Lisa Jones interviews Camille Norton
Parts One and Two
Camille Norton's first book of poems, Corruption, was selected by Campbell McGrath as the winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series Open Competition. She has previously published poetry, fiction, and literary criticism in various journals and co-edited Resurgent: New Writings by Women (a collection of experimental writings).
Since Norton spent years studying Buddhism with a Zen master and continues meditation practice, it is not surprising that her poetry often focuses on the life of the mind, yet the manuscript beautifully balances the sensual and spiritual with the intellectual. Many of the poems in Corruption are ekphrastic (inspired by other art forms), some are very autobiographical, others focus on the historical time of the art she responds to.
Early influences for Norton were Yeats and Dickinson. One of her greatest current inspirations is the inventive mix of prose and poetry written by Anne Carson. She delights in reading challenging poetry such as Carson’s. When I said I found her work fairly accessible given its intellectual content, she explained that she decided early on that she wanted to be understood in her own writing.
Norton started writing poetry in high school and was active in the Boston poetry scene throughout her twenties. The eldest in a family of five, with a welder for a father, she had to make her own way to college and that included working in a factory and dropping out of two colleges, before she graduated from the University of Massachusetts, summa cum laud. She won the Grolier Prize in poetry and was granted a Steiger fellowship at Stanford, but chose Harvard instead, where she earned a Ph.D in English and American Literature and Language.
Norton currently teaches poetry as a full professor of English at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. I had the pleasure of studying with her a year ago, so I invited her to my home for what turned out to be a long and lively discussion.
The book has three sections. The first one is the title, Corruption, and the last one is “Songs against Ending.” In my mind these two topics seem to run through the whole book. I have heard you talk about this concept “Songs Against Ending”. I think you say we are trying to hold something in our hands, how do you put it?
I was just talking about this with an independent study student. We were reading a fabulous poem by Larry Levis, “Those Graves in Rome.” He tells the story of visiting Keats’ grave, about being young, going to Rome with a couple of friends and you know Keats doesn’t have his name on the grave. [The poem quotes the words Keats wrote for his tombstone “here lies one whose name is writ in water”].
He says in the poem that most everything we have disappears, and that’s really the truth. Inside the poem he talks about seeing a fingerprint on a bannister in Rome, made by a child . . . how this child could have died of malaria due to tremendous poverty. The mark is this fingerprint and he ends with a phrase like “names are both empty and full” and perhaps that’s “almost enough.”
What I was talking about with my student is--poetry is essentially just passed on person to person. Kind of like Buddhism--“from warm hand to warm hand” as they say. The rest of it--[there’s] so much we can’t hold onto.
I think that whole idea of corruption . . . this is a book I wrote after my father’s death. I had gone through all this stuff in my life. I had gone through a big break-up in a long relationship and I now see it as a working through of this passage--this is a mid-life book. I was really coping with “yes, I know about death and there’s just so much that is beautiful to look at here” and that is the challenge.
Speaking of which, I continue to just wrap my head about this in Buddhism, because there is something in Buddhism that is really unsatisfying to me about [what Buddhism says about] attachment. This whole business of how we just construct the self [from Buddhism] and it is not real--my reaction is “yes, but . . .”, “Yes, but this is what we do. So how about that part too? How about talking about being in the body?”
Are you saying “if Buddhism is telling me ‘don’t go for my pleasure here’ it must be wrong” ?
Well, . . . I don’t think it’s wrong. I think it has a deep, deep truth about what might be fundamentally true about the self. But the way it tells us how to deal with pain is to detach and that means you don’t attach to anything--you don’t attach to what you love--because everything causes suffering.
When I think about it, it is very odd. In some ways I am almost coming back to Christianity and the notion of a suffering Christ seems to represent something that speaks to me as an icon. I mean not that I am a Christian in any conventional sense, but I can really understand why it speaks so powerfully, because the suffering is embraced. It is embraced in a different way.
And when you wrote this book, you where embracing both the sadness and the pleasure, so something in addition to Buddhism was working for you.
I think that is why I like Italian art so much. This is what Italian art tells me--and what Western music tells me: “it can’t be all that bad if it produced art like that!” [laughs]
[with laughter] Maybe it was worth all the corrupt popes and you know the cardinals and all that--to get that art out of it. And the music, the sculpture. You know--the body. I mean it is really something.
In Corruption you have a number of poems that are ekphrastic . . . they spring mostly from paintings and sculptures from the Renaissance which you observed while visiting Italy, right? Can you tell me more about how you discovered “I am going to do a bunch of poems from this method.”
Oh, it was total serendipity. I was on my sabbatical and I was invited to give some lectures in Florence, Italy on Western poetry. It was my first time in Italy and I was spellbound. . . . I found that it was a moment in my life that I had started to really clear the way for these poems. I was living in a loft and commuting and the art allowed me to think through certain problems.
I don’t know of any other way to say it, but for me probably one of my greatest pleasures is thinking, in a really concentrated form. That is what poetry is for me. Yes, it’s music, but it is thinking in a very focused way about language. Being able to look like that, again and again and again, to try and discover what it was that I was feeling.
Like in the poem “The Ideal City” that’s an anonymous painting and actually I only saw that in a book. I was so hit by it with this sense of grief, for the emptiness--the lack of the human body in this kind of perfect architectural drawing. But I felt so much sadness. I didn’t know I was going to write a poem about the death of my Zen master, but I think in that poem I was playing with some of these ideas about Buddhism. Emptiness is both positive and frightening . . . I started by just looking really hard at something, kind of trusting an intuitive response and trying to put my words to it. So that was the process.
I think the art really worked for me because I couldn’t write like--a Sharon Olds kind of poem. I just couldn’t. It was just too scary. I ended up writing --there’s material in there that’s often quasi-autobiographical, but also the voice is often very inflated or a persona. It is not this strictly confessional kind of poetry, but there is something in there that is true. That is more obvious in some poems than others.
In your poem “Judith and Holofernes” are you playing that up persona-like?
That’s a loosely autobiographical poem. . . . And it just came. It was channeled. I thought the book was finished. I was at an art colony and poems were just pouring through and that one came through and that was the poem that really pulled this book together for me.
So did you look that picture up on the internet?
Well I was reading about Caravaggio. That’s another thing that I do a lot--I steep myself in reading and research. So I thought “Hmm let’s do something about Caravaggio. . . . I got M, the Man who became Caravaggio, a fantastic biography and I just took out all of these books about his painting. I had seen some Caravaggio in Italy and I really thought and thought about him. It was a pretty amazing life that he had: homosexual, steeped in crime, all this underworld stuff, murder--probably for having an affair with one of his patron’s young valets. I looked at his paintings and it just came--the first poem--about John, the first person I was ever in love with: this whole sense of being young, that period of being 20, where there was so much pain. He was such a scoundrel.
I know you came from a working class family and then you went to Harvard. My sense of you is you have a deep love of the canon and . . . you have a feminist consciousness. So I think there’s something interesting about you--that you are an insider and an outsider at the same time? I am curious if you see that in your own writing or not?
I think I am an insider in poetry in that I know the genres and the conventions and the rules and I know about meter and form and I have read a lot of traditional poetry and still do. I would like to see people enter into this poetic conversation with . . . training. I think of myself that way . . . . I don’t know that I am that much of an outsider. Poetry is such a big, full world right now, but there’s always a question of who’s being read and who’s reading it.
[Yet you] are absolutely right--even in the way I teach--I use the canon to critique power, but I really love the canon. It is kind of like the way that I feel about Renaissance art, but you can also enter into the whole history of Renaissance art as a way of looking at the scandal of . . . religion.
So you are not going to be idealistic in your poetry about the classics.
No. But I love the forms and I am not interested in reproducing the same old tired sonnets, but there is something in the music of the language that I really believe in and that . . . gives me so much pleasure.
. . .
You talked about [education as “salvation”] how [education or the life of the mind also] worked against you--you used it against yourself perhaps, as [in the Judith and Holofernes poem where you say “I studied detachment/read Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in our bed./ All that wisdom and I wasn’t torn yet./I was learning to take it like a man/who parses Nietzsche between blow jobs/and lines of crystal meth.”]
I competed with men intellectually all the time and they didn’t like it. I started doing that in high school. I had a boyfriend break-up with me. He said “You use too many big words” and I said “What?” [laughing] Because I had been thinking “God, I am really dumbing it down for you! Because your so cute!” But education saved me from a chaotic family background.
I have to say the ten years of Catholic girls’ school--I had many beautiful moments there and then later when I went back to school. [Education] still is my salvation . . . . Very early on I found my footing in books and in the classrooms. . . . I could aspire to something and I could be seen in a way that I wasn’t seen at home . . .
So . . . there are poems about the body [in this book], but these poems are also about a mind that has been carrying a lot of ideas for a long time.
Well, corruption of the mind--is that the painfulness of being conscious and still caught in the world?
Corruption for me, means to be marked--it literally means decay. You don’t think of education as decay, you think of it as strengthening and growing. I think what Tim meant when he said that was: the education corrupted me, in terms of, it gave me lots of theories that were competing theories--too much information . . . Like in the poem “I Suppose They Call This Menopause, the Way I’m Flashing Off and On” [which continues “/with utterance. I have these several voices/I can’t repress, haggish voices without melody, long-/winded voices that carry on about choices/. . . . pursued the mind and found a place outside/the body, inside the mind-body split.]
I don’t think that learning decays the mind, but it certainly marks the mind in a way that you can’t go back to the unconscious.
. . .
In your own writing do you prefer poetry that is inspired by research as a way of getting away from the ego?
I think about the poets that have really just shaken me to the roots. I mentioned Phillip Larkin--you know this British conservative, writes in meter and wrote very sparsely--had a very bitter idea of humanity? He wrote this really famous poem called “This be the Verse.” It is very short and it begins “They fuck you up, your mom and dad, they do not mean to, but they do.”
[laughing] Oh, yes, I do know him.
No, I am drawn to all different kinds of poetry.
But I have heard you talk about wanting to get away from ego.
I don’t know if you can get away from ego, but I am interested in the way that language can create a different space for ego. In other words I am not interested in simply confessing my sins on paper or having a psycho-therapy session on paper. Although in fact these poems do all these things. They are psychoanalytic and confessional in a certain way, but poetry for me creates this other possibility for connecting to existence that is beyond purely the vanity of my own self.
This is really hard to talk about and maybe it is very vain of me to say this, but for me, I want to be in communication with other people who have written. That’s what really matters--to be inside this river of poems, going through this gate that happens. The way in almost seems like incantation. You go through the river, pass through the gate, and you have this experience and it is very deep. It is like going into dream.
So when you are in dream, it would be incorrect to say you’re just inhabiting your ego. Of course you are inhabiting your ego, but you are also in some sense . . . washing around in all of the stuff that this culture produces and what it means to be human. Human--knowing that you are born, you are young, you are aging, and you are going to pass away. What stays behind is this river of the things we love . . . and, for me, it is language.
. . .
Once you said you thought your audience was feminism, but that you realized it was something else. I don’t know if that is correct, but who is your audience and how has it changed over time?
Actually as a young feminist, I almost went completely silent. . . . I struggled so much in my 20’s because feminism at that time, like Marxism, privileged certain kinds of experience. I didn’t have the words to say that people were reading for concepts instead of language.
[Norton explained later, off-tape, that Ann Carson’s writing was transformational for her. Carson’s work helped her see she could break from expected form and write as she wanted to.]
. . . I write for people like myself. I actually write for myself. I don’t even know who I write for anymore, but I know that my poetry changed, when I started writing the poetry I wanted to read. That’s basically what happened.
Lisa Jones is a staff interviewer for Poetry Now. She recently won first place for the Constance Topping Memorial Prize for poetry and received an honorable mention in the Sacramento Poetry Center contest. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.