review + interview /// Skin Horse by Olivia Cronk

Posted By jatyler - 9th December 2011

I enjoy it when I don’t exactly know what to expect. I do make certain assumptions about the titles that Action Books produces – they will be thick in language, they will sing of desperation, they will crave and carve, they will confound but then beautifully unwind – but of Olivia Cronk, I knew little more than a few sample poems before having digested her forthcoming Action Books volume Skin Horse, and I was nicely and verily impressed. And now, thanks to the magic of our Monkeybicycle machine, we get to do a little interview + review for these wonderfully woven new words.

To begin with, I read Skin Horse as a narrative or story told in poems – was this wrong? Should I have read this book instead as a poetry collection, as only a loosely threaded volume of like-minded poems?

Well, first I’d respond that I do not believe in strictly right or wrong responses to texts, especially my own. I’d also say that I think that any sort of curated collection, or any bunch of things magically/accidentally thrown together, does suggest a narrative. And third, while I see most conventional narrative as tyrannical (a narrative tells the reader what to do, while I would rather collaborate with the reader in creative exchange/intercourse), I do and did intend to suggest a kind of coherent world where things happen—so, yes, that must be a narrative.

I have, though, just lately, thought much more about narrative than I used to—and the more recent poems in Skin Horse reflect some of what I am thinking. The poems that drop the second person pronoun (I know that this technique is not entirely apparent to the reader) are meant to tug the reader into the scene as an actor and to suggest the flimsy, excitingly thin world of storytelling. The self can split, can contain others, can project, can act voyeuristically and selfishly, can piece things together in pattern where there is none at all, where there could just as easily be recognition of an absolute empty. I favor a reader-centered poetics, and whatever narrative emerges, I hope, is created by the reader’s use of some tools that I pre-manipulated and some other wonderful—and totally unknown to me—tools with which the reader enters the exchange.

There is something about our sense of a timeline and the way we access memory that makes narrative so easy. I am excited by the feeling that this is ridiculous, seeing as we simply impose time on experience and imagine ourselves in a kind of gauzy strip of events that runs from birth to now to death. I like the failure of narratives. I like that narratives entertain; I think that readers should feel inside a poem the way we feel when we watch a film or hear music or eat dinner—inside of something that is outside of something else.

Skin Horse seems to reside, at least in tone if not in more concrete ways, in the idea of small town / farm life. Even when a poem loops out to technology or lasers or anything citified, it revolves right back to the tight fabric of community and rugged pastoral landscape just pages later. How does this extension away from and then retreat back to small town imagery connect with you as a writer? What does it tell us about you?

I adore the pastoral—for tone, for the language associated with land, for experiences in physical reality, for imaginary experiences . . . but, mostly, I just use the pastoral as a theater for other things. It is a place where I can insert electrical lemur-faces and where I can do myself in drag. I grew up very much in the city, went to warm and cheerful YMCA summer camps for my childhood exposure to “Nature,” and maybe I slightly exoticize the world you see depicted . . . ultimately, though, I see the boundaries between these different spaces as barely there. I like that the imagination can bounce and flee through and out of setting. I see a fine floral tapestry pillow on a wooden chair and I feel my grandma’s northside Chicago apartment as quickly and as easily as I feel a long winter walk in a state park, with a dip and a cliff and a deer corpse torn up on the path. These are the same to me, feeling-wise.

And when it isn’t animals pulling us into each moment of Skin Horse, the most constant images are equally nature-bound (trees, weather, etc.). For instance:

as a cougar

in the leaves a mother

in our mouths we called

one another

with black willow lip: Please It.

Or:

There is the wide stone water.

There is my own terror.

The seahorse of all this

is hacking yellow

a dry lung.

Or:

Think of my little albino deer

alone in the winter garden.

The tooth in the sky

making sea around him.

Where do these images come from and how do they manifest themselves as you write?

I often think of words as cheap trinkets that I arrange and rearrange on my dresser. Animals work very well for this. Also, aren’t animals so delightful to observe? It is an ethically appropriate sort of spying on private lives. I like to see what other creatures do, what their mannerisms and facial expressions are, and what tasks they have to complete. So, when I am not just lazily throwing around animal names for aesthetic s, I am writing about animals I have seen or imagined or obsessed over in some way.

Sometimes a poem/a word predicts the event about which it will be. The deer corpse I mentioned in the answer above was probably the result of a cougar attack. I actually saw this with my husband. It was dusk, and we were frightened and thrilled by the shock of it. Of course, I wrote “cougar/ in the leaves” a year before the “real-life” event. On another walk, we had imagined a cougar following us, and I put that in my poem. Later, it was real and the poem’s content, though not its words, changed.

As for seahorses, I just love them; I think they are amazing and alien. I used to play this strange youtube clip over and over: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iaoLxR9FTwk. I was disturbed by how the filmmaker’s ordinary domestic life created the audio backdrop of this fairly dramatic event in the seahorse’s life. I like the micro/macrocosms. And my friend introduced me to Jean Painlevé’s movies (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-y79UPfaHgE), where you can learn more about many strange little ones like the seahorse.

Albino deer live in northern Wisconsin. They are ghostly and ghastly. I have only seen pictures.

Likewise, over the course of Skin Horse, a rural accents slips in, as here:

I got deer-injecting to do.

Cup scams to pull.

A whole basket of others.

Or shouts in loudly, as here:

and here comes the thirsty one

a clickin’ away in the night.

A mirror pink locket all broke open

to unfold the awkward beast

a knockin’ in the night.

It’s us born to the weave

of nightmare and prairie and crow

and snow

so so piled plenty—

Why is this accentuated voice only used on occasion and what character or persona does it evoke in Skin Horse?

Like moving in and out of different spaces, I feel free to move in and out of costumes. On one hand, the different accents reflect different periods of writing, where I may have been “doing” a different persona. On the other hand, I find that in my physical life I speak in different voices all the time, obviously—and these can pop up and infect the poem or can be suppressed or mutated. Finally, I like to think there are many selves present in the poems, all very possible at once.

Lastly, there is a collective ‘us’ or ‘we’ referenced throughout the poems in Skin Horse. As in the previous sample, or this others, like this:

In us ‘til ten p.m.

In us like devil meat.

I was saying it

in us.

Who is this ‘us’, and/or what does it represent?

I don’t always know, but sometimes, often, it is my husband, with whom I write and read and have many adventures. Sometimes, it is my brother, my mother, one of my friends; sometimes it is you. And sometimes I am you or the you is me.

Olivia Cronk is making poems that read like vignettes of a total story taken apart and restructured into a new song, the same story but told in razed and rebuilt ways. Having fully eaten Skin Horse, I now know what to expect from Cronk, and it is in line with all we assume of Action Books – constant new titles that shiver and shake with goodness, that make us want to be better poets, better writers, and readers with all the time and money in the world to read books like this the instant they are released.

Buy this book here.