LouAnn: Since your wife, the poet Ilyse Kusnetz, passed away, you've put together a posthumous collection of her poems, Angel Bones, due out in May from Alice James Books, and recorded an album, "11 11 (Me, Smiling)" that incorporates not just Ilyse's words, but also her recorded voice. Are these things you and Ilyse planned together, or did these projects take shape later?
Brian: Ilyse worked with tremendous determination to complete her second collection. She did this while fighting cancer and dealing with the many side effects of chemotherapy and radiation and more. And as she wrote the book, we talked about the poems individually and about her thoughts for a possible cover image, but we didn’t get a chance to talk about the order of the poems or about the structure of the book overall. I haven’t found any notes on sequencing or structure since that time, either, so I’ve had to rely on the conversations we had over the years about specific poetry collections, as well as the thoughts she shared on the politics and aesthetics and the global artistic concerns involved in creating a large-scale work of art. Our conversations over the years about her first book (Small Hours from Truman University Press) proved especially helpful in this process. Thankfully, I was able to send her manuscript off to several early readers—writers she’d worked with over the years and writers she trusted. Their insights and suggestions were crucial in confirming some of my own instincts, as well as offering ideas that I’m certain Ilyse would have gravitated toward and incorporated.
The idea for the album came afterward, late in the fall of 2016, as I flew over America at night. Ilyse never knew that we’d create this album, but it’s my hope that we’ve succeeded in crafting something that would have thrilled and delighted her. She’d recorded other songs with me and helped me with a variety of recording projects that are still underway, but this latest project with The Interplanetary Acoustic Team is something altogether new.
LouAnn: How does working so intimately with Ilyse's words interact with your grief?
Brian: I have a feeling I won’t be able to offer a coherent response to this question for, at a minimum, several years. If ever. Sometimes I’m made mute by it, with waves of grief washing over me. Other times it shakes me from the dull numbness that seems to make me move in slow motion throughout the day, even when I don’t realize it—the way a breeze might clear out the morning fog sometimes.
Some of the things I’m working on are projects that are new, ones she didn’t know might come to be, and I find these exciting, too—as it still feels collaborative. It’s art that recognizes her as an artist whose work continues to engage the world and interact with it. It’s my way of attempting to listen to her in the present, rather than simply crafting further tombstones to memorialize her with. I want to keep falling in love with her, and I hope to share her work with others so that they might fall in love, too.
Of course, there are several projects that we’d hoped to complete, and I’m doing my best to see it all done.
LouAnn: I was struck by what I saw as the differences between Ilyse’s first book, Small Hours, and Angel Bones. While the poetic voice was consistent, I thought that Small Hours was a more cerebral book, concerned with history, science, and the works of man. Angel Bones seems to me to be focused on the natural world and on animals more than on people. Do you see this difference? If so, to what do you ascribe it?
Brian: I have to be careful not to sound as if I’m responding for her here. With that in mind, though… As she grappled with issues of survival and mortality, Ilyse turned to the natural world for insight and knowledge, though it’s often a kind of lyric knowledge—something we might learn from the stillness of birds at dusk, for example, or from deep attention given to the ocean as it rolls in and rolls out, wave after wave.
She wrote these poems through the presidential primary season and through much of the presidential campaign period. The tribal politics of the moment, filled with anxiety and tumult and division—I think she no longer wanted to house the toxicity of it all in her body. Ilyse had a sharp political mind, and an appetite for politics throughout her life, but during the last couple of years I think she had little interest in sound-bite and point-scoring politics. Instead, she gravitated toward beauty, though she clearly recognized that the natural world might help her to meditate on the act of living and the process of dying.
There’s also the fact that she had stage IV cancer, and she knew it. That placed a very different kind of pressure on the writing process than she’d experienced before—and the resulting poems are, perhaps, more vulnerable and tender. With this book, Ilyse explored and melded science and nature and several spiritual traditions together in order to craft a meditation, or journey, meant to help her make sense of the great mystery she faced. And she did this with a mixture of courage and fear and wonder, leaving us this book of poems to help us whenever we have to do the same.
LouAnn: I found Angel Bones to be a more hopeful book than Small Hours, which surprised me as presumably the poems in Angel Bones were written later in Ilyse’s illness, when the prognosis was less hopeful. Does this reflect a change in Ilyse’s outlook, do you think, or is it a reflection of choices you made about which poems to include?
Brian: Ilyse lived with all her might. That is, she continued to live even when she was dying. Another way of saying that, perhaps—she refused to die. She lived through the dying. She was beautifully stubborn with hope, and that helped her to live with the cancer. And I think the poems also radiate the love she had for this world.
I hate using the past tense as I talk about her. …Angel Bones is built to house Ilyse’s voice, to share her voice with us over the landscape of time. She is alive within us when we take the time to listen.
In terms of how the book came into being—there are a few poems that weren’t included, but those choices were made based on how fully realized the poems are as poems, not based on content. That is, we didn’t include poems that I’m certain Ilyse would have insisted needed more revision and work. We also didn’t include a few that did the same or similar poetic work as one of the poems already in the book.
LouAnn: There is a lot of science in both books. Clearly Ilyse had a great interest in science and technology. Did she study it in a formal way? And, I have to ask, was she a Trekkie? She had to have been a Trekkie. Nobody mentions tachyons and holo-decks who is not a Trekkie, right?
Brian: She was absolutely a Trekkie—and a huge Sci-Fi fan, in general. She knew the original series from front to back, of course, but she’d also been a fan through each spin-off and subsequent series. I remember standing in line with her at a Comic-Con a few years back—as we waited to meet several cast members from over the years. She even once wrote a poem meant to be digitized and blasted up into space with some of Gene Roddenberry’s ashes. Before leaning into literature and creative writing, she’d started her undergraduate studies in the sciences. It was one of the many things I loved about her—she was brilliant at everything.
LouAnn: Birds figure prominently in both books, and in the last poem of Small Hours, “Holding Einstein’s Hand,” is the line, “I am becoming bird.” In the first poem of Angel Bones, “Blessing for Beauty” a litany of bird names appears. Was it a conscious choice of yours to stitch the two books together in this way?
Brian: Oh, I’m so glad you see the connective tissue there! I’d have to go back to the drafts and responses from first readers, but I believe Didi Jackson first suggested starting the book with that poem, and Suzanne Roberts might also have suggested it. “Blessing for Beauty” has a wonderful welcoming gesture to it, and it gathers the tribe of beauty, in a sense, so that the poem signals to the reader much of what will follow in the book as a whole. Beyond the purely rational, and I’ll show my California roots here—I think Ilyse still has ways to signal her own volition in the world, and, when needed, she lets us know her intentions. And so it’s imperative that I pay attention, and listen.
I realize that last response will sound very squishy to many. In terms of craft, though, how does a poet assemble what might otherwise operate as a wide variety of poems on a given subject? One of the things I’m trying to learn as a writer is to recognize that once I’ve written something then it becomes a part of the wider world. This helps me, I believe, to have a little more distance and perspective when approaching revision, and that, in turn, helps me to consider the needs of the work itself (as opposed to the needs of my ego, or creative self). Shifting from ‘what are my intentions with the work’ to ‘what are the intentions of the work itself’ can open up more possibilities for meaning and exploration. If we widen our lens to the level of a book-length manuscript of poems—this same approach can help us to get a sense of what the book is capable of and what it needs (rather than forcing it to function according to our expectations as artists). The hope, overall, is to open the door to mystery and surprise.
LouAnn: I could not help wondering when I read the poem “I’ll Be Your Sweet Poltergeist”—has she? Have you gotten the “blank emails” or “laughing camels [inserted] into your dreams”?
Brian: I’ve been working on a new memoir called The Wild Delight of Wild Things (from a line in one of Ilyse’s poems). You’ll have to read that to find my answer…
LouAnn: How has delving so deeply into Ilyse’s work—being the midwife, so to speak, for this new collection, working with it in some ways as if you had written it—affected your own writing? Have you absorbed aspects of her poetic voice in a way you hadn’t before?
Brian: These are all terrific questions. I wouldn’t say that I have been part of the writing of Ilyse’s book, but I do think her influence on my own writing and way of thinking was already so pronounced that it’s difficult for me to see these new layers of influence. It’s all so nuanced, and it’s ongoing. It’s a gift that my own work benefits from, and I benefit from as a human being.
LouAnn: What do you hope for this book? What is its place in the world, in your eyes?
Brian: I hope that Angel Bones helps Ilyse’s friends and family to have a way to visit her, to hear her voice, to consider what it means to love and live and die in this strange and beautiful world. This was one of her intentions in writing the poems and leaving them for us.
For those who are new to her poems, she’d have likely said that she hoped her poems might inspire them and help them to find their way further into their own work.
Poetry is a type of internal architecture, a form of world-building done verse by verse. And so, as you read Ilyse’s poems—I hope that the world of her poems is remade within you, the birds given wings and flight and a sky to sing in. One poem after another augmenting your imagination. As poems do. And when you must face loss, and tragedy, and pain, I hope that Ilyse might be there with you, in her poems, perhaps layered so far back in memory you don’t even realize it on a conscious level, but she’ll be there, offering her strength, her resiliency, her deep understanding of the vast mystery in front of you.
Ilyse Kusnetz (1966-2016), poet, essayist, and journalist, is the author of Angel Bones (Alice James Books, 2019), Small Hours (Truman State University Press, 2014)—winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, and The Gravity of Falling (2006). She earned her MA in creative writing from Syracuse University and her PhD in contemporary feminist and postcolonial British literature from the University of Edinburgh. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Orion Magazine, Rattle, Guernica Daily, Islands Magazine, Kyoto Journal, The Normal School, and the stinging fly (Ireland), among others. Her poems and essays appear in the following anthologies: The Room and the World; The Book of Scented Things; Devouring the Green: Fear of a Transhuman Planet; and Monstrous Verse: Angels, Demons, Vampires, Ghosts, and Fabulous Beasts. She also guest-edited Scottish poetry features for Poetry International and the Atlanta Review, and she served as book review editor at the Florida Review. She co-wrote "Vox Humana,” the poetic text to a composition which premiered with the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra. She is the lead voice and lyricist for the Interplanetary Acoustic Team, and their debut album 11 11 (Me, Smiling) will be released in 2018. A professor at Valencia College, Ilyse lived with her husband, writer and musician Brian Turner, in Orlando, Florida.
Brian Turner is a writer and musician; author of a memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country, two poetry collections (Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise), and a debut album with The Interplanetary Acoustic Team. He edited The Kiss anthology and curated the series on Guernica. He’s received a Guggenheim, a USA Fellowship, an NEA, the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship, the Poets’ Prize, and a Lannan Foundation Fellowship. He’s published in The New York Times, National Geographic, Harper’s Magazine, and more. He directs the MFA at Sierra Nevada College.
LouAnn Shepard Muhm is a poet and teacher from northern Minnesota. Her poems have appeared in Antiphon, Alba, Red River Review, Eclectica, Pirene’s Fountain, and CALYX, among other journals and anthologies, and she was a finalist for the Creekwalker Poetry Prize and the Late Blooms Postcard Series. Muhm is a recipient of Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grants in Poetry in 2006 and 2012, and was chosen as one of two Artist Fellows by Region 2 Arts Council of Minnesota in 2016. Her full-length poetry collection Breaking the Glass (Loonfeather Press, 2008) was a finalist for the Midwest Book Award in Poetry. Muhm was awarded an MFA in poetry from Sierra Nevada College in 2016.