A Writer’s Insight: Beth Bachmann

Beth Bachmann’s poem, “Lost Essay,” appears in the winter 2022 issue of The Southern Review. Here she discusses hybridity, her love of paradox, and mobilizing disorientation.

Jake Zawlacki, Editorial Assistant: To begin, the poem looks at two kinds of compasses. How did you intend for this to orient the reader for the rest of the piece?

Beth Bachmann: Probably one of the first poems I really enjoyed digging into and writing about in school was John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” with its famous compass conceit, so I hope beginning with that allusion sets the reader in the realm of the metaphysical poets in their use of strange imagery, frequent paradox, and complicated thought, as well as using poetry to make an argument. I’ve titled the piece as an essay, but I think I’m making the argument that poems are arguments, too. And that’s where I want the piece to begin, in disorientation: with the reader asking, wait, what am I reading? Where am I?

 JZ: Moving from one line to the next almost feels like watching a stone skip across water; there seems to be a considerable amount of text left off the page. There’s also this very even weight that’s distributed across each line with the form replicating the “occult balance” depicted. I know that before it found a home in our pages, “Lost Essay” was chosen by Melissa Febos as runner-up in The Sewanee Review’s nonfiction contest – can you talk about this intersection of poetry and nonfiction in the piece?

BB: Ah, I love the idea of the skipping stone and you’re hitting on something important here about the ways “Lost Essay” wants to be both a poem and a lyric essay, which is why it was super exciting to see Febos, a writer I greatly admire, recognize its essay-ness, a word I’m making up here to suggest the messiness of the form. Is the piece written in single-sentence stanzas or in single-sentence paragraphs? For me, the key is that it’s written in sentences, which we think of as the unit of prose, and yet it leaps, skips as you say, from sentence to sentence creating this space, which is the field of poetry – openings to create contemplation and connection. Also, I love thinking about poems as architectural space so applying these design principles – specifically garden design principles – gets at the use of deliberate space: wild/tamed.

JZ: I loved this line: 

“Perspective is born when someone opens the legs of the statue and pulls one foot forward.” (3) 

It took me back to an early Art History class where I learned about the significant difference between Egyptian and Greek sculpture being the leg forward. While some Egyptian sculpture had the foot forward, most were depicted either seated or standing with feet side by side. The difference, the teacher argued, was that the Greeks saw themselves as progressing through time with that foot forward whereas the Egyptians saw themselves as more rigid in their knowledge, beliefs, etc. It’s been over a decade so I’m certainly oversimplifying this, but I’m interested in your take on this very loaded moment. What, if anything, more than perspective comes with “pull[ing] one foot forward”?

BB: Yes, I remember reading somewhere along the way that perspective starts with this simple gesture, moving a foot, taking a two-dimensional space, and pulling it into the third dimension. Here, I’ve phrased it to raise the sensual nature of the act; you have the artist, the sculptor, at the heart of the image, but you also have this suggestion of one body being led by another body, a kind of invitation to dance, which I think speaks to the close relationship between reader and writer that a poem creates; come along with me, the poem says, lose yourself with me awhile, but also, it’s okay, I got you, as we turn from one direction to the next.

It’s also an evocation of the lovers in Donne, pulling the compass legs apart, the tension in the space between.

JZ: The section headers look to follow a kind of logic: Definition – Sentence – Line – Return – Anchor. How does the text preceding “Definition” fit with this? And how does Anchor fit with an idea of an imperfect circle?

BB: The text before “Definition” is really the compass itself, as you recognized in your first question, a way to orient the reader in the landscape of the lost. “Anchor” is a departure from the grammatical framings of the previous sections, but, like a compass, is a kind of a way of trying to get a footing. You could say the anchor has one perfect circle – the ring, which does get us back to Donne – but on the other side are these spikes meant to pierce. And ending on a dangling rope, I think, resonates with so much dangerous potential – imperfect loop of the noose, imperfect human bodies; “the imperfect is our paradise,” says Wallace Stevens.

JZ: Similarly, paradoxes provide a lot of tension in the piece. “Not moving is another way of being lost.” (8) Yet, we’re reading a “Lost Essay” and moving across thoughts, while probably sitting still reading. Were there any influences for this idea of an imperfect circularity?

I love paradox. Next to space, paradox must be the thing that makes a poem a poem. Dickinson is a master of paradox, beauty made in the way things resolve. Who else? Borges, the haiku poets. I just read some new Terrance Hayes poems in The New Yorker that seemed to me to embody this strange-but-true space.

JZ: It was a pleasure reading this poem and I look forward to reading more in the future. What else are you currently working on?

BB: Thank you for your interest and for all these wonderful questions. “Lost Essay” is part of a hybrid manuscript, GOLDEN, that uses poetry and lyric essay to look at all things golden – lust, greed, alchemy, the will to change. I’m also at work on a book about an imaginary veteran warhorse named after a French Surrealist poet. I’m a character in it, too. I’m excited about writing it and seeing where it all goes.

Beth Bachmann is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the author of three books from the Pitt Poetry Series: TemperDo Not Rise, and CEASE. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and New York, New York.
Jake Zawlacki is an editorial assistant at The Southern Review and a current MFA candidate at Louisiana State University. He holds degrees from the University of San Diego and Stanford University and has been the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship. His creative work investigates questions of mortality, connection, and meaning.
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