The following is an excerpt from Milkweed's Authors Interviewing Authors series, with Rebecca Dunham and Patricia Kirkpatrick in conversation.
Patricia Kirkpatrick won [Milkweed Edtions's] first-ever Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry in 2012 for Odessa, a selection of poems the Star Tribune called “unflinching and beautiful.” This year, Rebecca Dunham’s new book, Glass Armonica, was selected as the winner of the 2013 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry by G.C. Waldrep for what he called “exquisitely crafted poems.” As the only two winners of this poetry prize in the world, [Milkweed] decided they were uniquely suited to interview one another about poetry, life, and their mutually admired diction.
Patricia Kirkpatrick: What initially attracted you to the glass armonica? How did this book come into being?
Rebecca Dunham: Glass Armonica was many years in the making. At different points in time, I would have said that the book was about different things. The sequence “Glass Armonica” was actually the last poem written in the collection, and when I wrote it I realized that the book would have as its keystone the echo of this strange musical instrument and the melding of personal and historical notions of hysteria explored in the sequence. While researching Franz Mesmer’s treatment of his patients, I came across mention of his use of the glass armonica. Curious, I listened to recordings of the instrument. The music produced by it is beautiful, yet there is a disturbing echo that reverberates as one listens – it is chilling. In a way, I hope that Glass Armonica has a similar effect upon readers: one of beauty entwined with an almost visceral shiver.
PK: A long poem in Glass Armonica is titled “Ubi Sunt,” a Latin phrase that translates as “where are they?” How did that question inform this book? What for you is the importance of who – and what – came before us?
RD: As a woman who occupies many roles – writer, mother, daughter, wife – I often find myself casting my mind back through both personal and cultural history for models of other women who have confronted similar challenges. In the case of “Ubi Sunt,” however, I was particularly interested in the ways in which women’s bodies today are frequently figured as “grotesque” and distorted when they deviate from the lithe, adolescent ideal—something which all of us confront as our bodies change over time.
PK: I greatly admire your diction: it’s charged, rich, precise. What influences your language choices? Is there ever a tension for you, when writing, between language as sound and language as meaning? Does the notion of music occur at a certain point in your writing?
RD: Language’s musical qualities drive my writing process from the outset. When I was an undergraduate in the poet Gregory Orr’s workshop, I recall him asking us the first day whether, if we had to, we would choose music or truth in poetry. For me, music was the answer – I believe that it is in the sounds of language that meaning most effectively emerges. In many ways, following the history and music of words is what leads me to “meaning,” and it is for this reason that poems often surprise me as they evolve.
Rebecca Dunham has published three books of poetry. Glass Armonica was published by Milkweed Editions in 2013, after winning the 2013 Lindquist & Vennum Prize. Her other collections are The Miniature Room (Truman State University Press, 2006), winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize, and The Flight Cage (Tupelo Press, 2010). Her fourth collection of poems, Cold Pastoral, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions. Other awards and honors include a 2014 Sustainable Arts Fellowship and residency at the Vermont Studio Center, the 2012 So to Speak Poetry Prize, a 2007 NEA Fellowship, the 2005-2006 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Fellowship in Poetry at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the 2011 Terrain.org Poetry Prize, and the 2005 Indiana Review Prize for Poetry. Poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, AGNI, The Journal, FIELD, The Antioch Review, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Third Coast, Crazyhorse, and Colorado Review.