The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Adrienne Christian about her new collection Worn (Santa Fe Writers Project, April 2021), the ghazal form, seeing yourself in your communities, and using photography to stay active while riding out a pandemic.
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 join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here. Upcoming poets include Threa Almontaser, Kayleb Rae Candrilli, Andrés Cerpa, Kevin Simmonds, Kaveh Akbar, Carly Ingram, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: When I wrote about why we selected this collection for the Poetry Book Club, I talked a bit about the way you use the ghazal form in “Portrait of My Very Jealous Husband,” but if I remember correctly, that’s not the only ghazal in the book. Can you talk some about your relationship with that form?
Adrienne Christian: Brian, you’re right. There’s another ghazal in the collection, “Ball Smell.” When I first learned about ghazals, I was taught that they’re great for things that repeat themselves, and for obsessions. That’s how I used them in this collection. It was Dorianne Laux who taught me that.
Brian S: She’s such an excellent poet.
Katherine Pierson: Great for obsessions… oh, I love that!
Adrienne Christian: Hahaha, yes. Obsessed with how good a man smells. 🙂
Brian S: That’s the case for all those repetitive forms—sestinas, villanelles. They’re also great for poems about nostalgia or remembrance, to different degrees.
Katherine Pierson: So interesting! I love learning about poetry!
Adrienne Christian: I agree. Ghazals are really fun, too, when the end word is dynamic/can be used in different ways.
Brian S: Isn’t “Me Too?” also a ghazal? But a really disturbing one, given the subject matter.
Adrienne Christian: Oh, Brian yes, “Me Too” is, too. Sadly, that’s a true story.
Brian S: Oh, I don’t doubt it’s a true and very fucked-up story.
Lauren W: Hi Adrienne! Thank you for this tender, funny, moving book. I was wondering how you approached organizing the poems in this collection given that there’s a large cast of characters.
Adrienne Christian: Lauren, that’s a good question. I sat down at a big table with my mentor Kwame Dawes. He’d asked me to bring a printed copy of all the poems. We went through each one and asked, “What is this poem about?” Then we put it in its appropriate pile. When we were done, the book had told us how it wanted to be organized.
Lauren W: The book revealed itself!
Brian S: Were there any poems that didn’t have a pile and so got cut?
Adrienne Christian: Brian, the ones that didn’t fit, I revised to fit. 😉
Brian S: Nice! Way back when I did my first (and so far, only) book, I had a couple of spaces where I needed poems to bridge things, so I wrote new ones for the manuscript.
Shelly Stewart Cato: Thank you for this book, Adrienne! How did you come to the cover photo? I was just about to ask about being unafraid to have nine sections, too…
Adrienne Christian: Hi Shelly. Well, I knew I wanted the cover to have clothes on it. I didn’t want the reader to miss that all of the poems feature clothing in some way. So my editor, Monica Prince, sent me five or six images with clothes. Then, I asked five or six of my friends which they liked best. They overwhelmingly chose the current cover.
Shelly Stewart Cato: Interesting, because “worn” is so much—worn out, worn through, wearing another persona…
Adrienne Christian: Yes! Funny thing is, I really didn’t want to call it Worn. I wanted to call it Woven. Again, so readers wouldn’t miss the clothing references. But Kwame Dawes said, “Name it Worn!” I still didn’t listen until Joy Castro also said, “Name it Worn!” Lol. I guess I am hardheaded.
Shelly Stewart Cato: And… this is why I’m here. It like insider trading. I love to hear the nuances of process. Yeah, but you listened in the end. And now, we are listening to you. 🙂
Adrienne Christian: Shelly, I love the insider trading reference! I hope you write that in a poem or essay!
Leon Coburn: I am curious about “Wedding Dress.” Why did you call it that?
Brian S: “Wedding Dress” is a hell-of-a-ride of a poem. And I could really relate to the family relationship described there at the end.
Adrienne Christian: Hi, Leon! “Wedding Dress” was hard to write. Because I was calling out my dysfunctional family. But the poem is essentially about the fact that someone wanted to marry me, despite me being from such a dysfunctional family. It was a wedding day poem, so I called it “Wedding Dress.”
And yes, Brian. When I workshopped it, a guy in class started crying. I knew then that it was powerful.
Leon Coburn: Thanks, Adrienne. I was just curious about how the title worked for the content, which, I can see, was very difficult, especially the final scene.
Katherine Pierson: Adrienne, could you talk about poetry and the concepts of “fiction” and “nonfiction?” What about a poem has to be “true,” or, I don’t know, do you ever think about poetry in terms of fiction or nonfiction? I think a lot about voice and who is “me” and if I could even write as “not me.” Could you tell us your thoughts on any of this, please?
Adrienne Christian: Katherine, good question. I subscribe to the “Tell it, but tell it slant” rule. Joe Millar taught me that. The poem doesn’t have to be one hundred percent true, but I have to be telling the truth.
Katherine Pierson: Great advice! Thank you!
Brian S: One of my old professors, Miller Williams, used to say that a poem lies its way to the truth.
Katherine Pierson: Oh that’s good, too!
Brian S: I’m interested in the way you talk about place in this book. There’s a poem about living in Nebraska and you mention aunts from New Orleans in “Wedding Dress,” and there’s a “Seaside Restaurant in Maine.” Can you talk some about how you approach that geography into your poems?
Adrienne Christian: Brian, yes. Travel is a big part of my life. It was my goal to visit all fifty states, and I met that goal in 2017. And since I am always writing, everywhere I go, those places show up in my work. New York and Michigan are also in the collection; Tokyo, too, if I remember correctly. Many of the poems were written in Nebraska while I was getting my PhD.
Shelly Stewart Cato: Also, you have gut courage. You aren’t afraid to say anything. Really. “…you want to rush a plastic bag over her head, and get her out of there before your friends see her. Or rush a plastic bag over her head and just kill.“
Adrienne Christian: Shelly, yes. That poem was hard to write. It is a meditation on how some men feel like a woman’s beauty belongs to them. They feel like she should wear her hair, her clothes, her everything to their liking. While I was writing that poem I was thinking about a man I dated in my early twenties. He was much older, and in politics. We’d go to fancy parties all the time. One day, we were at a party and I got sick. I needed a toilet fast. But he wouldn’t take me home until everyone had seen me and my dress.
Lauren W: Could you talk about your relationship to prose poems? When you’re writing, do you know right away when a poem is going to be a prose poem, or do you use more traditional lineation and then revise it? (I also want to take this moment and say how much I loved “Portrait of Debra“!)
Adrienne Christian: Lauren, hmm. Good question. I don’t really know that a prose poem is going to be a prose poem. But I think of a poem as a short story that uses at least one of the poetic devices. So, when I sit down to write, my focus is on the story. And usually it’ll tell me what form it wants to be. If one of the words repeats a lot, it becomes a ghazal, for example.
And thank you for loving “Portrait of Debra.” Dare I say that that’s a truism story! Because I’m usually the outgoing one in the group, my girlfriends have often sent me out to stage guys. Lol. “Adrienne, see those guys over there? Get ’em to come over and sit with us.” Lol.
Leon Coburn: When I googled you, I saw that you are also interested in photography. How does this figure in your poems?
Adrienne Christian: So far, there is only one way that photography enters into my writing, and that is that it balances me out. When I’m writing, I’m at home alone. When I’m photographing, I’m out in the world with other people. Photography gets me up and out, which is good since “sitting is the new smoking.” Lol. A lot of people ask me to please create some project where my poetry and photographs are together. But for some reason, I’m just not interested in that right now.
Brian S: I’m also really fond of “The Day I Left the Church,” in part because it’s not about what you might expect when you read the title. I mean, it’s not about belief or epiphany or loss of faith, any of that. It’s about not seeing yourself in the people you’re there with, and I think that’s an underrated part of the conversation around religion and worship
Have you had trouble getting out to take photos during the pandemic? Has that made balancing your life harder?
Adrienne Christian: Oh Brian, thank you for saying that about “The Day I Left the Church.” That poem was nominated for a Pushcart. But I didn’t publicize that very much because I knew I would tick off a lot of people with it. 🙁 Like, a lot of my “churchy” relatives bought several copies of Worn. I worried what they’d say when they saw it. But that poem is one hundred percent true. I took a look around at those ladies and thought, These are not my people.
Good question about the pandemic. Yes! Trouble getting out getting photographs. 🙁 I’ve kept the balance by photographing my neighborhood.
Brian S: I know that feeling intimately. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and left the church in my mid-twenties, and it has complicated every family relationship since then.
Adrienne Christian: Wow. So yeah, you see what I mean.
Leon Coburn: I guess what I was asking was whether your poetry is influenced by your photography. Do you try to create images that are photographic?
Adrienne Christian: Ah, I see. No, my poetry isn’t influenced by my photography at all. But my photography is influenced by my poetry! I tell a story with the photograph, just like I tell a story with a poem. Does that make sense?
Leon Coburn: I was thinking of Wordsworth’s comments on how the poet’s task is to create a scene that evokes the same emotion that the poet had at the time. It would seem to depend a lot on the eye of the photographer.
Brian S: I’ve been asking all our book club guests for the last year about how the pandemic has affected your book launch. What kind of challenges have you had to deal with because of it?
Adrienne Christian: Launching a book during a pandemic is… interesting. Lol! As you know, there’s no AWP, no book tours, no book talks. I imagine that that is affecting my bottom line in terms of money. But I do have to say this—it’s ideal for the person stuck at home! You don’t have to get on any airplanes, take any taxis, or anything like that. You can join book clubs and book chats virtually, like we’re doing now. 🙂
Katherine Pierson: Adrienne, I know it’s hard to pick favorites. But do you have a favorite poem (or poems) in this collection? And why is it special?
Adrienne Christian: Katherine, hmm. I’ve never thought about a favorite poem. But now that you ask, I do really like “Portrait of my Jealous Husband,” because when I read it, I do it as a call and response. So, it’s the audience yelling out “books” at the end of each line. The audience really loves that poem. Lol.
Brian S: That’s excellent!
Katherine Pierson: Oooh, yeah!
Adrienne Christian: I also really like “Lincoln,” because it holds such a special memory for me. I was expecting that white man to be rude and racist. Instead, he was loving and kind. He and I stayed friends and neighbors the entire time I was in Lincoln.
Katherine Pierson: Love.
Brian S: Who have you been reading lately? Is there anything coming out that we should keep our eyes out for? Or, what have you been working on yourself?
Adrienne Christian: Brian, you ask such great questions. Actually, lately, I’ve been writing prose. Fiction and nonfiction. My nonfiction project is called How I Got Over. It’s a collection of essays about how I went from a terrible life to “the good life.”
And my fiction project is called Hopeless Romantic (Seeks Filthy Whore). Lol. It’s about a woman who’s only looking for a weekend f**kboy, but ends up finding a husband. She’s forty and he’s twenty-four. (Yikes!) But they’re made for each other. It’s a romantic comedy. 😉
I’m always writing poetry, though. Right now, I’m writing poems about married life. I’m calling it Love Grown Old.
Brian S: That’s wonderful. Thanks so much for taking time out of your schedule to be with us tonight. And thanks for this wonderful book as well. Best of luck with it!
Adrienne Christian: Brian, this was incredibly cool! Thank you for having me! Wow, I wish I could do this every day.
Photograph of Adrienne Christian by Elmaz Abinader.