If you were to look at Ann Pedone’s poetry through an electron microscope, you’d likely find holes. Holes in bodies. Holes in leaky boats. Holes in marriages. Holes in maps and dictionaries. Holes in the membranes that separate things from other things. Holes in history.
In her books, everything is permeable, interchangeable. Languages are likened to pudding: “They both have a certain amount / of surface tension which can / sometimes break.” Text message transcripts take up the task of a Greek chorus. The borderlands between poetry, fiction, nonfiction, theatre, film, art, and opera—they all but disappear. And among the many things leaking in and out of the holes in Pedone’s work, you will often find sex. The erotic rises to the surface of her poems in unexpected ways: “As if a bag of fruit candies could look / exactly like the human heart // As if a man could fuck you while your back / were up against the windshield.”
This unpredictable permeability is what initially drew me to Pedone’s poetry. She has published numerous chapbooks, and two full-length books: The Italian Professor’s Wife (winner of the Press 53 Award for Poetry), a surreal, austere, film-like portrayal of infidelity against the backdrop of Italian hotel rooms and cafes; and The Medea Notebooks (Etruscan Press), a genre- and form-defying tapestry that braids together three “Medeas”: the Medea of Euripides fame, the opera singer Maria Callas (who played Medea on stage and in film), and “The Writer of The Medea Notebooks” herself. Pedone’s recent work has appeared in The American Journal of Poetry, Narrative, Chicago Quarterly Review, Carve Magazine, Conduit, and the Best American Poetry blog.
Pedone was kind enough to share with me a draft of her current work in progress, Hotel Sappho, which fuses the unlikely subjects of Cy Twombly and the Mediterranean migrant crisis. In addition to this new project, over the course of our emails we discussed her return to writing poetry after a thirty-five-year hiatus, her studies with John Ashbery and Robert Kelly, the erotic thread that runs through each of her books, and her blurring of the demarcations between poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.
Alex Tretbar: Your newest book, The Medea Notebooks, was published earlier this year by Etruscan Press, in the form of a “tribus” titled Fates, which also included Katherine Soniat’s Starfish Wash-Up and D.M. Spitzer’s overflow of an unknown self: a song of songs. It is a bit mesmerizing, reading three discrete books written by three discrete poets, collected together within the same volume. Though the projects are stylistically and thematically quite different, they can’t help but recontextualize one another simply by virtue of their being presented together. They rub elbows and throw off sparks. They generate new resonances. Has the publication of your work in such a unique form altered your relation to The Medea Notebooks?
Ann Pedone: After I finished Medea, I started submitting it. A couple of months later I got a call from Etruscan. They had already done I think three of these “Tribus” volumes, and the editor said that he thought my work would fit in well with the other manuscript they had. They found a third maybe six months after that. When I first read the three texts together, I very much felt like the odd man out. I felt like the voice and tone of David and Katherine’s works meshed well together—while mine seemed to be coming out of left field.
Over the months that followed, I went back to the three projects a number of times and gradually began to see that while the style and tone of my work was a bit different, in the end we were all trying to find this very simple and yet incredibly complex and fraught thing: a way to engage with the past.
At the same time, we are each trying to tell a story. Stories of ourselves, but also stories written while looking in a strange sort of mirror that doesn’t exactly reflect back what you would expect it to. It’s a search for the self, or the creation of the self through that search. Which, although that’s a bit of an awkward way of putting it, I think is so much of what, at the end of the day, writing is.
When I first reached out to you about a possible interview and I mentioned that I had ordered your books, you expressed a sense of detachment from them, in particular The Italian Professor’s Wife, which you feel is “psychologically a bit superficial.” (I disagree, by the way.) You also mentioned that you wished you could rewrite it. If you could rewrite it, what would you change?
When I started writing again in the spring of 2020 it was after a thirty year “break.” Coming back to it after having not written or read or even really thought about poetry for so long was both easy in that I found myself slipping back into it pretty effortlessly, but also quite jarring because at a certain point I realized that I was coming to it with a completely different set of experiences and feelings than I had when I was twenty. My first efforts were essentially a kind of picking up where I had left off—but then at a certain point I began to realize that I could in fact do something different. So I started pushing myself away from what I could write without trying, and found myself writing these book-length poems that felt, in some ways, more like a novel or short story or sometimes a film.
I read a lot of poetry in college, but I really grew up reading fiction. Philip Roth. Henry James. Melville. Edith Wharton. Thomas Mann. Flaubert. Austen. And for me at least, probably more so than poetry, it’s that reading that has “stuck” with me over the years. I think that’s why all of the longer projects I’ve worked on—the ones that have come out, the ones that were rejected, even my current project—start out with a character. A woman who, I guess (Operation Shylock/Madame Bovary–style) both is and isn’t me.
When I say that that project now feels “psychologically superficial,” I think what I am trying to get at is the frustration I feel when I flip through the book now. I always feel a certain amount of detachment from my work once I’ve moved away from a project. So when I now go back to that book, all I see are the moments where instead of prodding a bit deeper into what was going on with the main character, I took the easy way out and, in a sense, papered over what she was feeling or thinking with these bits that now strike me as too self-consciously clever or literary. And that’s the stuff that makes me want to throw the book against the wall and never touch it again.
You also mentioned, early in our exchange of messages, that this frustration with one’s work is a good thing. Could you expand on that? Are there aspects of your previous works that you are attempting to deepen or approach from new angles with your current manuscript in progress?
I do think that writing is a process. And that process means a lot of stuff ends up in the trash. I write every day, and I write pretty fast, but I probably end up saving only 20 to 30 percent of what I’ve written. Still having kids at home means I write essentially in isolation—no workshops or AWP. I just read and write and read and write and try to be as critical of myself as I can be, which is hard because I think our natural impulse is to think that everything we do is brilliant. So I do whatever I can to question myself, and oftentimes that means holding up what I’m working on next to what I’ve previously done, and if it feels like I’m treading the same ground again or doing something that I can see I’ve done multiple times before, I move away from it.
I find there are a lot of writers out there whose work—to a certain degree—feels all of one piece. But for me, I never want something I’m working on to sound like something I’ve already done. One of the things I love about someone like Anne Carson is that she has such range. If you look at The Beauty of the Husband and Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, and then maybe Decreation, you might not even think they were written by the same person.
My current project is a complete departure from anything I’ve done before. The last two books, as well as the work that I started and then didn’t finish, were all very personal narratives (even though I was not exactly the “person” in the personal narrative), whereas what I’m doing now is quite different in that I am writing about something completely outside of myself. Of course, even when you are outside of yourself, you are still always inside yourself, but this current work—looking at the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean and Cy Twombly—has meant getting outside of my own head and my own experience and writing in a voice that is completely new for me.
As critical readers of poems, we are often advised not to identify writer with “speaker,” but in The Medea Notebooks you provoke the reader to do so, given the book’s investment in chronicling history, the dramatis personae that explicitly implicates “The Writer of The Medea Notebooks,” and the timestamps of the “iMessage” poems. But we are reminded that these are indeed poems when the speaker/writer sends messages that seem to depart from the established diction of the text message poems, such as: “I need to find a way to pull these knives out of my eyes first.” Can you talk a little bit about the blurred line between speaker and writer in your work?
When I started writing in college, I never wrote about myself. I had a lot of friends at Bard who also wrote—most of whom still do—and none of us wrote about ourselves. I’m not sure why that is, but my guess is that it had a lot to do with what we were reading at the time. A lot of Gertrude Stein, Pound, Robert Duncan. Poets you don’t think of as particularly “confessional.” So for me, at the time, it honestly never even occurred to me to write about myself. I assumed that was what fiction was for.
Now I find that I am in a place where I am writing versions of myself. In the Medea book we have three “Medeas”: the Medea of the Euripides play, Maria Callas in the last years of her life when she was involved with Onassis and just about to star as Medea in the Pasolini film version of the play, and the writer of The Medea Notebooks.
I think whatever “I” am is in all three of these characters. And yet none of them, including the writer, is totally me. I love Kate Zambreno’s work, but I don’t think I could ever do anything like that. I don’t think it’s so much an impulse to hide behind a character (though maybe there’s a bit of that). I think it’s just more fun to weave in and out of a character rather than “embodying” one—for lack of a better term.
Going back to The Medea Notebooks, the fictionalized writer’s experience of betrayal was certainly informed by my own personal experience, as well as the relationship she has towards the end of the book. A lot of that was writing from my own personal experiences—and yet, at the same time, I would never claim to be that character.
Prose is so clearly delineated as “fiction” and “nonfiction” in the way it is written, sold, marketed, etc. And yet we don’t have the same distinction in poetry. I don’t know what they teach in MFA programs these days, but I think the general reader tends to assume that if a poem is written in the first person that that “person” is the writer.
Confessional stuff is great. But I think the “I” can be so much more than that. And in terms of expectations, I also think that as a female writer there is certainly the expectation, and I think almost a kind of hunger, for the “I” to be the writer, since as a culture we seem to have an unslakable thirst for stories of women’s pain and suffering. To what I would call a pornographic degree. There is certainly a huge market for this kind of writing, and a lot of writers who produce it. Of course, it goes without saying that a lot of this kind of work is very necessary—but I sometimes wonder where we draw the line between speaking our truths and feeding the culture’s fascination with women in pain.
I think a lot about Madame Bovary. Probably more than I should. And I sometimes wonder, what if Flaubert had chosen to make Rodolphe kill himself instead of Emma? Like, what if Freud had focused on Antigone instead of Oedipus?
Was there something in particular that brought you back to poetry after such a long time away from it?
I wish I had an interesting answer to that. I started writing when I was a senior in high school. Then pretty seriously in college. We were lucky to have Robert Kelly and John Ashbery at Bard, and so I was able to take classes with both of them. Almost more importantly, a lot of my friends also wrote—and still do. After graduation I went to China for four years. And stopped writing. Since then I’ve asked myself why about a thousand times, but I honestly still don’t know the answer. I think I just didn’t like the idea of writing without anyone to read my work. There was no email back then, no internet. We wrote letters. If you can believe it. Which was a very slow process—especially with me being so far away. When I came back, I started grad school, had kids, taught high school for a while. And I just never went back to it. I started up again only because one of my college friends wouldn’t stop pestering me about it. I didn’t believe I would be able to write anymore at that point. Thirty-five years had passed. But I sat down and wrote something, and it wasn’t terrible. So I continued.
In a note at the beginning of The Medea Notebooks, you write that “most books have one beginning; this one had three,” and you cite your time at Bard studying with Kelly and Ashbery as one of those three beginnings. Did your writing’s relation to those poets change in the thirty-five years you spent away from poetry? Do you find that Kelly and Ashbery still exert an influence on you?
I don’t think so. First off, they are both very different. As writers, and as people. I think, back then, it was hard for me to get inside of Ashbery’s work. It was a door I couldn’t open.
With Kelly, it was different. We were very much on the same page back then. I don’t think what I am doing now shows the mark of either of them. Which is fine. Sometimes you leave home and don’t look back.
Text message transcripts feature prominently in The Medea Notebooks, while in The Italian Professor’s Wife you incorporate the language and form of the screenplay, or the stage directions of a play, as in the poem “Scene VIII”: “We hear the sound of running water.” And yet on the very next page the reader is met once more with the speaker of the poem, the wife, who employs a very different first-person plural: “We must have been very lonely / people to have done this to each other.” Can you touch on the ways that you complicate your poetry by hybridizing it with other artistic (and non-artistic) forms?
The simple answer is that I love variety. Again, I’m thinking of books like Anne Carson’s Decreation or Plainwater, how you never know what is going to come at you. It’s that way she has of keeping a reader on their toes. I suppose, on a certain level, I am always striving for that in my own work. You put together different kinds of text that you normally wouldn’t think go together and you wait and see if there is a spark.
While in The Italian Professor’s Wife there is the proclamation that Venice is “a woman / whose holes have all / filled with water,” the speaker of The Medea Notebooks tells us, “the holes of my body / have all closed tight.” In what ways are these two books in conversation?
I wrote them both in relatively quick succession—over the course of about eighteen months. So I think they both bleed into each other in a lot of different ways. I think in both projects we have two women who feel, maybe over-feel, the weight of their own bodies. Not the physical weight, but a kind of metaphorical weight. In The Italian Professor’s Wife, the main character’s husband has rejected her without any sort of explanation, and a lot of the book is her trying to make sense of that, both emotionally and physically. Which are really just two different versions of the same thing.
And it’s not just the emotional and the physical that you succeed in equating. I’m thinking specifically about your work in progress. It seems to me that the entire fabric of Hotel Sappho is porous. Everything leaks into everything else. (One of the pieces is titled “When a Map Became a Dictionary Became a Map.”) This dissolution or permeability of the borders between things is especially apparent when you write about language: “Language is strangely both public and private. It’s the sounds we make / with our mouths—the same mouths that drink a coffee in the morning / and perform fellatio at night—as well as the Queen of Denmark’s / Twitter feed.”
That “porousness” was exactly what I was after, am after in this project. You sum it up so beautifully there, I don’t think I have anything to add, actually. Borders are real, but they also aren’t, right? Sometimes, unfortunately, some people—they are all too real. Which is what we are seeing play out right now in the Mediterranean.
You’ve mentioned that you’re currently shopping around some excerpts from Hotel Sappho as nonfiction, given the project’s focus on both Cy Twombly and the ongoing migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, and that you think the project is ultimately an attempt at documentary poetry. What has it been like to engage the poetic impulse with fact-based writing techniques?
The current project is a complete departure for me. It started out as a love story, but then turned into something quite different. There’s a lot of prose in it and a lot of prose-y type poetry. So because of that, and the nature of the subject matter, I thought I would take a chance and call it creative nonfiction. Which is something I don’t actually know that much about. So we will have to see if “creative nonfiction” is willing to open itself up wide enough to take me in.
I don’t think I would be alone in saying that the publishing part of writing is a site of frustration—so I think my choice comes, to a certain extent, out of that frustration. It’s also simply because the work is long, and not easily chopped up into “poems” which I could then submit. It really has to be read as a whole—and submitting it as nonfiction allows me to do that.
Journals and presses seem to very much prefer a small number of poems or collections of many poems, respectively. So when you are doing something which is basically a fifty- or sixty-page poem, it puts you in a tough spot. So I need to be a little creative.
While reading the version of the manuscript you shared with me, I felt as though I were witnessing a bottomless real-time world building. The associative leaps that one expects to find in poetry—these are present, but they are often rooted in the geographical and the temporal, not just image and metaphor. Here is one striking example:
The gallery is located at 3 Merlin Street.
Which is just a couple of doors down from 6 Merlin Street.
Where, before the War, you would have found an insurance agency.
And, during the War, the SS Headquarters in Greece.
To my eye there is a cinematic patience to this unfolding, which is anchored by your decision to sequence the section with numbers. What is it about numbering that you find useful in developing your poems?
In this particular case it has a lot to do with the fact that I have always loved lists. So there is that. Also, there are a few pieces in the project, like this one, that contain a lot of information—and so the list and the numbers and the spacing of it are really a way of forcing the reader to slow down and take in each little bit at a time. I wanted to create a kind of unfolding, I guess. And reading speed has a lot to do with that.
Another of the Hotel Sappho pieces that contains an abundance of information is “A Very Incomplete List of Animals that Migrate,” which is just that: a collage-like assemblage of the names of animals that migrate. Its companion pieces, “A Very Incomplete List of Italian Words That Come From Arabic” and “A Very Incomplete List of Words in Libyan Arabic of Italian Origin,” appear later in the book. As in all poetic catalogues, a kind of dizzying music is achieved simply by nature of framing the listed items within the context of a poem, but these particular list poems are complicated by their fractured and chaotic arrangements, by lacunae both vast and tiny, and by the varying of font sizes and even the boldfacing of some words. There is a map-like quality to the poems, as well as the sense that we are reading ledgers from which a number of items have been erased. How, in these particular pieces, did the content inform the form, and vice versa?
When I started reading about the migrant crisis, and then Libya, and then the history of Italian colonialism in North Africa, and then finally Libyan Arabic, I was really surprised to learn that there was so much “linguistic migration” and movement between the two languages. I then wanted to find a way to present that so you would really feel the extent of it—almost in a kind of visceral way—since most people are not going to understand most, or any, of the words in those lists. So I wanted to turn them into a kind of sculpture, I suppose. Words are words, but they are and can be so many other things as well—especially, as I said, when you don’t know what the words mean. Take “meaning” out of the equation, and what do you have left?
Also dotting the manuscript are sections titled “The Sicily Interviews,” in which an unnamed interrogator referred to only as “K” converses with a subject referred to only as “P” in exchanges that are often combative and verge on the surreal. What do you find useful about the interview as a form, specifically in regard to the apparent concerns of Hotel Sappho: the arbitrariness (and fluidity) of borders, the perils of migration, and the demonization of foreignness (“estraneità” or “strangeness” in Italian, as you note)?
The conversations take place while “P” is still in the Palermo Airport. My intention was to use these exchanges in order to spell out, much more explicitly than in the rest of the pieces, exactly why “P” is in Italy, and, as you point out, some of the main questions around which the rest of the pieces circle. That was the work that I wanted those conversations to do—so that the other pieces wouldn’t have to take on the responsibility of explaining, on a basic level, what’s going on here.
At the same time, because they are interviews, I had the chance to write dialogue—which is something that I have found I love. Writing dialogue just activates a totally different part of the brain than poetry. And lastly, I hoped that the interviews would ground the reader and give them two characters to really grab onto, and hold onto, throughout the rest of the project.
There is a specific moment in Hotel Sappho in which I sense the book’s two subjects fuse:
If you start reading about the migrant crisis in the
Mediterranean, you won’t find any mention of the history
of Italian colonialism in Africa.
Like Twombly’s dick, it has also been erased.
A good example, I think, of what Gestalt psychologists
would call the transposition theory.
How did you first stumble upon the impulse to weave together Twombly and the migrant crisis?
So the project began as a love story set in Rome. I was thinking about Sappho and then Catullus, and then remembered Anne Carson’s piece on Twombly and Catullus. I went back and read it much more closely than I had before, and got really excited. So I started reading more about Twombly and his work. Then the project changed gears, and I still had all of this Twombly stuff swimming around in my head. I was reading a lot about Libya and North Africa, and remembered that Twombly had traveled there, with Rauschenberg, before going to Italy. At one point I read an essay by Tom Delavan about Twombly that had come out a few years ago in the Times Style Section. And in it, Delavan talked a little bit about how Twombly was queer and yet no one ever talks about it. Naturally that made me curious.
I started to see this kind of parallel with the fact that in all the reading I had done on the migrant crisis—in the American media, the British papers, the English-language Greek outlets that I read pretty regularly, as well as the Italian media—Italy’s colonial involvement in Libya and North Africa is never mentioned. Ever. So these two erasures got me thinking about what it means to write history, and, in the case of Twombly, how money and power create certain narratives that everyone else just parrots back. The Twombly Foundation has massive amounts of money and power and they don’t want you to know that Twombly and Rauschenberg fucked their way through North Africa. Luckily I have no intention of trying to get permission to reprint any of his work, otherwise I absolutely would not be able to get away with saying that.
The erotic is seamlessly threaded through both of your published books, and it is also comfortably at home within Hotel Sappho: “In Greek it’s Μεγάλη Ἑλλάς, which is different, / but also the same. Like looking at two nipples / through a very thin robe.” I am especially struck by the ways you employ eroticism to direct the reader’s attention to traditionally unerotic subjects, thereby casting a strange new light on them. Can you speak to your interest in the erotic, specifically your application of it to the geopolitical concerns of Hotel Sappho?
Ask my kids what they think about my writing and they will probably all pretend to barf. I think children love to think that their parents—especially their mothers—are these sorts of asexual blobs who spend their days cutting up oranges and doing their laundry. And I guess this is more or less what society expects as well. Like we are supposed to turn off these whole parts of ourselves once we have kids. Which is, of course, nothing but ridiculous, sexist bullshit that sadly far too many still buy into.
People are sexual creatures. And yet, in a society so saturated with sexual content, we still have a problem, I believe, with women talking about sexual desire when it is not solely for the purpose of getting a man off. And that is even more true when, like me, you are a little bit older. So for me, it has always felt urgent to push back against that—and create stories in which women explore and struggle with and articulate their own sexuality without it being in the service of a man.
While the new Sappho project is not “about sex” in any sort of predictable way, you rightly point out that the erotic is always there.
I was in grad school back when French literary theory had an absolute strangle-hold on the study of literature. So while I could give you a very sophisticated answer as to the nature of the eroticism that you find in my work, there is also a very simple explanation: Sex is everywhere. You just have to be willing to see it.
Alex Tretbar won the 2022 PEN America Prison Writing Contest in Poetry, and was a finalist for the 2021 PEN/Edward Bunker Prize in Fiction. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Colorado Review, Meridian, SAND, Poetry Northwest, Southern Humanities Review, ctrl + v, Bat City Review, Shō, Southeast Review, and elsewhere. He is an MFA candidate at the University of Missouri–Kansas City.
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