Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Phoenix Poets, Poetry

Read an Interview with Poet Lindsay Turner, author of “The Upstate”

As we enter the relaunch of the Phoenix Poets series, we’re introducing the new editors and poets through a series of short interviews. Here, we spoke with Lindsay Turner, whose new book, The Upstate, is publishing this fall. Lindsay discusses her Appalachian roots, the events that shaped her new collection, and the importance of being in a supportive community of poets.

Book cover for “The Upstate” by Lindsay Turner. The cover is vibrant orange with a cream color sunburst graphic in the center.

Tell us a little about yourself and your relationship to poetry.

I grew up in northeast Tennessee, in the Appalachian foothills, in a small industrial city where my father worked for a chemical company. It wasn’t until I was a freshman in college that I “discovered” poetry: my roommate was going to sign up for a creative writing workshop, and I thought I might as well try it too. My first poetry teacher, Jorie Graham, put a few lines on the blackboard and talked the class through the way the poem was working to make an image—it was a poem by Osip Mandelstam that I still remember well—and that was that, I was in. Poetry was my life in college – my friends were poets, I spent most evenings at the literary magazine house drinking bad wine and arguing about line breaks and fangirling over Frank Stanford. In many ways it is still: so many of my friendships and relationships have come to me through poetry, and on the best days my job as a professor is just to talk with people about poems (although many days it’s other things too). I feel very lucky to have a life that’s full of poetry, which is never something I could have imagined for myself, never something I would even have known to dream.

As much the poems themselves, though, I also love the way poems return me to the world. Sometimes the poems I love best are the hardest ones for me to read, because so quickly they remind me to get my head out of the book and return my attention to what’s going on outside my window, in my community, in the world. In a graduate seminar on the lyric here at Case Western, for instance, I was just teaching Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till.” There’s so much to think about in the way this poem draws on and transforms the ballad tradition. But in the end, I just want to sit with those astounding end rhymes (“taffy / coffee / sorry / prairie”), and particularly that last odd image, the land made red and windy by a long history of racial violence. I’m left looking back out from the poem with its music in my head, trying to figure out what to make of it all. There’s too much to marvel at, too much to love, too much to be heartbroken about, and too much to rage at outside of books. At the same time, I’m better (or I hope I am) at marveling, loving, being heartbroken, and being rageful because of poems.

A polaroid photograph of the poet Lindsay Turner in front of a white background. She has shoulder-length dark brown hair and bangs and is wearing a dark sweater.

What’s something you’re particularly excited about with your new book? (Are you working in any experimental forms, does it depart from your previous work, etc?)

My first book, Songs & Ballads, came to me in kind of a flash: I was playing with a new music and new forms, and channeling lots of my life into and through those forms. The Upstate came about differently. I mentioned “rage” above, and this is a book about (among other things), being angry. I began writing these poems in the fall of 2016, which was a really strange time for me. It’s too reductive to say that this book is about living through the Trump years in upstate South Carolina, although it is that: the day after he was elected, I was not surprised, but I was devastated and scared. My friends elsewhere were reporting everyone crying. No one was crying where I was. The Confederate flags got bigger; I got catcalled from a pickup truck.

But there were other things happening too: my husband, the poet and scholar Walt Hunter, and I had just gotten our dog Sadie, a little rescue terrier someone found in living in an abandoned store in the mountains of western North Carolina, and I felt like my heart had been broken open suddenly. My father was diagnosed with cancer and started chemo. There were wildfires; the air filled with smoke and the sky turned red. Later in November, on the way back from a meeting with my PhD advisors in Charlottesville, for the dissertation I was trying to finish, I totaled my Honda in a single-vehicle crash on a windy stretch of I-81 in southwest Virginia, near where my parents live, and was in a lot of physical pain for a while. It was an all-around very dark and very difficult fall.

So a lot of these poems came out of that overdetermined, awful occasion—a kind of crisis moment that felt both personal and social, both very new and not new at all. Since I’d grown up on the other side of the mountains from the upstate, the place wasn’t new to me at all, nor were the feelings of isolation and alienation I felt there—I’ve always felt out-of-place when I’m in the south. I also feel very protective about the south, and the “spells and charms” section of the book, plus some of the other poems, reflect that—there’s so much beauty that’s been and continues to be so badly exploited. It’s tempting to say something about Appalachian identity here, but I still don’t quite know what that means. I suppose it’s a book of reckoning: it’s about being in a place that’s both beloved and very fucked up, about trying and partially failing to make a life there, and about being very, very angry. I think that women, especially women in the U.S. south, still have so few models for and outlets for anger. Poetry, on the other hand, can be great at anger. I love angry poems.

What makes you excited to be a poet working today?

One thing that makes me excited to be a poet working today is the work of my friends. I won’t name them here, because they’re my friends, but there is nothing better than getting a poem from a friend in Brooklyn, in Texas, in Denver, in my inbox. How lucky am I, that people just send me their beautiful words? I’m also lucky to have a great community of poets here in Cleveland. Although sitting down to write a poem is for me slow and solitary, going to a reading in someone’s backyard or meeting another poet for a walk or a drink—these things energize me and remind me that poetry depends on hospitality and works through sociality.

I’m also excited because so many poets right now are doing exactly what they want to do. I love work that’s weird and unexpected, idiosyncratic, done for no reason except that it is utterly necessary for the poet to write. (A shout-out here to my fellow Phoenix poets. Dong [Li]’s and Annelyse [Gelman]’s and Cecil [Giscombe]’s books astound me.) I think poets, like everyone, should be compensated for their work, and I think that people should buy poetry books. (Everyone, buy poetry books if you can!) But poetry is still a space where people can do their own thinking and writing on their own terms, not the market’s.

Lindsay Turner is the author of the poetry collection Songs & Ballads and a translator of contemporary Francophone poetry and philosophy. Turner is originally from northeast Tennessee and currently lives in Cleveland, Ohio, where she is assistant professor of English and creative writing at Case Western Reserve University.

The Upstate is now available from our website or from your favorite bookseller.