An Interview With Caryl Pagel (Re-printed)

I had forgotten that Caryl Pagel inaugurated this blog four years ago with the interview re-printed below. I hadn’t forgotten the interview — how could I? — but I had forgotten that it was the first thing we printed. It seems natural that it should have been. If you’re so inclined, you can read the original post here: it has a picture, where this re-print does not.



Each month, THERMOS conducts an interview with a past contributor. Our poet for July is Caryl Pagel, whose wonderful chapbook, Visions, Crisis Apparitions, and Other Exceptional Experiences, published in 2008, is available from Factory Hollow Press.


Caryl answers our questions about craft, and offers a new poem.


THERMOS: How does what you’re writing now differ from the poems we published?


CARYL PAGEL: Formally, what I’m writing now is more “traditional”—a try at structure, stress, counting. The poem that was published in Thermos (“Hear One Cry Out”) was part of a longer series that struggled to create a very specific physical space—both within the poems and within an imagined world. Many of those pieces are punctuated by “horizon lines,” and account for certain uncanny and terrifying occurrences that take place at a fictional farm. More recent poems (a small collection of which can be found in my chapbook) include gaps, in-betweens, and the spaces that separate religion from spiritualism, war from chaos, flora from art, memory from grief. They attempt to question the act of naming as tribute, or collection—and the practice of investigating and labeling nature removed. There are storms, wars, levitations. Appearances by William James, D.D. Home, Hareward Carrington. They unfold within restraints (sonnets, blank verse, syllabics, etc.) in hopes of highlighting the “scientific” sense of the subjects.


TH: How important is thinking about poetic movements — contemporary, historical, conceptual — to your ideas about the poems you write or would like to write? Do you see your writing as participating in identifiable aesthetic traditions, impulses, or communities? As trying to change or invent them?


CP: Not very important, at least not to my writing. Movements become forms, and although I’m interested in structural forms, it would be claustrophobic (to me) to commit to an ideological, thematic, or conceptual form for an extended period of time (life?). I participate in many traditions—a bit from here, a bit from there—but I hope that each new poem, or project disrupts the “rules” or obsessions of my last poem or project—that it creates its own limitations. At least, it’s helpful for me to believe that. Currently, I’m thinking about what sort of aesthetic tradition or poetics might come from the mixed influence of Inger Christensen, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Taggart.


TH: What were some of the first poems/poets you loved? How do they seem to you now? How do they relate to your own work?


CP: Some of the first poets I loved: Mike Ness, Ian MacKaye, Tim Armstrong, Glenn Danzig, Iggy Pop. The first formal poem I ever wrote was a pantoum about Ian MacKaye. The list still seems relevant, but lacking in girls. Perhaps that explains my current (on-the-page) favorites: Dickinson, Niedecker, Moore, Guest, Christensen—and also, my love for the dynamic music and emotion in Berryman and Hopkins.


TH: If you had to give a brief lecture on some aspect of poetry right now, what would you enchant us with?


CP: Spiritualism, the occult, dark matter.


Dark matter composes more mass than non-dark matter (what’s seen). In other words, apparently, there is more to account for in nothing than in something. Can this lecture be all questions?


A few months ago, I attended a Café Scientifique discussion on dark matter at The Map Room, a Chicago bar—the source of much practical information. We had trouble hearing the scientists through the din, but left transformed anyway.


TH: How do you feel about the different formats you have been or could be published in (established journals, newer journals, chapbooks, books, online, limited-edition projects)? Which particularly suits your poems?


CP: I’m drawn to print journals, still, over online, though just barely, and probably out of a nostalgia for slower pacing, more time. It’s interesting how the same poem moves differently depending on how it is published, especially long poems. My piece in Thermos is an example of that, I think. Online it seems much faster, more fluid, and “whole,” and on the page the reader pauses (visually, rhythmically) in certain moments along with the natural punctuation of a page-turn.


Last spring, I was lucky enough to have a small chapbook of poems published by Factory Hollow Press. The editors/publishers were wonderful, smart, and open to my input on how the chapbook would look and feel. I was able to design the cover, choose the size, etc.—great experiences, and ones that I know aren’t always possible when working with a larger press. I love any form that a book might come in.


TH: One of our editors, Jay Thompson, has written about your work elsewhere) and wonders about the necessity of rupture in your poetry — why do it, why scramble stories? Do you compose or conceptualize by field? By deletion? By choreography?


CP: The poems Jay mentioned (along with others from that manuscript) were primarily composed by sound, rhythm, and a desire for the disruption, interruption, and rupture of the farm “scenes.” I had a mind to sustain “plot”—though not necessarily narrative. Lots of space, moving silences. The horizon lines were both obsessive and surprising to me—a visual indication of breaking that became architecture. The poems also attempted to activate gothic tropes: suspense, doubling, a haunted house, omens, ghosts, unexplained agitation. Jay’s term—“proprioceptive”—is relevant; haunting is always physical, the apparition appearing, disappearing, appearing again elsewhere.


I also love that Jay mentions Barbara Guest in his post. Forces of Imagination, in particular, is a favorite of mine. In “A Reason for Poetics,” Guest says: “The conflict between poet and poem creates an air of mystery…Mystery with its air of surprise and, better word, audacity. At once unexpected dramas have entered the poem. The search for its originating mystery now becomes an adventure. Poet and reader perform together on a highwire strung on a platform between their separated selves.” I like the thought of the poet and reader treading the tensions of a highwire, experiencing either horrible vertigo or amazing balance depending on the other’s gestures, twitches.


TH: What’s something you noticed about the poems — or a particular poem — by other contributors in the issue of Thermos you were in? Things that intrigue you? Techniques you’d like to try or have tried? Ways you see your work as distinct from or related to other poems in the issue?


CP: Thermos (#1) contains several poems whose lines are permanently seared into my heart, along with, and alongside the “greats.” Moments of them strung together have become a jumbled, looping chant. Mis-matched lyrics to a song? When I leave my house in the morning, walking down the steps, I hear a mishmash that goes something like: “Don’t die, little lemon,” “we’re just the grief of a thread,” “I am queen,” “I am queen” “millionwindowed into earth’s closet” “Measure I. Heard you fall,” “I have lived above it forever…”


A new poem from Caryl Pagel:



Natural Science and Religion


One foot one petal off—just—just adjusting the great modern                                 debate All exper-


iments are destined to fail but by failing gain might & thrive                                         History began


with an I I cannot identify I felt an Ivy—                                                                     Ivy me The sense


of what’s seen is not absolute science but sometimes the seen                       seems best Some say if


we do the Lord’s will we will thrive but I’ll ask us what if we                                 attend to the map?


Would you remember? Read I of the robin ‘fore I spotted—                         a Throatwort wrote me



Caryl Pagel’s poems have recently appeared in Gulf Coast, GutCult, New Orleans Review, notnostrums, Parcel, and Thermos. A chapbook of her work, Visions, Crisis Apparitions, and Other Exceptional Experiences, was published by Factory Hollow Press last year. She lives in Milwaukee.

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