Lee Upton is the author of eleven books, including the new novella The Guide to the Flying Island. She has written five books of poetry, most recently Undid in the Land of Undone, and four books of literary criticism. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the National Poetry Series Award, and awards from the Poetry Society of America. Her poetry and short stories appear widely. She is a professor of English and the writer-in-residence at Lafayette College.
Her poem “The Beautiful Thing” appears with two others (“Boring Dinners” and “Fine Wine”) in the 2010 issue of the Roanoke Review. Mary Crockett Hill speaks with Lee Upton below.
Can you tell us about “The Beautiful Thing”?
The poem attempts to create solace, a condition under-represented and seldom respected in much contemporary poetry. Yet imagining solace, at least for some of us, may be a necessity.
Each of your five books of poetry seems to be up to something different. Can you walk us through your approach to each one?
In The Invention of Kindness I was interested in capturing a way of speaking and an orientation to place that emerged from my earliest experiences. I wanted to celebrate and claim the odd, off-kilter eccentricities that make us love a place. In my second book of poems, No Mercy, I began my long love affair with the nonsense verse of Edward Lear. My next book, Approximate Darling, attempts to respond to pregnancy, and the resistance to description that pregnancy engenders. The collection also rings the changes on a variety of literary figures. Civilian Historiesworks explicitly with issues of violence—and plays out that drama within its linguistic experiments. My most recent book of poetry, Undid in the Land of Undone, revolves around ways to convey experiences of hard-earned and sometimes exhilarating failure. I’m finishing another book of poems, to be titled The Bottled Mermaid. It’s dominated by images of intoxication and intoxicants—alcohol mostly—and the bottling of “spirits” in the larger, more estranging sense.
You’ve talked about the “steep vertical drop” of writing poetry and the “horizontal quality” of writing fiction. I wonder how processes differ for you within those general spatial categories. What do certain poems and certain works of fiction require?
I do think that writing in each genre differs dramatically—for me, at least. To do sustained work in any genre, or to manipulate and cross-breed conventions, requires a deep familiarity with a range of possibilities. In my experience, the sensations created by writing in each genre differ markedly. It may have to do with the way the revelations occur and associations gather. In poetry one word may reshuffle the entire poem. Meanings rebound in multiple directions and generally at a quicker pace than in the fiction that I write. Long fiction, at any rate, orchestrates its effects in a different way and at a different pace than other genres. Sparks and shadows are visible at greater distances from one another. Scenes fold upon one another, but the general movement is toward the future, toward a culmination.
You write both in form and in free verse. Do you find those processes different?
Writing in a traditional form is a somewhat different experience from writing in free verse for me—although not dramatically different, given that free verse has its own traditions and conventions and echo chambers. Whether in free verse or in a traditional form, I’m trying to reinvigorate already-established traditions.
You write short stories as well as longer fiction. Is the novel an entirely other terrain than the short story? And how does the novella fit in?
As for… whether the novel differs from the terrain of the short story: for me, yes. The novel and the novella depend on such prolonged interconnections between cause and effect and such complex assemblages between people and their actions (committed in the midst of so many variations in timing) that the novel and the novella really do appear to be different creatures than the short story. The novella is a short novel, but it isn’t a long story.
What led you to write your novella The Guide to the Flying Island?
The novella was one of those really happy gifts; it was written with what feels like (in memory) considerable ease, and the ending surprised me. Because it received the Miami University Novella Award I was able to meet wonderful people, most especially the novella’s editor, the fiction writer Joseph (“Jody”) Bates.
The Guide to the Flying Island has its origin, in part, in a television documentary I saw in which the commentator kept insisting that he wasn’t sure if anything he said could be accurate. His candor and uncertainty and humility were so endearing and suggested so much integrity that I wanted to try out a similar sort of persona in a prose poem. Then the prose poem began to grow into fiction. The novella also developed from my interest in images of islands, images that I find resonant and mysterious. What allowed me latitude and freedom in writing the novella was the decision to narrate the plot through a limited omniscient viewpoint, honing close to the male protagonist’s perspective. Using distancing techniques—among them, writing from a perspective that varies from mine as a woman—allowed me to invent more scenarios and to escape the confines of my own experience. Then, too, there are aspects of the novella that are intimate and that combine with those distancing techniques. The more intimate aspects concern the protagonist’s emotional life. His emotions aren’t locked into any single gender frame. We all know what bafflement and humiliation and betrayal feel like.
In a recent essay about crossing genres in the Southwest Review, you indicate that through long practice in genre “a template is established, an internal organizing system, largely beyond awareness.” Can you talk a little about the organization systems that you rely on in poetry and in fiction?
After long periods of writing within a genre most of us internalize a certain way of netting language. We trap and absorb conventions of craft, and those conventions guide what we begin to notice or imagine and how we can describe or enact in language our intuitions as well as what we’ve observed. I hadn’t initially planned, for instance, to write what became my fourth book of literary criticism, Defensive Measures. Nevertheless, pages began to mount as if an argument was already waiting to be made, as if there was a half-constructed bridge that my mind wanted to complete. Something similar happens for me with poetry and fiction; even the failures are helpful, given that they establish pathways of perception. Even if the pathway is a dead-end in one project that pathway may offer an opportunity for moving forward in another project. It’s often in re-writing that I question conventions and reroute them or distort them—or deepen my focus on them because of the power that they offer. We all have internal organizing systems. It’s a life-long pursuit to recognize how we organize our perceptions and, in turn, are organized by those ways of perceiving. And then it’s part of that life-long pursuit to attempt to extend upon those ways of organizing our perceptions.
When I read your poetry, I often find myself looking up words I already think that I know—because you use those words in such surprising ways. It’s as if you’re asking me constantly to reorient myself as a reader, and I like it. I wonder, are your poems asking that you go through a similar process of reorientation as a writer?
That’s what I often read poems for—that moment of being freed from the pre-established boundaries that limit what I’ve been capable of thinking and feeling. For several years I’ve imported images of mermaids into my poems. I suppose they are images that re-direct focus. Mermaids are unmistakably out of our element, they’re hybrids of the human and the animal, and they point to a rich tradition of fantasy and its fearful and/or seductive aspects. In my book manuscript, The Bottled Mermaid, I have plenty of bottled creatures, preserved and jellied. The poems themselves are somewhat like bottled forces waiting to be released. When they’re released—when the poems are read—it’s my hope that the reader is “re-oriented.” That is, the sensation of place and being in place should be troubled, or even evaporated for an instant.
As for being reoriented as a writer: at a certain point, early in the process, you have to let yourself not know what you’re doing in order to do anything that’s worth doing in poetry.
Could you tell us about the process you go through in putting together a poetry manuscript?
First, I put together the poems I’ve written, eliminate most of them, then try to determine if any order among the remaining poems is satisfying for any reason whatsoever. Then I discover that I’m dissatisfied and try again. After awhile some obsessive pattern usually makes itself clear to me. Then I try to organize the work so that competing perspectives are at play. I want to defeat despair too—to allow the trajectory of the work to dignify the act of reading. The order of the poems should, finally, respect the reader’s mind.
What gets you started and compels you forward as a fiction writer? As a poet? As a critic?
The answer in regard to criticism is simplest: I generally write out of a wish to rescue another writer from oblivion or from the sort of misreading that threatens to suffocate the vitality that the writer’s work offers us.
As for writing poetry, it’s self-reinforcing; it’s exciting to work intensively with patterns of sound and meaning. I don’t understand why almost everybody isn’t writing poetry as often as they can; poetry is a great rescuer and redeemer, and it can give us an almost-immediate experience of imaginative freedom. I think of poetry as a pocket of breath in an avalanche.
As for why I write fiction: I’m compelled by the possibility of making a world, even if it’s a small island world based in the North Atlantic of my imagination. Novels and novellas are islands—eruptions from the volcanic inner life.