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PAISLEY REKDAL
in conversation with BENNINGTON REVIEW 

 

FRANCI REVEL

Can you speak to the relationship between content and form in the two poems in Bennington Review, "Creation Myth" and "Daphne"

PAISLEY REKDAL

My interest in retelling many of the myths from Ovid's The Metamorphoses was to explore the limits of the contemporary narrative poem, while also trying to reflect Ovid's formally hybrid project. Ovid's epic is actually a compendium of poetic "genres": pastoral and narrative mini-epics (or epyllions), odes, elegies, love lyrics and even science writing and philosophy. With that in mind, I tried my hand at combining certain poetic genres or ideas of genres within each of the narratives I'm retelling. "Creation Myth" is both a family memory and a spiritual reckoning, "Daphne" is both an elegy and, for me, a horror story.

FRANCI REVEL

Both "Creation Myth" and "Daphne" engage in a kind of myth-making while still feeling very contemporary. Could you talk about the decision to rewrite and reimagine myth in your new poems?

PAISLEY REKDAL

Most poets who return to Ovid update his versions of these ancient myths by retaining the supernatural elements of the story (the presence of gods and goddesses, nymphs, titans, etc.), but "updating" them by having the divinities speak in "contemporary" language, or wear contemporary clothing, like wearing Nikes. The original characters keep their names and much of their identities within the myths. This, to me, misses the psychological insights that Ovid made into the nature of obsession, familial love, sexual love, violence, and artistic representation, and suggest that Ovid's ideas of change were merely glib. For an example of what I'm talking about, read the 1996 anthology After Ovid, or Ovid in English, which traces the ways that poets from the Middle Ages onward have approached The Metamorphoses. I'm more interested in focusing on what Ovid is telling us about the nature of change, rather than on how he tells us that change occurs. It's the difference between plot and story.

FRANCI REVEL

Can you talk about your new collection of poetry, Imaginary Vessels, and its thematic and stylistic concerns and preoccupations?

PAISLEY REKDAL

Imaginary Vessels is about the ways in which art and public personae become “vessels” for our cultural imagination; in particular, how an artwork reimagines history as it attempts to document it. The book has two sonnet sequences. The first, “Go West,” focuses on Mae West: a woman who, though fully in control of her public image as actor and writer, eventually became captive to the persona she created, playing up her sexual appetites for the public to such parodic proportions that even at age 80 she was stuck playing the same, increasingly vacuous role. Over time, Mae West has become a cultural cipher: a caricature of our perceptions of feminism, unknowable to us even as her image purports to be transparent.

The second sequence, “Shooting the Skulls,” meditates on the photographer Andrea Modica’s portraits of skulls unearthed from the Colorado State Mental Institution. The skulls are the remains of hundreds of patients buried on the Institution’s grounds for nearly a century. Not much is known about these individuals, but several of the skulls bear marks of syphilis and physical violence, and are likely the remains of patients  abandoned by their families. Both portraits and poems are starting points for questions I want to explore about what constitutes a public monument, and what the possibilities–and limitations–are to an artwork’s representation of historical trauma. 

FRANCI REVEL

Are there any particular books or artworks or films you've come across in the past couple of years that have affected your writing and thinking?

PAISLEY REKDAL

W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn (actually, almost anything Sebald wrote), and the documentary The Act of Killing. Also, the work of Viet Thanh Nguyen, in particular, Nothing Ever Dies.

FRANCI REVEL

Utah, in the American imagination, is one of our most distinct landscapes, topographically, culturally, politically, and historically. You have lived in Salt Lake City for quite some time. How has your geographic location affected your work? Also, you were recently an Amy Lowell Traveling Fellow and spent a year writing poems abroad—did that geographic dislocation from Utah affect your writing, and in what ways?

PAISLEY REKDAL

On a basic level, living in Utah has made me much more aware of the relationship all people have with place, and the ways that "place" is both psychic and physical: a city is just as constructed from the many interactions and conflicts among its citizens as it is composed of its buildings, monuments, and streets. There is also a fascinating way in which wilderness affects, interrupts and shapes the urban here: this happens in so many cities across the nation, but Utah makes that relationship much more palpable.

The Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship was amazing: I got almost all the poems in Imaginary Vessels from that year. Almost every single poem was inspired by something that I encountered while on my travels. I lived for half the year in Paris, the other half the year in Hanoi. I used these cities as my bases while traveling around so many other nations. I don't know if I can articulate what that year meant for me as a writer, but I certainly have the proof that it changed me deeply.


PAISLEY REKDAL is the author, most recently, of Imaginary Vessels (Copper Canyon Press).


FRANCI REVEL is an editorial assistant at Bennington Review. 



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