Sunday, October 14, 2012

Letras Latinas: an Interview with Thade Correa

I first met Thade Correa at Professor Orlando Menes’ poetry workshop when we both began the MFA program in creative writing at Notre Dame.  Little did I know that besides being a poet Thade was already an accomplished pianist and composer (his SATB choral piece The Vow of Shantideva was performed in honor of the 14th Dalai Lama at a prayer service led by the Tibetan Buddhist leader in Bloomington, Indiana)—his music can be heard here. Thade Correa struck me as the kind of poet that dares to stretch his arms “around the whole of life”—to grasp life’s song by its fiery tale and make it sing for those that need singing, for those curious enough to churn the ashes of life for embers still warm with the memory of fire. I conducted the following email with Thade in month of September, exactly a year to date of commencing our time at Notre Dame.


 Lauro Vazquez: You’ve just finished your first year of your two-year experience as an M.F.A. candidate in poetry at Notre Dame. What has this experience been like, what have been some of the highlights of that time spent here, how has your work as a poet grown, changed?

I’ve felt very challenged by both my peers and my instructors, by the books and the poetry I’ve read while I’ve been here, by myself most of all. I’ve always needed the feeling of being challenged. I think the growth of any artist depends on his or her ability to constantly meet new experiences and new influences, to incorporate them creatively into his psyche. There’s a Whitman quote that comes to mind, and I suppose I’ve always taken it as an artistic injunction: “You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from your self.”

I think one of the most important aspects of the MFA program, for me, is the opportunity to learn from your own work. To be surrounded by a community of supportive, intelligent, engaged, passionate poets who will respond to your work sympathetically, with a desire to uncover and truly understand what it is you’re trying to do is immensely instructive. This has allowed me to see my own work differently, and I feel it’s grown because of this, but as to how it’s grown—well, I think I want to let my poetry speak for itself.

Other highlights of the time I’ve spent here so far include studying with some amazing professors (Orlando Menes, Joyelle McSweeney, Johannes Göransson, and Romana Huk, among others), and meeting some fascinating and compelling contemporary poets (like Alice Notley).  I’ve also loved teaching undergraduate creative writing and being able to work with the Notre Dame Review. Just simply being a part of the intensely fertile artistic community here at Notre Dame has been an enriching experience.  

LV: You are also a composer and a pianist, which brings me to my next question: being a musician does this affect your definition of what you conceive as poetry, is this definition of poetry particularly broader?

Music and poetry have always gone hand-in-hand, for me. I started playing piano and composing music around the same time that I became passionately interested in poetry. I struggled, as an undergraduate at Indiana University, Bloomington, to decide whether to major in music or in literature, and in the end, I took degrees in both. I had to.

Quite clearly, music emanates from a place beyond signification, beyond words, and communicates to a place beyond words. I’ve always thought of poetry the same way: it is a struggle to say the unsayable—to use words to reach beyond them, into the heart of an experience, into the heart of being. Poetry is, to me, the primordial song—or cry, or shout—of the human soul. Or, to put it as Yves Bonnefoy once did, “Poetry is that which tries to make music of what occurs in life.”

So I feel that I have always been keenly aware of the limitations of language, but not in the same way that I feel like a lot of contemporary poets are. I feel that a lot of recent poetry wants to shout: “Poetry is just a language construct!” And I want to nod and say, “Yeah, it’s true that poetry is made with language. It’s always been true, but that’s why poetry exists in the first place—to go beyond language.” The composer Claude Debussy—one of my strongest musical influences—wrote, “Music is the silence between the notes.” Echoing that, I would say that poetry is the space between the words. Just as a piece of music isn’t reducible to the notes that compose it, a poem isn’t reducible to the words on the page. Poetry and music—at least the poetry and the music that matters most to me—both come from the void and reach into the void. This isn’t a void of nothingness, but a void that is overflowing with infinite possibility and infinite meaning, and with numinous, ultimately ineffable experience.    

LV: One of the many things I admire about your work—I am thinking of you poem “Litany”—is
the use of the image and sound—particularly repetition—as the twin engines that move your poems toward the “emotional intensity” we’ve been talking about, could you share some words on what you are trying to do with image and sound?

Image and sound go hand-in-hand for me, and they always have. What I might call the sound / image complex is really something that is particular only to poetry, among all the other art forms. In the poem you mentioned, “Litany,” I felt that I was trying to capture the “music” of a certain feeling I often have, that of wanting to put my arms around the whole of life—all its richness and its rawness, its pain and its exultation, and everything in between—while at the same time knowing that this is impossible. So I used the word “because” as an anaphora, like Ginsberg uses “who” in the poem “Howl.” The anaphora gave me the feeling that I could build up intensity in the poem, go on singing for as long as I liked, and return to a fixed place. Each “because” is followed by an image or a number of them, some rather “normal” (like “rain”) and some more along the lines of the so-called “Deep Image,” like “the prism of the rain.” So the music of the poem itself is built from the repetition of “because” and the rhythmic cascade of images that follow it. I feel now that what the poem ends up trying to affirm is the feeling that each moment of existence is complete in itself, both transient and eternal, and ultimately self-justifying, just like the act of singing itself.

LV: And finally could you share with us how you came to poetry, and being too that this is your last year in the M.F.A. program, what do you look forward to in your work both while a student here at Notre Dame and beyond?

When I was quite young—in third or fourth grade—I was assigned to write poetry by my favorite elementary school teacher, Ms. Anita Edwards. I still remember the strange thrill of satisfaction that came over me then—I could fit words to myself! It was a simple but tremendous kind of ecstasy. A few years later, I felt entranced by Edgar Allan Poe. I couldn’t get enough of the weird, haunting music I felt happening in some of his poems, like “The Bells” or “Ulalume.” I wrote poetry inspired by Poe, trying to do what he did, but of course I couldn’t. Finally, in high school, I happened to find a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in my high school library, along with a copy of William Stafford’s book Travelling Through the Dark. I devoured both books, and both poets remain important to me today, particularly Whitman. Reading Whitman for the first time was an experience I’ll never forget—I felt like I’d discovered a kindred spirit and previously unknown parts of myself at the same time. I suddenly knew that I wanted most of all to be a poet. I also remember my second thought, “If only I could be a poet!”

So here I am, being a poet at Notre Dame. As for what I’ll do beyond my time here—well, I hope to publish my poetry and eventually a book, and I’d like very much to continue teaching as well. I’m looking forward to what will come, as uncertain as the future is right now—and when isn’t the future uncertain for poets? “Your job is to find out what the world is trying to be,” is a line from a William Stafford poem that immediately comes to mind. I’ll take whatever comes next, as long as I can continue doing what I love.       

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