1. Schwarzwald (or Black Forest) is a massive forest in Germany; its trees so thick and dense in places that no light can crack through into the forest. It is a place like no other, its own little world. Your Black Forest is also its own little world, but perhaps less dark. Is that right? Do you see your forest as dark? How do you see it or see into it?
One thing I love about Schwarzwald is how it seems almost permanently confused between imagined history and actual reality. I mean, here is a real forest that is sort of lost in the idea of what it has been, which is to say being this incredibly beautiful wooded dark and terrifying place of deep mystery, and of course now there are highways and things going through it, so perhaps it doesn’t seem quite as full of witches anymore, and yet it still possesses this high level of natural menace and beauty. And there’s always the danger of a place like that feeling like a theme park or something, a kind of manicured destination, a tourist trap. This danger, the possibility that by inhabiting a world we are in some way becoming quotations of that world, hangs a strange tension over the real place and the people who live there, baking bread and programming computers and teaching and doing a million contemporary things unrelated to the Brothers Grimm or the forest’s legendary darkness. And I love that everywhere is sort of like that; that the stages where we proclaim our lives are both full of history and forgetting.
Just as the contemporary Schwarzwald still contains the Schwarzwald of Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Cap and all those other folk tales, the world of my poems that populate The Black Forest is an amalgamation, a place culled from actual forests and towns and rooms and voices that is nonetheless full of imagined shadows. And when I was writing most of these poems, I was interested in finding a balance between the real and the imaginary, by which I mean, I wanted to be able to incorporate the stuff of my life in poems without privileging it over the stuff I make up. And you know, I think you’re right: this world of these poems is a slightly lighter place. There is humor. These poems do not live inside a genre. They are not fairy tales.
2. How did you go about gaining experience forentering The Black Forest?
I read Calvino’s Italian Folktales, which is this amazing labor of love, this huge compendium of retellings and remixes of hundreds of incredible traditional stories that he assembled over the course of ten years. The notes he includes are almost the best part of the book: he scrupulously records many of his embellishments in loving detail. Because he was working with so many magical and dramatic stories, he became a real connoisseur of tiny bizarre details, to the point where those details kind of become more exciting than the plots themselves. After I became aware of the ways that Calvino was interrupting the narratives to accentuate these strange touches, I wanted to experiment with writing poems that did something similar. Around the same time, I had really fallen deeply in love with the poetry of Max Jacob, especially Ashbery’s translations of The Dice Cup, and I wanted to write poems that surprised and delighted themselves the way that Jacob’s do so beautifully. I wanted to have as much fun as he was having! And one of the things that I felt like I understood that he was doing was sacrificing plot in favor of adventure, if that makes sense. And I tried to do something similar in my poems.
3. These poems seem to be populated with a lot of the same animals, the same shrubbery. How does the word/idea of “same” sound to you? Does it sound pejorative, or does the idea of recurrence, either through image or tone or voice, make sense to you?
I like the idea of the “same” things appearing in these poems. There is one lion who gets mentioned in a couple different poems, I know that, and one cannon, and one castle, and around these things I place a lot of bears. At least two-thirds of the poems in the book were written in the same apartment over the span of about six months, and I think the facts of the environment that informed that apartment found many ways of infiltrating the poems themselves (even though they are very much poems of the imagination). For example, all of the poems that mention bears were written in that apartment, because we had a bear problem, where there were often bears in the backyard or sleeping in trees above the sidewalk! And because it was important for my own physical safety to constantly be vigilant about the possibility that at any minute when I was going into the backyard to grab my bike or take out the trash I might have to deal with a bear, it seems pretty natural that they also invaded the poems. Because many of the poems in The Black Forest are spoken by different characters (a cloud, a soldier, a prince, a librettist, an astronaut, etc.) or at least one character who manages to convince themselves that they are many different characters, I think it helps that the poems themselves share the same furniture/ “stuff.”
4. Similarly, when you got yourself into the space of the book, into the space of the forest, did you proceed writing it with a shape of the book in mind?
When I started writing these poems, I wasn’t thinking about a book at all. I had just finished writing my MFA thesis, which was a long sequence poem called The Confessions that I’d been working on exclusively for around three years. And that book had all of these secret/interior rules that I had convinced myself that I had to use while writing it, rules about numbers of lines and ways of incorporating primary texts and even certain words I was trying to reuse, and all of those rules made it a very specific and effortful project to be working on. So when I finally felt finished with that, it was really quite exciting to be writing poems that could just exist on their own terms, and to see what happened without worrying too much about how the poems fit together.
5. Your poetic language strikes a fine balance between sophisticated, torqued language that twists out each word’s possibility like a lemon and a very conversational address. You’re quick to create a comfort and trustworthiness in the reader that he/she is able to bond with. How did you come to this? How does it aid what you want to accomplish with this book? Does the stable voice you create provide reassurance or control in the unstable worlds that come out?
I think that some combination of the two qualities you mention is present in much of the poetry that I love reading. I very much experience them when I read those Ashbery translations of Max Jacob that I mentioned earlier, and when I read Ashbery’s own work, especially Some Trees and Rivers and Mountains, two books which have been extremely important to me. And I think Elizabeth Bishop is also exceptionally good at this! In a way, both of these attributes have to do with kindness: using language specifically and deliberately seems indicative of a general respect towards the reader, a faith in them and their ability to co-create the poem by reading and interpreting it, while the conversational address allows a poet to at times very suddenly shift the terms of time and space in ways that create their own torque (Ron Padgett’s recent work has been very instructive for me in this regard). I think that for me, writing poems that rely mostly on imaginative energy to drive them, the use of a stable voice provides a really important counter-balance, and I do hope it’s reassuring and/or at least helpful to a reader who might get lost inside The Black Forest otherwise.
6. The Schwarzwald in Germany is most populated by clock makers and tourists. It is also the purported setting for Hansel & Gretel? Who do you feel most similar to in terms of your own Black Forest- a clockmaker, a tourist, Hansel, Gretel , a witch, or none of the above?
I feel like a witch!
The thing about being dead is
you keep dying forever
in the spangled bones
of those freaks who
must have believed in you.
The fields are blindfolded
and the shadows are contagious.
The pastures keep wilting
because the night is conducting
a whispering campaign
in league with all the feelings.
It’s a cheap place, this heart of mine,
and it’s covered in blood,
and it’s that way by design.
THE NATIONAL FOREST
“I can feel another show coming on,”
says the forest.
“There are roots that should be wings,
animals who might dazzle.”
My mouth is so full of berries
that I am afraid to speak.
Jam fills my throat.
I remember another autumn
when you and I were sisters.
The mountain footpath
was like a carnival ride
but without the height requirement,
a little dug-out river
admitting a succession
of charming scenarios.
It seems the whole world
must have once been funny.
That peasants just stood around,
laughing at shadows.
The forest synchronizes
its beetle infestations
to feature the morning light,
so rich in vitamins
that the leaves dwindling
in the free-range air
flex as they fall.
I’m trying not to remember
what is underneath the ground.
The lack of gravity,
the slow trembling
with which a corpse might vibrate
as the years turn her limbs
into the kind of roots
that hold the rest of us in place,
soundless and impatient
with our arms full of owls.
Christopher DeWeese is a featured writer at the 12th Annual Juniper Literary Festival: New Writers/New Writing. He will be reading Saturday, April 14 at 12pm in the UMASS Fine Arts Center.