This is Not the Mouth:
Claressinka Anderson, the 2022 Michelle Boisseau Poetry Prize Winner & Runner-Up, on Her Process & Poetics
Claressinka Anderson's anonymous contest entry won our third annual single-poem prize, and it also secured the runner-up honorable mention. Our judge, the beloved poet and Bear-Review contributor Traci Brimhall, who chose these two from among many outstanding poems, had the following to say about Anderson's winning poem:
"From the title that leads into the first line, this poem is built on surprises. I love that we begin in statements of negation, first defining what is not before we reach what is--""the lips just seconds / from my face". I love how textural the vocabulary is, swinging from musical and polysyllabic to short and quick monosyllables. The caesuras enact that closing distance of mouth and mouth, that important and careful work of good intimacy. And I love how much complexity the ending contains--the return to the "not;" the heartbeat consonants of the penultimate line; and how the final one offers me two different ways to read the work of lips as both a sentence and a sentencing. This poem is a pleasure the first time through and every time I returned. Much like the poet, "I'll live in the two wet mouths / of this poem forever."
As you'll find evident within this interview and her poems, Anderson's poetics and process are indeed "careful" and her voice-driven poetic syntax as intimate and complex as she is.
Preferring written conversation about craft, process, and aesthetics, Anderson and I "spoke" over email.
Marcus Myers: In the manuscript poems you've recently shared with me from This is Not the Mouth, including "The Blades" and the title poem "This is Not the Mouth", which Traci Brimhall selected as winner and runner-up, respectively, in Bear Review's 2022 Michelle Boisseau Poetry Prize, themes and motifs of embodiment, especially those of bodily mediation, build between the speakers and others, and between bodies and their world. I'm wondering how you've thought about embodiment as you've reflected on this project generally, and, more specifically, as you've entered the conceptual spaces of these particular poems.
Claressinka Anderson: I’ve always related to the idea of the poem as a bodily entity, so I think a lot about my body’s relationship to the body on the page—a thing that is both myself, and also not. There is a poem towards the end of my manuscript, “Middle C,” that I didn’t share with you (because it’s claimed the number-one-nemesis spot that “This is Not the Mouth” used to occupy, ha!), where the speaker deconstructs her own poem, asking her to consider certain things about her work. The lines between the body, language, and syntax intentionally blur. As someone who has dealt with chronic illness for my entire adult life, I’m always aware of my body and its limitations. I think there is simply no way for me to be able to separate the various conditions of body and mind from my writing—you’re absolutely right in observing that I’m in a constant state of mediation.
“This is Not the Mouth” also became a meta-examination of my own poetics in a way, although differently from “Middle C.” In “This is Not the Mouth,” I’m also thinking about what transpires on the page versus what happens in reality. The poem is the lover, the “lush fiction,” but I also want to leave that open-ended, and to bring in the possibility of a person, real or imagined. I’m also thinking about my relationship to my poems—to love, to speech, to desire—to the transgressive elements all these phenomena hold, and how the poems in my manuscript navigate those complexities.
As I went through many subsequent drafts, it became apparent to me that the poem wanted to wrestle with itself in a way, so this became the seductive force, the kiss. It was important to me that the kiss inhabit the space of the poem, but that it live only there, the poem becoming this other place I can enter. In an earlier draft of the poem, Carmen Giménez, one of my teachers at Bennington, wisely told me that for the subject matter the poem wasn’t embodied enough. The poem swung in a more visceral direction, but eventually retracted again, hopefully striking a balance between the two positions. I’m interested in the in-between space, generally, which is where I hope this poem now resides. I also think the struggle between body and intellect is one of my greatest challenges as a person and a writer.
From a young age, I’ve so often thought that what I might be thinking or doing is in some way wrong, or that the words I use or put on the page will be judged in some potentially negative way. The poem wrestles with the transgressions of a life, of language, and of writing itself. So too, does “The Blades,” but obviously in a completely different context. It makes sense to me that Traci might have been drawn to these two poems, as they both deal with very different moments of transgression. In “This is Not the Mouth,” the transgression is almost welcomed, defiant, perhaps. In “The Blades,” the transgression is reviled. The defiance is present there too, however, when “the words fly out.” “The Blades'' was incredibly difficult for me to write. Both poems went through many revisions over the course of a two-year period as they allowed themselves to say what they really wanted to say. Like so many writers I’ve struggled with how much to reveal in a poem, and for anyone who has ever been in a workshop, they can attest to what we’ve all been told at some point, which is to say the thing you’re most frightened to say. I think I wanted the poem to hold some of that particular danger, too—the specific risks you take in saying the thing, which is the inherent danger of writing. Mouths—what they do or don’t do, the activities in which they are engaged—feature heavily in my manuscript. So too, “The Blades” engages with silence and the sorrows of being silenced.
MM: Since we’re talking about drafting, can you tell our readers about your process for making a poem?
CA: There are exceptions, of course, but usually I’ll be thinking about something, and a line forms in my head. I write it down, and then usually I sit with it for a while. When I have a strong feeling, I generally need to start working on the poem right away, but sometimes I have lines hanging out in the notes on my phone for several weeks, or even months before I get to them. When I feel compelled, I’ll start to write around the line. Most often the line stays in the poem, but occasionally the poem takes a turn, and becomes something else entirely. At times, I get too attached to the original line when it’s obvious it needs to go, and I force myself to cut it.
Occasionally entire poems come to me all at once. I love it when that happens, but it’s rare. My process tends to be a bit slower. I’m a slow writer in general. Sometimes I’m overzealous with my revisions. Usually when that happens, a poem no longer sounds right to me. It might work better on other levels, but something about the rhythm sounds off. The original voice is most often the one that sounds the best. I save all the drafts of my poems so I can go back to an earlier version if needed. My slowness is also partially because of my having to write with the symptoms of brain fog due to ME/CFS, and not being as clear as I would like a lot of the time.
I’m a highly visual person, and my poems often change form throughout the revision process. I rarely set out with a particular form in mind, but the poems find their form eventually. Enacting a visual change can, at times, show me what isn’t working, and changing the form often brings something out in the poem that I didn’t understand or hear before. It functions kind of like a synaesthetic effect on my brain, I guess. I owned an art gallery, and worked as a curator and art dealer for many years; my nickname at the gallery was “the human level,” because I could always see if something was “off” on the wall…almost to a scary extent haha…I care deeply about proportion, and how things relate to one another in space. I’m definitely capable of spending hours on line breaks alone. I also need to read the poems out loud to really hear where I want the breaks to land. That’s definitely a place I obsess over and can get lost in the weeds a bit, ha!
I also try to ask myself the harder questions even when I don’t want to. I learned this from Mark Wunderlich. He really drilled the question into me: “Why are you telling me this?” It’s amazing how often this question is very hard to answer at first. It’s easy to hide behind language, so I’m always asking myself what the speaker is trying to say, and most importantly, why. I think that having a trusted reader for your work is so important—the people that can apply pressure to the places you might not be able to. I feel very fortunate to have a few friends and mentors with whom I share work, and my poems would not be what they are without their input. There is a core group of wonderful poets from Bennington who I’m in regular contact with—Nico Amador, Michael Martinec, Krysia Wazny McClain, and Quinn Franzen—we do the occasional zoom workshop, and also like to go deep on instagram poetry memes together haha…their friendship is incredibly sustaining for me. More recently, I’ve also had the fortune of crossing paths with Erin Belieu. Erin is a true kindred, and to say I trust her as a reader would be a massive understatement. She is sharp, brilliant, and hilarious—an extraordinary human.
And for revising it without extinguishing the fire that had inspired it?
I think there’s a sweet spot for most poets, where we need to work on a poem while the original fire still burns, but it’s cooled enough to be able to revise with some distance. Too much fire and you can’t be objective. Too little and the poem can die. I’ve often found that I need a considerable amount of time and distance before I can revise in a way that allows the poem to be what it actually needs to be. I’ve come back to poems I abandoned years ago and found myself re-writing them. I’ve also experienced leaving poems for too long and losing my original connection with them to the point that I no longer care. Both with “This is Not the Mouth” and “The Blades,” I worked on them over a two-year period. It was only very recently that they felt resolved for me. Honestly, I’m not sure if poems are ever resolved. I find myself wanting to change things about all my “finished” poems, but at some point, I need to leave them alone. This is very hard for me to do. I think the point of a poem is never closure, so it makes sense to me that they resist completion.
MM: I love the idea of drafts smoldering. And, backpacker and outdoors nerd that I am, I’m picturing how a campfire’s embers from dinner can light the morning’s fire with just a few pokes and pieces of kindling. Following the elemental logic of this analogy, and thinking of lines from a Louise Glück poem that ends “I wished for what I always wished for / I wished for another poem,” I would imagine you would often start subsequent but separate drafts on the coals of those you’ve let smolder. With such drafts, how do you avoid writing the same poem you and others have already written from the poem-making materials you’ve already combined or shaped? To leave the metaphor, how do you avoid, as Louise Glück advises we do throughout in her essays collected in Proofs & Theories, the trap of writing the next poem from a discovery you’ve already made, or a conclusion you’ve already formulated? So I guess this question is getting at how do you keep your poems as vehicles for inquiry and expression and also mostly free of the formulaic (even formulas of your own making)? While I agree with Glück’s assertion this is necessary in order to honor the real messiness of life, to witness and explore the ordinary and extraordinary anguishes of living only to lose everything we’ve gained, to avoid writing from preconceived conclusions and from formulas, I’m finding it more and more difficult to do so in this memetic age in which the aesthetic zones are flooded with so much plastic shit and gold! To avoid installing prefabricated, pop-cultural, Instagram therapist scheme-framing into poems in place of actual insights and observations about what torments us or gives us solace or joy, etcetera. Like, the stories we’re telling about trauma and the body are enlightening, are pro-social and incredibly helpful, but in project books they can feel like templates lacking as much real insight as experiential arcs explored or expressed without them.
CA: To be perfectly honest, I feel like we all write the same poem over and over again. I first talked about this at length with Craig Morgan Teicher, who writes about this topic in varying ways in his wonderful book “We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress.” Incidentally, that book also includes an essay about Glück’s late work which makes me think about the essay you mention, and her own artistic evolution in that regard. I think most of us are grappling with a group of questions to which we repeatedly return. They really are our life questions, the wounds from which we write. There are always exceptions, of course, but most writers tend to live within a particular landscape and stay there. There’s urgency, sincerity, and attention paid to the real, even if it happens to be tropic or follow a broader pattern of human behavior or being. These authentic, particular lines of inquiry are also why we are drawn to certain poets over others; so I’d say it depends on which questions they’re asking, and if we are personally interested in those questions.
I think we’ve all had the experience of coming across a poem we wish we’d written. A poem that poses our own questions in a way we feel incapable of doing. I think this experience can be discouraging and inspiring at the same time. Like all artistic movements, artists tend to create under the prevailing weather of the moment. It can be hard to feel outside of that, but I think it’s vital to stay true to one’s own voice, to resist imitation. While I think that’s basically impossible to a certain degree, I also believe in the singularity of voice. I think the alternative is just too cynical a view. There is always someone out there writing “your” poem, but not the way you would write it. If you don’t believe that, you might as well give up now…we could go down a rabbit hole on this topic, ha! I constantly fall in love with the voices of many writers. I learn from them, I sigh with them—I believe we connect through the disparate experiences of our collective anxieties.
I think part of the constant work we must do as poets is to remain in curiosity, and cultivate resistance. Being aware of the thing we may think we are “good” at, resisting that, and always being in a space of receiving what each individual poem has to offer us. I like to think about writing a poem like entering a new conversation. With each poem, I begin a new relationship. I need to get to know the poem. I want to go deeper—to deepen the relationship. How boring would a relationship be if only one person did all the talking? I need to allow the poem to speak to me, to steer me through it, and hopefully, through that mutual back and forth something new reveals itself; an invitation to something I don’t yet know. As I mentioned before, these “conversations” can take a long time.
While I inevitably explore and make discoveries along the way—one of the great joys of writing—I rarely formulate conclusions. I’m also interested in uncovering more evolved ways of speaking about the same subject, along with hopefully tackling new questions as I evolve, age, and dare I say it, heal.
For me, the best poems continue to be vehicles for inquiry precisely because they resist conclusion. I think the reason Keats’s “Negative Capability” is such a touchstone for poets is because remaining in uncertainty—in the unknown—is the driving force behind everything we do. Not just poetry!
MM: In your Los Angeles Review of Books essay, you reference what Audre Lorde says about the power of eros in poetry as you reflect on liminality, craft, and your poetics, where you write, “If the erotic is a bridge, it is also an experience of crossing, of coming up against an edge. With its line breaks and silences, a poem is an object made of edges—ideal home for the rhetorical and conceptual spaces of eros.” I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the cis white straight male gaze in poetry written in English, and how its aesthetic moment has likely (hopefully) passed (not only in poetry), because so many men have been such objectifying, infantile, libidinous monsters. In its twilight, women have written powerfully. Could you talk a bit about how you see—if you don’t think about this much at all, please pivot us away—eros at work in this historic moment of antithesis and transformation? Is there still room for cis heterosexual men writing into or around straight male desire? If that makes sense. Or have readers gotten their fill from the many courses 20th century patriarchy served to us?
CA: Eros lives both within the specifics of, and also, outside the borders of gender, identity, or sexual orientation. Desire, liminality, too—these are fundamental human experiences, right? Lorde’s essay is important to me because she was writing about the erotic in the specific context of its connection to a woman’s agency and life force. You know, she was also a queer Black woman writing in the late 70’s, a time when the cis white male gaze still prevailed, even though efforts were being made toward its dismantling. Over forty years later we’re still in that process. In her essay, Lorde also describes the erotic space between two people as a bridge formed by “the sensual—those physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us.” Isn’t that part of why we are doing the vital work of rebalancing the spaces that have been dominated by cis straight male desire? It’s not about eradicating it completely. It’s about eradicating the toxicity of that gaze and reframing it. I don’t think this means there isn’t any room for straight male desire. What’s more important now is how the room is filled. We’ve established that the old paradigm wasn’t working, and what feels fertile now is what we’re evolving towards. Straight male desire is only one viewpoint of many, no longer the dominant one. I’m ultimately most interested in what a poem tells me about the moral, emotional, and psychological complexities of desire. I think there are still many stories to tell about eros.
MM: “How the room is filled”–I like this metaphor quite a bit. While we’re in this space, I have a related topic. Coupled with your discussion of embodiment in poems, what you said earlier about silence, transgression, defiant speech against being silenced or shamed, post-transgression, will likely track for many of our readers. A poem, since the confessionalists, has become this potential site or permissive space for saying or expressing what has been, qua status quo or the habitus or whatever it is, difficult or impossible to say from a woman’s (cis and trans), or in some way othered, subject position. Following the logics of cis heteronormativity, to give one example of poems granting permission to finally speak, silence has been permitted to or expected from women in certain pre-scripted ways, regulated and reproduced by patriarchy over time in various gender cultures. Of course, on this continent at least, these expectations and permissions have been complicated, resisted and defied in poems (and other forms of expression) for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. But in this 21st-century, post-Me-Too moment, there are suddenly so many fantastic poems, such as yours, which show speakers who have broken away from these cultures of violation and silence in order to not only confess, but also to complicate by demolishing and reconstructing. A productive kind of recklessness, maybe? Could you speak to this sort of liberation that women poets have demanded for their poems? If you don't really think of your poetics along these lines, that's totally fine, but I guess I'm curious what you make of how such transgressions of gender expectations or norms, or defiance of them, work out in your poetics and those of poets you admire. If you see this thinking and expression as a sort of poetics of agency reconstruction for women poets?
CA: I think defiance is a needed reaction against the misplaced guilt and shame perpetuated by oppressive power structures. There are so many ways in which the poem, as a social form or site of engagement, feels transgressive for me. The line break itself is a type of resistance. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that people writing about experiences of otherness or oppression are drawn to the poem as a vehicle for defiance. I’m talking mainly about what we now call “free verse,” but it extends to poetic forms as well. I recently finished reading Maggie Millner’s Couplets, which is a novel in verse written predominantly in rhyming couplets. The narrative pushes against couples or “couplets,” and the heteronormative structures under which the prevailing ideas around couples have historically been formed. There’s a lot going on in her book—too much to get into here—but questions of liberation and restriction, and without doubt, reconstruction are also at play. Millner is casting a traditional form in a new light and using it to push against, question, and reconstruct the “form” of a couple. It’s not some sort of rail against couples, though. It’s very much a love story that celebrates coupledom too. I’ve always been drawn to the type of work that functions on all these formal, narrative, and conceptual levels. In a recent Paris Review interview, she said something which really resonated for me: “The speaker of my book is very much reckoning with the residues of historical expectations of what women owe men. There’s a great temptation on the part of women in hetero partnerships to feel an outsized sense of responsibility for their demise.” I would add that this misplaced sense of responsibility also applies to scenarios where a victim of abuse feels at fault, which is, of course, sadly common.
As you mentioned, defiance as a mode in literature isn’t new, but what I think feels palpably different now is that power structures are finally shifting so that more voices are actually being heard. Words have always been a form of protest, most simply because they are the primary way in which we communicate; language conveys messages, and when the right words are collectively used by a group, they can enact change. This is why the term “Me Too” is so powerful. Two simple words connected millions of people.
MM: Wonderful. Speaking of connections and social forms, one of your former classmates from Bennington’s MFA program, Issam Zineh, and I have been exchanging emails about tenderness in the wonderful poetry that has been written as we’ve approached and entered this third, rapidly transformational decade of the 21st century. We’re finding so many moments in poems when poets bear witness to truly awful, terrible or pitiable public behavior and situations from people in their dailiness. Zineh brings up a fascinating point about restraint on the poet’s part, a decision not to react in order not to reinscribe received outrage or pity through language or habituated behavior already given to us on social media and the media. Almost all of this mediated language is overwrought, overdetermined ideologically, and ultimately too bombastic for poems (unless scrapped and repurposed as materials to make a new, estranged, subversive diction). And this is my description of the place Zineh and I have arrived: in order to not subsume the poet’s singular voice to inchoate reproductions of anger and fear already written by the collective, many poets are, almost radically, suspending judgment and leaving this open for the reader (which poets writing in English have historically had a sort of unspoken agreement to do to avoid what Edgar Allan Poe called the heresy of the didactic) in order to see the person and the intersections of our social contexts as clearly and generously as possible. In order to witness and explore, to avoid teaching the reader lessons we’ve already received from conclusions drawn by others, to resist closure both in the sense of the closed poem, but also in the sense of cultural enclosure or containment. Regarding a poetics of tenderness, this practice of restraint and letting be seems like a defining characteristic in these poems Zineh and I are discussing. How would you say that tenderness, or graceful non-judgment, plays out in your poems?
CA: I love that you’re having this conversation, very much in tandem with ours, with Issam, a poet I very much admire. I’d be curious to see which poems you’re discussing! I think poems are primarily a place for liminality and ambivalence. It goes back to what we were talking about regarding uncertainty and the unknown. If a poem delivers a clear verdict, then it excludes the reader to a certain extent. So, I think the matter of tenderness is also one of inclusion. Do I also think there are some situations where it may be appropriate to make judgements within a poem? Absolutely. There are no absolutes, ha! No one wants to simply read a statement or be told what to think, but writing about anything does invariably require a level of judgment towards one’s subject. It’s just how you go about it, and I would agree that restraint is key.
It’s interesting that you use the word “graceful” because I think I’m ultimately more invested in grace than tenderness. Tenderness does the most for me when it’s least expected. One of the things I love about Glück—since we’ve been talking about her—is that her poems traffic in both cruelty and tenderness. The cruelty most often outweighs the tenderness, but it’s through that experience of cruelty that we feel a deep tenderness for her speaker. She doesn’t force feed the tenderness to us, we simply feel it as a reaction. She’s also unafraid to implicate her speaker, something I find important, and think about in the context of my own work. In Glück’s later work, we begin to see more tenderness towards her speakers. It makes me think of her poem “Crossroads,” one of the last in A Village Life, one of her later books. She writes about the closeness her speaker finally feels with her body now that she is towards the end of her life—“now that we will not be traveling together much longer / I begin to feel a new tenderness towards you, very raw and unfamiliar / like what I remember of love when I was young— / love that was so often foolish in its objectives / but never in its choices, its intensities… / …my soul has been so fearful, so violent: forgive its brutality…” There is a softness here we hadn’t really seen before from Glück. She ends the poem with that beautiful and mournful line, “it is not the earth I will miss, / it is you I will miss.” This type of tenderness towards the self only comes when some healing has been done.
Perhaps it’s partially about growing older, and healing some of my own wounds, but I’ve been thinking more about tenderness myself recently, and how it might affect my work moving forward. I wrote a love poem not long ago inspired by my current relationship that speaks about softness—my need for it, the world’s need for it. The poem is a call to tenderness, I suppose, something I wouldn’t have dared do before. Towards the end of my manuscript there is also a poem that ends with the line, “I want to write different poems now.” Much like Rilke in his observation of that enduring statue of Apollo, what it really means is, I must change my life.