Aug 5, 2011

Anne Overstreet: The Way a Word Sits in the Mouth

In June, poet Anne Overstreet published her first collection of poems, entitled Delicate Machinery Suspended: Poems . It is about memory and faith, affection and love, work done and work done well, and even playfulness. The poems are about a life observed, but also a life to come. It’s a beautiful work.

Anne’s poems have been published in the Asheville Poetry Review, Radix, DMQ Review, Relief, Talking River Review and several other publications. She is a Soapstone Resident and a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. She’s conducted a number of workshops, and her poetry has appeared as part of the Cody Center Exhibition “Pairings” at Laity Lodge in Texas. She lives near Seattle with her husband, author and film critic Jeffrey Overstreet.

We talked with Anne about her poetry, her background and experiences, and the influences on her writing.

How did you come to write poetry?

Writing evolved out of a voracious reading habit my entire family shares in varying degrees. My father read Longfellow and Coleridge to us as bedtime stories and my mother read The Horse and His Boy, The Silver Trumpet, The Hobbit, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, that sort of thing, for hours as we drove up into the Blue Ridge Mountains to camp or headed to Monticello for the day. I still hear stories in her voice sometimes. I was drawn to languages in school: math, French, music. Later, I found myself in an Independent Studies poetry class taught by Nicholas Barker, and had an aha moment. Poetry has more of a taste to me than any other genre; I find I can get distracted by the way a word sits in the mouth.

You've had some interesting (and unusual) jobs, like human organ transporter, and the experiences come right through the poems (including the line that is the volume's title). How has work, your work, affected your poetry?

My slew of jobs—phlebotomist, sandwich maker, paralegal, medical courier, camera woman for the local evening news, albeit briefly, etc.—has allowed me to hear stories about the thousand and one ways people are in the world, how they make do, what they obsess about. It’s the off-the-radar, peculiar stories that grab me. We aren’t really normal or completely knowable, are we, any of us? Yet we recognize each other in our creations, in our words. The details of language provide a connecting point.

I once worked with a sailor who was reluctant to finish tours because he had to leave behind the ocean under its star-thronged sky. Disciplined, spine-straight guy, but, oh, he knew the constellations in the western hemisphere. Tom M. kept bees even as he began to lose his eyesight. I imagined how he might experience moving among the hives with impaired vision. He also showed me the stained-glass intricacies of damaged cells under a microscope. Best job I ever had, working in that cytology lab because of the way he taught and saw.

Working at the hospital reinforced the habit of naming and knowing the nature of things that my parents taught us all. My time working at my father’s laboratory and working as a medical courier made those anatomy textbook pictures concrete, made them tactile, chemical smelling. Working as a phlebotomist once required holding the hand of a brain-dead teenager while my colleague drew blood to type for organ donation. The body had stopped but not been allowed to fail, yet something had departed. In creation, outside of man, the design makes a kind of provision for death. I suppose “Whalefall” (one of the poems in the collection) is also me watching that process and finding it oddly beautiful and comforting.

Reading these poems, I almost wanted to subtitle them "A Life Observed." The close attention to details, and small details, suggest much about life and larger events. I'm thinking here of poems like "Rental" "Preparing for Market" and the pairing of two poems, "Immolation" and "Icarus' Gift.” And especially "Day of the Dead." What is it about details that are so powerful?

Quite frankly, particularities are often what catch my attention; as R. L. Stevenson put it “the world is so full of a number of things.” I pick a thing, a thread and pull it and follow it to what I want to say.

Specifics also support the poem’s intention, I hope. They provide a sense of place when that’s relevant, which it often is in my work, and they establish a tone. Our own minds select and sort details in order to frame an experience. What is concrete in a piece may strike a chord, enable a reader to come closest to reproducing what the writer has experienced. It at least provides a hook, allows the reader to enter the same room as the poet and to make it his or her own.

And of course, it’s the scrape of bark against a palm, the texture of a perfectly cooked dumpling, the sharp wintergreen scent of the hard candies great grandmother kept in her purse, the sensory details, that anchor memory.

Related:

The interview with Anne continues at TweetSpeak Poetry, where she discusses influences on her poetry and the significance of faith.

At Faith, Fiction, Friends, Anne talks about some the specific poems in the collection.

You can read a review of Delicate Machinery Suspended: Poems at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Image by Claire Burge. Used with permission. Post by Glynn Young.

Reader Comment