By Dana Hirsch
Many writers struggle to figure out when a poem is really finished. Poet Ashley Toliver has a clear solution for this problem: “If I’ve memorized the poem, I know it’s done.”
Toliver visited the virtual campus on Zoom to read from her debut book “Spectra.” The poetry book was published by the Coffee House Press and received the 2018 Believer Book Award and the 2020 Kate Tuft Poetry Award.
According to Toliver, the beginning is always a good place to start, so she kicks off the reading with the first poem in her book: “Kinesis.”
“Though all bird-legged creatures fear/ the same distance, it is instinct that pulls/ them to standing,” Toliver read. “In the museum/ their bodies like sea glass, an astonishment.”
Toliver said that all the pieces of information and science shared in this poem are actually true and that the poem shows how all the work contained in “Spectra” is related to each other.
In response to student Pamela Trevisan’s questions about the nature of the connection between poems, Toliver said, “I realized ‘Kinesis’ held so many themes throughout the entire book. Rather than laying out these cool puzzles for people to find, I just learned as I was writing.”
The 13 “Housekeeping” poems contained in the first section of the book, which all share the same title, are meant to feel very oppressive according to Toliver. What she appreciates about them most is how these prose poems can hold tension within them. They are more of a feeling than anything truly substantial.
“Let’s read a weird one next,” said Toliver, referring to the “Housekeeping” poems as her “strange little constricted monsters.”
She read a selection of short prose poems and explained that the lyrical poems that follow this section serve to give more breath to the collection.
“Dear night possessor: your funeral barge rocked tight in the fisting water makes small winter melodies.” Toliver read, clearly reciting certain pieces from memory. “The light ends a pattern we learned to stupefy by motion or admitting away. A statutory list puts the blame on the hour.”
Professor Monica Ferrell, who served as the moderator, noted Toliver's precision of language, almost as if each word were being picked up with a tweezer.
“Actually, a lot of this book I wrote by sound first,” said Toliver. “Then the word came to me and it was the perfect word.”
Student Brandon Dennis asked when “Spectra” got its title and Toliver shared that she initially wanted the book to be called “Ideal Machine,” but she had already published a selection under the same name, so she couldn’t use it again.
“It came at the very, very, very end,” Toliver said. “‘Spectra’ came to me as I was working on the final draft [and] at some point this was the perfect title. I really wanted to have a title that I’ve been thinking about my entire life.”
The writing within the book started with the second and central section, according to Toliver. It was the first material she wrote and she didn’t really know what it would be until it slowly came out of the stone, like a sculpture out of marble.
“This whole book is just this thing that happened to me," she said. "[The poems] are my weird babies, my tiny monsters.”
The campus community is invited to join subsequent “Poets at Work” readings on Thursdays on Zoom.