Another Day

—a found poem: Virginia Woolf’s The Waves


I feel the bruised cry of birds in my body

when I wake.


Thinness rushes my pink imperfect heart

and I am cast down at another day—


hands and feet and body.

Here is idleness, brown water, disgrace.


The sun is yellow and laughing

leaves stir and patter across the lawn


and I long for darkness and sleep—

its brass thud, its pirouetting slam.


I lie here and watch the bedroom

harden into night.





The beginning of Virginia happened . . . when? That moment is lost in time. Early on, she was at the edge of my consciousness but still a writer whom, even as an English major, I had never read. Woolf wasn’t on the syllabus in any of my classes—not required reading in those days just before there were courses in feminist literature. After my graduation, I read Woolf with a vengeance. I liked the experimental novels well enough—Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse, The Waves—but what intrigued me most was the gradual publication of her letters and diaries.


That wealth of material gave me a window on a life radically different from my own. For a period of years, I felt as if her friends were also my friends, and that the conversations she participated in were as important to me as they were for her. It was easy to achieve this intimacy. The diaries and letters are filled with minutiae, nuanced insights, deeply personal impressions, and remembered conversations. They offer more information than most people ever reveal about their lives. The details are so extensive. It would probably be possible to chronicle Woolf’s daily life for decades.


I learned about her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, and about Virginia’s marriage to Leonard Woolf, a Jewish writer, editor, liberal politician, and the man with whom she founded the revolutionary Hogarth Press. I was fascinated as her relationship with Vita Sackville-West unfolded, a love affair between two married women, flirtatious and communicative—resulting in the high humor and euphoria of Woolf’s novel Orlando—only to find a quieter resolution as they drifted apart.


What attracted me to Woolf? My life was completely unlike hers. I was not born into the London literati. I had my origins in a small town in northern Wisconsin. I had no famous father and no brothers at Cambridge. We definitely did not spend idyllic summers in Cornwall in a large house on the English seacoast waited on by servants, walking the beach, and playing games of cricket in the garden. My family took car trips across the American West, slogging along the interstates to see our country, camping out to save money, and eating macaroni and cheese out of a box.


I came from people whom Woolf might have dismissed or even despised and ridiculed—from farmers, mill workers, and civil servants, from those who were uneducated, at least by Woolf’s criteria. My people did not read books as a means of understanding the self, defining feelings, or interpreting the world. They worked. They were mostly just trying to survive and get by. I came from them, and yet I still wanted to be like Woolf. I wanted to write. Virginia became, at least for a decade, my higher power.



It’s 2006. My friend Nancy and I are touring London. I am here partly in pursuit of my mentor—Virginia Woolf. At this point, I’ve read everything she’s written. I’ve waltzed through that embarrassment of riches—the printed pages she left behind—her novels, letters, diaries, essays, and articles. Now I’m walking the streets she walked.


It’s dusk when we board the London Eye for a bird’s-eye view of the city beginning to turn on its lights. In our glass car, we rise and fall while feasting on this unparalleled view of London. Although it undoubtedly looked different in her time, this is Woolf’s city—a place she inhabited in all ways. After the ride, we choose to dine at the café in the crypt below St. Martin’s in the Fields. I order mushroom stroganoff with delicate new potatoes and a fennel salad. Nancy has a dish with steamed broccoli, cauliflower, and Savoy cabbage. Our globed glasses of white wine fracture light into the vaulted space.


It’s wonderful, yes, and isn’t this a moment Woolf might have chosen to memorialize? It seems to me I should write about it. What are we saying to one another? What are my thoughts and impressions of this day? If I don’t get this down somehow, won’t it be lost forever? I wonder. Does that really matter? Isn’t it enough that Nancy and I are here sharing this moment?


Later, I lie awake with jet lag thinking about Woolf’s second novel, Jacob’s Room. After a galloping romp through a young man’s life at Cambridge, we learn that Jacob, the protagonist, has died as a soldier in World War I. The final scene of the novel has Jacob’s mother and one of his friends cleaning out his rooms. They find Jacob’s papers strewn across his desk as though he had left for a stroll in the park.


There’s a horror in this vision, a sense of futility and emptiness. A person—vital and rich with life—is suddenly gone. The novel poses the ultimate question. What is left of all that sensation, what remains of so much rich lived experience once the person has passed? It occurs to me that, in her novels, Woolf is almost always writing toward the same end game. Yes, this is happening—this vivid and incredibly complex life tapestry. Yet, it’s also disappearing. Suddenly, because of either time or death, a chunk of it is gone, lost forever.


Woolf’s most autobiographical novel, To the Lighthouse, chronicles a family’s summer in Cornwall. But those moments are also lost. When they return to the house on the shore years later, the whole emotional tenor and tempo of their lives has changed. The mother has died, leaving them to struggle. The long-awaited trip to the lighthouse takes on a completely different meaning than it did on a day in the distant past when it was impossible to go because of bad weather.


At the novel’s end, Lily Briscoe, a peripheral character, takes center stage. She is a spinster and a Sunday painter, a woman not taken seriously by the male-dominated art world. Yet, she perseveres. Lily is at work painting the Cornwall scene when the family returns. Finally, almost giving up in frustration, unable to express the whole as she sees it, Lily declares a truce. The painting must be finished. There’s nothing more to be done. “I have had my vision,” she announces. And this seems the best we can hope for—to have that vision and attempt to record something about it even as the moment is passing.


Woolf tries to preserve those moments that don’t last, the globes of being and experience that simply disappear. She seems to be saying it’s important to celebrate the freshness, newness, and immediacy that make the world overflow. But the other side of this promise is the tragedy of time passing, the heartbreak of death and loss. I can clearly see this is Woolf’s vision. But is it mine?


After my trip to London, sick of the insistent need to turn every experience into copy, I stopped writing for five or six years. I told myself it was enough to have my experiences without constantly formulating words to describe them. It was an immense relief.  My mind felt free. And yet, there must have been something of a warring voice within me because I saved my notes—notes about that day in the city and the meal I shared with Nancy. I must have believed that, one day, I would need or want them, and I did.  But when I finally began to write again, it was with a different attitude. I knew I could live without writing, even without Virginia.



The Buddhists say that, to become enlightened, you must actually kill the Buddha, meaning you must destroy your idols. This comes from an old Zen koan attributed to the Zen Master Linji, a Chinese Zen Buddhist monk who founded the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism and who died in 866.


The saying says: If you meet a Buddha, kill the Buddha.


I guess I did this to Woolf after my trip to London. Not that I actually killed Virginia, but I doubted her. I saw her as a person, brilliant but limited, part of her own time, her class, and her culture. Woolf gave me a window on her world but not a passage into it. She had been my teacher, but perhaps I had learned what I needed to learn from her. She taught me to pay attention, to notice details, to hear my environment, and to listen to my own thoughts.  At this realization, there was disappointment and a sense of loss. It felt a bit like losing an old friend either to death or indifference. It’s all well and good to have idols, but suddenly, I knew I would never be this person who spent three weeks touring Greece with the painter and art critic Roger Fry.


Woolf’s festival of words took me somewhere. She got me to London and enriched my time there. But in the end, I returned home, leaving England for my own geographical and personal world. My physical and spiritual home for most of my life has been the northern boreal forest of North America. It’s a place where I walk on footpaths between towering trees, a place where I count my breaths while listening for the air rush of bird wings. This is where I belong.


This winter has been a hard one. Nearby, just off the footpath, several crows feed on the remains of unidentifiable dead animal. Busily tearing toward the center of the carcass for red meat, the two companionable black birds ignore this approaching human. Likewise, a soaring red-tailed hawk offers me no greeting as it flies overhead and beyond my field of vision. As I tread my forest path, I experience the spaciousness that exists outside and beyond words.


Don’t get me wrong. I love words for their capacity to partially tame the world’s wildness. I adore them as they lean into metaphor and traverse distances. But I see their limitations. Words are temporary containment fields. I believe that, although words were her medium, Woolf understood this. She was always writing into the void, always using language to push toward the no-word zone. In novels that exist on the margins of human experience—Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse, The Waves—Virginia has taken me to regions where there is simply nothing more to say.


What can we know of poor Jacob after he has passed? Lives and loves succumb to time. Individuals exist for a while and then they are gone. The waves roll toward the shore, relentlessly washing away all footsteps on the beach. Eventually, through her suicide, Woolf crossed the ultimate barrier. No one could follow her into that beyond. Still, during her lifetime, Virginia returned to the place of making again and again. She tried to hold her ground even as that ground was slipping out from underneath her. She had a faith I sometimes lose. When I tire of carefully wrought language, I leave my writing desk and head into the woods seeking the place of no-words.


Entering this wordless zone is another way of killing the Buddha. But I know he isn’t really dead. I’ll be back at my computer soon enough. Tall pine trees creak in the wind. It seems that, though it is incomprehensible to me, they speak in a language all their own. And suddenly I get it. Virginia is the hawk flying away from me. She was here but she’s moved beyond my field of vision. I can’t say where she is now or what she is like. I’m not even sure what I am like, but I am resolved. I turn back on the path that will take me home. My house isn’t far away, really no distance at all.


Interview: Brenda Miller



Brenda Miller is the author of five collections of essays: An Earlier Life (Ovenbird Books, 2016), Who You Will Become (Shebooks Press, 2015), Listening Against the Stone: Selected Essays (Skinner House Books, 2011), and Blessing of the Animals (Eastern Washington University Press, 2009), and Season of the Body (Sarabande Books, 2002). She has also co-authored two craft books—The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World (Skinner House Books, 2012), with Holly J. Hughes, and the wildly popular Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction (2nd ed., McGraw-Hill, 2012), with Suzanne Paola.


An Earlier Life received the 2017 Washington State Book Award in Memoir, and Miller has received numerous other awards for her writing, including six Pushcart Prizes. Her short work has been published in numerous journals and literary magazines. She is on the faculty of Western Washington University.


Please see “Balance,” new collaborative work by Brenda Miller and Lee Gulyas, as well as our review of An Earlier Life, also in Aquifer.


Lisa Roney for The Florida Review:
One of the things that was so much fun about reading An Earlier Life was re-seeing some of the pieces that had been published before in literary magazines and how now they hold together so tightly as a book.


Brenda Miller:
I’ve worked so hard on that part.


How did you make that happen?


As with many of my books of essays I’m never really writing my individual pieces with a book in mind. Every time I have tried to do that I get very inhibited and I start censoring myself and I go blank, so I’ve learned over the years to just write my stuff, and then when I’ve reached a critical mass I start putting it together and seeing what organically is arising that holds these essays together. This is something I tell my students all the time—you have what I call your perennial questions, perennial issues that will come up naturally on their own, so you don’t need to deliberately be trying to write a particular story. So in this one I had a lot of shorter pieces—especially the middle section of the book is about a particular time as a young adult that was very difficult for me (I have tried to write an entire memoir about it, but it didn’t work)—so then I had all these little snatches that to me seemed to be making a story, but I wasn’t sure, so I started putting those together and just playing with that, and they ended up being the exact center of the book and creating their own little narrative in there.


The first part of the book had what I call more of a spiral chronology where it’s pretty much going even from pre-birth, with the prologue, which is called “An Earlier Life” and is kind of a fantasy imagining of what an earlier life for me might have been. And then going through childhood, but always referencing the future and what’s going to happen in the future. Then we have that second section about the time in my early twenties when I was living in the desert. Then the third section is more about being an adult and aging and watching my parents age. Then—I really didn’t do this deliberately—but the last real piece of the book is about the afterlife. It really came together.


It’s amazing. Not that many collections of essays work so strongly as a whole.


Even though I was doing a lot of hard work trying to put it together, a lot of these things were very fluid as I was doing it. It was only after I had that last draft I thought, Okay now this works.

But I still have that epilogue. [Laughs.]


The epilogue is that piece called “We Regret to Inform You,” which is in the form of rejection notes, and I love the piece, and many people love the piece, and I kept trying to put it in different places in the book and it just didn’t work because it’s such an odd voice. I finally just stuck it on the end just to see, and it actually works, I think, because it kind of goes from the beginning to the end in one piece. It’s almost like a review of all we have gone through, but in a very different voice. It’s kind of fun, but it’s also very serious and it ends on a positive note so I was pretty pleased with it. You never really know until the book’s in production and you see it as a book-book. Then you say, Is this really going to work? I’m very pleased that it does.


It really does. In your recent Rumpus interview with Julie Marie Wade, you commented that you thought at some point your early life would run dry as a subject matter, but you have approached it this time with a sense of forgiveness for yourself, something you said was new for you. How do you think that writing about the same events or subjects changes over time and what’s the relationship between revisiting our histories and writing and deepening our understanding of them?


That’s a great question because we do kind of tell our same stories. The beauty of it for both the writer and the reader is this coming at it from different perspectives, different angles. I think it was Virginia Woolf who wrote about how the present is a platform for viewing the past [“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realizes an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.” 18 March 1925 entry, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, v. 3, ed. Anne Olivier Bell. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1980.] That present moment keeps shifting every minute as you get older and have different perspectives on things. Even just content-wise or point-of-view-wise as you get older—I hope—you do see those early selves with a bit more compassion or understanding of what went on. You have a bit more distance in order to explore it.


I really didn’t think I would go back to that early young adulthood life in my writing again because a lot of my first book was about that. It comes up occasionally, but this time what’s been going on for me is that as a writer as I progress or evolve—and I hope I keep evolving for the rest of my life—otherwise I’m gonna get pretty bored—I’ve been trying new forms. That form of the rejection note, for instance, is what I call a hermit crab essay, which is a term I use in Tell It Slant, where you appropriate a whole different form or voice to tell your story. In this case, rejection notes. When you’re using a form like that you’re starting with the form to suggest the content rather than the other way around, different from how we traditionally approach it—I have an idea, what form am I going to put it in? When you do it the other way, it opens up the door for unexpected writing. I’d say [I can find new ideas in the same material because of] trying new forms, trying different things. When you do that the essay itself, the writing itself will show you a different perspective.


Another example in this book is the one called “Pantoum for 1979,” and that’s the most recent essay. It got put in at the very last minute because when I wrote it, I thought, This one has to go in! It was part of a project I’ve been doing for years now, which is appropriating the poetic forms like a sonnet or a villanelle in order to explore how tell a story in prose without it being just a poem without line breaks. It’s been fun, and anytime you can engage that more technical part of your mind for writing that gives your brain something to do and then your subconscious comes forward. In the case of the “Pantoum for 1979,” it gets at that time frame using the very specific repetitive pattern of a pantoum. The pantoum tends to be perfect for topics that are rather obsessive, and I’m like Okay this is good. I’m always thinking about this time [of my life], but never quite get at it. I realized too that in that section comprised of the shorter works, there was never a real explanation about who this person was, how I got to know him, what was going on. The pantoum, even though it’s such a restrictive form, allowed for all this narrative. Every one of my [pre-publication] readers said, “Yes, this is what we were missing.” I’d say really experimenting with form and having fun is the way to keep your writing evolving.


It must be great that you demonstrate that so clearly in your own work for your students. You know, students sometimes are very resistant—”I just want to write what I want to write.” But if you show them the excellence that can come out of that, it must be very inspirational for them.


It is interesting that one of the biggest challenges of writing is getting students (or anyone) to loosen up and have some fun. This year, I’m teaching an 8:00 a.m. class, and I think because they’re so tired their guard is down, so they’ve been willing to try a lot of things. At least up until this moment actually—as soon as it’s final projects time then suddenly it’s very serious and they don’t want to use anything that they’ve tried. With graduate students, they’re understandably so focused on their thesis projects, and everything they write has to go in their thesis. It was only when I brought in a collage artist, and we cut up magazines and created this huge mess in the classroom—magazines torn up and glue sticks out and coloring pens—and they were having so much fun. We created these things, and they weren’t for the purpose of doing anything with them. I ignited that little playful spirit, and ever since then they’ve been very game to just try stuff and see what’s gonna happen.


In last couple years in a graduate literature course I’ve taught, we read a book every week and wrote pastiches of some kind or another, and they were the greatest thing. We had so much fun, writing satires and a whole variety of stuff. Some of their best work came out of it. One student said she’d always wanted to write about her experiences going to music festivals but she never felt like the stakes were low enough to try it out, and she ended up changing her entire thesis and wrote an entirely new thesis in about six months that was just terrific.


Nice. I find that kind of thing happens all the time with thesis students that if I get them onto a new form, then all of a sudden they just switch gears and the writing’s fresh and original.


One of the other things that’s striking about An Earlier Life is your use of not just the first person but the collective “we.” You do that quite frequently, and I just wanted to ask why you’re drawn to that unusual point of view in your work. Do you think it’s related to the collaborative writing projects that I know you’re also participating in, or is it something different?


I had never thought of it that way, but it could be. Right now, I do a lot of my work in writing groups, either with my students or with my own writing group, where it’s generative writing. We have certain timed writing exercises and rules and all that stuff, and so sometimes it just comes out in the “we” voice. I think when I’m writing in that mode it comes naturally. I never set out to say, Okay, now I’m going to write a piece in the “we” voice. I think that happens when I feel like I’m not just talking about my experience but the experience of my cohort growing up in Southern California. I’m trying to think of exactly which pieces use the “we”—I know there’s the one about the lifeguard [“Dark Angel”].


There’s “Dark Angel,” but also “L’Chaim,” “Change,” “Sweat Lodge,” and maybe a couple of others where the “we” is your family [“In Orbit”].


I just love it when people see stuff in my work that I had no idea about. [Laughs.]


With those pieces, I’m not talking about a particular experience of mine, but about a particular experience of a generation of people. “Dark Angel” is this piece about the lifeguard and just going to the beach in Santa Monica and just us girls and how we were in those awkward teenage bodies and connecting to our bodies. That particular piece was supposed to be three separate essays, but they weren’t really saying anything on their own, so I put them together and saw this theme of distress and that kind of growing-up angst and undiagnosed depression—all things that a lot of girls go through. That piece uses three different points of view—the first section is in the “I,” the second in the “you,” and the third in the “we.” They show different phases or aspects of growing up.


It’s a strategy that can work to make readers feel included, and I certainly felt very much that way, but I think writing with the “we” is tricky because sometimes people can say, Oh why are you speaking for me? I felt like you handled it in a very gentle way, so it never got overwhelming or bossy. It never became a royal “we.”


You find it in fiction, too, and it is tricky because, for one thing, it doesn’t have a gendered pronoun, and sometimes it just doesn’t work. Yet when it works, it works. Oftentimes, I’m organically writing in a particular form like a “you” or “we” point of view and it’s actually not working, but it is getting the material out. So I always look at that in revision and often change the point of view. I really want to encourage people, like I encourage my students, to just try it. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to keep it in that form, but you probably will get to some lines and material that you wouldn’t get to any other way.


Would you speak about the ways in which genre boundaries seem to be in flux these days?


They are totally in flux. I love it. I love it so much.


We used to get that advice—there was that sort of classic advice—that you should choose one genre and stick to that. Obviously, we make something else of that advice now. [Laughs.]


People are doing such amazing work out there. This particular book is probably the book of mine that does that more than my other books. I’m using poetic forms. I’m using a lot of
hermit crab–type things. Even the use of the “we” voice is a fictionalization of experience. I feel like this book is really in flux between poetry and nonfiction and fiction and other
things, too. [Laughs.]


I think it’s very exciting not to be couched in these very distinctive genre boxes. When I was editor of Bellingham Review, I kept seeing more and more that people are really trying to break those boundaries. I’m all for it.


The collaborative work really does that because, like, What is this? There’s no one speaker, a lot of them are in short sections, and some of them were responding to art, some were responding to a particular topic. It’s a very exciting back and forth that doesn’t really fit anywhere, which makes it hard to find a place for them. We get rejected a lot because people just don’t know what to do with them.


Send one to me. One thing about The Florida Review is that there’s a history of engaging with new forms or forms being newly accepted as of artistic merit. The previous two editors did this over the years with creative nonfiction and then graphic narrative, and I’m looking to stay in that tradition. We’re starting to accept some digital storytelling, to recognize that as an art form, and we’re open to all kinds of things.


One more major question—your writing is characterized by an intense interiority and often somberness, but you also sometimes exhibit what I might characterize as insouciance. “Swerve,” in particular. And you’ve already talked about “We Regret to Inform You.” It’s not a light humor, but it’s funny. How does humor work for you and your writing, and how do you decide when it’s right to be funny?


I never set out to be humorous because once you do then you’re not. [Laughs.] I mean, some writers are. Some writers are very good at that, but I find if I’m not having a good time then I might get bored with it. It comes out of playing with form. Often the hermit crab pieces have what I’d call an inadvertent humor to them because you’re usually taking a very objective form like the rejection note—in this book I also have a dress code piece, and that kind of thing is usually pretty authoritarian and rigid—then combining that with really intense personal stories and confessions. The humor arises naturally [from the contrast] and then the key is whether it gets gimmicky. In the revision process, I have to find out what this piece is really about.


In the case of the rejection notes, I had probably twice as many as ended up in the final piece because once you start writing about rejection you have so much material on your hands. I was having a grand old time just writing them. I gave a first draft to some readers, and they said, “Yeah, it’s good but it gets a little repetitive and gimmicky,” so I had to think about what this piece was really about. I heard in several of the letters this idea of finding the role that suits you, so I cut out all the letters that didn’t have that and highlighted that theme in the others. Then it started to take on more of a cohesiveness and a sense of being a complete piece. Then it takes that turn in the middle—it’s kind of humorous at the very beginning with being rejected in my art class—not having my drawing displayed—or being rejected as a tenth-grader—not going to the dance. You know, normal things that people can relate to. Once you start working in that way, people let their guards down. They’re laughing and saying, “I can relate to that,” and then it gets more intensely personal as it goes along until I get a letter about my miscarriage as a young woman, and it’s actually from the miscarried baby, which is not something I was expecting to happen, but again it was like the form demanded it. I was just going along chronologically and I’m like,  Okay what happened next in college?Oh yeah, and I said, Do I skip that? Well, no. So, I wrote it and then just went on. I didn’t spend a lot of time with it, but in the revision process I found, Oh there’s that real turning point in the essay. Whenever I read that piece aloud—and I love to read it because it’s an audience-pleaser—they’re laughing and laughing, then I get to that turn. There’s like the “Ohhhh,” and then people get subdued. Then there’s laughter again, but with a different feeling.


Though it happens a lot in more traditional essay forms, it’s more difficult. By using these other forms you automatically create what I call a shared space between the reader and the writer using a form people relate to—especially, in this case, if you’re reading to writers who are all familiar with the standard rejection note, so they’re already with you. That’s one way I go about thinking about humor.


What else would you like readers to know about An Earlier Life? And where you going next?


I’d like them to know that these essays were written over a period of time—probably five or six years—and that I did spend a lot of time getting them into the order that they are. Sometimes
readers of essays will pick it up and just read at random, and I’m thinking, I spent so much time putting it in this order, so read it in order! [Laughs.]


I’d say that the collaborative work is really intriguing to me. I also have been doing some writing challenges over the summer. I wrote from a prompt a day with a writing group—me and two other writers—and we did the prompts in different ways. The first month was from a literary magazine that had it as a part of their way of getting people to their website, but they put out a prompt a day, and my two friends and I wrote to that. We’d send each other work and we liked it so much we continued in July and made our own prompts and just rotated who gave the prompt. Then in August there was a photography blog doing a prompt a day so we would take a photograph a day and then write to that. By the end of the summer I had probably more than 220 pages of new work.


This was also while my father was dying, and I thought there’s no way I can write, but it’s the summer and I need to write. By having the community and by having the external prompts, I was able to record everything that was happening that summer as well as memories that were coming in. I have not looked at work yet, but I plan to next month and to see what’s there. That
might turn into its own little book, but would never have been written without community. The type of community we need changes as we develop as writers, and I don’t need a feedback community so much as I need a generative writing community now. But I still need community. I guess that would be the last word—I think we all need our communities.


Interview: Sandra Simonds



Sandra Simonds is a prolific poet, critic, mother, and professor. She is the author of five poetry collections: Orlando (Wave Books, forthcoming), Further Problems with Pleasure (University of Akron, 2016, and 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). She is also author of a free electronic PDF collection,  Untitled Collage Poems (Bloof Books, 2016). A sixth print volume, Orlando (Wave Books), is forthcoming in 2018, and Simonds is working on another collection, Atopia. Please see five poems from Atopia and a review of Further Problems with Pleasure elsewhere in Aquifer.


Reading Simonds’ work is not unlike plugging into high-voltage poetica, fused with the hard metal of keen intellect, unmistakable humor, the reality of ourselves as sexual beings, and charged with political and social thematic waves. Nothing is at rest in these poems; they shout and taunt, but mostly they invite an engagement to language throbbing with 21st-century life.


Judith Roney for The Florida Review:
I’m thinking I was first introduced to your poetry when I received my May/June [2017] issue of The American Poetry Review, and was intrigued by your poem, “Dear Chris,” which is the first of three poems featured in the issue. It’s a hardworking poem, “long,” and of an eclectic construction that gives it restless energy.


Contemporary epic, or “long” poems, are my latest poetry-drug, so when I read an excerpt from Orlando in The Brooklyn Rail’s e-journal, I was smitten with its forty-eight flowing tercets, where the speaker seems to address the city of Orlando, but soon we’re accompanying the speaker in a kind of kinetic stream-of-consciousness journey, passing through the land of the body as if were a fantasy theme park like Disney World, which is referred to several times in the poem.


The form works fabulously against the energy, creating marvelous tension. Thoughts echo in my reader’s mind of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, yet I sense you, the poet, clearly enter at multiple points. For example, we see the speaker at their desk, trying to compose on a laptop, but they are interrupted, first by the action of another, then technology fails, and the work is lost. A hard-copy diary is remembered: “. . . and that is precisely the moment you fell out of love with me, / abandoning me to the very diaries and bookshelves of my consciousness, both as a teenage/girl and now as a middle aged woman, so I tried to figure out what I could have done back then, / what confession, what moment of weakness, what apology had driven you out of my life, / so abruptly . . .”


You have a collection soon to be published (2018) from Wave Books called Orlando. I’m excited about this as both a poet, and as a university instructor in Orlando; is the entire collection an epic poem, or is Orlando a long poem contained therein? Where did this spring forth from?


Sandra Simonds:
First, thank you for this question because I’m really excited to talk about Orlando, which I think of as an epic feminist poem that reads like fiction or memoir. In terms of structure, Orlando is composed of two sections. The first section is forty pages and each page is four very long-lined tercets; the second part of the epic is written in a kind of spiraling open form. The second part of the book, in fact, was initially forty or so discreet poems with titles that I, upon revision, transformed into one long second section called “Demon Spring.”


I chose the long poem form because I wanted to work in the tradition of the epic which is historically so heavily inflected with masculine energy. The “epic” has been coded “male” and I was interested in the challenges of writing an epic poem given the gender history. Who is allowed to write our history? Of course, I’m not the first woman to do this. Several feminist long poems that influenced me in this project come to mind including Alice Notely’s The Descent of Alette, Annie Allen by Gwendolyn Brooks, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts, and Loba by Diane di Prima.


You are right to note that “Orlando” in the poem is an unstable character—sometimes Orlando is a city, other times, Orlando is a lover, and other times Orlando is an idea or set of ideas. When I wrote the book, this instability wasn’t intentional but it turned out to be an effective way that I could talk about both love and relationships using this figure as well as broader cultural concerns, like materialism, entertainment, the surface and what lies beneath the surface and so on. So the instability of the figure creates a kind of creative and philosophical opening that worked for me and relates to the traditional concerns of epic poetry—telling a historical, social and political story about our times but through a distinctly feminist voice.


As a poet, and poetry reader for The Florida Review, I find it increasingly rare that a poem both challenges and dazzles me. I find the poems of Further Problems with Pleasure just brilliant. How did you become involved with the subject or theme of your book?


I wanted to explore a number of themes at the same time: sexuality, sexual violence, sexual liberation, gender shame, the body, perversity, fantasy and how these things are constructed and defined in late-capitalist society. What are the norms? What is taboo? Lacan says, “Do not give up on your desire,” and I think that’s a sort of jumping off point of this book. Okay, well what does that mean for a single working mother living in the Deep South at this particular point in history? What part of our desire is “ours” and what part of it is manufactured?


In this collection, is there one poem that worked as the spark for the rest of the pieces? If not, which poem do you feel best anchors the collection for you?


I think the “Further Problems with Pleasure” poems that are positioned throughout the book anchor it because these poems bring the book back to the central questions surrounding the nature of desire and, when the book veers away a little bit from these questions, they are brought back to the forefront of the reader’s mind. I also have a lot of affection for the last poem in the book, “Dear Chris,” which I wrote in response to a poem sent to me by the poet Chris Nealon. I was thinking about all of the leftists who stand up in society against hatred and violence against the oppressed. I wanted to both acknowledge the struggles that we have encountered both personally and more broadly as leftists, what we are up against, what we will be up against, but also to say that what we do every day, our actions matter. That what we did here, right now, matters, to each other and to our children and that even though we all come from different backgrounds, my hope for the future, is that our children will not have to face what we have faced and if they do, that they will be comrades, that they will be on the right side of history fighting for the same things.


I’m always curious what literary fields a poet mines; what are you reading now?


I just finished Matthew Rohrer’s The Others, which I thought was great. His storytelling and the way he works with narrative is fascinating. I also just finished Rapture by Sjohnna McCray. I had the pleasure of reading with Sjohnna a few months ago and he gave me the reading copy of his book with all of his notes and directions to himself (Thank you, Sjohnna!). I love the way Rapture tells the complicated story of his relationship to his mother.


I think I’d go as far as calling your poetry “combustible” and timely for what’s occurring in the both the political and social arena right now. It’s like the lines are “plugged in” and feel energized, so I must ask, any writing rituals you’d like to share? That is, where do you write best, what time of day, tea, coffee, wine or a bag of chips?


My only trick is to write when you are so desperate that you can’t not write what you need to write—when you read things in the news, write, when you feel a sense of justice, write. That usually puts a bit of urgency into the writing and makes the poems more resonant, so that when you’re drinking a cup of tea, revising those passionate poems, you don’t take out the passion, but you have some passion to work with and frame. I guess that Wordsworth covered this area long before I did, though.


As a parent and an academic, a working professor, how do you find or make time to write? Is it easy for you or always a struggle, as in some sort of “compromise”?


It’s always a struggle to find time for me because I’m just a very busy person with two young children, but I think because I’ve been writing since I was a child, it’s like second nature to me. I think I’m probably a person who would write in any circumstances—in a jail or in a castle, in a factory or in an office. I can’t imagine not being a writer and writers write.


Who (or what) acts as your muse? Or, perhaps there’s a particular subject you find you keep coming back to again and again?


The dead, the people who have struggled before us for social justice, the unborn, the people who will need our writing when we are dead. My themes usually center around the political—I want to make poems that are both political and creative, that are political but not obvious rants or propaganda, that touch people, that make people think.


In your writing process, would you say you write more by logic (doing research, creating notes, etc.) or intuition, or some combination of the two?


I go on intuition and sound always. I have an idea or an impulse and I just follow my gut. Sometimes it’s wrong but more often than not it isn’t. I think that this kind of leap of faith is what you have to really develop and nurture.


Anything that people THINK they know about your poetry, that isn’t so?


I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what people think about my poetry so, honestly, I have no idea.


What projects are you working on at the present, and what subjects do you feel are calling you for future projects?


I’m working on an epic political poem called “Atopia.”