An Interview with Sandra Simonds
Sandra Simonds is the author of seven books of poetry: Atopia (Wesleyan University Press, 2019), Orlando (Wave Books, 2018), Further Problems with Pleasure, winner of the 2015 Akron Poetry Prize, Steal It Back (Saturnalia Books, 2015), The Sonnets (Bloof Books, 2014), Mother Was a Tragic Girl (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2012), and Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2009). Her poems have been included in Best American Poetry in 2014 and 2015 and have appeared in many literary journals, including Poetry magazine, the American Poetry Review, the Chicago Review, Granta, Boston Review, Ploughshares, Fence, Court Green, and Lana Turner. In 2013, she won a Readers’ Choice Award for her sonnet “Red Wand,” which was published on the Academy of American Poets website. She lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and is an associate professor of English and Humanities at Thomas University in Thomasville, Georgia.
Jon Riccio: Orlando is a great read in the midst of preparing for comprehensive exams! I appreciate the meditations your first poem, “Orlando,” unfurls around the word ‘fantasy.’ There’s the city/Disney connection (“Orlando, I believe their eyes dilate when they see their small shadows against / the Small World: how they weave their way inside a collective eureka”), as well as references to the Butterclock album Fantasy, and a poem of the same name found alongside nineties diary entries (“I can’t bring myself to read it all the way through / but I see it uses the word “tranquility” in an embarrassing way and there are bits / of wisdom for a teenage girl like, If you have to judge me then Fuck You for I never / felt the need to judge you”). I’ve diarized since 5/19/1999, beginning as a violist who wrote, post-recital, The way I played today is / was exactly how I wanted Carol and Dave to hear me. You give fantasy a “double narrative” throughout a forty-two page poem composed in elongated tercets, save for the final page. There are double Sandras—pre-millennium diarist and contemporary poet. How does each navigate the “Orlando” narrative? Who is the doppelgänger?
Sandra Simonds: Thank you, Jon, for noticing the doubling in Orlando, and reading my work with such sensitivity and sharing your own writing with me. A two-part book is like a scale—too much on one side, and the balance of the book gets thrown off, too much on the other and the same thing happens so this might be of interest to people thinking about craft.
I wrote Orlando in real time, so the poem functions as a kind of document. I was working through a bad love affair which, in retrospect, was brief and, in itself, not very remarkable. But that more superficial story was the conduit for the deeper story. Orlando was written during the process of a separation from a long-term relationship / domestic violence situation, one where I was literally dragged around my own house by the neck. I wanted to write a book that connected the past, the present, and the possibility of a future, even in the midst of these terrors, terrors that I hid from almost everyone. Because trauma has a way of fracturing narrative, is often marked by dissociation, composed of so much time and space where there is no story, or there is a story but no one believes the story, Orlando was a feminist way of challenging that.
I’ve heard writers refer to their early diaries as “embarrassing.” Placing some of my diary entries verbatim into Orlando made me feel vulnerable and raw but somehow turning them into art, sculpting them into something “useful,” gave me a sense of control and made them feel important in ways I could never have imagined when I wrote them, so even what one might call “bad” writing didn’t, ultimately, seem so bad.
The doppelgängers, the people who “go twice,” which is what that word literally means, are different aspects, forms, reformulations of the self, represented by different time periods of my life, people, half people, ghosts, visions, dreams, nightmares, ideas, feelings, who are trying to find their way through neurological, psychological, political, and cultural space in order to contemplate a different framework for being that exists opposed to the framework imposed on us which is so limited. In that sense, the book is deeply political.
JR: Late-eighties Cher appears early on, your query as to “what she dreams about when her wig is off, when she stares into / the formidable black night, formaldehyde bearing down on her chest like a terrible demon” shared by diva-enthusiasts the world over. You “watch her terrible fantasy unravel,” its vacuousness met with “pathological negation.” What can Cher teach writers about the balance between ethos and marvel?
SS: This video came out in 1989 when I was twelve years old and seeing Cher, her sexuality, her nakedness, and the controversy associated with female power, opened a space for my imagination about the possibilities of being a woman. It’s like a 1980s version of that moment in Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” (minus the racism of that poem) where Bishop recognizes what she will become: “But I felt: you are an I / you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them,” but, for me, this experience, as opposed to Bishop’s felt much more exciting and adventurous. A diva is a female deity with extraordinary powers and Cher is a diva. I can see myself as a child looking at Cher and now that I am Cher’s age, I see myself as Cher looking back at the child, forming a dialectic that speaks to the construction of femininity as it relates to power in society. Is that what it means to turn back time?
JR: Shakespearean barometer is in full swing as you weather us to “Ophelia season again, sky like chlamydia,” followed by “the season of Desdemona, her labor juggling a whole history of braided hair.” Meteorologically, what comes next?
SS: The superstorms of the Anthropocene or Capitalocene, “mad as the sea and wind when both contend which is mightier.”
JR: My diary’s title page has the drawing of a Trivial Pursuit pie superimposed over the words self / doubt, nowhere near as profound as the portion of your 6/1/1997 entry that states I have listened to the distance mystically. “Orlando” features “the luxury of rhythm and the slick metaphorism / of sound on sound.” How has the sonic architecture of your poetry evolved between degree programs and the present day?
SS: I wrote the first half of Orlando in one summer month as a newly single mother. I isolated myself in my tiny little apartment and worked on it all day, day after day obsessively. I dropped my kids at summer camp in the morning, made myself write one page a day, picked my kids up from summer camp in the evening and then repeated the day that came before it. It was an extremely intense process. I didn’t do anything else. My friends would text me and I just ignored them and I’m glad they have forgiven me.
I was listening to a lot of classical opera at the time, internalizing the sonic architecture of extended pieces of music and how the repetitions, motifs, interludes, variations on theme, return to theme, pacing, alternations between the singers and chorus, could create a sonic whole, an emotional landscape, an aura of language in time where the tension would never go slack. I think my poetry definitely “aspires to the condition of music.” I just read a musicology paper about tonal pairing, relative keys and paradox in Elliott Smith’s music. Music is just something I have an interest in and I want my poems to have the emotive force that music has without the loss of argument and narrative. The only difference between how I write now and how I wrote as a student is that the compositions have gotten longer and more complicated because I’m able to mentally contain a much longer thru line of language in my mind all at once. It’s basically the difference between writing a symphony versus a pop song. Both are difficult in their own way.
JR: “Orlando” gives rise to what I call the geo-lingual, a facet that explores your settings’ environs—“always the frenzied lushness of plants and water,” and “the oak throwing its body across the street, pulling / everything with it, martyr oak, if I were as small as the great ocean” being two examples—while hybridizing the phoneme and flora, seen in: “your language flourishing, flourishing, mine flourishing, and the plants, breathing as they do, / to break through the fading lavenders and greens, a conversation soft and compelling, / a maze of ivy cobras and the feathered light.” What are the challenges in sustaining longer passages of the geo-lingual, particularly as they vie with “the only way / to cross the threshold of mimesis would be to move towards something / more authentic”?
SS: A central anchoring moment of Orlando is when, during a violent summer storm, a tree falls into my ex-husband’s car parked in the driveway of my apartment. The tree completely smashes the car and he barely gets my daughter, who is maybe two years old at the time, into the apartment. This happens towards the end of writing the first half of the book and I think that the symbolism of that incident, where art meets life in such a pronounced and dramatic way, is pretty obvious. I would call it a reckoning. And I think that this storm, the tree falling into the car, points to a larger picture, the ominous Floridian superstorms created through climate change, the feeling that every Floridian has as summer approaches that these storms are coming, getting bigger, and are not going away any time soon.
The challenge of a long poem is that long poems are often boring, so having a deep sense of musicality, understanding that there needs to be an undercurrent of direction, a rhythm coupled with a narrative, creates a propulsive forward momentum. This all starts in the body for me. Originally, the second half of Orlando, “Demon Spring,” was a number of poems, each with the title “Nervous Breakdowns.” That’s the bedrock of the second half of the book, psychological breakdown. A year after I wrote them, I took those poems, printed them all out, and got a pair of scissors and tape and started to cut them up and rearrange them into a long poem in the library where I teach.
JR: “Demon Spring” retains its titular-city moments (“in Orlando the chandelier dream / of a spring snow”), declaring
I will write a feminist
epic poem about everything
no matter how much the gods
kill me and the diner became a book
of poetry regardless
Is Orlando’s reconfiguration of the epic a matter of keeping some poetic traditions and jettisoning others, or starting from Floridian scratch?
SS: Odysseus makes his way through a number of obstacles, many of which are strong female deities. But all those monster figures, witch goddesses, Titanesses, are projections of male anxiety about female power. The converse of that would be the journey work of a feminist protagonist inside the sociopolitical landscape we know and recognize as our own, fraught with abuse and inequality, created and reinforced through property relations. Could the feminist epic poem culminate into something other than a feminist superstate? I think so. Maybe we can imagine something without gender or a world where gender is totally destabilized. I love this quote from Kathy Acker, who was a huge early influence on me as a writer: “What I have always hated about the bourgeois story is how it closes down. I don’t use the bourgeois story-line because the real content of the novel is the property structure of reality. It’s about ownership. That isn’t my world-reality. My world isn’t about ownership. In my world people don’t even remember their names, they aren’t sure of their sexuality, they aren’t sure if they can define their genders. That’s the way you feel in mythical stories. You don’t know quite why they act, and they don’t care.”
JR: Linkages between art and incarceration occur in the line “[See the papier-mâché sculpture of the supermax prison my kids made?]” and
The old poets begged for the prison doors
to fly open the new poets beg for
them to slam shut
There’s the noun-verb possibility that “Demon Spring” may be breaking a demon out of confinement, in addition to the Baker Act (“a Florida law that enables families and loved ones to provide emergency mental health services and temporary detention”1) mentioned in “Orlando.” How is Orlando a manifesto against loss of freedom?
SS: I had this supernatural experience when I was in Scotland about ten years ago. I wandered into Greyfriars Churchyard. That night I absolutely believed that one of the ghosts from the cemetery had attached to me or somehow, I was carrying it inside my body. When I got back to Leeds where my sister was living, I told her the story and she said that the place was haunted. This feeling that that demon was attached to me lasted for years until one day I went running in Tallahassee and I just started crying, and I could actually feel it leave my body. I read this Jack Spicer line once that said that once a ghost leaves your body, it leaves forever and returns. Maybe this is a metaphor for the relationship between inner demons (the psychological states) and the confinements of the capitalist state? I think about Marx’s idea of “dead labor” a lot and imagine all of the dead labor that it takes so that I can live and breathe and function. I think about how I was having this breakdown, how it almost lead to my confinement against my will and how scary that was and that the very person who was trying to get me confined was the person who had been physically violent with me in the first place. I think of all of this as a metaphor for a loss of freedom and try to imagine what freedom could look like.
JR: We progress from double narratives to “All master narratives of the spirit in the rowboat sky reflecting the infant swamp, clouds of filth, soil / knotted like tupelos and toppled alphabets”—more of the geo-lingual. The master narratives reappear “inside a pine coffin of swamp water.” Earlier, we’re asked
So why praise
the elaborate song patterns of the comatose lyric
or walk in the morgue of
Morgues and coffins: additional jailing or transformative containers? I’m inclined to go with the latter, adding their diaristic relevance as sites where change self-records through the process of decay, decay on the same keychain as rebirth. In what ways has Orlando bettered the diary arts? How do you think you’ll read Orlando twenty years from now?
SS: We all know the master narratives are lies. This is so obvious that it’s become a cliché. In poetry some of those narratives are lyric and some are conceptual. I think a lot about the fascist tendencies of lyric poetry, how the Nazis were really into feelings and sentimentality and that has always scared me, as a Jewish woman; at the same time, I think of a lot of conceptual poetry as pretty driven by a right-wing, anti-lyric impulse, boxes of text, devoid of feeling or care. There’s something just very real about a teenage girl writing in her diary, talking about her daily existence and problems and worries, keeping track of everything. If there is hope for any kind of sustainable future, I imagine teenage girls, who are often abused, neglected, looked upon by society as silly, disrespected, not to be taken seriously fighting back will have a lot to do with that.
JR: We begin in Florida and conclude with Fenrir, a Norse end-times wolf hungering for all things solar. What nourished Orlando, a collection baring magnificent teeth “against the humid flags beating the wind,” from its beginning to current Wave Books form?
SS: I am a Leo and Leos get their energy and vitality through the sun. Intimacy, loss, feminism, Marxism, psychological breakdowns, the world of children, the summer, thunderstorms, hurricanes, beauty, song, a sense of justice, labor, dead labor, ghosts, memory, diaries, text messages, sex. All of it. I guess I want all of it.
Jon Riccio is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Recent and forthcoming work appears in decomP, SUSAN, Word For/ Word, and Ocean State Review. He is a former University of Arizona Poetry Center digital projects intern.