Ashley Toliver in conversation with Jalayna Carter
April 2020 · Digital Exchange
Ashley Toliver teaches poetry at the Attic Institute in southeast Portland. Her work has been supported by fellowships from Oregon Literary Arts, the Cave Canem Foundation, and the Academy of American Poets. She received her MFA from Brown University in 2013, and is a poetry editor at Moss.
Toliver is also the author of Spectra (Coffee House Press), winner of the Poetry Center Book Award and finalist for the 2020 Oregon Book Awards, the 2020 Kate Tufts Book Award, and the 2018 Believer Book Awards.
From the opening of the collection I found myself seized by the vigor exuding from these poems; “Of course we can climb backward into the pulp and pull all the questions from their sharpened hangers.” In Spectra, Toliver palms the peculiarities of life, holding up a match to the caverns of love and loss in their changing forms. “I’m pulling all the shredded lace down, quitting in the middle of the song.” Unraveling the question ‘Is sh staying or is she going?’ she paints a stunning picture of the push and pull inextricably linked to the responsibilities that belong to us whether we ask for them or not.
Spectra has been a really fulfilling collection to get to experience. I know that it was published in 2018, so a couple of years ago now, but it’s lovely that it’s getting so much traction at this point. In your own words, what was the motivation behind these particular poems and how did this collection come together and solidify?
The central section of the book—the section entitled Ideal Machine—it’s sort of a wild story. I was in my second year of graduate school when I started writing these poems that I didn’t know what they were or what they were about. The voice had shifted, and the form was unlike anything I’d previously worked on. I was like, ’great, let’s do this!’ I had this whole, tiny collection of them and I wasn’t sure what their story was.
A few months later, I had my daughter who was born December of 2012. A month after she was born, I started to go blind. Just blind. Nobody believed me. I went to one doctor who told me I was experiencing postpartum dry eye. I’d never had dry eyes before, so this kept happening until I finally found an ophthalmologist who recognized my symptoms. It was as if from the centerline of my vision outward, all of the pixels were missing. They ordered an MRI, and it turned out I had a brain tumor.
I have my two-month old daughter at this point, I’m blind, I have a brain tumor, and have to figure all of that out. At the time I was also in my last semester of graduate school. After I had this brain surgery, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to finish my thesis. I still really wanted to graduate on time. So in trying to put a manuscript together I found those poems that I hadn’t quite known what they were or what they’d been about and they mapped seamlessly onto that experience that I’d just undergone. I continued to write those poems and that’s essentially what became that central section.
The Housekeeping poems were really written out of identification with that encasement. I’m talking more specifically about the Housekeeping poems in that first section. They sort of arrived whole—all of a piece. My usual writing process is excruciatingly slow. I am a terrible over-worker of the poem.
That’s so surprising.
Is it? These poems—it was like I vomited them. One a day, I just vomited out these Housekeeping poems. This was over the summer between my first and second years of graduate school. In my first few days back on campus I ran into Forrest Gander, who’d taught our workshop the previous semester. I didn’t really have much to share so I sent him th Housekeeping poems and he loved them. That was the first moment that I thought that they were real things: ’Maybe those are poems, not just my emotional detritus?’ Even when my book was picked up and we were going through revisions, I tried to cut all those poems out at a certain point. I couldn’t separate myself from how they came into the world. They just shot out of me. My editor took me out to dinner and said, “We’re going to need you to put those back, actually, that half of the book you cut out.” I said, “Alright, I guess these are poems.”
Yeah, they’re so meaty for such short pieces.
I wish it was always that easy. That’s the vast majority of the book’s story.
The Housekeeping series of poems is interesting to me because there are so many of them, and they’re all just named Housekeeping.
Which is kind of how housekeeping is, isn’t it?
Yeah, they come off as memos about things that you need to revisit.
Yeah, repetitive. I keep needing to do the dishes. Terrible.
[Laughs] So were there any poems that you did keep out of this series?
Oh yeah, about a third of the poems I wrote in that bucket of poems, I kept out. There were a lot more.
How did you decide which ones to keep? In my mind, in Ideal Machine, you talk about having your daughter and bringing this life into the world and dealing with this brain tumor and what it’s taking from you. That’s weaved very well into the last section of Spectra, which is all about biological order. That first section of the book, where you write about domesticity, leads very well into these poems about your daughter.
I’m glad you think so.
How did you inform which poems from the Housekeeping series you kept and which ones just didn’t fit into this particular collection?
I think it was more a matter of my own affinity for those poems I included, rather than any of them being a better thematic fit than any other. It took me a long time to realize the Housekeeping and Ideal Machine poems really did resonate, that they might be in conversation. Their emotional energy is in a specific place. That’s true of the poems that didn’t make it into the book, as well. I think since the beginning of that project, I’ve always had my little pocket of favorites. They remind me a lot of—have you ever read Gilman’s short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’? The psychic energy of what is happening in that story, it feels like the same psychic energy that is embodied in those poems. A little bit of wildness, a little bit unhinged, a little bit of honesty. All confined in this tight psychic conglomeration.
It makes me think about the ways the body predicts things before our consciousness can hold onto it.
Yeah—does that ever happen to you with poems?
What is that? What is that? Why does that happen?
It feels incredibly cosmic. There is something a bit haunting about it.
One of the other things that stuck out to me in this collection is that you weave butterflies into the way that you talk about the medical reality of your brain tumor. Could you talk more about how you came to that imagery, and how that plays throughout the collection?
I think I’d say that I came to it backwards, kind of like what we were just talking about. They appeared before I knew what they were doing there. More than butterflies, I think moths are the identifying resonance to me. The imagery that I included with my book is something that I couldn’t imagine the book being published without. I remember driving with my fiancé—who is also a poet—very concerned, asking “is it legit if I publish something that has pictures in it? Can I do that in an actual book?” They do some mystical work there that I can’t really explain. They’re part of this beautifully loose magic happening. The poem that first mentions Lepidoptera, which is the category that moths and butterflies both belong to, that was one of the things that appeared in the poem before I fully understood what it was doing there. If you asked me 10 years ago if that word would appear in one of my poems, I would have laughed you out of the room. It’s such an awkward word.
There’s so much of this that doesn’t feel like I’m making choices so much as accepting what’s happening, and learning as I move through the experience of writing a poem and the experience of revisiting old work. There’s so much that I’ve learned from that, that they’re teaching me. When that poem was written, that—thematically—was a feature of the section. There were obvious things I’d see pretty quickly—moths are kind of blind and always trying to find the light. I understand they move from one state to another through crazy transformation. Great, but it’s a moth. We’ve been using butterflies for forever as symbols of transformation and metamorphosis. When I started moving through the medical images though… the tumor that I had was located on my pituitary gland which is located right behind the Sphenoid bone. The Sphenoid bone itself is shaped just like a moth just as the pelvic container is shaped similarly. Again these aren’t choices, I just learned as I worked.
That’s such a beautiful reflection of that inherent part of biological science: what it can teach us, the patterns that it lays out. Reading this collection, I feel like I had a very personal connection to it; I ended up in the Northwest because I had a tumor on my pituitary gland. So, reading this, I thought again about how this was seemingly a part of this natural order where you come to something and realize after-the-fact what the impacts of it are. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have that information given to you so closely after having a child, and to talk to doctors who misdiagnose. It reminds me of a collection by Bettina Judd, Patient, which is about the writer’s own history of dealing with the medical world as well as a longer history of black women in the medical field.
Yeah. It’s the biggest side-eye.
Exactly. Between starting these poems on the other side of the nation in an environment that provides so much feedback and artistic camaraderie (as an MFA program does), then pivoting to finding work in Portland while raising your daughter here, I imagine there’s been some changes in your process and how you treat your poetry. Can you document some of the regular tenets of your process that exist outside of the influence of place, as well as how your environment informs your work? Does the Northwest show up in your poetry and practice?
I think the way that place shows up in my work is a largely unconscious manifestation; where I’m presently located is one of the furthest things from my mind when I’m working. Still, I think the Northwest does make its presence felt in my work, though more through atmospherics than anything else. In the moment, when I’m writing, my focus is exclusively internal. I’m listening or feeling for something. Ten-ish years or so ago, during some unrelated internet trawl, I came across an interview with the songwriter Kristin Hersh where she mentions something about feeling the song move in her spine as if it were a separate entity. It was so consistent with my experience it just blew me away. When I’m writing my main goal is absentia, to get the fuck out of the way of whatever’s trying to happen. To me, that’s the best part—the surprise.
I love the intimacy of this collection, and the tension in your poems as well. You said that you deviated from your typical style of writing in these. For other work, do you think you’ll stay in this particular style of writing, and the abruptness that this particular collection carries?
I think that tension that you mentioned has always been a feature in my work, and these poems found a way to ratchet it up, which is really enjoyable to me. I wrote the last section of the book maybe two to three years after the first two sections. When I shared the manuscript with my editor I said, ‘this book is not done. There is another section—I don’t know what it is.’
Number one, every myth has three parts. So there’s part of me that wanted, that needed three sections. I didn’t want to leave it in a sort of dialectical relationship. Nothing can happen in that space. Nothing can happen with only two points in relationship… that is a single dimension. That is a flat plane.
It can stagnate?
I needed something that provided some kind of transformation? [Something] that moved out from this space of the energy of Housekeeping into the darkness of Ideal Machine. I couldn’t just leave it there. I could not end the book with “death is the last road to awe I know”. I also wanted to do the work to walk myself out of that place. I needed to know what was beyond that point of ultimate destruction in a certain sense. Spectra—that final section—that’s just how that manifested. The voice that’s happening in that section and the focus are just places that I needed to go to find some kind of wholeness. There’s so much that’s fractured in the first two sections, and fracturing. The place that I could find wholeness was a place that was beyond the self or the lens of the self or the relationships of the self, the body itself. The only place, it turns out, that I could find that sense of wholeness was in the larger realm outside of the self and the mystery.
I love that.
Some post on Twitter the other day asked something like, “do you ever think about how dogs don’t know how they ended up with us, they don’t know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing with us in relationship to us but they’re all cool in the gang, down for whatever and ready to play?” My immediate response to this—which is a little bit indicative of my own preoccupations and are also reflected at the end of that book—was to flip the question and ask ’do you ever think about how we, human beings, don’t know how we got here, don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing or why we’re here, don’t know where we go when we’re done with here? What the fuck is going on actually? Why am I human being in this body? How?’ I think about it all the time.
Yeah, that existential moment of ‘what’s the point?’
Totally. That existential point that the book lands in, that was the path to… I keep trying to say healing, but I don’t think it’s healing—the path to acceptance that was available to me.
Is there a particular distinction between healing and acceptance?
I wasn’t thinking about that but I do, turns out. To me, healing implies a wound. Healing implies damage. I think acceptance acknowledges that deeper fundamental truth of not knowing why or how or what the fuck is going on. And in doing so, giving the capacity to sit more deeply with what is real. Interesting, I wasn’t thinking about there being a large rift between those two things but maybe there is. It wasn’t, for me, abou reflecting on all of that material and saying ’I need to fix this!’ It was about expanding beyond the phenomenological world and the recognition of our status as being part of the mystery.
I love that it ends on this element of transcendence beyond the physical body. Is there anything else that you want to add about your experience and journey with the book?
It’s a great joy to have made, and a great mystery. And I’m glad I’m not living in that place anymore.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Five.