An Interview with Janet Passehl, Author of Clutching Lambs

Clutching Lambs by Janet Passehl is forthcoming from Negative Capability Press in 2015. 

KF: Tell us about your forthcoming book, Clutching Lambs. What unites this body of work?

JP: The over-arching recurring themes are danger, vulnerability and loss. The home is not a safe place; women and/or children are about to be overwhelmed or damaged; love is temporary. Interior and exterior, the physical house and the natural world outside the house are important motifs. Art and architecture frame many of the poems. There is also a fair amount of religious symbolism throughout, a product of my early Catholic upbringing that, while not strict, was profoundly influential, and after which there can only be either belief or estrangement.

 KF: These poems seem to record a host of hums and murmurs and howls from a variety of              characters. Would you discuss the relationship between poetry and sound and its                      importance to this book?

JP: That’s such a beautiful question. Some of these poems almost seemed to take form in my mind as libretti. Some of them came to me as voice-over. I wrote much of Vierge toujour dans le Petit Palais while wandering alone through the Petit Palais in Avignon. I began to imagine my way into the persona of the young Virgin trapped in painting after painting, murmuring in the lonely museum. The impetus for using French words in that poem and Italian words in The opposite of grass, was to increase the expressive range of sound. Varying the dymamics of sound, as in music, provides texture, emotional and thematic layering, and an expanded spatial field, from background to foreground.

KF: Clutching Lambs also employs a wide-range of poetic techniques and structures. How do you think format contributes to the reading of your overall work?

JP: I didn’t want to lull the reader (and the writer) with sameness. Each poem should be its own separate and startling experience. Many of the poems are cryptic, but each one offers insight into, and possibly expands, the reading of the others, so in this way the book is intended to add up to a kind of complexity and fullness.

KF: Who is the “Architect,” and how is he or she or it significant to the collection?

JP: That’s the big question of the book. I can only ask it, I can’t answer it.

KF: What does it mean to cross genres?

JP: The term genre is functional. It allows us to talk about a particular group of works of art, or practices. But I find the term problematic because it promotes the perception that art of     varying forms exist in compartments, that there are borders. The idea of there being             “genres” also seems, in a way, to give the product too much primacy over the creative act itself. So, to answer the question, to cross genres is simply to be liberated from a preconceived notion of what form(s) a work of art can make use of at any stage of its development, including its final form.

KF: What is your definition of art?

JP: I wouldn’t venture to define what art is, but I can say what I want from a work of art. I want to be surprised, and changed in some small (or large) way. I want to feel as if I’m inside the mind of the maker, and that that mind is a singular place.

KF: Can you discuss your writing process?

JP: Very occasionally I set out to write a poem with a particular content, something I want to tell. There are a couple of those poems in Clutching Lambs. But most often, I start by typing words that have come into my head. I love the blank page so there is a sense of challenge, to discover why I have, yet again, broken its silence. I add more words as an attempt to extend or elucidate or subvert or surprise the previous words. Sometimes I work the language hard from the beginning. Other times I write extemporaneously for a long time, and then go back and hack at the poem, scrutinize each word and see how many I can replace with a better, more accurate, word. It goes on like that. Always asking, do I mean this? What am I uncovering? Is this “true” to me in some deep way. In the end, the poem has to feel necessary. Always there is a voice speaking the words in my mind’s ear. All the time I’m pulling from memories – what I’ve experienced, seen, read, heard, tasted. Sometimes I follow trails in the dictionary of etymology, which is like digging through the collective unconscious of speech. The writing of the poem is first and foremost an experience for me, a kind of traveling to a place I haven’t been before, but that becomes another home.

KF: Who or what inspires you?

JP: Celan’s book Speech Grille, in which the poems manage to be concrete and abstract, emotional and intellectual all at once. The work of Myung Mi Kim, a writer who has experienced alienation from language. Canneletto’s Venetian scenes, their vastness, geometry and intimacy. The photographs of Japanse architecture in the book Katsura Daitokuji; the book Houses, by architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, who designed the New Museum. The sculptures of Donald Judd. Being in the woods, especially in autumn with leaves on the ground. Renaissance paintings, especially annunciations. Pasolini’s film The Gospel According to Saint Matthew.

KF: Do you follow a writing schedule, or do you wait for the muse to strike?

JP: I’ve found that in a sustained practice, the ongoing work itself becomes the muse. So that means showing up regularly. On the days that I have a large block of time, usually two or three days of the week, I will make it a point to write for at least few hours. That’s the foundation time. Beyond that, I keep drafts with me at all times, so I can visit them periodically and continue to develop and revise while going about the rest of my life. I think it’s important to work a lot, but also to leave some space around the work, for the mind to rest and to allow the subconscious to do its work as well.

KF: Where do you write? How does your immediate environment influence your writing?

JP: My writing desk is at one end of my studio, and that proximity allows me to move back and forth from writing to drawing or exploring a physical material in some way, so that the writing adopts some of the plasticity and materiality of the visual art, and the visual art materials become units of language. There’s a big window over my desk that looks out onto the woods. When I’m stuck I like to travel my eye through the woods until the qualities of the landscape become physically palpable to me and my mind inhabits the space between each tree. I also write at my kitchen table, looking out over the wetlands across the road. The presence of woods and especially wetlands influences nearly all of my poems  – there’s a lot water in these poems – as does the idea of the window itself. I am endlessly intrigued by the dichotomy of interior and exterior, and the idea that the walls of the dwelling are only a scrim between the false security of home and the unknowable vastness of the so-called natural world.

KF: What advice would you offer to a young, emerging poet?

JP: I would tell a young poet to be very very brave. If it sounds too much like a poem, try again. Try to make it sound like the wail or the hiss or click or the hum or the song or the squeak (or the mew or the bark or the cough or the silence) that your mind makes.