Let’s be honest: Many of us don’t read much poetry. We mean to, in the same way we mean to eat 10 servings of fruit and vegetables every day, which makes poetry kind of the collard greens of the literary world. And that makes Paisley Rekdal disappointed but also kind of relieved.
Rekdal teaches poetry at the University of Utah, where she is also director of the graduate Creative Writing Program. In poetry circles, she is well known and respected, the winner of prestigious prizes and fellowships (two Pushcarts, an Amy Lowell, and a Guggenheim, for starters). But prizes don’t necessarily translate into book sales or readers.
“I can tell you this,” Rekdal says, “every time I’ve done a reading and they say, ‘She’s published six books and she has a seventh on the way,’ someone will come up and say, ‘I’ve never heard of you. Really, I’ve never ever heard of you.’ ” Then she laughs and adds, “People are very happy to reinforce your obscurity.”
But there is also an upside to being on the sidelines of American consciousness, and of writing verse that a reader has to actually put some effort into.
Here’s how Rekdal summed it up in a blog entry titled “Why I Hate National Poetry Month”: “One of the things I love so much about poetry is how it walks that line between public speech and private utterance, and for me, I’ve always felt that there were certain things I couldn’t say if I knew they were being read widely.”
Yes, she admits, she has revealed all kinds of things about herself on her blog, in published essays, and in memoirs, “much to the horror of my family.” But the advantage of poetry is that “some of the darker things I might say, people won’t necessarily understand.”
“I’m not going to lie,” she says. “I think it’s a real bonus.” So here, perhaps, is Paisley Rekdal. Open. But also wary. A little afraid you might try to fit her into a box of your own design.
Rekdal didn’t set out to be a poet. She thought she’d be a medieval scholar, and she received a master’s degree from the University of Toronto Centre for Medieval Studies. She liked the idea of braiding together disciplines such as history, art, theology, and music to study an obscure time. But after a while, she realized that what she really wanted to do was put everything she learned into a poem. “I was always connecting something in the medieval world to my life. And that doesn’t work very well in an academic paper.”
Five years later, she received a master of fine arts degree from the University of Michigan—because what might not work for a scholarly journal turned out to be perfect for the writing she has since become known for: a blend of research and memoir, facts and personal discovery, distance and emotional truth.
Rekdal grew up in Seattle, “a girl so boringly middle class her parents hadn’t even divorced,” as she says in one of her poems. Her mother is Chinese, and her father’s family is Norwegian. As a child, “I was often confused as to who was Chinese and who was white,” she reports, although she was pretty sure TV anchorman Tom Brokaw was Chinese.
“Everyone was potentially Chinese, just as everyone was potentially white,” she explains in her braided memoir/ “fictive biography” Intimate: An American Family Photo Album. “Perhaps it was because the meaning of my own race changed according to my parents’ wishes, depending on which characteristics they wanted to emphasize. As if I was a photo beneath which the caption was being, continually, rewritten.”
Much of her writing is an attempt to sort out what identity and authenticity mean, using her own discomfort to shed light on larger questions of race, self, and change. Intimate, published in 2011, examines and reimagines the photographic quest of Edward Curtis to document Native Americans during the early decades of the 20th century. Rekdal believes that the photographer, in trying to “help” his subjects, insisted on a kind of cultural purity that no longer rang true.
Most people, she observes, inhabit that middle ground between how we understand ourselves and how others understand us. In her own life, she says, being biracial has been a way for her to literalize that divide. “Most of my life, people have tried to give me an identity. So unless I come up with a sense of my own identity and push back, I’ll be like Mae West, a bit of a cipher.”
Ah, Mae West. When Rekdal was a child she was obsessed with West, even dressing up as the bawdy performer for her elementary school talent show (a reference only the teachers got). Rekdal’s fifth volume of poetry, which will be published in 2016, includes “West: A Crown,” in which she explores her own fascination with the strong-willed, outrageous actress/playwright/sex symbol. Wonder Woman was also one of Rekdal’s favorites.
“I think both were early feminist icons, although as a child I didn’t have the language for that,” she says. “But West is a very complicated feminist symbol,” she points out—independent yet playing the same vixen role over and over, never breaking character, “never allowing that character to evolve emotionally or intellectually.”
“I’m interested in what happens when you inhabit a role and then get trapped in it,” Rekdal says. That interest also hits close to home. “Mae West presents a real terror for me as a working writer. Because I don’t want to be hitting one note and never get out of it.”
So Rekdal likes to mix it up. Be a poet. But also a memoirist (her The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee was published 15 years ago, when she was just 28 years old). And a writer of nonfiction (she’s currently researching a book she prefers for now to keep under wraps). She also is a community archivist. In 2013, she launched a website called Mapping Salt Lake City, a community project based on Rebecca Solnit’s 2010 book Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. Solnit’s book reinvents the traditional atlas, using the work of writers, artists, and photographers to explore a city through the eyes of its inhabitants.
A city isn’t Mae West, stuck in time, defined forever by one shtick. A city and its stories evolve, even if outsiders try to stuff that city into one small stereotype. Mapping Salt Lake City, a joint project between the University of Utah, Westminster College, and current and former residents, is a compilation about Salt Lake’s then and now, from known and unknown writers. A little sample of its quirky offerings: a poem about bargain shopping at a Deseret Industries store, by Utah poet Joel Long MFA’93; the tender thoughts of a returning Mormon missionary as he arrives at the airport baggage claim; a breathtaking memory of the old Chapman Branch Library by writer Ron Carlson BA’70 MA’72.
Often, says poet Jeffrey McDaniel, who teaches Rekdal’s books in his creative writing classes at Sarah Lawrence College, poets are known as free spirits, “but we stay in our genre, or even within one region in our genre, in a not-free-spirit way. Paisley crosses borders. That’s just an extension of who she is.” And, says McDaniel, “she’s one of the smartest people I know.”
Rekdal has lived in Salt Lake City for 11 years now, lured to the University of Utah’s faculty from the University of Wyoming. Living here, she says, has made her think more about the relationship between person and place, “and what it means to be part of a community that on the surface you don’t have anything in common with.”
The U’s doctoral Creative Writing Program she runs is ranked fourth in the nation by Poets & Writers magazine, based on job placements and prizes won, departmental reputation, and funding. Rekdal also teaches poetry (reading it, writing it), as well as creative nonfiction, at the graduate and undergraduate level.
Can creative writing be taught? “I believe it can, much in the way the basics of archery are,” Rekdal wrote in 2012 in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “I can instruct you on the purpose and characteristics of metaphor. I can train you to recognize (and excise) a cliché. I can educate you in traditional poetic form. … What I can’t do is teach you how to recognize in your own life what has the power and depth to translate into a poem versus what will become merely a charming anecdote to tell at a party.”
Rekdal’s own poems show “an incredible attentiveness to the world around her,” says Jennifer Chang, an assistant professor of creative writing and English at George Washington University. Chang first read Animal Eye, Rekdal’s 2012 poetry collection, when she was serving as a judge on a prize committee. “In a year with lots of strong books, her poems stood out,” says Chang. “Animal Eye at once invites you into the experience of creating language and pushes you to think about difficult subjects. It’s one of my favorite books in the past 10 years.”
Two of the poems in Animal Eye are long, 13 pages each, and showcase Rekdal’s ability, again, to braid together disparate elements. “Easter in Lisbon” is about a love affair that soured, the Rodney King beating, and the afternoon in 1991 when she unwittingly caused the escape of baby lemurs from their cage at the dismal Lisbon Zoo. “Wax” weaves together the French Revolution, her mother’s cancer, and Madame Tussaud.
Animal Eye ended up winning one prize (the UNT Rainer Maria Rilke Poetry Award) and being a finalist for two more (the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize and the Balcones Prize). If you’re a poet, you spend a lot of time sending out your collections in the hopes of winning a contest or getting a fellowship. Rekdal figures she is successful less than 5 percent of the time. But, having served as a judge herself, most recently for the National Book Award, she knows how random contests can be.
“The upside, and it’s a really big upside,” Rekdal says, “is you no longer personalize rejection.” Or, as she said in an interview posted on Poets & Writers, “I’ve learned how to brush off the rejection and continue to write within hours of a serious disappointment. Disappointment is, in fact, a great thing for a writer (if by ‘great’ we also mean getting kicked in the groin), since it forces you either to learn how to enjoy the writing process itself or give it up.”
For those of us who don’t pay attention to poetry prizes, though, (or the fact that her poems were included in the Best American Poetry collections in 2012 and 2013), certainly there can be no bigger honor than to be chosen by National Public Radio to be their “NewsPoet” of the month, invited to write a poem about the day’s news. Rekdal’s turn came in July 2012.
That meant sitting with the producers of All Things Considered as they planned the evening’s news show, then being put in a windowless room to come up with a poem. In two hours. That would be read to millions of listeners. It was a slow news day (one of her big fears), but she managed to craft a poem about a new medical app for the heart, rooftop missiles at the Olympics, and a building that was slowly sliding into a sinkhole. Writing the poem, she says, “was one of the scarier things I’ve ever done. It was a nail-biter, I won’t lie.”
Rekdal is fond of making fun of herself. Here’s something she said about her name, in an interview with former Utah writer Matthew Batt PhD’06 on thenervousbreakdown.com: “I suspect my first poems took a bit longer to publish because who in his right mind would a) want to read about unicorns or b) feel comfortable advocating for anyone whose name evoked Hendrix-inspired air guitar sessions while stoned on cough syrup.”
And here’s a little impromptu standup she recounts now when asked about the phenomenon of The Poetry Reading. “There’s nothing more humbling,” she begins. “People fall asleep in front of you, people get up and leave the room while you’re speaking. People will text. People will tell you afterward how much they hate poetry but they like yours. They hate everything about what you do, but you’re the least offensive example of it. I’ve had people tell me how much older I look up close than far away. So, yeah, there’s nothing better than giving a poetry reading.” She’s pretty sure even her husband doesn’t read her poems. (Sean Myles is a computer programmer for Allstate who lives in the other side of the duplex they own. “I strongly recommend doing it this way,” she says of their living arrangements. “It’s the only way to stay married.”)
American entertainments train people to read and think narratively, expecting a beginning, middle, and end, she says. But a poem thinks in a different kind of way, in a lyric way that may move erratically through space and time, “and it sounds foreign to us,” she says.
She’s pretty sure poetry will survive anyway, if for no other reason than people need something to read at weddings and funerals, when poetry can help us navigate moments of intense emotion. As for herself, writing poetry “allows a kind of wildness that prose doesn’t,” she says. “To be honest, it feels like, if the soul could think, it would think in poetry.”
—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.
By Paisley Rekdal
I have been taught never to brag but now
I cannot help it: I keep
a beautiful garden, all abundance,
indiscriminate, pulling itself
from the stubborn earth: does it offend you
to watch me working in it,
touching my hands to the greening tips or
tearing the yellow stalks back, so wild
the living and the dead both
snap off in my hands?
The neighbor with his stuttering
fingers, the neighbor with his broken
love: each comes up my drive
to receive his pitying,
accustomed consolations, watches me
work in silence awhile, rises in anger,
walks back. Does it offend them to watch me
not mourning with them but working
fitfully, fruitlessly, working
the way the bees work, which is to say
by instinct alone, which looks like pleasure?
I can stand for hours among the sweet
narcissus, silent as a point of bone.
I can wait longer than sadness. I can wait longer
than your grief. It is such a small thing
to be proud of, a garden. Today
there were scrub jays, quail,
a woodpecker knocking at the white-
and- black shapes of trees, and someone’s lost rabbit
scratching under the barberry: is it
indiscriminate? Should it shrink back, wither,
and expurgate? Should I, too, not be loved?
It is only a little time, a little space.
Why not watch the grasses take up their colors in a rush
like a stream of kerosene being lit?
If I could not have made this garden beautiful
I wouldn’t understand your suffering,
nor care for each the same, inflamed way.
I would have to stay only like the bees,
beyond consciousness, beyond
self-reproach, fingers dug down hard
into stone, and growing nothing.
There is no end to ego,
with its museum of disappointments.
I want to take my neighbors into the garden
and show them: Here is consolation.
Here is your pity. Look how much seed it drops
around the sparrows as they fight.
It lives alongside their misery.
It glows each evening with a violent light.
- Paisley Rekdal’s Poem as NPR’s NewsPoet on “All Things Considered”
- Other poems by Paisley Rekdal
- Mapping Salt Lake City
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