The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Simone Muench about repurposing text, wolves and the lyrical “I” in her book Wolf Centos from Sarabande Books.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Jennifer: These are probably the most obvious questions, but: How did the idea for Wolf Centos come about? What was your process like in writing the poems?
Guest: I’m curious about the process of creating a cento—how you kept track of the lines, how long you spent compiling them, that sort of thing.
Simone Muench: In response to both Jennifer and Guest, I spent five years gleaning lines and accreting them into centos. I basically kept Word documents with lines and authors that I would comb through and beginning suturing lines together. I was trying to use appropriated material to still create a profound lyrical “I.”
Brian S: And to jump off of that, did you conceive of this as a book when you started, or did you just find yourself writing one after another and it grew into this?
Simone Muench: Brian, I was introduced to the form by my friend and fellow poet, Brandi Homan. She was doing a “red dress” cento series. I began just writing poems and then fell in love with the form.
Thelma: Are all the lines from other poems? Or did you insert lines of your own in between to bring it all together?
Simone Muench: Hi! I did not insert any of my own material.
Thelma: I’m even more amazed now, knowing that.
Jennifer: Did you have motifs in mind already as you began gleaning lines? Or did those appear through the process?
Simone Muench: The “wolf” began the series, which then became a book. Thanks!
Brian S: These questions are process-oriented, I know, but I’m so curious about doing this—when you say you gleaned lines, does that mean that each individual line is from a different poem, or are there larger blocks included?
Simone Muench: As I was reading across a variety of international poetry and American poetry, I discovered that so many writers utilize the wolf—Vasko Popa, Ted Hughes, Tomas Transtomer, Emily Dickinson, etc.
I never used more than two lines from an individual poem.
Thelma: I was wondering if you sutured mid-line at all.
Ellen: Did you specifically search for poems with wolf once you had that theme in mind? Or did you just let them find you?
Brian S: (We’re all going to be trying these later, I bet, if we haven’t already.)
Simone Muench: Thelma, yes! I use a lot of fragments. However, I tried to keep the integrity of each phrase, so I would never cut anything from the middle of a line and stitch it together.
Hi Ellen, both. I was definitely hunting but also being hunted/haunted by the wolf.
Jennifer: Is there anyone whose work you wanted to include but couldn’t find the right piece or place to patch it in?
Simone Muench: Truthfully, I mainly wanted non-english writing poets, because I loved the idea that I was translating translations. Of course, though, I used many American and English poets as well.
Ellen: Brian, you are so right! I had just started playing around with doing one of these when the book arrived in the mail. Such a lovely coincidence. This is such an inspiration!
Simone Muench: I did do an homage to Jake Adam York and used some of his beautiful lines to write the dedicatory poem. He is one of the few of my contemporaries that I used.
I highly recommend the form as I feel like it’s been underutilized. It made me love poetry again.
Jennifer: Had you stopped loving poetry?
Simone Muench: Yes. I was a bit shut down by a lot of the snarkiness and biliousness in some of the poetry blogs. I was tired of aesthetic wars that weren’t productive and were becoming mean-spirited. I was probably overworked as well, so I stopped reading and writing for about a year.
Jennifer: I hear you.
Thelma: I liked your choice for the epigraph. Did Morrison say that for sure or was it the screenwriter’s invention? Not that it matters, I guess.
Simone Muench: Thelma, it was the screenwriter’s invention, I’m pretty sure.
Thelma: Well, it worked.
Ellen: Did you ever feel the need to ask permission from the other authors? Or is it okay since they are attributed at the end and the snippets are so short?
Simone Muench: Ellen, I didn’t feel the need to ask authors because they are acknowledged by both the form and the they are given an attribute.
Thanks, Thelma 🙂
Molly: I’m always interested in a poet’s periods of quiet. Did you find yourself making of another sort?
Simone Muench: Hi Molly, I also teach film, which is a secondary skill, so I think I submerged myself in some film noir and classical Hollywood cinema, and a lot of horror films
Brian S: I’m kind of an anarchist at this point—if it’s out there, it’s fair game to be remixed or repurposed.
Simone Muench: I agree, Brian. I believe that we are definitely in a neo era of repurposing.
Ellen: I was hoping that was the answer.
Brian S: These poems are so seamless. These lines from page 42 just slay me:
It’s not a horizon I see
but a minus sign. A roof of absences
that makes room for the silence.
That you put these poems together from lines extracted from hundreds of other poems just amazes me.
Simone Muench: Thanks, Brian. In terms of your previous comment. I have a quote by Fran Lebowitz on my computer that I’m cutting and pasting here: “Original thought is like original sin: both happened before you were born to people you could not have possibly met.” —Fran Lebowitz
Molly: It’s interesting to talk about “fair game.” I’m a mentor in the Minnesota Prison Writer’s Workshop and one of my mentees got into a load of trouble for “plagiarizing” another prisoner’s work, so we have been working together on making a pamphlet for others—this is his punishment, or the consequence, essentially—and I feel it’s important to talk about attribution, but it’s such a different circumstance in poetry. How there are instances where borrowing is allowable.
Simone Muench: Hi Molly, it’s an important question that you raise. I teach composition as well, and of course, plagiarism, is always at “play.” However, I think that when you pay tribute and are citing, not only through naming the authors but also through the acknowledgement of the form, that you are in no way plagiarizing.
Brian S: Molly, for me the requirement is that you have to do something that changes the original. You have to make it different, put your own mark (like a craftsperson would) on what was already there.
Jennifer: I get the sense, too, that the book—or at least some of the centos—are questioning ownership and authority, no? Like these lines from 39: “I learned / in the notebook lined by you, tree / & by you, sentence / that nothing was mine”
Ellen: Now that I understand more about how this was structured, I am eager to go back and re-read. It is truly a work of art how some of these lines fit together.
Simone Muench: Yes, the book is heavily interested both in questions of textuality and ownership. Another quote is “Perhaps this music you are listening to/ is lovelier than these loaned words”
Brian S: Was there a reason you decided against giving these poems different names?
Simone Muench: Yes, it goes back to the question of attribution—I wanted it to always be clear that these were centos. Additionally, I didn’t want to privilege any writers, suggesting that one was more important than another by using a line from the poem as a title
Thanks so much, Ellen. I appreciate it!
Jennifer: How did you know when the book or the process was finished? Did the wolves stop hunting/haunting you?
Simone Muench: Yes 🙂 I was just ready to begin a new project and I felt like I had reached saturation point at least with “wolves.”
Brian S: Do you have favorites, ones that you read every time out?
Simone Muench: Brian, I have a favorite because I love reading the last line which is by Transtromer. “You are at a party where no one loves you. . . ”
I also like the finale of the book: “safe from the wolf’s black jaw.”
Jennifer: Do you recall where that line came from?
Simone Muench: It’s Ben Jonson.
Ellen: Are there other centos that you looked to for guidance or inspiration? Or just any others you would recommend?
Simone Muench: Brandi Homan’s red dress centos which were published in Columbia Review. My colleague Jackie K. White has some amazing centos that are published in various journals online, and Virginia Smith Rice has some stunning centos in her first book When I Wake It Will Be Forever.
Brian S: Were you reading specifically for this project, or were you grabbing lines as you saw them from whatever you happened to be reading at the time?
Simone Muench: Both, Brian. After a while though I think I became a little obsessed so I was probably intentionally searching for lines. I’m reading Radi Os by Ronald Johnson, which is dazzling. I think centos are mirror images of erasures.
Thelma: There’s a nice collection of centos I picked up at AWP a few years ago. The Cento, edited by Theresa Malphrus Welford, from Red Hen. Includes lots of (maybe all) contemporary poets.
Jennifer: Ooh. I love that idea. I teach a lot of erasures—it would be fun to pair them with some centos.
Simone Muench: Hi Thelma, yes, I’ve seen that collection. Would you recommend it?
Thelma: Yes, but I think it’s just as nice to go back in time and pluck from earlier poets.
Simone Muench: The trick, or at least for me, was to pick lines that created a sense of “the uncanny”—one might recognize them but couldn’t quite place them, so I steered clear of overtly famous lines, for the most part.
Thelma: I like that you made an extended sequence—and since I have a large wolfish dog the poems really resonated with me. Not that they wouldn’t have anyway.
Simone Muench: I realized after writing this book that one of my obsessions with wolves is because I had a Malamute that was part wolf, as a child. His name was Zach and I loved him, but he disappeared one day, either shot by hunters or stolen.
Also, Thelma, you should check out Barry Lopez’s book Of Wolves and Men. I think it might resonate with your love for your “wolf dog.”
Ellen: I think there was a poem about Malamutes in the New Yorker last month.
Simone Muench: Thanks, Thelma. Yes, and build a cento with Malamutes!
Thelma: Great idea! Yep, mine’s a malamute, too. Sorry you lost Zach—it must have been devastating. If he was old, though, he could have wandered off with the intention to die. That breed will do that. I have the Lopez book—and a zillion others. 🙂
Simone Muench: Ellen, who wrote the poem in the New Yorker?
Ellen: Timothy Donnelly. Here it is.
Simone Muench: Oh, I will definitely check it out! Timothy and I read together in the middle of Times Square many years ago. It was the most surreal reading I’ve ever done.
Jennifer: How did that reading come about?
Simone Muench: Traffic flashing by us and overhead a huge billboard for The Lion King. It was for the Bright Lights / Big Verse Contest that the PSA and Times Alliance puts together each year.
Jennifer: Wow. Did any tourists stop to check out the poetry?
Simone Muench: Yes, many. It was crazy. So frenetic. Lights, traffic, tourists, poetry. . .
Jennifer: I know this is veering away—everybody feel free to bring it back to the centos!—but you mentioned a new project. Are you willing to share what you are/were working on?
Simone Muench: I am writing a collaborative book of sonnets with Dean Rader from San Francisco. We refer to them as the Frankenstein Sonnets because the first line of each poem is taken from a published sonnet by another poet, and then we graft our own skin/lines onto the pre-existing material. This was a natural extension to my cento book.
By the way, I love the idea of the book club. So wonderful.
Brian S: We’ve been at it for almost 4 years now. Read some great books along the way.
Simone Muench: Whose idea was it to do the online chat? I’m going to recommend it to my colleagues and students that they sign up for it.
Ellen: I regret it took me so long to join the club:)
Simone Muench: Have you read any books that the book club hated? Obviously, I’m not asking that you name anyone. I’m just curious. . .
Thelma: One of the great books was Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation.
Jennifer: The chats are pretty great. Some of my students signed up last year. I’m pretty sure they only ever lurked on the chats, but they still enjoyed it.
Brian S: That was Stephen’s idea when he started the fiction book club just over 4 years ago. He thought of it as a premium to help get people to sign up. It’s one of my favorite parts of the club.
We’ve read some that the book club was less wild about.
Ellen: I bet that makes for an interesting discussion
Simone Muench: You are very diplomatic, Brian. Thelma, I have Cloud Corporation on my shelf but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I will soon!
Brian S: But since there are three people choosing books, and we have a pretty varied set of tastes, so we get a variety of styles. Something for everyone.
Thelma: Simone, how did the editing go? Seems like it would be kind of unnecessary with a book like this.
Simone Muench: I edited as I went along, but I also edited afterwards. It’s a different task though. Mainly, if a line or section wasn’t working, I had to find an entire line/fragment to replace it with, so it was a tedious task.
Brian S: Simone, that sounds like me when I’m trying to revise a sestina. Like I start to wonder if it’s worth it.
Ellen: Brian, I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who feels that way.
Simone Muench: Oh, yes, Brian. Sestinas and centos share a similar obsessive quality to their construction. Round and round and round.
Simone Muench: Well, since it’s become quieter (less text), can each of you send me a recommendation of a poetry book you’ve read in the past year that is a must read.
Jennifer: Only if you give us one, too. Or many…
Brian S: I was just going to ask what else you’re reading besides the Ronald Johnson you mentioned earlier.
Thelma: I really, really liked Emily Abendroth’s Exclosures.
Brian S: I had a lot of fun with Willie Perdomo’s The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon.
Simone Muench: I’m late to the table, but I just read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and loved it!
Ellen: It’s not a book of poetry but rather about poetry: Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry by David Orr.
Simone Muench: Also Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam. I ordered Jennifer’s book In the Human Zoo a few weeks ago, but it just arrived the other day.
Jennifer: It’s a chapbook, but I loved Sara Pennington’s The Primer of Zinnie Lucas. Also Keetje Kuiper’s new one… We read it with the book club.
Brian S: I’ve just started Cynthia Hogue’s Revenance and am really enjoying it. And the book for next month’s club, Jericho Brown’s New Testament is terrific also.
Simone Muench: Great. Thanks so much!
Thelma: Oh! Karen Green’s Bough Down.
Jennifer: Oh, Cynthia was my teacher long, long ago. I didn’t even know she had a new book.
Brian S: Coming out this month or next I believe from Red Hen maybe? I have an ARC.
Jennifer: I will have to get a copy. And send her congrats!
Brian S: It’s amazing to me how simultaneously large and connected the poetry world can be.
Simone Muench: Yes, I feel that way all the time.
Jennifer: No doubt.
Brian S: I’m constantly discovering “new” writers who have published like 7 books.
Simone Muench: And, yes, Brian, I was late to Larry Levis as well, and now he’s one of my favorites.
So, have any of you written centos?
Thelma: I have.
Simone Muench: What was your process like, Thelma?
Ellen: I’m doing an online workshop now and it was a suggested assignment. I’m just starting the process of noting lines that I come across that might work together. It’s a daunting process.
Brian S: I did something similar to a cento, only I used lines from songs that were playing on the satellite radio at the wine shop where I used to work. All the songs were summertime themed.
Thelma: Ha—well, I just chose lines from the first four or five books we read in this group. I was hoping other group members would chime in, but no one did. *sigh*
Brian S: I’ll be looking to try it with poets now, though.
Simone Muench: Ellen, I think of the creating a cento as the same engagement that occurs when I create my “own” poem. I’m always cutting, pasting, rearranging, so in some ways the process is similar.
Brian, did the wine enhance the cento product, or its making?
Ellen: I agree! The instructor in that class made a good point that trying one is a good way to hone editing skills for your own “regular” drafting.
Simone Muench: Yes, definitely! Similar to a film editor.
Brian S: I wish. I was on the clock, so no drinking. It was a Sunday morning as well, which meant it was really dead in the place. I was standing back there with a small notebook in my hand and my iPhone on Shazam getting song titles for songs I didn’t know so I could hunt up lyrics later.
Jennifer: It’s been a while, but I used to do write centos as a way to understand poems I felt like I didn’t “get.” Especially poems in translation.
Simone Muench: I love that idea, Jennifer. Maybe I’ll assign a cento to my students with texts that they are frustrated with.
Ellen: In Wolf Centos, I circled and put a big star at the line: “I want to know there will be wine on the table.” 🙂
Thelma: Wine enhances everything IMHO.
Simone Muench: Indeed!
How did using lyrics work out? I tried to write a cento using only Nick Cave lyrics and it was a disaster.
Brian S: It was a task, because so many pop songs don’t say much concretely, but it turned out to be a fun little poem.
Jennifer: Oh. That might be a good question to wind down with: What lines did you all love most?
Brian S: I quoted mine earlier, but I also liked “a fist of nothing / driven through nothing, snowy / geometry on the animal heart.”
Ellen: I am working out/the vocabulary of my silence,/the difference between one/ human life & another.
Simone Muench: Hi Ellen, those lines have special meaning to me because it was an elegy for a friend who had died.
Thelma: “In the forest of hours I lie back, / drain off with the sunset.”
Brian S: Thanks for joining us tonight Simone, and thanks to everyone in the group for your great questions. And to Jennifer for choosing such an awesome book.
Simone Muench: Thanks so much, everyone! It was my pleasure. And, thanks for the great recommendations!
Ellen: Such a beautiful sentiment. thanks for sharing your time, Simone!
Simone Muench: Good luck in your cento-making! And red wine drinking!