Doug Carlson: Halfway into “Stamp Fever,” the reader suddenly realizes that things aren’t what they seem; that is, a different level of reality has taken over. As the boy’s world becomes more magical, his need is more apparent and our compassion for him increases. This move toward magical realism put me in mind of some of the more surrealistic elements in your poems. Are there other facets of the story that have carried over from a lifetime of poetry?
Colette Inez: It’s hard for me to describe how my shift from poetry to prose occurs. Is it the look of the line in prose? The ongoingness of it, the asking for more, the slowing down of the pace, the leaning back and looking around? The “and then what?” That hardly ever happens in my poetry. I mostly know or can easily find what’s going to happen in poems. Physical symptoms that zoom over me when I’m writing tell me. But the shift of poetry entering my prose writing is a different thing.
I knew it was happening in “Stamp Fever” with the line “now he heard the sweep of leaves against the window–green as penny stamps . . .” I felt the shiver of poetry in that line, a quickened pulse, an intensity that comes with visual images. And then the word “green.” Yes, of course, Lorca’s great Verde que te quiero verde, “Green, green how I want you green” came into play.
As a child, I was color deprived. The red sun at morning did not see me rinsing my mouth with salt, slipping on a uniform, getting in line to say prayers before breakfast. I say now we were without flowers at the orphanage, but memory is wily. Yes, we had red in apples, and rare offerings of cherries in summer but a certain pallor resides in my recollection of bare floors, walls, the washed-out lowland skies. I remember my first summer in America as bursting with color splashed on children’s clothes, balloons, small, well-tended gardens with red roses on trellises, purple and yellow irises showy behind cramped houses. All that captivated me.
The lonely boy of my story “Stamp Fever,” loosely based on my husband Saul’s childhood, is given color and chatter and a bright ending, and I suppose I can credit my cellular intelligence for understanding that real life could not confer these blessings on him. Magic needed to be summoned. And I could be that magician endowed with the power of words I could invent.
“Stamp Fever’s” Brooklyn setting belongs to Saul. I had once asked him to describe an important gift he’d received and what it meant to him. The idea came from an English composition class I was teaching at Cornell or Colgate, I don’t recall which, but these are the places where I was given a broader choice of subject matter for undergraduate classes.
Saul’s account of the galleon of stamps came back to me a few years ago when I was a student looking for a storyline to send to my young and encouraging teacher, Betsy Walters, at Columbia University. I had signed up for a course offered to the undergraduate faculty and chose the Literature of Magical Realism taught at the Graduate School. Betsy’s class was asked to mail her a short-short every week, and so I had a set deadline and was obliged to think fast. The prose flowed as I allowed the stamps to change the boy’s life.
DC: “Stamp Fever” tells how a child living in atypical and dysfunctional circumstances creates an ideal dream family through acts of his imagination. Is it presumptuous to see the autobiographical connection here?
CI: Dream families figure into my fantasy and real worlds. I keep a photograph of an admired poet, his partner, and his grown children on my refrigerator door. Sometimes I imagine my younger self in that picture, maybe as the poet’s sister. Another poet-friend holds her beloved adopted Vietnamese daughter, a lively and gifted girl she rescued from an orphanage. A third snapshot shows a former student with his bright wife from India. Their daughter wears a moose hat and looks like a proper warrior princess.
DC: I’ve always thought of you as a poet, so “Stamp Fever” came as a surprise. Have you written much fiction?
CI: No, I haven’t written much fiction. Some prose, yes—a parody piece on Hemingway found print in the Chicago Review some years ago. A fanciful essay published in the Cottonwood Review on the arrival of an emu at an artist’s retreat shows my flair for the surreal and the mystical. And I won some awards for memoir prose: Memoir Magazine’s first prize for “Mother Country,” which tells of meeting with my mother and of Saul’s first unconventional encounter with his mother-in-law, and a first prize for prose dialog from Ellipsis.
Certainly, my latest book, The Luba Poems, offers a fictional character with an extended feminine consciousness who travels where I haven’t been, and lives with a sexual intensity I take delight in imagining. Some of her sorrows and searches for identity are mine, but they are given a more conventional background quite different from the unexpected outcome of a Catholic monsignor and a scholar. Her beloved mother dies in a hospital; her father hits the bars, finds another drinking buddy, and is not heard from again; a schoolmate is taken too soon from the bumpety-bump notes of a whoopee room piano.
DC: Reading your memoir, The Secret of M. Dulong, took me back to hearing you read your poems about your childhood and adolescence some years ago. I thought about hearing the stories you told in between your reading of the poems and then feeling the impact of those stories in your verse. It seems that the memoir was there all the time, but it must not have been easy writing it down.
CI: Writing the memoir was a struggle that took place over a period of about ten years. There were times when it felt good not to be writing about my early abandonment, the tedious confinement, the helplessness and humiliations of my early childhood, to have the joy of being free of those memories. Yaddo valued the memoir enough to award me residencies over a period of three years, 1988–90, and in that leafy and protective setting I managed to finally complete the manuscript. Or so I thought. There was more to come.
A Guggenheim in the mid-eighties had allowed me to connect to my maternal family in France and to meet my reluctant mother in her later years. Close to ninety, she died in 1992 without ever acknowledging me as her daughter. After I received the news of her death from my French cousin, Maurice, I announced myself to her family, and Maurice invited me to Paris where his family stories, a legacy of anecdotes, letters, and photographs deepened my sense of visibility in a world that had asked me to make no claims to my identity.
I disliked writing memoir prose, the seemingly endless confrontations with the banalities of my mind’s early offerings. The need to alter sentences and return again and again to painful events, the irrevocable page-after-page of it. Nothing like the small gardens of poetry where one may prune a few words or clip off stanzas, and all in one or two pages. Of course, in writing my story I tried to balance painful scenes with recollections of pleasure. There is no life without sensory joy, and I had been blessed with a sensuous nature responsive to the beauty of the palpable world.
DC: Among the enticing features of your poetry are poetic moments, and entire poems for that matter, that are genuinely funny—both smiling-funny and laughing-out-loud funny. I find this especially remarkable given the various terrible conditions you lived through that became recurring subjects. Is this simply a profound joy in language or the necessity for a comedic respite?
CI: Comic relief. I like the word “relief,” for laughter or poking fun at high-mindedness is a kind of sitting back and taking control of events, a making light of them. How I enjoyed taking on the role of the pope’s valet who grows gradually tiddly, the happy play with sounds in “Chateuneuf du Pape, the Pope’s Valet Speaks,” a poem that Pulitzer Prize–winning composer David Del Tredici chose for a musical sequence written for piano and soprano. His “Miz Inez Sez” has had a wide and lively reception. I remember having a good time writing “How I Was Advised by an Elderly Woman to Restrain My Sensual Heat.” The high-toned title is part of the fun. And the absolute ignorance of the advice to “Engrave a ‘No’ in sharp blue ink on the palm of your hand.” I think sexual know-nothingness still makes for good deadpan comedy.
The violence of the absurdist’s world attracted me—dark and vengeful lines in “Murdering Numbers” from one who fared poorly in mathematics: “Slaughtering fractions,” “mutilated digits,” “numbers on the chopping block”—and I seem to have a knack for catching the dippiness of adolescent girls helplessly laughing in a time of war and impending death. I was one of those giggling girls, clutching my sides in “Back When All Was Continuous Chuckles.” Another adolescent pairing crops up in “Movie Star Lies” from Spinoza Doesn’t Come Here Anymore. Here, two teenagers clash over the authenticity of a Glenn Ford signature on a glossy photo to me sent on request from his Hollywood PR agency. The subject seems trivial, but the hunger for love, even tinsel town love, goes deep.
DC: Your writing and teaching career has so far spanned six decades. Would you reflect on changes in your work or your approach over the decades?
CI: An attraction to muchness and variety seems to take over my early work. Having lived in worlds of imposed silence and pious intonations heard in Latin, I was eager to learn English. Our Belgian nuns were French-speaking, and I spoke French with a Belgian lilt. My new custodians, who hailed from Iowa and Illinois, lent their voices to my new language, and speech came easily to me. I had a good ear for sounds although in school I sometimes asked clear questions but failed to understand responses.
All the same, I flourished in my new tongue. My American mother’s mother had learned the word fache, the French word for anger, and repeated it often enough that I came to think of her as Mme. Fache. The household with its tiers of generations was well-furnished with anger. I’m struck by the anger and sensory richness of my first book, The Woman Who Loved Worms, and the collection that came after it, Alive and Taking Names. The title itself is menacing. In “Dr. Inez” I mock the “hapless Lourdes of suffering.” And like Plath, who unjustly linked her father to Nazism, I attack my birth mother for trusting the regime for abandoning me to “Third Reichs of my childhood,” since it was she who signed me away to that family in New York’s Long Island. “Third Reichs of my childhood” seems embarrassingly inflated and unearned, but poetry written years back won’t rearrange itself to current sensibilities.
How has my poetry changed from the days of The Woman Who Loved Worms? For my first published book in 1972, my Doubleday editors asked me to include a forward. Here is the opening line: “I write to survive the darkness by signaling my light, for music, celebration, word love, the interpretation of experience . . . to intensify as the telescope gives the moon back to your eyes, enlarging us with craters, basalt and time . . .”
That all seems “poetsy” to me now, although I stand by word love and celebration. Lunar and astral images have over time certainly intensified. The purchase of an eight-inch Celestron telescope in the 1980s enlarged our celestial perspectives. I have kept my verbal energy intact with lower doses of bitterness, the “far from the hutch / where my body life crouched / dreaming of the spin” (“The Planes of the Republic”).
The Woman Who Loved Worms offers poems of social consciousness: “Basutos” set in South Africa of the 1960s was inspired by the powerful, early stories of author-activist Nadine Gordimer in her first book, The Soft Voice of the Serpent. I honored Denise McNair in a poem of the same name as one of the girls killed in 1963 in a Baptist church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.
In my latest collection, Luba—who spins through myths, constellations, continents, reveries of Sappho, Mary Shelley, poet names ending in the letter n—does stop to consider the father of our country, George Washington, the “slave block shadows,” and “the overseer’s whip” of his history when “She Muses on a Fourth of July Sky.” But Luba’s fury is full of joyful sounds: Doba dee da. She scats a la Ella Fitzgerald, and can wail “glory wa wa to the highest/ bird lit by the sun.”
Between that first book and the Luba celebrations are decades of a worthwhile life shared with a witty and devoted partner—a life of poetry, books, friends, students, fitful stargazing, tranquil writer retreats, letters, music, prizes. The local bank routinely deposits our Social Security checks. Rich in word love, we prevail.