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The Library of Congress > Poetry & Literature > Interview Series > “A Seemingly Impossible Combination of Animal and Telephone”: Heather Christle
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Heather Christle is the author of four books of poetry, including The Difficult Farm (2009); The Trees The Trees (2011), winner of the Believer Poetry Award; What Is Amazing (2012); and, most recently, Heliopause (2015). Her poems have appeared in publications including Boston Review, Gulf Coast, The New Yorker, and The Best American Poetry. She has taught poetry at UT Austin, Wittenberg University, Antioch College, Sarah Lawrence College, UMass Amherst, and Emory University, where she was the 2009-2011 Poetry Writing Fellow. A native of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, she lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Heather Christle


This interview was conducted over email by Chris Philpot.

Many of your poems deal with the relationship between technology and the natural world: power outlets among cornfields, sharks making phone calls, trees with LED displays. What about this relationship interests you? And how does poetry allow you to talk about it in new and exciting ways?

Sometimes I wonder if it all goes back to the lamppost in the middle of the woods in Narnia, if that moment of Lucy's surprise (as portrayed in the BBC adaptation I watched obsessively in my childhood) permanently set my mind to delight in the juxtaposition of the technological and the natural. The distinction, is of course, somewhat arbitrary. Or perhaps I should say that both are fuzzy categories. If a bird learns his song from a cell phone, isn't he too a cyborg?

But also I believe in exploring what shouldn't ("shouldn't"), be happening, whether it's a seemingly impossible combination of animal and telephone, or a disordering of preposition, or an agrammatical inclusion of spoken syntax that might not be expected in certain poems: “It is a physical thing / which I am going to touch it.”

Poetry allows me to talk (to write) about it in (I am uncertain of “new” and “exciting”) ways for the same reason that it invites the reorganization of any subject, I think, that--for all its limitations--it is still the best medium to let language reach its strangest self.

In Heliopause, you write that “beauty is what beauty does to you.” How does this maxim relate to your work?

I know it can be a little tiresome to talk about anything as a process rather than an object, but I truly believe most things (oh useful word!) are. A poem is a bunch of happenings. A poem is happens, I think I mean. Ages ago now I read about a marvelous study that found that a brain reacts to a concrete object--a noun--in terms of associated actions. At one point the article quoted a researcher as saying "An apple is what you do with it." Gertrude Stein understood this long before neuroscience began its investigations, long before the advent of relational aesthetics.

In The Trees The Trees, you write, “I understand / two categories one of objects the other of force.” Is poetry a forceful object? What forceful objects disturb and/or inspire you?

Poetry is a force, yes, like everything! I am disturbed by angry white men with guns. I am afraid that their rage and fear will somehow position me as part of a mass they see as a target they're entitled to destroy. I think about this when I am walking through parking lots, when I am in big box stores.

In previous interviews, you’ve spoken very articulately about social identity and experiences of difference: the reception of black comics by a white audience, for example, or your own membership in your high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. Does your understanding of these social issues inform your poetry? If so, how?

I think I am recently more conscious of the ways social identities shape my writing, though of course they always have. Honestly, I'm in a strange place in my thinking right now. I'm grateful to have been jostled lately by Cathy Park Hong's "Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant Garde," the VERY forceful Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo, the various responses to Kenneth Goldsmith's abysmal appropriation of Mike Brown's autopsy. There is no place at which to rest; at every turn there's another reason for me to feel dissatisfied with myself, with poetry, with all the systems that unevenly govern bodies. I would say that I am curious about what I will write on the other side of this, but no such space exists. 

You’re working on a book of prose about crying. Why prose? And why crying?

It began when I imagined what it would be like to have a map of every place I'd ever cried, and it just hasn't yet found a place to stop. Tears are a sea in which I can set myself adrift, unsure of the subject where I'll land. It is unnerving. As for prose? I am still learning what I'm doing there, which is my favorite condition in which to make art.