An interview with Chloe Honum
with an introduction to Honum’s The Lantern Room
59 pages. Tupelo Press, 2022.
I’ve admired Chloe Honum’s poetry for years—since we first met in Henri Cole’s workshop at the 2009 New York State Summer Writers Institute. She was then writing the poems that would become The Tulip-Flame, her first book, which was selected for the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize and introduced by Tracy K. Smith. Her chapbook, Then Winter, appeared in 2017; and now she’s published a new collection, the miraculous, classically beautiful The Lantern Room. Earlier in life, Honum trained as a dancer in New Zealand, where she grew up (she was born in California), and this book, like all her work, has a balletic grace and precision.
In the poem “Luna Moth at Night,” the speaker addresses the “Pale green queen, in your fourth/ and final form…
Watching you, I wonder if writing
and erasing is one of my
I write light, safe clearing, river,
erase it, then write it again,
until it slips like a leaf into morning.”
Of course a leaf slips into morning: it’s Honum’s words that are slipping into morning—or into mourning. This book is partly about writing and erasure. We get another image of erasure in “At Scull Creek in Fayetteville, Arkansas”:
the rippling surface, there’s stillness, clear and cold,
where tiny glinting fish form patterns only to dissolve them.”
“St. Mary’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Otahuhu, Auckland” is an actual erasure poem, a companion piece to “Read More About Our History,” which Honum’s notes say was written in response to forced adoption—a practice that continued in New Zealand into the 1980s. Honum wrote to me that Tracy K. Smith has been an important influence in exploring such forms as erasure and documents; she offered Smith’s “Watershed” as an example.
To read The Lantern Room is often to overhear the ongoing conversations among poets living and dead. That leaf that “slips into morning” suggests Frost’s line “So leaf subsides to leaf” (in “Nothing Gold Can Stay”), while another poem begins: “I stand in the doorway and the rain empties its hands into my hands”—evoking e.e. cummings’s “not even the rain, has such small hands.” And the ending of “Noon with Miracle Drugs”—
“Flowers freshly cut and wrapped in newspaper,
that’s how I want to rest, my dreams
like white petals absorbing ink.”
—is surely a nod to Pound’s “petals on a wet, black bough.” It’s even possible that the “bee-addled wisteria” in the final poem, the wonderfully-titled “Self-Portrait with Praying Mantis and Endurance,” is a distant echo of Yeats’s “bee-loud glade.”
The speaker in “At Scull Creek…” comes clean about the anxiety of influence:
“… I miss you,
and worse, I want to say it the way another poet would.”
But she can’t—she’s too inventive, both in her imagery and her forms. At first I thought she might be adopting some known forms I didn’t happen to recognize. In “At the Dollar Save Inn in Magnolia, Arkansas”—one of several road-tripping poems—after the rain empties its hands into the speaker’s hands, both the wind and a dogwood tree also have “hands,” and a field can’t read the green reminders written on its hand.” There’s also a teenager “painting her nails” who “blows on wet red moons/ at the end of her hand”—in my fantasy, this teenager might well be Plath herself— and a man with “a cardboard sign that says stranded in a wobbly hand,” and the poem ends as “the pink dusk changes hands.” What is this haunting pattern? The speaker directly addresses a dead sparrow on the sidewalk, whom she implores: “this is not the place to wake/ unnamable wants. Yet there you are, your feathers/ rippling a little…” Ah, there were the hands—in the image of the sparrow, with its finger-like feathers. I got out Robert Hass’s A Little Book on Form—a favorite resource—and the closest thing I could find was the echo of a ghazal. I emailed Honum and proposed a name for this poem’s form— feathering lines. She wrote back with a heart, in pretty blue font. “Love this,” her note said. “For both the alternating indented/layered lines and the layered words, which reoccur both inside of, and at the end of, the lines. Like feathered hair.”
Honum achieves similar effects with visual and internal rhymes—more of the subliminal sublime. “April in New England”:
“Alone in my bedroom, I sob,
and the wardrobe steps forward…”
Sob and wardrobe belong in the same stanza—along with bedroom. Of course. Sorrow is a claustrophobic room.
Much of this book is the journey of a single speaker—not necessarily Honum herself—but a “supposed person” (in Emily Dickinson’s phrase) whose hair is “swingy with rain,” and who, through nature’s moody seasons, longs for someone unreachable. In “Love is a Wound that Will Happen,” whose title comes from the late Midwestern poet Thomas James:
“The stars come out;
in what tense they shine, I’ve never been clear.”
And the rain picks up “exactly where it left off eight years ago one August morning.” While visiting Blytheville, Arkansas, the speaker awakens and meditates on the town’s name:
“like a silky claw reaching in
to remind me where I am.”
By the end of the collection, the speaker’s struggle to be more like the praying mantis—“with its big green stillness, like a mind that will not be sent scuttling/ into the past”—isn’t over, but becomes more bearable. “Endurance” is possible. This brilliant final poem begins in summer; and when the speaker has named all the plants in her immediate vicinity, it’s still summer. “Papery discs of lunaria—also called moonwort, silver dollar, honesty.”
An interview with Betsy Bonner and Chloe Honum
Betsy Bonner: Was there an aesthetic change or shift that you can discern between The Tulip-Flame, Then Winter, and this collection, The Lantern Room?
Chloe Honum: I do think there were some aesthetic shifts. Among the most noticeable to me is that the poems in this book are much more populated. There are rooms and people coming in and out of them and saying things. I think The Tulip-Flame was written from a quieter place of reflection, reckoning, and solitude. The Lantern Room is more in the middle of things, and more porous, more open to tonal variations. I hope, too, that there are moments of humor in book, which felt enjoyably new to me.
BB: How did you arrange these poems?
CH: I thought a lot about the arc of the speaker’s journey through a kind of lostness, what her compasses are, and how she finds a way through. I also thought about the seasons and tried to trace the many images of the weather. It was important to me that the book ends in summer, for instance, with everything alive and sweaty and blooming.
BB: At the end of The Lantern Room, you include a note that the narrator of your collection is a “supposed person,” in Emily Dickinson’s phrase. Why was this important to you?
CH: Well, I don’t think I would have thought to include a note about that—that the speaker of the poems is not identical to myself—had I not had the experience of publishing my chapbook Then Winter a few years ago. Part of it is a question of genre, and it’s something that can also vary from poem to poem. I don’t want to shy away from the idea that I draw from personal experience (I do), and I certainly want the poems to feel true in some essential way, but that’s not the same thing as writing nonfiction. Speaking of Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” is something I heard in my first poetry course, and I loved it immediately. It’s somehow both tethering and freeing, and I want to stay in that space that poetry allows.
I’d be so interested to hear your thoughts on this, too, as you have published both a memoir and a book of poems. Do you perceive of the “I” differently when writing memoir versus poems? In terms of craft and musicality, do you feel different allegiances when writing in the different genres?
BB: In memoir writing, I believe in fidelity to the truth. In my first memoir, I often chose simple, easy-to-understand sentences over metaphors in order to communicate some bewildering things that happened to my family. Had I tried to write it only in my poetry, the story would have been lost. It’s funny–I used to refer to my poetry as “autobiographical,” but I’ve written a lot of poetry that’s not autobiographical at all. Yes, the music of the poetic line is more important than logic, sense or reality. On that note—and I’m not sure if this is answerable—I wondered if you could speak about this metaphor in “The Dreams”: “I spread my hand like a wing to show my trembling pinky…” To me, it sounds angelic. An idea of humans as fallen angels, or just as angels. No need to say too much!
CH: I love the idea of that image being angelic, as I did try to invite a sense of deep mystery into those scenes. The poem is the penultimate in the section, which I wanted to end in a way that moves toward hope. Something precarious about to take flight. It’s early spring in the poem, and the speaker is about to leave the day patient program she has been a part of throughout the section. In writing and sequencing that part in the book, I turned often to Louise Glück’s lines from The Wild Iris: “crying yes risk joy / / in the raw wind of the new world.”
BB: The ending of “At Americas Best Value Inn in Crossett, Arkansas” — a sonnet—reminded me of “A Blessing” by James Wright. Your Notes mention other poets you were definitely thinking of, whose voices you heard; I’m curious to know if any of the ones I heard are also in your head. In that poem, I particularly admire the astonishing question: “All those hot blank pages–who needs them?” (I’m going to write that out and tape it to my desk.) Can you tell me anything about the word (or words?) you left blank in this poem? I love seeing that blank, before the inevitable “Mother Silence.” Earlier in that same poem, the repetition–“close the door, a beige door”—reminds me of the “green vase” in Marie Howe’s “My Dead Friends.”
CH: Thank you so much, Betsy. I originally had words for that blank line, but they were overdone. Then I realized it didn’t really matter what the words might be on the other end of the line—the point was that the “you” had called at all, that it was their voice filling in the blank. I was also drawn to the visual of it, like a space held for that specific possibility. It’s funny, seeing as I’ve had a cell phone for so long now, that I still find it strangely intense that we are so reachable, that a call could come through that makes your heart skip (or leap or drop) anywhere, at any time!
I’m of course delighted that you were reminded of Marie Howe’s work. You and I were both her students at Sarah Lawrence College, though at different times. I remember we immediately bonded over that when we first met, and we continue to—it’s such an extraordinary and lucky thing to share. I was a freshman in her first-year studies course, which I believe was called “Song of the Soul.” It was so special. Everything I aim for in my own classrooms now is built on that experience. What year were you when you were in her class? Do you also think about it in your own teaching?
BB: I was also a freshman in Marie’s First-Year Studies in Poetry—a year-long course. I started there in 1996. Marie was my don, which, for those who don’t know, just means my advisor throughout college. I knew I was lucky, because I was very timid about sharing my writing. I needed nurturing and encouragement in my poetry—not too much criticism or editing at the outset—and Marie did that for me. That’s something I’ve continued in my own teaching: I search for the heart of the poem before making any editorial suggestions. I try to figure out what will help students to become better writers—sometimes that’s a full line-edit, sometimes it’s simply showing them where more can be written. Marie’s taste was formative for me. She knew I was interested in poetry by women whose work might be described as mystical, so we read everything by Brenda Hillman and Linda Gregg. Now that you’re a teacher yourself, who’s your first reader? Are we allowed to talk about the fact that you’re married to another very gifted writer (and teacher), Jacob Shores-Arguello, whom you met in your MFA program at the University of Arkansas?
CH: Jacob was the first reader for most, if not all, of the poems in The Lantern Room. I’m so grateful that over the years we’ve developed a certain ease and efficiency for sharing work. We both tend to not like sharing early drafts, preferring to wait until a piece has found its form and is at least somewhat close to done. It’s usually endings that I seek the most help with, and quite often I’ll have alternative phrasing for the ending that Jacob will help me try out and think through. We don’t always agree on every detail, of course, which I find can actually be helpful in understanding the poem’s style or ambitions more clearly.
BB: One thing that strikes me about this collection is its humor—as in your line about checking the motel bed for bugs before you settle in. “What I’m Working on Now” might be especially hilarious for writers; I enjoyed it to no end. Lucie Brock-Broido, who was one of my teachers, also used subtle humor in her work. In my graduate class, Lucie taught us Brenda Shaughnessy’s first book—she’s another poet who can be very funny, especially when she’s expressing exasperation. Anyway, does the ability to laugh sometimes, and make light of heavy things, come more easily with time? I tend to connect humor with losing one’s vanity.
CH: The ability to laugh did come a lot more easily in this collection! In some of the poems, something that to me is funny will occur alongside something serious or solemn. I hope that readers will see those moments as little bursts of light and connection. They were important to me to include, as I hoped to have a real sense of aliveness and possibility amidst some of the sorrow. A couple of poems were actually sparked by moments of humor— I’d begin drafting knowing that was the moment I hoped to somehow reach, and the poem would take shape from there.
Definitely I see and deeply admire that quality in Brenda Shaughnessy’s work. I learned a lot about the joy of humor in a poem from Henri Cole, too, in whose workshop you and I first met!
Betsy Bonner is the author of The Book of Atlantis Black, a memoir published by Tin House, and of Round Lake, a poetry collection published by Four Way Books under her given name, Grace Bonner. She is a former Director of the 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center, where she now teaches creative writing. She is a fellow of the MacDowell Colony and the T.S. Eliot House. She grew up in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and lives in Vermont.