Off the Cuff: Angie Estes
Angie Estes is the author of two books of poetry, The Uses of Passion and Voice Over, the second of which was published by OberlinÕs Field Press. Estes has won the Poetry Society of AmericaÕs Alice Fay Di Castagnola award and the 2001 Field Poetry Prize. She has been published in Paris Review, Ploughshares, Slate, Lyric and Boston Review. This semester she is a visiting professor in the Creative Writing department.
In the fall you published an essay in Lyric Literary Journal called "Souvenir." In this essay you discuss the emotional function of collecting souvenirs; you remember coming home from family treks to Bull Run with "fragments of cannonballs and minie balls dug out of the tree trunks, and an original Confederate five-dollar bill." Reading this I wonder what you took away from Oberlin when you left after your first stint here as a visiting professor of poetry in the spring of 2002.
At the bead store downtown I got a great bead that looks like Venetian glass; it now hangs in my study. I love the way the light shines through it.
I notice that images or artifacts of Venice, as well as Rome, Florence, Paris, often appear in your poetry. As far as what surrounds us here, which of these details stayed with you?
I commute here on 71 and on that drive you pass these huge semis traveling alongside Amish buggies. ThatÕs a great thing thatÕs still going on in this world, with all the grit and speed. Just today I saw a guy out in his field plowing with a buggy.
So then, do you see this Ohio landscape seeping into your writing?
IÕm almost done with my third book and in that book I have a poem, "Chere Personne," that ends with an image of those Amish buggies we have been talking about.
In Voice Over you dedicate the poem "Now and Again: Autobiography of a Basket" to Gertrude Stein and then "Say Merveille" to Josephine Baker. When you began these poems did you find yourself conscious of the writing as either about or in tribute to these artists?
What begins a poem? ThatÕs a hard question...I love Josephine BakerÕs music and I use parts of her song "Je Voudrais" in "Say Merveille." The way she sings that song stuck to me; thatÕs what happens. I get interested in something and I start reading. Josephine Baker was called "Dark Star." That connects to the word aster, then disaster. My poems use a lot of wordplay. Dedication functions in different ways. ItÕs a tribute, but also an epigraph. "Say Merveille" is a hard poem. ItÕs about the experience of Baker. The dedication gives the reader someplace to hang their hats.
Now, for the poem dedicated to Stein...there is this photograph of Gertrude Stein on a hammock with her dog Basket. "Now and Again: Autobiography of a Basket" comes from the viewpoint of the dog. We use language so much with animals. I have that Far Side cartoon in my head, the one with the picture of a person yelling at a dog and a cat. The dog hears "BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH" and the cat hears nothing -- her thought bubble is totally blank. When Gertrude SteinÕs dog Basket died she immediately got another white standard poodle, one that looked exactly like the first, and named it Basket. Obviously it brings up the question of identity. You know, Stein said "I am I because my little dog knows me." ThatÕs in the poem.
Clearly you are very influenced by other genres and mediums. How do you encourage your poetry students to do that kind of mixing or experimentation?
For one assignment, I had students read Carol Maso and do their own multi-medium poem. Maso uses images in her book and one student used photographs from her childhood in the poem. Generally I recommend that students do not restrict their reading to their genre. I am influenced mostly by non-fiction. You have to cultivate your own obsessions, your own experiences. Be interested.
What are you reading now?
I am re-reading The Waves by Virginia Woolf and I am reading Proust.
The new Lydia Davis translation?
The old Scott Montcrieff, the one that they say has all the errors. I am also reading Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli.
Who is the best new poet you have read recently?
Mary Szybist. I read her book Granted sometime last year. She is fantastic.
Interview conducted by Ariella Cohen