This year, Heather Christle won the second annual Believer Poetry Award for The Trees The Trees, her second collection of poetry. Her third, What Is Amazing, contains poems with titles like “Moss Does Not Love Other Moss” and “People Are a Living Structure Like a Coral Reef,” so a discussion about titles seemed like a good thing to do.
THE BELIEVER: Your poems have surprising titles. How do you go about titling a poem?
HEATHER CHRISTLE: I wait to title a poem until after I’ve written it, but only a few seconds after. That is to say, I do it very quickly and (I think) instinctively. I go on my nerve. It turns out, though, upon reflection, that my nerve likes titles that fall under certain categories. These are some I have noticed: titles that locate the action of the poem in a place, titles that sound like something the poem would have said before beginning itself or perhaps on a different occasion (if poems were allowed to move through time like people), titles that think their poem is a painting, titles that grab a few words from a phrase that someone else might utter near the poem, titles that pluck from the poem an idea to display first, titles that loudly state something obvious and true, whether in the context of the poem or otherwise (sometimes this just seems necessary), and titles that comment upon the situation into which the writer and/or reader have arrived (if writers and readers were allowed to move through time like people). Sometimes a title acts like a little hole through which you enter a poem. Sometimes the title blankets the poem entire. Titles are so various, like hats.
BLVR: Hmm, so in which category would you put, say, “That Air of Ruthlessness in Spring,” a poem which (for me at least) centers itself on the lines “I want to show you something / I don’t care what”?
HC: It centers itself on those lines for me, too. I think that title fits in two categories: first, it locates the action of the poem in time (a form of space), and, second, it comments upon the situation of writing a poem. I can get to feeling very ruthless when I am writing. And it is lovely and fertile and romantic, like spring, but, also like spring, it can make you feel you’ve just been in hibernation for months and are now capable of anything. Doesn’t matter what, just must be doing, must be making. Must be attracting mates and readers.
BLVR: Are there words to which you’re addicted? I’ve just realized how much I love the word wrong, and am wondering if there’s a danger of overkill. Wrong automatically makes it interesting—a story, an image. “He looked up and saw the wrong girl.” “She ordered the wrong sandwich and sat down.”
HC: A few words I return to: real, actual, calamity, blanket. It’s fairly easy to stop myself from going too far with the last two, but the first two I do try to guard against. I just love that to call something “real” makes it less so. “She ordered a real sandwich.”
BLVR: Is there a poem title you envy?
HC: Oh, yes. “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers” (John Ashbery), “Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form” (Matthea Harvey), about half of Wallace Stevens’s titles: “Questions Are Remarks,” “The Planet on the Table,” “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “A Postcard from the Volcano.” It is very tempting to list them all. I’m not sure I precisely envy them, though. I don’t want to sound sanctimonious, but I don’t often envy other people’s business. Other people’s excellence generally stirs excitement. We live in a world where such titles exist—this is very fortunate.
BLVR: I think The Trees The Trees works marvelously in the way it reworks lines we’re surely going to spot, as they’re in the first poem, and in that it rubs up against bad clichés about poetry. (“I will now read from The Trees The Trees: ‘The trees! The trees!’”). Very is a tough word. In my novel Adverbs I kept wanting to use it, but I kept reminding myself that the Pet Shop Boys had a permanent win by using it to title their record. Do you think about your titles bumping up against other titles?
HC: How frustrating it can be to have an idea actually occur to you and then to discover or remember that it’s elsewhere in use. I think about the bumping sometimes, though usually only after somebody else points it out to me. I told a colleague of the title of The Trees The Trees and he said, “OK, Ashbery.” But Some Trees was over fifty years ago! Surely we get another shake at the word. And people who want to forbid trees or the moon are just silly—even if I myself sometimes want to forbid further use of the word palimpsest.
BLVR: Are there titles you’ve saved, or are saving, waiting for the right poem? This fall I’m publishing a book called Who Could That Be at This Hour?, a title I’ve had in my head for about twenty years.
HC: Twenty years of incubation! Or perhaps it is more like cryogenic preservation? I hope you are excited to release it at last. Sometimes I will title a poem, abandon the poem, but know that the title is worth rescuing. “Je M’Appelle Ivan” is one of that ilk. And then there was a title I came up with at a party once, for somebody else’s untitled poem: “The Grave Was Too Small So We Had to Take the Horse Out.” He didn’t end up using it, so I hung on to it, though I had no luck at all making a poem for it. Then my friend Lisa and I were sharing titles for a while, and that was one I threw into the mix. She wrote a good poem for it and I (again) did not. That’s OK. It’s so pleasant to pass titles around. They are pretty resilient and can usually survive away from their birthplace.
BLVR: “The Grave Was Too Small So We Had to Take the Horse Out” is the name of an indie-country album if I ever heard one. When I’m mulling over titles, I often end up thinking something like, That would be a great title, if what you were working on was an abstract painting, but it’s a novel, so it won’t do. Do you come up with titles that couldn’t be poems, even though you like them?
HC: Oh, I don’t know if there is any title that couldn’t be a poem, really. I think novels might be more delicate in that way. They are younger than poems. This might play a part in their delicacy. Their size, too, is an issue. The bigger something gets, the harder it can be to name properly. Titling whole books is not for the faint of heart!