Individual Voices / Natural Forms

Winter, 2006

Louise Nayer

Interviewed by Carmine Giordano

Sometimes poems are like snapshots that capture a moment and at the same time reveal how connected that particular view is to larger movements of life on the planet. When you write how conscious are you of universal relevance when you write of your personal experience?

I believe that a lot of the best poetry springs from the unconscious and not the conscious (at least until the revision process). I often don't know exactly what I want to write. The poem "Lover's Reunion After Vietnam" started as a line. I was riding the 38 Geary Bus in San Francisco and "I killed a man" kept repeating itself. I then remembered a taxi driver who told me the story recounted in the poem about his experience in the Vietnam War. The actual story was that he almost killed a young girl, and he had killed others in combat. I ended up playing with that story and how a person might change after being a soldier, and how he would relate to someone who had not had that experience. I also incorporated scenes from Apocalypse Now. Images from that movie had haunted me. That is perhaps part of the "different levels of meaning" that you are referring to. Metaphors, symbols come out of that unconscious place. These thoughts/stories then were interwoven--but all started with a line that ran through my mind, perhaps like a musician might write a piece of music. As a student of writing and an English instructor for many years I am aware of the need "to show not tell"-- to stay away from over sentimentalizing and to use William's "no ideas but in things." The extraordinary comes out of the ordinary. In other words when I start a poem I have that background to guide me. I would not simply write about feelings without attaching them to concrete objects/images. Also, I tend to see life on many levels--and realize that there is a lot none of us really know. This philosophical bent also informs my poems. In the poem "In the Islands" the images carry the poem. I have not specifically stated that the small sea horse which survives is in fact the embryo, but because I've said that the poem is for my sister who is pregnant, the reader makes that association. I have always been a visual person with an active imagination, so images come naturally to me. Am I consciously writing down images each time I compose a poem? I would have to say, no, yet what was once conscious as a beginner--i.e. the need to use figurative language, to create subtly, to pare down, have now become unconscious. It's the same when anyone learns to write. The elements of style must be learned consciously before they become unconscious. I do believe all of us have the ability to write poetry, but that some of us are drawn more naturally to that condensed form. 

How much of your writing is conscious message or social critique?

I hadn't thought about the fact that I often write about war until you mentioned it. Being Jewish (on my father's side) and a writer, I was always drawn to Anne Frank and her story. I wrote many poems about her as a young person, saw the play, the movie and visited her house when I was nine years old. Later, my husband and daughters and I went to see her house. Images of her haunted me. So the poem "Dream of the Uninterrupted Moss" comes from that obsession. I always wondered what it would be like to be her and to write from that voice. Poets often play with voice, and writing from the first person point of view can be very powerful. Also, even though I wasn't directly involved in a war, my parents were severely burned in a gas explosion when I was four. I experienced a "random act" that colored all of our lives and even effects the next generation. My parents were badly disfigured, my mother in particular, so the scars were not invisible. But for all the visible scars, there are many others who are suffering from trauma, especially the children.

The poem World War II was written after watching a T.V. show. In that poem I am dealing with the aftermath of war and how a whole society can deny the explosive effects of war on so many people. "Everyone tried to be normal so badly, it hurt the corners of their mouths." People do need to get better and go on with their lives, but if the trauma is ignored or denied, it will play out in different and often unconscious ways. The personae in that poem consist of husbands who have time clocks in their minds and are possibly prone to violence at the worst and at the least can not sleep well anymore, and Japanese mothers who were evicted from their homes and lived in internment camps, and America as persona--a country which churns out "bombs, bullets, helmets, tanks and guns-" for one war after the next. The people in this poem are victims of war and the readers know that their lives will be forever changed.

None of my characters actually take a position on armed conflict. I think the poems show, though, how armed conflict creates physical and emotional pain that persists and effects not only individual families but the whole society and ultimately the world itself. People need love, good jobs, shelter, food, strong relationships and the best for their children. Negotiation, not war, would be the best way to create a better world. There is a lot of fear out there, but there is always hope (echoing Anne Frank).