By Stacey Balkun
Stacey Balkun: This entire collection traces a modern-day relationship between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. The Normal School was proud to publish two of these awesome poems, and we’re curious: How did this project come to be?
Shelley Puhak: An ongoing conversation with certain poems (of the Modernists). An ongoing war. A financial crash. Occupy Wall Street. The uncanny cycles of history. The many myths about waning empires. And one too many Can poetry matter? articles.
SB: What did you think about when ordering these poems? Did you face any organization issues when putting these poems together?
SP: Organizing the poems was more difficult, in many ways, than writing them! I had, at one time, four or five different versions I was deciding among. I had many possible options: organizing by seasons (summer, autumn) or elements (fire, wood, water, metal) or lingo (medical, technological, commercial, Arthurian).
Everything is in threes in this collection: the tercets in the poems, the individual sections featuring three poems each, 16 sets of 3. I became so obsessive about the threes that at one point I wanted to cut one section just for the sake of having the asymmetry of 15 sets of 3, but then I’d pull one poem out of one section, and then the whole house of cards collapsed and it was back to spreading the pages out on the hardwood floor.
SB: Several of these poems are written with variable foot, a metrical device William Carlos Williams “created” to resolve the conflict between form and freedom in verse. In a way, this collection works to resolve a conflict between form and freedom, the obscure and the obvious, mythology and truth. How do you see form functioning in this collection?
SP: Maybe form as a sort of webbing? One that connects the poem to the past and characters within the poems to one another.
Each of the characters has a favorite form: Lancelot always in couplets; Arthur in stricter, often rhyming, forms; Elaine in breathless enjambed asymmetrical strophes; and Guinevere in terse tercets. And the Speaker, as judge and jury, dabbles in all of those forms, trying on the voices of the various characters. Form serves to show connections (hopefully) between major and minor characters, too: between Betsy Patterson and Guinevere, for example, or the Great Fire of 1904 and Elaine.
In "Guinevere, Facing Forty in Baltimore, Writes to Lancelot” and “Guinevere, to Arthur, On Starting Over,” Ginny speaks in her usual style: the imperative____, the end-stopped lines, the
In “Arthur’s Grave,” the “I” has become a “we,” and so there is a blend of Lancelot and Guinevere’s voices: five quintets blending the staggered tercets and symmetrical couplets.
SB: “Guinevere, Dissecting Lancelot” appears in the Spring 2013 issue of The Normal School. This poem describes a physical dissection of a body. Guinevere recounts how she: “…carved out cross sections to sample [his] nerve…” and tosses “[his] slop in [her] stainless.” The images are so gruesome yet beautiful—we can’t look away. Tell us about this poem! Where did it come from? What does it do for the narrative of Guinevere in Baltimore?
SP: How this poem was classified in my own notes: summer metal medical.
This sexy autopsy takes place after a swim in the river, past the spring of the relationship and the kingdom, with Guinevere testing Lancelot’s “nerve” and wondering if she has the “stomach” to continue or the “eyes” to see where it is headed.
As for where it fits in the larger narrative: this poem is in conversation with the two other poems in this section. “The Court Physician Interviews Guinevere” is founded on the medicine of the Middle Ages and the belief that “we love with the liver.” “Lancelot, the Microbiology of Us,” locates love (and responsibility) in the fungus and bacteria that live within us. This poem locates love and pleasure in the nervous system. Why? We become our metaphors.
SB: Your first collection, Stalin in Aruba, was a sort of project book, too. What are you working on now?
SP: I’m actually working on a nonfiction project right now, tentatively titled Finding Eva, about the process of hunting down evidence of a great-great-aunt who committed infanticide in Austria-Hungary circa 1880.
Bonus Question: If Guinevere watched The Wire, who would her favorite character be?
Photo credits: ndm.edu