To read Sophie Klahr’s Meet Me Here at Dawn is to live within a sort of open, honest, and wounded vulnerability in a way that offers light, hope, beauty, pain, and reckoning amidst the remnants of what once was. It is a book that explores the uncertain, that privileges the act of bearing witness, of dwelling in between truth rather than desiring to find some certain truth, some answer, some salvation. It is a book that begins one poem with the line, “It doesn’t get better, it gets different.” I found it refreshing to dwell within Klahr’s navigation of complexity, especially living in a world that extends so much outward as an answer, or a solution, or a fix. I don’t know much for certain, but I do know that Klahr’s work is beautiful and hard, each poem like a fist unraveling itself. We spent one Sunday going back and forth about so much—doubt, truth, recovery, teaching, and more. It’s below.

Devin Kelly: I’m trying to think of how to start this. But I should say that I’m listening to that Cass McCombs song that you used for your title.

Sophie Klahr: Nice! Cass is a friend. I think I might’ve been living with him at the particular moment I lifted the title.  It’s one of those cultural colloquialisms, you know? Something a cowboy or thief might say in a pulp novel. The phrase never actually appears in the book though.  

Yeah, I noticed that. At the same time, I think some of the song’s mood, perhaps, comes through. There’s this pained kind of hope—“I’m gone as light is shot”—that I also notice in your book, if that makes sense.

Oh, definitely. There’s also the lyric “find the memory, confront it like a crime,” which I love, as the implication is really about looking at evidence, motivation, minute details of a scene. The poems in Meet Me Here At Dawn very much make an attempt that that.

For sure. One of my favorite poems is “Beginners,” and I love how it moves from a litany of details into that line “this is exhaustion,” and then from there to, “this is enough.” I think that speaks to that notion of evidence, maybe, and then confronting what all of it might mean, or how it can have multiple meanings.

Yes, and particularly for the subject of many of those poems—the partial narrative of an affair—there’s a constant rumble of doubt throughout, investigating that complexity.

Doubt is always an interesting word when it comes to memory, the way that, in looking back at something, you find yourself moving through different recollections or interpretations of the same moment. Did that figure into your writing at all?

Memory is always something I wrestle with. There’s a science to it of course—how two people can see the same car crash, and when questioned later, each report with certainty two different colors of the driver’s shirt. We have this idea that we remember difficult moments clearly, but in some ways, traumatic moments, moments of impact, can be (or are?)  terrifically skewed.

Yes. You write in one poem, “I’ve come to believe morality exists // with a great intrinsic cavity: / first temple, engine of faith, doubt field—.” I love that notion of a gaping hole within us that we spend a lot of our lives attempting to fill, and the paradox, I guess, of coming to know we might never fill it, because of things like doubt, or memory.

That makes me think of something Mark Twain says, about how memory has no more sense than a person’s conscience. Our morality isn’t set in stone.  I suspect that most people are capable of incredible violence and incredible selflessness. We all want to believe the latter, and not so much the former.

Oof yeah, that’s such an arresting thought. It seems that sometimes we aim to simplify people rather than to acknowledge their complexity. Do you feel that way?

Absolutely. I’ve learned much about human nature from being in recovery—I know many people who did reprehensible things in active addiction, now-sober folks who I regard as good people, some as friends. It doesn’t mean that what they did (or what I did) is somehow okay or maybe even forgivable. But the actual complexity of experience…for example, in my late teens, early 20’s, I was raped three separate times. And when I think of those rapists, I don’t see them as monsters, or anything close. Addiction took me to dark places, with people who were similarly in over their heads—I think it was a matter of partial blackouts all around. That’s not everyone’s experience of rape of course. I have a kind of radical empathy for the men who raped me.. As a woman in 2018, I have a space to talk about rape, and a whole community that will gather around me. Those men…I doubt that they could ever have such a community that might hold their deep shame or regret. What would it be like—to live like that? It’s not a popular view—this kind of radical empathy—but it does a world of good for me. And—there were a lot of times during my active addiction where other addicts took really good care of me even inside insane situations, making sure I was safe and okay. It wasn’t as if we were terrible people because we were doing many terrible things.

Thank you for sharing that. And that is a kind of radical thought. I think what’s beautiful about poetry, and your poems in particular, is that they can hold that kind of nuance, if that makes sense. That convoluted, fragmented space that sort of exists beyond morality, or maybe really deep within morality.

Yeah. My experience in recovery has really translated in my work as both acknowledging the person who I used to be, and who I want to be, maybe my better self. I suppose that’s part of the history of the confessional.

Yeah, as I was reading your book, especially when I read that poem, “Such Unfortunates,” I was reminded of my childhood, when I watched my mom go through recovery. And when she attended meetings, my brother and I would also go to these meetings for children of addicts, and go through the same steps and the same process. And I love that poem for its opening line—“It doesn’t get better, it gets different”—and how so many of those aphorisms of recovery can offer up room for self-exploration in a way that also, in my experience writing poems, is really helpful and honest.

Ah, that sounds like such an incredible experience to have had as a kid—incredible both in a potentially nourishing and baffling way. Were you already writing poetry back then?

No, I was a bit of a diary-scribbler, though. But yes, to your point, it’s something that I turn to a lot even now to help inform my writing. I think what was most incredible about the experience was how honest it was. Like, after our meeting, we would rejoin our mother upstairs after hers, and it made it very clear to me at a young age how difficult recovery is, and how it’s not as simple as cause and effect. Like, you really have to work at it. It was a real privilege to bear witness to it in that way.

Bearing witness I think is the best of what poetry can do sometimes.

I agree. I wanted to ask this earlier, but I’ll ask it now, because it sort of ties into this idea of witness. When you were talking about memory, I was thinking about Truth, and how lately I have sort of struggled with the idea of what Truth even is. Is that something you think about? I know that’s a very loaded and open-ended question.

It certainly has to do with the notion of selfhood, and how well a person can know themselves — what is true in our nature, what is absolute. There are a few things I can say are true about me, basic things. There’s the truth of my chemistry, the medical. And then there’s the simpler truths, like I have a deep affinity for animals, and always have—an immovable truth. I actually just caught some baby raccoons yesterday (had to move them out of a closet), and also caught a little wren stuck in the kitchen. That doesn’t quite answer your question in a grand way, but it’s true!

Hah, no, it does! I’m thinking of this moment in one of your poems that I underlined, where you write, “no can really live two lives.” And that seems applicable here—that no matter what you are doing or who you think you’re being, you’re always being yourself.

Yes—and that goes back to recovery too —the notion of “it doesn’t get better, it gets different.” That poem you’ve quoted is one of the only in the book that has a kind of sequence to it, a few poems about experiences of staying in hotel rooms. The poem has very much to do about what one can learn to live with, justifying one’s choices, shifting morality…

I just read Leslie Jamison’s new book, “The Recovering”—have you read it? So much of it ties into this conversation, how she details her struggle with sobriety becoming one where she had to change her expectation of what sobriety might look like, of what it might offer her, rather than what it took away from her life.

I tend to shy away from books that are specifically about recovery, only because sometimes there’s a sticky certainty present (the author’s feeling that they’ll never relapse), or occasionally a self-congratulatory tone, or a tone of romantic victimhood. I’m not into drunkalogs, which some addiction books tend towards. I remember reading some non-fiction / memoir in my early recovery, and feeling like there were definite endings, happy endings—even then, I had a sense of them as inauthentic. I’ve relapsed too many times to claim certainty about my recovery—I really do look at sobriety as “a daily reprieve” as they say in meetings. I like that notion you mentioned of Jamison’s—the question of what sobriety might offer rather than what holes it would create. They talk in meetings about addicts having a “god-shaped hole” and that being part of the disease. That’s very much true in my experience. Most people have a god-shaped hole (whatever sort of conception of god one might want to have) I think, somewhere in them, some maybe only the size of a pinhead. But I do think it’s there.

Oh gosh, that’s such a beautiful and wrenching thought. But yeah, I very much understand what you’re saying about addiction non-fiction, and I think, to your point, that poetry offers a different way of relaying that experience, perhaps. I think a lot of the poetry I am drawn to moves away from certainty or epiphany and really dwells within things like mystery, or just all-that-we-don’t-know-and-can’t-claim-to. Is that something you’re drawn to in poetry?

Sometimes epiphany appears as a surrender to mystery! As Lorca says: “only mystery enables us to live”… Another line that comes to mind is from Edna St. Vincent Millay—the title / first line of her sonnet  “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines”—it really rings true for me at the moment, since I’ve been writing almost exclusively different types of sonnets for about a year and a half.. A poet I’m deeply drawn to in that realm of unknowability is Carl Phillips, who I really see as contemporary poetry’s king of What If, Perhaps, and Or…. his poems ring with doubt, an incredible energy born of questioning. The poem “Before Results”  in my book is directly modeled on his poem “As From A Quiver of Arrows”—a poem built entirely from questions.

I love that description of Phillips—the king of What If, Perhaps, and Or. All of this makes me wonder, and this speaks to your point earlier about addiction memoir, about how poetry might function in a world that, it seems to me, is increasingly focused on answer-driven help.

The earliest poetry I read gave me real consolation. It wasn’t because those poems had answers—it was that they contained the intense sense of doubt I recognized in myself. In reference to the work of George Herbert, in his book of essays Coin of The RealmPhillips writes, “It is difficult to know how to feel about the news that our restlessness is essentially god-given.” This description of Herbert’s struggle crystallizes many of the questions that rattle in me.  I think of a poem I encountered early on by Olena Kalytiak Davis called “The Panic of Birds,” where the last lines are “ What? / What if not this?” It seems like one of the most powerful questions a person can can ask of themselves.

I love that. Lately it feels like I have seen the question “Can poetry save us” asked a lot and it feels to me like that might not be the best question to ask. It might be better instead to ask how poetry is guiding us to live within questions a little longer.

Of course, that speaks to Rilke’s classic advice about living in the questions, and not seeking the answers, but to be honest, the first thing that leapt through me when you mentioned the question of “can poetry save us?” was the bright existence of Warsan Shire, who has written so much for Beyonce. Certainly, Beyonce is saving us in a major way.

Oh, for sure! I often think about how her Super Bowl performance years ago signaled, at least for me, such a shift in our societal possibility and expectation of power and culture and personhood. In this sense, “saving us” means promoting a radical shift of thought, and then hopefully, a shift in how we live and treat others.

I think Beyonce’s performance at Coachella this year shifted the American landscape of music—not only was the performance itself historical in so many ways, but the way that she brought the past and present front and center, and her laser focus on a celebration of black womanhood—it couldn’t have been more powerful. She’s constantly clearing a path for voices that need to be heard. And yes, that shift in how we live and see others—in a very particular way, I see  Beyonce as on the front lines of that mission. If only good poets had such a stage. We’ve got to write better poems I think.

Well, I was going to ask—do you find your own work shifting as, for lack of a better phrase, the popular imagination of our moment shifts?

I mostly write about what gets under my skin. In Meet Me Here At Dawn, the affair I was having was most of what was under there. Lately, I’m writing much more broadly—a lot about spirituality, which ends up being about identity. The fact of my queerness just showed up in a couple poems. I’ve reached a boiling point on feeling outside of a queer life, being a very passive participant, almost to the point of being a voyeur. Like the kid who loves to play basketball but is too fearful to even try out for the team. It’s not as if I’m in the closet, but I do struggle with it. I was talking to my friend Karina Vahitova about this recently, and she pointed out that my poems are queer because I am — the subject of a poem or artwork isn’t what makes that piece of work queer. I think my discomfort has risen to the point of public articulation as I’ve read more and more from young queer poets who do write explicitly write about that piece of themselves—I’m grateful for the push.

I like what your friend pointed out—that your poems are queer because you are queer. What you said makes me think about something that I feel has been heightened as of late, which is the difference between being an active participant in the poetry world (or the world at large) and being a passive participant, which isn’t to say that you aren’t actively queer, or actively a poet, or actively whatever, but maybe just that you hold that identity closer to yourself or less outwardly. Does that make sense?

I don’t know if I holding it closer is quite the right tilt…but maybe. I think unfortunately my queerness lives in a shitstorm of various anxieties, traumas, and rejections, which started at a very early age. The few poems that mention my queerness primarily address the paralyzed feeling I’ve had around it. It’s a problematic notion really, the one Karina offered—it brings up much larger questions. Are poems written by heterosexuals inherently heterosexual poems? We could talk about that all day. I’ll lean on my old friends Doubt & Mystery here…

I wanted to address something else you said about being an active participant in the poetry world. I think sometimes people confuse that with the poetry business, the Po Biz, which basically just means functioning within the echo-chamber of other poets. Being an active participant in the poetry world—that simply means sharing poetry.  I’ve had interesting experiences with my older brother over the past few years—he’s a quiet person, well-educated, lives in the suburbs, works in Big Data, which I couldn’t explain a wink of…is super into watching sports, constantly busy with shuttling his kids around. But—as I’ve been sharing poetry with him—some of my own, some by others—I think he’s become more sensitive to poetry, more open. I think it’s become something that he may occasionally seek out on his own. We make the poetry world when we bring poetry with us, and offer it up as poetry should be offered—to anyone.

I’m sorry for my phrasing in that question earlier—I think what I was trying to ask was much broader, something along the lines of why we write about what we write about. But I really gravitate to what you shared about your brother, because my experience with my older brother has been similar, and my father as well. I think often about how this moment soon after I first started publishing my work, when I went back home and into my dad’s room, and found that he had printed off everything I’d ever written that had been published online. And I never sent him it—I was too scared. But I remember that feeling, of the work having reached this person who I wanted to reach but was too scared to, and how that felt more meaningful than anything else I’d experienced. To use your words—it felt much like an offering.

That’s a beautiful moment. I wish all poets and artists could have that type of moment with their parents or loved ones…anyone who they’re afraid to give their work to…

Sometimes random people, folks next to me on an airplane or whatever, will ask a question about success, once I answer the question of “What do you do?” with “I’m a poet.” That question feels loaded with the expectation that I’ll say something about a job or an award, something prestigious. But I always tell the same story, and I’ll tell it here: years ago, a woman in Prague wrote to me, saying that her friend (someone I didn’t know) had sent a poem of mine to her, and that the poem helped her through a difficult time, helped her find a way into  something that she’d been unable to access. And I mean…That’s fucken success. I don’t even know what I wrote back to her…I felt so humbled and strange, elated. And that doesn’t mean that I wrote some brilliant poem, it means that I got out of the way enough for something larger than myself to come through.

That’s really beautiful. To that end, I sometimes find it strange how the notion of poetic success is so wrapped up in those ideas of prestige, or publication, rather than these smaller, but more transcendent moments. It’s something I’ve been thinking of lately—how to take the capitalism out of poetry, or at least, that sort of capitalistic notion of success.

Success for poets sometimes seems to be associated with having a university teaching position, which feels a little off to me. When poets say the words “tenure track” with stars in their eyes, I get a little itchy. The aspiration can quickly turn into something that’s not really about the love of teaching, if one isn’t careful.

I’ve found weird writing jobs over the years—doing stuff like writing commercials and freelance editing. Financially, I’m essentially floating on a raft which takes constant upkeep and attention. But the choices I’ve made have been deliberate, and in the service of writing…I’m not tied up or down. My version of stability is having a storage unit and living out of my car…Actually, right now I’m at a residency for six months in rural Nebraska. The world seems to keep catching me when I leap. I think if more poets leapt (if circumstances allowed), they’d find the same to be true.

“My version of stability is having a storage unit and living out of my car” is one hell of a sentence. But yeah, I understand that sense of valuing one’s own deliberate-ness. I teach a class at a college now and work full-time doing after-school programs at a high school, and just made the decision to apply to work as a full-time high school teacher, and I think that sense of what you were talking about, that notion of this-isn’t-what-a-poet-should-be-doing was what held me back from doing that in the first place. It can be damaging, the visions writers set for themselves, and by consequence, other writers. But also — I want to know more about Nebraska, especially since I think this has to do with your newer work, or at least the “Like Nebraska” poems I’ve seen from you lately.

I should note, about living out of my car—I do live places! Eileen Myles generously gave me their house in Marfa, TX for two & ½ months, and I spent most of last winter at Cass’ house in Northern California; I don’t want to portray myself too heavily as nomadic. Just semi-nomadic.

About Nebraska, yes! I’ve lived at a residency called Art Farm at different times for about 9 months over the past 5 years, and this current stretch now will be my longest. Around 70 people cycle through each season, ceramicists and folk singers and painters and filmmakers, etcetera. a lot of people who are semi-nomadic like myself. I started writing a poem a day here during September 2015, and those 30 poems have turned into “Like Nebraska” which is the core of my next book. At the time I was reading only Frank Stanford, and each poem starts with a simile, in homage to his fantastic similes.

The sequence started because from my studio—a slightly raised hut in a field, set away from all living quarters in my direct view, a stranger was building something inexplicable in what felt like a far off piece of that field. There was a great deal of poetry in his actions, and in his explanation of what he envisioned, which at that moment was basically a pile of bricks and an increasingly deep hole….Nebraska has taught me a great deal about watching. And listening.

True kudos to you for your work with high schoolers—it’s such necessary work.  If or when I go back to teaching, it will be with high school kids. I had the pleasure of teaching poetry to teenagers for two years I lived in Houston during my MFA—they taught me nearly as much as that program did. Teaching high school is, yes, sometimes quietly looked down upon by writers gunning to be a part of the university system. I don’t know what to say about that…it’s a bizarre judgment.

Yeah, I have a lot of respect for all teachers, but a particular soft spot for high school teachers. You do wonderful work heading up Gigantic Sequins’ “Teen Sequins” project, though, so it’s lovely that, irregardless of teaching, you’re still active with youth. But to your point about Nebraska—I find often that I learn more, or differently, from other art mediums then I do from writing. Are there other mediums of art that speak to you? Or inspire?

Thanks for mentioning Teen Sequins! It’s been gratifying to watch the paths of our previously featured poets, to have the opportunity to see them come more into themselves over the years. And it’s an honor to read every submission– it’s often the first time anyone outside of a classroom has read their poems.  It’s a leap of faith for many, especially the younger ones. We send a personal reply to every single submission that doesn’t end up featured—a brief note of thanks and encouragement, a few specific words on what we were drawn to in their poems, or sometimes a response to a specific subject in that work, especially if a poem seems to come from an place of turmoil. Last year we got a poem that was about an assault, and that young poet and I ended up being in correspondence for a good while. The teen population needs to know they are heard. Nearly two decades into submitting my own work, it always gives me a lift when I get a personal reply from an editor. Every kid who submits to Teen Sequins deserves that same lift.

About other mediums—I grew up as a huge musical theatre dork, and somehow, my love for musicals was part of what made me a poet who is sensitive to sound, to meter—. (The other part is Robert Frost.) I was just writing a blog post (for Teen Sequins, actually) about Gilbert and Sullivan, the Victorian era composer and lyricist team—I remember hopping around in my living room as a child, singing along to what I know now are incredibly intricate and clever lyrics. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. I just knew that the words felt good in my mouth. Being a dancer as a child (I dance as often as I can now too) also influenced my sense of meter—it all has to do with breath. If you’re not breathing at the right times, it’s awfully hard to dance.

I love that. I love when people’s approach to language is influenced by something that is not as heavily-related to words but still is its own kind of language—be it music, or dance.

Yeah. I haven’t yet written a musical theatre poem. Maybe it’s coming! I love something that Lin-Manuel Miranda touches on in an interview about his musical “Hamilton” — there’s a moment when two characters (Angelica and Hamilton) are talking about the letters that they’ve written to one another, and Angelica becomes fixated on a place where Hamilton has set a comma, wondering if it was deliberate or not. (Miranda says something funny about writing that moment, how it was paramount to sexting of that particular era.)

The lyrics Angelica sings are: “You’ve written ‘My dearest, Angelica,’ with a comma after dearest / You’ve written “My dearest, Angelica…’ ”Of course, I can’t fully articulate here in writing how Miranda has structured that moment of song, except to say that, in the sung moment itself, where she repeats the line he’s written,  there is an actual notable (breath-taking) breath taken between “My dearest” and “Angelica—,” a breath taken which that written comma implies/directs. It’s one of the smartest moments of the musical.

Ah, that’s so great. It makes me think of a barely-tangentially related moment in a Jamaal May poem, where he writes, “I kept fiddling with my phone through dinner / because I was fascinated / that every time I tried to type love / I miss the o and hit i instead. / I live you is a mistake I make so often, / I wonder if it’s not / what I’ve been really meaning to say.” These moments of, like, making sense of or reckoning with the deliberate-ness or indeliberate-ness of life, seem so much a part of beautiful art.

I agree. My friend was texting me recently about how she was going to get married in the woods next year, and while I kept trying to type “sounds lovely” auto-correct kept leaping to “wounds lovely.” This goes back to something we were saying about mystery before—how it is a catalyst for creation. A gut-wrenching Philip Larkin poem comes to mind—“The Mower”—do you know it?

No! I don’t. I’m not very well Larkin-versed. Also that’s such a great auto-correct.

Ugh, let me tell you about the Larkin. It’s about finding that while mowing the lawn, he has killed a hedgehog in his yard. A short poem, precise. And it ends “we should be careful // Of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time.” Every time I read it I’m moved to tears. Not simply because it is about a death, but because of the movement of the poem, the bewilderment of it, and that simple, nearly helpless but assertive conclusion. It kills me. No pun intended.

Agh, yeah. It kills me too. It makes me think of two things about your work, if I may bring it back to your work. The first is just a small phrase that has stuck with me since the first time I read your book—“too much is sacred.” And the second is that the last word of your book is “happy,” which offered me a similar effect as your reading of the Larkin poem. I remember finishing, and ending on that line, and being so struck by that hope-through-the-past kind of gut wrenching feeling. It was beautiful.

I’m glad that it struck you. It was so important to me that the book not end with some type of distinct mourning or loss or victimization.  And—to your former question about truth—the man I had an affair with—at the core, and despite all, we do make one another happy, on the most basic level I think one can hope for. And I can say that even though we’re not together. I really wanted to acknowledge very clearly that particular depth of pure happiness which vibrated and shone, even within the wreckage. There’s a scene in “Angels in America” when Prior is very sick, talking to the Angel, and he says, “We live past hope.” I can’t remember the whole monologue, but I know it ends with Prior asking to be blessed, despite all suffering, all agony. He says, “Bless me anyway, I want more life.” All that chimes with me—I ask for the same.


 

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