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Talking with Monika Zobel

Monika Zobel is the author of An Instrument for Leaving (Slope Editions) and Das Innenfutter der Wörter (edition keiper, Graz, Austria). Her poems have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Guernica Magazine, Best New Poets 2010, and elsewhere.

Monika’s poem “Wondering II” will appear in the Spring 2019 issue of Carve. Preorder to reserve your copy or subscribe with a discount by March 31.

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What draws you to the concept of “Wondering” in this piece?

The poem, one in a series of three poems, was written while I was in residence at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in the Santa Cruz Mountains. My time there was filled with hikes among the redwoods, spotting wildlife, scavenging the forest for souvenirs of “wondering,” particularly the countless pieces of art left behind by other artists. These incredible surroundings, a mixture of art and nature, made me think of how the two complement each other. I was especially interested in how the art is altered, weathered by nature. The heavy fog from the Pacific every morning could dissolve the words I wrote on paper and hid below a rock, could shape them into new fragments that were no longer mine. “Wondering” ended up being a feeling that our maps, our theories and creations are fleeting; yet we hope that something remains, that some of these words are woven into a bird’s nest.

The images in this piece are so carefully constructed. What is your process of collecting these moments?

I tend to write my poems around a series of images that I have previously collected over the course of weeks or even months. I jot down images in my journal, and when I’m ready to write a whole poem, I piece them together like a puzzle. My goal is to create texture and contrast, much like a painter would do. As a result, I often begin writing a poem without knowing what it will be about or how it will end. Of course, recent experiences and my current mood shape the crafting process, and I often end up writing a poem I wanted to write, but couldn’t simply write in one sitting or with a fixed idea in mind. I like this process very much, because I feel less pressured to tell a specific story. The themes, ideas and emotions develop as I write.

Each line break turns a new surprise in this piece. How do you approach the structure and order of a poem?

Since imagery is so important to me, less than narrative, I tend to think of line breaks as opportunities to add more tension and push the imagery. In this particular poem, I chose to “break” images apart to create layers, such as in the image “Silence at sea is like a coat / slipping from its hanger / onto your shoulders.” At first, there is just the coat, then the action of slipping, and finally the “you” who feels the silence upon his or her shoulders. To me, a line break is equally as important as the image/the sentiment that is broken apart. The rhythm and pace of a poem so much depend on these breaks.

What words are you obsessed with right now?

Currently, I am obsessed with nautical terms and all vocabulary related to seafaring and vessels. Although very technical at times, these words can take on poetic meanings. The term “Tumble Home,” for example, is the narrowing of a ship’s hull with greater distance to the waterline, but in a poetic context a tumbling home evokes a feeling of instability, destruction, perhaps restlessness. I love playing with these terms, because they have fixed meanings in the maritime industry; at the same time, they can be reinterpreted when taken out of their familiar context.

As a native German speaker, I am also fascinated by the use of German compounds in poetry. Paul Celan was a master of creating incredible metaphors with one single word. An example of this would be the word “Sprachengitter”—language grid or language bars; the interpretations are endless, and there is no limitation to creating these compounds, which makes the German language particularly suitable for surprising imagery.