“I am interested in how love can also bring about the finding of the self: devotion to another yet definition of our solitary being.”
Flowers Around Your Soft Throat (Structo press, 2016)
If you had to choose, what is your favorite poem in this collection and why?
I have to say “Lack of Grace,” the first poem, is my favorite. It was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has since changed its name to “Grace,” at the suggestion of Michele Battiste (through Black Lawrence Press’s poem consultation); she said this would “allow the reader to discover [grace’s] small absences,” which is just the kind of comment I love. I like the poem’s imagery, its balance of clarity and mystery.
I also like “It’s not a void if it’s your own heart” because the end resists emotional resolution and instead reflects my sentiment through imagery, perhaps at the influence of the Rothko and Klimt paintings that appear in the poem. The title is something I said in a conversation with a poet-friend, Charity, and like all good friends will do, she urged me to write it down.
Why did you choose to release these poems in a chapbook rather than in a book of poetry?
I had this collection of poems that all spoke to grief, self, dislocation, and it fit well with the length that Structo wanted.
Since I’m also from Maryville, Tennessee, I recognized a lot of the nature imagery in your poems. For example, “Mountains have a presence all their own, / smoky mountain top like a pipe from a sage’s mouth.” How has living in a small southern town like Maryville impacted your writing as a whole?
That line in particular was written while on Wears Valley Road; it’s funny you recognize your mountains, as I am sure I mention the Alleghenies as well! Mountains have always been a presence for me, but the Smokies have a particular wildness and depth that make them sage-like, always waiting or overlooking. In this way, I think mountains bring a kind of objectivity. In their presence, it’s hard not to feel like we are those mini wooden cars at the beginning of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, scooting around our cities and towns, making our own stories happen.
I understand that you are currently teaching creative writing as a professor at Maryville College. Do you find balancing work and writing to be difficult? Or has your profession actually aided you in this pursuit?
In general, teaching allows for writing and creativity: summers can be flexible; course design engages the imagination; forming bonds with students is fulfilling. At times, the concept of work/life balance puts undue pressure on us to be everything all the time. David Whyte’s The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self, and Relationship says, “Work is a constant conversation. It is the back-and-forth between what I think is me and what I think is not me; it is the edge between what the world needs of me and what I need of the world.” If our primary relationships with work, our spouses, and ourselves are viewed as constantly evolving conversations, then there is less pressure to “do it all.” Sometimes, work motivates me to write; other times, it steals me away. In the long-term, as long as I am cultivating my inner world regularly, I am doing my writing a service. (qtd. in Brain Pickings)
Your work has appeared in several literary magazines. Were any of the poems in this chapbook published elsewhere, or did you write them specifically for this collection?
“Lack of Grace” previously appeared in Cider Press Review, and “A Song of Loves” won Structo’s Psalm Contest that they hold yearly for Lent, which may have put my work on their radar.
What was it like publishing a chapbook? How did it differ from your previous publishing experiences?
It was great to work with Euan Monaghan and Matthew Landrum, who were very responsive and attentive during the editorial process. One of the highlights of working with a small press was receiving a complementary hand-bound version of my chapbook by Dark Oak Bindery. Previously, of course, I was not at liberty to sell literary magazines in which my poems appear, but my chapbook makes a small profit from sales.
Throughout the chapbook, there appears to be a common theme of grief and overcoming loss. For instance, in “The World Solves Itself,” you write, “The pink-thrill sunset is my anchor for grief; / lines of the drive bring me back to myself— / the shattered sleep when your brother died.” Were all of these poems inspired by a particular moment of loss in your life, or did you use multiple sources to capture this poignant feeling of grief?
This is an insightful question. There was a particular death that inspired certain poems like “Sacred” and “The World Solves Itself,” but I find that one external reason to grieve (like a death) opens the gate for other griefs to surface. So a particular loss was a gateway to many griefs, I suppose. I think this happens to all of us, when we feel it is okay to grieve, we grieve, but if we have a creeping kind of moodiness that strikes daily, it’s harder to define and therefore to express. My perceptive colleague, Jason Troyer, who studies grief, said “every change is a loss”; in this sense, this chapbook grieves, and at times celebrates, multiple losses.
In several of your poems, you refer to an elusive you. Does this you always refer to the same person, or could it be referring to multiple people or even the readers themselves? What was the inspiration behind this choice?
In my writing, sometimes I find myself talking to someone in particular, usually my love-interest, or a friend, or perhaps an ideal version of myself, as in a letter or journal entry. Because I aim for emotional clarity, which lives inside subjective truth, he or she or specific names sound too objective (and inevitably gendered) to my ear. In those cases, you is simply the truest choice.
In an interview with Koh Xin Tian for the Ploughshares blog, you were asked about your revising process. In response, you said, “I know that I want the poem to be what it can become, which is not a perfectionistic process (on my best days) but rather one of play and revelation.” Do you have any advice for writers who struggle with perfectionism? Perhaps some method to keep this tendency-to-perfect under control?
I am cautious about giving sweeping advice, but for those like me, I would say: Let the you that was born to organize the world into a song speak clearly. Actively listen to her and record what she says, plainly, at her core. Try to make the writing process fun; spread your poems on the floor, on a clothesline; get input from a positive friend; put on your favorite music; assign the poems or lines colors; paint the poems—whatever gets you engaged with that inner you. If this seems difficult, I recommend the book The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron. It helps create that sense of normalcy for us who feel the urge to follow our artistic sensibilities in an otherwise “monkey-minded” culture of information overload and money-driven success.
I find the title of this chapbook interesting: Flowers Around Your Soft Throat. What was the inspiration behind this title?
This is a quote from Sappho, translated by Anne Carson. Despite the centuries between us, I feel very comforted by Sappho’s words, their piercing psychological clarity and strangely beautiful imagery—the title here no exception.
Do you consider yourself primarily a poet, or do you work with other genres as well?
I am focused on poetry but will never close the door on any genre. Sometimes, I am inspired to write nonfiction or fiction, but poetry allows for the most immediate access to the interior, which I find helpful.
In your poem, “A Song of Loves,” you chose to imitate Psalm 45. Why this source?
This is a very practical answer: my poet-friend Charity brought psalms for us to write to/about/from at our usual meeting place, The Blue Moose Café. I selected it from several she brought, and I think I was drawn to it because of my interest in the you and me that compose an us in a love relationship. There is a general, warranted worry about people (usually women) losing themselves in relationships. I am interested in how love can also bring about the finding of the self: devotion to another yet definition of our solitary being. The dividing lines in an us have been interesting to me, and I suppose, to many, many poets over time.
Did you have a particular purpose or audience in mind for this chapbook? For instance, people dealing with grief like the speaker, or young readers like the students that you teach?
No. I was taught to write for myself or an ideal audience, such as in the case of a letter-like you. Once an audience becomes too wide, subtlety and nuance, so essential to the craft of poetry, are lost.
Was there ever a time that you considered working in a field other than creative writing? If so, what inspired you to take this path instead?
I like the wording of this question, how it made me first receive the image of “working in a field.” I am currently overlooking my backyard, marked by oaks and aspens, and I thought, “Oh, that’s a good idea! Move to a field! I would be so inspired there.”
I believe that I will always be a writer, no matter my occupation. I love animal shelters, pottery, sociology, and psychology, so I could see myself pursuing those interests. Even if I weren’t a poet professionally, I do believe I would still be a poet. Self-expression through writing is a central part of me.
Do you plan to release another collection of poetry in the future? If so, is there anything that you would like to do differently?
I have a manuscript in the works, which I share parts of at readings. I look forward to seeing how a larger collection takes shape.
Christina Seymour’s poetry appears in her chapbook, Flowers Around Your Soft Throat (Structo 2016), Arsenic Lobster (forthcoming), North American Review, Cimarron Review, Wingbeats II (Dos Gatos Press), New Haven Review, Wick Poetry Center’s exhibit, Speak Peace—American Voices Respond to Vietnamese Children’s Paintings, and elsewhere. She teaches creative and professional writing at Maryville College in east Tennessee, where she also volunteers at the animal shelter, crochets, and explores the foothills with her blue heeler/beagle mix, Gracie. Her favorite places include Niagara Falls, Canada; Hanksville, UT; Chicago; and Flåm, Norway.