All the Marbles: An Interview with Sarah Giragosian and Virginia Konchan by Beth McDermott

Virginia Konchan is the author of three poetry collections, Hallelujah Time (Véhicule Press, 2021), Any God Will Do, and The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2020 and 2018); a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017); and four chapbooks, as well as coeditor (with Sarah Giragosian) of the craft anthology Marbles on the Floor: How to Assemble a Book of Poems (University of Akron Press, 2022). Virginia’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets, The New Republic, The Believer, and Boston Review.

Sarah Giragosian is the author of the poetry collection Queer Fish, a winner of the American Poetry Journal Book Prize (Dream Horse Press, 2017) and The Death Spiral (Black Lawrence Press, 2020). The craft anthology, Marbles on the Floor: How to Assemble a Book of Poems, which is co-edited by Sarah and Virginia Konchan, is forthcoming from The University of Akron Press. Sarah’s writing has appeared in such journals as OrionEcotoneTin House, and Prairie Schooner, among others. She teaches at the University at Albany-SUNY.

Beth McDermott: You coedited a book of essays titled Marbles on the Floor: How to Assemble a Book of Poems, forthcoming from University of Akron Press in 2023. You’ve both published poetry collections in the last few years, and Virginia, your third book of poetry, Hallelujah Time, was recently published by Véhicule Press. How did your collaborative editorial project impact your own poetry collections?

Sarah Giragosian: Virginia is a brilliant editor.  She’s perceptive, generous, and so well-read. With her expertise and encouragement, she has helped our contributors to fully realize their essays. She has a gift for intuiting the potential of each writer and helping them to reach their vision. I’ve learned a great deal from her over these past several months and I’m grateful for the opportunity to think alongside her.

Along with the anthology, I’ve been working on my third poetry manuscript entitled The First Hunger. As I organize the poems into a manuscript, I’ve been thinking about my poems’ order more rigorously. Many of our contributors are brilliant craft essayists; they understand how to balance pragmatic advice with metaphorical conceptions of the assembly process that have enriched my sense of the material, intellectual, and spiritual demands of the process. For example, I’ve tried various technical strategies that Alyse Knorr recommends in her chapter, and I’ve been thinking about Christopher Salerno’s imaginative and precise way of theorizing the role of each poem in a manuscript: “Some poems are natural openers, some are builders, some are bridges, some are closers, some are palette cleansers.” He’s helped me to re-imagine each poem along the spectrum of these formulations, as well as think more strategically about the mythopoetics of my collection. In some ways, I think of the first section or first several poems as pedagogical; how can I teach the reader about my poetics? How can I launch the mythmaking energies of my collection? Finally, Annie Finch has helped me to realize the real brainwork—the kind of exercise in stamina, energy, and flexibility of thought—required to structure the manuscript.

Virginia Konchan: Editing this book with Sarah has been, from the beginning of our conversations about it, the greatest honor and pleasure.  Her editorial brilliance knowns no end, and, as a superb poet and esteemed literary critic, she approaches this multidimensional subject with such a magisterial sleight-of-hand and Midas touch.  I usually work alone:  working collaboratively has given me a new appreciation for a polyvocal text such as an anthology, the alterity of lyric address, and the strength and wisdom to be found in an ongoing, reciprocal and respectful editorial consensus.

Editing is in many ways an inversion of the faculties engaged while writing; you’re thinking like a reader, balancing interpretation with criticality.  Editing an anthology about how to assemble a book of poems has radically changed my relationship to metaphor, myth, analogic thinking, the power of saying the unsayable and articulating the as-yet-articulated in aesthetic discourse, the materiality of the book, the curatorial arts, and the fine weave, in the arts, between intuition and logic, and the semantic and visual properties of language.  The gathering of these 12 essays over the past 19 months has been organic and gradual, much like the composition of poetry.  Craft-wise, in terms of assembling a collection, I have yet to implement our contributors’ sagacity and practical advice into my own creative process, though I have no doubt I will in many ways, going forward.  Each essay taught me something valuable and unique about poetry and poetics, such as Victoria Chang’s epistolary interweaving of remembrance, care taking, and cultivation, of her mother’s bonsai plants, recalling the shared Latin roots of the word tend, and tender; Diane Seuss’ lyric essay that relates binding and unbinding to order and chaos; and Karyna McGlynn’s essay on jouissance and the twin impulses of poetry and surrealist collage.

Sarah Giragosian

BM: Can you both speak to organizing principles in your second books of poetry? Sarah, I’m particularly wondering how you came to identify the section titles and their associated poems in The Death Spiral; and Virginia, I’m curious about when in your artistic process you decided that the poems in Any God Will Do would be ordered alphabetically?

SG: I’m drawn to triptych structures, and I integrated three sections in the manuscript that helped me to see its three-part movement. I know that there is always a risk of heavy-handedness in titling each section, but The Death Spiral seemed to call for titles with allusions both to individual poems and the dramatic tensions within each section. The first section “Emergency Procedures,” for example, refers both to a poem of the same name and to a question that I was asking myself during the period that Trump was campaigning for office: what is the role of lyric poetry in the midst of a political emergency? What are the poem’s procedures for handling the emergencies of our fraught times?  The second section “To Kingdom Come” extends the critique of patriarchal systems, while the final section, “Father Absence,” carves out a space for imagining non-patriarchal configurations of relation. For me, the number three has magical properties and the triptych structure appealed to me when I was thinking about each section’s purpose in connection to the whole.

VK:  I’ve always been drawn to the abecedarian form as an organizing principle, as it evokes the history of the bestiary and other kinds of poetic, historical, and cultural taxonomies.  I admire how the abecedarius and bestiary are constantly being re-envisioned from its ancient and Biblical forms to incorporate the imaginaries of writers and artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jorge Luis Borges, Mary Szybist, Donika Kelly.  But the idea of making Any God Will Do an abecedarius actually came from my editor, Wyn Cooper.  The book has incantatory qualities and is preoccupied with the vertical dimension and how to address the Absolute, so it also worked as a rote form, like a rosary.  My publisher Gerald Costanza liked the alphabet form too, so it stuck.

BM: Virginia, in your second book, Any God Will Do, the alphabet provides a kind of arc or net, but the consonance, alliteration and repetition in individual poems emphasizes the speaker’s practically limitless relationship to language. How did you strike the perfect balance of expectation and disruption, and does being a fiction writer as well as a poet help you foster that tension?

VK: I love that observation, Beth; thank you.  Kaveh Akbar has a poem in his second book Pilgrim Bell, just out with Graywolf, called “I Wouldn’t Even Know What To Do With a Third Chance,” and the penultimate line reads:  “God’s word is a melody, and melody requires repetition.”  If the abecedarian form acts as a kind of arc, net, or ballast, I think it’s to make room for exactly that linguistic and semantic excess that you’re describing, that desire for limitlessness.  Given the relatively few structures of repetition that exist in free verse (anaphora, parallelism), and the Aristotelean idea that a good ending should be both inevitable but surprising, I think writing fiction has helped me understand how better to suspend or dilate a moment, while distrusting “suspense” and other plot contrivances, including a red herring or even, in terms of readerly reward or narrative circuitry, a smoking gun.  I am intrigued by, in all genres, a sustained vision, mood, or atmosphere more than technical prowess, or plotted narrative tension and “stakes.”  I think in a good poem or story, the urgency of the voice can be concomitant with that of the form.

BM: Some of the authors whose work is forthcoming in Marbles reference the delicate balance between arcing a manuscript and sequencing poems. Sarah, The Death Spiral has a lovely arc that stretches across time from an inscrutable god to the ecological vision of female wasps. Did you start with two strong bookends and fill the pages in between?

SG: Thank you for such a thoughtful question and for reading my collection so closely. I discovered the arc of the manuscript in the final stages of assembling it, but I always sensed that my poem “Family History” would open the collection. That poem explores the Armenian Genocide at the dawning of the 20th century, which is a part of my familial history. Moreover, as I wish to suggest in the collection, there is an urgent collective need to remember and continue to theorize the origins of 20th-century violence, especially in light of today’s humanitarian, animal, and ecological crises.  Keeping in mind that history of violence, The Death Spiral is part love-letter to the earth and its creatures, human and animal. As it progresses, it imagines feminist, queer, and nonhuman forms of being and relation and asks how they may be recuperative. It ends with “Wasp Nest,” which explores a nonhuman proto-politics.

BM: Reading some of the essays forthcoming in Marbles, I’m struck by the number of references to Robert Frost and the idea that the book itself is the last poem a poet writes for that book. Although this idea reinforces that assembling a collection of poems is a creative process, I wonder how much a poet can truly rely on themselves to write that “last” poem. When should a friend or editor be called upon to help?

SG: Yes, as Philip Metres, in dialogue with Frost, reminds us, “The book is more than the sum of its parts.” But figuring out its top and middle notes—and maybe even its base notes—may take a trusted reader. I participate in weekly poetry workshops with friends as I produce individual poems, but I’ve also called upon colleagues and editors to read the full manuscript before it is considered for publication. As poet and editor, I know that I need that second voice, second reader whether I am composing my own poem or checking in with Virginia about her analysis of a contributor’s essay.

VK:  Yes, that was fascinating to see; Frost appears in Heather’s, Stephen’s, and Alyse’s essays, as well as Philip’s, along with the Bishopean notion of “one long poem.”  I have no doubt it is different for everyone, but personally, I have called upon an editor to help me write or at least construct that “last” poem, the book itself, for all four of my books.  While several of my friends have read earlier iterations of manuscripts, before sending it to a publisher I have worked with an external editor each time, to help with everything from copyediting to ordering, as well as the excision of some poems or stories from the book.  This help was invaluable and remains so, as I think it’s difficult to conceive of the book itself without internalizing the reading of the book from an outside perspective, an otherness alluded to by many poets in the anthology, which in my experience has been difficult, and has necessitated an outside reader/editor.  For my next poetry collection, I am going to try to see the forest through the trees and write that last poem myself, but especially as someone who now works as an editor offering creative manuscript consultations, I don’t think calling upon a friend or editor is any way a weakness, as machismo, rugged American individualism would have it; on the contrary, it undercuts the sometimes competitive and careerist aspects of po-biz with an ethics of sharing, collaboration, and trust.

BM: What books of poems would you each recommend reading just for thinking about structure?

SG: In terms of new poetry collections, I love Charlotte Pence’s Code for its range and the eclecticism of its genres, including lyric essays, ekphrastic poems, and an ars poetica, and a section with a narrative sequence that gives voice to such personas as a father, a mother dying of an inherited disease, as well as the mother’s own DNA. I’d also recommend Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, which bears witness to the environmental, national, and political catastrophes of Hurricane Katrina and has helped me to think about the movement of the “Project Book,” which Stephen Kampa’s defines in his chapter “The Shapes of Books” as a collection with an “animating presence and thematic thrust,” or an evident thematic through-line. Lastly, I have to include in this list Reginald Shepherd’s Fata Morgana for the way it arrives at its final poem, a tour de force entitled “You, Therefore,” all the while performing a post-structuralist reading of the natural world, meditating on alterity and the politics of representation, comparing the empirical world with the aesthetic world, and exploring the generative and constrictive paradoxes of language.  These poems track the search for a better world, both a phantasm and a potentiality that art tricks into presence. This is one of the collections that I return to frequently.


VK:  I think one’s ideas of structure depend upon one’s own aesthetic tastes and proclivities, and ideas surrounding form and structure are, of course, historical and political.  One Big Self by C.D. Wright is a fantastic collection for thinking through the relationship between poetry and social justice, as well as a collaborative ethos and the intersections between the written word and photography.  Carolyn Forché’s work as well, specifically The Angel of History and Blue Hour.  Gwendolyn Brooks’ Annie Allen, Ellen Bryant Voight’s Kyrie, Jericho Brown’s Please, Karen Volkman’s Spar, My Soviet Union by Michael Dumanis, Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for My Past And Future Assassin, Christian Bök’s Eunoia, John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, Natasha Tretheway’s Native Guard, Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, and Solmaz Sharif’s LOOK are collections I would recommend for thinking about innovative structure, whether thematic, semantic, or using as its structural guide a concept album; language play and sonic frequencies; autobiography, lyric self-invention and mythologizing; univocalics; the racial legacy of the Deep South; textual redaction and revisioning of the lyric; and other aspects of what contributor Annie Finch calls a “organizing structural principle” (shape, form, concept).  Contemporary collections shaped around a poetic sensibility or consciousness I would recommend include Tessa Rumsey’s Assembling the Shepherd, Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters, Olena Kalytiak Davis’ And Her Soul Out of Nothing, Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song, and Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris.

Thank you so much for these excellent questions and the opportunity to reflect, Beth, and for the care you took with the anthology!  We are so excited to see it into readers’ hands and minds.

Beth McDermott is the author of the poetry collection Figure 1 (Pine Row Press, 2022), and a chapbook titled How to Leave a Farmhouse (Porkbelly Press). Her poetry has appeared in journals such as Tupelo, and Southern Humanities Review. Reviews and criticism about art and ecology appear in American Book ReviewAfter the Art, Kenyon Review Online and The Trumpeter. She is an associate professor of English at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, IL.  

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