How does having a biracial background complicate a poet’s writing? KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports the new winner of the University of North Texas’ Rilke Prize took to writing essays in order to accommodate the many things she thought and felt about it. But her poems have been about different, still intimate matters.
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The Rilke Prize is named for the great German poet, Rainier Maria Rilke. The $10,000 award was established two years ago to recognize outstanding mid-career poets. Paisley Rekdal won it for her fourth book of poems, Animal Eye. Rekdal teaches at the University of Utah, and she’s the daughter of a Chinese-American mother and a Norwegian father. In 2000, she wrote about her biracial background in her essay collection, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee (which was excerpted in The New York Times Sunday magazine).
But race hasn’t figured as much in her poetry until recently. She says that’s partly because writing about race made her turn to the essay form when she was younger. It gave her more room.
“I was allowed to bring in characters and talk about multiple different stories and write about all those feelings,” she says. “So I just knew I didn’t have the skill to write about race within a poem. And to a certain extent, I’m still struggling with that.”
Rekdal says she’s been surprised and grateful for the attention Animal Eye has received. It’s won the Rilke, it’s a finalist for another award and Publishers Weekly declared it one of last year’s finest books of poetry. Rekdal says she was surprised because Animal Eye is more contemplative than her previous books. The poems are comparatively un-ironic. They’re longer and they draw more on birds, animals and plants for their images. Rekdal actually told her husband she feared the book would get panned.
“It’s not doing what a lot of books of poetry are doing right now,” she explains. “It was so old-fashioned in a way. And so I thought,’ Oh, you know, this is going to be the end of my career.’ And then I thought, ‘It’s a good thing I’m a poet — because no one will notice.’”
If racial issues tend be more the topics of her essays, issues of intimacy — love, sex, couples in general — tend to figure more often in her poems, even when, on the surface, the poem seems to be about animals or science or history. Often, such poems are addressed to a specific someone.
“I’m really fascinated with the problems that intimacy creates,” Rekdal says, “and I don’t mean just the intimacy between romantic couples, although eroticism is definitely part of that. But different sorts of couples occur all over the place. There’s always somebody else in the poem — I shouldn’t say ‘always.’ But there’s a number of times when the dynamic is between two people. I think it’s a literalization of a metaphor we all experience in our daily lives: What does it mean to be close to someone? To a parent? To a child? To a certain extent, it’s why I’ve become fascinated by animals because they become the symbols of how we perceive other peoples in our lives.”
When Rekdal was announced as the new Rilke Prize winner, it caused a degree of talk here at KERA. Last year, Rekdal was part of NPR’s “NewsPoet” series on All Things Considered. Poets like Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracey Smith were asked to visit the ATC newsroom, listening in on conferences about news reports. Then he or she would write a poem reflecting on the experience and on the day’s stories: “the news in verse.” In July, Rekdal happened to be in the offices when then-NPR editor Rick Holter was considering returning to Dallas to become KERA’s new vice-president of news. Rekdal spotted on a whiteboard a list of reasons “why someone named Rick should or should not go to Texas.”
Rekdal says now she was actually grateful for the ordinary-seeming details the list provided because she was worried about trying to produce a poem on deadline about the day’s onrushing news information, whether she’d have anything to say. Click through to NPR to hear Rekdal read her poem, “Should Rick Go to Texas?”
Needless to say, Rick answered the question in the affirmative.
If you would like to hear more from Rekdal, as part of the Rilke Prize, she will give two readings in April, one April 9th at UNT and the other April 10th at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.
Should Rick Go To Texas?
by Paisley Rekdal
is a question for the ages, so much
we’ve developed an app for his decision, to ease
the agony that may appear ridiculous and yet,
small as it is, how much time is spent
wavering in uncertainty: the heart more device now
than compass, which itself was once
an apparatus? If life was an app we’d call it
Sisyphus: why, when we can control floodwaters
and blood, not free ourselves
to be what we are: an ice cube melting
in a sun-warmed glass, the brothel
slowly sliding into a sinkhole?
Didn’t we realize too many options
would make us only smaller
increments of time? What choice
when we know the end is always the same,
any rooftop can hide a missile, and plastic
still winds up in the belly of the albatross?