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SANDRA SIMONDS
in conversation with BENNINGTON REVIEW

 

MATTHEW TUCKNER 

Your new book Orlando is split into two longer poems/sequences. Do you prefer writing longer poems to shorter poems? Do you set out to write long poem or does it happen in the course of writing? Are there any particular long poems that influenced you throughout Orlando’s composition?

SANDRA SIMONDS

First, thanks for your questions and your reading of my work. Orlando is the first book-length poem I’ve written, and it’s split into two sections: the first section, “Orlando” and the second section, “Demon Spring.” When I wrote Orlando, I was listening to a lot of opera (particularly Mozart’s operas but also Verdi and Wagner) and thought of opera as a kind of musical template for a long poem. I liked the challenge of creating a narrative poem that captivated the reader’s from beginning to end and wanted to use the moves that happen in opera, such as the recurring musical themes that bind the work together musically over the course of a book. When you are writing something that long, you really have to think about the formal concerns of rhythm, pacing, both musical pacing and narrative pacing, and the overall cohesion. These are really minor concerns in in shorter poems but they are major concerns for a book-length project. I also wanted to incorporate the emotional intensities as well as aspects of melodrama you often find in operatic forms. I would say the theatricality of opera influenced this book much more than other long poems, though John Ashbery’s long poems I have always admired. I don’t really have a preference for long poems over short poems. I write long, medium and short poems all the time and I think it’s just a matter of choosing a form that best fits what you are trying to say.

MATTHEW TUCKNER

In your collection Mother Was a Tragic Girl, you write, “It is absolutely unnecessary to write serious poetry.” My question for you is do you feel that you write serious poetry? Does our political climate make serious poetry any more or less necessary?

SANDRA SIMONDS

Yes, of course I write serious poetry. That book was written at a time when I was interested in Flarf and avant-garde forms that used irony, pastiche, and various internet garbage cobbled together to create poems so I was trying to sort of work out for myself what it meant to write “serious” poetry and I think the line was an attempt to be ironic and humorous. It’s interesting because ten years ago, if you wrote “political” poems in an MFA workshop, you were bound to get accused of writing propaganda or something like that, so I’m glad that is changing and there are a lot of young poets writing really wonderful political poems like Cortney Lamar Charleston, whose book I just gave to a student. Another problem: sometimes sincerity is mistaken for good. Bad, sincere political poetry is also out there and I think irony, humor and wit can be wonderful tools for voicing the political—Brecht and Mayakovsky immediately come to mind. Poets should use all of the emotional registers and tenors to say what they need to say. Why should we limit ourselves?

MATTHEW TUCKNER

Can you talk about your new manuscript Atopia, from which these poems are taken? Do you see it as a new direction in your work? Do you write poems or do you write books of poems?

SANDRA SIMONDS

I think I write books at this point versus poems. When I’m writing a book, I am thinking about how the particular poem or part of the poem fits into the book. Of course, there are always strays. I might write a poem or set of poems and decide that they don’t fit into the project I’m working on and I’ve written whole books that I have not published because I just didn’t think that they were not up to my standards. I’m still working to put Atopia together—it’s a pretty overtly political book about how everyday life is informed by the political events since Trump was elected. I think we are all feeling that trauma so the book has been a way to deal with that—how to raise kids in this era, but not from the perspective of liberal, white self-absorbed trauma. I’m a Marxist-Feminist and believe that capitalism needs to be dismantled and all of my books have this underlying political perspective. I wonder if I would have written the same Atopia if Hillary Clinton was elected—it’s certainly plausible.

MATTHEW TUCKNER

How do you know when one manuscript is complete and the other begins?

SANDRA SIMONDS

My hope is that my books are all formally distinct, so in that sense they are different projects and they all are trying to do different things. I wanted to write a book of sonnets and when that was done, I never wrote another sonnet so I knew that project was done. Part of it is just knowing when your imagination has moved on to something else and part of it is simply that life takes you in a new artistic direction, new things happen and you want to write about them and that’s a good thing. The more books you write, the easier to know when you are at the start or end of a book project. I think you also have to fail at this too—it’s all part of the apprenticeship of poetry. People underestimate the importance and power of failure.

MATTHEW TUCKNER

In your collection Further Problems with Pleasure, you write “I can’t separate poetry from my life as a poet.” Could you talk about the impossibility of that separation?

SANDRA SIMONDS

I’m a pretty sensitive person and I have to feel my poems in my body. I have to observe what’s around me and really feel what I want to say so the poetry is never far from that intimate connection between event, the flesh, the daily life, the work life, the life of parenting, the processing of pain and trauma, the sense of existential dread or the funny little things that keep us going, and the way we create narratives to connect these things in the formal act of organizing language into poetry and then into books. This isn’t to say that all of my poems are autobiographical, but rather that all of my poems have aspects of realism and use realism as an aesthetic point of departure insofar as my poems reflect the social order as I understand it and attempt to cut through political and cultural ideology as I see it from my subjective experience as a 21st century working woman living in the American South with two children. This is what I know and feel. I think realism stems from this ensuing intimacy—between the personal and the social and therefore between the writer and the reader.

MATTHEW TUCKNER

Do you consider yourself a formalist? An innovator? A political poet? A post-confessional poet? All of the above? None of the above?

SANDRA SIMONDS

Oh god, I’m not a formalist. To me, formalist means adhering to strict traditional forms and I am the absolute opposite of that—I believe in creating new forms. And I don’t really like the word “confessional” since it has a moralistic and punishing quality to it that I don’t really see fits well with my poetry. My poetry is interested in liberation: political, sexual, gender, economic, linguistic, racial, and environmental for humans and animals to create a shared future. So for me, the act of writing poetry is a hopeful gesture because poetry has faith that this liberation is possible. My books are interested in form insofar as they have a desperate desire to create new forms that transcend the given or even say “fuck you” to the given. If the present doesn’t understand my poetry, that is fine, I am hopeful that the future will know what I mean.

 


SANDRA SIMONDS is the author of several books of poetry, most recently Orlando (Wave Books) and Further Problems with Pleasure (University of Akron Press).


MATTHEW TUCKNER is an editorial assistant at Bennington Review.



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