40th Anniversary Retrospective: An Interview with Linda Bierds

Linda Bierds’ many books of poems in include Flight: New and Selected Poems (Putnam 2008) and the upcoming Roget’s Illusion, forthcoming from Putnam in 2014. A longtime contributor to The Journal, Bierds’ poem “Steller’s Jay” appears in Issue 37.1, Winter 2013. Bierds recently spoke with Managing Editor Alex Fabrizio about the poem, its relation to her larger body of work, and the inspiring power of both awe and skepticism.

Alex Fabrizio: Can you tell me a little bit about “Steller’s Jay,” published in our Winter 2013 anniversary issue? It’s a gorgeous, rich poem—where did it come from? Is it part of a project you’re currently working on? (I had to Google Georg Steller, I’ll admit. Did you hear about him or his jay first?)

Linda Bierds: I heard about his jay first. Then my family gave me Dean Littlepage’s book, Steller’s Island, which looks at Georg Steller’s sea journey to North America in the late 1700s. During that voyage, two ships sailed together, the St. Peter and the St. Paul—Steller was on the St. Peter—and I was fascinated by the intricate signal codes the crew used to communicate with one another: the “pennants, jacks, drums, bells, lanterns, guns and speaking horns” that “delivered a language precise as script.”

The poem is part of my next book, Roget’s Illusion, which will be out early in 2014. Language is its central subject.

AF: I’m fascinated to hear you characterize the new book as centered on language. When I think of your poems—both in and out of our pages—I think of vividness of image, textured description, emotional heart and resonance. Is the focus on language a new project? A recontextualizing of a love of language that’s always been present in your work?

LB: Not a departure, more of an extension of the interests I’ve had throughout my writing life. In this case, I’m thinking of language in terms of its limitations. To back up a bit: Peter Roget was fascinated by the striking patterns a spoked wheel makes when it rolls behind a picket fence—the spokes often appear to be turning backward, or curving downward, or sending out luminous lines. These visual deceptions became known as Roget’s Illusion.

Roget’s decades-long project, the thesaurus, represented another kind of illusion to me, an ever-changing, increasingly-nuanced projection of idea and synonym. I think of him through the years gathering those words—thousands of synonyms and antonyms aligning as the concept of

Sensation or Volition or Space emerged and constantly shifted. It must have been like looking through a kaleidoscope of sand.

I have a number of characters in the new book who work with language—Henry James, Virginia Woolf—but also those interested in illusion in its broadest sense, including the scientist Michael Faraday.

AF: Roget’s Thesaurus is one of the many volumes on shelves of The Journal office! As you know, The Journal is celebrating our fortieth anniversary in 2013. It looks like your poems first appeared in our pages in 1990 and 1991. What was your writing life like back then? Is there anything that you would say to your 1990s-era writer self? Any words of encouragement? Admonishment?

LB: Let’s see, my writing life in 1990. I was working part-time at the University of Washington, teaching a few classes and editing. I worked about twenty hours a week, always in the afternoons, which left lots of time for writing. I had converted a shed in my backyard into a studio—no phone—and I’d go there each morning from about nine until noon. I loved that time, tried never to sacrifice it, never to let other “work” take me away. In looking back, though, I realize that I sold short the value of less lengthy writing sessions; I didn’t take enough advantage of them. I realize now how important even thirty quiet minutes with a poem can be.

AF: How do you think your work has changed or remained constant since these poems we published (more than two decades ago!): “The Helmet of Mambrino,” “Nancy Hanks Lincoln in Autumn: 1818,” “The Running-Machines,” “Winterreise, for Three Voices”?

LB: The sources of my work have remained fairly constant over the years; that is, I’m inspired by history and biography more than by contemporary events and autobiography. But the vision within the work is frequently darker. Each of the earlier poems that you published, even the Nancy Hanks Lincoln poem, began from a moment of visual or factual wonder that I associate with awe. The Steller poem began from a wonder that I associate with skepticism—or at least an extended questioning.

AF: Wonder—I like that, and it feels right. Can you attribute this “darker vision” to anything in particular? I like that the wonder you suggest isn’t necessarily a positive thing; wonder seems to me almost twin to horror.

LB: Awe always will be a generative response for me, I hope, but as I get older, skepticism joins it more often.

Alex Fabrizio is an MFA candidate in poetry at The Ohio State University and is originally from Florida. Her most recent work has appeared in Subtropics, The Los Angeles Review, West Branch, and elsewhere. She is the managing editor of The Journal.