About a month ago, someone sent me an email that contained a link to Portia Elan’s poem, “A Simile Is a Suspension Bridge,” featured in Ninth Letter‘s Web #1 issue from this past winter. The email was empty except for the link . Nothing else was needed.
I read the poem in my office and cried. I can’t think of a time prior to this where a poem has made me cry. What I mean is I’m pretty tough.
So maybe I was homesick. Maybe I was PMSing. Maybe I was wildly in love. Maybe I really missed someone. Or maybe this poem just knows how to break a heart. All of that, maybe, but mostly the latter.
A week after reading this poem, I brought it to my poetry workshop here at VT. Everyone gets a chance to share a favorite poem during a class period over the course of the semester. I read it out loud to the class. I loved it even more. I told friends about it. And strangers. I tweeted about it.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the poem, so I reached out to Portia. I’m thrilled that she agreed to discuss it with me.
Lisa Summe: When I write a poem, it usually starts in one of two ways—either with a line I came up with that contains an image or reference to a concrete thing I’d like to explore my feelings about, or with a feeling that I am able to make clear or universal through an image, thing, or event that I work to construct in the poem. Talk about writing this poem. How did it begin for you? With an image or line? A feeling? Something else?
Portia Elan: A good opening line—the kind of opening line that makes me want to sit down and write the rest of them poem—feels like I’m rocking back and forth into a sort of trance state. I keep lines with that kind of rhythm tucked away in a file, although I often have no idea what the final poem will be about. The opening of “A Simile is a Suspension Bridge” (“God—loving you is like sleeping drunk on the roof please come get me”) actually emerged from a conversation with a friend who was in love with an unavailable man; that’s not at all what the poem is about, but we were both of us facing down what it means to be in love with someone who doesn’t feel as committed to us as we are to them, how dangerous that is—as dangerous as falling asleep drunk on the roof.
LS: So from the beginning, there’s so much risk in this poem—a risk that involves the speaker and how she mourns a lover she once had, how she deals with a desire that will not go away, a desire that just keeps inflating. There’s a risk for the poet because it’s so easy to fuck up trying to talk about giant sentimental things like heartbreak and missing someone. And then there’s that obvious risk of falling off the roof drunk because you fell asleep.
All of my favorite poems are simultaneously funny and heartbreaking. I try to write poems that contain these qualities because such a juxtaposition, for me, works to create a tension that doesn’t allow the reader to get too involved in feeling too happy or too sad for too long, which consequently keeps each sentiment from exhausting itself. It also adds a layer of humanness—if you’re not ashamed or embarrassed to look for it, you can find humor in anything, even heartbreak. Discuss the juxtaposition of humor and heartbreak in this poem. How do you see it working? Did this happen on purpose, that these elements are present? In other words, were you trying to write a poem that was both funny and heartbreaking? How did these things happen to overlap for you?
PE: I’m so glad you found this poem funny! I wish I was calculated enough to plan to be funny in poems, because I know how important it is—without the humor, there’s only the banal black maw of mortality and aloneness. I’m not a talented enough writer to make those things interesting. You’re right that if we’re honest enough, we can find humor in anything—I think particularly in extremis; those moments of desperate need are terribly boring on their own; in poetry they don’t yield anything but therapy for the writer. Those moments are fertile ground for absurdity though; anything is possible when it feels like nothing is left. It seems a waste not to imagine fully, with all that possibility. When the reader is pleasantly surprised by what you can imagine—that makes my favorite kind of humor in poems.
LS: I love the way the speaker is very elaborately fantasizing about the costume party. How did you come up with this vehicle that very much fuels the poem?
PE: Costumes and parties are two things that make me awfully anxious, so the speaker is building this palace—this uncomfortable palace—as an offering and I wanted the offering to be both elaborate and ridiculous. Those details—the sort of architectural flourishes of the palace—are a distraction for the speaker, from the fact that even this offering can’t fix things. I was also interested in the level of exposure that comes with dressing up as someone you might want to sleep with; it sounds like a sitcom; would everyone all show up dressed as the same person? What kinds of chains of desire would be revealed?
LS: I want to have this party in real life and find out. Halloween is only weeks away.
The cat seems to add a new level of heartbreak to the poem—it isn’t just the speaker who misses the “you,” but also the cat, who is incapable of understanding what is going on or recognizing the feeling of missing. Tell me about the cat and why it was an important layer to the sadness of the poem.
PE: One of the best things about cats is that they are so sure in their wants; they know with such definition whether or not they want to be close or not-close, and when they want something, they tell you. They tell everyone. They also don’t understand “I’ll be back later,” only that you are not there now.
LS: This is a poem about faith. In what? Talk about that.
PE: The Christian mystics aren’t very hip right now, but I’m a big fan. Mysticism is the practice of preparing for a direct—a transformative—encounter with God, an encounter that Bernard McGinn describes as a “new way of knowing and loving based on states of awareness in which God becomes present in our inner acts.” Mysticism is also a set of symbols we use to express the Divine, but those symbols have to be replaced and renewed. When you read the Christian mystics—Augustine, Hildegard, Margery Kempe—there’s an immediacy to their relationship to God. They are constantly trying to find new symbols to articulate their interior experiences of God. I was rereading Hildegard when I wrote this poem and really wrestling with how abandoned I felt by God. The relationships that the mystics have with God are as intimate as between lovers and I wanted that—wanted it terribly. I was also so mad that I couldn’t just stop believing.
The thrill of this poem is that it’s simple because of its complexities. This is a poem about wanting someone who doesn’t want you back, about believing and believing and hurting because you believe. This is a poem about how even a cat can have a broken heart. A poem about a party where you dress up as the person you want to sleep with the most. A winning combination, I’d say.
Again, you can check out the poem here:
Dig it? More work by Portia Elan can be found here: