An interview with Holly Simonsen

Photos of the Great Salt Lake, Holly Simonsen

Photos by Holly Simonsen  

Since 2007, Holly Simonsen’s poetry has been deeply entwined with the Great Salt Lake in Utah, a landscape she describes as a collaborator in the poetic process. In 2011, she completed a manuscript born of that collaboration, S AL T F LA T, that was shortlisted for the 2012 Yale Younger Poets Prize, among others. In this interview, Holly talks about the connection between language and landscape and the space of poetry they both allow an entry into, about her relationship with the Great Salt Lake, and about her poetic practice. -rk

Robert Kotchen: I want to begin by talking about some of the things you have said and certain statements I’ve come across of yours about poetry, and specifically about the experience of language. By addressing the experience of language, what aspect of language are you trying to get at?

Holly Simonsen: I’m trying to get at the part of language that is ancient, that is impulsive, that is connected to the rituals of the body—the part of language that originates from the earth rather than solely a product of the mind, the part of language that connects human beings to their sensuous natures, rather than exclusively intellectual language.

Can you give an indication of what language that is a product of the earth as opposed to a product of the mind would mean?

For me, language as a product of the earth involves both writing and reading. It goes back to our earliest impulses as humans, making marks—maybe incising marks into the ground, making scratches in the sand, which is one of my poetic rituals. Making marks is a language act that faces the earth. Even the words we use today reinforce this: we write things down. There is something in that, I think. As for language being a product of the earth that is readable, my experience is that I use the same tools to read a landscape as I do to read anything else. Working with the Great Salt Lake is a landscape of lines. There are wake lines, wave lines, debris lines; and the landscape can be read just like a poetic line. Moreover, because the line is physical, you can inhabit the line. You can be physically present inside of language. We’ve all been swept up by stunning language, we can all remember a time where we felt so strongly about a book that we were almost “in the book”; it is similar to that, but rather than being solely in the imagination, the experience exists in the physical body. Human beings are trapped in a false ideology of forward progress. Through what we call progress, we have forgotten our ability to read and experience landscape, which is why I often describe my work as moving backwards. The language works backward from the English sentence to poetic fragment to glyph, and those early glyphs connect to natural phenomenon in a way that the English language doesn’t. Which is to say that a glyph is actually more advanced than a purely representational alphabetic letter because it connects to something physical and real. Even abstract concepts can be represented by glyphs, but always in a way that connects the abstraction back to the physical world, to the environment.

I’ve come across several samples of your writing where language is used in very different ways—language used for a critical review, for example, or language used as prose in an essay or story, and then of course language as poetry. In terms of language, what does poetry allow for?

I think poetry allows for a greater magnitude of silence, if human beings can even approach silence (I’m not certain), but I think there’s space there. It also allows for a certain element of invisibility, if humans can even experience invisibility. These kind of ideas that are impossible or even sometimes mythical to us. I think poetry allows us the space to experience things that cannot be experienced in any other way.

In the poem “Spring held out her arms and two were salty,” there’s the idea, “Here is where I come to lay it down. / Here, lay it down.” Is there a way—a great release of everything—that leads to a new beginning? Is there an idea of a truth or an honesty that you are trying very hard to get at through poetic language?

Absolutely. Part of the poetic quest is to reconcile one’s own authenticity. For me, there’s an experience—a push and pull—of reconciling my human form, reconciling human language, reconciling this human body as a product of the landscape, but also being disassociated with it or unaware of it, unaware of almost being on a planet at all, so ecologically and poetically I think there is an opportunity for language to, if not reconnect, at least approach that gap, back toward something that we once were as humans, as a culture, or maybe as a different species.

In talking about body and landscape, language as a reconciliation or connection between the two, I get a sense of an imagination outside of ourselves, independent of ourselves, be it an imagination of the land itself or even or our own bodies that is not localized to our minds and what we can think.

Certainly the experience trespasses the borders of one’s own mind; however, I think that poetry begins in the body, poetry is a ritual of the body, and a ritual of landscape. My poetic process involves walking, crawling, touching, smelling, tasting. Describing it as an imagination doesn’t feel right because imagination seems to be a concept independent of our corporeal bodies; rather, experiencing the natural world or experiencing anything—any kind of sensuous experience—is the origin of a poem.

At the same time, you talk about collaborating with the landscape. What is the land offering in terms of making a poem?

The landscape I work with—the Great Salt Lake—is vast and arid and to most considered a wasteland. It’s also extraordinarily ecologically disrupted—polluted, abused. When I’m there—just the physical nature of the landscape and the physical nature of my body there—I am completely dwarfed and laid bare, which seems to be akin to how I feel about poetry. And I’ve thought a lot about the relation between the body and landscape in terms of experiencing truth. On one hand, it is through the landscape that the Western mind often experiences fear. For example, one might feel small in relation to a mountain and have the impetus to climb it, to conquer it, which sets up the human vs. nature binary opposition. But for me, I want to live in that liminal space, to allow myself to feel dwarfed by the landscape and relish in my own insignificance. On the other hand, it is often through the landscape that one might feel their internal selves are too large to be contained by the body. In a way humans are always experiencing themselves as either too small or too large for their bodies, and I think that human beings are often in a tug-of-war between feeling insignificant in relation to their surroundings and feeling like their bodies are too small to contain their massive feelings. This is the same experience one should get reading a poem. The 8½ x 11 page and a few scant lines are not large enough containers for the enormity of what they contain, yet somehow they work. Successful poems simultaneously dwarf and swell the reader, just like the landscape.

Does the tug-of-war ever end?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s necessarily a need for reconciliation. In other words, winning the tug-of-war is not the point because winning doesn’t exist as a concept. Rather, the point is to exist in the middle. For me, I have to do it to live and be happy. I have to experience those things. I have to go out and do work that’s essential for me. But I don’t think there’s an end game.

One of the things you talk about in a Contributor Spotlight on the website of Hayden Ferry’s Review is entering into a “metaphorical space,” and you describe the metaphorical space as “the space of the body, the space of trance, the space of violence, and the space of poetry.” My question is, how do trance and violence relate to each other and how do they become a space of poetry, or lead to poetry?

Trance and violence relate to each other only in that trance is an access point to art (poetry) and art is an act of violence. Trance is important to my work because I don’t like to have preconceived notions of what will happen. For example, I go out into the landscape, I climb over a gate—this involves an element of trespass, so there’s a physical trespass, and also a metaphorical trespass wherein I begin questioning the boundaries of my body. I walk, and the walking meditation allows me to enter a trance-like state, and it’s in this trance that I can begin experiencing metaphorical space—active poetic space. Within this space I can begin operating as a poet, as an artist, which is where the violence happens. One of my mentors, Ralph Angel, said, “Art is an act of violence against the violent silence,” so the silence is violent, but breaking the silence is also an act of violence. Violence is a terrifying concept, but it seems to be present at the root of physical creation.

One of the ways in which I see trance getting incorporated into the poetry and coming out the other side of the poem, as a reader, comes from some repetition, some rhythm, some meter—almost a lullaby sensibility at times that will come across the poems. And then I know also—you’ve talked about this—the ways in which that gets disrupted within the poem: there’s an intentional break within the poem that can be hard and immediate.

I hesitate to talk about my own poems in that way, because I never have a clear, preconceived intention regarding rhyme or meter, but it makes absolute sense in terms of my poetic practice—that is, I like trance, I like the idea of lullaby, I like that idea of lulling the reader along; and if I do have an intention for the reader, I suppose it would be to transcribe my experience with such exactitude that the reader could experience a replication of it on the page, so it would make sense that there’s some rhythm and some meter and quite a lot of repetition—I am aware of that—and almost a directive. And yes, there is the violence of the line break when the trance is broken or when the self second guesses the experience or when I have to exit the space completely because I cannot sustain myself in that state anymore. It’s interesting to me that there’s this landscape that I feel very much a part of—in fact, I feel like I was born out of—but I can’t survive there in my current state. My species can’t survive. There’s no fresh water, no edible plants, so I can’t sustain myself in that place. There is a violence here too because I have to break the trance, I have to put my shoes on and drive home. I can’t live in the space of poetry for very long; I want to and I attempt to, but I have to break out of it in order to survive, which is somewhat paradoxical, where I feel like I need to go there in order to survive but where I know I cannot stay for too long.

And I guess paradox comes up—I don’t know if “paradox” is quite the right word, I almost want to use the word “metaphor” again rather than “paradox.” For example, in your poems presence is often presented vis-à-vis absence, so a body may be suggested by a body not being there. I’m specifically thinking of the pattern in snow of a bird that has been shot and struggled before dying. The body actually might be there, the bird might be within that pattern—but still we get the feeling that the pattern itself describes the body. Or often—getting back to the idea of bone—the body has been there, there’s been an amount of decay, and you’re now down to bone. So death. And that being a big part of the presence.

Certainly. I think it also references my experience of trespass, wherein I feel like I am testing the boundaries of my own body and experiencing my body not as a fixed and closed object, but as an entity of membrane. I think many humans forget the porous nature of our forms—elements are passing through our bodies all the time; the most obvious place to start is with the breath, where we bring the wind into our lungs. And the bones—I do work a lot with bones. Most of the animals I encounter in the landscape are dead, so I only experience them as bones. They are still present, so yes, presence and absence are concepts that I think about. Additionally there is a certain absence in the landscape itself because it is so barren, but as anyone who has spent time in the desert can tell you, what you first assume is an absence soon transforms into a presence because in vast and barren landscapes you can see everything. If a coyote walks across the salt flat, you can see its tracks, sometimes for months. And to me this feels sacred, it feels like a gift, it feels like something . . . maybe something I stumbled upon but I’m not really supposed to be there. I don’t know the words for what that is, other than “sacred,” but “sacred” is a strange word for me.

I think “sacred” may be a good word. I don’t get the impression reading these poems that you’re somewhere where you shouldn’t be. I get the impression there’s a kind of home and a trying to describe what that home is—and part of the home being the search for what the home is. There seems to be, coming back to metaphor, an idea of both constriction and expansion. Sometimes things are very specific. Sometimes they’re specifically named—a type of bird, for example; sometimes they’re much more general. And I get that sense of what you were talking about, the individual in relation to the landscape—being overwhelmed at one point, at another point not big enough to contain what’s inside (and that back and forth play)—a sense of moving back and forth between both a very immediate temporal person with a limited lifespan and specific physicality, and something that is much larger—the specific physicality moving into the landscape, the time of span we have on earth moving into a larger time span. And I think that’s where I’m seeing some of the idea of metaphor. You have this great line: “In every body live two urges: flight and death // touch the place they manifest.” That seems to me to be both a call to be very specific, very real—if you’re really going to do that, it requires all you have—and also metaphorical—going somewhere else, beyond ourselves, be it flight, be it death.

And they are not exclusive, I guess. And maybe that is what you’re reading or what I’m driving at. I think the last line of that poem is, “There is no more beautiful bone,” meaning it’s the same urge—a flight urge or a death urge—in the same part of the body, so again, an attempt to reconcile the container.

There’s also a subtle play between pronouns: Is this the poet talking to herself? Is this the poet talking to the reader? The pronoun can switch from “I” to “your.” “Touch the place they manifest.” There’s a certain command and a certain challenge. And I got that same sense of challenge in the first poem: “Here, lay it down.” There’s a call there.

I try not to think too much in terms of the reader, but I am definitely convincing myself to go to that liminal space—so taking the part of me that wants to risk it, taking the part of me that wants to go there, and then convincing myself, talking myself into doing the hard work or doing the next thing that I think I will not do. And that, I think, goes back to trance and violence and maybe everything that I’ve been able to identify that informs the work, but I don’t think it’s wrong to interpret the lines as directives to the reader, although I’m not particularly cognizant of that when I’m writing the poem—but reading it in that manner seems appropriate.

So switching the topic a little bit and thinking in terms of you as poet and your development as a poet: When did poetry become important to you, at least consciously?

I was nearly sixteen when I took my first poetry class, so consciously it became very important to me as a teenager. During my high school years, much to the chagrin of my parents, I carried poetry with me everywhere.

Was there a point where you began to think of yourself as a poet?

The only time I think of myself as a poet is when I’m not writing poems. When I’m not engaged in the act of making poetry, and I’m miserable, then I remember, oh right, I’m a poet and I need to make poems in order to be happy. It is only during times when I’m not working where I feel like I need to remind myself that I’m a poet.

Are there particular influences, whether they’re writers, whether they’re mentors, or (I’ll say) experiences—obviously the Great Salt Lake—but things that really led you in the direction of poetry and things that were important along that path?

Certainly the Great Salt Lake, the composite and very interesting landscape that surrounds it. My primary mentor is a poet named Jody Gladding. She works with the same type of processes I do. She lives in Vermont, but we collaborated together on a project here, at the Great Salt Lake, and she is my touchstone. Other influences are Lorine Niedecker, who lived most of her life on the shores of Lake Superior, Cecilia Vicuña, for her ability to create works that live on and off the page, Jean Valentine, whose work most closely inhabits that place of silence, and Alfred Lambourne, a man who in 1901 attempted and failed to homestead Gunnison Island, a small island (one mile long and half a mile wide) in the northern part of the Great Salt Lake.

When you are writing—you’ve talked about some of the preparations you do—it could be walking or meditation or yoga—but is there a particular routine you follow?

I usually go on a walk, and I don’t have any materials, any conventional writing materials. I do carry a camera, and if I stumble upon something that I want to work with, maybe I’ll work with it for a while, whether it be a pile of stones or some debris, and then I’ll usually take a photograph, then I’ll come home and let the physicality of the work and the evidence of the work rest for a while without disturbance, and then I usually wake the work up to see what I’ve done. At this point I try to write a few lines down or things that I can remember about the experience. If everything is working, this practice will take me into a re-living of the experience which I’ll write down. I always write by hand, so there’s not a computer screen glowing, but there is the physicality of the hand moving on paper, which can also incite trance. Then I’ll allow the writing to rest—sometimes for a few days—and then I’ll wake it up and see what I’ve done. At this point I begin typing lines and fragments that feel authentic.

For all your poems, are you always working with physical material?

Typically, yes.

How long have you been working on the Great Salt Lake poems?

It’s been six or seven years now; I started in 2007.

Was there a clear point where you knew this was going to be a project, or did this evolve into becoming a project?

This really evolved. At the beginning, I was walking at the Great Salt Lake and I was also walking on mountain trails in the Wasatch Mountains. The two landscapes couldn’t be more different. My hiking landscape was producing some interesting things, but I kept being drawn back to the Great Salt Lake until that became my exclusive practice.

I think somewhere I saw that you live within sight of the Great Salt Lake? You can see it from your window?

I can’t see it from my window, but if I walk up the hill that I live on, I can see it from the top of the hill.

How far are you physically from the lake?

About sixteen miles.

How often do you go to the lake?

Usually twice a week.

And do you go there with the intention that you want to write poetry, or do you just go and as the poems happen, they happen?

As they happen, they happen. I do go with the intention of being aware or working. It’s a workday for me to go out and walk around. So there is an intention of work behind it; sometimes I find something and other times it’s just a bad workday.

And when you drive to the lake, get out and walk, how much time will you spend there?

A typical walk is about two or three hours.

When you began writing these poems, did that affect your experience of the landscape?

Yes, definitely. My first experiences at the lake were filled with fear, primarily due to the sheer magnitude of the landscape. I also felt uncomfortable, which is a typical reaction people have when they visit the Great Salt Lake for the first time. First off, it stinks. It smells like brine, or dead brine shrimp. It’s kind of a sulfur smell. The air is dry, the salt stings your eyes and sticks to your skin. During late summer, the brine flies hatch, and thousands of them will cover your whole body. They don’t bite, but they’re flies—teeny, tiny flies swarming you the whole time. So I would emerge from my first experiences thinking, “Oh, that was pretty terrible,” but something kept drawing me back. When I actually started working with the landscape, my impulse was to go deeper and deeper into the experience with each visit. Now I have an affinity, even a love for those experiences. I love when I can smell the Great Salt Lake, I love when I can see sloughed-off shells of small brine shrimp making a line in the sand. I even love when I’m out in my kayak or rowing shell and covered in brine flies. And of course, I absolutely love the unique beauty and drama of the landscape.

And it terms of the poems themselves . . . Have they changed over time since 2007? Have you found yourself at a certain time focusing on certain aspects, and at other times focusing on different aspects?

Yes, definitely. And I think the poetic change reflects the change in my physical awareness. Meditation and trance helped a lot with that. My beginning experiences were more about convincing myself to stay even if it was uncomfortable, and now it’s more about relishing in the awareness and trying to go deeper into that awareness. As I get deeper into the landscape, the language becomes sparer. There are more opportunities for the inexplicable. The work moves toward minimalism—on the page, there are fewer words, there is more silence. The language that does exist is extraordinarily focused. Minimalism requires a certain precision.

You have a manuscript, S AL T F LA T, currently. How have you organized the poems in that manuscript? Are they in chronological order, or are they organized by season or by image, theme, feel . . . ?

The poems are organized in thematic sections. The first is called “Trespass,” and it primarily explores the idea of crossing boundaries, both in the body and in the landscape. The second section is called “Dissolution,” and addresses the slipperiness, and even disappearance of conventional language, when things as we know them begin to decay or dissolve—the fact that the Great Salt Lake is drying up is a big theme there. It will eventually evaporate and only distillate will remain, so too the language becomes dissolved and distillate. Pieces are missing, pieces have corroded or eroded, and we know this also happens to language. When we distance ourselves from the natural world, we lose the versatility and variety of our language. Then it ends with a section called “Inland Sea” that explores reconciling the body, reconciling language.

Once the manuscript was completed, did that signal a change in how you approached poems about the Great Salt Lake and how you approached the Great Salt Lake itself?

It definitely did. I didn’t visit the Great Salt Lake for a while. I took a hiatus because I couldn’t go there, I couldn’t work there, the metaphorical space was no longer active for me, and it was devastating. I took time off—I think it was about nine months—where I worked on other projects, and worked with different landscapes. Now I’m at work on a second manuscript, tentatively entitled Shoreline, which also takes root at the Great Salt Lake. The manuscripts are distinctly different, but I’m not sure exactly where the second one is headed yet. My impulse though is to keep working backward (in linear time), so my obvious starting point has been the ancient lake Bonneville that the current Great Salt Lake is a remnant of.

This interview was originally conducted by telephone in December of 2013 and susequently edited.

Related poems:
     Spring held out her arms / and two were salty
     Shots Fire, Waterfowl Season, Deep Haze
     Chinese Calligraphy, Character One, Horizon

A further source:
     Holly's website

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