Interview with Tasha Cotter

Tasha Cotter, author of The Girl in the Cave sat down with Brian Orth and Tell Tell Poetry to chat about her collection. Tasha Cotter is the author of the poetry collection Some Churches (Gold Wake Press, 2013). You can find her online at www.tashacotter.com and on twitter @TashCotter.

Tell Tell: As a poet who also returns frequently to landscapes in order to explore the emotional mythologies inherent to us as humans, I greatly appreciated being introduced to the countryside of Kentucky (have never been). I think sometimes we forget our deep connection with the earth itself. I suppose that ideal is as good of segue as any into my first question.

It was not until my second read-through of the chapbook that I was struck by the clever title of the first section of The Girl in the Cave. At first glance my brain went automatically to “A Looking In” rather than “A Locking In,” but upon subsequent readings I found the beginning poems of the chapbook displayed a speaker more in the stages of coping (a locking in) than introspection (a looking in). Would you say this is true of these introductory poems in which we find the speaker invested/fond of storytelling and destinations of retreat (cave, outer space, the inner self)? Is this a way to allow the reader a “look in” to memory “locked away”?

Tasha Cotter: Yes, once I had a sense of the poems I thought would fit within the parameters of the book, I began to see two possible themes emerge as ways of organizing the book. Part one of the book, like you described, includes poems that are more confining and restrictive, whereas the latter part of the books includes poems that have a little more freedom – as readers we’re breaking through; we’re getting away. The water is draining into the field at sunset. I like the idea of finding a narrative arc with books of poetry, and when I can, I try to deliver that kind of experience to the reader.

Along these lines of storytelling/mythology, it appears the speaker feels a connection with the outsider and exotic. Throughout The Girl in the Cave there were moments I could not help but think of Plato’s allegory. Was there any connection to his philosophy that one must experience both the “cave of shadows” and reality in order to be conscious of the power of the mind?

If the connection to Plato’s cave of shadows is there, it must have been subconscious on my part. It’s been a long time since I read The Republic. If anything, the title and the idea behind it was more literal – I was deep in my reading about the Mammoth Cave National Park system and the history of the caves. I was intrigued that bodies had been recovered from the caves – Native Americans from hundreds of years ago. As someone who grew up on the land around the cave system, I was always intrigued by the land, and the endless, unseen paths underfoot. Of course, the title works in a metaphorical way, too.

One of my favorite poems in the whole collection is “Dormant” because it strikes such a beautiful balance between image and emotion. Yes, “the last blade” is visible in my mind, but the strong imagery of a “mindless winter… and its difficult breathing” is phenomenal. Is this a form you like to integrate alongside more narrative-driven work? I think it’s a lovely way to allow the reader to take a breath from the storyteller’s perspective and simply get lost in one of Wordsworth’s infamous “spots of time.” Do you read many Deep Image poets? Or what type of work especially attracts you as a reader?

I’m so glad you liked this poem. The poem “Dormant” went through many iterations, and was eventually published in the journal Interim – a big thank you to editor Derek Pollard for that. One of my inspirations for this poem was studying the work of David Ferry. I was mesmerized by his work and his ability to say, in such a few words, an exact emotion, or to convey a vivid experience. I discovered his work while listening to the Poetry Magazine podcast and his poems just resonated with me, and they left me buzzing in that way really excellent poems can. He has a new book out, Bewilderment – it’s on my to-read list. I loved his book Strangers.

I read a little bit of everything, though. And I tend to read as much fiction and nonfiction as I do poetry. I love the work of Kate Zambreno, Rachel Glaser, Elizabeth Strout, and Alice Munro. In terms of poetry (or near poetry) I really like Anne Carson and Sarah Manguso.

Towards the conclusion of “A Locking In,” the speaker seems to return to the role of storyteller. Many of the anecdotes the reader encounters revolve around a relationship that has been lost or is in the process of being lost, and they are often shrouded in a certain mystery known only to a certain “community.” These scenes have a very small-town feel to them. How much were you influenced by your own upbringing when writing these poems? For me, this was when the speaker began to realize that there were ways to “look in” one’s self rather than have to “lock in” these emotions so no one could see them.

In his book of essays The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo has a passage that has stuck with me since I began to take poetry seriously. While arguing against the poet’s desire to “write what you know,” Hugo contends that

The poem is always in your hometown, but you have a better chance of finding it in another. The reason for that, I believe, is that the stable set of knowns that the poem needs to anchor on is less stable at home than in the town you've just seen for the first time. At home, not only do you know that the movie house wasn't always there, or that the grocer is a newcomer who took over after the former grocer committed suicide, you have complicated emotional responses that defy sorting out. With the strange town, you can assume all knowns are stable, and you owe the details nothing emotionally. However, not just any town will do. Though you've never seen it before, it must be a town you've lived in all your life.

I, personally, have sometimes found it hard to create a new town that reflects some inkling of the town you have actually lived in your whole life without becoming too sentimental or too fond of exact details. As a poet writing about specific places/relationships, how do you balance the language with the memory? Do you find it takes distance (mentally, physically, and emotionally) to properly give details of the past their proper diligence?

I think trying to weave in details you know and experiences you own, does take some distance, if you want to create something artful. For me, I need space away from the event and a certain amount of emotional distance, too, otherwise the writing can feel too raw, or too personal. I love that passage of Hugo’s and for me, getting into the personal history and the real accounts of the land and the history of the caves helped shift my perspective a little bit – those stories broadened my idea of the place. I also looked to certain word choices to lend the poems power. How I crafted some of the poems was very intentional on my part. For example, the use of “we” in my poem Thanksgiving – the line “No one would say what would happen / to the rest of us.” As soon as that new perspective entered the poem, it charged the poem and gave a new sense of energy to the poem, which, as a Poet, is the kind of moment I live for.

While “A Locking In” was a type of retreat for the speaker, the second half of the chapbook reads as a type of reminder to oneself that he/she can overcome the shadowy caves of the past by investigating the exact memories that lead to certain repressed feelings. The speaker has “come back…something bigger / than I was when we began.” Was this section more personal for you? I felt as though these memories were more vivid and alive once they had been given a voice to the outside world. Is this section a way of “rewriting the story”?

I think every poem I write is a way of rewriting the story. I’m always trying to make sense of an idea, a person, an experience. I write as a means to ask questions, and I don’t often get answers. But writing is a way of understanding what I think about something. What I’m searching for is emotional truth, and often that starts with a kernel of personal truth. From there, I try to expand on the idea and locate meaning on the page that feels real and earned. That being said, some poems are more personal than others. Others are purely fictional; a vehicle for me to explore an idea or an image I can’t forget because it seems charged with meaning and metaphorical possibilities.