“From Proper Nouns to Slant Sonnets: A Conversation with Poet Anya Silver About Place and Time”

Sarah Hughes Interviews Anya Silver

Anya Silver, Sara Hughes

Left: Anya Silver; right: Sara Hughes

Sara Hughes: I am so excited to sit down with you and discuss your second collection of poems. For readers who are unfamiliar with your work, breast cancer is a major topic you write about, so we want to make sure we talk about it, but I’m also really interested in talking to you about your living in Georgia and how that has shaped your writing.

Anya Silver: Okay, sure. You know that’s really interesting to me, since I haven’t thought about that too much.

SH: Place (and by “place” I suppose I mean the physical location as well as the cultural implications of a setting) seems to be a really important aspect of the poems in I Watched You Disappear. You’ve got a poem about the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds beside a poem set in Kharkov, Ukraine; you write about Vienna, Budapest, the Jersey Shore, and the paper mill in Macon, Georgia. Do any of these places hold more wonder for you than others? In other words, do you feel a stronger emotional connection to certain places than others?

AS: That’s such an interesting question. The Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva once wrote, “All my nouns are proper nouns.” So, in that way, yes, particular places are an extremely important aspect of my work. I suspect that place is a key element of almost all poets’ work: poetry consists of observation and paying attention, so it would make sense that the local physical and cultural setting would be at the center of much poetry; I don’t see how place couldn’t be at the center, really. There’s a poem in the book called “Sea Glass,” about sorting through pebbles at the Jersey Shore looking for sea glass, the beautiful luminous pieces, and I think that’s sort of what poets do — look around for something that sparkles and catches their attention, and then work those pieces into poems. I love places and I grow extremely attached to them, but they take on new existences in my mind that are subjective and personal. I tend to think of place in terms of very specific images. For example, my grandmother’s lavender garden in Germany or Lake Dunmore in Vermont are images that tie me to place.

SH: Do you feel romantic about certain settings? Does the memory of a place inspire you to write about it?

AS: For me, places associated with the past—either my family history or my own personal past—are the most evocative for me in terms of writing. I like to write about places through story and memory, and that means that (as in the case of Kharkov) I might not have been there physically at all. For example, I have a poem about my father growing up in Kharkov and I’ve never been there, but I have images of him associated with that place. I think I might be most romantic about places I’ve never been, like Russia, or Germany (though I spent a lot of time in Germany) because both places were so important to my childhood—German was my first language, I had a Russian father, went to a Russian Orthodox church, spent summers at the language institute in Vermont where my father taught — taking German lessons and hearing Russian spoken around me.   I always felt very Russian and German growing up. But at the same time, I felt conflicted about that heritage, because this was during the Cold War, and the Soviet Union was the evil empire, and I was also constantly wrestling with the legacy of the Holocaust. So these two places were both imaginary and beautiful places, and also places of shame and suffering.

SH: Do these places seem so concrete to you because you’ve heard them described by family members or because you’ve seen pictures of them?

AS: The images I associate with these places came from descriptions by family members. My father once described sleeping on the oven when he was a little boy in Ukraine; he just told me that, and I imagined a little boy sleeping on an oven and that made the place real to me, even though I haven’t been there. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that those places, even though I didn’t live there, were as much a part of my identity as the place where I lived physically, and shaped my poetry to an equal degree. I felt as much an inhabitant of my ethnic backgrounds as of my nation.

SH: I’m not entirely sure how long you lived in Georgia, but I’m assuming about twenty years? Do you feel like a Southerner? If not, do you feel displaced?

AS: You’re right, I’ve lived here about twenty years. I spent five years in Atlanta, and then the next sixteen in Macon. I love Macon, and it’s my home, but at the same time, I don’t feel like a Southerner. When I first moved to Macon, I felt very much like I was in exile. I didn’t feel that I belonged — that my mannerisms set me apart from people, for example. I still feel that way. But Macon and I have grown into each other. So though I don’t feel like a Southerner, I feel like Macon is home, and when I’m away from Macon, like in the Northeast, and I hear a song in a Southern voice, I feel a really strong emotional connection with the voice and the South.   It’s part of me now.

SH: I wonder if it has something to do with raising a child in the South? Since you’re raising a Southerner, maybe that makes you feel even more connected to the South?

AS: Yes, that’s right! But I think it’s also because I found a community of people here to whom I feel very close, and I feel very loyal to Macon and to Mercer. It’s where I put my roots and where I think I really developed my poetic voice.

SH: When I think of “home” I think of the South because I’ve lived in Georgia my whole life. So, I associate home with a specific geographic location. Your poems, on the other hand, seem to suggest that “home” is not limited to a geographic location; the concept of “home” resides somewhere else – perhaps in the mind or among certain people. Could you speak about that?

AS: Growing up, I felt very closely connected to my hometown, Swarthmore, and I still feel incredibly tied to it. But in terms of region, I never identified myself as a Northeasterner, maybe because I was a misfit? I felt more ethnically German and Russian than I did Pennsylvanian. I grew up in a house full of Russian and German immigrants. So, it’s not like when I moved to Macon, I was this New Englander moving south.   There wasn’t a strong sense of place where I grew up; not the way that place is so important in the South. I adore Pennsylvania, but I don’t feel that it informed my writing as much as language did.

SH: Was your first language English?

AS: No, that was my third language. German and Russian were my first two languages. In the 1970s in Pennsylvania, being German and Russian were not cool things to be. That probably affected my association with home. I mean, I loved the language, and I loved the culture, but at the same time, I was wrestling with the Soviet Union being this oppressive empire and as a German American with the holocaust, so I had a conflicted sense of place and home.

SH: Even though you weren’t born in the South, you’re often referred to as a Macon poet, since the publication of your books occurred after you moved to Macon. How has living in Georgia shaped your writing and subject matter?   Some of the poems are specific to Macon, but many are not set in the South. With the exception of those few poems that are specifically set in Macon, do you think that you could have written this book living somewhere else?

AS: I do think of myself as a Macon poet, but that probably has to do with my age; I developed my poetic voice in my late twenties, so I was already in the South when that happened. I love Macon. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

Living in Georgia has shaped my subject matter insofar as I got married, had a child, and developed cancer in Georgia, and so those most intense experiences of my life have taken place in the South. Especially in terms of being someone with cancer, the people responsible for my care are Southern, and I believe that the poems would have been different if they had been written somewhere else, in a different place and in a different community. I’m not sure how, but I know they would have been. One specific way: in the South, I have felt much, much more comfortable talking about faith than I did where I was growing up, where only one of my friends, who is Catholic, and I ever broached the subject. As a child and a teenager, it would almost have been felt to be in bad taste to bring up religion among my friends. I love the fact that my nurses will talk to me about God. There’s an openness here to talking about faith (of course, there are many troubling ramifications to Southern Christianity to me, but they don’t bear on my experience of cancer).   Living in Macon has fundamentally changed the experience of having cancer for me. I don’t think the experience of being sick would have been the same somewhere else.  And in addition to that, my poet friends here are comfortable discussing faith. So no, this book could not have been written elsewhere. It would have been a different book.

SH: At your book launch for I Watched You Disappear, you mentioned that the hardest subject to write about directly is your son. The poem, “My Son’s Legs,” is one of the few poems of yours that I’ve read that deals directly with your son. Was this poem difficult to write? And more generally, how does being a mother affect your writing process as well as your subject matter?

AS: My son is my great joy and accomplishment. I was diagnosed when I was pregnant with him, so he went through chemo with me. I used to feel him moving around inside me when I had infusions. I experienced this incredible conflation of life and death. But I don’t write about him much for two reasons. One, it’s difficult not to be sentimental about him, and pathos doesn’t generally make for very good poetry. Second, I don’t want to publish anything that will cause him pain later. So though I might write drafts about him, I don’t generally pursue them. I’m more interested in protecting him than in writing about him. The only way I can write about him, like the poem, “No It’s Not” is when the poem is rooted in a place or an action.  It’s the same with my husband. I don’t write much about him because that part of my life is private.

SH: The second section of I Watched You Disappear consists of poems that are loosely based on images from fairy tales, and I noticed that nearly all of these poems are written in 14 lines. While they don’t follow the traditional rhyme scheme or meter of a sonnet, they have the feel of a sonnet (we could almost categorize them as “pseudo-sonnets”). Was this an intentional choice when thinking about the form?

AS: I love sonnets. The sonnet is my favorite form. Most of what I want to say in a poem can be said in fourteen lines. On the other hand, I find that most poems written with end rhymes today sound too coy or quaint, and so I employ internal rhyme instead, because I do want to preserve the fact that sonnets traditionally rhyme. I’d call them “slant sonnets” rather than “pseudo sonnets.” Doesn’t that sound nicer?

SH: Yes! I like “slant sonnet” much better than “pseudo sonnet.” But in terms of the crafting of these poems, what is it about the sonnet’s inherent argumentative structure (complication and resolution) that made this form feel right for these poems?

AS: So, with those poems, each one presents a problem and a solution, or a situation and its development, and that kind of argumentative structure, as you put it, made the sonnet the right form for me. Also, because these were not written in the first person, I somehow wanted a more formal structure for them. The last poem, “The Hazel Tree,” is only twelve lines. I tried to make it fourteen, but the poem wouldn’t cooperate. And because the poem is about loss, I decided that twelve lines were appropriate.

SH: I love this section so much. I’ve tried writing sonnets, and I agree with what you said earlier — sometimes the traditional rhyme scheme of a sonnet makes the subject feel artificial or quaint. In addition, sometimes the traditional placement of the volta (or turn) in the sonnet also feels forced, but I noticed in your “slant sonnets” the turn could occur anywhere in the poem.

AS: Yes. I didn’t stick closely to the Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnet placement of the turn. For example, in “Maiden in the Glass Mountain” the turn really just happens in the last line. But I definitely wanted there to be a sense of a turn or surprise in the poem. I just like short poems. I like the intensity of 14 lines.

SH: One of the longest poems in the book is the titular poem, “I Watched You Disappear,” and you mentioned in your book launch that this poem was inspired by email correspondence; do you consider this a “found” poem?

AS: Yes, I do consider this a found poem, even though I made up most of the lines myself. Some of the lines, like “He would snort water out of his nose laughing” are lifted right from email correspondences with women who have cancer. The same with “I give it one year, max,” which is a reference to how long it would take a particular husband to remarry. I wanted to give myself a lot of leeway with this poem and include many voices so that the poem became a sort of tapestry or multi-stranded braid of women’s experiences—the woman who didn’t go to Peru, the woman whose son was on suicide watch. I couldn’t do that in a shorter poem because there are too many women who have died whom I wanted to memorialize, even with just a phrase. And I wanted the poem to have a lot of breathing space. I can’t explain why. I let the poem take me where it wants to go.   I just follow and write it down.

SH: Breast cancer is a subject that you explore in-depth in both The Ninety-Third Name of God and I Watched You Disappear. We spoke last year about your being labeled “The Breast Cancer Poet.” Do you feel that that label restricts your identity as a contemporary poet? Or, is it essential to your poetic voice?

AS: Being somebody with breast cancer is essential to my poetic voice because, as I said last year, it’s my “flood subject” and I feel called upon to write about it; writing about cancer is my vocation. But I am not a breast cancer poet. I write about family, faith, childhood, memory, myth. I am a whole person who happens to have cancer, and I write about my whole life. I’m as much a spiritual poet as a cancer poet. I don’t like being pigeonholed.   Any illness is part of the human experience, and I’m a poet of human experience, like all poets.

SH: In an article that was published about you online, the writer used the word “incurable” to describe your cancer, and this word has such a negative connotation. Could you talk about the terms “terminal” and “incurable”?

AS: I reject the words “terminal” and “incurable.” It’s only in the last stages of the disease that one can call cancer “incurable.” Unless a doctor has the gift of prophecy, it’s impossible to claim that somebody will or will not be cured. I have known people on the brink of death who have come back and lived healthy lives for many years. Sure, it’s vastly likely that I’ll die of cancer in a few years, but I would never refer to myself as incurable or terminal. I think it’s remarkably insensitive of doctors to use those words until they’re absolutely sure that a patient is going to die, i.e. kidney or liver failure has begun. I mean, every human being is “incurable” — we’re all going to die. But labeling a person “incurable” is writing off that person and defining that person by her death, and I just refuse to do that.

SH: What obligation do you feel to other women with breast cancer to portray this disease with honesty and candor?

AS: I feel an absolute obligation not to pinkwash cancer and make it pretty. Our society likes the narrative of cancer that is very triumphant, like this person got this disease and came through it as this wiser, stronger, kinder person, and her life is better afterwards. This happens for some women, but this narrative also leaves out the women who have recurrences, and I want to write about women who don’t fit that narrative. So my cancer poems have to be both honest about how horrible the disease is while acknowledging that the disease does not define the person and that the person has worth and experiences apart from the disease. That’s what I was trying to do with my poem, “Stage IV.”

SH: While you write so openly about cancer and spirituality, do you ever find yourself censoring yourself because you’ve written something too personal? Are there any subjects that you feel are off limits?

AS: Yes, I think so. I would feel it exploitive to write about somebody’s death explicitly without permission — for which I’ve never asked. I would not share the last moments of somebody’s death unless he or she wanted me to. I would not write about the children of women who died in detail. And I would not write about my own family’s responses to my cancer because those are private. Many poets argue that ultimately art trumps privacy, but I don’t agree. I feel strongly that a poet has to respect the people about whom he or she writes. I’ve written some poems that I feel are very good that I would not publish.

SH: Even though your second book has just been released, you are already working on your third book of poetry. Are you facing new challenges with this third manuscript that you perhaps didn’t face writing The Ninety-Third Name of God and I Watched You Disappear?

AS: Strangely, my third manuscript, which is just about complete, is less about cancer than about the rest of my life. The manuscript takes on subjects about which I have rarely written about the past, such as sexuality. I have felt a moving away from the spirit and a moving towards the body in this manuscript — not that I believe in a complete dualism of the two. But I’ve felt like I’ve paid a lot of attention to spirit in the last couple of books, and I want to pay the same attention to the body. But yes, there will always be cancer poems, as long as people I know die of it. The Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert wrote, “Be courageous when reason fails you be courageous/in the final reckoning it is the only thing that counts.” Writing about cancer is my way of being courageous about it when I don’t feel courageous.

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