Finding the shape of a poem

In February, the Seattle Review of Books published four poems by our February Poet in Residence, Abi Pollokoff:

These poems challenged me; reading them was like walking into an ocean. I felt subsumed in the language, slightly overwhelmed by the sensation of them. They left me breathless and speechless. I always loved the poems, but it was only by staying inside them for a while, for suspending myself in them, that I started to understand them.

I confess on the phone to Pollokoff that the idea of talking about her poems with her intimidated the hell out of me. Pollokoff writes impressionistic poems that begins with a single image or idea, and the language cascades from there. To me, they're like mountain ranges, or sunsets: beautiful formations that I don't have the vocabulary to properly describe or discuss.

Pollokoff says her writing process is not unlike my explanation of reading her poems. It starts with a sensation and grows more specific over time: "I think to a certain extent, the poem already exists in some form. And as I start working on it, it starts to reveal itself more and more."

"In that sense," Pollokoff says, "I feel like I'm more vessel than writer. I love what language can do. Something I'm drawn to often in poetry is soundplay, and music, and how words can play off of each other to create different kinds of rhythms and experiences that you wouldn't expect."

Her poems reach beyond "the semantic meanings" of the words, to something more aspirational. "Every poem can be a new discovery about what language can bring to the experience," she says. When she talks about writing, Pollokoff uses the language of exploration, of experimentation.

She starts with fragments. "I'm a note-taker," Pollokoff says. "I hear fits of words and I write them down." She then free writes longhand — "sitting down and just writing without stopping and seeing where that goes" — to build "a bit of a language bank." From those words, Pollokoff says, "I start shaping, building, seeing what the page will do." When it feels more like a poem to her, she'll type it out onto a computer and continue editing.

Every poem launches off into different directions. "The Sea Thinks Beyond Itself," for instance, started as a response to Brian Teare's transcendentalist mediation on nature, Companion Grasses. "I had done some free writing after having spent time in this book and I had been thinking about a moment that I had seen over at Golden Gardens." The combination of her own experiences in the book and on the beach in Ballard offered shape and direction to the poem.

So Pollokoff has written poems about Seattle. Does she think of herself as a Seattle poet? "I don't know if I would consider myself a Seattle poet, but I certainly hope to be a Seattle poet," she says. Pollokoff manages the bustling events calendar at Open Books, and her list of Seattle influences is huge: in one breath, she invokes Keetje Kuipers, Jane Wong, and Gabrielle Bates. A dozen more names tumble out after. She's lived in Seattle for five years now and says the city is "starting more and more to feel like home."

Pollokoff is hard at work on a collection of "feminist ecopoetics," in which "I'm setting off to explore how language and nature interact with the body — specifically the female body — and how that experience can exist and unravel." Like how she sculpts her poems from large masses of words, the book seems to be coming together out of a riot of poems. "It's finally coalescing into one project, and into one final shape," she says. She sounds confident — and why wouldn't she? Her faith in the work has guided her unerringly so far.