Interview with Flower Conroy by Morgan Whitney and William Pagliarulo

Your pieces are incredibly abstract, are there specific meanings that you derive from them or hoped your audience would derive from them?

I absolutely love this question because (believe it or not!) I hadn’t thought of these poems as being abstract. In fact, when I read the first question I second guessed myself and thought “oh god what poems did I send them?!” Which in hindsight is silly because I relish in the abstract. Perhaps it was a forest through the trees response—I know I’m juggling many extraneous moving pieces within these poems and sometimes the connective tissue is stretched membrane thin but as their creator I have an intimacy with them that isn’t privy to a reader—so your question prompted me to comb more thoroughly through the poems to see what it was I was doing on paper intuitively and through revision and how these poems exist looking from the outside in (which meant I had to look inside out). So please indulge me as I think through this vortex hour of process.

“Axolotl” and “Mushroom” are from a bestiary I’m working on; all the “subjects” I address represent creatures, objects and/or ideas that personally fascinate me. But curiosity wasn’t/isn’t enough motive to explore these subjects—I wanted them to resonate in a larger sphere so I needed to mine them for external connections—a make-the-private-universal approach. How humans interact with the natural world—and worlds we’ve made “natural” (highways aren’t natural but we have made them so, for example)—intrigues and worries me. Climate change, extinction, compassion (or the lack there of) for fellow human beings are at the nucleus of this project—but saying the obvious “environmental destruction is bad, extinction is bad, hurting others is bad” isn’t necessarily poetry. My task then became how to elevate these concerns through an “isolated” lens in order to shed new light on the subjects I’ve chosen. The poems tend to be highly associative; they depend on juxtaposition to create tension and subtexture; they—to borrow Brenda Hillman’s phrase—“follow [my] weird.” And my ear. I often think of ED’s head coming off notion of what poetry should do to the reader and I verily want the reader to come away from my poems haunted by a “what just happened (to me)?” feeling. That can’t happen unless it happens to me first. I crave transformation, mind and bodily altering experiences; I want my poems to be part aphrodisiac, part poison, part enlightenment, part heartbreak. Some humor in the horror. A thinking through the feeling and a feeling through the thinking. So I guess that does make them incredibly abstract lol. And like the best abstract art I want them to mean something without meaning something—or without meaning something overtly tangible and definable. 

Tom Sleigh once told a story in which his friend was given the advice “you don’t have to change your life you have to change your line length.” These poems adhere to physical constraints; they are cast in prose poem form but can only occupy as much space as a 5.83” x 8.27” page will allow [in effect giving the poems a false sense of containment and fixedness, and creating tension between form (prose lineation) and content (lyrical mediations)].  The epigraphs are meant to meant to refute, confute, complicate, confuse and/or illuminate the subject matter. This highly orchestrated structuring freed me to be more tangential in the poem itself. I am trying to cram a ton of information into a small space—that isn’t possible without making greater leaps between thoughts. In “Axolotl” for example, I begin with an allusion (via a wrong etymology) to where the word axolotl derives from. Researching the salamander I was reminded how they can regenerate; Scott Sayare asks in his article for aeon, “Might salamanders be the great hope of regenerative medicine?” This whispered ideas of medicine (albeit through another convoluted etymology) which circled back to “mouth.” I went down the rabbit hole (or salamander hole in this case) of how language morphs and changes and can be distorted (the Victorian slang, the anagrams), and braided that with ideas of healing and evolution (how humans seem a cross—or recipe—between—as I once heard it described—ape and angel, or here, ape and alien. The introduction of an “alien” speaks back to the “Jupiter” earlier in the poem…). “To’ve syntax & imagery work in equal measures” alludes to the larger interconnectedness we might not always be able to communicate clearly but can feel. The shift to the spirit on the staircase—that “moment when we think of the perfect response to a comment earlier” is another harkening back to missed opportunity (as extinction is a missed opportunity to change the course of history). The chilled is a pun on cold shoulder—the poem has taken a more menacing turn (whose seed was subtly suggested in the lake that no longer exists and other language—apex predator/ vortex)—which is echoed in the devil’s flower mantis but then is softened by undercutting threat with display. I would have to admit this is the most abstract moment in the poem—as we begin with the (aquatic) salamander but end with an image of a terrestrial insect—but syntactically these last two lines are elaborations of the relationship between language and image. See it all makes perfect sense lol! Of course most of this didn’t occur to me in the crafting of the poem. That’s where revision comes in—organizing the information in a random-yet-inevitable Plink-o way, following sound and modulating rhythm, cranking and lessening tension, juxtaposing tones…

What specific meaning do I derive from this poem? I think it is less meaning that I chase and more of a means of pleasure—of playing with language and ideas and how images can convey emotional subtext—a way of meaning and suspending time and then reentering the world with a different (and perhaps more riddled) sense of it—an embodiment of the “there is a universe and it is behind this universe” idea.  

Looking back at “Mushroom” I completely understand how these poems could be received as abstract—this poem indulges if not thrives in the incredibly abstract! I just didn’t think of it quite like that—I was thinking how to articulate the unknown and how to reinvent the known. It’s no small accident this poem straddles the psychedelic, melding the earthly with the otherworldly, pitting beauty and danger. Perhaps this poem’s greatest preoccupation is the uncanny valley between our perceptions of reality and the true nature of reality whatever that may be—there’s a vast gap between the threshold of our senses and the ultraforces governing this universe. (If you’ve not seen Fantastic Fungi I highly recommend it. There’s definitely some of my take-away from that movie residual below the surface in this poem—and probably also the movies Arrival and My Octopus Teacher lurking here as well—there being a parallel between mycelium and tentacles in my mind, an “as above so below” going on, but also the implication of reaching.) 

I have to push myself into strange terrains, to root through language and create an experience.  Emily had her head popping off, I have my heady trapdoors I slip through. I am more likely to agree than to disagree that every poem is an ars poetica; it is a making of itself. And as such makes in another. Now I would have to say I’m being incredibly—though not intentionally—abstract! I want my audience to be transported emotionally, intellectually and/or viscerally, to be stimulated and unnerved, entertained and maybe even disturbed. My 90-year-old mother-in-law (whom I adored and whom recently passed) never ate a strawberry in her life; for better or for worse, I want my poems to be her eating a strawberry for the first time—that sensation inside the reader. 

Are there any stories from your early life that root themselves in your work today?

My early life is integral to my poems. Shortly after his 45 birthday, my father’s heart stopped. Longer story abridged, he was comatose for over a year before we disconnected his feeding tube. Twenty plus years later and this incident still haunts my work. As a child my house burned within (not down—it was a concrete block structure so the house fire was akin to a kiln)—this ghosts my poems. That my father was a hunter and mispronounced certain words. That my mother’s mother passed when I was a baby. That she was an avid reader of romance novels. That I am an only child and I was loved. And sheltered (no pun intended). All this comes into play in my work in some residual way. 

What was the process of getting these pieces to a place that you liked?

I do enjoy talking shop—as if you hadn’t gathered! Just as I’m inclined to believe poems are innately ars poeticas more so than not, I’d also readily agree I’m hardly satisfied with where my poems arrive; that is, I am nettled by the idea that there is always an ultimate ulterior place they could go—a being-nearly-satisfied-by-being-unsatisfied dichotomy; again, this idea of reaching. So the process of getting them to a place that I like is really the process of exhausting what the poem can be. And what it will not tolerate. Sometimes that means returning to the earlier drafts—as with “Mushroom.” Before its acceptance into hex, I was in the murk of overhauling the poem. I’d printed the bestiary manuscript out and was hand revising; when I reread “Mushroom,” I had a “wtf is this?” reaction; I was afraid it was too disjointed, too—yes—abstract, that it veered too far away from semblance.  But semblance to what? I marked certain lines with “?—,” I crossed out others, in the marginalia I scribbled: “I named a dog after you—because as a pup she hid under the bed like a toadstool,” “renunciation. forgiveness.,” “stay true to the mushroom.,” “the hotel overdose—,” and “once I tasted the crazy you.” Then I abandoned the revision thinking I’d return to it after I let these reactions settle. I was focusing on an ideal audience (what is that?) and not listening to the poem on its terms. The first line in the poem was answering me: “To detect such designs, however, is not necessarily to understand them.” The poem was giving itself permission to be itself. Why did I feel the need to distill something of healing and psychotropic potential born out of the dank and decaying—out of decomposition—into something neatly composed? Though it isn’t a persona poem told from the mushroom’s point of view, the language began to suggest that the mushroom could be speaking about itself in third person—something that was much more exciting to me than me trying to relate fungi tidbits to the reader. 

Revisiting an earlier draft of “Axolotl,” the poem ends with the text-chunk “If noon’s the vortex hour… primitive streak business all figured out” and I’m not sure which I prefer now. There’s something—dare I utter it?—satisfying about the axolotl seemingly knowing something we humans cannot know. Just as there’s something intriguing about the final imagery of the devil’s flower mantis in this version, especially following the meta line about syntax and imagery. I suppose the “final” iteration will depend upon the manuscript as a whole; the more I fine-tune the larger body of work the more clearly the poems will reveal themselves—I mean, god I hope. 

What are you working on right now?

While the bestiary is my primary pet project (pun intended) and I’m devoting much of my energy into its weavings, as a writer and artist I need to juggle multiple projects so as to avoid burnout. 

I’ve another manuscript [whose sense of line and punctuation and ambition is markedly different than my other work; it is a much more overtly queer feminist experimentation (for me anyhow)] that began as a chapbook, evolved into a full length and has now re-evolved back into a chapbook. If the bestiary is interested in cataloging a faux encyclopedia of my interests, fetishes, passions, concerns and fears—this manuscript is interested in exploring a glimpse into a life in its particular moments. What’s most interesting for me in this pursuit is the body of work’s disinterest in me as the poet. I feel like these poems are doing what they want and I’ve little say over it. Terrifying, yes, but also a relief. I’m a vessel and little more, a mere medium.

In another chapbook I am revisiting my father’s coma. Perhaps enough time’s passed that I can write about it from the scar and not the open wound. 

I’m also collaborating with Donna Spruijt-Metz on what we’ve coined our Exquisite Devils—poems that take Emily Dickinson’s last lines and use them as titles, as jumping off points—because even though ED’s poems end on the page they do not end in air. Donna and I were fortunate enough to go to MacDowell to work on these collaborations in the flesh (until then we were emailing). Being in the same space allowed us to pursue these poems in an entirely different approach.


Flower Conroy’s poems “Axolotl” and “Mushroom” appeared in hex on April 26, 2022