Paisley Rekdal is most recently the author of “Animal Eye,” her fourth book of poems, and “Intimate: An American Family Photo Album,” which considers the stories of photographer Edward Curtis and his Native American guide, Alexander Upshaw, through a mix of nonfiction, fictionalized history, poetry and personal reflection. It is both difficult and weirdly not difficult to consider these two books in relation to one another; the content overlaps in significant ways. International Examiner (IE) recently had the opportunity to talk with Rekdal about her experience forming both.
IE: The poem “Wax” from “Animal Eye” feels very similar to what you are doing in “Intimate,” in that it weaves together disparate narratives into one piece. In addition, your mother’s cancer treatment appears in this poem, as well as serving as the foundation of the memoir sections of “Intimate.” Were these books written during the same time? What was your process in writing them?
You are totally correct: they were written around the same period of time. For about a five-year period, I was fascinated by the problems of perception: how we see ourselves and others racially, for instance, which is one of the majors themes of “Intimate,” but also how we see ourselves and others in moments of physical crisis, such as illness or even death.
At the time I began both books, I had recently lost my maternal grandmother after a long and fairly excruciating period of general illness and physical decline, and my mother had been diagnosed with an extremely aggressive form of uterine cancer. A lot of people in my family have had cancer. My maternal grandfather died of pancreatic cancer when I was in high school, and one of my strongest memories of him includes seeing his embalmed body in the funeral parlor. This image haunted me for years, and when I began reading about the history of wax museums and thinking about the uncanny ways in which these figures are designed to seem both real and unreal to us to our perceptions of these famous identities on display, the more I realized I was writing also about my family’s history with cancer.
For me, these ideas of social display and perception are naturally connected to Edward Curtis’ North American Indian project, in which he was trying to photograph different tribes as permanently “outside” of modern America: noble savages who had no connection to the industrialized world around them, and were thus destined to disappear. In a sense, Curtis made wax figures of the people he photographed: they represented our ideas about Native Americans as much as they represented themselves.
IE: I am curious about the form of the content in “Intimate,” particularly the passages that present the imagined histories of Edward Curtis and Alexander Upshaw, which look very much like prose poems to me. Some of them read more like prose poems than non-fiction, while others read more matter-of-factly, like prose. The boxy shape of the passages also reminds me of the rectangular shape of photographs. How did you approach the idea of “form” when writing this book?
When I began “Intimate,” I was haunted by a particular quote of Susan Sontag’s in “On Photography,” in which she says that the literary fragment is equivalent to the snapshot. I thought and thought about that while writing “Intimate,” and decided I wanted to create a “photo album” in words, thus the prose sections are meant to be read as literary snapshots: moments in time, isolated from a continuous narrative. Through the snapshots, however, I think a narrative can be gleaned, since our impulse as readers — of photos or of text — is to make connections between moments of time, events, and ideas. Making the book an album of “snapshots” was also a bit easier for me as a researcher, since Alexander Upshaw — Curtis’s Apsaroke guide who worked with him in the West and was later murdered in Montana — didn’t leave a long trail of information about his life behind. Lots of his life is hidden from the record; only through reading the bits and pieces he did leave behind could I begin to formulate a theory about what he believed about his identity and place in America, and how these ideas changed.
IE: I recently heard you read at Elliott Bay Book Company and you made some funny comments, skipping poems that you didn’t want to read because your parents were in the audience and mentioning how your husband once assumed that one of your poems was about him. There is a tendency for the poetry-reading audience to assume that poems are autobiographical; that poets write about “what really happened.” Of course, even if you start a poem with a grain of truth — something you noticed or overheard one day — by the time the poem is finished, it is an amalgam of “what really happened” and “poetic license.” A poet might add, remove, or alter details to shape the poem into a work of art. In that sense, writing poetry matches what you were doing with the non-fiction narratives of Curtis and Upshaw. How do you see this line between “memoir,” “history” and “fiction” both in your project with “Intimate” and your own poems?
This is such a good question, and one that I’m not sure how to answer easily. As a writer, I’ve always been interested in the ways that the individual intersects with history, which is why so many of my poems—especially my long ones—pair a personal narrative with a historical narrative, one which might not immediately seem connected to the contemporary events being described in the poem. Over the course of the poem, or book, I hope it does become apparent why these narratives parallel each other: because ideas rarely truly die out entirely; we are each a cultural repository for all sorts of beliefs, ideas, superstitions, fears, cultural flotsam and jetsam that influence us in all sorts of ways. Of course, making these parallels apparent to the reader involves some sort of manipulation, too: highlighting certain facts rather than others, sometimes altering the personal story more to better connect with the historical story. In the end, what you’ve noted is true: “memoir,” “history” and “fiction” share some unsettling similarities with each other. But if you think about it, “history” has always been a story, which is why so many books can be written about the same event, each with its own retelling or interpretation: facts are usually couched within narratives and are thus rarely told dispassionately. And there are always new facts to be discovered and entered into the record.