Units of Thought: An Interview with Pam Rehm
Jan 20, 2015
By Katie Naughton, Colorado Review Associate Editor
Pam Rehm is the author of Larger Nature (2011), Small Works (2005), and Gone to Earth (2001), all published by Flood Editions. Four new poems—“All It Can Be,” “The Shadow of a Mountain,” “The Sound of the Spirit,” and “Winter Is Close”—appeared in the Fall/Winter 2014 issue of Colorado Review; her poem “Winter Psalm” was featured in CR’s Summer 2009 issue and later included in Larger Nature. She lives in New York City.
Working as an editor on this fall’s issue, I was drawn to Rehm’s curious, quiet investigation of place, relationship, and how we name these things, and was grateful to take some time during the spare days at the start of the new year to read Larger Nature quietly and slowly (and read about half the book out loud to various friends). Rehm graciously offered, also, to answer a few of my questions about word, world, form, nature, and identity.
Katie Naughton: Something I noticed that was common to both the poems of The Larger Nature and those published in this issue of Colorado Review was the form your poems tend to take—short lines in short stanzas, characterized by large, silent leaps between stanzas. Despite this, there is, it seems, some silent thread running through the stanzas of the poem, through the poems of the collection. The Larger Nature returns repeatedly to many ideas, including to the ideas of connection and isolation. Do you see these ideas as being reflected in the formal structures of your poems? In the structures of a collection?
Pam Rehm: I loved Dickinson early on. And Yeats. But it was George Oppen, and more especially Robert Creeley’s work that I upheld in terms of the form a poem should take. The units of thought. The movements of the mind and heart condensed down to an essence. The first stanza of Creeley’s “The Flower”:
I think I grow tensions
in a wood where
Everything [Lorine] Niedecker did with words:
on the minnow bucket
and a school of leaves
Thomas Meyer’s translation of the daode jing was a bible to me during the time I was writing the poems in The Larger Nature. There is a discovering period; there is also a waiting period. I am such a slow writer, a few lines here and there over a long period of time, so perhaps that’s why it seems there are “large silent leaps between stanzas.” But I am always thinking about the same things, and that’s probably what constitutes the connecting thread through the work.
KN: The poems of The Larger Nature, even more so than the set of poems we published this fall, often rely on abstract conceptions, allowing sensory details to occasionally punctuate the world of the poem. At times I wanted to say these poems were like sets of axioms, or like spare essays. You don’t mention either of these things, but do mention “creed” and “psalm” within the text of the poems. Why do the poems work with concepts as they do? Are these works of logic or of prayer/belief? Or, perhaps: what is the relationship between poem, idea, and prayer/faith?
PR: I had to laugh when I read “sets of axioms.” My husband once said that my notebooks are just full of maxims, which is so true! Not mine, but other people’s words. What I’m reading is so important to what I’m writing. I think my work tends toward the abstract because I am always reading about ideas and concepts, and always thinking about how doubt transforms itself into belief or how belief changes into doubt. I don’t have a set of beliefs; searching, walking, I am always trying to uncover something that feels true. The closest thing I have to a creed, and it’s a poem I carry with me everywhere and one that I think about every time I am writing, is Emily Dickinson’s poem 750:
Growth of Man—like Growth of Nature—
Atmosphere, and Sun endorse it—
But it stir—alone—
Each—its difficult Ideal
Through the solitary prowess
Of a Silent Life—
Effort—is the sole condition—
Patience of Itself—
Patience of opposing forces—
And intact Belief—
Looking on—is the Department
Of its Audience—
But Transaction—is assisted
By no Countenance
KN: Your poems take a close look at how not only lines, stanzas, and poems may move, but also words and the letters within them. Your poems often move by modulation of the letters within words. I’m thinking in particular or the title poem “The Larger Nature,” in which “Stamina has a mania in it” and in which you question “If romance is the / core of man // where does desire reside?” Why take this path through the language? What do the poems want to know that lead them in this direction? It seems, given this logic, too, not unreasonable to ask: What is the relationship between “word” and “world”?
PR: I like the sense, however false, of penetrating deeper into a word. I am a slow reader, and part of the slowness comes from the problem that my brain will become fixated on certain words and try to make other words from them while I am reading. I have always read this way; I think it evolved out of my religiously doing the Jumble in the newspaper when I was a kid. I like the finding. Discerning. The feeling of the magic of language. It makes words feel very concrete; it makes meaning where, inherently, there is none. About his own poems, Keith Waldrop wrote that “a poem is my formal grip.” I like this idea. A grip on the world through words. A “formal” grip on this disjunct world.
KN: I noticed that, in both your poems from Colorado Review and those from The Larger Nature, you often dedicated a work to another person, or drew an epigraph or a line from another work. Are these gestures at all similar? Do they work as invocations? Acknowledgments? Address?
PR: Yes, I do think the gestures are similar. I want to be worthy of what nourishes me, and at the same time, I want to acknowledge my gratitude. Both epigraphs and dedications are a thank-you to the person named—to give recognition to that person’s influence on the making of a poem is important to me. The connections. The “correspondences” to use a Duncan idea. Personal bonds and paying attention in reading or seeing or hearing are bonds that make the foundations of my poems.
KN: This may speak more to my own poetic preoccupations than yours, but I am immediately curious about the title The Larger Nature, which returns again as the title of a poem within the collection. I’ve been curious lately about the ways in which how we name “nature” affects how we interact with everything connected to it—to place shaped to a greater or lesser degree by people, to the people and other beings around us, to our own bodies and lives, to the ineffable or the divine. This seems particularly crucial, to me, to understand in light of the environmental crises of our times—global warming, overpopulation, development, and deforestation. What do you, or does this collection, think is contained in “the larger nature”? How does it act on us or we on it, as bodies, as humans, as poets? What role, if any, do you see your work taking in relation to environmental activism?
PR: The title The Larger Nature is taken from a paragraph in Duncan’s essay “Rites of Participation.” He talks of Paracelsus, “who saw that the key to man’s nature was hidden in the larger Nature.” I think a lot about identity, and how our natures are more than just our identities. There’s something larger. But then also the natural world and our connections to it and it to us. I was thinking about medieval images and their depictions of fertility and decay. I was thinking about Bosch and how he elevates physicality, and how he makes equal the size of a human and the size of a bird. I was re-reading Terry Tempest Williams’s book Leap, and I think she says best what I was thinking about in terms of nature, and what I continue to think about in terms of the larger nature:
I want to sit with the council of the Kingfisher where I can consider a reversal of scale and bow at the feet of ducks and finches. . . . I want to forgo my authority as a human being, my self-proclaimed dominance, and be at the mercy of another species’ judgement, empathy, and compassion. I want to imagine what the owl hears inside a mouse’s heartbeat. I want to understand halcyon days as a time when the points of view being considered are the perspective of kingfishers. I want to be teachable.
KN: The poems of The Larger Nature seem to respond to each other, not only in form, but in content. You’ve already told us a lot about the form of a collection. I’m curious, too, about the work you are doing now, about the process of a collection. How do you find the focus for your attention, or for groups of poems in progress? What animates or organizes the formation of a collection? It seems that your current poems include more concrete, physical, sensory detail than the poems of The Larger Nature. Does this reflect a motion in your work? Is there anything you can tell us about what questions or concerns you may be working on now?
PR: I don’t ever think in terms of a collection; I write so slowly that it would be impossible to do that. Usually a collection just contains all the poems I’ve written since the last book. Usually the poems are arranged in chronological order. Time becomes the arranger. When I have a next collection, I’m going to call it Time Will Show, because I don’t think time tells us anything, I think it shows us. I’m still thinking about the same things I have always thought about when writing, but my poems lately have tended to be single page rather than serial poems. I’m re-reading Hopkins and Peyton Houston—their work feels very similar to me. I want to try writing more sustained lines, like Houston’s “The swallowflight slim curve lifting of / What so suddenly strangely I have / Felt is a new sense to my salt / Heart.” I am re-reading the nature writers Ellen Meloy and Kathleen Dean Moore. I want to get more of my experience of the natural world, however limited as a city-dweller, into my work. Something I’ve been thinking about for a long time now is this passage from Moore’s book The Pine Island Paradox:
English has a dangerous shortage of words for the feeling you get when you hear sandpipers in the morning, that mix of safe and glad and healthy and seeing right into the center of things. . . . It will not do to find ourselves suddenly mute, or inexact, or misunderstood, when we need to tell someone how this beautiful world speaks to us.
Read Rehm’s poems in the Fall/Winter 2014 issue of Colorado Review here.