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Transom:
Upon first reading the title, “Agapanthus,” we thought you had made a hybrid word containing “agape” (the love of humans for one another) and “acanthus” (the ornamental flowers found on Classical architecture). But it turns out “Agapanthus” is a species of flower, also known as “Lily of the Nile.” Your speaker describes them as “private, / but testament,” which seems perfectly to encapsulate the intimate yet allusive quality of botanical names. Can you talk about how these qualities function in your poems?

Craig:
Theodor Adorno, at the end of his chapter on Natural Beauty, wrote “If the language of nature is mute; art seeks to make this muteness eloquent.” For me, in this poem, there is actually a fair amount of subtext about how attempting to make a natural figure stand in for human will and compulsion, to act as allusive vehicle or allegory, is a fraught enterprise. The result of so much figuration—the flower as disciplinary tool, toe, window, cane, as something that blunders or scoots or circles…is very little actual movement. Even if we’ve maybe tried to impart something—meaning, purpose, agenda, identity, status—with the name “Agapanthus” (from the Greek for love, “agape,” and flower, “anthos”)—what is actually said or known about the flower from these things is relatively little. I’ve said more in this poem about myself than about the flower, right? And, after all of that work, the flower still can’t “get loose,” can’t move away from itself to become something else, can’t even speak.

If I sometimes think about how little is accomplished by naming or figuring or taxonomizing metaphorically, I also sometimes think that quite a bit is accomplished precisely through those acts. What to make of a poem like Juliana Spahr’s fabulous “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache,” where she goes for pages and pages just listing species by name, “…whirligig beetle larvae, hickory, sparrow, caddisfly larva, fluted shell, horse chestnut, wartyback, white heelsplitter, larch?” Is there something hylozoic going on there? A suggestion that pattern, association, and proximity create some kind of living structure? It may be a little bit at odds with Emerson when he wrote about “the young scholars, who invade our hills…love not the flower they pluck, and know it not/And all their botany is Latin names.” But even if all our botany is names, the naming is something incendiary & creative itself.

Especially as someone who elects to live in a city, who goes months without seeing a cornfield, goes years without sighting a fox creeping from a ditch, in whose world the great cultivars are those with beds of Home Depot petunias and begonias, in whose office a single over-grown spider plant “greens” up the place…I’m sometimes suspicious of the way that I want to use natural imagery to stand in, to lend gravity, intimacy, allusion. So I try to accept that the natural world I inhabit is not indigenous to itself. That my experience of nature is all about transplantation and adoption, pollution, absence, history, capital. But that I still need to come from a place, from a world that I know and experience. Walking over the crushed petals of a purple flower native to Africa, grown as an annual in Pittsburgh, probably unidentifiable to 95% of the people who walk past it every day, there’s still something that is shared between the natural world and the human world when the flower is seen or encountered, something in each that speaks to the other.

Transom:
Your poem, “Birth,” seems to associate the process of birth with heat of all kinds. The speaker is concerned with “scalding,” “invisible flame,” and “ash.” Even the word “bacon,” associated with the tongue in your piece, gives us an idea of transformation through fire and smoke. Why are such potentially destructive forces brought into dialogue with the (seemingly generative) concept of birth?

Craig:
After that last answer, I need some brevity. I think the dual nature of fire—both a destructive and creative essence, has been with us for a long time. Fire is a primary agent of change and transformation. Heraclitus called this world an “ever-living fire, kindled in due measure, and in due measure extinguished.” So, much as it’s a destructive force here, I think fire’s also associated with transformation, with the life-essence, the soul, with being.

For anyone who’s ever physically given birth to another being, I think there are some destructive elements to the process. There's the physical devastation of birth--the splitting/bursting, the obliteration of one's self as a thinking, feeling being as the body is overwhelmed by the work of bringing forth life. There’s physical danger—death in childbirth is still a very real possibility in many parts of the world. There’s physical danger in being born, too…injury, failure of the birthing body or the birthed body to make it through the stress. Metaphorically, I think the birth of other things—the birth of an idea, a thought, a poem, a relationship, a painting...all of these can have a similar arc. In the moment the thing is “created,” it hovers between two states, on the brink of obliteration, perilously close to existence.