Jason Walker interviews Deborah Diemont about her latest book of poems, The Charmed House. Read the full interview below.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Deborah Diemont (she/her) grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and Fort Worth, Texas. She is the author of three books of poetry from Dos Madres Press: Wanderer (2009), Diverting Angels (2012), and The Charmed House (2020). For Diverting Angels, she was nominated for the 2014 Poets’ Prize, and received the 2017 Wil Mills Fellowship. She has received the Howard Moss Poetry Prize, the Gulf Coast Creative Writing Teachers Award for Poetry, the North Carolina Writers’ Network Award for Creative Nonfiction, and travel grants to Mexico from the U.S. Department of Education and the Tinker Foundation. Her poetry has appeared in a variety of journals including Measure, The Texas Review, and The Yale Review. She contributed English translations to Na’lum/Mother Earth: Ancestral Images Disrupted, a multi-lingual anthology of poets from Chiapas, Mexico (2020). She lives with her husband in Syracuse, New York.
Jason Gordy Walker (he/him) is an MFA student at the University of Florida. His poems have appeared in Broad River Review, Cellpoems, Confrontation, Measure, and Poetry South. His reviews and interviews have been published in Birmingham Poetry Review, Newpages, and Subtropics.
This interview was conducted by email during fall and winter 2021-2022.
WALKER: In the first section of your latest collection, The Charmed House, many poems respond to (and are charmed by) the work of Rufino Tamayo, the great Mexican painter. Your carefully crafted ekphrastic poems have a strong sense of musicality. I was immediately intrigued by “The Musicians,” a quasi-sonnet composed in tercets. Its loose rhyme scheme feels subtle and improvisational. “Clock and Telephone” and “Dog Howling at the Moon” also stand out as high points in this section. What compelled you to write about Tamayo’s art, and why did you choose to pursue so much sound in these poems?
DIEMONT: I initially started to talk directly about form and about Tamayo, but I wondered if my history with Mexico and with poetry might be helpful to answering this question. An abbreviated version of my history with Mexico: I went there for the first time with a backpack in 1994, the summer I got married and six months after the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. My husband was planning to do graduate research on indigenous agriculture in Chiapas and I was planning to become a writer. Years later, he researches contemporary Lacandon Maya agriculture; I have three books of poetry, all of them influenced to some extent by Latin American experience, and I translate poems by contemporary Mexican poets who write in indigenous languages and Spanish; I work from their Spanish versions. We teach an annual summer study-abroad class in Chiapas that combines workshops on agroforestry, natural wastewater treatment systems, indigenous agriculture, and indigenous photography and poetry. We lived in Chiapas for three years, from 2004-2007, when our daughter was little, and we still have good friends there. It feels like a part of me is always there.
While living in Chiapas, and sometimes en route, we’ve spent time in other parts of Mexico. I first heard of Rufino Tamayo when we visited the Rufino Tamayo Museum in Oaxaca City. The museum doesn’t house Tamayo’s paintings; like Diego Rivera, he collected pre-Columbian artifacts—Mayan, Aztec, Olmec, Zapotec and Mixtec— and he donated the house he was born in and the collection as a museum. So, I had his name in my mind, but not his work, for a long time. It was at the National Gallery in Ottawa, Ontario, a three-hour drive from my house in Syracuse, that I finally saw his paintings in a traveling exhibit. I felt drawn to and inspired by them—their deep rich colors, their abstract simplicity, and what they seemed to be saying about historical shifts: rapid industrialization, isolation, loneliness, war, authority. I got an exhibition book of his paintings from Bird Library at Syracuse University. I was thinking about how Trump’s presidency was changing the country. And how technology keeps changing the world, for better and worse—this is one of my obsessions. Most of the paintings I wrote about were done from the 1920s through the 1940s. They aren’t direct depictions of World Wars I and II and the rise of totalitarianism, but allegories. When I wrote the poems, I imagined being in dialogue with the pictures, not in an academic way, but more the way we talk to ourselves and our companions when we visit museums. We ask, “What is this about?” We say whether we like something or not. Sometimes we say silly things in our attempt to sound smart or we overhear others’ mixed reactions. I worked on drafts in libraries, which, when I think about it, have a similar air to museums—seriousness, concentration, reverence and irreverence, shuffling, quiet, white noise, questions, conversations.
You ask about the music. It’s been important to me since I started writing poetry. I came to it late, around age 30, having wanted to be a painter (in adolescence), a lawyer (in college), and a fiction writer. My first poetry classes, taken while I was working in Houston, were in forms, and I took to them right away. As an MFA student at Ohio State, I wanted to develop and train my ear. Andrew Hudgins assigned Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form. It was revelatory for me to think about meter echoing the heartbeat, and about fitting your own syntax and voice to a metrical line. I like how formalism helps with controlling my mind’s chaos, and I enjoy rhyme. Prior to The Charmed House, I’d written a book of sonnets, Diverting Angels, in which I’d played with rhyme schemes and words, often rhyming on vowels instead of consonants, wanting to have more options than I’d have had with stricter patterns and exact rhymes. I like how internal as well as end-rhymes clink lines together and give them power.
I hadn’t noticed “The Musicians” might appear to be a quasi-sonnet, but looking at it now, I can see that. It’s just slightly longer at fifteen lines and it has a turn at the end that is foreshadowed toward the middle: the musicians are in stasis and must wait for some arbitrary change. I remember coming to settle on tercets to go with the repeating number three (three musicians, three colors, three vaguely political stances, three friends, three potential love-interests).
All three poems you highlight went through many drafts—with different line and stanza lengths, and word choices. I wanted the forms to feel organic to the poems, and to not seem loose or random. I wanted the right amount of negative space, for them to look right on the page as well as sound right.
WALKER: Later, in the volume’s second section, you use sound to address silence—specifically as it relates to heartbreak—in the aptly titled “Silence,” a moving ghazal whose radif (repeating end word) is the word “silence,” too. Rereading it, I feel as if you intended to compose a proper ghazal, not a cheap imitation. You integrate the qaafiyaa (rhyming phrase prior to the repetend), and you end the poem with the maqtaa (ghazal’s final, more personal, couplet), which includes your takhallus (poet’s nom de plume or signature): “D. Deb. Debbie. Deborah; you decide / which code you think he’ll hack to crack the silence.” What drew you to the ghazal form and why did you choose to follow it so closely?
DIEMONT: When I was living in Mexico, a friend who was also from the U.S. gave me her copy of Agha Shahid Ali’s Ravising DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English (2000). This was my introduction to the ghazal; unfortunately, I hadn’t had the background to have yet read translations from Sufi masters—Rumi, Hafiz, and many others who originated and developed the form over centuries. In his introduction to Ravishing DisUnities, Ali starts by saying he’d long complained that U.S. free-verse poets don’t understand the ghazal form at all, but he eventually decided his judgement was snobbery. He describes the traditional form as “having an atmosphere of sadness and grief,” and “[a] dedication to love and the beloved,”; he then lays out the “stringent” rules for writing a proper ghazal. I loved the form immediately, love the closed couplets and the sonic repetition. I love how the qaafiyaa, the phrase before the radif (repetend), creates a strong internal rhyme. Ali points out that a ghazal isn’t unified by theme; couplets that mustn’t be enjambed prevent this, and they allow for stanza interchangeability. He says that instead of theme, the ghazal is unified by rhyme and refrain—also by the quantitative meters of Persian and Urdu.
Though I wanted to do it “right,” I’d ignored this principle of disunity. This wasn’t intentional, but thematic unity has become important to me in my poems in general, and in both “Silence,” and “Ghazal for the Lake,” from my first collection, Wanderer, I wanted the opening couplet (matlaa), to build toward the final, signature couplet’s (maqtaa) sense of longing and loss. Now, I can see that the middle stanzas of my ghazals are in fact interchangeable, whereas I’d previously thought of them as having a logical order. I wouldn’t have thought to try rearranging them if not for your question.
Looking back at Ali’s intro, I find that there is a term for a thematically unified ghazal, qata; it’s supposed to be the exception, not the norm. “Silence” is in iambic pentamer, which is still my favorite English line. It helps me get my bearings and find the structure I need, even if I abandon it. In making “Silence,” I also came to like how the rhyme that proceeds the repetend —here, it’s “attack,” “track,” “lack”. . .—allowed me to set up a contrary loudness: a snap against the silence.
WALKER: Your book’s final section shifts to prose poetry as well as other forms. A prose poem like “No Warning” sizzles with irony and pathos packed into two succinct paragraphs: “One man is being buried, and one’s in prison.” Another prose piece, “Ritual,” pays close attention to imagery and scene: “Howler monkeys overhead, a family ripping through the canopy. They leap, snapping branches and leaves that fall to the ground.” Does your process differ for writing a prose poem as compared to working with an arguably more constraining form such as the sonnet or villanelle?
DIEMONT: My process both does and doesn’t differ. I still want the poem to have a strong sonic quality, tight lines, and visual appeal on the page. I think of both stanza breaks and paragraph breaks as breaks: a chance for the reader to pause, gather thoughts and to breathe. With prose poems, there’s also that borderline of definition; Lydia Davis, in “Forms and Influences I” from Essays: One, talks about the porous boundary between prose poetry and short stories. She calls her own shorts fiction but notes that Russell Edson’s prose poems helped her in developing her craft.
Sometimes a prose poem is a poem I couldn’t get worked out in verse—like “Gringo Mariachi”; I think I tried for a few years to work the mariachi’s guitar rhythms and lyrics into quatrains that fell flat. Sometimes it derives from a failed story or essay; “Vanity and Void” came from a rambling piece about reading Marguerite Duras’s The Lover while traveling alone. Others began as poems: “No Warning,” and “Ritual,” which you mention.
I love the prose poem as a form, especially the prose poems of the Spanish Modernists who also write in verse: Rubén Darío, César Vallejo, Gabriela Mistral, Juan Ramón Jiménez. Ideally, a prose poem does what a verse poem does: it cuts everything that’s weak or doesn’t matter. It offers strong music and imagery. With the prose poems in The Charmed House, I began to think of paragraph breaks as being similar to stanza breaks. Those that needed two paragraphs felt sonnet-like to me, as if there was a turn between what might have been an octave and sestet; for example, “Blockade” moves from what’s seen through a bus window to what’s seen on a screen, moving between two cultures, and the problems of a specific local world to a more global technological one. I also thought of negative space with the prose poems—the lightness or heft of paragraphs and their look on the page.