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"An Infant Bit of Light": An interview with C. L. O'Dell

C. L. O'Dell's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the New Yorker, Ploughshares, New England Review, and Best New Poets, among others. He lives in the Hudson Valley and is founder and editor of The Paris-American.

His poems, "While Lying on the Back of a Blue Whale" and "Dot in the Sky," appeared in Issue Fifty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interview T.m. Lawson about themes involving violence, childhood, and the natural world, the relationship between form and imagery, and the shaping of poems.

“Dot in the Sky” has a simple, elegant quality with a skeletal strength to the lines and diction, while “While Lying on the Back of a Blue Whale” is a meatier couplet; both are rife with imagery in each line. How did you come to write these pieces?

These poems both evolved from a single image or experience that was, at the time, taking up a lot of room in me. This is how most of my poems are made. I love poetry because of how a poem takes on a life of its own, eventually feeding on me when I don’t even know it. “While Lying on the Back of a Blue Whale” started out with the memory of discovering a childhood dog paralyzed on the side of the road after a hit-and-run. This memory somehow transformed into a listing of all very beautiful, wondrous and also haunting and painful moments that could all be potentially happening at the same time. The title and ending of the poem came last, as I became more comfortable inside the poem and where it decided to go. “Dot in the Sky” seems more layered, starting with my daughter playing in the yard. From there I pulled in my father, carpentry, “wings,” etc., and then silence. I love silence, absence, because of the endless possibilities they possess. There’s so much magic in nothing.

I noticed that both poems, while very different, shared similar qualities: themes of childhood and infancy that are eventually corrupted by violence and adult intervention, tragedy in the form of wounded animals, human against the backdrop of natural elements like lightning, water, and grass. Are these essential themes for your regular work or interest?

Yes. My father is a hunter, and a carpenter, and I followed in his footsteps for a long time, and still do in many ways. Everyone’s childhood is eventually corrupted by reality and truth. We are curious because as children we replace what we don’t know with imaginary ideas, and if we’re lucky, some of that curiosity subsists into adulthood even after we find answers to things we love. These are themes that enter my poems naturally, most times uncontrollably, so I consider them essential to my writing.

The serenity within the violence of some of these images is captivating. The form restricts the language in the right way in both poems. Was this intentional or happenstance as the poems developed?

I am usually never thinking about what shape a poem will take until the end. The subject matter doesn’t affect what form the poem will have, but what the words look like next to each other determines spacing and structure. There’s a certain level of “colorfulness” to letters, words, even more so to sentences, and a fine balance of splattered color is achieved in good poetry. The visual representation of my poems follows no strict formula, but more of a gut feeling. I like that part of writing, feeling like a painter feels making final touches.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

LOOK by Solmaz Sharif, Incorrect Merciful Impulses by Camille Rankine, Flies by Michael Dickman (again, anticipating Green Migraine), and various non-fiction by Shane Cashman.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I just finished my first collection of poems, still making minor edits here and there (and still writing poems that belong in that book), but I think I also just drafted the first poem of my second collection, so I’m excited about that.

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