The poems of Paige Lewis encapsulate readers into another realm. I first encountered their poems on an autumn afternoon, and have been ardently re-engaging with its intricacies ever since. I had the opportunity to have a conversation with them, and share their insightful views with our readers. I am certain you too will take much delight in the words of Paige and enjoy our interview feature.
We are into the last phase of 2018 and we’ve read some phenomenal work from you this year. Congratulations! How would you say has your writing process changed over the years?
Gosh, thank you! I’m grateful for your attention to my poems. It’s a bit baffling, though—knowing that these poems are out in the world and that someone might spend minutes of their life reading something I wrote.
When I first started reading and writing poetry, I found myself obsessing over one poet at a time. If I went back through my old poem drafts, I’m sure I could tell you which poet I was reading when I wrote them. Like, I’d check out every Charles Simic book the library had, and suddenly all my poems started to look like failed Simic poems. Then I’d move on and write bad Tim Seibles poems, or bad Eavan Boland poems. I’d get so lost in another poet’s voice that I had a lot of trouble building my own.
Now, I like to write while flipping through a stack of books by different writers. It’s actually become part of my writing ritual—I wake up early, make a pot of tea, and while I wait for it to steep, I scan my bookshelves, pulling out the books that catch my eye. Writing with fifteen or twenty different poets on my desk reminds me that there are infinite ways to write poetry.
Your poem titled “The Saints Don’t Think of You Fondly” is gripping. There is an embodiment of the transcendental, combined with the everyday. For instance, the line “It always comes back to light.” is followed by “I ask what’s to be done about June’s rent?” Would you speak a little about how the element of transcendence impacts your work?
I grew up in a very catholic household, and my family often told stories about their experiences with divine apparitions. My grandfather had what was, in my opinion, the very best story. One night he woke suddenly from a deep sleep and saw Mary of Nazareth standing at the foot of his bed. She told him there was a fire in his apartment building. She told him to wake his family and get them out. My favorite part of this story is this—my grandfather didn’t even have time to put on pants before climbing down the fire escape. This detail changes the story dramatically for me. My grandfather wasn’t suddenly haloed or surrounded by angelic trumpets. As he tried to wrap his mind around this transcendent experience, he shivered outside his burning apartment building wearing nothing but his underwear. The absurdity of this detail makes the story so much more real to me. I’m very interested in this juxtaposition, in holding the divine flush against the ordinary in my poems. The saints can visit, but rent is still due by the first of the month.
In your poem “Last Night I Dreamed I Made Myself”, there is a vibrant musicality and lyrical quality to the tone. There is a reference to becoming a newer person every day, more independent and adventurous with oneself. I know the poem by memory and come back to it regularly, and carry a printed version of it everywhere I go. It is intriguing that the poem reads as an interior monologue. Take for instance, these lines: “…because if Adam / had the power to name everything, / everything would be named Adam.”
I chart an exuberance in writing down what one wants to say, than say it, as the former is a more physical, tangible act. Please tell us a little about how these conversations take shape in your mind and stretch as a diameter of thought on the page?
It means the world that you carry this poem with you! I think the most honest answer I have is this—I’m an incredibly anxious person. When I’m headed to a social event, I’m constantly rehearsing imaginary scenarios in my head and trying to figure out how to react properly to them. I am always grateful for people who like to talk a lot because it takes the pressure off of me. I’m much better at being the observer—a quiet absorber. One wonderful thing about writing poetry is that I’m free from that pressure of the immediate response that a face-to-face conversation requires. I have as much time as I need to compose my thoughts, to say something exactly as I’d like it to be said.
The author notes for “Open Your Windows in Welcome” point toward a sense of smoothening the urge “to know before being told”.
“There is mold in every home, what
makes yours worth crying about?”
It points toward the indifference of the world as one interacts and encounters it, and the unease of being in a difficult space, among other things. Could you tell us how this rootedness to the daily is brought about as a response through memory? There is a twofold manifestation in the poem; in your presence during the event, as well as a detached observer. Would you say writing a poem is sometimes an act of survival? I’m interested in the ways that intrigue your practice.
There’s a natural wetland area called the Celery Bog a few minutes away from my house. When I get sad or anxious about environmental collapse, I like to go on walks there to look at the birds and memorize poems. Sometimes the poems bring me right back to the environment. I recently memorized “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Sara Teasdale, which is about how nature is indifferent to us and to our wars and to our extinction: “Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree / if mankind perished utterly.” This sort of indifference brings me hope—I hope that the world will flourish again once we’re gone. We’ve been so unkind.
This isn’t really an answer to your questions. Yes, poetry helps me survive. Especially when it asks me to confront issues I’ve been trying to avoid.
Your poem “You Can Take Off Your Sweater, I’ve Made Today Warm” is a poem that I continue to reengage with and read closely. I have discussed the poem with undergraduate students in a workshop as a part of a module on a linguistics class. The students loved how the poem disintegrates into fractures of white space and communication.
In a podcast on Poetry Foundation, you mention: “I really wanted to see what happened to an authoritative, overbearing speaker when they came up against the threat of losing the person they previously had power over.” Could you share some insights into the making of this poem, and the subtle degeneration of the speaker’s voice as seen in the lineation?
I really love reading instructional poems—Dana Levin’s “Instructions for Stopping” is a favorite—and I love writing them. There is so much strength in the imperative and sometimes it’s nice to feel in control. To have a commanding voice. When I was writing “You Can Take Off Your Sweater, I’ve Made Today Warm,” I had no idea that the speaker was going to break the way they did. At first, I was just having fun offering some strange commands to a “you.” But halfway through the poem I thought, “Who the heck am I to control the subject of the poem like this?” And then the poem became a whole new project. It really wasn’t up to me—the poem knew where it wanted to go, I was just along for the ride.
I’m often asked by students and colleagues who are poets, in India and living outside of the USA how an MFA might strengthen their practice and work. You are a poet as well as academician— what would your advice be to people who cannot afford an MFA due to immediate challenges: geographical, financial and otherwise?
I’m not an expert on this subject, but here’s what getting an MFA did for me. It gave me collegiate-level teaching experience, three years to dedicate to poetry, and a readymade writing community. I am grateful for my experiences in graduate school, but being in a graduate program doesn’t make me a better writer—writing does. One thing I think people value about the MFA is the external motivation to write. There are due dates for creative work—you can’t put off writing a poem if you want to pass your class. But if you can motivate yourself to write and to read and to learn, then you don’t necessarily need that external motivation.
And you don’t need an MFA to have a writing community. My classmates and my professors were/are wellsprings of information and support, but this writing community was only made up of people who could afford to apply, relocate, and then live off of teaching stipends for three years. It was a very small writing community and I’ve got a ton of student loans hanging over my head. But the internet is a magical thing and allows me to be a part of a much larger writing community for free! I can communicate with poets I’ve never met in real life via email, or Twitter, or Facebook.
So, basically my advice is to write and read often. Read widely. Make writing a daily activity—even if you can only write a few minutes a day. Writing is wonderful because the more you do it, the better you get! And build the writing community you’d like to have. Start a group email with people you trust and send each other work regularly. It’s a great way to receive honest feedback and to learn from your fellow writers.
Paige Lewis is the author of Space Struck (Sarabande Books, 2019). Their poems have appeared in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Best New Poets 2017, Gulf Coast, The Massachusetts Review, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. Paige currently lives and teaches in Indiana.