Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Terrapin Books Interview Series: Robin Rosen-Chang Interviews Diane LeBlanc

The following is the fifth in a series of brief interviews in which one Terrapin poet interviews another Terrapin poet, one whose book was affected by the Pandemic. The purpose of these interviews is to draw some attention to these books which missed out on book launches and in-person readings. Robin Rosen Chang talks with Diane LeBlanc about book design, grief in poetry, prose poems, and more.

Robin Rosen Chang: I loved The Feast Delayed, Diane. Congratulations on this gorgeous book. While reading it, I noticed what I consider a tension between the act of living and the act of grieving. On one hand, poems such as “The End of Grief” or “Last Day of September” offer the idea of hope and moving beyond grief, whereas in “Orientation,” the speaker, who is married to an astronomer, reflects about living “in a state of constant orientation.” Is acceptance of where one is oriented at a particular moment, even if it’s somewhere painful, a central concern in The Feast Delayed? Of course, this also relates to the notion of “the feast delayed.”

Diane LeBlanc: I’d love to turn that question back to you because your collection, The Curator’s Notes, particularly the title poem, reflects on the dynamic tension between living with wonder and grieving. Reflection ideally examines the past, analyzes experience, and imagines how we respond to new experiences based on the past. The tension in “Orientation” is between hyper-awareness of where I am and the confusion caused by lack of orientation, or living in rooms painted the same shade of white that blur into one another. So in a way, yes, acceptance of where one is oriented is a central concern. I wrote many of these poems between 2015 and 2020, when the U.S. political landscape shifted, science deniers influenced public policy, and I no longer understood who I was in the changing narrative of America.

Throughout the book, I explore responsibility and my place in a web of being, hoping to measure how my choices move or disrupt other strands of the web. Perhaps the feast is delayed, but the poems find agency in doing things to salvage and to disrupt.

Robin: One of my favorite poems in your collection is “Possum.” In this poem, the speaker chides herself for not checking if there were live babies in the pouch of a dead possum she found in the grass. The speaker then asks herself, “What if I rolled the possum with my foot, opened her like a purse, and rummaged through the dead to find only more dead? What plea do I answer when it’s too late to salvage the living?” This is such a powerful question. It’s about more than grief. It’s as if the speaker carries the burden not only to accept loss but also to heal the living. Could you talk about this?

Diane: I appreciate your insightful reading of this poem. Your observation may inform how readers perceive other poems in The Feast Delayed. Obviously, I wrote this poem after encountering a dead possum. No one responded to calls to remove the body, so it became an artifact of loss that I confronted almost daily when my dog and I walked around the pond. My grief for this small creature was informed by larger ecological loss. An earlier poem in the book, “Stars to Fire,” begins, “This is the year we lost stars to fire.” In “Possum” and other poems I explore the question of whether or not I have done enough, or anything, to salvage the living. I live with that same question as I witness the devastation caused by climate change. It’s another way of asking, “In what ways am I responsible for this loss?” I remember being profoundly moved by Marie Howe’s book, What the Living Do. Although I continually articulate, “I am living,” as the speaker does in the last poem of that collection, grief and responsibility to the living are inseparable.
Robin: You have an incredible facility with metaphors. A few standouts for me include: “Language is the velvet grenade/whose pin I keep replacing” (“Six Variations on an Accident”); “…you confessed your thoughts were razors floating in a tub” (from “Reconciliation”); and “Metaphor from a distance is my comfort” (“December Hospice”). How do you craft such inventive metaphors, and how does metaphor function throughout the book?

Diane: Thank you, and I love this question. As an undergraduate in the 1980s, I studied X.J. Kennedy’s An Introduction to Poetry in my poetry genre and writing courses. Several chapters auger into metonymy, synecdoche, and all of metaphor’s nuances. I still have and use my copy, which has deteriorated to loose pages bundled with a rubber band. Contrary to claims that poetry complicates or muddies ideas, I believe that effective figurative language brings us closer to things and ideas. I’m an embodied writer, so when I’m composing I often make gestures with my hands to understand the physicality of process, shape, and movement. That’s when metaphors develop. At other times, I write very quickly and let the language fly in all directions. Those drafts may not survive as poems, but I sometimes find ideas for metaphors that will clarify other poems. Metaphors are central to the collection for a reason I touched on above. I wrote these poems during a period of ecological, political, and personal uncertainty. Expressing the unknown through the known, which is the outcome of metaphor, was one way of grounding poems of uncertainty, loss, and hope.

Robin: Almost one-third of the collection consists of prose poems. What inspired you to write so many of the collection’s important poems in this form? Do you feel it is better suited for the material you were working with?

Diane: I write both poetry and lyric essays. Are you familiar with Annie Dillard’s essay “To Fashion a Text?” She writes that when she gave up poetry to write prose she felt as if she had “switched from a single reed instrument to a full orchestra.” Her description upset me at first because it situates poetry as a deficit genre. Then I started writing essays and understood Dillard’s contrast. But I didn’t leave poetry behind. Prose poems exist in the sweet spot where poetry and prose live together. For me, a good prose poem offers the full orchestra experience with some stunning single reed solos.

When I’m drafting, I don’t decide in advance if I’m writing poetry or prose. I let the language determine what will happen. When a poem with line breaks depends on narrative, but it’s too compressed or lyric-driven to be prose, I’ll eliminate the line breaks to see how it reads. Each of my published collections has an increasing number of prose poems until, as you observe, they comprise almost a third of the poems in The Feast Delayed. Some of the poems went back and forth several times as I experimented with how to tell a particular story. In the end, the blurring of poetry and prose emerged as the necessary form to write about orientation, loss, and transformation.
Robin: I visited your website and saw samples of your stunning book arts. How did you get into book arts, and how does it relate to your writing? Perhaps you might also like to comment on the artwork on the cover of The Feast Delayed.

Diane: I’m a book nerd. I love paper, font, white space, stitching, everything about books. By the time I started an MFA in creative writing, I had been writing and publishing for over 20 years and wanted new ways to use form and image in poems. I had a rare opportunity to take a course co-taught by poet and collage artist Deborah Keenan and poet and book artist Georgia Greeley. They introduced me to the basics of shape, balance, color theory, and book arts, and I’ve learned more through the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. The tactile experience of making books influences how I think about words and white space on a page. I sometimes use book form or collage to shape a poem. Several of the poems in The Feast Delayed are responses to collages I made. I wouldn’t have written the book’s final poem, “Gretel’s Campaign,” without this process. And that poem enabled me to see the book’s larger themes of personal and ecological survival.

My love of paper eventually led me to artist Molly Keenan’s paper mosaics and collages whose images of sun, moon, trees, birds and foxes and deer, and seasonal change speak to me. When I discovered “Dreaming Minnesota: December Fox,” now the cover art for The Feast Delayed, I felt immediately that the fox in mid-step against the gray-blue sky conveyed the book’s tone. And of course, foxes appear in these poems.

Sample poem from The Feast Delayed:


Click Cover for Amazon

Diane LeBlanc is a writer, teacher, and book artist with roots in Vermont, Wyoming, and Minnesota. Books include The Feast Delayed (Terrapin Books, 2021) and four poetry chapbooks. Poems and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Cimarron Review, Green Mountains Review,  Mid-American Review, Sweet, and other journals. Diane is a certified holistic life coach with emphasis in creative practice. She directs the writing program and teaches at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.

Robin Rosen Chang is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Curator's Notes (Terrapin Books, 2021). Her poems appear in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Journal, Diode, Verse Daily, Poet Lore, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Cortland Review, and other journals. They have also been included in Terrapin Books’ A Constellation of Kisses and The Strategic Poet. She is the recipient of the Oregon Poetry Association's Fall 2018 Poets' Choice Award, an honorable mention for Spoon River Poetry Review's 2019 Editors' Prize, and a 2020 and 2021 Pushcart nominee. She has an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

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