Monday, November 30, 2015

An Interview with Connie Voisine by Caroline LeBlanc

Connie Voisine lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where she is an associate professor of English at New Mexico State University and a director of La Sociedad para las Artes.  In 2012, she was a Fulbright Scholar at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queens University in Ireland, and is currently back in Ireland on sabbatical.  Calle Florista is her third book.  Her second book, Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award.  Her first book, Cathedral of the North, won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in Poetry.  She has poems published in The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, Poetry Magazine, Black Warrior Review, the Threepenny Review, and elsewhere.  Her work was featured at The Lab at Belmar, a museum show pairing prehistoric stone tools with poems. 

Connie grew up in a Franco-American community near the Canadian border in Maine, and earned a BA in American studies from Yale University.  She studied at the New School and the Writers Studio in New York City, before earning her MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and PhD from the University of Utah.
 

The Poetry Foundation site notes that, “[d]eploying a kind of lyric narrative, Voisine’s poems frequently feature speakers as they encounter contemporary culture in a variety of locations—including the American Southwest and Mexico.”

Interviewer’s Note:    I first met Connie Voisine in 2009 when she and ten other Franco-American poets anthologized in French Connections: A Gathering of Franco-American Poets, graciously agreed to be interviewed for a paper I delivered in Montreal at a conference on Canadians in the United States.  In 2011, an adaptation of the paper was published as “Writing an Ethnic Identity between Worlds: Claiming and Maintaining a Franco-American Self,” in The International Journal of Canadian Studies.  Since then, I have moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, some three hours north of Las Cruces, where Connie lives and works.  When she announced the publication of Calle Florista, I approached her about reviewing the book.  Her response: Thanks…. We have that French/New Mexico thing going. We do, and I love it!

INTERVIEW

Since Connie is in Ireland, we conducted this interview via email.  

LEBLANC: Hello,Connie. I hope you enjoying your time in Ireland. For this interview, I decided to use your current book as a springboard for broader questions about the arching POV I found in the book and your online interviews/talks.  Thanks for your time and generosity in responding to these questions.
   
LEBLANC: I know our 2010 research interviews that you, like me, grew up in a working class Franco-American community.   While I grew up in Massachusetts, you grew up on the US/Canadian border in Northern Maine where it’s practically just a matter of walking across a bridge to go from one country to the other, and French is an everyday language. In fact, from the 18th to early 20thcentury, our ancestors moved back and forth across northern US borders for work and family, much as present day Mexicans and Mexican-Americans cross southern US borders. Poems, such as AS WELL AS YOU CAN, suggest your sensitivity to the post-colonial/border/immigrant experience.  Others, like AMBIDEXTROUS, suggest the tensions between a working class way of engaging life, and the more refined entitlements and behaviors expected in society’s educated circles.  What were your intentions with these poems? How has your heritage informed your sensitivities and interests in your studies and writings? 

VOISINE: Having relocated from one border to the other, I became fascinated by New Mexico’s landscape—a completely different imaginative space than Maine’s Canadian border. Southern New Mexico’s historical relationship to Mexico (prior to 1848, it was part of Mexico) produces a kind of splitting and friction, one with human, economic, and political consequences. I find myself writing into understanding, or in order to understand. Having grown up in a border community, I feel the similarities and differences acutely.

Since leaving home, having changed not only my location, but my culture and class, I am constantly aware of the places where I don’t belong by any kind of birthright—in spite of all the points of connection. How to write about a colonized space, one that doesn’t belong to you in any historical way—that became my poetic question once I moved to New Mexico. I have students at New Mexico State University whose families have lived in the area since before Spanish colonization. Who am I to write about this space, although it is my home now. I can get pretty picky about how people “from away” write about Maine, you know, which informs my reaction…

LEBLANC: The NM State News Center article (http://newscenter.nmsu.edu/Articles/view/7781) announcing your 2012 Fullbright at Ireland’s Queen’s University,  Seamus Haeney Centre for Poetry quotes you as saying, “There’s a lot of conflict historically in Belfast between people who supported British rule and those who didn’t.  It’s a border city of sorts and living on the border ourselves, it will be interesting to see how another artistic community deals with borders.”  The French in Canada and the US have had their own difficulties with Les Anglais, difficulties of which few Americans are aware.  On the other hand, the difficulties citizens on both sides of our border with Mexico have had is the stuff of daily news reports.   You have lived and studied in at least three border lands: Maine, New Mexico, and Ireland. Your poem, THE ALTAR BY GEORGE HERBERT, suggests you have also spent extended time in Mexico.  It seems to me there are many kinds of borders besides the geographical borders: political, gendered, class, racial, ethnic, etc.  How does the concept and reality of borders inform your writing?  What insights have you garnered about the similarities and differences about border issues?  How these issues are addressed in literature? How do your insights reveal themselves in your writing and other work?

VOISINE: Moving to New Mexico made me aware of how careful I must be when writing about place. Having come from an insular, very specific culture myself, I am sensitive about cultural appropriation. There’s a huge risk when we graft our own imported-from-elsewhere feelings and experiences onto the experiences of others—maybe it’s how we at first connect, but it’s not the deepest connection. My basic strategy is poetry as praxis, maintaining an active, open empathy through connections to my immediate community. Anybody who’s been to my house knows that often people call on us for all kinds of reasons. Being from small town Maine, related to just about everyone one way or another, I was well trained in the habit of connection, community, and helpfulness. The other parents at school, my neighbors on my street, the dog walkers in the park across from my house are necessary to my poetics. Maybe I make a small town out of wherever I live. This is as essential to writing for me as anything else.

LEBLANC: In the video of your lecture, “The Riddle in the Lyric Poem”  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtcApGOm-DU) , you say a number of interesting things.  The riddle creates “discord between myself and the world,” a distance between self and the familiar in which the “ordinary world becomes alien…until the riddle is solved.”  You quote Brian Swan: “riddles bring the mind to crisis…; riddles and their answers imply a dualistic universe.”   Once solved, in your words, the “object becomes itself again, located…and at the same time made more complex.”  SAY UNCLE reads as series of riddles.   In the riddle like poem I ADMIT I BELIEVE IDEAS EXIST REGARDLESS, factories, televisions, and defensive linemen make the leap and become manifestations of God, feeling/passion, and the soul.  Metaphor clearly runs through this poem, and so does the riddle.  Would you talk about the relationship of metaphor and riddle in your thinking and writing?

VOISINE: I felt an answer to my initial question of how to write about New Mexico when I started reading heavily in the poets of Eastern Europe: Szymborska, Herbert (Zbigniew), Milosz, Holan, and Flora. These poets guided Calle Florista when I was most stuck. As poets, they manage through a combination of directness and excision to sustain a complex and even private sensibility while cracking the self open to encompass the affairs of a broader world. For political reasons (their years under the USSR had many pressures), these poets used indirection and metaphor to express what was difficult or impossible to express plainly. Through a quality of reserve, we get an echo of personal experience in their poems, but the emphasis is on ambiguity, the casting of thought, ideas made vibrant by their use of metaphor and an intense, personal and sometimes comic voice.  Thus we understand something about their lives without confession. Don’t get me wrong—I love the confessional mode and it’s one I have used in various ways in my other books. But again, this mode did not seem the right way to go when I felt like such a minor character in this new landscape, community, contested space.

LEBLANC: Poems such as TWO YEARS IN THAT CITY are rich in metaphor, philosophical suggestion, and allusions that bridge the mundane and intellectual ponderings.  Would you talk about the influence of theatrical, philosophical, theological, anthropological and linguistic studies in your thinking and writing?

VOISINE: Because of this project, I wrestled with larger poetic questions: if writing lyric poetry is an embrace of an utterly personal process of defamiliarization, how does a poet negotiate the philosophical, social or political? In order to comment on the political, the poet must begin the poetically dangerous practice of generalizing. But how could I claim the specifics of New Mexico as my own to combat the generalizing—who am I to do that?
Also, frankly, I was getting tired of the alienated, tragic speaker as a mode in my own work and the work of others. I wanted emotional engagements. On the other hand, I do love a rhetorical poem. In the end, I see this book as full of rhetorical action—but it happens through metaphor, I hope. It’s the metaphor in those Eastern Europeans that gives the arguments feeling (and ambiguity) by creating an emotional texture, a context of objects and experience.

LEBLANC: In reference to her visionary art, Meinrad Craighead, the great New Mexican artist and former contemplative nun has said that, “once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” even though she no longer affiliated herself with the institution. Poems such as ANNUNCIATION and THE ALTAR BY GEORGE HERBERT, read as reflections on spiritual issues.  How does the spirituality of your Roman Catholic heritage inform your interests and writing?

VOISINE: Oh, she’s right, that Meinrad Craighead. I am not a practicing Catholic, but culturally I’m a Catholic and always will be. Even if I found another religion that suited me, I can’t imagine converting. (I know it’s absolutely right for many people, but not for me.) Catholic stories are a part of who I am, the magic that many of those stories create is too. What is a miracle but magic made meaningful in the world? (Again, I don’t want to offend believers but that’s how I’ve come to see it.) A certain acceptance of suffering and poverty is instrumental to the Catholic faith as well, for better and for worse. Recently I went to a first communion ceremony which was lovely and I felt that, believer or not, this is my tribe. I have tried to reclaim what I can of Catholicism even though I am not a believer anymore. It’s still my mythology, my image-world, still an orientation to many things in world.

LEBLANC: Would you tell us a little about your impressions of Ireland, and what you are working on during your current sabbatical in Northern Ireland?

VOISINE: We recently went to Kerry from Belfast, where we are living now and I was reminded that Northern Ireland is very different from the south. The landscape is similar and there are many aspects that overlap, but the country’s history since partition is so vastly different. I have a book in progress set in Belfast—one long, book-length poem—which I began last time we lived here, in 2012. You might think that here I am again, wondering how to manage the fact that the place in which I live is not my own. I’m, as they would say here, a “blow-in.” I think, and I don’t want to jinx it, that this next book is about neighbors in more obvious way than Calle Florista, and Belfast can be seen as a place where notions of community have really been negotiated and renegotiated. The Good Friday Agreement between Catholic and Protestant organizations, signed nearly 20 years ago, wobbles, threatens to fail, and then rights itself over and over. Public housing and education is still segregated. Yet, peoples’ lives are intertwined in so many ways. As always.

LEBLANC: Your webpage also indicates that you spend your summers in Chicago—another northern US border town historically influenced by French immigrants, and now populated by many Hispanic immigrants.  What is your work while there?  How do your rotating residencies along our northern and southern borders inform your “border” consciousness” and writing?

VOISINE: Mostly we started going there for personal reasons: my husband, the writer Rus Bradburd, is from Chicago and my sister, a scientist, Cindy Voisine, lives there too. Both Rus and our daughter are traditional fiddlers and there are so many opportunities to play with fabulous musicians in that city. Rus’ most recent project is a book about his friend who was shot and paralyzed on the west side of Chicago, a victim of the rising gun violence in that city. There are lots of other reasons we keep coming back.  I like to write in the public library on the corner, where I can look at Welles Park little league out the 2nd story windows. 

Calle Florista: A Review by Caroline LeBlanc



Calle Florista

by Connie Voisine

University of Chicago Press, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-226029532-9 


Toward the middle of “The Self after Modernism,” the last poem in Calle Florista, Voisine writes:  “I feel responsible for it, the poem I will write.”  And Calle Florista is a book of responsible poems, thirty-three of them about life in borders places, class, migration/immigration, and intellectually flavored existential questions.  Most are lyrical, free verse poems with irregular lines, stanza size, and few rhymes.  Throughout the poems, the “I” and the “not-I,” the “I as other,” the “other as I” dance in and out of the foreground, often not quite located in an easily defined point of reference. The reader must be willing to shift focus, consciousness and footing, often within the same poem.  In “The Self after Modernism,” Voisine goes on to muse: “Maybe there’s some hope for this poem/if I open the door to the random, the fragmented,/the flimsy scraps that more genuinely//compose the day, the mind, the night, the dream.(60-62)”  

The first, and title, poem, translated “Florist Street,” is a bittersweet description of an apparently misnamed street that had few "cultured" flowers and only a recent “ ’Florista’ started last year.”  Or was the street named for some ancient place of beauty, long lost by the time the speaker arrived?  In any case, the street described was “more/ a bunch of rocks lined up in a particular way,” and cluttered with cats, their kittens, pecan trees, and “weeds of the nightshade family,/unwatered except on irrigations days/ when the whole neighborhood stood up to its knees in water.” The narrrative’s main character is Tio who was “kind of kingly/sitting in his minivan,” his status shored up by his “one fat Shar-Pei,” while Tio waited for the pecans to drop.  Meanwhile, a boy hit the speaker’s “car with a stick,” while his sister “stood in the plastic swimming pool.”  Tio’s “worrying about the occasional helicopter/battering by/ and the dog and the cats, who were not cat’s at all maybe” suggests a more sinister flavor to the destruction and the listless waiting. The images conjure up scenes from Breaking Bad.

Meanwhile, the speaker spent her days “…in that little house, writing about/our street, which changed every day//subtly and in complicated ways”—culling  something she sees in the street’s untended, disorderly, yet fecund existence, a deeper meaning often unseen by the mainstream American  eye. Finally, the last four lines surprise and catapult the reader into the heart of a poem: an absent other the speaker longed for—a child, a lover, an undeveloped part of self, or a reader who “didn’t exist” for the speaker at the time of the narrative events.  The reader is left wondering:  was this other totally  nonexistent anywhere in this world, or simply absent from the speaker’s life at the time of the poem’s events?     

                But for you it was most different—
                you were the one who didn’t exist,
                except as someone
                who did not live on Calle Florista. (4)

These last four lines catch the reader,  easily absorbed in a poem that is apparently “only” describing a dawdling border town,  They bring one back to the first three lines of the poem.

                Don’t you remember
                our little house on Calle Florista,
                the calle with lots of flowers? (3)

Just who is being addressed? On first reading, these lines seem to be a rhetorical invitation to a generic “you,” not pointing to a particular person listening to the simple reminiscence that follows.   And the poem would be only a dark, somewhat cryptic, yet superficial reminiscence, but for the connection between the first three and the last four lines, which lift it to another level of reflection for both speaker and reader.   The lines suggest a desire to open a window of understanding—however broad or specific the audience—into the life experience of not only the speaker, but also the other characters in what was once the speaker’s neighborhood.

Several poems indict the colonizers’ mentality.  One of these, “New World,” weaves elements of the French as New World colonizers, and their English rivals. Britain eventually displaced France making the French, in turn, colonial subjects of the British North American Empire.  The poem reflects on the wonder, hope, and optimism, as well as hubris, greed, and exploitation of Europeans. In the New World, all things, represented by pronghorn antelopes, and high-plains grasses, “bound to the edge of the compound, the edge of town, the edge of, the edge of—.“  The coup d'├ętat is gold: “Let’s have nothing/but gold—it’s so pleasing.” 

The irony of this line can better be understood if we consider something Voisine said in her 2010 online interview about “Sorry I Don’t Like You,” a poem not in this collection. Voisine spoke about “the book I am working on now, where the autobiographical aspect is nearly gone—where the ideas, images, metaphors take the stage and the speaker’s identity is what I call the “Citizen I.”  Her closing comment: "That is what the speaker sees in herself—naive choices based on a silly American optimism.  The French in me should know better.” (http://howapoemhappens.blogspot.com/2010/07/connie-voisine.html

In the mid 18th century, when English might prevailed on the American continent, the French in America, bartered away by France, felt the sting of being a conquered people. They suffered greatly in English Canada and across the border in WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) dominated United States.  I believe this French heritage sensitizes Voisine’s “Citizen I” voice to the life experience of the dispossessed, as evidenced in “New World” and other poems in this collection.

The first stanza’s wonder over the bounty of the American continent, falls into the speakers tearful  response to a waltz.  Sentimental loneliness for the old country or foreboding about the cruelties of colonization?  The next two stanzas suggest the reason for the tears is both/and rather than either/or.
               
I knew a lot, once.
Wasn’t Naturalism about to happen?
And really, the French and the English,
why should they quit—a battle here, one there,
and their navies refulgent?....
Once I knew
that pastries could have a thousand leaves.
The bishop wore a fabulous hat,
and forks and knives
were polished monthly to meditate
in their velvet boxes.     

Here the sky represents nothing
but blue, and we go along
inventing new ways of dying:
by the cutting off of hands,
of hair, death by one dirty blanket, and
death by walking.
Death by six pine nuts, by bloody
sunset, by obscure mirage.

A number of other poems concern the challenge of simply going on day after day. Below is a selection of lines from these poems.  They demonstrate Voisine’s lyrical voice, her metaphorical and poetic sensibilities. 

“As Well As You Can”:    What about the lumpen sadness of all shoes?
                                           And all day that gravel of socket and bone,
                                           that heel like an adze? (5)

“Say Uncle”:                       rain. How would you find vigil
                                            and beautiful mouth, those two

                                            last seen by the side of the highway? (13-14)
 
“Midnight in the House:                 I had a lot of ideas,
                                                          but they became unlinear or not especially
                                                          productive or forward-
                                                          looking—too many frying pans,

                                                          smoky celings, sticky red aprons,
                                                          the sink that bosses, Throw the bones out!
                                                          and a painting of Jesus that ignores. (28)

“This World and That One:          Sometimes you defy it,
                                                       I am not that, watching a stranger
                                                       cry like a dog when she thinks she is alone
       at the kitchen window…(30)

“Summertime”:                      nothing.  Did we think
                                                this could be life? This
                                                thick arctic of heat? This tundra
                                                of struggle?  Even dogs
                                                know it’s best
                                                to pretend they are dead.

                                                By afternoon we don’t
                                                believe in anything:…  (22)

“After the First Road”    AFTER THE FIRST ROAD
               
                                        the next is a habit.  It makes hope the way
                                        morning unsullies those still
                                        drowned in their beds, the way a wren

                                        of a word then another gives itself to a sentence. (31)

“Two Years in That City”                         ...Freud in his dark suit,
                                                or was it Kafka, kept whispering
                                                        melancholia wasn’t the sadness
                                                        of a lost lover, or a city, or a life, but
                                                when you realized you mourned
                                                the glittering, ravenous void of desire itself. (34)

Still other poems, always timely at the US/Mexican border, concern the dangers, loss, worry, bitterness, and loneliness of immigrating across borders where climate, people and authorities can be harsh. “The Internal State of Texas,” “We are Crossing Soon,” “What Is True Is You’re Not Here,” “In the Shade” are a few. 

“You Will Come to Me Across the Desert,” while located in the American Southwest, evokes the human suffering of all the displaced people in our world. The first person voice sounds like the scolding of a loving mother fearful for the welfare of her child (adolescent/adult?) who has wandered away from the familiar/familial in search of another life.

    I went looking for you,
    here of all places.

    I said when I get a hold of you,
    you better watch out.
    You’ll never eat sugar
    as long as I live and breathe.”

Variations of common motherly humor, hope, bargaining, concerns, defenses, pleas and threats continue for 20 lines until the speaker collapses into her anguish:

                I said if I died now, I would die full of regret.
                I wish this knowledge did not make me weep.
                I said I have found everybody
                else—where are you?
                Don’t step there! The cacti are dangerous.
                Trust me, you could die….

Four more lines, and we read the ultimate maternal bargaining promise: “I said you will not be in trouble if/you come home now.”  The poem’s next and last line oozes magical thinking rooted in maternal despair:  “I said olly olly in free (24-25).”

Jungian thought informs us that we each have within us a multitude of potential selves: some dormant and largely invisible, particularly to ourselves; some more obvious, especially to others. We each have our own inner victim, inner colonizer, inner migrant/refugee, inner terrorist, inner philosopher, inner philanthropist, etc. Circumstances in the outer world evoke, cultivate or suppress aspects of the outer and inner self. These circumstances can all but overwhelm our ability to actualize our assets, understand or overcome our limitations. Often we project aspects of ourselves onto others, preferring to see in them things we are uncomfortable acknowledging in ourselves. Such projections easily drag us into harsh judgement about, or idealization of, others.  Or they can enable us to feel varying degrees of empathy for those with different life circumstances, hopefully without assuming that we can know what only the other can tell us about his or her life. True understanding and respect for the life experience of those different from us is hard earned.  In her own way, Voisine addresses this in the interview accompanying this review:

Since leaving home, having changed not only my location, but my culture and class, I am constantly aware of the places where I don’t belong by any kind of birthright— in spite of all the points of connection. How to write about a colonized space, one that doesn’t belong to you in any historical way—that became my poetic question once I moved to New Mexico.  

Calle Florista is, in my opinion, an excellent response to the poetic quest Voisine set for herself.  

To conclude, let me expand on the line  from "The Self After Modernism" that opened this this review.

I feel responsible for it, the poem I will write,
            which I can imagine with ultrasound clarity,

            something fierce and kicking in the darkness.
            Watch the poem swing its little arms, open its mouth

            to a vast, fetal silence (60-62).

On many levels, the poems in Calle Florista have much to teach us as human beings and as poets who explore the “fetal silence” of our imaginations, our lives and communities.






Caroline LeBlanc’s essays and prize winning poetry have been published in the US and abroad. In 2011 she received an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University. Oiseau Press published her chapbook, Smokey Ink and a Touch of Honeysuckle in 2010. From 2013-2015 she served as the American Military Family Museum’s Writer in Residence. She hosts a regular writing salon for women veterans. Her art has won prizes in numerous group shows. She is a founding member of the Albuquerque Apronistas Collective of women artists.