The Colorado Poet, Issue #32, Summer 2022

Flowering Within the Landscapes of Sorrow: A Conversation with Poet Claudia Putnam, winner of the 2020 Moon City Poetry Award.

Claudia PutnamClaudia Putnam is a poet, fiction writer, and memoirist living in the Roaring Fork Valley. Her debut collection of poetry, The Land of Stone and River, won the Moon City Press poetry prize and can be ordered via Univ of Arkansas Press. Her short memoir, Double Negative, won the creative nonfiction/hybrid chapbook award from Split/Lip Press. She has also published a poetry chapbook, Wild Thing in Our Known World, with Finishing Line Press and has a novella, Seconds, forthcoming from Neutral Zones Press.

KW: Congratulations on your multiple book publications, Claudia. I am always interested in the challenges of organizing a poetry book. The middle section of your book, The Land of Stone and River, contemplates, for lack of better words on my part, the geological landscape of the west and its cultural/religious history. It stands between poems of grief—at times a quiet keening for a dead infant— and an internal storm that precipitates a desire for suicide. An interesting article in Landscapes: the Journal of the International Centre for Landscape and Language asks the question: “The Purposes of Landscape Poetry: Ecology or Psychology?” Can you talk to us about this middle section that seems to act as a kind of geological backdrop for the highly personal “inner scape” of the other two sections of your book?

CP: Structuring a poetry book is so hard enough that many famous poets supplement their incomes by offering manuscript consultations.  At the AWP conference in Denver a few years back, there was a seminar on how to order a poetry book. It started in a divided ballroom and soon took over the whole space, with standing room only. 

I winged it, though. I’ve rarely had a mentor, due to financial and other isolating matters. A writer friend of mine did say that “this [book] just feels like you: the mystic, the historian, the analytical mind are all here.” The connection to the land is important all the way through. I don’t think you can divorce human psychology from ecology. The first section is underlain by solastalgia. The planet we think we live on no longer exists—denial is triggering for me. So, it’s about hard griefs—things that will never be the same again.

Originally, the second section was going to be the whole book, focused on the larger contexts of sorrow: how people have moved through landscapes, through geologies much vaster than the human context, where the wind blows on, regardless, and the earth does its thing, regardless. People in dire straits in a dire landscape, migrating for example into the San Luis valley. That valley is the size of Massachusetts! A landscape like this one, which feels like home to me, is perilous; yet I can find my soul in places like Crestone. Here we are, driven from homes, finding new homes, all against the backdrop of a landscape that has not known humans until relatively recently, in terms of planetary history. It interests me that we now refer to the destructive period of human impact on this planet—the end of the Holocene—as the Anthropocene. I think we are already imagining ourselves as a layer in the dirt. As an “epoch,” like other bygone periods, such as the pleistocene, though not nearly as long. To be excavated, perhaps, by some later version of intelligent life, nothing like us.

The last section explores inner landscapes, terrifying and possibly annihilating. This is another example of overwhelming circumstances that can only be approached in small, personal ways. Incidentally, “Suicide Note,” is as much about our cultural suicide as my own struggle with bipolar depression.

So, while the book has a theme—the struggle to adapt to immutable forces—there isn’t really an arc. The term arc (which I consider to be an outdated 80s fad) implies resolution, even hope. For some reason people have found the last poem, “Remanence,” hopeful, but for me it was about a terrifying experience. I’d laid my hands on my dead dog, found I could sense quite a bit of life there, and wondered whether the shamanic capabilities of people like Jesus or some other advanced guru figure were really so far-fetched. Maybe someone trained as an energy healer, as I am, could indeed whisper, “Come.”


KW: I discovered the term, “After” poems,” after reading your poem, “Poetics,” which offers the epigraph, “With appreciation to Carolyn Forché and Robert Bly.” I recognized some of their images in your poem. “After" poems can be tricky if you don’t acknowledge the original sources, which you do, but can you talk a bit about bringing in other voices or presences into your poems? Besides the “after” poem, you have some found poem sections, some reference text, epigraphs, quotes etc. Susan Tichy, who I interviewed for her new book, North|Rock|Edge, talks about “coring” from other texts. Why might a poet want to “borrow” language from other poems?

CP: An “After” poem is about echoing form and tone. Poetry, like all art, is in constant conversation with itself. Robert Bly’s “Living at the End of Time,” while nostalgic, has a more celebratory tone than my own work does, generally. When I wrote “Poetics,” I was reading a lot of Bly and listening to Carolyn Forché’s memoir, What You Have Heard is True. Forché’s poem, “The Colonel,” is a touchstone for me, never failing to bring the lump in the throat that Frost said was the origin of any poem. I’ve taught “The Colonel” in my poetry appreciation classes in part because it makes us ask what is poetry and what is prose. At the same time, I was thinking, because I write fiction, about what plot is. The idea of it comes from Aristotle’s Poetics. I kept going back to Forché’s image of the moon sweeping back and forth on this invisible line, which I also employ in “Earth Shadow.” And there’s Chekhov’s rule that a gun at the beginning of a story has to go off by the end. I wrote the poem, saw the Forché, felt the Bly, and then revised it into an “After” poem. My long piece, “Reading Octavio Paz,” is also an “After” poem: I experimented with Paz’s structures, bringing in my own experiences, which I had been working to express for several years.

KW: You write fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.  Your new short memoir, Double Negative, won the Split/Lip Press nonfiction/hybrid chapbook prize. (Yes, reader, order here!)   There are lots of articles about poets writing fiction.  Can you talk a bit about how prose writing compliments poetry writing and visa versa? I remember my old poetry teacher at DU, Donald Revell, probably facetiously, saying that he didn’t want to write anything other than poetry because he’d ruin it. 

CP: I always wrote both, but concentrated on fiction for a long time. I gave myself permission to call myself a poet in my thirties, maybe. I’ve noticed that poems always come, even if life gets in the way of longer, more organized projects like novels.

You know, Marvin Bell also said writing prose would dilute poetry. Yet, Ursula Le Guin is my absolute model: she wrote whatever she wanted to write—science fiction, poetry, literary fiction; essays. That freedom is something I want for myself and my own writing. Character and place show up no matter what form I use. Usually when I show prose to an agent or an editor, they say, you’re a poet, aren’t you? This isn’t just because the prose is “beautiful” in some way. There’s something radical in the poetic line used in prose. You might have comma splices, or no punctuation, or strange line breaks, or drop conjunctions. Experience with poetry helps loosen up the prose. It also makes you more rigorous because you find yourself considering every prepositional phrase—do you need it?—every alliteration or internal rhyme. Bell said every line in a poem should have power of its own—a line shouldn’t be something like “it was in the.” Sadly, as Bly observed, you cannot afford to do all that poetry asks in a longer work. My fifty-four page essay took ten years to write, and the novel I’m currently working on is taking forever because I care about each sentence and word. There is a price to pay when you are trying to express yourself in different genres, but I can’t give any of them up.

KW: First full poetry book; memoir chapbook: what’s next for you?!

CP: I have a novella, Seconds, coming out from Neutral Zones Press. A new chapbook, FIREWISE, is in circulation; I am working on a new full-length called WE WERE WILDLIFE, which asks whether we can even be human without the environment in which we came to be. The novel, STRONG BROWN GOD, might be finished soon (remember I think in geologic time). A story collection is in the works as well.

I guess this flowering is what happens when you reach middle-age and finally, with all this life experience, get the time you need to write.