An Interview with Jill Bialoskyby David Baker · November 25, 2020
Jill, I’m really happy to have the chance to ask you a few things about your new book, Asylum. I’ve read this book through and through—in drafts and in its finished form—and think it’s remarkable for lots of reasons. It’s also your most representative book.
One of the book’s primary subjects has to do with politics, with the relation of the lyric poem to cultural engagement. It’s striking that Asylum entered the world at the time of our pandemic, the horrible global contagion of COVID-19. You had no clue, of course, that would be the case; yet in these poems—these “lyric sections” as you call them—we find your sustained attention to trauma, environmental degradation (of nature but also of the urban), and both personal and collective peril. But you also propose, in a kind of answering insistence, our mindful attention to beauty, affection, and artful expression. In what ways now do you see Asylum speaking to this historical moment?
Asylum began as an inquiry. I was interested in thinking about the evolution of a poet, how she comes to language as an act of witness, as a vehicle of recording experience recalled through memory which is not fixed that can only manifest in poetry. Parts of the sequence concerns my days in graduate school—with the questions, the doubts, of devoting a life to a practice, as juxtaposed to a more practical livelihood. You hear this in:
Why I thought I needed to rent a third-floor attic,
why I thought one mattress on the floor, a desk, a vanity with a mirror—why whether from grief, abundance, freckled blue-black sky, soundless rain, humanity’s pain, endless desire, the poem came—
And then in these last lines from XX.
then for that time there was a brief sojourn from the asylum in which prisoned the poem, asylum for which
there was a cell that carried our self-doubts, a cell for lack
of confidence, a cell for fear, for rage, a cell for emptiness, a cell
for want, a cell for which there is no name for, as there is no name for the ways we hoped language would save us.
But then the inquiry shifted, as the political landscape shifted and racial unrest, terror, and environmental concerns became more dire, and those fears and concerns entered into what I was building in Asylum. I began to consider questions of survival and as you say, beauty, artful expression as antidotes to hate and terror and the fundamental disregard for an individual’s rights. The administration was putting children in pens, gravestones in Jewish synagogues were being toppled, innocent black people shot and killed by police. How do we seek asylum in the midst of unrest? Should we? As the book was in the last proof stages in February and early March, the Covid pandemic hit and I adjusted a few lines in LXXXIV. And C. to add that layer.
Here are the lines from LXXIV.
The winter a strain of virus
quarantined us far into spring in which another teenager
somewhere in the city is locked in a soporific fog,
help, forgotten, isolated in aloneness,
And from C.:
in which the mind seeks
to keep itself from torture,
asylum where we quarantined
to save humanity,
To answer your question, less obliquely, I do see the poem as bearing witness to this historic moment and a general fear for human despair.
The other aspect of this coincidence—Asylum appearing just as we shelter in place, as we quarantine—affects the book’s reception. It’s been reviewed with much deserved enthusiasm. But you haven’t been able to travel, to promote the book, to talk in public as I know you like to do in bookstores and libraries and workshops about this collection. You are a generous advocate of the art. So it’s been a vexing time to put a new book into the world. Have their been surprises or any positive moments in the midst of what must surely be frustration?
It did feel like publishing into a vacuum. I remember the day I delivered some notes to my publisher that I wanted to include in a few galleys was on a Friday and it was the day the offices were all shutting down. The galleys were delivered to empty offices, so that was something I had to accept. Then there were limited employees in the warehouse so finished books were slow to get to media editors. All to say, that I recognized that in light of what was happening to the world with this terrible pandemic, this was a mere pimple. I am grateful for any attention devoted to the book and was fortunate to be able to do some virtual events at many of my favorite bookstores like McNally Jackson and Politics and Prose, for example, and for any of the review attention the book received.
You have worked for the past few years consistently on this book-length poem. It wields such power and discovers such intimate revelations. It is made of 103 sections in a myriad of forms, from the lyric poem to fragment, from aphorism to journal-entry, found texts, overheard dialogue, repurposed language, and lots more. When did you see the overall form? I mean, how did you hear the opportunity of so many voices—like a contemporary symphony rather than a song—and what guided your sense in shaping the arc of it all?
I find that the content of a project chooses the form. When I finished my last book of poems, The Players, I wanted to try something different, something riskier, more challenging, to get out of my comfort zone and to give myself a larger platform. The world seemed to have taken a turn and I felt that the lyric poem could not adequately contain the scope of the project I saw before me. Asylum evolved over so many different drafts, I can’t begin to count them. As I wrote sections, I began to see that there were certain voices, the voice of a Yoga teacher, the voice of a parent, a poet, the collective voice, the voice of a sister mourning the loss of another sister, the voice of anger and despair, historical fear, and the voices of other poets, Dante, Celan, Plath, Blake, and I gave myself permission to allow all these voices and forms into the poem, of course, filtered through my own voice, as the poet. I see it as a hybrid. What we didn’t make clear in the copy is that the poem is meant to be read straight through as you would read a novel, for instance, though I did want particular sections to work on their own. Recently, I watched The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. At one point, the chess master sees the chess board as a vision on top of the ceiling of her bedroom. I immediately connected with that image, because putting together the sections in Asylum was something like moving chess pieces along a chess board, to gain momentum and authority.
Let me follow up with a related question about organization. How did you think about orchestrating and ordering this big piece? Did you lean on musical (symphonic?) models, or dramatic and narrative ones (like The Inferno), or were you more dependent on chronological structures like seasons, years, parts of a life? What kinds of connective tissue were you most attentive to?
I’m glad you mentioned symphonic models because I was aware, for instance, in a symphony when the tone, color, and movement shifts, and I wanted Asylum to also have those tonal shifts. Places where the emotional register is more intense, and then sections where there is more relief for the reader. I also love the playfulness of rhyme as a way of breaking up or modulating emotionally intense content. I employed this, for instance in XLIV. where the poet is mourning her mother’s dissolution in the last three couplets of the poem:
Once we found her favorite, though she did not like to choose—
(which one died, she said, confused, pointing to the photo
of her four daughters above her bed once she moved
into the care home’s prelude for the soon-to-be-dead)—a vintage ivory
pitcher that now most likely resides in a stranger’s abode.
Some sections are in couplets, other sections short prose pieces, one section is a concrete poem, and there are two sections of just one line. I felt these juxtapositions of form and shape added more character and richness to the poem.
You mention Dante’s Inferno, and there are five parts to Asylum and each part begins with an epigraph from the Inferno. I also quote lines from the Inferno in several sections of the poem. Asylum is in some ways in conversation with the Inferno. The Virgilian guide into the underworld and back. I think of ASYLUM as a journey through disbelief, chaos, loss, and a way out, or a way to survive, if one is a believer.
Asylum is quite different from your other books. But it also contains them all and it borrows from them all. You have written previously in free verse poetry, but also you’ve made sustained inquiries into the possibility of the sonnet and sonnet sequence, the intimate memoir, the extended prose narrative and the novel, and you’ve written in advocacy for reading poetry. And here they all are—in abbreviated versions, bits of dialogue, bits of notation, sometimes in prose or in prayer, sometimes in shapely free verse. I think it’s fascinating to regard Asylum as a gathering of your many genres and forms. Through it all you maintain a consistency of voice or perspective. It is one human, one woman’s stance in the center or sometimes the periphery of such much else—family, warfare, “pollen everywhere,” neighborhoods, yoga lessons. I wonder if you see Asylum this way, as a gathered expression of your previous writings, like a kind of anthology? And I wonder if you’d talk about that single voice amid it all—as Whitman said, “a call in the midst of the crowd”?
I see genre as fluid. Early in my writing life as a poet, I found that poets thought you were abandoning the art, if you also wrote prose, but I don’t see it that way. The content chooses the form. When I begin a new project, a new poem, there is inquiry and argument in mind. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to sustain the project, if I knew ahead of time how it would evolve. I found in Asylum the freedom to explore many ideas, that of survival and extinction in the natural world, and also historically. Breath became a component. The breath is essential in a yoga practice, as it is for humans, plants, trees. How do these mysteries connect if we place them side by side? Asylum is also fueled by anger. I hadn’t really tapped into anger in my previous work. Anger at the lack of inhumanity, responsibility, at the self, at the unknowing, when a tragedy like a suicide occurs that could have been curtailed. Here, suicide of a young woman at the precipice. Is it a familial or societal problem, when a suicide occurs? What is community? A community of trees for instance. They become dependent upon each other, their roots become imbedded, some crowd out the sun, others fail. What is the life cycle of a Monarch? Is there a correlation with humanity? So yes, perhaps Asylum contains the many themes I’ve struggled to understand, and still struggle with. It’s the unknown that poetry is made from, isn’t it? The search to give words to meaning, that could only find meaning in the way syntax, rhyme, music, find their own symphonic beauty.
The linked sequence is a rich manner of lyric poetry. You make use of fragments, of tiny poems, with specific reference to Celan in this book. I’m also reminded often of Dickinson’s miniatures. But you assemble the pieces of Asylum more like the expansions Whitman and Rilke and Dante, of Berryman and Rich. And you are particularly attentive to the guidance of women writers—Dickinson and Rich, as I said—but also Boland and Claudia Rankine. It’s important that the recurring teacher here, the wise yoga instructor, is also female. Could you speak more about these figures, some of these Virgilian female guides of Asylum?
When I decided that I wanted to stretch and write a book length poem, I thought of others I admired. Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is one for the way in which she allows the personal into the communal. I wanted that for Asylum. What was different for me, what I recognized as I was working on the poem, was my anger that previously I don’t think I allowed into my poems. I wanted to change that narrative. Anger from the way in which women poets, during the time especially when I was coming of age as a poet, were not valued in the same way in which male poets were valued. Eavan Boland’s work meant a lot to me for the way in which her poems recognized that women were outside the patriarchal models, and if entered into the poem, were figures that were sexualized or eroticized through the male lens. She sought to claim the domestic in her poems. And Plath is perhaps the poet who has meant more to me than any other poet. While many have viewed her poetry as “death-obsessed” I have a contrary view. Her poetry is about the struggle and desire to live, and to a degree, her poetry was reactionary against the male poets who were, yes, I’ll say it, jealous of her genius and talent. Her themes could be mocked, but not her craft, her art, her use of imagery and metaphor. Section LXVIII. Is a coy nod to both Boland and Plath:
I was washing dishes in the sink.
My hands were wet. The baby was crying.
I was past due on my deployments.
Listening to the radio I heard the poets voice,
her fear of being deemed a domestic poet—
(you will not undo us the patriarch said)
& the disdain in which it is held—
& all the while the baby cried
& still there were the towels spinning
in the dryer that needed folding,
bottles to wash, formula to mix
& warm & the oven in which another poet
rested her head that needed my attention.
So let’s talk a little more about the yoga figure here. I am fascinated by the deep relationship of lyric poetry to meditation. Here that relationship is literalized by your practice with yoga—of learning acceptance, quietness, stillness. It also feels like that mindful stillness is ironized in Asylum, or maybe better, is enriched by your constant momentum of thinking-through issues, problems, circumstances. Alongside the “surrender” and stillness of yoga practice, I feel the forward-movement of critical thinking as a kind of productive agitation. You seem to suggest a double necessity of both pursuing intellectual understanding and allowing for a soulful acceptance. Would that be a viable way to read this work?
That is a sensitive and deep reading of Asylum. I began to practice Yoga during a dark time in my life. It was the time in which my own son was nearing the age in which my youngest sister ended her life. I was filled with free-floating anxiety and though my son had a very different coming of age than my sister, I couldn’t stop the flow of dark thoughts, fears, that had little to do with my son. I began to practice Yoga as a way to stabilize, to seek a form of calmness. What I noticed over the years is how much the practice of Yoga is like the practice of poetry. It’s life long and continuous. If you change one aspect of a Yoga pose, for instance shifting weight from one foot to another, the pose shifts. Same with a poem. Changing the rhythm of a line, a word, offers new possibilities. Yoga and the act of writing is a continual way of learning to be present, to be in the moment, and in the body, and to have access to the “true self” where everything is integrated. I like devoting an hour a day to the voice of the Yoga teacher instructing me. What a gift, to give over to another voice and to trust it. To let go of the mind. For those who practice Yoga, we know that Yoga is all about the breath and that is a recurrent motif in Asylum. We need our breathe to stay alive. Trees and plants breathe. Humans breathe. In Asylum I incorporate the aftermath of suicide, the way the survivor continually lives in that space between life and death. And also the life cycle of butterflies. I also incorporate motifs from the Mahabharata, the Indian epic from which the warrior poses in Yoga are touch points. I think you’re right. That my work’s tension evolves from a battle between the intellect and the ethereal, what can’t actually be named and for which only poetry can access.
Asylum is an anthology of subject as well as forms. Some of the central subjects are marriage and motherhood, your sister’s suicide, your own autobiographical narrative—childhood, school and college, motherhood, and the important (not-often-examined) life at work in publishing and editing. And all of this life-full of subjects is enacted in the “primal woods” of nature that is both life-giving and deeply imperiled.
It hadn’t occurred to me, but of course it’s true. I’m at the age in life where there is more “life” in looking back, than forward. There’s a curiosity, a wonder in seeing the evolution of the self through memory juxtaposed to time, but not for the self, but as an act of turning the self into a generative catalyst and to bring that awareness into the poem. As Eliot wrote in his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” poetry must also be formed by the poet’s acknowledgment of the literary tradition, the precursors and poetic evolution. Though a thread of Asylum may be read as a poet’s coming of age into maturity, adulthood, it is in conversation, as well with the traditions. The responsibility of the poet is to continue to argue with the traditions and re-invent the form of the poem. Otherwise, it remains stagnant. Poetry is an act of discovery, as you know. There is little foreknowledge of where the poem will take you. It’s as if the poet learns in the aftermath and then follows the trail. That’s why I see Asylum as an “inquiry.” In Asylum I juxtapose the quotidian life with the “primal woods,” as you say, and within the historical context.
Let’s think a bit more about the issue of school. Asylum echoes for me with some of the great narratives of education, like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Joyce) and The Education of Henry Adams. But this self-portrait is pointedly a woman’s, with particular attention to many forms of tutelage—how a young girl is taught to be a woman, how a woman learns to find her voice and her conscience, her place in the world of nature and culture. It is a book also about how to train one’s attention, how to learn to be both an artist and a citizen. How did you manage these aspects without verging into didacticism? I might guess that useful uncertainty plays a role in your art, and humility.
While I like the idea of Asylum as echoing some of the great narratives of education (thank you!) I don’t see the book in any way as realism or autobiography. I often overlay experience with surrealism and mythic undertones and references. I push against realism to see what might be discovered. For instance, in IV., the narrative, if you will, is of the speaker teaching a young boy to ice skate. I overlay this with Dante’s seven circles, because, as you know, ice rinks are almost always circular. In my fantasy, the speaker is Virgil entering a young boy into these circles, into the fears and dangers he will have to face and overcome:
Together we circled
the rings, a boy, he was still learning
& we moved slowly,
picking up rhythm as we traveled,
we would see it all, digging our blades
to find traction, balance, to free the mind
of doubt, falling,
occasionally bumping up
against the outer edge—
it would take years if we were lucky—
stumbling in the face of reason,
O muses, O geniuses of art,
O memory, our blades crushing
But with that said, I like the idea that ASYLUM can be read as a form of tutelage, certainly for women, young girls, all my previous work, in essence has been subversive in this way—in giving shape to women’s experience. But I hope too that ASYLUM will offer an education to all genders and identities for it is only then when humanity achieves balance. In any essay on realism and fantasy published in Lit Hub (https://lithub.com/louis-gluck-on-realism-and-fantasy/), Louise Gluck said, of the reader: “The passionate, enthralled helplessness of the reader resembles the anxious helplessness of humankind. Once the end is itself submerged in time, in its impervious trajectory, we have moved from realism to philosophy.” This speaks volumes, doesn’t it? How does language, a poem, push a reader to that edge. It’s a mystery, but I hope for it.
Asylum is the perfect title for this work. An asylum is a sanitorium, a place of medical and psychological treatment and sequestering, where chaos may be near at hand. It is also a place of retreat and refuge, with the suggestion of peace and quiet. As well it’s a political status, a safe-space offering protection from persecution and political peril. How do you see the word working for you in the book? Asylum from what? Where is the site of this asylum? How can lyric poetry itself provide an asylum?
Asylum contains all those connotations you mention. Years ago, I edited a brilliant work by Asti Hustevedt called Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth Century Paris.
It examined the case studies of three women, Blanche, Augustine and Genevieve who were taken off the streets of Paris and sent to the Salpêtrière hospital. They soon fell under the care of Jean- Marie Charcot who used them as his muses to define “hysteria.” Here is section XXIX from Asylum:
Under microscope, magnifying glass
Using magnets & electricity, pin & tuning fork,
lumber punctured, photographed, sketched,
hypnotized, documented, compared, analyzed,
tortured, starved, etherized, objectified
& concretized, held prison
by the perpetrators of a science—
by the history of an era, by the myth
of the unsolvable math of the mercurial mind.
I suppose what stayed with me was this idea that “hysteria” could be studied, that the mind was ultimately penetrable. One of the myths of suicide is that the suicide suffers from a mental illness. Some consider it depression. I have a different philosophical perspective and in Asylum I wanted to track and elucidate the mercurial mind, while not trying to assert any one meaning. That is one shade of the title. Another is witnessing a forest of trees over time and I began to see how trees in a forest are active in their own community, their own sanctuary or asylum, if you will. Some survive, while others are pushed out from lack of sun, water, or strangled by vines. Asylum is both a place of sanctuary and a “safe-space from political peril.” And then there is the asylum of safety, of quiet, one might aspire toward in a Yoga practice, for instance, and then take it out of the studio. Asylum from threat, from hate and violence. I suppose language, poetry, is its own form of Asylum for the poet and perhaps the reader. Yes, an aspiration. I like that.
What do you hope for this book now that it’s in the world?
Many reviewers, including Lisa Russ Spaar’s generous review of Asylum in the Los Angeles Review of Books have said that it is a “book for our moment.” I hope Asylum captures, provokes, excites, through the experiential, through the juxtaposition of forms, of music, of narrative and mythmaking the fragility and preciousness of life, and the aching atmosphere of loss in the wake of tragedy. The poet as visionary, as witness, as survivor. But of course, I suppose every poet, hopes simply for readers.
David Baker’s books include Swift: New and Selected Poems, (Norton, 2019) and Talk Poetry: Poems and Interviews with Nine American Poets (University of Arkansas Press, 2012). He holds the Thomas B. Fordham Chair at Denison University, in Granville, Ohio, and is Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review.