A man disappears. The woman who loves him continues to see him him everywhere, even after she knows he can never return. In her fierce, one-of-a-kind debut, Rebecca Lindenberg tells the story—in verse—of her passionate relationship with Craig Arnold, a much-respected poet who disappeared in 2009 while hiking a volcano in Japan. Lindenberg’s billowing, I-contain-multitudes style lays bare the poet’s sadnesses, joys, and longings in poems that are lyric and narrative, at once plainspoken and musically elaborate. Here Lindenberg discusses her first book—and the debut volume in the McSweeney’s Poetry Series—with editors Dominic Luxford and Jesse Nathan.
McSWEENEY’S: Can you give us an overview of the creation of Love, an Index? Did you write these poems over one super-intense summer? Over ten years?
LINDENBERG: I started the book in 2006, when Craig Arnold and his son Robin and I were living together in Rome. It was a book about our unconventional little family, about love and its many complications. I always intended it to converse as well with a long tradition of poems about love, from Sappho to Frank Stanford. I worked on it slowly alongside other projects for a few years, and it was well underway, about half written, when Craig vanished in April 2009.
At that stage, as you can imagine, the direction of the book changed dramatically, as did my feeling of urgency about it. Thanks to an unbelievably merciful twist of fate, I was awarded a seven-month residential fellowship at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, beginning the fall of 2009—only a few months after losing Craig. The fellowship afforded me a place to hide out for a while. It was at the Work Center that I completed most of the book.
McSWEENEY’S: Love, an Index can be read, in one sense, as an extended elegy. But it’s also a deeply affirmative book. Can you say something about the relationship between the two—elegy and affirmation?
LINDENBERG: You grieve someone because you love them. Grief sharpens the edge of that love to something excruciating. Love amplifies that grief to something deafening.
I think it is also important to remember that elegy is a story of change—elegy, true elegy, culminates in some kind of coming-to-terms. It can hold onto the affirmation without requiring the grief. Elegy takes our attachment and desire and longing and sublimates it into song.
McSWEENEY’S: Why write poetry?
LINDENBERG: I think there is a general misconception that you write poems because you “have something to say.” I think, actually, that you write poems because you have something echoing around in the bone-dome of your skull that you cannot say. Poetry allows us to hold many related tangential notions in very close orbit around each other at the same time. The “unsayable” thing at the center of the poem becomes visible to the poet and reader in the same way that dark matter becomes visible to the astrophysicist. You can’t see it, but by measure of its effect on the visible, it can become so precise a silhouette you can almost know it.
McSWEENEY’S: You often use very plainspoken, direct language, but you also have such facility for enlivening seemingly archaic language. What drives those choices?
LINDENBERG: Language is expansive and continuous—it is not a pop song that can only include that which is currently trendy, and it is not a politician’s speech, relentless in its earnestness. It’s a litany and a lollapalooza of the new (BFF, OMG, WTF, BTdubs) and the old (shindig, firewater, floozy—or further back—vassal, nunnery, bludgeon). And we haven’t even gotten to the regional (pop, for soda, or heathen, for Democrat). Here in Utah, I’m a big fan of our local expletives, like: “Oh my heck.” Oh, my heck, whyever not indulge? Language isn’t just a tool of surgical precision, it’s the music you play to set the mood for the party, it’s the blazer you wear to the yacht club, it’s the balaclava you put on when you’re robbing the bank.
McSWEENEY’S: Robbing the bank?
LINDENBERG: Or whatever you do for fun.
McSWEENEY’S: You’ve made poetry out of Facebook “Status Updates.” Why?
LINDENBERG: This goes to the heart of the question of address. You write status updates to… whom? 574 of your closest friends? Assuming… what? That anyone will see? or care? These poems were an experiment of a sort—and they’re quite sincere, but that’s not to say they aren’t also lucidly aware of their own (what is it?) ridiculousness? Excess, perhaps. What is okay to share? What isn’t okay to share? In what form and in what forum? These are some of the questions that occasioned the Facebook poems.
McSWEENEY’S: You’ve called yourself a “maximalist.” What do you mean by this? What is maximalism in terms of poetry and language?
LINDENBERG: Well, on one hand, it has to do with a kind of idiosyncratic exuberance, a kind of unapologetic bigness. The language of the poetry workshop and the language of contemporary poetry generally is riddled with terms like “restraint” and “contained” and “earn” and “at stake”—language having to do with reduction or transaction, as if you had to bargain and haggle to make a poem, or you had to compress the world to get it to fit in the poem. And the truth is I’ve never even really understood what those terms mean, but I do always feel a bit hemmed in by them. And I don’t think you can write very ambitious poems feeling that way. I feel better when, instead of trying to be faithful to a set of poetic conventions, I’m trying to be faithful to the occasion and nature of the poem or, better yet, to the world that occasioned it. If I could write a map of the world the size of the world, I would feel great about it.
McSWEENEY’S: Might be predictable but… what are you working on next?
LINDENBERG: A map of the world the size of the world. Seriously.
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For the extended interview with Rebecca Lindenberg, click here.