We’re honored to have had the chance to explore with Paisley Rekdal the journey of her new collection, Nightingale (Copper Canyon Press)—a reimagining and retelling of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses. She’s invited us in to see the gritty aspects of publication: the passions and the doubts, the rejections and the (eventual) acceptance. Learn more about Nightingale here.
What were the most joyful moments of Nightingale‘s journey to publication?
Paisley Rekdal: Actually, considering the book’s themes—rape, loss, violence, and voicelessness—I wouldn’t say that the book produced a lot of joy in its creation. I felt, instead, a kind of white-heat intensity in writing it, which may be its own kind of dark joy. That said, one of the most consistently pleasurable things about the book was trying to tell and invent stories—to think in terms of plot and character, and to get into the mindset of people who aren’t me, since the book is largely poems that re-write myths in ways that resemble short stories. For the first time, I experienced what it must be like to be a fiction writer, and I found it intoxicating.
As for publishing Nightingale, it’s always a joy to work with the many fine editors, interns, and publicists at Copper Canyon, who take such great care of their authors, and who just love poetry. It’s a privilege to work with people who take the art so seriously.
What were the toughest moments you faced while getting the collection to the world and what have you taken away from them?
The book was taken quickly, and all the poems were also taken very quickly by editors, so there weren’t many conventionally “tough” moments in getting this collection out. But the heart of Nightingale is a very personal suite of poems that involve sexual assault, and living with a man who had also experienced sexual assault, and who has recently died. The toughest moments for me are speaking about these poems or reading them in public. In many ways, though I’m proud of the book, I’m also very sad that it exists at all.
An author never really works alone—without whose support would Nightingale not have made it across the finish line?
I’ve been really fortunate to have had all my closest relationships be with people who supported me—even before there was even a reason to support me as a writer. I’m forever grateful to my husband, who is a staunch believer in my work and who often gets take-out and walks the dog so I can complete my various projects, and also to my writing group here in Salt Lake City. This group of women have been phenomenally helpful to me as a writer. They’ve made me better every step of the way.
What did you learn about writing over the journey of this book?
So many things, but what comes to mind at the moment are the many poems that didn’t make it into the book. I keep learning again and again that poems aren’t products of labor, but little rooms where labor (emotional, intellectual) happens. And so it doesn’t do the art any good to treat them like they’re precious commodities that will be “wasted” if they don’t get to live in a book. It’s more like–did I use this space to grow my understanding? To become myself more fully? Poems are resources, not products.
What was the favorite piece of media or art you consumed while writing these poems?
Ovid. I read three different translations of The Metamorphoses while writing the book (Rolf Humphries, Charles Martin and Allen Mandelbaum). I’m excited to hear that there’s going to be a female translator of The Metamorphoses—the first one, I believe. I can’t wait to read her take on it. I also went back to so many poets that re-wrote or re-imagined Ovid, which means I was re-reading Shakespeare and Marie de France and Ted Hughes and a whole host of other poets as well. It was fun to be in a “classical” mindset for a while—I studied Latin and Greek through high school, college and graduate school, but haven’t been in that world for 20 years. Going back was like slipping back into my youth.
What’s your one sentence piece of advice for poets currently putting a collection together?
Try reading different poems against each other to see how they deepen each other’s meanings.
Paisley Rekdal is the author of a book of essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee; the hybrid photo-text memoir, Intimate; and five books of poetry: A Crash of Rhinos; Six Girls Without Pants; The Invention of the Kaleidoscope; Animal Eye, a finalist for the 2013 Kingsley Tufts Prize and winner of the UNT Rilke Prize; and Imaginary Vessels, finalist for the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Prize and the Washington State Book Award. Her newest work of nonfiction is a book-length essay, The Broken Country: On Trauma, a Crime, and the Continuing Legacy of Vietnam. A new collection of poems, Nightingale, which re-writes many of the myths in Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, will be published spring 2019. Appropriate: A Provocation, a book-length essay examining cultural appropriation, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton.
Her work has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Civitella Ranieri Residency, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Pushcart Prizes (2009, 2013), Narrative’s Poetry Prize, the AWP Creative Nonfiction Prize, and various state arts council awards. Her poems and essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, The New Republic, Tin House, the Best American Poetry series (2012, 2013, 2017, 2018, 2019), and on National Public Radio, among others. She teaches at the University of Utah, where she is also the creator and editor of the community web project Mapping Salt Lake City. In May 2017, she was named Utah’s Poet Laureate and received a 2019 Academy of American Poets’ Poets Laureate Fellowship.