The Tower Journal

Betsy Sholl Interview

S Stephanie, Poetry Editor Emeritus at The Tower Journal, speaks with Betsy Sholl about her new book of poetry, Otherwise Unseeable.


Otherwise Unseeable

S Stephanie: Otherwise Unseeable is such an interesting title. You could have used the word perceptible, or unperceivable, but you chose to use a word that is not really a word. And because of this, I think the nuances of meaning are more interesting. Can you talk a little about how you came to titling the new book?

Betsy Sholl:  Well, I have a hard time with titles, and tried many which seemed to apply to only part of the book, and so felt misleading—too jazzy or hip, or solemn. I wanted to hint at something that is both real and slippery in its presence. The phrase comes from one of the poems, “the otherwise unseeable air,/ that invisible substance we call nothing/ and can’t live two minutes without.” Actually this is the first time I took a book’s title from a phrase in a poem instead of from a poem’s title, so I was a little pleased with that. I was hoping that the two words would sort of question each other. Is it “unseeable” or not? What’s the “otherwise” that might make it seeable? It never really occurred to me that “unseeable” isn’t really a word; I’m sort of happy to think about that.

S Stephanie:  The book begins with childhood poems about language and family, and some persona poems of childhood characters from fairytales or stories. Then it seems to move into deeper and more in-depth explorations of socio-political subjects, human experience, the experience of art through music and artists, and death. How did you come to arrange the book in this way?

Betsy Sholl:  Another area where I faced a lot of difficulty. I tried multiple structures for the book—five sections, four three, none…. I imagined throwing the poems up in the air like my mother’s mythic professor she claimed graded papers by tossing them on the stairs…. Finally, with the help of my friend Tony Whedon I tried moving from the outside in, poems that were least personal to poems that were most personal. That was the plan, at least, though your question makes me wonder if anyone will see it that way. At least, the opening childhood poems don’t use first person pronouns. I wanted the sense of a kind of moral education in that section. That phrase sounds inflated. But that was my intention at least—to suggest how we learn about loss, envy, greed, desire, generosity, humility, empathy. Of course, I didn’t want those elements to be obvious or overly didactic.

The second section contains a lot of poems that are more political, I guess, often focused on the second world war, partly because I grew up just after it and reactions to it were all around me, from TV movies to college history classes. I guess it still seems an obsession for me, something we still have to deal with. I wonder if we have ever fully faced what it says about humanity, especially since the world is still shaken by violence, genocide, hatred. I hoped that looking at the era I feel most haunted by might also reflect on current situations. I worry that’s letting myself off the hook, in a way, as if I’m not doing the hard work of looking at the here and now. But on the other hand, the here and now is hard to see; it’s hard to find a language that can carry it.

The third section involves more personal poems, perhaps, at least more first person pronouns—some elegies, poems about music, which seems to be an art form that continues to speak to me. Maybe music too is “otherwise unseeable,” being both substance and not, therefore inviting awareness of the nonmaterial world, and everything such a possibility suggests—surrender of selfishness, the possibility of a spiritual life….

S Stephanie:  Many of these pieces deal with the poor, and as such, with our social responsibility I think. I loved the piece, “Wildflowers”, and couldn’t help but think of it as a sustained metaphor for the poor and downtrodden, and our blindness of them, our failure to notice their condition. The biblical quote at its beginning, and the hopefulness of its ending also led me to think of the quote “The meek shall inherit the earth”. I am interested in the fact that there is not a single human in the poem, not a single declarative statement of “blame”, just pure emotion. It seems so much political poetry today is soap-boxing, so much preaching to the choir and didactics. I wonder if you could share your thoughts about what constitutes “good” political/socio-political poetry for you when you read other poets, and on your experience while writing this piece, which seems a near perfect example of how not to be didactic.

Betsy Sholl:  I think it’s really hard to say what constitutes a “good” political/socially concerned poem in the abstract. It’s one of those situations where we know when we see/hear one. But a couple of issues for me involve having a sense of how the writer/speaker is engaged by the issue. I mean, there has to be something at stake somewhere for the voice speaking the poem, so it’s not looking down from on high, not slumming around in someone else’s sorrow. We have to feel the speaker is also affected by the situation in some way, vulnerable, that there’s some kind of internal correspondence between the speaker and the situation.

Then there’s the need for the poem to be a poem— that is to bring to bear all the resources of language. Flannery O’Connor, in speaking about the Catholic novelist, says that s/he still has to obey the rules of novel writing—doctrine can’t trump the demands of art, and I think that’s true for any subject matter. If writing a poem is about not knowing, exploring with an open-ended sensibility, and being open to finding something unexpected or new, that can be in tension, conflict, with our sense of social justice, where even if we have doubts and uncertainties, we still have a sense of right and wrong—or else we wouldn’t be worked up. Maybe a good political poem then has to include that tension, has to show the gaps, the desires and uncertainties. You mention “pure emotion,” and while that can be dangerous, maybe getting at an emotional core in the issue is part of the process too. I think we can only write political or socially concerned poems when we feel the issue in a personal way. Whether we put ourselves into the poem or not, there has to be a way the issue touches a nerve for the poet, so writing about it is more than an exercise, and the poem becomes a kind of antenna probing for understanding—becomes that sense of exploration, entering the unknown that a good poem is.

S Stephanie:  I was delighted to see more poems about Jazz and Blues, and more ekphrastic pieces as I have so enjoyed in your other volumes. I was particularly struck by the poems inspired by Chagall, “What’s Left of Heaven”, and “Goldfinch” inspired by Mandelstam. It seemed for a while ekphrastic poetry was a sort of fad; workshop leaders were giving out prompts and having students write them by the hundreds. Whole websites were being dedicated to them. Yet, I found very few that struck me the way say William Carlos William’s piece on Brueghel’s “Landscape with Icarus” or Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not putting down exercises for writers. But it seems much of this turned ekphrastic pieces into a competition in leaps of imagination and bold dares. It seems much of the true inspiration and human connection to other artists and art was left out. Your pieces on music and art always seem to be based in a human and artistic connection. What advice would you give to poets working with ekphrastics ? What came to mind when you work on these pieces?

Betsy Sholl:  Well, for me to write at all I have to feel as though I have the right to speak, have found some ground for authority, or confidence that I have a place in the situation. I guess that involves feeling the human connection you speak of. I suppose the reason I write about other art forms music or visual art, or another writer, is because they speak to me, show me something I didn’t know, something that feels necessary, significant. I guess that means the art has become part of my experience, my life. I suppose my advice—to myself as much as anyone else—would be first, to just live in that work, really soak it in. And, second, to not replicate the work of art. It’s already been made. What’s left to do, then, is to write about the experience of the art, showing what its presence has made possible for the speaker. Sometimes setting the work in a new context is important—how something from the past reads in this day and time. I guess the idea is to make the poem not about experience, but an experience in itself—triggered by that other work of art and honoring it in some way. For me, at least, the only reason to write about someone else’s art is because it’s had a significant impact on my life, and I want to honor that. Sometimes it’s fun to try to replicate in language whatever brushwork techniques or strange scales are in the original work. I can’t say I’m able to do that very often. Again, I think of Flannery O’Connor, who says that while we can write about anything we choose, we can’t choose what subjects our particular talent or sensibility allows us to bring to life.

S Stephanie: And lastly, I am struck by the hopefulness in your work. Some pieces, such as “Vanishing Act”, “Second Line”, and “US Clamps Down on Pianos to Cuba” deal with such devastating themes and darkness, yet all seem to retain hope, all seem to keep the reader above the drowning line. Your poems remind us of darker decades and certainly of our own dark, but nothing ever truly vanishes, music cannot be suppressed , and even the dead still live in a “…spirit of insurrection…”. Where do you think your hope comes from, or what inspires you toward hope?

Betsy Sholl:  Well, in some ways I think it’s a sort of dark hope—not so much hope for a rosy future, as for the possibility of empathy and some larger possibility of justice and mercy--a hope that there are moments when we can surrender our greed and terror and live a more open expansive life. Nelson Mandela has just died, and many people are talking about things he taught them, values he embodied. He had a sense that justice was already won, despite the fact that it might take longer than we want, and take more suffering before it is revealed or enacted. I love that. I came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s when there were great changes for the good as well as forces against those changes. But the changes won out—more than the forces against them. I love the great human and spiritual paradoxes—the first shall be last and the last first, blessed are the poor—and the great injunctions to love our enemies. I believe there is something beyond us, a greater mystery that works by those principles, however dark things look at any moment. There’s always another chapter and it’s not all written by us. There’s irony, of course, since I may be the “first” who has to become last, or be the poor who has to somehow find a blessing in poverty, dammit. But the great religions are all about finding something in and through and beyond suffering—not denying it, but not seeing it as the end. That gives me hope. It’s also very challenging because it requires us to be in some way an agent of that larger vision, or at least not a hinderance to justice and mercy.

Copyright © 2014 S. Stephanie and Betsy Sholl

The Tower Journal
Spring/Summer 2014