Nonfiction editor Naomi Washer muses on letter writing, E.E. Cummings, and the power of address, below. Read her interview with Zachary Green of Columbia College Chicago for an intimate glimpse into the process behind the writing of his own letter-piece, selected for publication in Issue Two of plain china 2011.
“Saw a silent bluejay l’autre jour; he sends you his swoopingest.” –E.E. Cummings
Stalk the shelves of any library for your favorite poets or fiction writers, and you will find enormous volumes devoted to their letters. These books are often chronological, ranging from exchanges with family members to editors, other writers, and lovers. It was within the pages of these volumes that I fell in love with nonfiction. I chose to read letters by writers I already admired, and discovered an even larger scope of personality and thought in pieces written to a specific reader. I recognized their letters as lyrical experiments and exercises in form, and, at times, I noticed lines that evoked specific rhythms in poems I knew (“…for the moon goes down but the moon comes up” at the end of a letter by E.E. Cummings sounds an awful lot like his “anyone lived in a pretty how town” and “if everything happens that can’t be done”).
“In short, you will let me go my own way in my flannel shirt and my ideas.” –Cummings
I have long been a letter-writer, which makes for interesting conversations in coffee shops where most customers drown in their computer screens: “Are you writing a letter? Like, to actually be mailed? That’s crazy!” But I began using the form of letters in my own writing in an effort to tackle the issue of who is being addressed, what you need that person to understand, and why. Considering letters as a heightened experience of truth, it is not surprising that two of the nonfiction works selected for plain china 2011 employed the form. In a correspondence of our own, I asked Zachary Green to elaborate on his experience in writing “I Will Send You This.”
As a poet, describe your choice to work within nonfiction for “I Will Send You This.” How did the two genres influence each other? How did you play with being at once evasive and direct?
Zachary Green: This came from an assignment in college. We were reading letter poems at the time, so the stage was already set. That word, “evasive” is fitting in that I seldom tell it straight: as Dickinson would say, I “tell it slant” in my poems. Using an “evasive” voice complements my inner thoughts but leaves the reader looking at the resulting negative space.
Writing these letters as a poet felt natural in that letters can be coy; romance is often coy, or in my case completely awkward, but letters are also eviscerating. When I write poems, they often work in the same modalities.
Tell us your thoughts on direct address in this piece, and letters in general. What was behind the impulse to write letter poems rather than just poems? What did you feel letter poems would accomplish that another form could not?
ZG: There is a section in Brian Mornar’s Three American Letters (LRL e-editions) called “Composition Notes: From a Farm Journal,” which my peers and I were working with at the time of my project. The way Mornar wove these simple, mundane tasks into his complicated patterns of thought was truly inspiring—and he did it all through letters! In these nuances, I felt the lyricism and directness working in a unique way.
I was not actually living on Frey Farm when I wrote my letters. I wrote them nearly a year later. The days remained vivid, though memory is difficult when writing nonfiction. While I can see the farm, crafting each line came in spurts. They are short and deliberately written that way, which was a challenge for me.
In my letters, the details were in the work. Whether it was weeding or collecting eggs, these all seemed revelatory and were instances in which I needed to be straightforward. The romantic thoughts had to be kept in the wings; I was not quite ready to reveal how I felt. In the first letter I write, “I felt like a sand-swallower on Venice Beach, next to you.” Okay, it makes sense that sand and beach sit alongside each other, but I’m subtly trying to bury my throbbing heart. The line that precedes it, “I’m ashamed at my pursuits,” sets up the notion that I am hiding: what pursuits? What did I do that was shameful? I wanted neither her nor the reader to know.
Experimenting with nonfiction demands a true character, which has been difficult for me as a poet. Writing letters was the best venue.
Describe your thoughts on the intimate nature of correspondence. Why is it important?
ZG: Lisa Fishman once told me that every poem is an address, that it’s insufficient without its other half—the reader. Correspondence is the same way, but it gathers intimacy from its narrow corridors—traveling through the post, living inside a contained envelope, from one set of hands to another, to the one person for whom this information is most critical.
While letters and poems are intimate at one point, they eventually become acts of needing to tell. So then the impulse is perhaps to resist isolation, or to have a connection inside of that isolation. I cannot simply experience an event and never share what had occurred; it would disturb me too much. However, there are a handful of memories I am willing to repress.
“Well, my dear, the typewriter’s full of junebugs & I feel worlds better than when I began this letter; such is your PowerForGood.” –Cummings
“I Made This Up To Say” is taken from Brian Mornar’s Three American Letters.