Poet Corey Van Landingham discusses “Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens” [INTERVIEW]

Corey Van Landingham is the author of Antidote (The Ohio State University Press, 2013) and Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens (Tupelo Press, 2022). She is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry 2014 and 2020, Boston Review, The New Yorker, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Originally from Ashland, Oregon, she teaches in the MFA program at the University of Illinois. The full interview with Corey, including two poetry readings, is available on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast. Excerpts of the interview are included below.

James Morehead: What role does research play in crafting your poems? I’ve had readers ask me “how did you know so much about XYZ in that poem” and they are surprised when I answer that I didn’t before I wrote the poem, and researched what I needed to know! I ask this because of the details you infuse in the drone-inspired poems woven through your new book

Corey Van Landingham: “I love this question, and I think I have a similar answer to you. Oftentimes research is the entry point. You are trained to see the world like a poet, which means seeing that little bit of intrigue, that wonder, which leads to a question most of the time. It’s not like I had a wealth of knowledge about drones, or even something like the mechanics of a ballpark kiss cam. Instead, I get some type of question that’s lodged in my head, that I have to go and research. It starts on Wikipedia and often spirals: I get a shallow base and want more depth. Where can I find more information in literature in the past centuries?

“Looking up etymology is always a big part of my research, when was the first time that this word was used? For example, I had to go back for ‘Love Letter to the President’ and look up the taxonomy of the humpback whale. I went on a binge of looking up all this information about the humpback whale to see what I could include. It was from those facts that I found information about the [whale’s] recurring, diverse song. A poem starts from a point of intrigue, unfolds, and spirals, thinking about what kind of textures I can uncover.”

Morehead:  Building on that question, “Recessional” powerfully builds on the wedding reception drone strike tragedy. The line “Imagine, though, the moment before. The bride’s hand on her mother’s wet cheek.” This is a universal image. In the revision and editing process how did you work through the challenge of turning research into poetry?

Landingham: “That’s one of the difficult things, how to cast information in a way that’s art. ‘Recessional’ relies heavily on artifice. Even though the poem stems from research, from a tragic, real world event, I’m thinking how do I approach this through aesthetics? I think too about how one frames their own experience and sees it outside themselves, which is a big question of this book. Whether it has to do with the drone, or with love, or with one’s experience of the history of a geographical place.

“In the revision process I ask: is there a flatness of tone here, does this only exist to provide information? if there’s not another layer, another level of texture, whether it’s sonic play, rhythmic play, an associative leap to something else, then I know that I need to go back. Oftentimes it takes another reader to help me. I rely on my poetry communities and my trusted readers. My husband is one of them. He’s my best editor and he’s very good at letting me know when this is just information. No matter how long you write it’s still difficult sometimes to step outside yourself and to see it’s just not working.”

Morehead: The lines “Must we fall so in love with abstraction?” in your poem “Anti-Blazon” and “We, astonished readers of history, lean forward. But the thick railing holds us back.” from “Cyclorama” capture, for me, one of the key themes in your book, how we are increasingly disconnected from our actions. How did you approach themes when curating from a collection of poems written over a period of years? 

Landingham: “I’m glad you asked this question because in some ways preparing for this podcast has been a really difficult process because the first poems that I wrote in this book were just when my first book was published, back in 2013. I feel like this is a palimpsest, an archival object of my own poetic growth, personal growth, and intellectual growth. There are poems in here that I would never write now. I have to approach the book like its own object, its own kind of time capsule.

“There were poems I wanted to include, older poems and newer, that didn’t quite match the arc of the book. I do think that there is a progression of stance that the various speakers take throughout the book. I ended up having to ditch unnuanced older poems, especially concerning the drone. I criticized omniscience in the book, of course, but I do think that omniscience can be helpful as a poetic technique, trying to see what happened before us, what will happen after us, and what’s happening outside of us. I am a lyric poet in general, the first person is always very fragile.”

Morehead: How do you discover the form of a poem? The prose poem “The President took no questions” reminded me of the unpunctuated and unbroken prose of José Saramago’s novel “Blindness”, whereas “Taking down the bridge” uses a more structured form.

Landingham: “I love that question, it’s something I think about a lot. One of my favorite things to teach is the poetic forms class here at Illinois. Part of it is thinking about the layer of artifice that a poem requires. For me the prose poem is the form that invites in the least amount of artifice: we’re ditching the line break, we’re trying to say – look, this is a recognizable form. This resembles prose and might invite in a little bit more of an intimate, relatable, personal voice without the artificial breaks of the line, especially within an epistolary poem like ‘Love Letter to the President’. Of course, there’s artifice in epistolary poems, or in all letters that we write, we’re presenting just one aspect of the self.

“I love reading the letters of poets, it’s one of the favorite things I’ve kind of picked throughout the book to include. One of the things that I love about reading those letters is when you get that moment that breaks the artifice, a distant presentation of the self, like Elizabeth Bishop’s letter where the quotidian really breaks in; I feel like that’s a perfect use for the prose poem.

“Whereas ‘Taking Down the Bridge’ or ‘Recessional’, those poems really call attention to artifice and say, look, this is me trying to point out how made this thing is, especially with taking apart the bridge, seeing the poem itself as a construction that can at some point be picked apart too.”

Morehead: I particularly enjoyed reading “Post-” out loud. It reads like a stream of consciousness, as though it was written in one take, which I’m sure wasn’t the case. How do you decide, using that poem as an example, when more editing is unlikely to improve a poem? 

Landingham: “I do think we can edit the life out of poems. It’s hard because it’s intuitive in some ways, and so much of what we try to learn or teach about poetry is intentional choices. It’s difficult to teach intuition. It’s part ear, but tone is really important to me as a poet, especially in this collection. I think paying attention to tone helps me know when I’m flattening a poem, when I’m deadening a speaker. The speaker has to stay alive and while you can go back and change words, the attitude towards the subject has to be believable. You have to be entranced by the world of the poem, and by that voice.

‘Post’ did come a little bit quicker to me. Often when I’m using an anaphora that’s the case, it helps propel the poem and the voice a little bit more. You’re absolutely right that it was a poem that did unfurl a little bit faster, it was a less laborious process.”

Morehead: In “Elegy”, “I turned my father to ash    so he could never     be resurrected.” is a poignant and powerful closing line. How do you approach ending your poems?

Landingham: “Right now I’m designing a class that’s all about beginnings and endings. I’m starting to create these files of beginnings and endings of poems that I admire. I’ve come to realize that the endings that I most love have a pivot. It’s kind of like the floor falls out from underneath you. I love ending with a statement, I’m a statement-driven poet, I believe that image is wonderful, but I get frustrated by purely image-driven poetry. I often want a statement to situate myself.

“So a statement at the end of the poem, I find very seductive, but you also don’t want to be too heavy handed. That’s something sometimes I struggle with as a poet, where does gravitas feel false? Is the poet overstepping towards profundity, and trying to be ‘poet-y’ too? It has to feel true to the world of the poem, with an unexpected leap. It’s a difficult balance: wanting something memorable and something that speaks at a different register without feeling false.” 

Morehead: As a professor in the Department of English at the University of Illinois you’ve had the opportunity to work with hundreds of students. My poetry journey was started by a remarkable teacher, way back in the tenth grade. What do you learn from your students, and how do you create excitement for poetry in your classes?

Landingham: “I love that question. I learn different things from my students because I teach at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. At the graduate level I learn to be incredibly open and porous with my aesthetic because we invite young poets from all over the country to come and study with us. They all have a different lineage and they can be so excited by someone that I would never choose to read on my own. Their excitement towards a different aesthetic shows me the multifaceted possibilities of poetry, especially poetic form.

“From undergraduates, what I love about teaching introductory courses, is that it forces you to interrogate them at the same time. When we’re reinforcing the dogma of the image, I want something I can see or smell or touch, I start to think why do I need this? Why is this important in a poem? How can I teach them to make other language outside of the image sing in the same way? Going back to statement, how can they use that to think better in their poems to frame image? How do you think like a poet in a way that makes all language come to life? That’s something that’s really helpful for me as a teacher, and a poet.”

Morehead: As a poet I love the challenge of finding the perfect word or sound or rhythm. Sometimes I’ll have an instinct that a specific word exists for an idea and I’ll start researching, hoping the word exists, and that it’s poetic if I find it. AE Stallings poetry is filled with incredible words. In your poem “The Quarry” you use the word “craquelure” – a wonderful word with a very specific meaning. What is your approach to solving poetry puzzles with the perfect word? 

Landingham: “You’re right. It can just feel like the best feeling in the world. When you find that right word it feels like you find the exact right shape to fit into the right slot, and it can be so maddening when you can’t find it.

“It’s interesting in ‘Quarry’, that word craquelure is from a poem that I wrote during my MFA that never went into my first book. It was just this line I had. It was about a quarry, but totally different from this. It was very surreal. I do think that’s how you find the right word is because if you’re trying to work within the register that you’ve been using the rest of the time in the poem, you don’t make the necessary leap to the possibilities of what you can include. Whether it’s a portmanteau or if it’s a scientific word that wouldn’t exist in the lush beauty of a lyric line. Sometimes that register shift allows you to move in a new direction.”

Morehead: Having just a single poem published is an accomplishment given the high rejection rate of most publications. Thinking back to that time in your career when you were waiting for that first acceptance letter, what advice do you have for poets at the start of their journeys? 

Landingham: “You have to believe in the poems because waiting for the acceptance never goes away. The first acceptance is thrilling, but I feel you’ll never be completely satisfied. There will always be something else that you want, and that you don’t have, and that you’ll be rejected for, or something that you’re waiting to hear back from.

“The only way to survive, if you’re sending your poetry out to the world, is to believe in the poems and to find pleasure in writing. Because that’s the other thing that I feel when we’re getting into the ‘po-busi’, part of us, which is necessary because we most of us don’t have agents to do this work for us. I think that we can forget the pleasure of actually writing poetry. If you don’t believe in the work that you’re doing in the first place, you can be flattened by a rejection. Believing in your work is the most important advice that I can give.”

Corey Van Landingham

2 thoughts on “Poet Corey Van Landingham discusses “Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens” [INTERVIEW]

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  1. Corey:

    You provided me with much to think about in this excellent interview. Particularly the excerpt: “…how to make language sing.” Now I am curious to read your work.

    I began writing Poetry very late in life; ten years ago. I am now 74, and I cannot stop writing. 420 poems in my notebook in 2021. 55 in January, 2022. I publish two poems per week at my blog: “Walk With Father Nature”. Sample from “Viewers’ Favorites: March, 2017: https://walkwithfathernature.blogspot.com/2017/03/long-horizon.html

    Thank you for your valuable time.

    Gratefully,

    ~ Richard Havenga

  2. In an interview of a poet by a poet the questions are often as interesting as the answers. You learn twice as much! Both reveal more about themselves. The listeners, readers and the multitude of would-be poets need that stimulation and spontaneity to delve into their work. It’s a great interview. Spending too much time looking at the angles works so well in poetry!! Finbar Lennon

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