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Plunging into the Depths to Measure

May 6, 2013 by · 1 comment

Christopher McCurry interviews Patty Paine

Patty Paine

Tell us about yourself and your full-length book The Sounding Machine (Accents Publishing 2012).

I grew up in Vernon, NJ, and after high school I joined the Marine Corps. I played clarinet in the Quantico Marine band, and my career would best be represented by the TV show “Gomer Pyle, USMC,” with me in the role of Gomer Pyle. After the Marine Corps, I drifted from one cubicle-based job to the next, until I finally went to college when I was close to 30.

I’m now teaching at VCU’s branch campus in Doha, Qatar. VCU Qatar is a school of art and design, and I love teaching in such a creative and dynamic environment. My students and colleagues are amazing, and amazingly talented, and it’s an exciting time to be in Qatar, a country that is growing very rapidly.

The Sounding Machine

The Sounding Machine is autobiographical to a large degree, and I think, hope, that the sense of urgency to move from experience to poem drives the collection. For me, that transition represented coming to terms with those experiences in a way that I hoped would resonate with others who are on similar journeys.

There is no “title poem” in your book, leaving the readers to ponder what exactly is the sounding machine. Do you mind elaborating on the title a little?

A sounding machine is an obsolete nautical device used to determine the depth of water. I thought the idea of plunging into the depths to measure, which is an act of ordering, of making sense, was an apt metaphor for the book.

The first poem of the book, “Ars Poetica” has a line “sometimes a poem can lie” and this idea reoccurs throughout the book. Is there danger in not realizing a poem has the potential to deceive?

When this idea emerged in the book it puzzled me because on the one hand I agree with Plato when he said that “poetry comes nearer to vital truth than history,” but I am also intrigued with Nabakov’s idea about the origin of poetry. He said that poetry “started when a cave boy came running back to the cave, through the tall grass, shouting as he ran “Wolf, wolf,” and there was no wolf.

His baboon-like parent, great sticklers for the truth, gave him a hiding, no doubt, but poetry had been born—the tall story had been born in the tall grass.” I’m ducking behind quotes, because I’m not sure why this idea surfaced, and what it means. I think though, that the danger of the duplicity of poetry is negated to some degree by the final lines of “Ars Poetica”:

It can make you think darkness
is a curtain that can be swept

back to reveal a sky gilded in light,
where wing beats fall

into a rhythm of hope, hope, hope.

On a personal level, writing poems is a great source of hope for me. Hope requires faith, and perhaps any references to a poem’s capacity to lie represents moments when my faith waivered.

Much of this book is about remembering and many of the memories revolve around painful experiences with family members. In “Oracle Bones,” a series of 11 persona poems, you give some of these individuals a history and voice that seems to be imagined, suggesting that there is a complicated relationship between history and memory. Would you say it is essential to have both? Or is one more important than the other?

Actually, this section of The Sounding Machine is true, even the doctor’s report. After my mother passed away, I went through her medical records, growing more and more numb as I waded into the cold language of disease. Then I found the report that I included in the book, and those instances when the doctor’s clinical stance wobbled stunned me.

But you’re absolutely right, exploring the complicated relationship between history and memory is an obsession that is very much present in the book. I wanted the poems to explore the blessings and tyranny of memory, as a way to contemplate the ways that family bonds sometimes break, sometimes heal, while pushing the capacity of metaphor to allow us to make meaning.

Because of the trauma of my youth great swaths of memory are gone, just vanished, so most of the poems in The Sounding Machine were born from discrete images, fragments of memory that lodged in my mind. From these shards, I tried to create some semblance of a history.

You are also the author of two other chapbooks. One was published before The Sounding Machine, one afterwards. Is there a relationship between these three collections?

They do all relate, though hopefully my obsessions are widening, or at least I hope I am starting to approach my obsessions in new ways.

You are also a photographer. Does the art of photography overlap with the art of poetry?

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t remember a great deal of my youth, so I think my drive to photograph is fueled by an urgency to archive, to preserve. I want my photographs to have a point of view, to represent the way I see the world, so I often look for a telling detail, something that moves the photo from representation to an act of recognition, and hopefully, to art.

Who or what inspires you to write?

As to who—all the poets I admire inspire me. I’m not sure what inspires me to write, other than the knowledge that when I don’t write I tend to get irritable and depressed. Getting caught up in work dramas, or petty political Facebook feuds is a sure sign that I have gone too long without writing.

How does a poem normally begin for you?

Generally with an observation, a single image, or a few lines, often the last lines of a poem will come to me first. The title is always last, and it’s the thing I struggle with the most.

You are one of the editors of Diode, a poetry journal and Diode Editions, an independent press. Could you tell us more about the work you do?

Diode Poetry Journal just entered its 6th year and it has far exceeded my hopes and expectations. I edit the journal, and Jeff Lodge who created the clean look of Diode put the issues online. Editing a journal is more work than I imagined, but it’s also more gratifying than I expected. Diode Editions just released two chapbooks, Bright Power, Dark Peace, by Traci Brimhall and Brynn Saito, and A Concordance of Leaves, by Philip Metres.

It was a steep learning curve getting those two titles out, and I was incredibly fortunate that not only are these books wonderful, but the authors were also wonderful to work with, and made my first foray into book publishing a great experience. Diode Editions will have three more chapbooks coming out within the next 6 months, and I’ll be running a contest again in the fall. We’ll also be delving into full-length books, and I’m delighted that the first full-length title from Diode Editions will be Glow, by Gregory Sherl. Glow will be released at AWP in Seattle in 2014.

In addition to Diode, you are the editor of an international anthology. Will you please speak about the experience and the resulting volume of poetry?

I edited Gathering the Tide: An Anthology of Contemporary Arabian Gulf Poetry, with Jeff Lodge and Samia Touati. Editing this anthology was the most challenging project I’ve ever worked on—from finding ways to contact the poets, and convincing them to entrust us with their work, to working with so many translators working on so many poems at the same time—but it was also one of the most rewarding. I think the poems in Gathering the Tide are vital to creating an understanding and appreciation of a region that is too often seen through the lens of a “single story.”

Are you currently working on any projects we can look forward to?

Diode Edition is keeping me the busiest at the moment, but I’m also working on volume II of The Donkey Lady and Other Tales from the Arabian Gulf, an anthology of folk tales that were illustrated by VCUQatar students, and was published by Berkshire Academic Press. We’re working on a second volume of stories, and at the same time, we’re also working on an Arabic version of the current volume.

I’m also fine-tuning my second manuscript, and third chapbook, and I’ve been sending them to contests.

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