David Salvage Interviews Poet Celia Bland

Celia Bland

Celia Bland is the author of YA biographies of Indigenous leaders Osceola, Pontiac, and Peter MacDonald (Chelsea House), and has published three collections of poetry: Soft Box (Cavankerry, 2004); Madonna Comix, a collaboration with artist Dianne Kornberg (William James, 2014); and Cherokee Road Kill, with pen and ink drawings by Kyoko Miyabe (Dr. Cicero, 2018).  She is co-editor, with Martha Collins, of a collection of essays about the poetry of Jane Cooper, A Radiance of Attention (U. of Michigan 2019).  Native Voices, an 2019 anthology of indigenous writers published by Tupelo Press will include her poetry and an essay on craft.   She is a native of Western North Carolina and a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and New York University.  She teaches at Bard College in New York’s Hudson Valley. 

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Consider a line from “Scrub”: he plucked stems from his lips like fishbones. Or this snippet from “Ideation” which probes the theme of a girl dying of cancer: I was a wet snowflake on her tongue, the idea of girl, the way I had begun. The poems in Cherokee Road Kill consistently unsettle as they swerve between irreverence, stylistic grace, and a no-nonsense grittiness. These poems “deep-dive” – as reviewer Cassie Pruyn describes it – into the lives of Bland’s family, descendants of the Cherokee who escaped the Trail of Tears to live in isolation and poverty in the Great Smokey Mountains. Cherokee Road Kill emerges about ten years after Bland’s last collection “Soft Box” appeared, and four years after Madonna Comix, her poetry and image collaboration with artist Dianne Kornberg. The new book, with pen and ink illustrations by Kyoko Miyabe, speaks with the reverberation and nuance of a poet at a different state of life’s evolution who is reconsidering history and the social contract. As Luc Sante described Bland’s work: “words and images, violence and humor, doubt and possession – the sum of them is love.” We caught up with her at Bard College, where she has taught for twenty years.

DS:  Where or how you feel your work is evolving from Soft Box to Madonna Comix to Cherokee Road Kill?  What’s different, what are you pushing, engaging, taking further……?

CB:  The poems in Soft Box were written by a woman with three small children, the doctoral thesis unfinished (not even begun), going through that strange sense of transition from individual to mother: no longer at the center of my own life; no longer the star of my movie, scarcely deserving a credit. this can be hard for a poet – motherhood is such an internalized process – not storytelling, although there are many an internal and external monologue – but the dailiness of responsibility is more like listening than telling. And then having to be on call at all moments of the day and night, quite literally. And the difficulties of babysitters, or working, or keeping up your stocks of diapers and baby food. “Keep your pecker up,” I used to say to myself –something stolen from WWII British novels, and it’s meant to be cheerfully obscene, but I thought of myself as a woodpecker, keeping at it, at it, at it, banging my beak against the tree trunk, bringing home the bacon.

The poems from Madonna Comix, in which the Virgin Mary is imagined as a flesh and blood mother, a suicide bomber, a super hero, an airplane, et cetera, were my reaction to these unfair-feeling and yet inarguably necessary demands. I am always willing to make a sacrifice—too willing, sometimes to do the needful, as my travel agent says — and this was a journey I was on, as I had one, two, three, children, and they grew up. The poems in Cherokee Road Kill are written by a person comfortably effaced, looking outward with relief. Thinking about other people, remembering them, and considering, what are the sensations that stay with me, the cries that continue to echo?

I’ll add that women disappear as they age; no one sees them. This excoriates the ego, but also delights – a ghost can do as she likes: invent, bury, resurrect.

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DS: Speaking of ghosts, there are a lot of them in Cherokee Road Kill. Why are you writing about so much death?

CB:  Where I grew up, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, there was a death every spring – someone from my high school who crashed on an icy mountain road, or, since ours was a dry county, on the way home from a wet county’s liquor store. There was also the occasional murder, and the series of poems from which “Cherokee Road Kill” was culled are organized around two murders and a number of crashes; both women killed by their lovers.  I knew one of the victims, and, as I describe here, knew well the younger brother of one of the murderers.

These poems are set near the Cherokee Reservation in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina, where my father’s family lives – my grandmother was Cherokee — and my summers there were spent in a different world: a world of trees so huge two people holding hands couldn’t circle them, curling fiddlehead ferns, magnificent waterfalls, and, nearly every weekend, car crashes and murders.  “Bird Bone” is one in a series of poems inspired by a woman I knew – sweet Louise — who was killed by her lover. The poems are from his perspective and from hers. Many act as a kind of ticker tape of impressions as she is dying, or even after her death. There are actually two “Bird Bone” poems; one as Louise contemplates escaping the mountain valley and her lover for one of the counties down on the coast. The other is narrated by her killer after her death.

I started writing these poems when I was teaching in a program in a maximum-security prison. My students were, generally, wonderful: disciplined, good natured, hard working. But I knew that some of them were murderers. And, it reminded me of people I’d known growing up who were killed, or who were closely related to killers. What makes them do it? Where do they position themselves on that border between being angry at someone and stopping them breathing?

DS: There are a lot of cars in these poems…as well as car crashes.

CB:  You’re right! It’s the kind of thing you notice only after you’ve written a group of poems. In my first book, there are lots of teeth and lots of dogs. I seem to have moved on to cars and ferns in these Cherokee poems. There were, as I said, lots of car accidents happening – you know, NASCAR was invented in North Carolina, and people are very attached to their cars and drive too fast and with too much confidence. I do myself. And there’s another connection: my mother’s long-time boyfriend taught himself to fix foreign cars, and specialized in fixing Volkswagens. He was always working on a car, and I was often drafted into helping him pump the brakes, etc., and I absorbed something of the vocabulary of their innards. I hated doing it, but it was the closest we ever were, working on the cars, taking them for a test drive.  I liked to hide out by sitting in the cars out in our yard waiting to be repaired and read. It was warm and quiet and I could imagine that I belonged to the people who owned the car and had other kinds of lives.

Celia Bland

DS: You have collaborated with the visual artist Kyoko Miyabe on Cherokee Road Kill and with Dianne Kornberg on two projects, Riding the Crescent in 2010 and Madonna Comix in 2012. What are the benefits of working with someone who practices another genre?

CB:  My collaboration with Kyoko and Dianne were some one of the luckiest moments in my life, really – that came about because I make myself do things I’m afraid to do. I was in Chicago for a poetry conference and I went to an exhibition of work by visual artists working with poets. Nearly all that I saw was ho-hum illustrations but Dianne’s work with the poet Elizabeth Frost was extraordinary – gorgeously evocative and classically balanced photos of bones and natural shapes constructed out of language. I made myself overcome my shyness and wrote to Dianne and sent her some poems, and she and I came to the comic-book-inspired images of Madonna Comix as we communicated by e-mail. The poems were inspired by empty spaces – I was inspired by the emptiness where the World Trade Center used to be. Kyoko and I met in New York City and she invited me to work with her. That’s been such an easy relationship. Her pen and ink drawings are so immaculate – there’s such surety and such passion in her drawings – and she thought so deeply about the poems, taking only what she needed and leaving the rest. I was deeply grateful to Carey Harrison, my editor at Dr. Cicero Books, for publishing all of her drawings in Cherokee Road Kill. He really fell in love with them.

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DS:  Where are your poems within the poetic spectrum? We’ve seen this kind of thing about the dreadful childhood before – and your poetry seems to be to strike a different chord.  Tell me more about the landscape that you inhabit.

CB:  This is a hard question. It’s what critics usually determine, not the writers themselves. I feel sui generis, and yet that implies something extraordinary that I wouldn’t claim. I’ve studied with Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, Jean Valentine, Jane Cooper, Thomas Lux, and Marie Ponsot, and their influence may be evident in my work. Or maybe not. I don’t really see it. C.D. Wright, Anne Carson, Natalie Diaz, John Donne – I can see their influence in an attitude, a humor, a romantic need, a kind of sarcasm. But I may be the only person who could detect their voices or styles. As poetic movements go, I’m not in any that I know of. No one would claim me. Not conceptual, not experimental, not formalist, not Flarf, not Eileen Myles, not Nuyorican, etc., etc.

I travel internationally for my job and I’m struck by how it feels to move through space, shuttling from one mode of public transport to another, part of a crowd, unmoored and longing to get somewhere else. I often try and enjoy that liminal space – confined, uncomfortable, unreachable. Similarly, I try to enjoy being a tourist, a voyeur: watching people, overhearing them, looking into their windows, waiting with them at bus stops, sometimes knowing the language, more often not. It’s like being a child, in a way, pre-literate, reading people’s expressions, pointing to things, interpreting tones of voice. Maybe it’s more like being a dog.  In any case, I feel as if I move though contemporary poetry in a similar way, noting syntax and vocabulary, concept and execution, but rarely engaging. I resist dogma and motives and cleverness. I wanted to write something about the people in who felt forgotten under Obama, who have always felt forgotten – unless there’s a draft. I wanted to remember them and – not memorialize them – but write poems that would further minimize their lives with pat endings, or uplift, or messages.

DS: Who are your favorite poets and how have they have influenced you, particularly in terms of your style?

CB:  Lately, Evie Shockley, Leslie Scalapino, Sina Queyras, Philip Larkin, George Herbert, Natalie Diaz. I read for music, and to be surprised. A great poet has the technical brilliance to plan it all out, every word – like a great comic – and yet to create or allow a poem an improvisatory pop, the feeling that they’re making it up on the spot and that even they don’t know where it’s going. It’s this illusion that I love.

DS: What do you consider your greatest extravagance?

CB: I wish I were more extravagant, less tightly-wound, less detail-oriented. I wish I could buy houses in different geographies and different climates. But the lack of funds means I only buy used books. These I have in spades.


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