Renée Ashley is the author of five volumes of poetry and a novel. Her awards include a Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, a Pushcart Prize, a Kenyon Review Award for Literary Excellence, the Charles Angoff Award from The Literary Review, an American Literary Review Poetry Prize, The Robert Watson Literary Prize in Poetry from Greensboro Review, a Black Warrior Review Poetry Award, the Chelsea Poetry Award, The Open Voice Award in Poetry from the Writers Voice, West Side Y, NY, NY, and the Robert H. Winner Award and the Ruth Lake Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. She has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and has received fellowships in both poetry and prose from New Jersey State Council on the Arts as well as a fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment of the Arts. She teaches in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MFA in Creative Writing and the MA in Creative Writing and Literature for Educators.
The poems reprinted below are from Because I am the Short I Want to Be the Sea, published by Subito Press.
Okla Elliott: The poems in Because I Am the Shore I Want to Be the Sea are largely prose poems, with a few pieces that break into lineation of a sort. The syntax and punctuation for the poems are idiosyncratic to this project as well. How did you happen upon or decide on these formal aspects of the book?
Renée Ashley: I’d been wanting to write prose poems for a couple of years and couldn’t make a go of it. It took me a long time to figure out what worked for me. Conventional punctuation gave the poems too many stops, too much air, too many moments for the reader to think and/or react. I wanted a feeling of claustrophobia, of speed trapped inside a sealed vessel—as though the reader were locked inside my head with me. So, over time, terminal punctuation, except for question marks and exclamation points, was done away with, and I imposed an extreme sort of compression on the poems. I needed pressure on both the breath and the meting out of sound and content to achieve a sense of profluence, but also one of embeddedness, density, and restraint, all of those at the same time—meaning I wanted the sound and content to press outwardly against the rigid margins but then be visually forced back again at the point at which each poem’s real estate abruptly ended. Whether or not I achieved what I was after, I don’t know. But that was the ideal I had in mind.
OE: The vast majority of the poems have a similar structure and the same titling tactic, along with several other similarities, yet the book remains fresh throughout. What little tricks or tactics did you use to create variation between the poems?
RA: I’m so glad you think the pieces remain fresh–what a disaster if they hadn’t! It wasn’t something I consciously considered—well, no more than I would for any other gathering of my poems. Each poem or poem section has its own engine (an image, a rhythm) that drives it forward and conjures association and consequence. I’m very aware that my thematic issues are few, so I try to let image and angle of approach propel the flow of the articulation. I did fiddle with title tactics a lot and titles-as-titles didn’t work; they were too loud, too directive. Too there. The combination of the brackets and lower case seemed to hush them, make them seem tacked-on rather than an integral part of the working bodies of the poems; that’s what I wanted, a sort of whisper, a suggestion softly heard.
OE: Okay, I’m going to go lofty and abstract here. If there were one thing you could change about the current literary landscape, what would it be? Imagine you have total power and no limitations for this wish.
RA: Ah, bigger than a breadbox! You must understand that a big issue for me is deciding whether or not to use a semicolon… or whether or not to get out of bed on any given day.
But the first thing that comes to mind is that all really great writing could find a suitable venue for publication. (And, selfishly, that I would have time to read it—but, I know: that’s two wishes.) It’s a good wish, huge, really, though also small, I admit, in the face of the power you’ve offered me. But as I said, I’m not a thinker-in-grand-scales. I’m a punctuation-sized-thinker or open-my-eyes-sized-thinker. I’d make a terrible politician. Wait … wait … Maybe my wish should be that great writers aren’t beaten down by circumstances that discourage them so that they would keep writing and reach some ultimate work they might not have otherwise achieved … but then again that difficulty and/or discouragement that I relieve them of may have turned out to be the exact source of push-back that would have powered their definitive articulation. Never mind. I probably shouldn’t dabble in others’ affairs anyway; I can barely manage my own. We’ll all do what we do. I’m going to have to go with door number one.
[once quickly (quietly)]
The rough black sky then the lid of morning opens There’s a pure yellow light buried in the toad’s eye and the mute swan’s plodding through shallow water The snake is dangling from his myrtle tree and the sun rests—curled like a gilded cat—on the ledge of the sky The wild collation begins again Moon and the syntax of stars The turning on their silver pivots But the blades overhead are dividing the air And the light remains whole despite that There can be nothing ordinary about the ordinary Monstrous when the dark thing takes its place Then approaching that one grain of joy on the tongue: that place of beginning of all things able to climb the ladder named Assumption And all that was dead is dead again The horrible dreams return We are the restless unlovliest animal Hours of penitence Hours of rain like a beating Two instants of holy permutation Things come to you and you use them
[café des quatres vents]
It’s only a postcard Nothing about the wind knocking debris to the curb No hint about the heart We are the act of consequence – figure and profile Every thing is fatal and we suffer the world and its waters Somebody will always object and we grieve for those living hard amidst these shifting miracles Right now is when I love you That world is only darkness Our place is in those small lights It’s best to be clear
[I run to the sad man in the white car and]
This is a different gun reader than you have heard about before From me This is a different tragedy The man in the white car is weary of sorrow weary the way a woman becomes weary of a man Or of her life (Or of a satchel which might contain the whole history a whole of sorrow’s vestige) This man is learning the gun: singed wing orphan rare bird Sorrow can fly and a gun can fly and a shot And time. But time is simply metaphor here & hardly a metaphor at all Not flying Dragging a busted wing dragging its bitter (Like a satchel) Dragging its stark and dragging its bleak dragging its heavy its carcass its blasted-out carrion heart