An Interview with Callista Buchen

BMR asked Issue 26 contributor, Callista Buchen, some questions regarding her work. Ms. Buchen is the 2012 DIAGRAM Essay contest winner, and her poem “Bluebird” was a favorite of Issue 26.

Your writing feels expansive, visceral, cinematic (that last term is a compliment, by the way). For instance, with”Masterwork,” published in the now-defunct KillAuthor, the reader is challenged to

“Watch without thumping blood

or greedy lungs this labor of a universe.”

With “Bluebird,” the poem we published in BMR Issue #26, image, metaphor, and narrative all seem to evolve to a natural progression by the end. With these things in mind, how do you come to your images? Or, perhaps, how do your images come to you?

The image is an important building block in my work—I think it is that I think in images, in impressions and senses, and I want to share these as accurately as possible. I choose words for lots of reasons, for texture, for weight, for sensory experience, but mostly I want to be precise. I don’t conjure images or transcribe them on the page. I don’t have a plan at the start of the poem where the poem will go or what bits of images will eventually coalesce. I want to be as precise as I can with each word, each moment, and then I go to the next one and try again.

You move deftly from poetry to prose poems to essays, as evidenced by “Bluebird,” “On Venus,” and “Belly Sea,” which won Diagram’s 2012 Essay Contest. Do you see distinguishing differences between these literary forms? Is there a form you have yet to tackle that you’re saving for later – like, “In 2015, I’m writing nothing but pantoums, sestinas, and children’s fables”?

I’m mostly uninterested in distinctions between forms, at least while I’m writing. I try to write the way and in the form that the thing I’m writing demands. It doesn’t feel complicated. Most of my work isn’t particularly experimental or conceptual, though I have pieces that operate in that realm. My goal is to do the work in the way the work requires.

I don’t really label anything I write anymore. Out loud, I call everything a “piece.” I don’t mind if the reader or an editor labels a piece a differently than I do. Maybe I call it a long prose poem in my head and someone else calls it an essay. Whatever the category, it comes from somewhere outside the piece. It isn’t the thing itself, and the work is the important part. I’ve always loved Campbell McGrath’s “Prose Poem,” which provides a definition for the prose poem by describing a ditch between two well-tend agricultural fields. In the poem, the ditch is this easily missed but vibrant space of possibility—without taking anything away from the fields around it or the farmers who tend them. I like the idea of writing from that ditch, which wouldn’t exist without the fields, but also where labels don’t seem matter.

In the end, distinguishing between forms helps define expectations for the reader or set up some basic evaluative criteria, but I’m finding it doesn’t help me right now. In the moment, inside the thing that I’m doing, I try not to think about it. The authority of the form or of the voice required by a particular form can overwhelm what I’m making. For now, I can let someone else worry about what separates an essay from a poem. I’m more concerned with writing it down.

Any projects in the works we should know about?

I’m working on a manuscript inspired by dismantled buildings and the way we build things and take them apart, as well as some pieces that address notions of motherhood and mothering. I’m interested in construction—how we make buildings and mothers and texts.

Any literary heroes you’d like to give a shout-out to? What about compatriots we should be on the lookout for?

Some generous and talented friends from grad school are doing amazing, inspiring work—Matt Bell has his debut novel, The House upon the Dirt between the Woods and the Lake, out this week, and Anne Valente’s short story collection is due from Dzanc next year. I’m also looking forward to Mary Stone Dockery’s newest collection of poems, One Last Cigarette. I got the chance to meet Alyse Knorr at a conference last fall, and I can’t wait to read her collection Annotated Glass.

And finally, the de rigueur writer’s interview question: what’s on your summer reading list?

This summer I’m busy preparing for my PhD comprehensive exams, so I’m reading a lot of canonical texts and critical work (I’m focusing on 20th century American literature and prose poetry). This week I’m working on postmodernist theory and Don DeLillo’s fiction. Some of the other texts that I’m excited to be studying later this summer include Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette and Lyn Hejinian’s My Life.

Learn more about Callista Buchen.

M. Brianna Stallings has been an intern for Blue Mesa Review for the past year. She is the current undergraduate recipient of the Hillerman/McGarrity Scholarship in Creative Writing.