Even among the guild of poets, Heather Christle is especially attendant to the viscosity of language. Metaphor and metonymy are less, for her, grammatical terms than names for the thickness of the air—and moving through it slows her down. “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions,” wrote Nietzsche, “they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force.” Most of us are among the forgetful. Not Christle, who restores for us the metaphorical force, the truth bound in words.
“Stanzas are rooms, they say,” writes Christle in The Crying Book. “A paragraph, too? I look for doors.” The Crying Book is her debut work of nonfiction—I would call it lyric essay or autotheory—a departure from the more familiar architecture of poetry. She is the author of many books, including The Difficult Farm (2009), The Trees The Trees (2011), which won the Believer Poetry Award, What Is Amazing (2012), and Heliopause (2015). The Crying Book, released last month by Catapult, has quickly accumulated acclaim. TIME named it a “New Book You Should Read,” Bustle called it a “Best New Book,” and the New York Times placed it on its list of “New & Noteworthy” titles.
I talked with Christle over coffee at Emory University, where she is an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing.
The Rumpus: The Crying Book feels like an invitation to look, an invitation to take seriously what men dismiss by treating as trivial. One of your techniques is to give attention to passing moments of minimization, like the use of the words “just,” “nearly,” “only.”
Heather Christle: It’s something that I’ve been trying to practice in my life outside the book as well, noticing that I do that kind of minimizing: to say “just” when it might be enough to say the thing without judging its significance. And “an invitation to look” is a nice way of putting it. There was a quote that I came across when I was doing research at the Philadelphia College of Physicians’ archive, looking at the papers of Silas Weir Mitchell. I didn’t put this quote in the book because it was almost too on the nose. But when he and his wife were traveling after the death of their daughter, when they were both in deep grief, he took note of what they were seeing on their travels for his writing projects. There’s one line that exists on its own in the diary that says, “What lens shows so much as a tear?” I felt grateful to come across that. I feel like it is, in a way, the core of the book. The book looks through crying at all of these other moments and systems and ways that power gets arranged in the world, so it’s looking at crying, but also looking through crying as a way to see all of these other elements of the world that we inhabit.
Rumpus: You experienced many emotions with Mitchell.
Christle: My relationship with him flickered back and forth between feelings of sympathy and of mutual disdain.
Rumpus: Do you feel his disdain for you?
Christle: Absolutely. He quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes saying, “a hysterical girl is a vampire who sucks the blood of healthy people around her.”
Rumpus: That’s intense. That’s an intense—that’s intense disdain.
Christle: [Laughs] Yes. But that’s part of why I became so fascinated with him. He had such disdain for us, the crying women. And yet he needed to speak through his tears. Reading his diaries immediately after his daughter’s death, I was moved to cry myself. You spend enough time with someone’s papers and you begin to get a feeling for them as a human being, apart from all of your arguments. And, you know, on the whole, if I could speak with him [laughing], not that he would listen, but there are a number of things that I would like to disabuse him of.
Rumpus: There’s something intimate in the way you talk about him. There’s something about the context of being in an archive, reading papers, something that makes it feel private. You get to peek at something. And you spent a lot of time in archives. What kept bringing you back?
Christle: It was a new thing for me, so it was exciting. I’ve never done archival research before. I didn’t even know if they would let me in. I wrote this book as an unaffiliated poet. Before I began I very much had the sense that archival spaces were forbidden to me. Even when I had a visiting position at UT Austin, and I got to go into the Harry Ransom Center, I remember being utterly afraid of doing something wrong. There’s such a ritual to entering that space, you know? You surrender your belongings, and you disrobe to some extent, and—
Rumpus: They roll the cart out—
Christle: Yes, yes! There’s such ceremony, which I think can feel quite forbidding, especially in the fancier spaces, which the Ransom Center certainly is. When I was at the Philadelphia College of Physicians library, I felt a lot more at ease because there was a nice, like, shabby green carpet, and they let me nap on their sofa. And it got me interested in thinking about archival spaces and bodies in archival spaces, and how they are tended to or not. There are two scholars of archival studies, Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor, who wrote about radical empathy in the archive, and how there are many different users who have different emotional needs. And one of the practices that they suggested that archivists and librarians might adopt is having a box of tissues in the room. Because of course people cry in archives; there’s so much material there that touches on the emotional lives of the subjects, the emotional lives of the researchers. I loved that, the attention they were paying. I was grateful for it, especially as someone who’s spent a lot of time crying in archives.
Rumpus: What was the occasion of your napping in the archives?
Christle: I nap every day, or try to. I find that sleep deprivation is a major trigger for depression for me. So, it was my last day in the archive and I had had a rhythm of going back to the hotel and napping and then doing some writing. But I had to check out of the hotel, so I asked the librarians if they might let me take my nap there instead. They were so kind, they not only gave me a sofa to sleep on, but they also brought me noise-cancelling headphones, and a pillow. The funny thing is that the Philadelphia College of Physicians Library is attached to the Mutter Museum, which is a museum of medical oddities. And they brought me a pillow that they had decided was no longer appropriate for them to have out, because it showed an image of a man with elephantiasis of the testes.
Christle: So that was my pillow! [Both laugh]
Rumpus: That’s great!
Christle: A feminist ethics of care.
Rumpus: Okay, okay. You write in the book that a kitchen is the best place to cry, or saddest.
Christle: Saddest. I remember when I was here at Emory doing research in the Rose Library and Lucille Clifton’s papers, I came across a letter she had written to her husband after his death, which was published in Essence. It is, of course, immensely moving to read, and she recalls in it an instance of him crying in the kitchen, feeling overwhelmed with not knowing how to manage both his duties to his family and his duties to the various causes of civil rights.
Rumpus: Wow. That’s not a kind of moment of vulnerability that we often get insight into with figures of the Civil Rights Movement—male figures, particularly.
Christle: Clifton is noting it as a moment of unusual vulnerability. I love that she leaves space for it, and marks the depth of his feeling as one of the reasons she loved and married him.
Rumpus: You trace the usage of language in various instances. You draw attention to the fact that one breaks into tears, that tears fall. And you show how that language is revelatory.
Christle: Once you notice that tears fall, as a poet, you can’t help but think, “But what about crying in space?” And it’s fun to make that leap.
Rumpus: Yes. To the moon.
Christle: Why not go to the moon? And why not look at the moon for an absurd number of pages in a book about crying? [Both laugh]
Rumpus: You tease us in the book about your methods. You offer possibilities. And one of those places is when you are talking about the moon. About space camp, you write, “I cried because I wanted to play the role of ‘Mission Specialist’ in our mock flight, but was assigned instead to be the ‘Public Affairs Officer.’ Mine was not to do, but to describe.” I took that as a possible key. To describe sounds like a simple thing, but it’s not. It is one of the hardest things.
Christle: People have asked me whether writing this book helped me to get better in some way or other. And I think they mean different things. The act of description, for me, does not diminish the feeling of pain or suffering. But it does do something else, it adds another node within my body, and it’s a satisfying space to occupy. There’s enormous satisfaction when you sense that you have managed to say the thing that happened. And that comes sometimes through simile or image, sometimes through getting the verb right.
Rumpus: There’s a moment where you wonder if Virginia Woolf used—
Christle: Rocks or stones.
Rumpus: Rocks or stones, and that it matters. It matters; the word matters.
Christle: You have to think “stones,” because otherwise the rhyme of “rocks” and “pockets” is too much.
Rumpus: Yes! You’re in conversation with Virginia Woolf. You’re in conversation with lots of people. I was struck by that in the author’s note at the beginning. Being in archives can be such a solitary thing, writing a book can be such a solitary thing, but you mean very much for this to be not a solitary thing. Who are you talking with?
Christle: I learned a lot through talking with Gabrielle Civil, a black feminist writer and performance artist. I learned much through talking with my mother; that was a really wild experience, and there’s much of that that is not in the book. Christina Sharpe was an important figure for me to be thinking alongside.
In most cases, I wasn’t just going to the texts themselves. I wasn’t just looking at, like, “The Dawn of the Tryborg,” or In the Wake, but I also was checking in with the writers, so that I could see if there were ways I was getting things wrong, or things I had not yet considered, and I was so grateful that people were willing to be in conversation with me. People whose stories were quite painful. I corresponded with John Crawford Jr., the father of John Crawford III. I was at vigils and marches. I was in conversation with Bomani Moyenda, who has done a lot of work in seeking justice for John Crawford. I corresponded with Bas Jan Ader’s brother, with Bill Cassidy’s sister. Multilingual poet friends assisted with translation. I was really lucky to be able to move between books and correspondence and in-person conversations, which added to my sense of the community that shapes this book.
Rumpus: The Crying Book is an investigation into tears. It is also a narrative with two plots: one about grief, and one about becoming a mother. The way that the plot of you becoming a mother moves toward a resolution is through your relationship to your own mother. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Christle: There are so many stories that get exchanged between parent and child, and that then go unexamined for a long time, or at least that’s the case with me and my mother. And it became interesting in writing this book to go back and investigate those stories, and try to understand what her experience of those moments was, which was often quite different from the story that I had inscribed in my own memory. This book provided an opportunity for both of us to reach some really shifted understandings of what our lives had been with one another.
Rumpus: Did becoming a mother yourself open up possibilities?
Christle: I think it deepened my… respect, my understanding for the difficulties that she faced in early motherhood. She had grown up just outside London. She moved to the US; she was living in a pretty isolated small town in New Hampshire. She was a new driver. We were living in a house that didn’t have heat installed. It had been abandoned, and we were working to restore it, and we couldn’t afford to hire people to do it, so my father did the work, but then he would often be gone at sea because he was in the Merchant Marines. So she was living in these circumstances with two children fourteen months apart. I don’t think I would have done as well as she did, given how much I struggled through early parenthood in much more luxurious circumstances.
When I finished the draft of the book that was pretty close to what we published, I sent it to my parents, and was so nervous. I wanted to be accountable to everyone. But it’s so hard to think about doing that with your parents. I was so nervous. And then, within hours my mother called. She had read the whole thing, and she was crying, and she, you know—now I’m going to cry—she said how proud she was, and she said, “It’s really hard, isn’t it?” And I said, “Yes!” And we were able to be with one another in the moment of recognition that, for both of us, it is has sometimes been difficult to know how to remain in this world.
Rumpus: The word that you use in the book is “enough.” It strikes me as a climactic word there.
Christle: Yes, in a way it’s—and I’m just realizing this now—it’s a correspondent to “just.” It too holds things in a place. They hold things in different directions. “Just” holds things down, and “enough” holds things from expanding beyond what is needed in the moment. I was glad to reach that word.
Rumpus: One bit of poetry that came to my mind while reading the book were the famous lines from William Carlos Williams, so widely distributed: “it is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”
Christle: And that’s from “Asphodel”—and there’s another line from “Asphodel” that is in the book. “What do I remember / that was shaped / as this thing is shaped.” It’s a funny thing with Williams, so often his lines or his poems get circulated apart from the rest of what they are with. And it’s exciting to return to the fullness of what he’s up to. “Asphodel” is one of my favorite poems of his. That poem moves in some similar ways to The Crying Book. The fact that he speaks about the news. He speaks about the execution of the Rosenbergs, and he speaks about the bomb, and he speaks about infidelity in this sort of overblown apology to his wife. He speaks about looking in a subway window reflection and thinking he sees his father and realizing it’s himself. There are a lot of correspondences between “Asphodel” and this book. That question, “What do I remember / that was shaped / as this thing is shaped?” is one of the engines that drives the movement of my book.
Rumpus: I want to invite you to talk about your next book, the Kew Gardens project.
Christle: My mother grew up just outside Kew Gardens, and it has always existed in my brain as a metonym for her and for her country. I think that that’s also true for some people in the UK, that Kew Gardens is emblematic. I want to look at the walls around Kew Gardens, and I want to look at them in connection with the idea of borders, and Brexit, and who is permitted entry and who is expelled. I want to look at the relationship between the beauty of flowers in the garden and the violence of imperial extraction that brought them in. I want to look at graffiti that exists throughout the garden. There was a sailor, apparently, who used to chalk the walls, and George III insisted that he be allowed to because he was recording images of war that he had been through. And then there’s Woolf and her story “Kew Gardens.” I got to look at a first edition that she and Leonard Woolf printed themselves, and there, in the center of the book, the binding was held together with knots. I think it was either Virginia or Leonard who tied it, and I touched the knot that they had tied, and wanted so much for it to have been Virginia. That physicality, the aura of it, is so strong. There was also a speck from the cover that fell off, a tiny speck that I so wanted to take with me, but I didn’t have anything I could take it with. Somebody told me I should have eaten it. Kew Gardens shows up in all sorts of her books. And then there’s the fact that I was able to travel to this place, to Kew, and to find the tree that I’m pretty sure is the tree that Woolf uses to set a scene under in “Night and Day.” I don’t yet know how all of these things fit together. I’m assembling them in my body and imagination. We shall see.
Photograph of Heather Christle by Christopher DeWeese.