by Christopher Eithun
Abigail Cloud’s book, Sylph, won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd prize and was published by Pleiades Press in 2014. Her poetry has also appeared in Pleiades, Gettysburg Review, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, and other literary journals. With a background in dance, Abigail is interested in combining choreography with poetry, and the effect that forms of the body have on the written word.
I’ve actually been to one of your readings and enjoyed the interpretive dance that accompanied your final poem – how instrumental has your dancing background been in your writing?
This is a great question, because the answer continually evolves as I think more about it. Really, the dance and the writing are inextricable. The sense of rhythm, shape, weight, speed, movement: All of these things are fed by both art forms. I grew up doing both, starting dance classes at the same time I was learning to read and write. I don’t pair choreography and poetry often, but sometimes a poem demands it. More often, when I am watching a dance piece, words suggest themselves to me. Jiri Kylian is one of my favorite choreographers because his work is really what I want my poetry to be, shaped and lyrical, often dark but always alluring.
So there is the gut level, the instinct of rhythm and word/body form relationships, but there is also the inspirational level, feeling fed by movements created by others. I certainly would not be the poet I am without the dance, but I’ve been learning that they’re not two battling parts of me but the same part finding multiple expressions.
In Sylph, the sections of the book are divided into The Prologue, The Black Act, The White Act, and The Apotheose. Could you talk more about the meaning behind these sections?
These are common divisions in romantic ballets, particularly those of the late 19th century. In a 2008 workshop on manuscripts led by Mary Biddinger and Amy Bracken Spears, at Winter Wheat: The Mid-American Review Festival of Writing, my world was utterly rocked. I had a manuscript completed, but wasn’t having luck with it. Then something Mary said (I can’t even remember what exactly!) made me see a completely new possibility. At that point, there weren’t many dance poems in my collection, but I had this idea about making a manuscript that paralleled these classic ballet sections. I didn’t attend anything the rest of that day, instead immediately sitting down in the lounge and going at my poetry pile with fervor.
Much of my work kind of naturally falls into these acts. The Prologue has a sort of stirring, an introduction to ominous tendrils (Sleeping Beauty, for instance, opening with The Christening). The Black Act is where everything falls apart: betrayals, poor choices, mental fraying, sexual implosions, violence (in ballet, Giselle finds out that Albrecht is already betrothed to a royal lady). The White Act bares the aftermath; in the ballets, frequently this act takes place in another world, with vicious ghosts or labyrinthine paths, often a deep sadness (as in La Bayadère, when The Kindgom of the Shades presents a mesmerizing trail of white-winged dancers). For Sylph, The White Act also encompasses mental disorder, the confusion and shredding of reality. The Apotheosis in art, not just ballet, is a transcendence, but it could mean peace and it could mean vengeful justice (as when the wedding temple falls and crushes the villains in La Bayadère). Sylph’s Apothéose is a little of both; it brings things into balance, roots itself back in the earth.
Placing poems in this new organization was delicious. It felt true; I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t thought of it much earlier. It was, in a way, my own apotheosis for my first book, bringing myself into balance.
Could you talk about the recurring “demon” images in Sylph?—what do these demons, always accompanied with a unique description, like the “Choked Peppermint Demon,” represent?
The cliché “plan for the worst, hope for the best” is a maxim for me. I am always looking to anticipate all the little things that could go wrong (when I work backstage at a dance recital, for instance, I have an entire case of potential emergency solvers). I thought about that, and about the human desire to find reasons for everything, and about gremlins, and decided it would be more interesting if instead of gremlins (who strike me as unintelligent, sort of brutish beings) it were demons. Not the high-powered demons of possessing people or causing permanent damage, but sub-demons, demons with jobs of annoying people and causing “tiny horrors.”
I admit to being a fan of shows like Supernatural and Charmed, and books like Piers Anthony’s brilliant On a Pale Horse, in which demons play a significant role. But Sylph’s demons are more everyday, a reflection of my dry/wry sense of humor. They cause you to spill your coffee and jab yourself with a sewing needle. They make your bathwater go cold before the tub is full and make hideous screeching sounds when you’re feeling vulnerable. These things can happen to anyone (they have happened to me—I’m a klutz). My everyday demons are gainfully employed wreaking minor havoc.
I noticed a wealth of animal imagery and elegant descriptions of nature. Are there any settings or animals in particular that spur your writing along?
I grew up on a small Michigan lake, with a huge backyard, and was outside as much as possible as a kid. We went camping every year in Ludington, where I hiked and fished and swam with my family. Lake Michigan, sand dunes, woods: These are still my spiritual habitat. Oddly, I find it really difficult to write in those places, maybe because I’m much too busy soaking up the quiet and the critters. But they put me at peace enough to sort of unblock ideas so I can write later.
I admit to a preoccupation with winged animals. Birds and moths in particular, the latter in poetry and the former in poetry and in real life. I’m also a fan of the simple dignity of horses and the sneaky litheness of felines. But it’s always those wings that suck me in and find their way onto the page. It’s an obsession.
In any case, I have a rural spirit and it’s that imagery that pushes me most.
There is a compelling mixture of surreal, mythological images and stark, brutally honest realities in Sylph. Do you enjoy the freedom of not having to adhere to ordinary descriptions?
I do. I’ve been asked a few times where I see myself in the schema of poets and poetics, and I never have a satisfactory answer. Possibly others could find labels better than I. On the lyrical-narrative spectrum I do fall more on the lyrical side, and I feel kinship with some of the Imagists and their tenets. But really I tend to let my poetry go where it will, and often that means conflating mythology and reality. Sylph tends to fall more in the surreal and otherworldly, pulling reality into that, but there is certainly give and take. Maybe it’s actually doing the opposite? Making myth real? Sylph makes the argument, I think, that they’re the same thing.
Going back to the first question, I’d go so far as to say that’s an influence of dance. Even in realistic ballets or modern pieces, there is a distinct otherworldliness to the dancer. Dancers themselves are perceived as almost magical beasts (catlike, horselike, birdlike; see: animal question). But they’re real people with human limitations. A dancer has to balance those two worlds, those belongings, and so does my poetry, in a way, to satisfy me.
Could you name one of your favorite poets or books that may have acted as the catalyst for your own career as a poet?
I’m going to cheat and name two: Brenda Hillman’s Death Tractates and Mary Ann Samyn’s Captivity Narrativ eare enormous books for me. I can’t say that they were catalysts to my poet self, because I didn’t find them until grad school. But they are certainly foundational to who I am as a poet. Brilliant imagery, as you say above “stark, brutally honest realities,” and perfection in rhythms. “Reverse Seeing” from Hillman and “The Chimney” from Samyn are two of my favorite poems ever written. I actually did choreography for “The Chimney” and I used “Reverse Seeing” in a study about mortality theory in literature, as well as in classes to talk about arguments in poetry.