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"How Soon the Stable World Vanishes": An Interview with Patricia Clark

Patricia Clark is Poet-in-Residence and Professor in the Department of Writing at Grand Valley State University. Author of four volumes of poetry, Patricia’s latest book is Sunday Rising. She has also published a chapbook titled Given the Trees. Her work has been featured on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, also appearing in The Atlantic, Gettysburg Review, Poetry, Slate, and Stand. Recent work appears (or is forthcoming) in Kenyon Review, New England Review, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, Plume, and elsewhere.

Her poem, "Vertigo," appeared in Issue of Sixty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Courtney Flerlage about instability in form, shifts, and a poem's strangeness. 

Where did your poem “Vertigo” start for you?

It started in a couple of ways. Years ago, I had a couple incidents with vertigo. If you’ve never had it, count yourself lucky! What I had is called BPV: “benign positional vertigo.” The doctor showed me some techniques to help alleviate it, and (knock wood) it hasn’t returned. A few years after that, though, my sister Kathy got very sick and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I wrote about her illness a lot, my reaction and feelings about it. Somehow I hit on writing about the sensation of having vertigo as a metaphor for knowing she was very ill and likely going to die. It threw me; it unhinged me.

The poem really takes off for me in the fourth stanza. After describing the physical sensation of vertigo as “the world unhinged, aswirl, a tent uprooted,” the metaphor of the speaker’s stomach as an “uneasy sea” kicks the poem into an imaginative address: “oh ocean-sick sailor, how will you board / the tanker for the next port.” I love how the poem turns stranger here, emphasizing the speaker’s distress by switching briefly to the second person and then returning to the first.  In this way, the poem itself experiences a shift in grounding as it wavers between point of view and context. Could you discuss this shift? How did you decide it was right for the poem?

I’m glad that the shift in the poem works. I realized it was quite strange and I decided, instinctively, to just go with it. So it wasn’t so much as a decision as feeling sure, in the revision process, that this strangeness was part of what I was trying to have a reader experience.

Syntax and organization work so well in the poem to make the sensation of “Vertigo” feel real and urgent for the reader. The first sentence, a question, lasts for almost four stanzas, and it’s continually driven forward by commas and dashes; meanwhile, the line breaks within prevent any kind of rhythmic balance, each triplet clipped short at the third line so that the reader trips from one stanza to the next. It seems to me that conveying this sense of imbalance through line length is difficult to pull off—it's easy for that kind of move to turn gimmicky, though of course yours doesn't.  Can you talk a bit about the structure of the poem—how the content informed it, how the poem found its way into this shape?

I was simply writing, trying to stay in the zone of my remembered experience of having vertigo—and I just about got nauseous trying to recall it! Horrible. And it is hard to explain when you don’t have it. The images just came rather quickly to me. I have no idea about the leap to the “ocean-sick sailor,” though I suspect I had been reading something, a novel, I think by Brian Doyle called The Plover. I want to be influenced by everything I read or see, and I’d like my work to include more of the world, as much of the world as I can get into poems, so there you have it. The structure of triplets seemed a natural choice since quatrains would be absolutely too stable for vertigo, right?

What are you reading now that you can’t stop talking about?

It’s just after Christmas and I’ve been reading some of my presents. A novel called Autumn by Ali Smith, and another one by Joan Silber called Improvement. Then there’s nonfiction: Leonardo da Vince by Walter Isaacson. And a book of poems called Earthling by James Longenbach. I’m not thinking about poetry as I read but I am gathering information that could later be useful or helpful in a poem.

What project(s) are you working on right now?

I’m working on poems for a new book. How many poems I’ve written so far, whether enough of them are “keepers” to really be part of my sixth book of poems, I can’t say. It’s also too early to give even a working title. I’ll know in a few months more of where this work stands.

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