Interview: Claire Bowman
Claire Bowman was born and raised along the Missouri River. She earned a BA in English from Truman State University, and an MFA in Poetry from the Michener Center for Writers. She lives in Austin, Texas. Her chapbook, Dear Creatures, will be released in November 2017.
Sutra Press: You grew up in the woods. How has that upbringing influenced you and your poetry?
Claire Bowman: The woods were a central part of my childhood. I was brought up on the same piece of land that my my Mother was raised on, and lived in the same house my Grandpa Thor half constructed out of an old barn. As a homeschooler, my days were mostly quiet and contemplative, I took my books into the woods as often as I could. I lived to be outdoors, always escaping to some cranny where no one could find me, seeking solitude and the natural spaces where I could let my imagination run amok. I started writing poetry out there, buried and dug up lots of things. In those woods, I began to cultivate a dependence on my own inner life that has kept me writing all of these years. And I also developed my fascination with creatures—while I avoided people, all I wanted was to catch a rabbit, setting up elaborate (humane) traps with food as bait, falling asleep clutching the end of a long string attached to a propped-up box.
SP: What inspired you to write this chapbook, Dear Creatures?
CB: The poems of Dear Creatures are part of a book-length work. When I was reading and editing that manuscript, I noticed a pattern in this particular family of poems. There was this essential creatureliness about them, they metamorphosed, seemed to speak from the voices of the animal kingdom, and to take on animal shapes. So I basically excised them from a manuscript I had already written. This is often how I work, one poem to the next, unaware of a theme or the presence of a thread, then realizing it later, as opposed to beginning with a project in mind. So I think of these connections as having existed in my subconscious all along as I wrote, only manifesting themselves in my conscious mind when I was reading the poems later, from a more distanced perspective.
SP: Can you tell us about your creative process? Do you practice any creative rituals?
CB: For most of my writing life, I have not been a ritualized writer, but have rather written at random whenever I could find the time and inspiration. But for the first time, when I was writing the poems that eventually became Dear Creatures, I started making little rituals that seemed to propel me and renew my energy for writing even when I wasn’t feeling inspired. They are sort of dull as far as rituals go, things like making hot tea, lighting candles and incense, and wearing a special pair of pants…but they worked for me! I write at home, so I have to create my own structure in order to avoid going insane. The pants really help for some reason!
SP: Was there a religious or spiritual background to your life? How has this transformed? How has it influenced your writing?
CB: The poetry of my childhood was the Bible. My mother didn’t care much for traditional schooling methods, but always made sure we were learning about the earth and about god, and as an artist herself, she prioritized creativity. Reading Genesis, I remember thinking it bizarre that a universe was spun from nothing but a formless being. I was amused by this god’s childishness as he lashed out at his creation in fits of jealous rage. I loved how god and angels oft burst into lyric, breaking their utterances to make music, or holiness. I remember humanity being compared to a bride with fawns for breasts. Though the Christian faith left me when I was young, the images of the Bible will always be haunting specters in my work, and I will always feel the flooding source of my initial connection to the language of poetry as something that I can only describe as spiritual.
My poetry is stylistically indebted to the facility of praise, that unrefined croaking. In the mega-church of my childhood, the congregation would shout, tremble and fall down. People danced in their Sunday clothes with abandon, and wept. I loved to crawl underneath a pew and watch as my own mother, a front line singer, belted it out on stage with her titanic, spiritual energy. I was a small, silent witness to the ritual. I felt feverish when I heard someone speaking in tongues. Though I couldn’t possibly understand these experiences, it was underneath that pew that I first began to learn that this intensity was being made in order to momentarily be rendered senseless, acting out a language that only god could understand. That is part of what these poems want to do, to become ‘god-wise’ in senseless rhapsodies. By nature of their exclamation, its origin in the lung and reception through the ear canal, this facility of praise contains in it a connective energy. It is transmittable through the air. It is spontaneous, uncivilized, beastly. It gives your spirit permission to belch.
SP: Dean Young says that Dear Creatures “sounds like the world warning and welcoming us.” What do you think these poems warn against?
CB: Even in their spirituality, these poems know too well the peril of being a living body in the physical world. The voice in these poems is not my own, but one that I transmit, one with authority on spiritual and physical matters. That voice often warns against being time-bound, too wrapped up in the things of this moment and losing touch with the part of us that is eternal.
SP: What inspired you to use imagery of animals to explore consciousness?
CB: Animals are so often dismissed, or even abused, because they aren’t considered conscious beings. This is an idea I have always been resistant to, and it is something that these poems resist. I have always believed that animals have consciousness, or spirit, soul, whatever you want to call it, and that it is expressed in ways other than language, which is why we don’t understand it.
SP: A central part of creatureliness is taxonomy. Does the concept of naming influence the poems within the chapbook?
CB: Naming is identifying, it is a way for us to understand something by giving it a sound, a tag. It is also a kind of description, which is a beautiful thing to me as a poet, to understand something by describing it. But of course, naming can also be reductive, limiting, arbitrary. It becomes tied to identity, but the person or the thing existed before its name, so the name is less vital than its being. I think all of these ideas about naming are in these poems, as they re-name the world with new language, and unravel that language at the same time by moving in and out of standard forms of meaning.
SP: What’s your favorite creature?
CB: I’ve always had a weird attraction to the world’s oceanic invertebrates—your moon jellies, your oysters, your sea sponges. It’s fascinating to me that we have difficulty drawing a taxanomical line between the animal and the vegetable, and I love how these creatures rebelliously interfere with that line. They have digestive organs, but no brains. They move freely about the world, but without direction, and only for a particular phase of their lives. And I love jellyfish especially because there is almost nothing to them, they are a net of nerves with the ability to receive electrical impulses. They look like alien flowers you can burst with your finger. Jellyfish hardly seem like animals at all, and yet they know to congregate in a particular location, under a full moon, to squirt their reproductive materials into the moving water, where it miraculously converges, and new life is formed! They are the oldest multi-organ animal still alive, so they must posess some kind of ancient knowledge. To me, the jellyfish is a bit of pure magic.
SP: What’s your golden thread?
CB: Seeking. Seeking primal knowledge that goes back as far as we do, and moves forward at the same time.
SP: What’s your labyrinth?
CB: The ocean.
SP: What are you working on now? Is there another project you’re working on for the future?
CB: I’m working on poems now, which aren’t yet unified. They come one at a time, and slowly, so maybe there’s something there about time, measurement and distances. Hopefully, the pattern will unfold once they’re written, but for now I’m just keeping it simple, and wearing my lucky pants.