[Pernille Larson interviews Natalie Shapero in advance of her reading here at the Poetry Center on March 14 at 7 PM.]
Pernille Larsen: How does your latest manuscript differ from Hard Child and No Object?
Natalie Shapero: Many of the poems in my new manuscript deal with labor and the question of whether it is possible to have a self that is fully separable from one’s status as an employee. I read a lot about the gig economy and the general encroachment of the working world into private space, and that dovetails with some ongoing questions I would like to ask in my poems about disempowerment as a condition, an ongoing state. Some of the most recent work I’ve done on this project has been influenced by Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Managed Heart, a study of emotion work by flight attendants that discusses, among other things, the relationship between the Stanslavski school of acting (“method acting”) and industry-specific variants of professionalism. In this approach to acting, the set pieces aren’t there to bring the scene to life for the audience; they’re there for the benefit of the actor, to make the actor regard the scene as true.
PL: I was very struck by these lines in a recent poem of yours entitled “The Envelope, Please”: “If you want to be really / reckoned with, you have to show / you love something high and / also you love something low.” I’m curious about the origin of these lines, how they arrived or what prompted them?
NS: That line came from a fixation I’d had with how, in some intellectual spaces, it can be considered posturing to profess passion only for obscure or austere art and culture, but it’s also of course disfavored to present yourself as lolling around in slop the whole day long. You can sense in certain places a drive to project breadth more than anything else, a way of relating to other people that I find can stymie deep and concentrated exchange of ideas in favor of an impulse toward survey.
PL: I really enjoy a lot of your titles, including “Read it and Weep,” “News to Me” and “Can’t Go Anywhere.” I frequently struggle with titling poems, so I’m curious how you go about titling your poems? Do you sometimes think of a title before the “body” of a poem? How do you know when you’ve settled on the “right” title for your poem?
NS: I use different methods of titling for different poems. You mention “Can’t Go Anywhere,” a title that reads into the poem, which can be a useful technique for building momentum right up front. Other titles in my work come from these sorts of indelible phrases (idioms, axioms, snippets of overheard speech) that get lodged in my thinking and won’t leave. I sometimes incorporate these into the body of the poems via small caps, in an effort to replicate their prominence and shadow-casting. The position of the title affords an opportunity for that as well.
PL: In a previous interview, you said that you try to maintain “a logical progression” in your poems, which I can definitely trace. At the same time, your poems also make plenty of associative leaps. I’m wondering how logic functions during your writing process? How do you balance the need for logic and surprise in your poems?
NS: I’m interested in logic as a formal device, a way of scaffolding. I want leaps in the poem that take the shapes of logical associations, but that also resist logic as they go along — a sort of ironic IF/THEN. For example, I’ve been very interested recently in how and why people display photos of themselves in their own homes, and also in the idea of a photo as a way to remember someone who has died, and in a sort of illogical conflation of the two. I do like poems that make surprise and advance argument through illogical conflations. So the idea is that, if you see that someone has a photo of themselves in their house, you can infer that they are dead, and that the person who has invited you over is in fact their ghost. That’s how the poem begins. Obviously it’s ridiculous to advance the argument that IF people often hang photos of themselves and also IF people often hang photos of dead people, THEN every time someone hangs a photo of themselves, they are dead, but it is a progression that affords both the formal structure of logic and the element of surprise via the irrational.
PL: The speaker of Hard Child is very eager to present themselves as unconcerned with the past. The speaker proclaims that they “typically hate discussing the past” and “hardly / think of the past,” yet references to the past--the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Holocaust, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, etc.--keep cropping up. Why was this tension or contradiction important to include in Hard Child?
NS: You’ve hit on what, for me, is a central theme of the book, and probably the central theme of the book: the unwavering quality of the past, and how that comes into conflict with various mandates to not dwell, to move forward. These mandates can be utilized by people who have carried out various abuses, broad and narrow, and who desire for that unflattering history to be effortlessly wiped clean. Repeatedly insisting that you are not thinking about the past is, of course, an admission that you are. It’s also an acknowledgement / indictment of larger forces that tell you that you shouldn’t be, or that you can’t.
PL: In my opinion, Hard Child contains thematic threads like death, the body, faith, and survival rather than a narrative through-line. Did you discover these threads after having written a number of poems or were you very aware of them while drafting? Were they something you revised toward?
NS: The book came together in a radial way, with many of the poems being written simultaneously and then revised simultaneously, to be in conversation with one another and share and shift different burdens in the process of articulating these themes.
PL: I think both your collections contain many funny moments. Something I often question about my own writing is why I’m using humor in a specific moment or piece--am I using humor to create contrast? Am I using humor as a crutch to avoid getting uncomfortable? Am I using it to render to character? How do you think about the humor in your own writing?
NS: I try to use humor in a way that makes the poems sadder than they would otherwise be. It’s about the actual content of the joke, of course, but also about the placement of jokes — I’m interested in the moment of a joke being made where it’s really not a time for joking, of where that impulse comes from, especially when it’s a burdensome impulse — a sense of what it means to feel responsible for lightening a situation or in some other way mandated not to take seriously something truly serious.
PL: Who are your favorite funny writers?
NS: These days I’ve been reading Ana Božičević. The little poem “Blessing,” here at the end, is a good joke.
PL: I’m very curious about the cover image of Hard Child, which shows a person with their head stuck in a garbage can in front of what looks like a garage or a self-storage space. How did you first encounter the cover image of Hard Child? Why did you eventually choose that image?
NS: I initially proposed, for the cover of Hard Child, a photograph of my close friend with her head stuck partway into a trash can, where the top of the trash can is in the shape of a lion’s head. It didn’t end up being the right thing, so then I had to find another photo. I was living at the time in Columbus, Ohio, and I asked a photographer friend of mine in Columbus whether I could look through his portfolio and see if he had anything that might make sense as the cover. And — lo and goddamn behold — he had recently photographed a friend of his with his friend’s head in the trash. It was fate. One thing I didn’t consider (or at least, didn’t consciously consider) until many people brought it to my attention after the book was out: the person in the photo is wearing a denim jacket and black jeans, which is what I very often also wear, and the person in the photo and I also have similar body types. So people who know me often think that’s me in the picture, on the cover of my own book with my head in the garbage. But it’s not.
Natalie Shapero is the Professor of the Practice of Poetry at Tufts University. Her most recent poetry collection is Hard Child (Copper Canyon, 2017), which was shortlisted for the 2018 International Griffin Poetry Prize. Her previous collection, No Object(Saturnalia, 2013), received the 2014 Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award. Natalie's writing has appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Poetry, The Progressive, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, and a Kenyon Review Fellowship.