors and ultrasound profiles. To the left of my desk is a framed Xeroxed watercolor by Elizabeth Bishop. It features a calm domestic scene from an orange-brown room: a rectangular table with a plaid tablecloth and a pot of pink blossoms, from whose small mouths pour forth energies of sound and song. I think of the whole photo grouping as a wall of tongues. Can you hear their voices? They sound like wind. // They line up at the edge of heaven: These are the tones of Karen piping in. Then in chimes Daneen, tuning to sound-slice and sound-slice. // This is how we stand, she reminds: in a room together, the stanza’s stopping place. That chamber. In much the same way that the finch in one of Daneen’s poems chooses his location for the acoustics, we three, Karen, Daneen, and I live in a shared sound-surround. The fact that we ended up choosing this chamber after each individual book was already fully composed serves only to underscore how musically well our clocks and clouds, our marl and thoughts line up.

HH: A “shared sound-surround,” yes.  An attentive and intentional receptivity.  It’s as if the more enclosed the space is, the more open it is to what originates outside it.  The room from Karen’s childhood, alive with voices from Providence and Boston; the too-small house with its roof blown off (which recalls Emily Dickinson’s feeling “as if the top of my head were taken off”) and “this scrap of scorched page whirling up” out of it; and so on.  The rooms are often small, as Karen and Diane note that their studies are, but this openness/porousness makes them also huge, infinitely capacious.  Voices fill them, from the books crammed onto the pinewood shelves, from the pink blossoms in the reproduced Bishop painting (which recall the marguerites embroidered on the doily in “The Filling Station”).  And the voices are shaped, then, enhanced, as Daneen describes.

These room-poems are open to elemental forces (they can, as Karen sings, “pull from some place I can barely imagine / a muscular force that could split rock”); they are open to human history (Diane’s Victoria hearing in her own name the “rights / of the lower million against the upper ten”); they are open to the physical world (as in the very first words of the very first poem of Daneen’s book, “Draw into your room the birds curled // by a finger, draw to your chest the mountains between slats of blinds”).

The smallest room, the most wide-open space?

KD: Harvey, this last question of yours tumbling out there in the air makes me think about constraints, which makes me think about form, which is my most favorite subject. It’s a beautiful conundrum that the constraints of form in poetry make it possible to create something much larger than a small room – a defined space that gets really big on the inside. Trio is like a frame that defines a space with three books, each one of which contains multiple interior windows that open deeper. The intricate patterning of individual poems draws you further inside, where you see more form unfolding. It’s very fractal. I wonder if the impulse the three of us had at the very start of the project to emphasize pattern and use centos to add dimension was a response to the layers we saw happening (The lake says, how / loosefitting do you want your sentences?). There is so much interesting form in this volume, much of it invented or wildly hijacked. Diane’s book is a master class in playful formal experiment from beginning to end, and the ecosystem of Daneen’s book unfurls so organically that you halfway expect it to leaf out. The poems turn the inside into the outside and escape!

Diane, I would love to hear about the decisions you made about form. You speak in lists, letters, telegrams, crossouts, a playscript, the tolling of a clock tower, a sort of abecedarian ouija board language, not to mention regular couplets, triplets, and some poem shapes I don’t even know the names of. Do you think of form as a constraint that helps you write? Or would you say that differently?

DR: To answer this I’ll take a little detour. Lately I’ve been writing exclusively (obsessively) American sonnets. Into one sonnet I wrote this particular line: “The sonnet’s a prison I lock myself in / so I can find new ways to break free.” Again, this brings us back to the image of the small room as the most wide open space. It is bigger than Idaho itself! When I think of this room, I think of the American illusionist David Blaine dangling over the Thames in his plexiglass case. I might just as easily substitute “form” for “sonnet.” Form gives us ways to break free as we dangle over a river; form lets us effectively “juggle orange balls’” in the snow, couplet by couplet, as in Karen’s poem “I Hear the Many.”  Writing American history as verse was challenging. I knew I needed to ask forms to help me winnow decades of characters, events, and struggles into shapes that could work. Daneen’s sonnet “Gift” gives us some beautiful metaphors for thinking about form: “a butterfly house . . . / / clapped-closed and no stopping.” The box comes without instructions./This is not sadness, Daneen’s poem reminds.Form—the box of whatever proportions—is a bouncy house, is the bomb, is the joy. It’s a fear to be entered. Daneen, we want to hear from you on this! 

HH: By way of continuity as we listen for Daneen’s thoughts on this, I would only observe the multiple “levels” on which the form you’re describing, the defined space that is big on the inside, occurs in the book.  As noted already, it is happening at the level of individual poems, and at the level of the whole, the book of books.  It strikes me that it also occurs even within poems, as for example in the periodic form of that totally ordinary and totally beautiful and poetic form, the list.  Karen’s “as the story falls out / onto her tongue // in honeysuckle, / aster, bittersweet, rue.”  Diane’s “On the edges of sight / I see objects: eggs, flasks, / large bottles, lorgnettes / with metal frames”….  Daneen’s “stiffened hem / of the sheet, / dried star of spittle, pink Rx.”  To give only one example from each collection, and only one kind of form-within-form.

DW:  I’m drawn to the image of turning inside out and then back again.  As the four of us “talk,” I also experience, with you, that sense of compression and release.  And I love the bouncy house!  (Perhaps before every big decision, a person might choose to live in that bouncy house for a while, to stay altogether in the moment in order to keep balance.  In other words, we might make choices with a lived sense of balance!  We could all read a poem before we go vote!)  

Thanks, Diane, for bringing up sonnets.  Maybe Wordsworth’s sonnet, “Nuns Fret Not,” could be noted here, especially when paired with what you said, Karen, about “constraint.”  Wordsworth wanted a “narrow room” for his lines.  So here we’re back to that primary, tiny room, and Wordsworth is with us—!—saying that “in truth the prison is not a prison.”  Because it’s there that we get to hear melodies.  

If I may, I’d like to return to your idea, Karen, about the ecosystem of a poem—something I’ve been pondering, too, as maybe others have, given the urgency of thinking in ecosystems as a way to restore our globe.  It strikes me that both of you, Diane, and Karen, use layerings and forms to grow ecosystems that sustain your worlds.  Diane, I read your book as a complex living construction of politics, outre rituals, family interactions, and more.  Karen, your book seems to me to work in a complex layering of earth and water interleaved with human agency as well as natural agency, including spiritual conversations.  You both include spiritual conversations.  You both tend to your poems, keeping them viable and interacting.  Do you think of the parts of a poem as systems organic to the whole?  How do you deliver such multiplicity and complex interactions?   

HH: As a way to second Daneen’s questions, I merely add here a favorite moment or three from spiritual conversations in these books.  (As this spiritual conversation, ours at this moment, continues.)  From Karen’s “Digression Before a Prayer,” the digression’s culmination: “When it turns and stings me, yes, / the sudden venomous self, I might curse you / or the sky or history. Or suffer, then confess.”  From Diane’s “Demosthenes’ Auguries,” the P.S. that Victoria’s spirit guide adds to his initial message to her: “For debate practice: / chant speeches while running or short of breath. // Until your full readiness, / shave half your head—so you dare not enter the polis.”  And from Daneen’s “Counterpoint,” this recognition in lieu of a way to thank birds for teaching humans music, “Robins // feed morning to a pinking sky—my / vertebrae, each, // tuning to sound-slice and sound-slice.”

DR: I think of Karen’s prose-poem “I Saw Egrets Flying” as one which enters and enacts, and then proceeds to explode—with the poem’s own freedom and within the poem’s reasonable bounds—its own system. I am struck by its honest conversation with itself, its antennae waving around trying not to tie “Egrets Flying” inside too tight a hem. The poem wonders “what the point is of keeping a record. . . . Everything seemed impossibly complex, impossibly cute, or impossibly misquoted.” This sums up the poet’s dilemma in so many ways. The 21st-century globe is precisely these things. And less. And more. So what does the poet do? Well we get cues from Daneen’s poem “Body worlds”: “the holding simply part of a day slapping by.” What is there to do but tend and hold the world through the bones of poetry. One poem at a time may help restore the globe. Because: music. Because: the tick of Victoria Woodhull’s clock. Because. Struggling. Joy. Because, as Daneen reminds, we must “entice / space with more loquats.” I could do nothing but say that sentence all day, and doing so, suggest into being its system.

[A note to the reader: The four-way conversation had reached this point when Lian Wardrop, Daneen’s daughter, on 17 February 2021, wrote with the grievous news that Daneen was in the hospital with the brain cancer from which, on 8 April, she died.  The other three participants in the conversation decided to suspend the conversation at that time.  We return to it now, in mid-June, hoping that in extending the conversation we may participate in honoring Daneen’s life and work.]

KD: Thank you, Harvey, for your transition note and for the opportunity to return to our conversation after the shock of losing Daneen so suddenly. Just this week (mid-June 2021), Diane and I reserved time to read Daneen’s Endless Body to each other. We spoke the book over the phone, our voices warm in each other’s ears, personal and intimate and all sound, intentionally avoiding the disembodied, distracting talking-head self-consciousness of zoom. Daneen was with us, between the lines, between the words, between the letters, her body-mind-soul-spirit truly endless but also ever-present in the way all poets are ever-present whenever their poems are read aloud. Because so much of Endless Body calls up the human experience of attachment and loss, it’s impossible to read it now without thinking about her departure from the ones who loved her most. Her book is a piercing reminder not only of our ephemerality but of the indelible marks we leave on one another. As we head toward Trio’s publication date in July, I recognize the gift of her mark on me and feel very conscious of this extra psychic load. How to carry the book for her is something I think about every day.

DR: Yes, I am so grateful to resume our conversation, difficult though it is without Daneen. So, I’ll try to tell a little story. The other day Karen and I read aloud to each other over the phone all of Endless Body, she and Itaking turns, poem by poem. On this particular Wednesday in June, I had just received my box of 25 author copies of Trio. The title of the first poem by Daneen I was to read was “Gift,” the first line of it: “A mix-up—the package arriving two weeks after she was.” And a few lines later: “The box came without instructions. / This is not sadness. I come in and out of the blunt.” Of course, I carry a terrible sadness, sharing this anecdote, even as Daneen’s presence | voice | endlessness knows to “tilt and fly without stopping—” like the butterflies this poem is ostensibly about. I am still processing the sudden loss of this glorious butterfly house of a person: our cherished Trio partner. I believe fully that Daneen’s poems will show us how to proceed. I thank the poetry heavens that Karen, Daneen and I get to continue to sing together, though in this more attenuated way.   

KD: Something that really struck me, Diane, was that day in March when we met virtually with Phil Brady, Bill Schneider, and Pamela Turchin from Etruscan Press. I can still picture all five of us in separate zoom squares but with the same lost expressions, the incomprehensibility of what Daneen was going through and how that could be. We had been so thoroughly in the same headspace with her for months, making Trio – the word “coterminous” occurs to me, where it is hard to tell where one mind ends and the next begins. The work of poetry publishing is a labor of love, after all, so maybe it is no surprise that we all seemed to be facing the loss of a beloved. I think I had been rendered speechless. Being together on that day, even virtually, and hearing you all put words to the reality of it helped me so much in feeling less alone in my grieving. Did you have any moments like this?

DR: Karen, I absolutely have moments like this. The sadness of losing Daneen so suddenly is beyond expression. Being together with the other Etruscans virtually helped us all grieve and bear each other up. What I most want to hold on to from your above musings is this: “it is hard to tell where one mind ends and the next begins.” I absolutely believe that you, Daneen and I are still of one mind. Our book serves as a nonstop reminder of this. I guess I believe that death does not destroy consciousness, the very stuff it seems to be made of. Daneen’s mind is–well, how can I improve on her words?–an endless body. 

KD: The story of Trio changed into a story none of us saw coming. Somehow, somehow… I want to be able to tell that story to readers as we put the book into their hands this summer. Early in Endless Body, Daneen ends her poem “Stir the Lake” with these lines: “The darkness—a liquid you can wash your body with— / benevolent as a thing / given with no forethought—” (the dash as her pointer and no ending period, of course). Does this image seem like a key to you?

DR: Yes, you have plucked an ideal image from that beautiful poem, including your remark on the limitless dash! So much of that poem is about crisscrossing time zones and blotting out boundaries: the key line about “mother in the branches,” the image of the nephew trying to figure out how to feed his virtual kittens while “mush[ing] around in the snow,” not to mention the line about Thomas Merton rubbing the leg of the poem’s speaker. And, of course, in part two of that poem, these lines reverberate with an instruction and a reminder very well suited for the two of us: “Point a body at between. // She overcame her departure time.”

HH: What a loving way to experience Endless Body, by reading the poems to one another, hearing Daneen’s voice in your own.  I’m struck by the words you’ve put together since our resuming the conversation (“body-mind-soul-spirit,” “presence | voice | endlessness”).  We receive from the language a great many words that gesture toward this terrible, beautiful fact about our human experience: that the living die and that the dead live.  The individual words gesture toward the fact but no one of them captures it, so we string them together, and combine them into poems.

Continuing your thought about how the limitless dash in Daneen’s poem illustrates this fact, I want to associate it with Daneen’s very first reply in the “Trialogue” conversation at the end of Trio.  It is as if she anticipates this moment, recognizing that the three collections share a preoccupation with this mystery.  “We all seem to be attracted to raw, material energies — the elements, electricity, water waves — and at the same time to spirit guides, mediums, and other odd gods. Some days it feels like a kind of spirituality made of the material realm.”

It makes me wonder whether, in your experience of reading Daneen’s book to one another, or in the experience of receiving the physical books, you heard any additional moments of harmony?

KD: This question really makes me miss Daneen because, as a musician, she would have been able to talk about harmony so much better than I can. Let me try this. I increasingly hear Trio as a chord, three notes played together to resonate as a kind of moveable triad. You could consider my book essentially a planet-sized stab at trying to figure out what the heck we are doing here together and why it isn’t working out better. (Hear that baritone hum start up.) Diane’s book gives us Victoria Woodhull as an individual who lived that quandary and was astonishingly prescient in how she spoke to power. (The altos take over with their big lungs and have a lot to say.) Daneen’s book covers the rest of the scale with landscape and weather and human gesture and wit and open space that turns into image and then back into open space. (A few sopranos wind up going for the descant.) Evidences of that sound:

From Planet Parable: “Though everything else has changed, / what you believe in must remain / otherwise how explain this // key in your hand, punch-cut once / then hurled into the works? // Insert, turn. The presence of the key / suggests a solution to pursue…”

From Run: A Verse-History of Victoria Woodhull: “I submit the Declaration of the Rights of Persons. / I submit I am called to walk down the aisle of nation. / I submit: the after-side pegs me its carrier pigeon. / I admit elation.”

From Endless Body: “Tracks in a hops field— / the plush slide hooves leave in  dew, // loose prayerbeads, / breath hovers then spreads to all points— / horns of flowers growing. // We hear clover bend under passing wings.”

DR: The harmonies are endless, and often page-free. But turn to almost any page, and you’ll find one that brings together themes of the three of us hewing our lines. Start with Karen’s poem “Taking a Night Kayak Through Bullock Cove”: “Three strokes is all a paddler / needs to know to pull this craft.” Or these lines in her “A Closed Four-Dimensional Spacetime Manifold of Vanishing Radius”: “[I] comprehend the world in total out there, a presence in itself without me, and so know / its dizzying scope….” These moments could be said to foreshadow those lines in Run that suggest the lingering presence of Woodhull (“[A woman unfleshed, the after-effects”; “I hold with you earthlings mesmeric connections”) as well as reverberate with lines in Daneen’s Endless Body, which sing of the deceased mother (“God in the minimal and the maximal. // My mother in the branches”).

These harmonies are plain reminders of how the strings thin in the veil that hangs between this world and the next. How very still-with-us is Daneen.

HH: I love how both of you, in testifying to the harmony of Trio, draw attention to the feature we could gesture to by making use of capitalization and pluralization: that the harmonies in Trio sustain and are sustained by its Harmony.  Both of you give examples of particular harmonies, and both of you affirm the presence and influence of a broader Harmony.  I take you both as implying a reciprocity: there is Harmony in Trio because there are so many harmonies, and there are so many harmonies because there is Harmony.  (“Endless” harmonies because “page-free” Harmony, in Diane’s words.)

Another consonance — another harmony — in your observations occurs in Karen’s remarking the urge to try “to figure out what the heck we are doing here together” and Diane’s recalling “how the strings thin in the veil that hangs between this world and the next.”  It signals for me a way in which Trio fulfills that possibility of poetry to find/create harmonies/Harmony in how we are, together in this world, and how we are together, between this world and the next.

I’m anticipating that your thoughts along these lines, how the poetries in Trio are Poetry, might be a fitting culmination to this conversation, might ready it to follow Trio out into the world?

KD: Gosh, how these poetries are Poetry? The whole enchilada – a paradox of immanence and transcendence, mystery and discovery, life in all its forms, the permeable membrane between mind and the physical world. Also resistance to power, immunity to falsehood and pretense, common cause with otherness, scrutiny of history. In Daneen’s poem “Lake Michigan Dragon,” she says, “We’ve trailed a hundred wooden stairs down the sideways-leaning staircase, / handrails here and there roped to leaning shrubs— / sections pulling apart, each tippled stair / so narrow we could barely hold hands, we stepped down…” In “Victoria Solos the Stuff of Free Love,” Diane says, “This is love. When I cease using my, seas ease leaves into freefall. / This is my love: this slipping of strings, fringe reef leafing into tree. // This is the love: limbs that snap through the lungs to sycamore out.”

DR: This beautiful question about presence and Harmony, immanence and consonance whisks us close to the realm of the wordless. Since Poetry prefers to speak in poetries rather than prose, I offer the following centos–one line from each book, Planet Parable, Run, and Endless Body, both stanzas lineated in this order–as a response:

A breeze and the sound of a breeze

I lend you a mother’s merge of self and other 

the apples backward-bursting 

Under spinning skies with Silence 

this slow, ethereal edict this evening: 

next you and next you and— 

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