Interview with Rebecca Lindenberg

In her fierce, one-of-a-kind poetry debut, Love, an Index, Rebecca Lindenberg tells the story of her passionate relationship with Craig Arnold, a much-respected poet who disappeared in 2009 while hiking a volcano in Japan.  Here Lindenberg discusses her first book, the debut volume in the McSweeney’s Poetry Series, with series editors Dominic Luxford (who is also the Believer's poetry editor) and Jesse Nathan.

DOMINIC LUXFORD: Can you give us an overview of the creation of Love, an Index? Did you write these poems over one super-intense summer? Over ten years? 

REBECCA LINDENBERG: I started the book in 2006, when Craig Arnold and his son Robin and I were living together in Rome. It was a book about our unconventional little family, about love and its many complications. I always intended it to converse as well with a long tradition of poems about love, from Sappho to Frank Stanford. I worked on it slowly alongside other projects for a few years, and it was well underway, about half written, when Craig vanished in April 2009. 

At that stage, as you can imagine, the direction of the book changed dramatically, as did my feeling of urgency about it. Thanks to an unbelievably merciful twist of fate, I was awarded a seven-month residential fellowship at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, beginning the fall of 2009—only a few months after losing Craig. The fellowship afforded me a place to hide out for a while. It was at the Work Center that I completed most of the book. 

DL: Love, an Index can be read, in one sense, as an extended elegy. But it’s also a deeply affirmative book. Can you say something about the relationship between the two—elegy and affirmation? 

RL: You grieve someone because you love them. Grief sharpens the edge of that love to something excruciating. Love amplifies that grief to something deafening. 

I think it is also important to remember that elegy is a story of change—elegy, true elegy, culminates in some kind of coming-to-terms. It can hold onto the affirmation without requiring the grief. Elegy takes our attachment and desire and longing and sublimates it into song.

There has been, and I completely understand why, a terrific amount of speculation surrounding Craig’s disappearance and presumed death. Many people, friends and strangers, have shared their theories (often wondrous) with me. I myself have dreamt up almost every conceivable scenario, and I find it much pleasanter to imagine he is, somehow, still in the world. But finally, sadly, I do not believe that. So I grieve, and these poems reflect some of that experience. They affirm a remarkable person, my relationship with him, and his extraordinary work. And I suppose in a small way they affirm that I am able to continue doing mine, even without him. 

JESSE NATHAN: Do you write for anyone in particular? Or a few people in particular? By “write for,” I suppose I mostly mean “to”—as in someone you imagining you are talking to, or to whom you’re imagining reading your poems?

RL: I suppose the two poets who most help me here are Frank O’Hara and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge’s “conversation” poems, like “Frost at Midnight” and “The Nightingale” and “This Lime-Tree Bower, My Prison,” are intimate poems written on specific occasions. They are meditative and personal and candid. The reader gets a sense, above all, of the friendliness of the enterprise, even when Coleridge feels blue. 

In his beautiful, tough little essay “Personism,” O’Hara talks about the poem as a thing held between two people rather than two pages. These poets give me permission to write to a beloved interlocutor—someone intelligent, discriminating, permissive, tender, and interested. Fortunately for me, Craig (to whom most of the poems of this collection are addressed) was all of these things. But Craig is certainly not the only person to whom (and for whom) I write. I just want to feel like I’m conversing with a witty, observant friend.

JN: You’ve made poetry out of Facebook status updates. Why? 

RL: This of course goes right to the heart of the question about address. You write status updates to … whom? 574 of your closest friends? Assuming … what? That anyone will see? or care? These poems were an experiment of a sort—and they’re quite sincere, but that’s not to say they aren’t also lucidly aware of their own (what is it?) ridiculousness? Excess, perhaps. What is okay to share? What isn’t okay to share? In what form and in what forum? These are some of the questions that occasioned the Facebook poems. 

DL: Many of these poems employ cataloging as an organizing principle—a hoarding and sorting of experiences. Can you say something generally about this impulse and how it relates to the collection generally? Also, is this impulse related to your original title for the manuscript, Gloss

RL: Whenever I tried to write about love, or later grief and mystery, I found myself writing more and more about the difficulties of languaging love, grief, and mystery. And as I wrote about my family, my relationship, I developed a new relationship with language itself. The poet Lyn Hejinian has a wonderful essay called “The Rejection of Closure,” which mainly treats the impossibility of “closing” the gap between word and world. No matter how precise or skilled the writer, her language can only ever “gloss” the experience it purports to describe, or the one it purports to elicit. I don’t feel particularly troubled by this, since I don’t think I would feel remotely up to the task of trying to tell any kind of “whole” story, anyway. I find language (and poetry in particular) radically humbling in this respect. I can gather, but I cannot claim that what I gather is whole, or all. 

JN: You often use very plainspoken, direct language, but you also have such facility for enlivening seemingly archaic language. What drives those choices?

RL: Language is expansive and continuous—it is not a pop song that can only include that which is currently trendy, and it is not a politician’s speech, relentless in its earnestness. It’s a litany and a lollapalooza of the new (BFF, OMG, WTF, BTdubs) and the old (shindig, firewater, floozy—or further back—vassal, nunnery, bludgeon). And we haven’t even gotten to the regional (pop, for soda, or heathen, for Democrat). Here in Utah, I’m a big fan of our local expletives, like: “Oh my heck.” Oh, my heck, whyever not indulge? Language isn’t just a tool of surgical precision, it’s the music you play to set the mood for the party, it’s the blazer you wear to the yacht club, it’s the balaclava you put on when you’re robbing the bank. 

JN: Robbing the bank?

RL: Or whatever you do for fun.

DL: Could you say something about the book’s epigraph, from Robert Creeley: “To the hands come/ many things. In time of trouble/ a wild exultation”? 

RL: I believe that poetry is a “wild exultation”—certainly mine is. I wrote these poems to celebrate an incredible person, an incredible conversation, a wild life, a vibrant and difficult and triumphant relationship—as well as the notions about poetry that Craig and I shared, and that I have developed in my own way since his passing. Even a kind of fluorescent grief can be exultant, I believe. 

JN: How does a poem come to you? As individual lines? As rhythms? As particular images? All of these things?

RL: Well, I don’t think of poetry as a “craft” that you practice, like pottery or something. I think of it as a practice that requires everything about you. So I suppose I start by trying to soak in as much as I possibly can—of other texts, of conversations with friends and family, with students, with colleagues, with cohorts, with lovers and partners; of places and strange new sights, flavors, sensations; of ideas. I try to trust that those things will seep into the deep aquifer of my brain and then if I get writing or thinking in a certain direction, the relevant information, quotation, recollection will bubble to the surface and find its way onto the page.

I think that creative invention usually arises under the pressure of a problem that wants solving. For example, I wanted to write love poems in a poetic and academic culture that insists love poetry is “soft,” sentimental stuff. The kind of stuff girls like. Of course, anybody who’s read anything knows the tradition of the love lyric is much more than that—it’s economic, political, rebellious, religious, clever, kinky, psychologically slippery, deeply humane. I wondered, how do I render both the passionate and intellectual aspects of a love story? What if I wrote a poem about love in a form that seems (superficially) the exact opposite of passion—something cold, academic, factual, something associated with the life of the mind? Say, an index? 

DL: Would you say that language “performs” in Love, an Index? If so, how? In what ways?

RL: Language always performs—in every sense of that word. There’s been a lot of brouhaha about the “lyric I,” and perhaps rightly so, but it seems to me that the “I” I am with my students is not the same as the “I” I am with my mother, which is not the same “I” as I am with my colleagues, which is different from the “I” I am at home alone, or with my partner, or with my kid. All of these are a kind of performance, I suppose, but none of them are false, none of them misrepresent me. The “lyric I” (and the lyric “you”) of these poems function similarly, I think. Language does perform, but above all, I think, language reveals. Poetry is the practice of exploring how we and our language behave—and (perhaps especially) misbehave. The revelation is partly in the performance.

DL: So why write poetry? 

RL: I think there is a general misconception that you write poems because you “have something to say.” I think, actually, that you write poems because you have something echoing around in the bone-dome of your skull that you cannot say. Poetry allows us to hold many related tangential notions in very close orbit around each other at the same time. The “unsayable” thing at the center of the poem becomes visible to the poet and reader in the same way that dark matter becomes visible to the astrophysicist. You can’t see it, but by measure of its effect on the visible, it can become so precise a silhouette you can almost know it. 

Perhaps this is what Wallace Stevens means when he says, “Poetry should resist the intelligence almost successfully.” Poetry isn’t about expression so much as exploration. Poetry is hard because it takes on big problems like love, grief, language, whether there is or isn’t a self to express, and the various implications either way. Poetry takes things we take for granted all the time (like language) and makes us take another look at it—defamiliarizing it, re-inventing it. 

JN: You’ve called yourself a “maximalist.” What do you mean by this? What is maximalism in terms of poetry and language? 

RL: Well, on one hand, it has to do with a kind of idiosyncratic exuberance, a kind of unapologetic bigness. The language of the poetry workshop and the language of contemporary poetry generally is riddled with terms like “restraint” and “contained” and “earn” and “at stake”—language having to do with reduction or transaction, as if you had to bargain and haggle to make a poem, or you had to compress the world to get it to fit in the poem. And the truth is I’ve never even really understood what those terms mean, but I do always feel a bit hemmed in by them. And I don’t think you can write very ambitious poems feeling that way. I feel better when, instead of trying to be faithful to a set of poetic conventions, I’m trying to be faithful to the occasion and nature of the poem or, better yet, to the world that occasioned it. If I could write a map of the world the size of the world, I would feel great about it. 

JN: Might be predictable but… what are you working on next?

RL: A map of the world the size of the world. Seriously.