Mars burns in a corner of the western sky:
A conversation with Corey Van Landingham
about Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens
100 pages. Tupelo Press, 2022.
Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens considers the way that the absence of touch—in acts of war via the drone, in acts of love via the sext, in aesthetics itself—abstracts the human body, transforming it into a proxy for the real.
Corey Van Landingham is the author of Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens, published by Tupelo Press, and Antidote, winner of the 2012 The Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. Her work has appeared in American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry 2014 and 2020, Boston Review, The New Yorker, The Southern Review and Virginia Quarterly Review. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Wallace Stegner Poetry Fellowship from Stanford University, she teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Illinois.
Tiffany Troy: How does your first poem, “Desiderata,” set up the rest of the collection that follows?
Corey Van Landingham: I think of the proem as gesturing to every kind of idea or brushstroke that occurs later on in the manuscript. It was important for me to expand the framework of this book early on, to introduce a human speaker, a believable mind and voice, who goes on to churn in her mind the various issues and ideas that follow. I knew I didn’t want to start with a drone poem—it’s easy, when a stranger on an airplane asks what my book is about, to say “Oh, It’s about drones,” but that’s far too narrow, far too simple, and the book grew to include much more than that.
I think—or I hope—“Desiderata” places the contemporary body in a kind of snare between the past and the future. Literally touching history’s ruins, imagining into some apocalyptic event. And love, and desire, is at the crux of this. If touch, if the body, becomes arbitrary, obsolete, how does that affect our experience, our understanding, of love, of sex? “Desiderata” imagines that as a kind of freedom—but that’s just one position, of many, when faced with this kind of question throughout the collection. It’s one rung in the ladder, from which the poems can descend and ascend, or around which they can situate themselves.
TT: The voice drew me instantaneously. In “Desiderata,” you wrote, “They say Rome wasn’t built in one day, but wasn’t one day it fallen.” Your voice gestures towards the past with the ruin and to the apocalyptic future in a way where I as a reader can identify with the speaker. Can you describe the process of writing this collection?
CVL: In every book, I end up with these poems that I call “hinge” poems, but really they’re more like portals, doorways, exits and entrances out of the current book and into the next one. Sometimes it can feel like I could write and revise one book forever, and so I need to hit a kind of eject button. In my first book, Antidote, that poem was “The Making of a Prophet,” which mentions the predator drone. It shifts some of that collections concerns of love and grief and power and autonomy into a more exterior, political landscape.
Right before Antidote was published, I moved to the Bay Area, and that particular place was a crucial landscape for this book. On the one hand, I was taking weekly workshops at Stanford, where Condoleeza Rice teaches. From nearly anywhere on campus, you can view the Hoover Tower, which is part of the Hoover Institute, where she teaches, so she—and the library of war—was always kind of hovering there about you.
On our carpools down to Stanford, we’d be passing the Google buses, and we’d drive by the Facebook campus on our way in, so Silicon Valley, the booming tech industry, was, in many ways, inescapable.
Alongside that, California itself was this magical enigma—on the one hand, its natural landscape was stunning and so varied, from the steep seaside cliffs off highway 101 to the lush redwoods to the deserts around Joshua tree. The light is different in California. And though I grew up in southern Oregon, surrounded by mountains, I moved to California from Houston, and before that Indiana, so these towering view points felt majestic. Whether it was from the Bay Bridge, or from Tilden Park in Berkeley, or from the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. I spent so much time just looking.
At the same time, these viewpoints also always recalled the violence of the American frontier, the constant westward expansion, the sense that what can be seen can be conquered.
I was also in a long distance relationship at the time of writing many of these poems, and so the technologies that turned the body into a kind of abstract proxy were already on my mind.
So this was a kind of ideal landscape for interrogations of distance and proximity, love and power, whether it be through the guise of at a personal relationship or through looking closely at the drone.
This collection felt very porous, inviting more and more into its pages, as it progressed. And that’s where the joy of compiling a manuscript comes for me—seeing the resonances between what were before disparate threads. That kind of palimpsestic object that you form along the way.
TT: How does form inform your collection? You have a lot of prose poems and you have like “A Letter to the President.” You also have shorter poems as well as longer poems that you break into section with section titles.
CVL: I have to keep my books formally varied, or else I get bored—with the visual presentation on the page, but also of my own voice, my tone, my syntax. Each different form invites a different way of waying. And each serves, in a sense, a different kind of rhetorical purpose.
Prose poems seem to want to ditch as much artifice as possible, in their avoidance of the line break, of the various ways one can format the poem across the field of the page. So especially for the epistolary—which, don’t get me wrong, has plenty of artifice—the prose poem medium felt similar to the letter. It seemed like a space where an earnestness might unfold, where the quotidian deserves space alongside the highly stylized. And that increases a sense of intimacy, of proximity, even if the poem isn’t specifically one of the love letters. A more human, a more natural cadence can unfold in the prose poem.
Other poems in the collection try, instead, to call attention to, to highlight and emphasize, artifice. I’m thinking of a poem like “Recessional,” in its indented formatting and its associative leaps, or “The Eye of God,” which is perhaps the poem that least resembles “natural speech.” These poems are important to me because one of the threads of this book is trying to consider the place of poetry, of aesthetics, in the public sphere, especially when thinking about distance and abstraction.
I know there’s no easy parallel or metaphor to be made to targeted killing, but I’m thinking of what omniscience allows us to avoid in war, in love, and in poetry. But also of what it affords us. It might be useful to think about how we can approach the world in a more considerate way, if we are trying to position ourselves outside of our own experiences at the same time, to consider the boundaries of the self. That has something to do with omniscience. One can imagine it as a way of poetic thinking, of asking, what’s the historical moment before me, what am I not seeing and how am I complicit, even if this isn’t something that directly affects me?
The connection to form, here, is that the really stylized, stanzaic patterns flag the artifice of form in way that says, hey, pay attention to how this is a poem, and not any other form of speech—it emphasizes the poetic making.
TT: How do you craft character and voices in your collection?
CVL: That’s a great question, and one I’m always asking other poets, about the elusive quality of voice. “Find your voice” is one of the most common pieces of advice given to younger poets.
But I remember always being like, How?
I think one can craft tone, and character, and style, but the crafting of voice—it’s a little more nebulous, which is why it’s frustrating. It feels a little like the equivalent of the soul. What is it, where is it? The poetic voice seems to me to be, like the self, a combination of autobiography—of lived experience—and then the more porous, constructed things like personality, temperament, patterns of thought, what one reads and sees and listens to. And like the self, some treat voice like this natural, intrinsic spring, as though it comes from a vacuum inside us. Everything we do, everything we experience, impacts our poetic voice. So in that sense it’s something that’s constantly shifting, evolving.
Some poets have a similar voice throughout their entire careers—I’m thinking of someone like Louise Glück—but some experience drastic shifts in voice. Gwendolyn Brooks and Adrienne Rich come to mind here. I don’t think we’re really in control of our voice. That’s what makes the craft of it seem impossible sometimes. Like the singing voice, you can train it, you can learn how to reach a different pitch, how to distort your voice in different ways. But I don’t know if you can change your voice by choice. I don’t think it’s something that you can go to a poem with and think, what intentional craft choices am I going to make to have the Corey voice come out?
In contrast, with crafting character, that’s a little easier, because even when not in the realm of the persona, each poem requires a different mask, different slant of tone, a different presentation of a self. This has everything to do with intention, with making choices. This book saw a LOT of different iterations, from different poems to different concepts of organization, but ultimately the organization ending up revolving around the various speakers’ stances to their subjects, especially concerning the drone, and love. They move through skepticism and criticism into a kind of ambivalence, a realization that the speaker is complicit in what before seemed like distant formations of power—of war, of love, of aesthetics. And sometimes this means crafting a somewhat unlikeable character, like in the end of “A Bad Date” where the speaker confesses “I would kill for it, the right-out-there.” That isn’t a character, isn’t a tone or a stance, that could exist in the beginning of the book.
Sometimes the speaker needs to be ecstatic, sometimes menacing, sometimes ironic, sometimes sincere.
With the Simone Weil, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and different interlocutors like the President, it’s just like how we face the world—we never use the same tone or projection of the self when we’re dealing with a teacher, a friend, the gynecologist. We’re always willing to adopt different parts of ourselves, and that’s how I approach characters.
TT: I am intrigued by your comparison of voice, which you never fundamentally change unless you are fundamentally altered in the process, and character, which can be manipulated as a projection of the imagination.
CVL: I love that, about the projection of the imagination, absolutely.
TT: The idea of lineage—student and teacher, daughter and son versus father and mother—feature in your collection, and is tied together with the idea of war and violence against woman. How do you pay homage to and break against lineages in your collection?
CVL: I love that you’re tracking that kind of traditional lineage along with the idea of pedagogy. Because even when we’re not in, say, the walls of a classroom, we’re constantly being instructed by history, the structures, the languages that we inherit.
Like when the students in “In the Year of No Sleep” infer a kind of violence to a specific poetic meter. Of course no poem is neutral, but it was important that, early in the collection, a lot of attention is being called to the ways in which we can reinstate a kind of power dynamic within the very cadences and syllables of speech. Not just what we’re saying, but how we’re saying it. That power reversal is important because it’s also poking a hole in the mythic relationship and power dynamic of professor and student.
Myth has a really big role in this collection: it is very seductive, and can be very useful but it can also be very dangerous in its abstraction. Myth can cast its net so wide because myth is abstract. It’s seductive because we can see the lineage of how myths are passed down, whether it’s about a woman’s body, or westward expansion. The collection tries to look as closely as possible at myth, to tease it apart, and make it less grand, more real. That’s part of how I understand the inheritance that happens throughout the book, in asking what does it mean to be a daughter, a lover, a citizen. What do we inherit? What do we need to do with what we inherit? One of the answers in this collection is to look at it closely, and to look at ourselves holding it closely at the same time.
TT: In some ways, I feel myth can become a type of faith, and it’s precisely in its abstraction that we can hold on to something, particularly in the pandemic—but can also destroy because sometimes the distance or so-called omniscience to justify whatever it is they are doing.
CVL: I love that connection to faith. I think that that’s really important because, of course, you know our faith is built off of and laden with myth. You’re right—it’s something that can bring connection and hope. That’s that kind of crossroad. It’s never either/or. That’s why I feel I could like just keep writing a book forever.
TT: I feel like definitely you’re going to keep writing forever.
Your poems often grapple with the nation’s history and specifically how that history is taught. What is poetry for you and how do we see this play out in your collection?
CVL: I feel like this is a question that poets are constantly being asked. I’m not the first person to say that I think the role of poetry has to do with attention.
There’s that famous Auden quote, “poetry makes nothing happen.” But the poem comes back and goes on to say, “it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.” That way of happening is really important because whereas Auden turns to the mouth, I turn to the eye. Through the proximity of attention, we are better able to situate ourselves in the world around us. And if we can pay more attention to the boundaries of the self, we can form and forge the world into a more considerate place. That doesn’t seem that radical, and I’m not saying that that’s the only thing that needs to happen in the world, but it’s something that poetry does.
It is connected to training the mind to think like a poet, which is something I love talking to my students about. What do you mean? my students ask. Is it like seeing everything as beautiful and gold-rimmed?
And it’s actually more about seeing the resonances and the ripple from everything, and how seemingly discrete objects or images or ideas have a lot more to do with each other than we think. That porousness of the self and expansion of the self is a form of respect, wonder, and awe. That doesn’t mean wonder eschews interrogation because wonder and interrogation are related to each other—they necessitate each other. Poetry allows for that space, for those two to circle each other.
TT: Do you have any closing thoughts you want to share with your readers of the world?
CVL: Just a general sense of gratitude that so many people are turning to poetry right now. There are so many things that demand our attention, and poetry isn’t easy to read, to write. It’s not a Netflix binge. Which isn’t pooh-poohing a Netflix binge—I’m an avid binger—but poetry requires so much attention. There are so many people spending time with the words of others, engaging a little more with difficulty, and that gives me hope.
I’ve heard some people say this is because of a kind of self-centered generation, a desire for an amplification of the self, but I think that people are turning to poetry not just to speak the self, but to be able to place the self in the crossroads of music and meaning, to be able to better articulate the boundaries of the self, which allows us to better approach those boundaries. I’m not saying our time is an exceptional one, but that’s one of the reasons, right now, that poetry seems to be incredibly popular. In English departments across the country, creative writing classes are the ones that are growing. There is a greater need to find forms of meaning that can be beautiful and challenging at the same time.
Tiffany Troy is a critic, translator and poet.