Q&A with Poetry Contributor Callie Plaxco

As her grandmother once said, Callie Plaxco flew the coop when she left South Carolina to journey west to the University of Wyoming for her MFA. She now calls Wyoming home, where she teaches kindergarten at the Laramie Montessori School. Her work has previously been published at The Axe Factory. Callie's poem "Once in a Shuttle to JFK, I Overheard Two Girls on Their Way to a Funeral for a Friend's Mother Who Died Ice Fishing" is included in the Summer 2016 Premium Edition of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by July 11 for special savings and discounts.

"Once in a Shuttle to JFK" examines the certainty of loss through the lens of a moment of stillness. How do you think this kind of intentional imagery lends itself to speculation?

Much of my poetry contemplates loss. It is a grappling of my life thus far, one that I am constantly rewriting and revisiting. And there is nothing still about losing someone, at least not initially, not in my experience. It is all unsettling and chaotic, all impossible to hold onto or understand. Yet, on the other side of the same coin, loss could be considered a stillness of sorts, an empty, unmoving void. I’d certainly like to believe that death is stillness.

So I wanted desperately for this stranger, this woman whose life I barely brushed across in passing via an overheard conversation, to possess stillness in her death, for that last moment to be, for lack of a better word, peaceful, calm. So I gave her that, inserting my own experience of stillness into hers. I couldn’t possibly know the circumstances of her death, but I could certainly imagine and place myself ice fishing on a lake in the morning and illustrate with the imagery I’d hope to find there.

In your editing process with us, you mentioned that you're interested in the notion of a simile — that something can be like something else, but never actually be that something else. How do you negotiate that distinction in your writing?

Oh! I love similes. I don’t think I can get through a single moment in my life without likening one thing to another. I am excited, especially, by unlikely similes — when two things or ideas that are so far from one another can suddenly live beside each other in a poem (or merely in my thoughts) and make sense together. I love the strangeness that a simile can create — strange, yet perfectly logical, perfectly understandable. 

But then again, I think often a simile will make sense in my own intelligence, but perhaps not within that of a reader. Even still, isn’t it thrilling to come across a likening that forces you to see in a new way? I take great pleasure in this experience, both as a writer and a reader.

Back to the question at hand, this notion that something can be like something but not actually be that something and how to negotiate these two differences in a poem: I think there’s great significance in the fact that this relationship is a tricky one to hold. Surely the bird’s wings are allowed to be like teaspoons, but they can never ever be teaspoons, no matter how hard I wish it. I think what I love most about writing poems and using similes is that, for a moment, within the poem, the birds wings are teaspoons. That’s the power of language, right? And the power of a simile — it can transform one thing to another, even if only for that magical instance it enters the mind’s eye within the breadth of the poem.

I liken it all to sitting atop a fence; you are neither on one side or the other, but rather, you straddle the in-between. As humans, we must learn to live in this space, no matter how uncomfortable and unruly. I use similes, thus, to negotiate that complicated space which may exist within a poem.

What role does eavesdropping play in your writing process?

This poem is my only true “eavesdropping” poem I’ve ever written. I think the content of this overheard conversation was so bizarre, so disquieting and astounding to me, that it planted itself in my imagination and stayed there for a long while.

I remember the moment very well: I had just gotten off work to fly home to South Carolina for my grandfather’s funeral. Behind me were two younger girls, probably in college, talking about the funeral they were flying to for a friend’s mom who quite freakishly died while ice fishing. I was struck hard by this conversation, couldn’t quite make sense of it. Every detail of the conversation sparked an unwavering curiosity of the imagination, yet I had nothing in my own reservoir of imagery or experience to imagine it. My imagination must have built it’s own story around it in order to help me process what at the time seemed purely surreal, fantastic.

Though similar to eavesdropping, I do tend to borrow often in order to write poetry. I enjoy taking a piece from something entirely unknown and other than myself and expanding upon it, diving into it and re-imagining it until it becomes something wholly mine, or at least something residing in my own imagination and thus on the page.

Is your poetry typically informed by intimate consideration of landscape?

Yes — but only after I moved to Wyoming did landscape become a central place within my poetry.

I had lived all my life in the South, and then in New York. I wrote plenty of poetry in those days, but none of it focused so intimately on the land, on the place. In New York, I wrote mostly about people and relationships. In South Carolina and North Carolina, I wrote mostly about myself, the happenings of my inner landscape (I think because I was so much younger then, still slightly obsessed with the goings-on inside my own heart).

But moving to Wyoming was startling. It felt magical. Every hike or drive prompted a new poem about the rocks, the trees, the hills, the snow-covered mountains, the open space, the tall skies — all the strange and wonderful new shapes I discovered the earth can make. It’s certainly one of the most important reasons I still live here. And it’s still magical.

What’s interesting about this particular poem is that it recalls a conversation I heard in New York (that un-landscape where the earth beneath one’s feet seems forgotten and buried under buildings and concrete and too many people), but I didn’t write it until a few months into my new home in the West. Indeed, the space of that poem is some imaginary landscape born from my adventures here in Wyoming. Looking back on this fact now, I wonder why. Perhaps this poem attempts, in my own weird way, to connect these two vastly different and opposing places I’ve called home.

How has your relationship with poetry changed over the course of your MFA?

Pursuing and completing an MFA has certainly changed the way I write and think of poetry. Most importantly, working toward a thesis has allowed me to connect poems in a larger narrative, as a book length collection. Instead of thinking of each individual poem as it stands alone, I spent much of my time writing poems that work together to tell a larger story through separate parts and spaces. So I tend now, post-MFA, to write in projects or series of poems, rather than a single poem here and there.

Working through my MFA has also persuaded me to submit my poems to journals and magazines and such. Never before had I even considered such a thing — how frightening! How utterly terrifying to send off my words into the ether. And not that there was any pressure to submit (it took a good year post-MFA to actually sit down and do it), but I think the experience gave me the confidence to do so. It connected me and my poetry to a world larger than myself that I needed in order to push me in that direction. I am thankful for it.