Melissas review of Bone Light in this issue.
New work by Orlando White in this issue.
On Bone Light:
An interview with the poet, Orlando White.
By Melissa Buckheit
MB: Hello, Orlando. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about your first book, Bone Light, and about your writing and life. To begin, Im curious where your book began—both in terms of a physical geography and perhaps a year, but also inside yourself and within the world. How did you come to write it? It feels you were given to write it—at least that is the experience of a reader; the book inhabits a very particular corridor or dimensions in space.
OW: I am fond of a quote by Edmond Jabès where he says, When, as a child, I wrote my name for the first time, I knew I was beginning a book. It was immediate and profound for me in understanding the idea of the book. Reading this quote, I imagined the first time I wrote something, my name for example, and thought, was that the moment I existed, because of written language? Jabès also says, You are the one who writes and is written. I like the idea of how written language is our identity—a word expands our experience of who we are and where we are from. These concepts I feel were what gave some structure to Bone Light. A couple of months before publication, my notion of a book was abstract, but what gave it shape and physicality was perhaps an idea that when we look at the book we are looking at ourselves.
MB: Yes—our language both is and reflects ourselves. Bone Light begins with a short narrative poem, a parable as it were, about your first experiences with language, the alphabet, and familial relationships with speech. You were six years old and just beginning to learn letters. The idea of how your relationship with language was formed—a tenuous one it feels, which you fiercely and firmly grasped—is something which is energetically echoed as the book progresses through sluices of poems, letters and people. This first poem reminds me of something the poet Rebecca Seiferle has said, when speaking of both her own experience of language and a historical one. To paraphrase, she spoke of the way language can or may carry the weight of history and historical narratives, how language itself can adopt movements like and be reflective of those narratives, both trauma and liberation. I feel this reality is at the surface in the beginning of Bone Light. Yet, your movements with letters themselves, language and the stories inside etymology and the origin of languages, a sweetness and a present death, transform this entrance (the weight of language).
OW: I think Rebecca Seiferle is right in that words do carry narratives. I am reminded of Leslie Marmon Silko when she said there is always a story within a single word, and because story is made up of words, then those words used have other stories inside them too, and then what emerges is a web of narratives. It is in the single word, which has a duty outside of the writer, to express something urgent. And perhaps as a writer it is also our responsibility to work with the words imperativeness. I think at a very young age for me, the importance of writing words was crucial to understanding self and imagination. I always remember an urgency of apprehending the art of writing letters, words and it was difficult, the complexities of shape and sound that each demanded. Before I wrote, To See Letters, I asked myself where does my interest in language and writing originate? As a child I was nourished through viewing my mother play word puzzles, and, also, being submitted to write letters correctly by the force of my step-dads hand. Aware of these experiences, I began to grow with poetry writing—it provided space to imagine a word or letter first as an image rather than as sound. The impulse of the opening narrative-like piece originates primarily from these two occurrences.
MB: Your second poem, Sentence posits almost a thesis in Bone Light, although I hesitate to use that term, for its technicality. Nonetheless, there is the sense of logic, of a postulate opening the book, a world of direct relationship: the paper screen, the page, the blankness of both, before a human form or a letter graces each, touched by light. After, letters can appear / as bones, there is a link between the letter and the human body, and no imagination / without / its imagery. What emerges is the origin of letters and their ideogram forms, shapes and images in human culture, experience and development. How does this reality exist for you, in order for your work to inhabit it throughout the book? Can you speak of where these ideas began?
OW: In Stephane Mallarmes, The Book, Spiritual Instrument, he expresses that, The book, total expansion of the letter, has to extract from it, directly... As I read this line, I found myself rewriting that phrase in my head thinking, The sentence, a total expansion of the shape of a letter, it has to extract from it, directly... I like the idea of a complete thought emerging from a more visual perspective in which a sentence exists because of the shapes of letters— much like how the body is made up of its parts, skeletal system, anatomy, and how visually detailed each is. I see words and sentences in the same way; I am much more interested in the detailed layers/fragments of language on paper. In exploring English I try to re-see it through an objective eye, so the physicality of language is on the page and my imagination is a microscope examining it.
MB: A certain vocabulary suffuses Bone Light. Some are intangibles—light, for example; others inhabit a sub-vocabulary related to the body and language: bleach, zero, ink, cloth, skull, skeleton, dot, bone, calcium, foam, period, sentence, punctuation mark, O, tooth, skin, book, tongue, eye, milk. Please speak about this vocabulary—so many of these things mimic or follow each other in shape, substance, shade or sensibility.
OW: There are repeating words and images throughout Bone Light, and I wanted to create a sense of a language economy and meditation. I like the idea of using a minimal amount of words in a short amount of space and time. In so far as how koans and aphorisms function, there is an immediacy of an emotive and intellectual intensity within a limited use of language. Almost every word and phrase repeated throughout the book is an item of introspection, because I think concrete and abstract objects reflect how we perceive ourselves too.
MB: Again and again as the book progresses, as a reader I am engaged with a sense of what is left after everything else has been removed—the silhouette of the human skeleton, the skull itself, just the ink or shape of a letter without its sound or meaning, necessarily—this feeling of the bareness of components, almost like photographs in negative. The body is without flesh, adornments, the colors in Bone Light are shades—white, black, variances thereof. The instructions or actions maintain this state—the line Soak wash cloth / in bleach. / Put it on face, for example. Within these shades and shapes (when I close my eyes after reading, I can see their shapes on my eyelids, as one does after staring at a bright light or the sun), is the apparent presence of death. Where is this death and why? What are your thoughts and feelings about this sense of life in negative?
OW: Coming back to Edmond Jabès, he mentions something to the effect that the moment someone writes on paper, she or he reveals an injury, that somehow ink is a type of bandage and the page is a wound. I understand this as a writers process of creating letters, words, sentences, and as this happens with the action of writing, a writer removes layers of her or his external self, too. Ink (rather than as bandage) is skin/flesh and vice versa, and the page is the skeleton—so in Bone Light there is a process of dehumanization perhaps. A lot of the poems enact a method of being deconstructed by language, but at the same time we are that language too.
MB: That substitution from Jabès idea is fascinating. But a sense of life (in the flesh) does emerge as the book progresses. In Analogy, the letters i and j become a couple, a man the size of a letter / wears a white necktie and dark suit and Next to him, a woman the size of a letter, too; / she wears a white scarf and a black gown. The couple is in love; they are human but created from a slight play on the shapes of two similar letters—the slight difference in male and female form. Poems with i and j, later in the book, seem a transformation or creation from the barer components/vocabulary in the beginning of Bone Light, where they were not connected or whole things. Now, See them on the white bed of a page, how they hyphenate, / how they will create language together. Language is possible because of human relationship, co-habitation, warmth, spirit. I feel like this echoes the first poem, To See Letters.
OW: Where I am from the origin of language originates from sound, and if you listen to the Diné language and understand it, like the poet Laura Tohe would say, the language is very onomatopoeic. I feel that sound is what breathes movement into the verbs of Diné Bizaad, it also has many diacritical marks. And I think each high tone, nasal tone, glottal stop, and slash are visual representations of movement. Without these marks it would not make any sense, its much like how words and sentences need punctuation to be understandable. How the word and image of a hyphen is used in the i and j series performs not just as a symbol but also as a kind of diacritical verb (if that makes any sense!). The hyphen exists in order to adjoin both letters for them to make sense on the page. So in a certain way the hyphen is crucial in understanding i and j and their existence.
MB: In the books final poem Writ, death points the gun of language at your skull, filling its empty holes with dark ink. You say that you saw the white door of paper and were there forever it seems, / thinking of the origin and end of poesis. This poem seems both serious and humorous to me; there appears to be commentary about human experience and about poetry, itself. Im curious if you were thinking of the Greek root for poetry? Can you speak about this poem?
OW: Actually, the poem Writ I wrote after an intense dream I had; in my dream someone was following me and that person was a dark silhouette, he had no eyes or mouth, no facial expression, just a complete shadowy figure. I remember the dream smelled of hot ink, it felt humid, and I was trying to run away from this person. I dont know why I was trying to get away, but I knew my fear fed my desire to hide, and my instinct told me to hide behind a white door which appeared in front of me. Eventually, the person finds me and shoots me in the head. The dream shook me up not only emotionally but intellectually as well, so I wrote a poem about it. I just took the basic idea of the dream and reinterpreted it by relating it to language and writing.
MB: There is such a visceral sense in that poem, in the way that dreams can feel so real when we are in them. Lastly, I wonder if you can speak about your earliest influences as a writer and what, in particular, influenced the writing of Bone Light? What were you reading and studying?
OW: My earliest influences came from poets like Charles Simic and Mark Strand. In particular, Dismantling the Silence and The Orphan Factory by Simic; his creative thoughts on objects and his use of the poetic image expanded my imagination. I also loved Reasons for Moving and Darker by Strand; his poems allowed me to meditate on the conditions of the self. Of course, The Black Mountain Poets manifesto Projective Verse, written by Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, was crucial to me in terms of how form and movement of line perform. Certain aspects of literary theory influenced me as well, mostly from Structuralism and Deconstruction. Lastly, Edmond Jabès in his Book of Questions was quite amazing to me and still is. When he says things like, I get up with the page that is turned. I lie down with the page put down. To be able to reply: I belong to the race of words... His poetics freed up my process so I could interact more between the texts I write and myself as a writer.
MB: When did you begin writing poetry? Your reading for the Edge Series of Emerging and Younger Poets, which I curate, was quite powerful—I could feel the weight, as well as the emptiness and music, in each poem read. This denotes a life spent with language as aural and oral, in my mind; song and page exist, hand-in-hand. What does the spoken form of your poetry signify?
OW: I love the idea of the caesura as a line break, the pause between words. Its impulse to fragment a sentence and reveal the white space of the page, for me, is a visual representation of silence. There is a relationship between speech and the page and I do my best to emphasize silence because I feel there is a musical form within stillness, an unseen rhythm informing the text, the listener, and the writer.
MB: Since your first book was published, please speak about your current work and your second book, as it is coalescing. How does your current work bridge or connect to Bone Light, with it preoccupation and insistence on the experience of language, history, and self, as well as the movement of language on the page?
OW: The second book I am working on now is an extension of Bone Light in that I write about other letters besides i and j. But a section of the book focuses on letters and their pictorial singularities. And I think what drives my second book is the idea of re-seeing language again as pictorial and sound, rather than as something seen as an object and somewhat peripheral.
MB: What are some of the themes and preoccupations of your current work, and what other disciplines or fields of study have been informing you in your writing from the past couple of years? Who have you currently been reading and thinking about?
OW: In another section of my second book I will be looking at the origin of sound according to Diné thought. The idea that in the beginning language was sound, not the word. Its really nothing new, but I hope in exploring my Indigenous language, it will add more depth to that idea. There are also a few books like Letter by Letter by Laurent Pflughaupt which examines letters from a more artist perspective; another is Wordplay: The Philosophy, Art, and Science of Ambigrams by John Langdon, which looks at how the shapes of letters can play with the imagination; also, reading up on typography and other languages in general have inspired me to write poetry.
MB: Thank you so much, Orlando.