blackbirdonline journalSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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A Correspondence with Corey Van Landingham
Conducted April 3, 2023

On April 3, 2023, Corey Van Landingham participated in an email interview with Blackbird managing editor, Waverley Vesely. Five of Van Landingham’s poems appear in this issue of Blackbird: “American Four Square,” “Blood Moon,” “A Certain Epicharis,” “The End of the Life of Giorgione Da Castelfranco, Venetian Painter,” and “Hypotactic.” This interview centers on the three poems being published in this issue; however, the correspondence also discusses Van Landingham’s books, Antidote (Ohio State University Press, 2012) and Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens (Tupelo Press, 2022). Several themes touched upon are figuration of language, death, mythology, and artwork. Van Landingham writes: “It isn’t the transactional nature of pure information but a more interactive, vibrant consideration of how language brings us closer to what we see and how new arrangements of language make us see differently.”


Waverley Vesely: In “What Will Be Untold” from Antidote, the speaker says: “when you spoke to the stranger, every word was / a burial.” Many of your poems are concerned with distance and the ways language mediates—or fails to mediate—that distance. How do you see language, and poetry in particular, functioning as a way of interpreting and representing the complex array of distances humans experience, both internally and externally?

Corey Van Landingham: Thanks for this great question, Waverley, and for turning back to Antidote, as well. It’s funny, because in a way that first book is much more ambivalent about the mediation of that distance than Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens. In that I mean that the stances toward distance are perhaps more varied. My umbrella way of thinking about Antidote has always been that those poems create a space for making something possible in language that wouldn’t be otherwise, whether that’s interacting with my dead father, projecting a multitude of selves around the room, leaving a relationship before I was ready. So that things are brought closer, in the kind of magic of a poem, than they really are.

I think poetry navigates those many complex distances of experience you mention because of the prismatic and interactive way it invites us to see and think alongside a word, an image, a line, an idea, a poem. In the poems I’m drawn to, they seem to simultaneously draw me in and cast me away, in that I’m captivated by the language, zooming in on a new way of seeing or describing the world, and then thrown back into not only the larger frame of the poem, but the larger frame of reality. Is a blackboard really like a slate gray sea? (To turn to Larry Levis), I may ask myself, projecting the image onto the screen of my mind, assessing it, thinking with it, before moving on through the rest of the poem. The provisional realm of the page invites thought—a kind of serious play—that one may not experience elsewhere. It isn’t the transactional nature of pure information but a more interactive, vibrant consideration of how language brings us closer to what we see and how new arrangements of language make us see differently. I suppose that’s what brings me back again and again to poetry and why it’s such a vital art form—precisely for that ability to dance with, even perform, the complexity of human existence, private and public.

WV: While “Elegy” and “Simone Weil Walks Alongside Her Brother After Supper” engage different subjects, each reflects on the body: “Body as theory. Anthologized body re-read” and “Just the way the world gets / under the skin and flourishes,” respectively. Often, the gendered qualities of the body make their way into your poems, as do the philosophical and ontological. How do you conceive of the body when you are writing?

CVL: Ah, the body—I suppose I can’t escape it, though I wish I could!

But really, I do think that, like many recurring ideas and images in my poems, I return to it because of a continued anxiety, or discomfort. As a young adult, body dysmorphia and chronic pain left me fixated and frustrated. It felt as though there was a severe barrier between my physical self and my projected self, and I often didn’t quite know how to, I don’t know how else to say it, how to be in the world. Now, I see a lot of this as the insecure, self-absorption of adolescence. But I think that scrutiny perhaps unlocked a way of getting outside the self, too, as much as that’s ever possible, by an intensity of looking, whether that’s looking at the self, or recognizing the self—and its absence, its mutations and revisions—in the gaze of others. Of course, that’s often gendered.

As I’ve tried to move the lamp so that the light falls, in my writing, a little more on what surrounds me, I think this early obsession did provide a bridge, being able to situate something concrete, physical, but also so intensely cordoned off from others, with the larger structures within which a body moves.

WV: “Hypotactic” opens “Suppose meaning arrives like winter.” For you, how do simile and metaphor work toward meaning in ways that other constructions of language do not? Have there been any moments when you have primarily understood something vital only through figuration?

CVL: Oh, I used to loathe simile. There were a couple years where I would underline every simile in a book, and I can see my early pencil scrawlings of “UGH” in the margins. I think I resisted the visible strings of the simile—I wanted either full transformation of the metaphor, x is y, or just close attention to the thing in itself. This was a naïve aesthetic position, but the life of an artist is full of reorientations, growing alongside and out of our artistic tastes and notions.

Now, I think that figuration can act as the knob to a poem’s volume. I’m considering volume here in a few ways—the volume of voice, the volume of tone, and the atmospheric volume of a poem. The “like” of a simile always evokes more of a speaking voice, a very present mind making sense of the world through approximations—approaching, but never fully transforming into something else. It feels provisional, like the initial testing of a proof. A metaphor’s confidence in its equivalency, on the other hand, its conversion, seems more vatic, oracular, identifying some alchemical process ignited, in the moment, by its utterance, released into the world right then and there. Not that voice isn’t present here—it’s always present—but that I’m not as aware of the mind working out its equation of similitude. I’m carried, instead, into the magic of what is.

Have I primarily understood something vital only through figuration? That’s a good question. I’m not sure I have. But I think I’ve approached understanding through figuration. The simile you quote is a good example of what I often try to do with simile. I distrust similes that are too easy, too neatly packaged, so I often search for a simile that still holds a little mystery, one with which the poem engages, one it troubles. What does it mean for meaning to arrive like winter? I don’t think I can provide a succinct explanation. But as the poem progresses, I start to see what I mean—that sometimes a thing becomes clearer in its relationship to other things (this, in the poem “Hypotactic,” thinking about syntax). That what might initially be seen as obscuring (a layer of snow) could instead provide a kind of clarifying contrast. Perhaps that’s also an apt metaphor for metaphor?

WV: “The End of The Life of Giorgione Da Castelfranco, Venetian Painter” is an example of the returning use of visual art in your poetry: “We each have our own art— / I bring flesh to life; you bring life / to flesh.” Often, your ekphrastic poems are nested in political and social contexts. How does visual artwork influence you, and does layering visual and textual art open opportunities for discourse in your work?

CVL: I don’t think I would still be writing poems if it weren’t for visual art.

I’ve been writing poetry since I was quite young—if you can actually call my early angst-filled swooning about Jesse from homeroom poetry. It wasn’t until the death of my father, though, a month before my senior year of college, that I began to write seriously.

I know how this can sound—a bit maudlin, slightly precious, or as though I turned to poetry as a form of therapy. But it was quite the opposite. I began reaching to exterior sources—poetry itself, but also history, myth, and art—to break outside of the self and to contextualize death and grief in larger intellectual frameworks. I enrolled in three art history courses, and there was nothing I wanted to do more, that year, than to sit in a very dark classroom, early in the morning, and be transported by slides of Egyptian tombs, of Italian frescoes, of American landscape. There was little room for myself in those landscapes, though of course I was learning about selves, about death, about beauty across time and place.

Though I was a cynic and skeptic, it was, strangely, Italian religious art that most captivated me. Venice’s Scuola, for instance—with its ceiling an overwhelming swirl of angels, that almost grotesque Mannerism heaving them toward some Eternal Father. Of course, I realized later, I studied all those crucifixion scenes so closely, with the Christ figures bared and bleeding. My father died in our living room. His body was also wasted, his face was also grimaced and wrecked. Of course I loved to see a man swaddled in bright robes and carried into a bright blue firmament. I needed, I see now, the myth of it all.

Myth, of course, can be a dangerous anodyne, but it also embodies and enacts what much poetry strives for—it becomes a structure of meaning-making that gains larger significance from its specific origin, its specific narrative and cast of characters, its worldview. And western, contemporary elegy, in many ways, depends upon mythic foundations, even when dealing with the collapse of those foundations—after Darwin, after Nietzsche, mourning and addressing the dead within a work of art seems, perhaps, a primarily fictive act.  

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