Hailey Leithauser interviews Averill Curdy

Averill Curdy, Song & ErrorFarrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

H.L.  Song & Error is an amazing book, absolutely stunning, and one of the most striking things about it is how much it reads like the work of a mid- or even late-career poet, avoiding the common (albeit understandable) flaws of so many first books. So my first question is how long did S&E take to write, and how long did you wait to send it out? Did it go through a good many drafts? Were many poems excised, what made you decide the length, the balance of the work, was right?

Has having a secure position at Northwestern and a noticeable presence in venues like
Poetry and The Paris Review given you the freedom from Publish or Perish to take your time with the book?

A.C.  There are a couple of poems in this book that date back to my MFA, fifteen years ago. A few more from the years of my PhD, and one of the long poems, "Chimera," I started then but didn't really have the skill, or understanding, to match my ambition until much, much later. The rest were all written after leaving graduate school. And those years of graduate school were really a time of learning and experiment for me, rather than preparing The Book. I taught myself to write in metrical form because I thought it would give me something to work in and against—my students will tell you that I'm obsessed by the line! I shed a lot of poems because it was clear to me that they were exercises, or they bored me. There were several earlier versions of the manuscript, but it was getting the long poems done that helped to define the book's identity. Then it was a matter of choosing the lyrics that would work with them and striving to achieve various balances—more personal poems with the ones that find their occasions in historical figures, denser, more complex work with work that is, hopefully, more transparent, and so on. And taking Robert Frost's advice, I kept out a few poems that still feel alive to me to seed the next book. Even if they don't end up in it, it takes me so long to feel confident that a poem is finished that it's helpful to know that the file folder on my desktop isn't empty.


I'm lucky to have arrived at Northwestern as a visiting professor even before finishing my dissertation. But I haven't had anything approaching job security until recently when I was given a continuing appointment. But I was even more fortunate, as so many have been, in Christian Wiman's tenure as editor at Poetry. He didn't take everything that I sent him, but it made an enormous difference to know that there was someone who wanted to read my work.

H.L.  To me some of the most remarkable poems are the historical ones—"Ovid in American," "From the Lost Correspondence," "The Preservation of Meat"—How much research went into these poems? How factual are they? Is there any particular reason you find yourself drawn to historical voices and events? I notice that even in a poem about the death of your mother you bring in Chernobyl and Iran-Contra.

I also see you like to write some of these poems in the form of letters—what is it about that form that attracts you?

A.C.  I like to read in history and natural history, and I particularly like reading diaries, letters, memoirs, and what used to be called belles lettres, which aren't contemporary. Both "Chimera" and "Ovid in America" came out of a class I took with David Read at the University of Missouri on the literature of exploration and first European encounters with the New World. Not only did the reading in that class provide me with occasions for poems, but also new vocabularies and metaphors. I was compelled by what happened to some of these figures who came to the so-called New World with expectations, narrative frameworks, and purposes that collided, often violently, with the reality of the place. Imagining they would find monsters, some became monsters themselves. Finding themselves in a landscape that was unreadable to them, and hence threatening, they were transformed in ways they never imagined, which made them illegible to people back home. There was a lot of rather unsystematic reading, including Ovid's Tristia, Hakluyt's Voyages, the biology of marshes, the curanderismo of Mexico and southwest Texas, and Sandys' translation of the Metamorphoses, a lot of drafting and revising as a way of deepening the character and his experience, and a lot of opportunistic, informal flailing around that can hardly be dignified by the term research. I took my inspiration where I found it: for example, I was drafting these poems while the United States was involved in Afghanistan and Iraq under Bush and Rumsfeld. The psychological experience of the soldiers in an unfamiliar, unpredictable, and threatening environment gave me a way of thinking about Sandys and Cabeza de Vaca. The servants of one empire gave me a way of thinking about other servants of empire whose expectations also shaped what they thought they "knew" about the people they encountered.


The poems are factual in terms of the larger events and outline of the narrative. But I also felt free to invent. Because Sandys never lived with his wife, for example, in the poem I have him writing his letters to a man in London that he's in love with. That enabled a certain parallel between Sandys living at the periphery of empire writing to a beloved and Ovid in exile writing to his wife in Rome.

I found the epistle an enabling form. I like the intimacy of it, and addressing an imagined "you" can also create a kind of urgency that I thought was necessary for the historical poems. You can also make the intransigencies of writing itself part of the "matter" of the poem. More importantly, though, I think history is a kind of master narrative and what’s lost in any master narrative that wants to explain a period or a people is the experience of the subject who suffers history. The epistle emphasizes the subject and creates something prismatic, the imagined figure imagining and addressing another figure, also imagined by the poet. It also seems a paradigm of poetry itself, the writer in her loneliness addressing or summoning invisible auditors.

H.L.  The themes of journey and death, sometimes treated together, run throughout the book. Would you like to comment on that?

A.C.  Well, I know I've been obsessed with death and dying since my mother died, both because I was so closely acquainted with her death, which took place at home after a long illness, and yet in enough denial about it right up to the moment it happened that it utterly shocked me. I'd say that the journey elements of the book are tied up in my interest in change and transformation. How to live in change. How we long for change, but how difficult it can be, how the change we want isn't often the change we get. I think travel and exploration became a way to think about that because it presents a new geometry between identity and place. And death is the ultimate transformation. Yet, also, in the living even the dead, in terms of our understanding of their lives or choices, etc., can change despite being beyond change.

H.L.  Several of the poems are quite
long and you mentioned that you teach a class on the long poem. This is a form I find completely intimidating—can you offer some thoughts on writing the long poem? What draws you to the long poem, how do you approach it, how does it change your syntax from a shorter poem? Do you know at the outset how long a poem is going to be?

I think the long poem is an interesting form to think about and think through. I suspected that both "Chimera" and "Ovid in America" would be longer, in part because I wanted the poem to imagine their lives in greater scope than, say, "The Preservation of Meat," which imagines one moment in Jefferson's private life. "The Fair Incognito" I wasn't sure about, but only because the poem was a vehicle for me to connect these two things—Audubon and a chorus girl—in a meditation on beauty in syllabics, but I didn't know what the connections were, only that I wanted to discover them in the poem. But I really prefer the intensity of the lyric, so I wanted my long poems to possess that intensity with the scope of the long poem. I think one of the big issues that a poet confronts in a long work is transitions. That is, as much as I love reading novels, I didn't want to have to include some of the traditional expository narrative tissue. How to create dynamic transitions was one of the issues that interested me.

In "Chimera" I wanted to accommodate silence, the lack of a language for experience, so used the spacing to suggest that because it's the way I heard the voice of that poem in my head. The syntax for that poem feels more fragmentary to me; usually I feel compelled to work in longer sentences, as if, maybe, syntax is a way of representing the forward momentum of time, moving into the future, in the ways these figures did. But then different discourses and references that are caught in the long sentence is a way of suggesting the reticulate quality of consciousness and provide a counterpoint to the forward momentum or act as a kind of friction.


[See also Matthew Buckley Smith's review of Song & Error elsewhere in this issue of Innisfree.]



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