By Molly Davis and Jessica Napoli
Paula Bohince is the author of two collections, both from Sarabande: The Children (2012) and Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods (2008). Her poems appear in The New Yorker, TLS, Poetry, The Nation, Granta, The Yale Review, and elsewhere. She received the 2013 George Bogin Memorial Prize from the Poetry Society of America. She served as the 2012 Dartmouth Poet in Residence at The Frost Place, the 2010-2011 Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholar, a 2009 Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts, and the 2008 Amy Clampitt Resident Fellow. She lives in Pennsylvania.
Bohince's poems "In the Terminal Clearing at the End of My Long Convalescence," "Estrangement," and "The Flowering Bough" appeared in West Branch 71, Fall 2012.
West Branch: Incident at the Edge of the Bayonet Woods, your first book, is thick with rural themes and imagery, particularly those of death and the natural cycles of the environment, the death of livestock forming an important parallel with the death of the farmer. All of this seems to expose an acute familiarity with rural life on your part. How did growing up in rural Pennsylvania influence your thinking about death? How did it influence this book?
Paula Bohince: Watching the fields and woods, the animals, transform themselves season to season through birth, decay, and renewal was quietly astonishing for me. The woods (my hiding place) was where I first learned metaphor, through hours spent pretending: this leaf isn't a leaf; it's a plate. A canopy of trees becomes a roof. And like metaphor, amid those shabby beauties, death seemed both mysterious and clear. I'd see deer killed along the roadside in grotesque shapes, or hung upside-down after hunting to bleed. But then I'd see nearly identical-looking deer stark in the fields, suggesting that death was only a trick. Then in the spring: suddenly fawns! So I think my child-mind was taking all of this in, but I didn't know what it meant or how it might be used until I began writing seriously.
When my father died, I turned to the cycles of nature for solace, but with envy. There was a continuance there that I couldn't see in what I thought was the finality of human death. And so I think that writing this book, and using nature, was my way of reviving him, of pressing through death to something beyond it. Art and offspring seem to be the ultimate continuance. Also, I wrote the book in Queens, New York, and I found myself so hungry for nature there, something to both dazzle my eye and comfort me in its familiarity. So I fled to those childhood images, which helped me feel like I could reshape a grief that had shaped me. Writing these poems was, in some ways, a resistance to being acted upon: to bring something into the world to balance the absence.
WB: The point of view of Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods is in first person, which could lead a reader to interpret the events as true. How closely did you want to weave your voice into the speaker of the poems?
PB: Writing the poems, the voice of the speaker was absolutely my own. I couldn't have accessed the driving emotions any other way. Memory and imagination fused together in each of the poems; one strand wasn't separate from another. On an emotional level, the easier poems were the persona poems - the voices of the apostles and the speaker in "Spirits at the Edge of Bayonet Woods." The struggle with those was to inhabit voices that enlarged the world of the book while not disrupting the spell of a single speaker's voice.
WB: We notice that many of the poems in The Children center around children and animals. How do these two motifs balance and inform each other in the book? How are the conditions of childhood and animal life similar?
PB: I see a kinship between children and animals in a kind of shared and perhaps suffered silence, and how both seem to be alien observers in this world. This idea of alien observation also relates, in my mind, to the position of the artist and why poems on writers' works and lives are included in a collection rife with references to children and animals. I think that a poem enters the world of artifice as soon as it begins, and I wonder if this immersion in artifice isn't so different than the way a child plays at pretending.
With children, I recognize a bewilderment and guilelessness, along with a real engagement with the imagination that helps them forge through the world. One of the conditions of childhood that is so frightening is the lack of control over one's surroundings: being born into a family that will shape you through its own beliefs and weaknesses. I believe that fear may be felt more acutely as a child because the gradations between mortal danger and safety aren't very pronounced to the child-mind, and that blur can be terrifying. I've tried, with The Children, to resist ideas of innocence that are often associated with children; instead, I've attempted to represent innocence by grasping toward beauty and its representations.
Going back to this idea of danger, I think that animals (in my poetic mind, at least) react in the same way to threats and safety. The animal world seems brutal in its competition and the fatal error of being left behind, on one's own. It's a world filled with hunger, death, the desire to mate, and the protection of offspring. But I must admit that I'm drawn to the purity of these cycles and the sheer aesthetic beauty of animals. The mysteries of their lives seem to align so well with poetry.
WB: The Children, a collection of lyric poems, is very different in mode than Incident, which takes the form of narrative. Is the second book in any way an outgrowth of the first? For instance, did your work on Incident spark ideas that you would develop further in The Children?
PB: I do see The Children as an outgrowth of Incident and the experiences of writing that first book, but it doesn't feel like a continuation, if that makes sense. It feels like a consequence. I'd been holding onto Incident so hard, for what felt like a long time, that when it was accepted by Sarabande in 2006, I felt my hand just release. I imagined that I would wait a long time before writing again. But the release of it felt so freeing that I immediately began new poems. "Pinot Noir" was an early poem, and one that I think found its roots in Incident. At the end of the first book, the speaker is "dazzled by white flowers," and I think those flowers and their whiteness punctuate many poems in The Children, particularly "Snowy River Visions" and "Milkweed," among others.
I'd gotten married in 2005, and I think that there was a sense of my brideliness falling away at the beginning of writing The Children. Thoughts of home and children were naturally on my mind and wound their way through many poems: "Spring," for instance and "Hornets' Nest" and "Silverfish." Writing in new places—Oxford, Mississippi and Lenox, Massachusetts—during the early part of writing the book was tremendously useful to shake myself awake from Incident and familiar imagery and impulses. I'd felt the company of my father in Incident, but didn't feel that at all with the second, and so those new landscapes, and being alone with myself, and being with dead writers like Dickinson and Melville helped the new poems into being. Incident, for me, feels so much like a "daughter" book and The Children is that of a young wife, adrift.
WB: Your answer to the previous question sparks our curiosity about your process. Can you characterize the process by which you begin to shape a poem? Usually how many series of edits does one poem undergo before being finished? What does it take for you to feel satisfied with a poem?
PB: My usual composition process begins in language - a word or phrase that is interesting to me musically and evocative in its imagery - and proceeds from that point, winding through with a kind of looseness and spontaneity, so the poem doesn't feel determined, but open to any direction. Sometimes I'll have ideas for a poem that begin as notes, as phrases or ideas, and then I'll let those simmer until the initial word or first line comes to me. I'll try to work on one poem in a session of several hours all at once to see what the first draft yields and what the heart of the poem seems to be. I try to bring that heart to the surface through revisions, along with edits for clarity and musicality. I'd say I'd go through an average of ten to fifteen drafts during this initial session. I then let the poem cool and make subsequent changes later, when I have a colder eye. To feel satisfied with a poem, I like to enact and dismiss the many alternate versions until I come upon the one where each word feels necessary, where the poem is as clear as can be, while still maintaining a kind of mystery or openness, and where I can still feel surprised by it through subsequent readings.
WB: What poets have been most influential for your work? What poets are you reading now?
PB: I've been heavily influenced by Bishop, Plath, Stevens, and Frost. Living poets whose work I reread weekly are Henri Cole, Louise Glück, and Carl Phillips. I think the newly-released Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds is marvelous. Two recent first books that I love are Eduardo Corral's Slow Lightning and Shara Lessley's Two-Headed Nightingale. I'm looking forward to new collections by Spencer Reece, Dan Chiasson, Katie Ford, Peter Campion, Jane Mead, Tarfia Faizullah, and Jamaal May.