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Utah Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal: A New Collection and the Old Railroad — Pt. 1

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Courtesy of Paisley Rekdal
Paisley Rekdal

The newest collection from Utah Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal is now in print. Inside Nightingale, Rekdal’s lyric essay reimagines the ancient poet Ovid’s epic on change.  She talks about that influence and the song bird as symbolic and transformative in this sixth collection.  In this first half, KUER’s Diane Maggipinto spoke with her about the process of writing, and advocating for literature in the arts as poetry ambassador.

Paisley Rekdal: It basically explores the symbol of the nightingale in poetry which comes out of a very traumatic myth of rape and dismemberment. But it's been transformed into a story of poetic beauty. Poetry itself — the Nightingale song — is supposed to be the beauty of the poet speaking and I found that really fascinating, the idea that at some level our notions of what poetry is and where it comes from is so attached to a primal sexual wound. But also this myth of voicelessness.

Diane Maggipinto: You speak about your personal experience with sexual battery and assault. What was that like, that process to be able to put that on the page and then to be able to share that?

PR: Well, it was something that I had been dodging. When I was writing the collection, Nightingale, and I was thinking about going back to Ovid and thinking about all of the stories that he has about rape and sexual assault. I realized that at some level one of the things I was trying to get at was something that I had never articulated, neither to myself to her or to anyone else. And so it was a shock for me to realize that maybe I had been going back to this material because I hadn't actually confronted something. But when I started to do that when I realized that's what I was writing. The book came very quickly in some respects. That essay came very, very quickly. But it was exhausting, I have to say. 

Photo of poetry book cover
Credit Courtesy of Paisley Rekdal
Nightingale by Utah Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal

DM: What is poetry in its simplest way or in your simplest way of explaining it?

PR: I have two ways of thinking about poetry. When I talk to my students I tell them oftentimes that poetry is the ability to tell two or more stories at the same time but using the exact same language. That's what metaphor is right. It clicks together two wildly different stories or images, things that we don't necessarily associate with each other, and explores how they are in fact the same story. But using like I said the same language which is why every word counts in a poem. The difference to me between poetry and prose is that prose is when I need to talk to somebody else and explain something. But poetry is a very private act and poetry is in a sense so goofy to say it but it's to me it's like if the soul were to speak it would speak in poetry.

DM: Which is my next question — what does motivate you? Do you have a-ha moments? Do you walk in nature and something comes to you? Are you thinking of ideas over a long period of time?

PR: It's a little bit of all of those things but most of the time when I'm writing for myself it's a feeling more than it's a knowing. I can sense a poem — it's like a cold coming on. You can feel this sort of tickling, almost a physical sensation. You can sense that there's going to be a poem before you know what you're going to do with it.

DM: You're halfway through your term as poet laureate of Utah and you set out quite a few goals at the beginning when you were named by Governor Gary Herbert, one of which is mapping literary Utah.

PR:  It was based off of something I'd already been doing which is mapping Salt Lake City and it's a digital archive. It's sort of community written; there's all sorts of people from around the community that have turned in poems and stories and essays, and little memories of Salt Lake we tagged on a map. And I thought this would be great to do for mapping literary Utah, which is to create a literary archive of all the writers and poets past and present who've spent a significant amount of time here. A lot of people don't know how rich the literary cultural life is in Utah. And I thought it would be a great pedagogical resource for teachers and then other writers around the community who would just be able to go on this web site, look at the map of Utah, and see all these tags. They could click a tag and it would lead them to a writer. So I was very fortunate to get a recent fellowship from the Academy of American Poets and the Mellon Foundation in order to make this site happen. One of the great joys about being Poet Laureate is going into different K through 12 classrooms and into different community settings and to work with kids. Seeing these kids get up and recite these poems is just ... it always kills me a little kid shows up in a bow tie and reads a Hart Crane poem and it just ... I can't talk about how much I love them without getting a little weepy.  

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