Paisley Rekdal joined High Country News as the publication’s poetry editor – the first person to hold that role in a very long time. She is the author of 10 books, including collections of poetry animal eye, imaginary vessels and Nightingaleas well as non-fiction, including a collection of essays, The night my mother met Bruce Leeand more recently, Appropriate: a provocation, which examines the debate around cultural appropriation and the literary imagination. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic and on National Public Radio, and has received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, Fulbright Fellowship, NEA Fellowship, and Pushcart Awards. She is also the creator and editor of Mapping Literary Utah, a web archive of Utah writers, and Mapping Salt Lake City, which maps Salt Lake City communities and neighborhoods through critical and creative literature. , interactive maps and multimedia projects. In 2017, Rekdal was named Utah Poet Laureate. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
News from the High Country: Your writings and poems have won all sorts of awards and recognition. You have also been an editor of poetry magazines before. This, however, is a brand new role in a publication that has yet to earn a reputation for poetry. How do you feel about this?
Paisley Rekdal: I’m excited. In magazines where readers already expect poetry, you are already addressing converts. I like the idea of doing something a little sneaky around poetry. readers come High Country News for something different might find a poem that leads them to be more interested in poetry or seek out more poets living or writing about the West.
I lived in the West for a long time – Wyoming, Utah, and was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest – and grew up with a chip on my shoulder because of the way the West is often overlooked or misunderstood. People think we don’t have culture or avant-garde. It’s something I feel I can address. And doing that from a more regional location is exciting.
HCN: High Country News is known for its long-running non-fiction. Have you been a reader, and how do you see poetry complementing HCNits strengths?
PR: I am a reader. I came HCN for a number of very well-written feature films about surprising aspects of the West. What poetry can do is break out of longer documents and narratives to offer new ways of looking at a subject. The poems become visual counterpoints on the page. They offer respite to readers browsing the publication online or in hand. But also, poetry offers a different way of seeing the world and can often compress really big stories into little pictures that do a lot of work. I think if you’re a long-time non-fiction reader, you’re still hungry for those great stories that poetry can actually deliver in a short, short way.
HCN: You have been asked to write a poem to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. In “West: A Translation,” you did it through a Chinese elegy carved into a wall at the Angel Island immigration station, where Chinese migrants to the United States were detained under the Exclusion Act. Chinese. Do you see this work – taking something widely seen as a symbol of western achievement and weaving in the stories that have been left out – as dovetailing with where HCN tries to be by questioning the myths of the West?
PR: Yes. This is the most interesting part of the role for me. As someone who has been a long-term resident of the West and who has seen first-hand how toxic these mythologies can be to the communities that accept them and the national imagination of the West, I think it is important to constantly reframing who and what is the West. In the transcontinental railway project, what I wanted to do was to link two historical events in time: the transcontinental railway and the Chinese exclusion law, because one occurs right after the completion the other. There’s a way we imagine the West as being settled and nurtured by white men, but the reality is that the West is a rapidly growing region filled with young people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. The West has been racially diverse since its beginnings, whenever you want to trace that beginning. It could be argued that the West was colonized by Chinese more than it was colonized by white people if you want to think about the impact of the transcontinental railroad. And it is also a positive and negative legacy.
The West is just a much more complex, rich and fascinating place than I think has been historically perceived by some. I think anyone who has read High Country News knows that. That’s why I can’t wait for some poetry HCN, because I can talk about this conversation. Readers will be receptive to thinking about different types of authors and topics, because they already come for it. I know I won’t be asked to choose poems that tell the same story about the West that we’ve heard before. As a Poet Laureate from Utah, I get asked to speak in national forums because the people who invite me have an idea of what that kind of voice is going to sound like. It’s always been important to me not to be that voice.
HCN: You said your own work, as in animal eye and imaginary vessels, deals with climate change in ways that are sometimes obvious and sometimes not. Since climate reporting is such an important topic for HCNhow can poetry talk about climate justice and climate change right now?
PR: Poets constantly ask themselves this question. It’s an evolving conversation. The answer is: we don’t yet know exactly what poetry can do. We know what poetry does on the page: it offers the possibility that several voices are imagined, heard and put into conversation with each other. It allows movement in time. Metaphor in poems can connect the thing perceived in the moment to more significant events in the past. So one of the things poetry can do around climate change is to simultaneously talk about what’s happening now and what the future might be, so that we see ourselves in a conversation about how we got here and how we might get out of it.
We don’t yet know very well what poetry can do.
HCN: HCNThe readership of is idiosyncratic. There can be a lot of different points of view in what we tend to think of as a general audience. For climate change, this can be terror, defeatism or apprehension with or in opposition to denial.
PR: Almost all poems end up speaking to a variety of audiences – if they are good poems. Those that I find to have the most powerful relationship with the natural world are those that are imbued with awe and a bit of dismay or dread – a sense of protection and nurturing, as well as perhaps anger or rage. We don’t just have one relationship with landscapes. The poems, through symbol and metaphor, allow an ambiguity of meaning. You may have multiple or even conflicting feelings that exist in the same space. This allows people to read the same poem as an ode to a place they love and an elegy to that same place. Poetry that truly thinks of place works in both of these modes.
HCN: Relationships to place, landscapes and the natural world are certainly a theme in your own work. Do you think you will exploit this overlap with HCN when selecting poetry for the magazine? Or are you also looking for ways to surprise and challenge readers?
We don’t tend to think of the West as a place that harbors some sort of experimental poetics, but it is.
PR: I would like to publish the best poems I find written in and about the West. I’m not going to focus on just one topic. That said, I think I’ll find more enjoyment in poems that subvert whatever the subject matter. Often, we do not speak of the urban West as a natural space. I would be interested in seeing that. We don’t tend to think of the West as a place that harbors some sort of experimental poetics, but it is. I would be interested to see poems that resist conventional lyrical expression in favor of something more startling or visually disturbing on the page. I don’t want to limit what I’m looking for.
I think the question arises implicitly: who is the final audience for these poems? Is it someone from outside this world or is it someone who has already subscribed to this world? I think it’s a bit of both. I want to talk to as many people as possible.
Michael Schrantz is Head of Marketing Communications for High Country News based in Santa Fe. Email him at [email protected] or send a letter to the editor. See our Letters to Editor Policy.