WRITER CLAIRE ÅKEBRAND
I visit her on a beautiful summer evening in Provo, Utah. Her home is filled with warm light, large leafy plants, and mid-century furniture, all in creamy tones and a clean aesthetic that betray her Swedish roots. Everything is tidy except for a haphazard pile of books—novels, poetry, children’s titles—on one end of the kitchen counter, spines facing in all directions. I follow Claire on Instagram, so even though this is my first visit, I kind of know her living room already. I enjoy the particular pleasure of orienting yourself in a space you’ve known only through photos—like arriving to an Airbnb rental.
Claire is tall, calm, and kind. If she’s flustered or anxious about being photographed, she doesn’t show it. She speaks carefully, choosing the right words for what she wants to say. Her English is of course impeccable, and at times there’s the trace of an accent, a faint echo of her European childhood. I set up my camera in the backyard. Light filters through tall trees and everything is green. Claire is content to sit in the summer air, looking on with the careful observation she cultivates as a writer. When she laughs, which she’s happy to do, she gives herself to it completely.
Claire is one of my favorite people to follow on Instagram and Twitter, where she shows that she’s taken Rilke’s famous advice to heart: “If your daily life seems poor, do no blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches.” She documents her children’s lives with well-composed shots that are often ironic and funny, sometimes sweet and heartfelt. Her photos go beyond the snapshot and display the innate sense she has for a good photograph. She’ll post an empty room filled with light or a red lamp beside a dusky window—frames that wouldn’t be out of place in a Wim Wenders film. She explores her small town and its environs, capturing deserted strip malls, landscapes, random detritus, all interwoven with witty comments and observations on Proust, Keats, motherhood, poetry, and things like signage at a second-hand store. I’m constantly impressed by the riches Claire calls forth in her daily world and more than happy to follow along.
At one point, after we’ve made several portraits, Claire messes with her hair. “Is it looking Kurt Cobain enough?” she wonders aloud. I think she’s joking. “Do you want to look like Kurt Cobain?” She responds quickly and seriously, “I always want to look like Kurt Cobain.”
BRACKET: So, first things first, have you read There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce?
CLAIRE: I haven't. Though the title has fascinated me for some time now. I don’t read a lot of contemporary poetry, which I suppose is hypocritical of me since I myself am writing contemporary poetry. I can't get myself to pay much attention to anyone but Wallace Stevens. I’m sure I’ll come out of this wonderful Stevens rut sooner or later.
B: I don’t think that’s hypocritical at all. I think for serious readers there’s always that pressure we put on ourselves—like, am I reading enough new work? But then there’s all this older stuff I still haven’t touched. I go through phases where I create these structured reading systems to try and follow, but of course they never hold up. I’ve been through so many!
What draws you to Stevens in particular?
C: It's difficult to answer this question without wanting to quote his entire collection. The poems speak for themselves. I will say that I need his celebratory voice in my life. His poems are of an alternate universe even when he does write of Florida or Vermont or Tennessee, a universe where bliss, curiosity, and tenderness are the norm—to borrow a definition of art from Nabokov. I appreciate Stevens's crisp, isolated images. His awe in the face of beauty. Ordinary or extraordinary beauty is contagious. His poems feel exotic and wondrous though they so often depict very familiar objects and things—domestic scenes, periwinkles, jars, weather. Who says “red weather”? I once read that Stevens wanted readers to have fun with his poems like kids playing in snow. That's how I feel in his words, like a child experiencing primal joys. This is not to say his poems are light or naive but they are pleasurable and cloyingly joyful, even when he writes about something as dark as death. The joy lies in the language.
B: Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
C: I was born in Stockholm, Sweden and grew up in rural Germany. My parents raised us in the Swedish language. German came next. English came last when we moved to Utah and I was fourteen. We were relatively poor and never did things like family vacations. My parents and siblings are painters, photographers, musicians, and writers. I grew up in an artistically supportive environment. My parents treated everything I wrote as gold. My father would say things like, "We have to keep these poems in a safe." Thanks to my parents, I never have these moments where I doubt art's importance and holiness. We spent a lot of time in museums and nature. My parents’ approach to these things was never pedantic but passionate and blissful. A few months ago, my father sent me a note from Paris where he had visited several museums and the note read: “Few things matter in the presence of true art.” That is how I grew up—with a bunch of romantics.
B: That’s really beautiful. It’s impossible to overstate that kind of support. Fourteen is an interesting age to move to a new city, let alone an entirely different country. Language structures everything about our experience in the world. Do your Swedish/German roots influence your writing now?
C: German and Swedish have gendered nouns. My German background especially has me constantly personifying things. Someone who grew up speaking English probably doesn't think of inanimate things or concepts as being feminine or masculine or neuter. Do you? To me, the forest will always be masculine, "Der Wald." Fear, feminine, "Die Angst." Hatred, masculine, "Der Hass." Joy, feminine, "Die Freude." Perhaps my linguistic background is to blame for my love of personification.
B: I also speak Portuguese, so I totally understand this impulse to personify things. I’m glad I learned a gendered language. I like the extra dimension it adds to my perception and interpretation of the world.
All this reminds me of your poem Night Song, one of my favorites. A meditation on language. I love that line: “carry us into a night so dark we have to imagine the world.” This is all reminiscent of your man Wallace Stevens. I’m thinking of The Idea of Order at Key West.
I think you share his insistence on subjectivity. This idea that we are the active creators of our reality, and language is our most important tool. Yet in this collection it feels like a sort of curse, the way in which we’ve chosen to use language. We’ve gone down the wrong paths. It’s become a burden in this time of total noise. This voice longs for a retreat from a world increasingly delineated by religion, by science, by technology and over-communication. A falling away and forgetting that precedes an acknowledgement of the unknown. And language will be the thing that gets us there, if we let it.
How do you balance the religious with the literary? The spiritual with the secular? This feels like a tension in your writing. You have that same awe in the face of beauty that you mentioned with Stevens. But I like that you don't shy away from a confrontation with darker undercurrents. Your poetry is full of Biblical references but it’s clearly not religious writing. People want to be so certain of things, and I feel like you’re asking us to reconsider, like maybe there’s something better and even more edifying for us in the mystery.
C: My religious background will always bleed into my writing. I don’t choose my subject matter. I don’t turn away any ideas for poems or prose whether secular or religious. I’m an opportunist. (Though I am proud to say that as of yet, there are no Adam and Eve poems in my new collection.) And yes, I do believe there is something better and more edifying in mystery. I stay far away from both secular and religious writing that is didactic. I am wary of certainty. I want to question everything that feels certain within me. If a person can accept and embrace mystery, that person is far better equipped to survive emotionally. That is one very practical use of art. There is endless life in mystery. More life than can ever be discovered. One of the greatest human joys is trying to make sense of things and this feeling that we’re almost arriving at understanding. Maybe the sense is in the sense-making. I believe above all in the gospel of Keats: “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections, and the truth of the imagination.” When we try to make sense of existence—acknowledging that many things will remain incomprehensible—we use our imagination and the imagination is a sister to hope, sometimes a twin.
B: Have you always written poetry?
C: I started at age seven. I went in and out of poetry like an abandoned house. I became serious about poetry as a teenager, a couple of years after moving to Utah. Somewhere there is a floppy disc with over six hundred bad teenage poems on it. I still frequent poetry like an abandoned house. I am dreaming of making it a home one day. I still feel like a trespasser. Any minute the owner will return and look very surprised to see me here.
B: You're married to a poet, one I happen to know is a very good poet. That seems like a lot of existential valence in one household. How is it, the both of you being writers? Do you critique each other's work without driving each other crazy?
C: When you have two kids under five, it is easy to forget you're poets or humans for that matter. But yes, it is very useful to live with a poet. He is my first and most careful reader. My in-house editor. His feedback is invaluable. We only take each other’s good suggestions. And honestly, we don't drive each other crazy. There is no sense of competition between us. We write such different poetry from each other that it works. I can't tell you what it means to me though to be able to look across the room and ask him for a synonym. We nurse each other’s literary crises. We try not to have a crisis at the same time. Michael is shy about showing me his work because he says he still wants to impress me. When I do get to read his poems, they make me cry and I can't believe I've been birthing children, chasing them around the house with hairbrushes, with one of the best poets I know.
B: When I photographed you, we talked briefly about the type of poetry people are looking for today. I feel like your work is unabashedly poetic, in the sense that it's filled with images of nature, quiet moments, a sort of obsession with and care for small details. It's not bombastic or overtly political. Why does writing poetry interest you?
C: I am greedy. Insatiably greedy. I love the world. I love flowers and flower names and stars and dew and dusk and milk and crows and stones and bones and snow and everything blue and sad. These are all unabashedly poetic, yes. I hold no grudge against beauty. I feel like a lot of contemporary poems resent beauty for some strange reason. They want to be as unpoetic as possible. If you’re going to avoid the moon, what even is the point of writing poetry? I want to feel it all before it’s too late. When I write poetry, I am just trying to find more ways to ingest the world. When I write something down, I have this fleeting illusion that I am getting closer to possessing a moment, that I am catching the moment’s hem. I agree with Wallace Stevens that poetry should give pleasure. It can be about anything but it has to give pleasure. I strongly believe that one can write poetry about anything—yes, even the poetic, even beauty. But there can’t be cliches. Cliches are the only taboo. They expose the writer as someone either lazy or unaware of the world.
Yes, there is absolutely an obsession with small details in my poems. I hate to say the word "magical" but I believe that there is magic in small details. If you look closely at just about anything, that thing will start to look back at you. If you focus long enough you begin to doubt something as factual as a spoon. It is very useful to rethink our familiar settings. Isn't it a hopeful thought, that every object could reveal itself to you in endless ways? That there is no end to the revelations ordinary things can give you? Poetry has a way of giving us back the things we lose, such as the images and words we have grown used to.
B: Please, use the word magical always! When you say, “It is very useful to rethink our familiar settings,” I’m aware of that in your work. Most people are on cruise control or constantly figuring out how to turn everything into a social post. For me, it’s one of the most prominent things in this collection: the characters in these poems want to unlearn language, forget our obsession with categorizing things, escape the static into silence.
You write about the burden of language. We’ve bludgeoned the world into submission with our over attention, our endless documentation. Are you able to turn the writer part of your brain off, the part that wants to use everything to writerly ends? What is this desire to unlearn the names of things?
C: Am I able to turn off the part of my brain that wants to use everything to writerly ends? Never. Absolutely never. And I don't mind that at all. I'm always at my desk figuratively speaking. Always taking notes. This makes me appear very absent-minded to other people. Everything I see and hear and feel is fair game. I do however mind thinking of everything as a social media post opportunity. I don't like that impulse in me. Little is private now. Social media is filled with dead words. I feel bad for those words. What does “beautiful” even mean now? I am disturbed by the hyperbolic language of the internet. Everything is literally the best, the most beautiful, the saddest, the most amazing. Words become too casual. Just fillers. I don't want words to be fillers for silence. Not all words are better than silence. My poems long for silence if the opposite can only be empty language. Words need to be buried and be allowed to rise again and be brand new. I think that's one gift literature can give us—it gives us the opposite of empty diction. Here words are weighed and arranged carefully and with reverence and consequently appear new. A reverent communication. A thoughtful discourse that honors both reader and writer. It is a scary thought that words can become hollow, because that means our communication can become hollow. Cliches are not just boring, they are dangerous. They are word-corpses.
B: One thing that keeps me coming back to poetry, besides my very deep love for language, is it seems like the last venue in American culture for subtlety and ambiguity. You can still get away with it in poetry—and the novel. We've managed to mostly drive it out of everything else.
When I said your poetry isn't bombastic, that's definitely not to say it isn't powerful. Despite descriptions of the moon and Biblical imagery, it feels very contemporary. I recognize these people and their concerns. What was your writing process like putting this first collection together? Are you comfortable in the world that you so lovingly render in language?
C: When I write poems, I try not to think of a collection. I just write one poem at a time as if it were alone in the world. Eventually I have enough poems I like enough to put into a collection. Some poems in this book are eight years old, some a few months. It’s hard for me to speak of a writing process because I don’t really have one for poetry. Every time I write a poem, it feels like starting from scratch, like I am about to write my very first poem. I like that (or I am trying to like that). Poetry keeps me on my toes. It doesn’t let me get comfortable about writing.
Am I comfortable in this world? Not in the least. Though I feel a deep connection to its people and landscapes, a connection that feels eternal and unbreakable. At the same time, the world seems like we all got off at the wrong station with no directions whatsoever. We all have that clueless-traveller-look about us. We know nothing about who we are and where we came from. That is pretty remarkable. I think about that all the time. We drive on these roads, and shop in these strip malls, microwave things, with relative peace considering not one of us knows the answers to our most essential questions. I guess that's why I keep revisiting Adam and Eve's narrative. I like to think about a beginning. I like to think about two people at the cusp of time, who choose suffering and death over paradise. Time over eternity. I like to think outside of this world’s lines.
B: I have to say, with the Old Testament imagery up front in the second poem, I was turning the page with some pretty specific expectations, expectations that in the very next poem you immediately disarmed and completely obliterated as the collection went on. All in the very best possible way.
When I read Spilled Milk I felt flat-out disoriented. I reread it several times. Suddenly you'd let the reader into a very honest place, one that for me felt almost too intimate. At the same time I can't tell you how much I appreciate that honesty. Were you aware of that when writing it? There's so much in that quiet little poem.
C: I am pleased that the poem surprised you as much as me. Spilled Milk does feel different than the other poems. The poem came quickly and I didn't change it much. I was aware of a sense of honesty but I wasn't sure what it was honest about and that is my favorite kind of poetry—you feel you have understood something, experienced a completely ambiguous epiphany.
B: I'm sorry to use the word, but this collection is pretty cinematic. I'm a filmmaker, so I love the descriptions of light in your poetry. Outside of language, what influences your writing?
C: Photography. Film. Painting. I am a visual person. Images first. Ideas later. But then again, images and ideas are probably the same thing. You can’t have an image without ideas orbiting around it. When I wrote my novel, The Field Is White, I was basically writing a screenplay. I kept seeing the story like a movie in my mind. Poems, too, in a way feel like movie shots—moments of a greater whole, scenes of a movie that goes on and on. Music has maybe the greatest influence on me. If I turn on classical music and if my hands are near a keyboard or a pen, poetry (or an attempt at poetry) will happen every time. Music evokes too many feelings and whenever I feel too many things simultaneously, I have this illusion that I am experiencing an epiphany or that I am very close to one. This is very useful for writing, this hope for revelations.
B: Speaking of images and revelations, can you talk a bit about your poem The Taxidermist’s Wife? It’s one of my favorites in the collection. I guess I don’t have any question other than good grief where did this come from? The tone and imagery, it’s like Melville and Marquez wrote a poem together. What inspired its writing?
C: Oh if only I had Melville and Marquez writing poems together in my brain. I was doing some research on taxidermists for reasons I don't remember. I came across Louis Dufresne (1752-1832), a French taxidermist who went on long voyages of discovery and had large collections of dead animals and bird eggs and such things. I got this image in my mind of his wife languishing at home among dead things. I don't write long poems, but this poem just kept coming at me with crocodiles and ibises and jaguars. I suppose my being isolated at home as a new mother while Michael was busy with his PhD might have had something to do with the arrival of the taxidermist's wife and my longing for exotic things. I don't know.
B: This was a big year for you. In the same year you’ve published your first poetry collection and your first novel. What was that process like, writing your first novel? How do you shift gears when you’re working in prose?
C: I tried to treat the novel as one long poem with extreme care for the details. This was arduous and overwhelming. This took years. About six years. Such pressure to make every single word and sound and image count—not saying I achieved that! Most names in the novel, for example, were chosen based on pertinent etymology. Writing fiction was an eerie process in the way characters appeared and I wasn't sure exactly from where and I began to care about them as if they were real people and as if they were separate from me. Once I fell in love with my fictional characters, I had to keep writing. I wanted to spend more time with these new people. In a way it felt like they were telling me their story instead of me telling theirs. I wrote a majority of the novel while pregnant with my first son. I panicked when I got pregnant because I realized that I wouldn't get anything written once he was born. That was excellent motivation. I should get pregnant again. It may set my second novel in motion.
B: And now you have two young kids. So what are you working on these days? How do you find time to write while raising a family? Are you a notebook person, jotting down ideas here and there? Or do you try to set specific times to work?
C: I remember Raymond Carver saying that he wrote short stories as a young father because that is all he had time for. I try to write a poem draft every night. A draft a day—I can do that. I have a book’s worth of those drafts now. Soon I’ll start shaping these into an ordered manuscript. I’d love to say I’m a notebook person who writes down images and ideas by hand. I jot down all my ideas on my phone in Google Docs. I like to complain about these impossible working conditions but the truth is, I write more efficiently now than before the children came along. I find long, free days crippling. There’s something exhilarating about constraints and making poems happen when they can’t be happening. I feel like I’m tricking the system, like I have found a loophole. Don’t get me wrong, I would kill for three hour writing blocks every day in plain daylight. I chose to have children and they are worth more than five Anna Kareninas and ten Ode To A Nightingales (ok, maybe nine Nightingales). I find ways to get things done. I take my children on scenic drives around Springville and Spanish Fork, farms and small airports, leaning barns and silos. We see horses, falcons, ibises, bison, watermelon fields, and these images appear later in my poems. One time I saw a group of male workers by a white van in a watermelon field, and one of them was slicing open a watermelon and eating it under the blistering sun. I’ve been meaning to make something out of that image. While I drive, I listen to my audiobooks. I recently listened to Sons and Lovers that way. I would never attempt to consume poetry that way though. I like to think of these drives as homeschooling in natural and literary beauty. Let’s pretend I’m doing it for the kids.