Illinois Poet's Forum - Past Forums
Simone Muench: Four Questions About the Writing Process
This is an extended version of a Writing Process Tour that I took part in last year, and I thought it might help contextualize some of my work for readers who are interested in the writing process. The original piece can be found at http://lewislitjournal.wordpress.com/2014/04/02/writing-process-blog-tour/
Image source: /content/dam/soi/en/web/poetlaureate/images/wolf-1-muench.png
1. What are you writing?
Project 1: Wolf Centos. I recently completed my chapbook Trace (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and full-length collection Wolf Centos (Sarabande, 2014), both of which are books comprised of centos, a patchwork form that the poet Brandi Homan introduced me to many years ago. It is a form that I find to be deeply under-utilized with great potential to engage the lyric-I in a new, and hopefully profound, manner. In an interview that I recently gave, the interviewer Matt Levin shaped this wonderful observation and question, which I’ve excerpted entirely here along with my response:
“You quote Eliot’s The Waste Land (“These fragments I have shored against my ruin”) at the open of the second chapter. Elsewhere in The Waste Land are references to “a heap of broken images.” The cento form seems simultaneously constructive, in that you have created a cohesive poem, and destructive, in that you have, in a sense, ripped apart these other poems for raw material. What are your attitudes towards construction and destruction in composing the centos?”—Matthew Levin
The process of constructing centos is analogous to building muscle: you first disrupt muscle fibers, damaging them, in order to form new muscle protein filaments, myofibrils. The centos, like myofibrils, grow out of these rips in language, and though the centos aren’t necessarily stronger than the originating poems, they do create different contours. Mainly though, I find writing centos less about destruction and construction and more about the acts of translation and transformation, as illuminated by the following couplet:
“Certain animals converse with humans.
Every transformation is possible.”
The recombinant nature of the cento allows for both homage to influences and predecessors while beginning the conversation anew. And just as each line “converses” with its adjacent line, each poem is in conversation with one another. The “wolf” of these centos becomes not only a symbol of a transformative space, but also a mode of meditation, or as the wonderful late Larry Levis notes:
“Animals are objects of contemplation, but they are also, unlike us, without speech, without language, except in their own instinctual systems. When animals occur in poems, then, I believe they are often emblems for the muteness of the poet, for what he or she cannot express, for what is deepest and sometimes most antisocial in the poet’s nature.”
In many ways, the wolf of these poems becomes the conduit in which to speak, and to sing, through.
Project 2: Frankenstein Sonnets. Because of my interest in found material, for my next project I turned to a series of multi-voiced sonnets written with San Francisco poet Dean Rader. We are currently collaborating on a book-length sonnet project in an effort to co-join the presumed chaos of collaboration with the formal constraints of the sonnet. We refer to our poems as "Frankenstein Sonnets" because we cut lines from other poet’s sonnets, then graft our own sonnets onto the originating skein of flesh. This project merges many of my currents interests: ekphrastic poetry, elegiac poetry, horror films, collaborative writing, and the recycling and reconfiguring of pre-existing texts that I’ve been undergoing with WolfCentos.
The sonnet project is an extension of my interest in how texts remain “living” after the authors are dead. In some ways all writing is dead language that is “resurrected” by a reader through the act of reading and rereading. I am interested in the metaphorical properties of Frankenstein’s monster and concepts regarding poetic cannibalization—what it means to consume other texts, to employ source material from other writers, and to suture multiple voices together to create new creatures: the monster mash. Additionally, I’m intrigued by how Frankensteinism, zombiism, and cannibalism all relate to the elegiac mode: how the dead continue to reside in our psyches; what it means to have lost someone while retaining them perpetually in your memory, resurrecting them daily; and, what it means to have the human desire to remain living after we are dead, through various acts of creation—children, books, buildings—in which we attempt to imbue objects and people with the residue of our selves, our souls.
2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?
With both the centos and the collaborative sonnet project—I’m constantly engaging in frankensteining. But it’s not only a suturing endeavor, it’s a palimpsestic performance, in which I am writing over an antecedent text, while the language beneath the language still exists and shimmers there. To paraphrase Tom Phillips, author of Humument, how exciting to be able to harvest other poems and have them yield alternative texts with new associations and metaphorical complexities as well as “surrealist catastrophes lurking within [their] wall of words.” I also see the act of writing centos as archival, cataloguing, preserving, and resurrecting preceding material, in a manner supported by Emerson’s statement that “All minds quote.”
We are in the era of “recycling,” in all of its meanings, so in this way my current work isn’t particularly different from some other contemporary poets; however, if my work differs it probably does so with its persistent belief in “the power of other people’s words to generate profound emotion” (Perloff, “Poetry on the Brink”). Additionally, though there are recent cento-esque collections including Annie Dillard’s Mornings Like This, Daniel Tiffany’s Neptune Park, Noah Eli Gordon’s The Source, and David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, there are very few single-authored, contemporary books of centos. Because it is a form that I am enchanted with, I would like to see it revitalized.
Image source: /content/dam/soi/en/web/poetlaureate/images/trace-1-meunch.png
3. Why do you write what you do?
What I love most about cento construction is that it led me back to loving poetry again. I disengaged from poetry, and the poetry world, for a couple of years mainly due to reading snarky reviews and blogs (If you want to like humanity, don’t read the comment boxes!). I employ many non-English writing poets because I’m drawn to the concept of using work in translation as I see the cento as another type of translation, so ultimately I’m translating the translated.
Collaborations also helped me find my way back to loving poetry as they allow for new modalities of thinking about, and writing, poetry. I especially appreciate the unexpected twists and turns that occur in the collaborative process; and, because of these surprise detours, one must learn both flexibility and versatility, which ultimately translates to writing dexterity. Equally important to note is that collaborating, though incredibly challenging, is fun!
4. How does your writing process work?
Laboriously. . . I joke that I’m on the “five-year” plan, but that’s basically how much time it takes me to write each book.
For me the process of writing poetry is one in which I’m a tailor, or to use a more sinister analogy, a Jame Gumb, always stitching, suturing language fragments in my “workshop of dirty creation.” The very nature of the cento calls for this specific type of language-quilting; however, the composition of other poems of mine that don’t engage in this kind of exquisite sampling is not much different from cento-construction, in that I’m always pasting, cutting, rearranging, and continually reconfiguring my own work.
Image source: /content/dam/soi/en/web/poetlaureate/images/simone-muench-1-7-16-2015.png