Interview with Corey Van Landingham

 

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Corey Van Landingham is the author of Antidote, winner of the 2012 The Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. A former Wallace Stegner Poetry Fellow at Stanford University, her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Best American Poetry 2014, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She is currently the 2015-2016 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.


How did you get started writing? Did you always want to be a writer?

I always worry that this story sounds a little precious, but it’s true: one day, when I was about five, I walked into the kitchen and told my mother that I was going to write a poem. Of course, I couldn’t write it down, so I dictated it to her, and she transcribed it into this tiny notebook with multicolored teddy bears across the cover. It’s still lurking along with other sentimentals, somewhere… But, this didn’t come out of nowhere, as my mother read me all kinds of poetry when I was younger, like Silver Pennies, Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, etc. Looking back on that first poem I “wrote,” I knew what a poem should sound like—I had some sense of a rhythm in my head—but that was also the sing-songy procession of poetry written by people long since dead. It wasn’t until college, really, that I started reading contemporary poetry. And one can’t really say that they’re a writer in all seriousness until they know the world they’re writing into, I don’t think. Though writing sometimes took a backseat, I always thought of myself as a poet (for better or for worse). After changing my major to English my freshman year (I went with International Relations in mind, but, after the first English course I took—The History of Lyric Poetry—I knew I was in the wrong world), the writing track stuck.

How long did you have to submit before you first got published in a journal? If you could do it again, what would you do differently, if anything?

Like most writers, I probably submitted too early, and too often. But that isn’t to imply that I would change anything. It’s a necessary—and ecstatic—moment, thinking that your work is finished, that it’s worthy. It was probably two years, between when I submitted by first poem and when I had one accepted. I sent garbage, mostly, though I didn’t know it at the time. Through this process, however, I got used to rejection. It helped me to view my poems more objectively, less like precious gems. Yes, they were flawed. I could come to see that, after a poem was rejected over and over again. That said, it also bolstered some of my style, my voice. There were things I would never change, no matter how many journals rejected it. That was important, developing my poetic backbone, in a way.

Do you have any writing rituals? What is your process?

I have had many rituals, ones that I sometimes return to, dip back into, ones that morph, ones I shed. Hopefully I’ll have many more down the line. As for process, I think: do what works. For some people that will always look the same. For me, it changes, just as I change, my location changes, my circumstances, moods, relationships, jobs change. In college I would write to music (whatever indie band I thought I should like at the moment). In graduate school, I went to the same coffee shop and sat at the same window seat and ordered the same thing. For many years I had to leave my house to write; there was something about not contaminating the poems with my mundane existence, where I slept and ate and swept dead ladybugs into the trash. Too, whatever I was writing in public had to be really good, I thought then. Someone might peer over and think, she’s spent three hours on that?! For years I would do elaborate word clusters—filling up pages of my journals with words from whatever I was currently reading, sometime copying down the syntax of a poem or two that I liked—before I could begin a poem. Now that I don’t have as much time to write, I get going a bit faster. I keep notes on my phone for poem ideas, for lines, so that when I have a day free to write, most of what I need is already available. Necessity for writing always: a hot beverage of some sort.

Who or what do you think is the main influence on your writing? Do you have any literary heroes, and if so, what do you love about their writing?

Just as I change, as a writer, so does my influence. It used to be poets whose language was lush and surreal, poets whose words were strange and luxurious and beautiful. Something I’ve always been drawn to, however—now more than ever—is poetic statement, moments when lyric imagism is ruptured by some rhetorical force. Jorie Graham has been quite influential, for a long time, for this, as well as Joanna Klink, and, more recently, Linda Gregerson, who I would name as a literary hero. I’m enamored with the performative rhetoric of her poems, how she interweaves narratives while constantly resisting narrative’s tyranny. She is smart as hell, and I’m constantly learning from her poetry. Not just from her elaborate, winding syntax, her trenchant eye and ear, and her keen sense of drama, but from what populates the poems: history, myth, art, science, politics. This layering of the reading experience—the sheer pleasure of the language, the deftness of craft, the insightful statements—is what I’m always looking for in poems; work that sustains after multiple readings.

What have you read recently that made you excited?

While I haven’t read the actual book yet, as it comes out in March, I’m excited to read Kimberly Grey’s The Opposite of Light. Her attention to how language is constructed, to how it constructs us, is fascinating. And the poems are just breathtaking. Vievee Francis’s Forest Primeval, Rickey LaurentiisBoy with Thorn, Casey Thayer’s Self-Portrait with Spurs and Sulfur, and Phillip WilliamsThief in the Interior are all newer books filled with inventive, and important, work.

Tell us about your recent poem, “Epithalamium” and the story behind it. Do you remember when you first heard the story in the news? What prompted you to write about it?

I don’t remember exactly when I heard about the story in the news, but I remember how it seemed so episodic. Though this was the first time, I believe, that a drone strike killed civilians at a wedding, it’s something that’s happened for years across the Middle East. “Before any strike is taken,” said President Obama in 2013, “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured—the highest standard we can set.” Utilizing the drone to set our highest standard terrifies me, for many reasons, but I also, of course, realize that the terror I feel is utterly removed from any real sense of personal threat or danger. How I, how many of us here in the United States, receive the news is always in some form of abstraction. Watching the news in the gym, say, from the treadmill, seeing death tolls scroll across the bottom of the screen, how language becomes a kind of ticker-tape—it mediates understanding, empathy. Empathy requires distance. So does poetry. So does the drone. I’m trying to figure out how these all relate, while being aware of my own distant position. The inability to fully understand or relate to the killing of civilians during a wedding in Yemen is part of the poem’s “problem”—it tries to latch onto the wedding as a common experience, and, ultimately, fails.

Your book Antidote has been described as emotive, dark, and even haunted. Can you explain some of the inspiration that drove the works it contains?

Well, the major inspirations were the death of my father and breaking up with my fiancé. The minor inspirations, however, are weirder and wider—my mother’s microscopes (she was a microbiologist), my father’s cameras (he was, among many things, a photographer), Indiana and its bizarro weather, Alain Resnais, the landscape of the small, mountain-valley town where I grew up in Southern Oregon, Isadora Duncan, Surrealism and surrealism, and a lot (a lot) of alone time in a creaky, old attic apartment in a house the town rumored to be haunted by one of its earliest residents.

Antidote is composed of over 40 works of poetry. This was clearly no easy feat. How long did it take you to put together such an extensive collection, and what did that process look like?

To be honest, most of it came quickly. Most of Antidote was written during the last year of my MFA at Purdue, when I had enough space from my father’s death to begin to write elegies and when I was in the white-hot heat of a breakup. That combination—the distance and the immediacy—propelled the book forward. I wrote at least three poems a week at that time, a period of production I doubt I’ll ever be able to reproduce. Of course, the poems have been revised and revised and revised, after, but the material seemed ever-present at the time.

What is the one question you wish people would ask you about your work? Will you answer it for us?

I wish people would ask about my fears for my work, about what I worry about most when writing, revising, etc. I’m always interested in hearing this from other poets, as more than anything it seems humanizing, something often more specific and relatable. We can talk in such grandiose, abstract ways about what we want our poetry to do, but talking about what we don’t want it to do might be more tangible.

As an answer, I fear that my older work is willfully strange, at times. That wild language can obfuscate meaning. That it relies too much on the insistence of anaphora and imperative. In my newer work, I am constantly worrying about responsibility. Why can I write/say anything important about the drone? With my reliance on statement, am I too didactic? Is there enough mystery? Do I aestheticize the suffering of others in an unthinking manner? I hope not, but that fear is ever-present.


About the author of this post: Crystal Ice is a sophomore at North Central College where she studies English Writing, and is currently considering a program in Writing, Editing, & Publishing. A budding author, she enjoys writing in her spare time, and maintains two blogs while working on one of her many novels and poems.

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