Betsy Sholl’s tenth poetry collection, As If a Song Could Save You, winner of the Four Lakes Prize in Poetry, is published by the University of Wisconsin Press.
Robbie Gamble: I’m intrigued by the genesis of book titles, and your title, As If a Song Could Save You, draws me in because it encourages different readings. It could be interpreted as an ironic statement, as when the phrase appears early on in the poem “Bear,” almost flippantly weighing the possibility that your singing of a ditty could ward off the attack of a protective mother bear. Then near the end of the book we encounter another song, a soaring renaissance motet, and by this point it’s clear that this song is saving you on a psychic and spiritual level, with a hard-earned wisdom that mercy only is possible when misery is embraced and expressed. It’s an urgent, poignant transformation. Where in the process of writing did this title become evident to you, and how do you see it framing the collection?
Betsy Sholl: Thank you for noticing this. Titles are often hard for me, so I went through several options. But something about “As If a Song Could Save You” felt like it might cover more tonalities in the book than anything else I considered. I hoped that the meaning or the resonance would somehow migrate from the more flippant or comic tone of “Bear” in the beginning to a greater gravity at the end. I also liked the ambiguity of “as if.” It hovers on the edge between a positive or negative reading. There are enough references to music in the book that I hoped it might hold things together. Still, I tried it out on a lot of people, because I wasn’t sure. Another motivation was just for once to not have the title of a poem become the book title. I hadn’t thought until just now about Dickinson telling Higginson in a letter, “so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground-because I am afraid.” But I guess that’s implied too.
RG: You write so vividly about music, whether describing the sonority of the Allegri motet “Misere Mei, Deus,” or your sister struggling to master a tricky Bach passage at the keyboard, or the gritty determination of a Robert Johnson blues lick, or the “ugly beauty” of Thelonious Monk’s quirky minimalist piano phrasing. Monk in particular appears time and again over the course of the book, like a fragmentary phrase pulling back and resurfacing, eventually coalescing into recognizable melody. And your handling of the theme of your grief for your husband’s passing echoes his keyboard technique: an allusion here, then a brief dip into a darker emotional state, and then in the final section of the book a full-on immersion into the experience of your grieving. The final poems carry such power and gravity, growing out of the restraint of your approach to them. Is musicality generally a conscious element of your approach to writing poems? Did Monk’s “ugly beauty” guide you in building this book?
BS: It seems like most artists have another art form they are either amateurs at or appreciate deeply. Oddly for me it’s music—odd because I don’t play an instrument and don’t know the vocabulary, the language at all. But I find it freeing, whether I’m jogging to Muddy Waters, or playing Monk on repeat, or listening to Handel or Bach. There’s a way music allows us to ease out of ourselves and be open to transport. Music can enter poems in different ways, of course— Frost talks about the sound of sentences. For me, I think the music comes first by instinct, and then in revision I listen more consciously and try to hear what the poem is doing. I stated writing at a time when young poets were chastised for being too noisy (or at least I was), as if language was supposed to sit quietly and not call attention to itself but be a transparent channel of—insight or experience, I guess. But when I read Seamus Heaney, it was a kind of revelation. He became a permission giver for me to let the sounds of language be more present, to enjoy the physicality of words. As for Monk, when I first began listening to him that was a revelation—the value of the off-note, his use of hesitation and time changes, his percussiveness, and just the experience of listening to someone who trusted his own ear and wasn’t afraid to be idiosyncratic. Besides all that he also wrote melodies. You can forget his titles but not his tunes, there’s so much feeling in those tunes. “Ugly Beauty,” specifically is the only waltz Monk wrote (a musician friend assures me) and a beautiful tune. I love the idea of that title, the paradox or oxymoron of it, the way it challenges conventional notions of what we mean by beauty. In terms of Monk being a guide, I feel like a rather poor pupil. Mostly I just listen and hope something sinks in or seeps out.
RG: There are some extraordinary juxtapositions between poems in this collection. I was floored by the abrupt leap between “Once in an Antique Shop,” where you observe a baby laughing “in her great unknowing,” and the subsequent piece, “Missing Person,” a persona poem in the voice of a vulnerable woman who was abducted and murdered. Conversely, later on you construct a careful progression in the trio of poems “Without You,” “Widow Walking,” and “The Bridge,” which thoughtfully layer on top of one another to build a complex realization of your grief. What strategies did you use when you set about sorting and ordering the poems for this collection?
BS: Well, I like your phrase “sorting and ordering,” because for me at least, there is a lot of shuffling involved in trying to make a collection out of disparate poems. Because I pretty much write poem by poem and don’t have a larger project in mind, there’s a lot of trial and error in discovering what kind of movement is possible within sections. I sometimes will have a feel for the first and last poem in a section, but then there’s a lot of shifting to try to create a kind of larger whole from the pieces. Sometimes there might be a thread of images that may play off each other, sometimes it’s more thematic, and sometimes it might have to do with tone or mood. In the last section I was worried about the poems being too heavy, too personal, so I tried to shift the tone in different ways, so one poem might be more conversational and narrative, then another more interior and associative. I knew the section had to go somewhere, it had to move; it couldn’t stay on the same level all the way through, but had to—well, I hoped it could have a more open horizon by the end. I was surprised by how many poems referred to walking, but I guess that is quite literally what I did during those first months of grief.
RG: In the poem “On Ladders, Mystical and Otherwise” (which we published in a previous issue of Solstice) and in other places, you explore the ladder as a tool for ascent and descent, in the metaphysical and the quotidian, up into the sublime and down into suffering and heartbreak. How did the ladder come to be a central image for you?
BS: Ladders are great, aren’t they? And to think they’re older than the wheel. In my childhood, there always seemed to be a ladder around—for trimming trees, cleaning the gutters, washing windows. I love the idea that the same device that takes you up, takes you down, and really, we can’t have one without the other. The associations are so rich. To be always high or on top separates us from our humanity. We need the bottom, to get down, enter Yeats’ foul rag and bone shop of the heart. I’m a child of the civil rights and anti-war movements, so have always felt the tension between up and down, the haves and the have-nots, and I’ve always found certain social climbing aspirations problematic. My husband’s jazz musician brother had an alarm clock with a gravelly voice that said, “If you wanna get down, you gotta get up,” and my theological husband reversed that to say, “If you wanna get up, you gotta get down.” Seems like good spiritual advice to me—as opposed to the dreadful refrain from my childhood about measuring up. Anyway, I love ladders. They get us up into the trees and down into the cavern. They’re exhilarating and scary and a rich image running all through the culture, from religious icons to cartoons.
RG: Can you talk about your relationship with faith and how it has accompanied you through the journey of this book? Your references to Scripture in these pages are mostly moments of crisis and uncertainty: Jonah stewing in regret in the whale’s belly, the inscrutable language of the Book of Revelation, Job weighing the counsel of his comforters, Jacob deceiving his brother and wrestling with an angel.
BS: I hadn’t thought about the scripture references being mostly about moments of crisis and uncertainty. But that’s when you need scripture the most, I guess. Was it Rilke who said we need to love the hard things? I think faith is hard. For one thing it’s based more on paradox than certainty: the first shall be last, the last first. But living in paradox is kind of like standing up in a canoe. So often we prefer to be right rather than loving. Faith is hard, too, because there are so many false and dangerous versions of faith, and there’s always a temptation to be reductive. But the call is to love mercy, do justice and walk humbly with our God. Maybe I gravitate toward those three guys—Jonah, Jacob and Job— because they have to confront themselves in pretty dramatic ways. When they are forced into a self-reckoning, they don’t flinch. With all their flaws, they each meet God and enter a world bigger, more mysterious and challenging than they could imagine. I think that’s at the heart of faith for me, the awareness of a larger spirit, mystery, force that enables us to let go of all our small-mindedness and fear and become for a while self-forgetful. And also, to become able to truly see the other. At least that’s my aspiration. Mandelstam says that the one thing all poets need is a capacity for awe, and I think that is what faith can open us up to, not rules but awe.