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Interview: Sheera Talpaz

Sheera Talpaz's poem "Slippery Place" appears in our December 2009 issue. She is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Michigan, where she received a Hopwood Award in poetry. She earned her BA with Honors in Comparative Literature from the University of Chicago and has since returned to the city, where she currently works and writes. Her humor pieces have appeared in The Rumpus, and her poetry is forthcoming in Euphony.

1. Can you talk about the inspiration for "Slippery Place"? What was on your mind while you were writing this poem?

The literal event: I was sitting in some café or I was lying on my bed last July, freshly graduated with a degree in poetry, farcically employed, and in me was a fear, seemingly endless were it not bounded by such anger – what did I do? Why don’t people value what I value? And so on.

(You see, it’s quite shocking for a disillusioned poet to find out that other people don’t care for poetry because it is too hard or soft or etc. It also happens that HR types are impressed by the idea of it, but only in a (literally) clinical manner – poetry is treated like an exotic disease that once dealt with, can be overcome. E.g. “Ah, so I see you studied poetry? And what do you hope to do now?”)

But that was the tipping point; it took me years to come to this poem, to the realization that I suffer from multiple anxieties, general and specific, and that it’s part of my lineage. Apparently, like some dumb proselytizer, I must also write about it.

So somewhere amid this angst, I met a woman who told me the story of birds falling from the sky during Saddam Hussein’s attack on the Kurds. I found this a terrifying and beautiful symbol of anxiety’s rationale: The chance that everything will go wrong empirically exists, and that’s why anxiety exists. The small reality provides opportunity for hysteria.

Of course I already knew this. Of course I am always learning this.

2. You chose to write this poem in the second person, instead of the first or third--which always gives me an impression of intimacy when I read a poem. In a way, it gives me the feeling that the poet can be inside another person's head, sort of omniscient. What relationship do you have with the "you" of this poem, if any?

The intimacy of the second person is a bit of a fallacy. The reader feels a closeness to the text, an invitation, even, to participate in the text. However, the writer (or this writer) often employs the “you” as a distancing device. That is to say, in a certain sense you’re right: the use of second person echoes the cognitive-behavioral mode of talking to oneself and convincing oneself of something. And the reader bears witness to that. But in a way, and beyond the obvious artifice of the craft, this mode of therapy is inauthentic – i.e. if I could actually convince myself of anything, I wouldn’t have anxiety in the first place. The “you” is thus an attempt to escape myself -- it’s a series of scratch marks.

3. This poem deals with many different anxieties--fears of getting older, socializing with other people, exposure to poverty and suffering, fears of dirt and biological warfare are all referenced here. That's a lot to cover in one poem. How does your title fit in with all of these fears--is it a reference to the inside, the space which our fears confine us to, or to the dangerous outside where they have their origins? Or is it something else altogether?

The title is a nod to the “slippery slope” – the idea that what you have, you can lose and then when you start to lose, it becomes a great mess of loss (a la Bishop). It’s not that I was trying to facilitate an understanding of a particular fear – say, of chemical weaponry – but rather, to suggest that anxiety is infinitely regressive, that it’s a kind of gangrene. When you start to worry about 50 dollars a friend owes you, you somehow begin on this inevitable path towards homelessness and early death and nobody will ever be able to save you or love you or live with you, despite your many friends and family members, etc. And it doesn’t matter what the reality is – trust fund babies can suffer more debilitating anxiety than those who live paycheck-to-paycheck. (Though it certainly can be terribly ironic for a trust fund baby to lose it while walking past the homeless, etc. There is room for satire nearly everywhere.) In any case, the anxiety itself, obscuring its focus, is the suffering.

4. You're currently living in Chicago, which seems to have a particularly lively literary scene. Do you have a favorite reading venue or series?

I love the Danny’s Tavern reading series. A few years ago I got to see James Tate reading by candlelight, a cloud of smoke suspended in the air, a beer in my hand, etc. It can be a bit of a scene. It’s fun.

5. What other writing projects are you currently working on?

Pulling together a collection of poems that I can live with takes up a lot of energy. Any day now I will begin writing a series of murder ballads with my roommate, Tucker Fuller. He too is a recent graduate, though of musical composition.

6. What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?

I’ve fallen in love with Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Jason Shinder’s Stupid Hope. I am ever falling in love with Raymond McDaniel’s Saltwater Empire, a work of lyrical resilience, a force. I’m also eagerly awaiting new titles from Canarium Books – specifically Suzanne Buffam’s The Irrationalist.

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