Beginning with Birds, Ending with Surrealism and Stevens:
A Conversation Between Genevieve Kaplan & Nathan Hoks

Nathan Hoks is the author of Reveilles and Birds Mistaken As Wind, the translator of Vicente Huidobro's Arctic Poems, and a co-publisher of Convulsive Editions. He lives in Chicago.
Genevieve Kaplan's first book of poetry In the ice house won the 2009 A Room of Her Own Foundation To the Lighthouse poetry prize and was published in 2011 by Red Hen Press. Her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in a variety of journals, including Western Humanities Review, Jacket, Jubilat, and Galatea Resurrects. For more information, visit her at

1) Friday: In which Vieve co-opts Nate's question about Birds

Nathan Hoks: I thought an obvious place to start our discussion would be with birds: your book is populated with these lovely little poems titled "The Birds" and I was thinking that they function as a kind of antidote to the ice storm. This is leading to a question...
Genevieve Kaplan:  I admit to being very interested in your "Coda" (30) because not only is it *about* birds, but I also feel like it functions sort of similarly to my "Epigraph" .

Headless bird, where are you going?
Birdless head, what are you saying?
Treeless sky, what are you growing?
Skyless bird, what are you thinking?
NH: Yes, especially part 3 of "Epigraph."

3. There's a danger in beauty, a net in the sea, a kite in the sky, a bird in the tree.
Maybe we should talk about birds and questions.
GK: Yes! There's a constant attraction between poets and birds (not just between our poems and our birds). I wonder if you have any thoughts about what makes birds so appealing?
NH: There's a danger in using birds in poems. A friend of mine told me that she got into an intense argument with another poet who was thoroughly against putting birds in poems. I guess he felt they were a kind of generic Romantic stock image or idea representing poeticity or something. And I understand that—I don't want to repeat mindless cliches or anything.
GK: But your birds are obviously different. The "headless birds" from "The Helping Hand" (p29) re-appear in "Coda" and eventually becomes "birdless," "skyless," and "treeless," so they're not generic birds, for sure!
NH: I have a genuine love for birds. They're strange creatures and they can be very disturbing to think about: they fly, their brains are small, they make beautiful sounds, they're awfully twitchy.
GK:  There's definitely something "other" about birds that maybe makes it easier for a poem to be projected onto them....
NH: That's a good point. They're "other" the way animals are, but there's more to it because they're so familiar, at least sparrows and jays and starlings and pigeons, etc., depending on your region. Your work has a way of defamiliarizing the everyday / domestic, so I wonder if you think about birds contributing to this effect.
GK: When birds end up in places where they don't belong, or end up doing something abnormal in places where they do belong (like your "kingbird" in "House Party"?), that becomes more exciting. I wonder if you might talk about the appeal of using a bird (as opposed to an other animal, or a particular species of bird) in "Coda"?  
NH: There's a back story to "Coda." While I was at the Vermont Studio Center I met Leat Klingman, a video artist who does these lovely and bizarre videos of finger puppets. At the time she was working on finger puppets of birds for a video and for whatever reason the the bird puppets she designed were headless, or at least they appeared so to me. I found their headlessness humorous and enthralling. This was about the time I actually got into birdwatching on an amateur level, and there are many great birds to be watched up in the Green Mountains, so I was living in this kind of bird paradise, both in my natural and creative environments. And I felt like a headless bird was such an apt figure for thinking about all kinds of things: ambition, art, poetry, real birds (really, do they need heads?), etc. Anyhow, I tried writing several poems about Leat's headless birds. Most of the poems were utter failures, but "Coda" and "The Helping Hand" stuck.
GK: The birds are "figures"? I like that idea of the bird standing in for the larger whole...

2)  Friday: A flighty transition between Birds and White Space

NH:  Would you tell me about your bird poems? Did you conceive them as answers to "The Ice Storm" poems? I mean, you have these repeated titles — "The Ice Storm," "The Landscape," "The Birds," "In the Kitchen," and "The Forest and the Trees" — ultimately I'm interested in the way you manage these components on a large scale, that is, the scale of the book itself.
GK:  Because birds are fairly seasonless, it makes relative sense for birds (of all animals) to be in "the ice house" — they're the constant that can populate all the landscapes of the book: the generic landscape, the forest and the trees, the kitchen, even the ice storm.

I was skeptical of having too many birds in the book, though. I'm aware of the cliche problem you mentioned earlier, and I think if the only series with repeated titles was "The Birds" it would be more of an issue. I experimented quite a bit with organizing the series in the book. At first the stanzas in the series were numbered, or the sections followed directly one after the other, which put a lot of emphasis on the subject of whatever series I was working on, and not so much emphasis on the actual lines of the poem or the accumulation of the images, which is what I was more interested in.
NH:  I really appreciated that a) you didn't number these poems, and b) they were scattered throughout the manuscript. While I could very much see the temptation to keep things tidy by creating separate "series", your book is much richer for its bold weaving of these short poems. You establish a great rhythm between the shorter series-based poems and the longer pieces. Plus, the way they interact is mysterious, inviting, and imaginative. For example, pages 64 & 65 where "The Landscape" ends with a bird and the next poem seems to riff off this appearance.

The Landscape

When it comes a time to bind
it, there's a call, there's a bird.

The Birds

Float and lie and weave and have
no other contact than the wind.
GK:  I like the way those mirror each other formally, too.

Could you talk a little about your organizational strategies? Since we're on that topic?

Like, I notice your poems "Surface Cloud" (40) and "Inside Out" (43) use numbered sections, while "Vanishing Point" (45) uses ornaments to separate stanzas, but "Wool" (51) gives each stanza its own page. I could imagine "The sky fills with departing geese" (in "Surface Cloud") or "Was I a field of roots and sparrows? / Was I the fold, the soil, the furrow? / When the telephone rang I refused to answer" (in "Inside Out") holding up an entire page on their own.

How did you make decisions about how to separate stanzas? And, how did you decide to include so many forms, so many types of separation, in the same book (because so often we see, say, an entire book full of 12-line poems, a formal cohesion). You seem more interested in allowing the poem to dictate the form than making the poem "fit" into the book.
NH:  I have two basic (and simple!) strategies in my poems: 1) mash everything together or 2) break everything apart. When I'm working on a "break it apart" poem, I try to think about organizing the bits and pieces around rifts that can create rhythm and movement in disparate directions. Sometimes I'm enchanted by numbers and I want them to be part of the poem and create that rift. But then sometimes I have a fear of imposing too much sequentialism on the poem, so I avoid the numbers and use a more neutral break, like page space or ornaments. I realize you have to read the poem in a linear direction, but sometimes I worry about the overwhelming logic of "1" then "2" then "3" etc. In these poems I'd just like to use that rift in the page and/or typography to keep things moving. "Wool" is an extreme example of the use of the page and space to create these rifts.
GK: "Wool" is almost like a little book-within-a-book. I like how when you come upon it you suddenly have to read slowly, as even the broken / rifted (I like your sense of "rift"!) poems that come before it are "poems as opposed to small collections
NH:  Thanks. I had hoped "wool" would have that effect. Speaking of rifts, your poems make great use of white space. I'm looking, for example, at "The Lights How They Hang..." (54), which not only uses space to create separate sections but also includes these invitingly incomplete lines, such as "At length, / I warm my." Well, the question I'm leading up to is: how do you see your work fitting in to the tradition of "white space" visual poetries? I'm thinking of Mallarmé for starters, and while you're not as radical as that, I definitely get the sense that you're taking material considerations into account. "The Lights How They Hang..." is a really interesting example because it duplicates its use in page space in the linguistic "space" of those incomplete lines.
GK: On a slightly unrelated note, I tried to read "The Lights How They..." at my last reading, and it was rough! A little misguided on my part.
NH:   Ha! I could see that. Many awkward pauses.
GK: While I'm not trying to be explicitly visual in my poems, I'm very sensitive to how dark lines of the poems work with the white space of the pages. I like the starkness of having only a few lines on a page, as often occurs in the series poems. And I'm pretty pleased with the way white space turned out in "The Lights...", how the long line "the blade of the knife...." just "hangs" there emphasizing, contrasting to the blanks in the poem. Of "I warm my / by the sun," for example.
NH:  I love the effect you achieve where both the space on the page and the space in the text participate in a kind of double absence. I had no idea absence could be doubled!

3) Saturday: In which Nate talks about Surrealism and gets interrupted by his Wife

GK: Your poem "Buffer Zones" (10) has some of my favorite lines:

Walkers walk by eyeing my cold
coffee as if to ask what do you think
of the lyric inventions of
the seventeenth century but I
don't think about the seventeenth
century, I am distracted by the train
whistle and the road construction...
And I also love "New Farmhand" (23):

The Cheerios stuck to the bottom
of my feet but I didn't care, I liked
the crunch, how I seemed to be crossing

a fragile galaxy and my lazy wings
weren't working. Ho hum, I hated flying...
I like how these instances place the speaker in the real world and in an invented one simultaneously, and where the language is both precise and im- at the same time, and there is so much deadpan juxtaposition happening. I admire both of these moments so much! They give the reader something and then immediately take it away....

But what I'm really getting to with my observations about juxtaposition and simultaneity, is something about surrealism. While I don't find these to be exceptionally surrealist moments in your work, I know that you're interested in surrealism as a poetics. Could you talk about the relationship of your work to surrealism? Can one be a contemporary surrealist?
NH:  Wait a minute!
GK: I know, it's a huge question!!
NH:  Just kidding... I sensed that juxtaposition was naturally going to lead to this kind of question. Give me a second, Nikki interrupted!

Surrealism is in many ways about harnessing interruption.
GK: Hi Nikki!
NH:  Can one be a contemporary surrealist? Yes and no. No in the sense that I think the faith in "groups" and "movements" has to be a little tempered at this historical moment. I mean, we're so "post-" everything that I find it impossible to give myself over to any dogmatic doctrine. However, Breton was always very clear that in certain ways surrealism had existed long before the Paris group formed and would persist long after official group activity ceased.
GK: The "comfortable" thing to say is that one draws from surrealism, something like that?
NH:  Yes, but I see myself as doing more than 'drawing' from the waters of surrealism. I do consider myself very much a surrealist even though I'm not signing tracts or manifestos or whatnot. To me, the most important aspects of surrealism are its utter faith in the imagination, the cultivation of the strange and the marvelous, and the sense that in writing poems, as in life, there is something greater at stake than the mere production of well-crafted art forms.
GK: I like your point about imagination/cultivation of the strange being more important (to the poem? to real life? both?) than reality. Take that, William Carlos Williams!

Since you know one and a half tons more about surrealism (and your relationship to it) than I do, could you point out a poem in the book that you find most similar to traditional surrealist poetry?
NH:  Okay specifically "surrealist" poems — I mean, this could easily drift into a problem of definition — what does one mean by "surrealism"? etc. — but for now I'll just mention what I think of as the most "surrealistic" of the poems in the book. "Aroma Therapy" seems most in line with old school surrealist poems. I actually borrowed much of it from an online surrealist compliment generator!

After that poem, it gets hard. I do think all of them participate, borrow from, or engage with certain modes, techniques, or themes of surrealism — let me see if I can find something else...
GK:  I hope I'm not harping on this too much — I'm just curious. When you're writing a poem, are you thinking: now I need to make some surrealist gesture?
NH:   No absolutely not — it's usually more of the opposite, like, I need to stop being a dork and writing weird things! And that's the problem — surrealism is usually misunderstood as a license to make random, fantastical kinds of art. But my understanding is that surrealism insists on breaking down arbitrary boundaries so that, rather than neatly positioning the fantastical in one box and the real in another, they fuse with each other. And really, it's a multiplicity of realities and fusions, an interweaving of zones of experience and feeling and imagination and thought. The goal is to occupy the threshold between two or more of these zones, both in poetry and in life, so in writing a poem the task becomes successfully navigating those zones. Sometimes the navigation means building bridges, drawing connections, etc. Other times it means driving at the rift, developing meaningful, rhythmic kinds of disassociation.
GK: That's sort of what poetry always is — the threshold between the zones —, right?

Or hopefully always is?
NH:  I hope so.

4) Saturday: Cursing at the Playground

NH:  It's striking how similar our palettes can be. I'm thinking of the "elemental" diction you employ — sky, birds, water, trees — replace light with water and you probably have my four most common words. Why do you find yourself drawn to these kinds of words? What's the value in this primal diction?
GK: It's a tough question, and I think in some ways it comes back to our discussion on birds, that onto elemental diction you can project anything. I'm interested in somehow developing the tension between the openness of the language and the specific instances and moments that actually inspire or make up the poem. The generalities of the language and specificity of the evoked emotion, the universal narrowing down to the moment being distilled by the speaker.... I guess I also feel like there's enough weirdness in my poems (in their progression, in their imagery) that using common language will make them somehow readable? Like, I know birds, I know a river, I know mountains, a garden, so I can find my way into these poems....

I'd like to ask about your use of F-bombs — the kind of flippant everyday language that gets tossed about in your poems that I'm kind of jealous of:  "oh, the cookies, / fuck the cookies, I say" (9) or "Fucking A. Those light beams came screaming out of the shadow" (26) (I love that line!) that somehow work to make a potentially difficult poem amazingly accessible. These are moments that allow you to draw the audience in immediately, as the language is so ordinary and familiar. I'd be interested in hearing your views on combining "poetic" language with the language of the world — is this also part of the surrealist "rift"?
NH:  I think you're right, some off-hand cursing always makes a poem more accessible! "Fuck" is a kind of elemental word, too. It embodies so much primitive emotion — surprise, dismay, lust, anger, etc. It's also just funny, and in many ways I've never grown up. I still remember the first time I uttered the word. I was in 5th grade and I had recently transferred to a public elementary school which was a bit grittier than the Christian school I had been attending. Incorporating a few expletives into my speech was just one way to fit in. But I remember this double sensation of power and fear that overtook my body the first time I said "fuck" on the playground. We were playing football or something and I actually had to work up a bit of courage to utter it. I remember feeling like I'd made some kind of horrible transgression and that language would never be the same. In terms of poetry, at one point I had this aim of writing eloquent poems that also occasionally used nasty or clashing words — just one of many failed attempts to be like Baudelaire. But I actually think my palette is pretty tame, even a little prudish, I'm ashamed to admit.

Your language may not be "flippant," but you certainly seem to generate wonderful moments out of fairly conversational language. In fact, I often get the sense that you're having these conversations in your poems, conversations that drift into moments of pure writing. Do you try to compose this way, conversationally?
GK: Well, frequently I start off by talking to myself, "writing" in my head before it gets to the page. But in terms of actually composing the poem, I feel like our basic strategies are kind of similar, right? I remember talking in workshop once about how the poem actually came about for us and your description was the one I felt most akin to. I've always felt like the final version of the poem is some kind of collection/accumulation/collage of all those moments and attempts that came before.
NH:  Yeah, that's absolutely correct — how little we've changed! I have another question for you: would you talk about short poems? I'm jealous of poets who can write good short poems, poems of less than 7-8 lines, and you're one of those poets! I think I already mentioned that one of the many appealing aspects of your book is the rhythm you create between short and long poems. Do you have any particular strategies or rules for writing short poems? Maybe you could just talk about the process...
GK: So I feel like I am (and you too, perhaps) taking bits from real life and bits from my imagination and bits from last week and last year and a previous life and somehow forming them all together into some sort of poem...
NH:  Yes! Poet as this collector constantly reforming the bits and pieces that come her way!
GK: So — short poems. It was absolutely never my intention to compose a book of so many short poems! I just kept whittling it down, and whittling it down.... When I finished a draft of the book, I showed it to Sean and he joked, someone would publish this? I mean, there really aren't any words in it!
NH:  Short poems, I guess, seem contrary to that collecting and reforming mode that you just described, to me at least, so that's why I'm particularly curious about your short poems.
GK: Most of the short poems started off as longer (failed, pretty much) poems. When I started thinking about revision, and how to pull poems together in a book, I saw all these lines and images in my old notebooks that were intriguing, but not really working yet.

And then I thought about how to "collect" them — see? As I said yesterday, a poem like "The Landscape" started out as something else (or many something elses) entirely before it became the long poem about the landscape, before it had numbers, before it became the series of short poems...

When I started separating the sections onto their own pages, and they became poems instead of parts, that's when I felt like I was getting somewhere.
NH:   It's amazing what a difference separate pages can make. You get to start all over again!
GK: They can be a hassle to try to read aloud, though, I'm noticing. Not enough poem/title ratio....
NH:  When you read them do you read a bunch of the same titled poems together? "The Ice Storm" followed by "The Ice Storm" followed by "The Ice Storm" etc.?
GK: Yes! Like that! It works okay....
NH:   I think the accumulation is what's fascinating because it kind of works against the minimalist tendency of the short poems themselves so that there's a nice little paradox happening.
GK: Yeah, I think they'd be totally different poems if there was just one "The Landscape" — kind of like your "Wool". You can read the four lines on their own, but they're not truly on their own. They change as they accumulate. I don't know that I'd feel totally comfortable writing just one 3 or 4 line poem and leaving it there on its own. Safety in numbers, after all.

5) Saturday: In which Vieve's poem is inhabited by ghosts of Wallace Stevens and Gerard Manley Hopkins

NH:  I wanted to ask you about the poem "Curiosity is One Wonder, Thunder Another." It really stood out for me. I'm absolutely taken by this poem's rhythm, by its dazzling consolidations of accents, that I can hardly "read" the poem. I just get lost in the language as pure music. I felt like Hopkins and Stevens were living together in the same body, the body of your poem! What's your relationship to prosody, meter, and other traditional rhythmic devices? Do you ever intentionally employ them?
GK: This poem started in a class I took at USC, working with music composition students. Since I knew the goal was for the poem to be set to music, I was very much thinking of sound when I wrote it, but not specifically meter. I'm not so good at actually measuring things out, prosody. Instead, I did lots of reading aloud! And after I wrote "Curiosity...", I kept trying to write a companion to it that would have similar sonic qualities, and I kept failing! It was so disappointing! (I had one of these others in an earlier draft of In the ice house, but I took it out. Because it was absolutely not as good as "Curiosity...").  

Also, I love Hopkins. And Stevens (except for "The Man with the Blue Guitar," which I dislike intensely).
NH:  I remember reading an essay once that basically argued that Man w/ Blue Guitar was Stevens' attempt to deal with surrealism.
GK: He was probably thinking: now I need to do something surrealist!

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761