The Argotist Online
Elizabeth Robinson, Jennifer Phelps and Jaime Robles in Conversation
The following conversation took place through email over
several months, and focuses on the recently released anthology Quo Anima:
Spirituality and Innovation in Contemporary Women’s Poetry (University of Akron Press,
).The conversation is between the editors of the anthology, Elizabeth Robinson and Jennifer Phelps, and one of the contributors, Jaime Robles.
The anthology considers the work of accomplished poets including (but not limited to) Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Brenda Hillman, Fanny Howe, Susan Howe, Alice Notley, Cole Swensen, and Cecilia Vicuna. Essays by Faith Barrett, Dan Beachy-Quick, Hank Lazer, Rusty Morrison, Jaime Robles, Andrew Schelling, Brian Teare, among others. Poetry and poetic statements by Laynie Browne, Beverly Dahlen, Kimberly Lyons, Laura Moriarity, giovanni singleton, among others.
Elizabeth Robinson is the author of several collections of poetry, most
recently Rumor (Parlor Press/FreeVerse Editions). She has been a
winner of the National Poetry Series (in the U.S.) for Pure Descent (Sun
& Moon) and a winner of the Fence Modern Poets Prized for Apprehend,
and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award for On Ghosts. A
new collection of poetry, Vulnerability Index, is forthcoming from
Ahsahta Press later in 2019.
Phelps is a poet,
writer, and editor in the Denver area and graduated with an MFA in Writing and Poetics from Naropa University in 2009.
Her publications include Memory: a space between breaths (Shadow
Mountain Press, 2013), “Stepping In” in Fearless Nest (Lulu
Press, 2010), Grandmother God (Eyries Press,
1998), as well as poems, book reviews, and essays in various literary magazines
such as Fact Simile, Bombay Gin, and Jacket2.
Her website can be found here.
Her website can be found here.
Jaime Robles has produced many artist books, including Loup d’Oulipo, Letters from Overseas, and Aube/ Afternoon. She has two collections published by publisher Shearsman Books in the UK, and a short memoir poem by Lune Press. She also has a large garden. She recently completed editing a collection of writing and artwork by the abstract expressionist Sam Francis for the Sam Francis Foundation, which will be available in October 2019. Samples of her work can be found here.
JR: Tell me a bit about the history of your anthology coming into being at
its first moments. What is the subject and why this subject now?
When Jennifer was completing her MFA at Naropa, she wrote a long essay on Brenda
Hillman’s work and read her work through the lens of Jungian alchemical
transformations. (A shorter version of the essay appears in the anthology.) When
she had completed it, she sent it to Brenda, who suggested that Jennifer and I
create an anthology that evaluated poetries by women that address spirituality.
We decided it was a good idea. However, as the process evolved, we didn’t want
to strictly limit the collection to essays, so we included personal statements,
poems, and interviews as well. Also, it was important to us that the respondents
were all poets themselves, so that the primary texts were explored by creative
JP: Yes, the seed for the anthology was my graduate thesis, in which I
wanted to investigate the idea of mysticpoetics. I was curious to see how Carl
Jung’s theories (specifically regarding alchemy and the self) could be applied
to a poet’s body of work. I loved how Brenda Hillman began as a lyric poet,
became more experimental over time, and in 2009, when I was working on my
thesis, was writing about the elements of Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. When I
sent her my thesis, she wrote back and said that we should pursue “a book of
essays about women poets and weird matters of the spirit and experimental
writing.” Elizabeth and I queried several contemporary poets who were
interested in contributing to the project and the anthology took on a life of
JR: What does the title Quo Anima mean? Where is it from and how does
it relate to the selections? And how does the subtitle, “Innovation and
Spirituality in Contemporary Women’s Poetry” follow: the curious word is
“innovation” which seems locked into spirituality both as a property and as
a quality that’s missing but somehow tandem to spirituality.
JP: Elizabeth and I brainstormed several possible names for the anthology (I
think I still have the original list somewhere!) and came up with Quo
Anima. The meaning, “by what spirit,” held an open sense of inquiry that
we felt spoke to the heart of the project. We wanted the title to offer an
impression of receptivity and openness, and also be a bit mysterious in itself,
invoking the idea of the feminine in some way. The poets that are featured in
the anthology have a spiritual practice of some kind and use innovation as a
form of expression. For me, innovation provokes an element of surprise—a sense
of bewilderment—where the unexpected can take place on the page.
ER: I hoped that the term Quo Anima would feel interrogative, open,
questioning. I like the idea of a title setting off a collection as an
open-ended exploration, one that de-emphasizes definitive resolution. Since
“anima” can mean “spirit,” breath, current, wind,” it seemed apropos
for inquiry both into the nature of poetic innovation and spirituality. Though
Jennifer’s essay on Brenda Hillman employs Jungian thinking, the title here is
not a reference to a Jungian definition of anima. Interestingly, several people
have asked me about the title, which makes me wonder if it is problematic in
ways that I hadn’t anticipated.
I think “innovation” in the subtitle signals that we do
see spiritual investigation as involving open or nontraditional formal
patterns—that to say the unsayable, or to interact with the mutable current of
spirit, requires formal suppleness and innovation. I don’t see innovation as
necessarily locked into spirituality, but the ways that we were
entering into and/ or circumnavigating spiritual inquiry needed to be expansive
and not tied to any single tradition or practice. My personal experience of
spiritual practice is that it constantly employs innovation and improvisation,
but I do think that a lot of theological or “religious” texts are cliché
and may lack imagination or curiosity.
JR: It’s remarkable the number of religious practices that are mentioned
by the writers: almost every major religion worldwide. What is fascinating is
that most of these writers, and here I’m talking the writers discussed more
than the commentators and essayists, follow a personal variation on their
religion. The prevailing idea among them, however, seems to be that of the
material world, or how the spiritual is found in and experienced through the
material world—in nature and in the body. This is very different than the
followers of the old sky gods that typifies Western religions. That impulse, to
discover spirit immanent, seems almost animistic. Could you discuss writers
in the anthology with this mix and how this blend “works”? It’s connection
to poetry in a wider sense, perhaps.
ER: It seems to me that poetry is a possible representation of “word made
flesh” and so it is understandable that an art that works at the intersection
of semantics and embodied (i.e. rhythmic, auditorily charged) language would
engage a spirituality that tangles meaningfully with the material world. Other
reasons why this might be the case run from some authors’ experience of
childbearing (Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge) or other embodied transformations such as
transitioning from one gender to another (kari edwards). I think that all the
authors considered or represented in the anthology struggle with ossified
religious traditions/ language/ practice but embrace a vivid sense of
spirituality and extra-empirical presence. Conventional religious language and
dogma are very frequently hardened into cliché, which is anti-exploratory, so
it takes the resourcefulness of artistic practice to disrupt and reanimate that.
I am thinking of Michel de Certeau’s assertion that mystic speech is the
utterance of the impossible, an eruption that could not have occurred but for
the decay of previously established social traditions. It’s what makes it
possible for Beverly Dahlen to bring together a childhood memory,
psychoanalysis, and her own vision of spiritual presence together, and it
permits Myung Mi Kim to turn war and trauma into a different kind of presence by
creating a nonlinguistic poem that expresses itself through the rhythm of
Over and over, the poets discussed in the anthology are
compelled into innovation by formal, religious, or personal constraints that
would otherwise limit their resources. This is evidence that any kind of
spiritual practice requires imagination, even if that practice is doubt (as I
would argue is the case with Cole Swensen’s Gravesend). For that
reason, doubt and ambiguity become subtle apertures that these poets employ to
move via the necessary indirection(s) to find what they need—and also to
identify the ephemeral presence that characterizes spirituality. I think that
poetry’s constant tension between is/ is not, its metaphoric charge, is very
much a faith practice, it’s just that poetry more readily acknowledges that
“is not” than most faith traditions do. That oscillation between
manifestation and disappearance might very well be at the heart of Brenda
Hillman’s alchemical practice in poetry and giovanni singleton’s graphically
represented disappearance of the “I” into a different kind of union between
When we queried our authors, we were aware that most everyone had a daily
spiritual practice. It was not about religiosity, so to speak, but more of a way
to think about the experience of the spiritual, the numinous, which is very much
a felt experience. When the various pieces for the anthology came in, we
were not surprised that many of them mentioned spirituality as an embodied
experience. The feminine is of the body. It is of Nature. It is where numinous
experiences take place. Becoming more in tune with an animistic culture—a
place of spirit in nature—allows for a merging with nature where a feeling
quality toward the world can be evoked. The life force, the living animated
thing can move forward. Writing poetry is a way to express this. The words on
the page become the life force. It is the quality of the interaction between the
words on the page and the reader that creates this numinous experience, where
connection can happen.
In particular, part iii of Quo Anima engages
with the relationality of things and how tensions of embodiment inform spiritual
understanding. Rusty Morrison invokes Henry Corbin’s ideas in her essay on
Melissa Kwasny’s poetry, where there is “a plane of consciousness distinct
from rational evidence … the ‘cipher’ of a mystery.” Spirit and mystery.
Mystery and spirit.
The image (and one’s imagination) of poetry takes us
outside of time into a different state, into a timeless quality. But it is also
of the body. The sense of knowing, the sense of belonging, the sense of being part of
Nature that evokes a feeling of both merging with and also feeling part of
something larger than oneself. There is power in this experience that is of
Nature, of the body. Sasha Steensen addresses this in her essay on Mei-Mei
Berssenbrugge, who works with the idea of intersubjectivity of mother/ child,
which creates a type of transcendent relationship between the abstract and the
In this way, poetry is an expression of the body… metaphors are often experienced somatically. Imagining takes place through the vehicle of metaphor that touches on something that’s a more inferred experience of the numinous, which leaves space for the reader to respond in many different ways.
Poetry also invites the question, What is my relationship to
my own imagination? In other words, poetry works out what most needs to be
expressed. It is in this expression that the spiritual nature is evoked and
becomes something that is not “me” but something that is other. It can
serve as a layer between the “invisible” world, the spiritual or numinous,
and the body. Often these experiences can only be felt “in the flesh” as we
are human beings.
JR: Some men reading this interview and looking at the description of the
book may object to the poets being discussed being only women. It must be noted
that there are a number of articles by men about these women writers. Jennifer
has suggested that the idea of spirituality being embodied, the immanent, is
thought of as feminine, and that is true in a number of religious and
psychological persuasions. Were there other reasons for containing the subject
to women writers? Other than Brenda’s suggestion, that is…
ER: I think that our introduction to the anthology addresses this, but at
the time that we began this project there were a few critical works that
addressed a growing interest in the intersection between contemporary poetry
that was both formally adventurous and attempting to excavate spirituality. I
was very happy to see these books, but—despite the contributions of writers
like Fanny and Susan Howe, Jean Valentine, and Brenda Hillman, the critical work
I saw said very little about the work of these women writers and was focused on
writing by men. So our anthology is trying to redress what we feel is absent
from other projects. Neither Jennifer nor I take an essentialist stance towards
gender—we include, for example, a piece on the trans writer kari edwards, and
another on the non-binary expression of gender manifest in Olga Broumas’s and
t. begley’s work. Nonetheless, we are quite interested in those pieces that
considered the embodied experience of our (female) poets — whether that was
through maternity, eros, or transitioning. Our male contributors, who are all
poets themselves (as are all the contributors) apparently agreed with us that
creating a site of critical discussion about women’s poetry and spirituality
was a worthy endeavor. Having created a counterpoint to the critical materials
we had previously seen, I’d be very gratified to see this discussion continued
and enlarged to include poets of all genders, races, or nationalities. Given the
amount of effort that this project entailed, however, I’m not sure that I want
to take it on myself at this point.
JP: As Elizabeth mentions, we discuss much of this in our introduction,
making the point that the women poets in Quo Anima are not only
scholars of contemporary poetics, but resist conventions of both feminine
experience and patriarchal authorities. It is this idea of “remaking” that
is essentially feminine. It is a way of being “pregnant” with a new idea in
order to express the unsaid, the ineffable—a mode of perception that is
inherent in all men, women, and culture.
use the word “feminine,” I use it in a non-gendered way, as more of an
archetypal principle, like Yin/Yang. It holds a specific energy. It is about
relationality and intersubjectivity. It is about fluidity and the unknown.
Teare, Hank Lazer, Dan Beachy-Quick, Andrew Schelling, Peter O’Leary, and Dale
Smith, all astute poets and poetic scholars, were excited to contribute to this
project, adding their understanding of grappling with, explicating, exploring,
and examining how spirituality can be experienced within a poetic process. Teare
engages with the apophatic and Fanny Howe’s idea of bewilderment; among other
things, Lazer looks at how consciousness requires a sort of “slippage” in
Lissa Wolsak’s work; Beachy-Quick follows the pull of poetry in Susan Howe’s
work; Andrew Schelling converses with Joanne Kyger about a sense of self and
place; O’Leary looks at regret, living forms, divining, and incitement in Pam
Rehm’s poems; and Smith asks Hoa Nguyen how her poetry feeds her spiritual
practice, or vice versa.
The fact that Quo Anima focuses on
contemporary women poets is because Elizabeth and I felt that these skilled
writers address what we perceive as a gap in critical conversation about how
women, specifically, have participated in (and raised questions about) mystical,
spiritual, theological, or otherwise speculative strains of writing. Many poets
(male and female alike) are exploring spirituality with innovative approaches,
but we felt these particular women poets (as well as others who aren’t
included here, such as Kristin Prevallet, Lee Ann Brown, Anne Waldman, Martha
Ronk, Norma Cole, Claudia Rankine, Joan Retallack, and many, many more—perhaps
this is an invitation for a second anthology!) are paving a path for this new
(or old) way of engaging with a topic that promotes wonder and further inquiry.
JR: Has the putting together of this anthology affected your own work? And.
what is your next project?
ER: As we worked on the anthology, things shifted for some of the authors
whose work we addressed or included. Notably, Joanne Kyger passed away. Jean
Valentine is reportedly in fragile health. There are a number of other authors
whose work we would like to have seen discussed. In other words, this anthology,
like any other, frames a very limited discussion that I would like to see extend
further. Both working on the anthology and receiving response to it has shown me
that many people are seriously interested in opening up the topic of
spirituality (and spirituality’s relation to formal innovation) further. I
hope that we have opened a way for a younger generation of poets to take this
inquiry in other directions or deepen it.
of my own writing, I’ve been preoccupied with the spiritual all of my writing
life and have often (especially in some “avant garde” writing communities)
been treated derisively for that reason. So collecting material from such a
range of poets has been extremely affirmative in terms of the exploration that I
want to do. What I’d like to do for my next project is frame a public space in
which poets in the United States can celebrate the 100th anniversary of women
winning the right to vote. I’m thinking that perhaps a website with
contributions by a variety of poets would be a good way to go about this, but
I’ve been a little under the pile lately because I just moved and started a
In early March, Elizabeth and I presented on a panel
at the Metaphor, Making, and Mysticism conference at Boston College with Fanny
Howe and Kythe Heller. Quo Anima fit nicely into the discussion
theological scholars were having about embodiment (think: Visions of Christian
mystics), expressing the inexpressible, and how mysticism belongs to a specific
relationality. In addition, scholars mentioned how a mystical experience has a
similar structure to a metaphor (think: poem) and that combinations of metaphors
have a poetic effect.
me, poetry is about calling something into existence that was not there before.
“Making” comes into play. How do we make something that we feel (or
experience) come into existence on the page?
Around the time of the conference, an exhibition
of Hilma af Klint’s artwork (created at the turn of the 20th century) had
recently opened at the Guggenheim; it was the first comprehensive overview of
this Swedish painter and mystic/spiritualist’s work that had been seen in the
United States. Uncannily, af Klint’s artwork was in fresh conversation with
the mystical theological network’s discussions and the inquiries put forth in Quo
Anima. It is as if these events were called into existence at the same time
as poets (and human beings), we have to ask what is being made/ re-made; what is
being awakened/ re-awakened at this time? And why?
These questions and my personal work
circumambulate around meaning, specifically, experiences by which we understand
the world and make meaning, which is the central theme in part ii of Quo
Anima. As a poetic practice, I am enjoying writing companion poems in
conjunction with ancient books of wisdom (the Tao te Ching and
the I-Ching), which brings a lot of meaning to my life, especially
after experiencing the huge loss of the death of my stepdaughter in 2017.
In The Feminine: In Jungian Psychology
and in Christian Theology, Ann Ulanov explains that the feminine has often
been poorly understood, but as a function of the psyche (often called a
religious function), it has “an unavoidable urge to meaning.” It is
this “urge to meaning” that I hope Quo Anima calls into
being. That it is a gesture to explore how the feminine is working in
mysterious and wondrous ways…in your life and mine.
© Elizabeth Robinson, Jennifer Phelps and Jaime Robles