Form, Catastrophe, and Survival:
Drew Dillhunt & Emily Johnston

Drew Dillhunt debut book of poems is Leaf is All, which won the 2015 Bear Star Press Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the National Poetry Series. Craig Santos Perez says, "Through avant-garde, documentary, and eco-poetic modes, Drew Dilhunt weaves the intimate themes of birth, parenthood, and family into the global contexts of plastic production and eco-logical collapse. Read these poems carefully because they are tenderly inscribed with fragmented origins and precarious futures." Widely published in literary journals, his writing has appeared in VOLT, Mudlark, Tarpaulin Sky, and Jacket2. He is Associate Editor of Hummingbird Press.
Emily Johnston is a Seattle poet, essayist and activist, published also in Slate, Crosscut, The Oregonian and elsewhere. Her first book of poetry, Her Animals, came out in September 2015 from Hummingbird Press, and was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award.

Drew Dillhunt: Prior to Her Animals, your poetry and politics have always been clearly interconnected, but more like two sides of the same coin. That seems to have all changed with Her Animals, and the long form the book occupies. It's a change I'm enormously taken by. 

Can you you tell me more about what precipitated this more explicit connectivity between your politics and your poetics?
Emily Johnston: Such a hard question. Before you knew me, my fiction and poetry were very separate from anything that felt explicitly political, because I was devoted to trying to understand and animate in words our very subjective experiences of the world...but gradually the boundaries fell away.

We have to write about what stirs us, and since the small matter of the survival of the species (ours, and many others) consumes me now, it may have been: write poetry about it, or stop writing poetry. But I can't stop writing poetry—or, at least: I can't stop having a poet's reactions to the world—so this is what happened. Yeats's dictum that "we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, and of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry" has also been needling at me for a long time, though I love it...because what quarrel with others isn't really a quarrel with (parts of) ourselves?

So to some degree it's a question of how honestly we're willing to tackle something, and see where it lives in us. If it's strictly an intellectual exploration, of course, it's still not poetry, but in those rare moments when I feel like I have a sensual and imaginative point of entry into something that's been troubling me morally or intellectually.well, that might be poetry.
DD: One of the many things that draws me to Her Animals is how effectively you're able to communicate this "quarrel with the self" without the juxtaposition, restriction, conceptualism I've most recently relied upon in my own poetry. 

The form itself implies all sorts of things to me as a reader (my favorite being that there's an implied "almost" in being one short of 100). And it's so powerful that you leave it to us to decide what it should mean and how to read the sections (or poems) in relation to one another. It would be great to hear you talk through your writing process and how the book arrived at it's current form.

How did you land on the form the Her Animals ended up taking—of 99 sections in that particular order?
EJ: In answer to your question of how I landed on the form...that's easy: I didn't. It just presented itself, and I tinkered till it felt more or less right. I struggled a little with the white spaces, both because they place a lot of weight on the words that are on the page, which are quite plain, and because it meant a lot of paper used for not very many words; it seemed (and still seems) affected, or arrogant.

But poetically they felt absolutely necessary, because each line has so much emotion and context around it, I needed to do something to slow the poem down, to give that a better chance of being felt for the reader. 
DD: Right. And for me, as a reader (and editor) of Her Animals, that white space is precisely what settles the book into the humble—yet demanding—space it so perfectly occupies. As you say, that space allows each line to resonate and inhabit its own context, giving the reader time and space to let the sections bounce off of one another.

That white space also had a profound impact on the physical design of the book—in particular the grey interstitial pages between sections, which are in a sense a physical way of visually extending and highlighting the intentionality of that a space.

The poems name their own complicity even as they demand that we listen (and even heed their call to action). It's an amazingly nuanced balance, which so few poems manage to achieve. I'm certainly convinced the white space is one of the fundamental element that allows that to happen.

The poems and the spaces surrounding them are heartbreakingly self-aware, which is what moves me to return to Her Animals again and again in an effort to examine my own complicity in the unfolding narrative of climate change.
EJ: For me the question in the book, the question in my life, is: what happened?

I wrote from a standpoint of assumed catastrophe, essentially, but there's catastrophe and catastrophe; might a few unstable countries fail in famines and drought, and the world lose ten or twenty percent of its species? Or might nearly everywhere fail—politically speaking—and the world lose 90% or more of its species?

These strike me as roughly marking the realm of the possible now, and we'll only stop at the former if we do nearly everything right from here on out. So as far as the book goes, I think its internal arguments insist on a kind of suspension, and back-and-forth, because those scenarios are...meaningfully different.

The sections and the interstitial materials in Her Animals helped to achieve that tension for me, and they helped to instill some narrative rhythm where it was badly needed; it would have been far too interior, otherwise. But I can't say that it was consciously planned, only that I was able to see it when it presented itself, and then formalize it somewhat.

And speaking of formalizing, how did you come to the use and form of patents, in your book, Leaf is All?

That to me is such an effective form/methodology, precisely because of the tension, and sometimes humor, between the language and what's actually being described or implied. There also seems to be a poetically useful tension between the strictness of the "form" and the way that frees you to describe things in a way that's strange and fresh. Ditto the Metropolis poems, for that matter.

So, I guess I'm asking if you can tell me more about what drives you to a particular form.
DD: In terms of what drove me to particular strategies or forms in Leaf is All, my answer is nearly identical to yours. The forms presented themselves to me during the process of writing far more often than I chose them in any premeditated sort of way.

This was certainly the case for the patent poems. While working on the plastic series, a childhood memory surfaced of the coin-operated Mold-A-Rama machines (which create a plastic toy as you watch) at the public zoo in Madison, Wisconsin. I started reading about the machines online, and found several sites put up by folks who collect both the machines and the plastic toys they make.

Unbelievably, on one of those web sites, a collector had posted a scanned a copy of the original operating instructions for the machine, and I started using the manual as found language to generate poems. Around that same time, I found the original patent online and began using that language as well.

I was initially interested in how I might condense and curate the original language to make it speak as poetry. In that process I began creating rules for myself to follow, very much inspired by the Charles Reznikoff's Testimony, which I was reading at the time. As a next step, I used the curated language I'd selected as a point from which to generate and launch original language responding to the curated original.

What you describe about the tension of that juxtaposition is exactly what appeals to me about this sort of form. And there can definitely be a wonderful humor to that tension. Of course, with that comes the danger of overreliance. The possibility that the poems are relying too heavily on form definitely worries me—that, to use your words, they've become "affected" or "arrogant."

So, you're absolutely right, there's a sort of puzzle created by the rules and restrictions that define the form. And to solve the puzzle I find myself looking for ways to convince myself and readers that the methodology is actually a tool not just the end in itself.
EJ: Is the form's relationship to the material always hard and fast, or do you sometimes got hold of something you want to express poetically, and one form fails you, so you try something entirely different? 
DD: While the relationship between the form and poem isn't hard and fast, the form and the language do seem to most often arrive in tandem.

As a result, I don't often find myself changing the form wholesale for a particular poem after the initial writing process. However, I do often find myself rewriting the same material in different ways, and at that point, I've definitely considered what form, restriction, or launching point might add to the material in new ways.

Other times, when it becomes clear that a poem's form just isn't working, I tear the poem apart and recycle its raw materials. The original direction manual poems fell at least partially into the trap of simply not quite poetically realizing the form it was attempting to inhabit. Those poems received positive responses when I delivered them at readings. But several poets (including you) indicated that many of the sections didn't resonate on the page beyond their initial irony and humor.

In hindsight, the writing of that poem was really just an early draft of the patent poem In the final revision process, I was ultimately able to recycle many parts of that original poem to expand and or replace sections of the patent poem that weren't quite working either.
EJ: Leaf is All feels more intentionally intellectual than the poetry in Her Animals. It feels like you push that intentionality to a really beautiful and/or tender place, as if the speaker of the poem is so overwhelmed by emotion that he has no choice but to distance himself with all this scaffolding.

The effects can be very moving and, sometimes, hilarious. Did you set out to do that, or is that something that snuck up on you?
DD: Poetry always sneaks up on me—as both a reader and a writer. Ultimately, that's what draws me to poetry and keeps me there.

In any case, I'm constantly aware of the scaffolding that lives, often unrecognized, within the conventions of what we recognize as poetry. Sometimes I want nothing more than to engage with those conventions/scaffolds. Other times, that very engagement moves me to try to write another poem in a form that exposes those conventions. And those moments most often surfaces in the form of rules and restrictions.

That's what happened in Metropolis, where the rule I established for myself was writing an entire poem with only anagrams of a single word. The goal was to write a path toward sense-making through noise and nonsense that resulted from that particular restriction. 

It occurred to me at some point that anagrams in language are loosely analogous to mutations in DNA, in that sometimes the rearrangements create sense, but more often they create nonsense. So there I did explicitly chose the intellectual scaffolding of the the poem to attempt to communicate something I found other forms unable to.

And sometimes those sorts of scaffolds/forms are easier for me to cope with—precisely because a restriction of that sort forces the poem to be inherently honest about its reliance on structure. And it has to manage to become a poem in spite of that (rather than because of it).

I very much agree with you (and Yeats) that poetry is a quarrel with ourselves. As a result, all poetry is political—it's really just a question of whether or not the poem chooses to explicitly acknowledge the politics in which it is housed.

Often, it's that juxtaposition of various poems and their contradictory scaffolding and rules that seems for me to most effectively bring that quarrel to the forefront, and the politics of the poem with it. 

I'm extremely curious about how this project may or may not influence future projects. What are some ways Her Animals might impact your poetry going forward? What has this book taught you?
EJ: Oh, boy. It's a hard question, because I'm not sure I can parse the impact of the book against the impact of how my life has changed with my activism, which also helped to create the book. But I do know that I feel very strongly about hybrid forms, now. I was a fiction writer for much longer than I've been a poet, and I'm an occasional essayist, too.

Each calling has its own strengths and limitations, of course—and then I have my own strengths and limitations within those—but I find that life is simply too strange now for me to be comfortable squeezing into one, unless I can reshape it.

Her Animals is mostly a prose poem narrative, I think, but there's also an essay in there. And when I imagine myself in new work—sadly, it is mostly an imagination, at the moment—I definitely gravitate to that ambiguity: I imagine epic poem narratives of the ShellNo battles, or short poems mixed with paragraphs that somehow gel into a greater whole, or novels that are interrupted by essays and disturbed by poems thrown in like stones.

Or to use your DNA metaphor, sometimes it's like I'm sitting in a meadow with a pile of arteries and feet and abdomens: it's a body, if I can figure out how to put it all together, even though these things might seem like they don't match. In a way, my task is to imagine it back to the DNA (or at least egg/sperm) state, so that it can then grow more easily. I don't know if that's harder or easier for me, obsessed as I am with all the endings we're in right now as a species, but endings and beginnings and raw materials all seem so alive to me now, so filled with light and doubt and mystery.

As for what Her Animals taught me...maybe it's simply that if there's a strong voice, you can get away with a lot. There's something trustworthy about a strong narrative voice, so I think readers are willing to take more chances if one is present. And for me, that's the DNA of any given work, is the voice; that's the thing that takes it out of the primordial muck of raw materials, and unites it into a body.

Which draws me back, of course, to the Mold-a-Rama, and to the poem Metropolis: what it means to make a complex thing out of a simple thing...wherein the possibilities lie. In Metropolis, of course, part of the possibility was aural, and part of it was visual—which is a lovely and unusual thing in poetry.

Can you talk a little about how those things interacted for you, and how you came to that combination? And do you have any thoughts around Mold-a-Rama and the broader meanings of plasticity vs plastics, and how that relates to words and poetry?
DD: Wow, that's a hard question as well. But fair enough. First, let me say how satisfying, how instructive your answer to the previous question is. I too find myself obsessed with "endings and beginnings and raw materials." For both of us—though in different ways—this obsession also seems to be a reflection of our interest as writers in the interplay of the political and personal.

And then, I wonder what it might mean to have that interplay reflected back into your life beyond poetry, even if only in small motions toward some larger picture.I can think of no better example of that than the interplay of your work as both a poet and activist.

I love your description of my poetry as "making a complex thing out of a simple thing." That feels so right on in terms of many of the restrictions I've embraced. And I think that connects directly back to our shared obsession. The anagram poems are all about creating a complex thing from the simple raw materials that make up a word, and then using those materials to excavate the word itself.

The meaning that comes out of the words in those poems could certainly be understood as coincidental or essentially meaningless, but that isn't the way I interact with them. Writing the poem Metropolis, for example was really a process of understanding my own relationship to the city by curating and arranging the anagrams. I culled through hundreds of anagrams, and often had no idea initially why I was choosing the particular arrangements I did.

Sometimes I chose particular combinations because of their inherent narrative quality, for example, anagrams that included pronouns. Other times the choice was just standing among the possible arrangements shouting at me. I often found myself almost disbelieving that some of those words, like petrol, could really be in there hiding among the combinations.

Then, as you point out, while arranging the anagrams on the page, and further curating my choices, both sound and visual arrangement on the page became essential, as did punctuation. I think those three elements became so important precisely because I'd forced myself to give up the option of unlimited raw materials.

Sometimes, adding a punctuation mark, a repetition, or a visual arrangement on the page were the only tools I had to guide the reader through the poem. There's a wonderful sense of intimacy with a word that comes from a process like this. Ultimately, this lead me to choices, and understandings, I could never have arrived at without those restrictions in place.

And I think this begins to get at the second part of your question about plastics vs. plasticity. There's something about that particular relationship that seems to frame my particular obsession with beginnings, endings and raw materials. Plastics of course are a physical manifestation of the many ways in which human beings are undoing the natural world, and yet of course, plastic itself is still, however we think of it, of and from the natural world, as are we.

And as someone who sees the world through the lens of biology, I'm constantly reminded how it's the plasticity of organisms that makes them remarkable. It's that plasticity that has driven the process of evolution which resulted in the natural world we are now quickly tearing apart. And even if this is only a semantic connection I'm captivated by it, and I think there's hope as well as despair to be found in it.

Plasticity also frames my understanding of language, which is very much an ever-evolving organism of its own. So, for me, the plasticity of language in poetry is analogous to the plasticity of organisms in the natural world. And then I think, I'm not really sure at all about any of this., which is precisely why I want to keep writing poems. In fact, I keep thinking I'll be done writing about plastic at some point soon—but it keeps creeping in.
EJ: Well, it's invaded even the sea now, right? They say that there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish (by mass) by 2050. We've unleashed so many things, the effects of which we don't begin to understand. It would be even stranger, if they didn't invade our dreams as well.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761