An Interview with Maureen Thorson
When I hear the word orange, I tend to think of "how terrible orange is / and life." Now the word will also bring to mind Applies To Oranges, Maureen Thorson's first book, just out from Ugly Duckling Presse. Orange -- the color or the fruit -- is a presence on every page. Her initial idea: "The poems would basically tell the same story over and over again, and I would build that story as I went, based on a word (which turned out to be orange) that would show up in each poem." An interesting exercise, but can it really work as a book? In Thorson's hands, the story builds and rebuilds itself ingeniously and subtly, in poems that can also stand alone with strength:
At first heartbreak made me beautiful.
My skin fluoresced. I hypnotized trees.
The orphans followed me around town,
drunk on my pain. I ate only my own
hunger, gave off a scent like bitter oranges
or chlorine. Loss left me strangely whole,
as if my sadness, were it strong enough,
could turn your ship around. That was back
when I aged. Now, like an astronomer
who seeks no first causes, but only to map
the connections pinned out over the sea,
I want to diagram the light that shines out
through the holes you pricked into me.
Maureen Thorson is the publisher and editor of Big Game Books, and the co-curator of the In Your Ear reading series in Washington, DC. She is the author of several chapbooks, including Novelty Act, Twenty Questions for the Drunken Sailor, and Mayport (which won the PSA's National Chapbook Fellowship in 2006). Her poems can be found in many journals and anthologies, including Hotel Amerika, 6x6, and The i.e. Series Reader. We talked about Applies to Oranges last month, by e-mail.
Is there anything you want to say about orange that you haven't said already?
Orange, color of safety and danger, and Russian insane asylums!
When I first handed copies of the manuscript out to friends to read, a lot of them came back with comments about how visual the book is -- with its constant references to colors and to movies -- and how easy it is to picture the world of the poems. All I can say is that I must have been writing in an Audenesque fugue state; I myself didn't think of the book as very visually oriented. In fact, I always thought of the color orange as incidental to the fruit. More important to me than its color was its pitted hide. Its odd navel. Its blank self-satisfaction. As I used the word "orange" in the poems, it became a marker for a lost self-containment. Also, I quickly took to calling the poems themselves -- so squat and internal -- "the oranges," so there's yet another layer of meaning. O oranges, o mores.
Did you have a series in mind from the start?
The poems were always intended to be a series -- in fact, I wrote more than 100 of them, some of which appear in the book virtually unedited, some of which were chopped down and recombined, and some thrown out entirely. There's a whole wasteland of leftover oranges out there.
I started mulling on the ideas that generated the book back in 2005. I had been writing poems in series for a while, but never more than twenty at a go -- chapbook-length. I wanted to stretch out and write something longer, more involved. I also knew I wanted to explore certain aspects of narrative, including building a story "from scratch." Basically, I wanted to start telling a story without a story to tell, by picking some random words that would be repeated, and around which a story would coalesce as I told it.
I also wanted to recreate something that happens a lot with family stories. Your parents drop tidbits of information casually, and it might take years before you have enough data to piece together exactly what gravy has to do with why Aunt Mary doesn't speak to Uncle Dan anymore. I wanted to make that kind of broken narrative, one that would invite the reader to pay attention and refit the pieces into a whole as he or she went along.
Is the first poem in the book the first you wrote in the series?
No, the opening poem was written fairly late in the process. One of the paradigm shifts that happened in the course of showing the manuscript to others was learning that my narrative was too broken -- for every one person who got it, someone else came back to say that they had no idea what I was talking about. And these were not people I considered sticklers for chronology or cause and effect. So I ended up reordering the poems, particularly the first ten or so, to frame the story better. The first poem in the book was an attempt at giving the reader an anchor – it introduces the major players and themes, but not at the cost of giving the whole story away.
The first time I saw the title, I made the mistake of thinking it contained a typo (a small i inserting itself into the idiomatic expression about things that can't be compared). Did you happen upon that phrase-with-typo, or arrive at Applies to Oranges some other way?
The title actually does come from a typo. Once I’d decided to build a story using words that would gain meaning through repetition, I needed to figure out what words those would be. In particular, I needed the word, the starting point. Rather than open a Bible or a dictionary and just point at something, I decided to let the word come to me. And lo, it did!
I had just begun working as a lawyer down here in D.C. One afternoon I was proofing a brief whose author was writing (as you surmised) about an "apples to oranges comparison." But he had written, and Spellcheck had of course left uncorrected, "applies to oranges comparison." And I thought, well, what does apply to oranges? So "orange" became the governing word around which my story was built, and Applies to Oranges became the working -- and final -- title of the book.
The typo also decided me as to what the story would be about: miscommunication.
Orange, blue (its complement), satellites, birds, the ship, the black and white TV, water (the ocean, rain, the river we cross only once), unscary spiders, the entrepreneurial orphans -- did you write the poems intending recurring elements as symbols?
Once I had my first word and the governing idea of miscommunication, other elements seemed to show up of their own accord: the river in the first poem I wrote; spiders in the second. By the third poem it was clear to me that the speaker was trying to come to terms with having been left by someone else. Then came the birds, the Zenith TV, the ship. Ten poems in, and I had my scene set.
Developing this vocabulary of elements and using it to set the physical and emotional scene of the story was perhaps even more successful as a method of story-building than I'd hoped. The human mind loves to see patterns, even where there aren't any. There's a word for just that: pareidolia -- like seeing a face in a knot of wood. In writing the book, I was engaged in a very purposeful kind of pareidolia: making the face in the knot of wood.
I didn't think of the elements as symbols, inasmuch as I didn't choose them with a plan as to what they would mean. I just hoped that they would develop their own meanings as I wrote poems using them.
That certainly happened with the orphans, who were late arrivers -- they didn't show up until I was 25 poems in. When the orphans first appeared -- in a poem that's now been cut -- they were engaged in selling stuff, and as I wrote more poems about them, their schemes enlarged. The orphans are all about what's going to happen tomorrow. They act as a contrast to the narrator's strategy for dealing with the past, which is to dwell on it. While the narrator is making a museum or mausoleum of loss, the orphans are focused on the future. I'm not sure if they think fabulous wealth will insulate them from any losses they might suffer, or just figure that the way to put their past behind them is to make the future as unlike the past as possible. Whichever it is, it seems healthier than the narrator's way of worrying at the past like a bone, and almost, but not quite ever, moving on.
"My love follows you a little more slowly each day" reminds me of the way heartbreak can very gradually tire itself out. By that point in the book, near the end, the poems feel to me something like a recurring dream. Is that reading in the ballpark?
I think so. A recurring dream comes out of a vexation that needles you and resists solving. Heartbreak is just that: if you love someone, but they don't love you, there's really not much of a way to make sense of it. We try -- we tell ourselves the story over and over, turning it around like a puzzle, attempting to get it to work out somehow. But that kind of intensity is hard to keep up. We start with anger, fear, grief, and we proceed to emotional exhaustion.
As time passes, we get interested in other things -- and our story changes as we change. You might not wind up with a "beautiful sorrow -- filling [your] life with healing fragrance," but you get the healing somehow, anyway. You either tucker out, or find something else around which to structure your life and its meaning, or both.
During the years that you wrote Applies to Oranges, did you enter an exclusive tunnel of orange poems or did you work on other poems at the same time?
The earliest file I have is from October 2005, and contains 27 poems. About twelve of them ended up in the book just as they were first written. I spent from October 2005 to June 2006 writing 104 poems, and organizing them into a manuscript, which I then sent out to friends. But this first iteration seemed a bit sterile, both to me and the people who read it -- very descriptive, but without much emotional heft. Also, too long! Unfocused.
In early 2007, I went through a breakup myself, and I made writer's lemonade out of it by pushing all those raw emotions into a rewrite. I ended up with some odd, angry, discombobulated stuff -- embarrassing in its honesty, at least to me. I like to project an air of implacability -- although, if you know me, you probably think that is the silliest thing anyone's ever said.
Further rewrites took some of the edges off, but I think that the efforts I put in during the first few months of 2007 transformed the book from an almost academic undertaking into real work. At any rate, by late April, I had a second iteration of 64 poems, which was subsequently sent out to friends again, and revised and reorganized a few times -- but with each succeeding edit being less severe. By late summer in 2009, I had something that I thought was pretty much done, and that's when I sent it to Ugly Duckling Presse.
I was working on other projects during the time I was writing and revising the oranges -- writing poems about drunken sailors, writing villanelles with Shafer Hall, drafting other manuscripts, and running the now-sleeping-and-possibly-comatose Big Game Books. I think the oranges have benefited from this wave-like writing strategy of coming on strong, easing up, coming back strong, easing up, until some sort of equilibrium is met.
Ugly Duckling makes beautiful books. How has it been working with them?
It's been very easy -- in part because there are simply no worries about the design process. David Jou, who designed the book inside and out, has a really lovely sense of the field: an eye for pattern, without a weakness for clutter, and images that subtly recall the tone and emotional feeling of the books he designs.
When you're writing a book, it's hard not to think about the physical object, but while I had some ideas for the kind of tone I would want a cover for Applies to Oranges to convey -- nothing too loud and splashy, a little formal -- I had no real ideas for a cover image, or colors, or anything of that nature. I sent David a couple of images I had come across that I thought might be of use, but they weren't really suitable for being transformed into line art that could be letterpressed. David came up with the image used on the cover from some sort of horticultural encyclopedia, and I liked it immediately. It's very gratifying not to be in the position of receiving a cover design and wondering if the designer has even cracked the book. That's not possible with UDP, given that the same people that select the books to publish are the ones who lay them out, get them funding, and design the covers. It makes your manuscript feel very loved!
One thing that David has done that I rather like is make the size of the book fairly small, but without sacrificing a nice margin for the poems. It's 5"x7" -- a sort of handheld width, but a little longer than, say, a paperback mystery. I think the size of the book helps preserve the interiority of the poems, but not at the cost of having the poems cheek by jowl against each other.
I really like the videos you made to promote the book. Can you tell me about the process of creating them?
I had read with interest Sandra Beasley's tutorials on making book trailers. Sandra’s done "animated poems" rather than trailers, per se. I wanted to have both a poem with images, and something additional that explained or summed up the feeling of the book. So I ended up with two videos -- one in which I read a poem, and one in which I read a text rather like the text of a movie trailer (although it doesn't begin, "In a world where...").
Once I had chosen the poem to read and written the additional text, I ransacked my files for vacation photos that would be illustrative. I also spent a long time pulling copyright-free imagery from the Library of Congress, and making collages in Photoshop from bits of clip art. The program I used allows you to render everything sepia, and to pan across images. Coupled with sad Spanish guitar music, the whole thing looks like a short, Latin-flavored version of a Ken Burns documentary. Because Applies to Oranges is so concerned with obsessing over the past, I enjoyed being able to reflect that visually and audibly in the trailer.
Sometimes a line from this book knocks me out but I don't have a question to ask you about it. Like "what keeps their mammoth tempers iced" or "forgiveness. One thousand smoking holes."
I'm glad you like the line about forgiveness! I keep poking at that one, like the gap left by a lost tooth. It’s always felt a little more raw and a little less decorous than I would prefer, though that's likely why it stands out.
One of the most gratifying aspects of working on the book has been rereading and finding lines that don't even seem like I wrote them. They seem to just exist, to be what they are. I suppose this is the best way of learning that your work is done -- when you can't think of anything to change, and when you can't, in a way, even credence that you ever changed anything at all. More like discovery than creation.