The Eden of Perhaps: An Interview
Between Agnes Vojta and Chase Dimock
The genius of Agnes Vojta’s poetry is in its simplicity. In just a few neatly composed short stanzas, she can contain entire ecosystems of thought. Never overstated or garish, her work bears the influence of her background as a physicist.The poems have their own neatly defined gravity; poems in motion stay in motion. She can sketch a mountainscape in the Ozarks with the same topographical precision as the folds and crevasses in the human mind.
I want to call her poetry objective, but the depth and rush of human feeling in her lines makes that word misleading. It’s more that her work is authentic, like you’re reading a 1 to 1 ratio of her perspective translated into stanzas. After a few pages, you feel like you really know Agnes Vojta, not because she is easy to interpret, but because you can feel each word is her exact truth.
Chase Dimock: Your title, The Eden of Perhaps, recalls the Garden of Eden, a mythological moment in mankind’s history of existing peacefully in an unspoiled natural world. There is an abundance of nature poems throughout your collection, and I know from your facebook you’re an avid hiker and student of nature. What do you hope to express about your relationship with nature in your poems? Do you go on hikes looking to find subjects for your poetry and/or the peace of mind to reflect poetically on nature?
Agnes Vojta: I have been hiking for decades and need it for my physical and mental health. Even in times of greatest stress, one day of the weekend is sacred and I must spend it in the woods. Hiking is also a spiritual practice for me, my way of meditating. On an easy trail, you can let the thoughts wander and percolate; difficult terrain requires intense concentration that forces you to be completely in the moment in a way few other experiences do. Getting away from the chatter of civilization and connecting with nature grounds me and puts everything into perspective. The forest, the rivers, and the mountains speak a deep truth that surpasses what we try to grasp intellectually, and when I can hear those voices, I feel balanced, connected, and at peace.
When I write about nature, sometimes I simply want to share these feelings and my sense of wonder; I wish everybody could experience what I do. But I don’t write to get people to go out into the woods – for that purpose, I run a hiking website and facebook page. Nature often gives me the metaphor that expresses what I cannot otherwise put into words, teaches me lessons that extend into other areas of life, and mirrors my interior landscape. In my first collection Porous Land, a seasonal arc of nature poems reflects an internal journey from loss to acceptance. Nature has to be experienced directly, not through abstract linear thinking. So one might say, trying to put these experiences into words is paradoxical, but the words are not there to explain and analyze – they try to recapture an impression, a feeling that then creates understanding that goes beyond words.
I do not set out on my hikes with the intention to write or look for poetic subjects, but I often get ideas for phrases and poems, and I carry a little notebook. It is always a surprise what I will find, and in which way nature weaves into my thoughts and feelings. The key is to remain open and receptive. Conversely, writing has affected the way I see. After my emigration from Germany, I was unable to write poetry for ten years, and when I resumed writing, I found myself observing more closely and being more attentive – being a poet has enriched my hiking experience.
Chase Dimock: The “Eden” in your title also recalls mythology. Some of your poems contain allusions to classical mythology, including the muses, Sisyphus, and Persephone whose pomegranate spreads its seeds across your book cover. You also invoke fairy tales like Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty. What is it about these enduring tales and archetypes that draws you in as a poet? What do you hope to add to these stories and characters with your poems?
Agnes Vojta: I grew up an avid reader in a house filled with books; Grimm’s fairy tales and Greek and Norse mythology were the stories of my childhood. Invoking those tales taps into the powerful symbolism of the mythological figures: Sisyphus epitomizes human struggle; Ariadne’s thread evokes the navigation of a labyrinth with a monster lurking at the center.
Grimm’s fairy tales abound with archaic gender stereotypes. I enjoyed subverting the story of helpless Sleeping Beauty and, instead of letting her wake from the prince’s kiss, giving her agency: she awakes on her own and chooses to defy expected gender roles. I let Rapunzel cut off her hair, the symbol of her femininity and her most defining characteristic; she is no longer willing to play her old role. Awakening, rebellion, and the questioning of dichotomies and gendered expectations are recurring themes in my collection.
On an underlying layer, both poems that reference Sisyphus allude to Albert Camus’ essay The Myth of Sisyphus which deals with humans’ search for meaning in the face of an absurd world, a topic deeply connected to the themes I was wrestling with.
Chase Dimock: In addition to being a poet, you’re also a scientist and a professor who teaches physics. How does your scientific research and knowledge of physics influence your poetry? Do you find an overlap with how you see the world as a scientist and how you see the world as a poet?
Agnes Vojta: Before I became interested in physics, I was in love with the elegance and logic of mathematics. I studied physics because I wanted to know how the world works and became a theorist because of my fascination with math. I find it wonderful that natural phenomena have rational explanations our brains can understand, that there is order, and that there are theories that describe even the chaotic. Contrary to what one might believe, this understanding does not dispel the sense of wonder, but deepens it.
At the same time, so much is inaccessible to our rational linear thinking and cannot be explained by mathematical theories – it must be felt and experienced. That is where poetry comes in for me; it is a way to capture what is beyond logic, what cannot be neatly packaged in an equation. Physics and poetry complement one another as I try to make sense of the world.
Sometimes physics sneaks into my poems when I borrow metaphors from physical concepts. Occasionally, I write about physics themes, for example the discovery of gravitational waves in Einstein’s Heirs, which is in Porous Land. One day, I saw a research paper with the title Dirty Hardcore Bosons (yes, seriously) – that was sheer poetry in itself, and I had to write a silly poem about it.
Chase Dimock: In a previous response, you mentioned your emigration to the United States. How do you feel that your emigration plays a role in how you view the world around you and how that shows up in your poetry? Does being multilingual affect how you translate your ideas into poetry?
Agnes Vojta: Emigrating from Germany changed my writing. For a year or two, I still kept writing in German, but that felt less and less relevant and atrophied until I stopped. I was unable to write at all for ten years. It was frustrating. I tried to translate my own poems from German into English, but translation is immensely difficult, as it is impossible to retain meter, rhyme (yes, back then I still wrote in form), sound, and precise meaning all at once. Translation is always compromise, and the attempts have given me a great appreciation for translators of poetry; they’re the unsung heroes who enable us to read Pablo Neruda or Francis Ponge. The inability to write in English had nothing to do with a lack of proficiency; I was fluent and teaching at the university. It just took many years for me to arrive here emotionally, to feel that this place is “home”, and it wasn’t until English had become the language in which I feel and dream that I was able to write poetry again. Although German and English are close cousins, I feel that my writing is different in English. I am a minimalist and find that it is easier to express myself concisely in English.
Emigration, even under the best circumstances, always carries trauma: the loss of family and friends, of culture and native language. I have been working on a series of poems about that experience, and also on a memoir about growing up in communist East Germany. The wall came down when I was in college, and that past makes me appreciate the civil liberties in the US more than if I had been taking them for granted all my life.
Living in two cultures gives a wider perspective and makes you understand that people can do things differently without either of them being “wrong”. I wish every young person could have the opportunity to live for some time in another country; it would broaden horizons and make us more open and tolerant.
Chase Dimock: Many of the poems in The Eden of Perhaps involve stories and themes about journeys that either you or the characters you address embark upon. Why is the idea of journey something that you return to time after time? What does the tale of a journey enable you to explore as a poet?
Agnes Vojta: I wrote the poems in The Eden of Perhaps during a period in my life when I felt I was undergoing a big transition and was on the cusp of a significant change. Transition and change were the themes on my mind; they are the threads that run through the entire book and tie the collection together.
The image of the journey contains all the emotional elements of a life transition: the reluctance to leave the safety of the familiar; the longing for new places; the hesitation in the face of uncertainty; the exhilaration when the journey is finally underway. In the poems, the journey becomes its own purpose; the destination is only glimpsed on the horizon, but never reached. A journey involves risk, but motion is life; to refuse change and remain stationary means stagnation and death.
Chase Dimock: My last question is a two parter: First, now that you have a couple of volumes of poetry under your belt, where do you see yourself going next as a poet? Are there forms, genres, topics, etc. that you are dreaming of exploring in your future work? Second, Who are you reading right now? I often like to end with this question because writers are readers, and we are each other’s audience. Who are some writers you think deserve a wider audience?
Agnes Vojta: Right now I am working on a collaborative project with the painter Greg Edmondson. I am writing poems based on a series of his paintings on black Arches paper. The project is titled Dark Matter, and we are planning to have an exhibition at the Smalter Gallery in Kansas City next year. I also want to continue exploring my emigration experience through poems and possibly a prose memoir. I have always been a singer and recently started writing songs. I discovered how very different writing lyrics is from my usual style of poetry, and it’s a lot of fun to work on that.
What am I reading? Not nearly enough! My great inspiration is the late Mary Oliver to whose poems I return again and again. I love the work of Aliki Barnstone and Miranda Field. The one good thing that came of the pandemic for me was that I met many poets through online readings whose paths wouldn’t have crossed mine otherwise. Because of that, I am currently enjoying books by Amy Irish, Valerie Szarek, and Amy Wright Vollmar.
Thank you so much for talking with me, Chase!
The Eden of Perhaps was published by Spartan Press and is available on Barnes & Noble and from the author directly
About the Author: Chase Dimock lives among mountain lions and coyotes in an undisclosed location between Laurel Canyon and the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles. He serves as the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be Magazine and makes his living teaching literature and writing at College of the Canyons. His poetry has been published in Waccamaw, Hot Metal Bridge, Faultline, Roanoke Review, New Mexico Review, and Flyway among others. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship in World Literature and LGBT Studies has appeared in College Literature, Western American Literature, Modern American Poetry, The Lambda Literary Review, and several edited anthologies. For more, visit chasedimock.com
More Interviews by Chase Dimock:
Letting the Meat Rest: A Conversation with Poet John Dorsey
Dandylion Riot: A Conversation with Artist and Poet Jeanette Powers
First-Hand Accounts from Made-Up Places: An Interview with Poet Mikes James