Poet Corey Van Landingham’s latest collection, Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens, takes direct aim at the powers that be. Her poems are especially pointed when examining the crumbling state of the American democratic project, particularly the moral outrage of drone warfare, as well as violence against women. The collection makes for a captivating read, one charged with transgressive interactions (“In Segovia you pushed my cheek against the aqueduct / until it bled”). It also underscores how the use of force, in all its forms, puts bodies at risk.

Van Landingham initially hesitated when I invited her for this interview. Her poem drafts can be rather long, so wouldn’t it be tough to talk through all the revisions? Then she proposed that, instead, we compare her published book’s first poem with what had been the manuscript’s first poem – but which she’d finally cut altogether. She wasn’t proud of it. Her email: “I’m attaching the original poem (oof) here…”

Ben Purkert for Guernica

Guernica: You originally intended “Technologies of Distance: For Future Girls” as your book’s first poem, but then you scrapped it entirely. Why?

Corey Van Landingham: When I look back at that poem now, I think: Yikes. It’s just not the sort of poem I’d write today, and it’s not one I’d want in the book. I mean, that title…“Technologies of Distance: For Future Girls.” It doesn’t sound very human to me. And the poem’s conceit is maybe even a bit presumptuous. Who am I to speak for every girl?

I worked on Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens for over a decade, and I’m so glad in hindsight that the manuscript wasn’t accepted when I first sent it out. It’s something I now tell my students: make sure that your book is the book you want the world to see.

Guernica: “Desiderata,” which is the book’s first poem, is stylistically very different, though it does cover a lot of the same subjects.

Van Landingham: Yes, absolutely. One important difference, however, is that “Desiderata” doesn’t gesture quite as explicitly to drones. Originally, the militarization of the drone was the manuscript’s main focus. But ultimately it was important to me not to pigeonhole the book and its intentions. I wanted the book’s private concerns about personal relationships and intimacy to be more grounded before opening up into public concerns about the state.

I was thinking about this recently, the balance of private and public, when I started going back and reading some early poetry. Lucretius’s poem On the Nature of Things is all about explaining Epicurean philosophy to a broad audience, and the first line begins with an invocation to Venus: “Mother of Aeneas’s sons, joy of men and gods…” But then the tone radically shifts, and the voice suddenly moves into the first person. You sense his personal anxiety, his very real human presence. It’s why that long, didactic poem feels so urgent, and why it’s still worth reading today.

Guernica: Speaking of Venus, your book looks closely at the objectification of the female body. You explore ways in which women are perceived, and potentially threatened with violence as a consequence. Can you talk a bit about that?

Van Landingham: Well, if you think about the book’s title, Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens, there’s an inherent audacity, no? It feels hubristic maybe, but I originally conceived of these love letters as mock epistolaries. I was trying to unsettle some type of power structure, writing a letter to someone incredibly powerful who can’t or won’t write back. Whether that’s a god, a drone, a president, who knows. That’s the macro ethos. But then, on a personal level, I was writing these poems while living in the Bay Area and was spending a lot of my days running outside, confronting the male gaze. It was maddening but also fascinating in a way, just the fact of my body being out in the world, wearing shorts and a tank top, and regularly being catcalled and hearing really vulgar, explicit things. It was different from the small town in rural Oregon where I grew up. Anyway, it was on my mind while writing these poems.

Guernica: The Bay Area proved worse than Oregon in this regard?

Van Landingham: Absolutely, partially just because there’s so many more people. But it was also interesting to me that it happened most often when I was running near Stanford, in the wealthiest neighborhoods. All these tech bros seemed to assume they could talk however they wanted to people running by. And, as I was experiencing that, I started thinking more about perception, about the male gaze, and its threats. What does it mean when you can’t escape someone surveilling you? And, while drones obviously present a threat of a different nature, it’s not entirely of a different theme.

Guernica: What led you to start writing about drones?

Van Landingham: It began with simply reading the news, and the militarization of the drone becoming a bigger and bigger story. Not that it’s anything new, but it was brought more into the public eye. I was deeply unsettled by it. It was also a time for me when I was in a long-distance relationship, and so I was thinking a lot about the different ways that technology transmits and abstracts, how it turns us into a proxy for ourselves. Additionally, living in the Bay Area, I was in close proximity to the places where many of these technologies were invented.

Guernica: In “Desiderata,” there’s that line about projecting the body onto a screen, which certainly could apply to both drone technology and romantic long-distance communication. Are you worried at all, though, about the ethics of drawing such a comparison?

Van Landingham: Oh, definitely. Because it’s a false comparison. Just because someone can set two things side by side doesn’t mean there’s necessarily a likeness. But I will also say that that process of searching for connections is how I learn to make a poem. Ultimately, it took a lot of conceptual and ethical revising as the manuscript found its final state. And what really unlocked everything for me was the idea of distance, and how poems do or don’t account for various distances of all kinds.

Guernica: Can you say more?

Van Landingham: Distance is what allows for the abstraction of the body. It’s also something that allows for the beauty of poetry. We tell students, you don’t have enough distance yet to write about a particular subject. It’s something that provides a kind of lyrical temporality, how two subjects are placed in juxtaposition outside of linear time. And then there’s the power structure of being a poet and writing about a subject safely from behind a desk, with all of the distances implied there. That’s partially what I’m hoping to explore.

Guernica: That’s really interesting.

Van Landingham: And distance also comes with certain risks. One of the most important conversations I had, related to this book, was in a writing workshop with a friend of mine who’s a veteran. And he was asking: Who are you to critique the use of drones? What about when a drone might be used to save someone’s life? What about many people’s lives? Sure, it’s easy as an ordinary citizen to make certain claims or arguments. But when it’s your life on the line, when you’re in a particular place, boots on the ground, etc., it’s a different story.

Guernica: How’d you respond to that criticism? Was your first impulse to revise, or—

Van Landingham: Well, I can get defensive. I try not to be as much anymore. It just takes some time for comments like that to settle in my mind.

At first, I countered with the fact that, as a citizen, I pay taxes. And so I’m a part of this war machine! I’m culpable. Easy, knee-jerk responses, which, I think, also happen to be true. But his comments also made me stop and consider my overall approach. Here I am, purportedly very concerned about power structures, and I’m not really considering the voice of the person who’s carried out this violence — and not of their own will. Maybe, I thought to myself, I need to think about this harder. Or, more honestly, with more distance. That’s when I started zooming out and studying not just the evolution of the drone, but technologies of warfare in general. Ultimately, I hope it made my work better.

Guernica: In another interview, you talked about how, when a poet is putting together a collection, it’s important that they remember they’re a poet and not an architect. Can you elaborate on that?

Van Landingham: Part of the frustration for me, in moving between my first book and my second book, was that I was transitioning between very different worlds and styles, and I was pushing so much against the lyrical and towards the logical. Eventually, I just realized that I was going too far, that it was turning into didacticism. And not everything needs to work logically. It can work sensually. That’s enough. Anyway, I had to loosen my grip on the structure of the book as a whole.

I will say, however, that I always think about the first poem architecturally. If a manuscript is a house, then what function is that first poem serving? Is it a polished granite statue in the garden before you reach the house? Or is it a trellis, such that it’s more of an open framework? Or is it a driveway, where it’s leading to something? And maybe there are some rusty old Chevys and a few chalk drawings on the pavement? What I’m saying is, there are many many ways to enter the world of a book.

Guernica: I love that.

Van Landingham: Here’s the thing…I’m really restless. I get bored with one thing. I get easily bored of my own voice and with whatever schtick I’m doing. Some poets have one voice across their entire career, and I admire that. They’re totemic poets. But that’s not me.

Guernica: You once said that you don’t actually enjoy reading your poems out loud or hearing them in your own voice. Is it because of this boredom you describe?

Van Landingham: I never thought of the two being connected. I mean, simply, that I get the most satisfaction out of digesting poems quietly. I don’t enjoy going to poetry readings very much. I prefer sitting in silence with someone else’s words. I think that the performative nature of poetry just doesn’t speak to me. Though, of course, a poem is always a performance of some kind. I just don’t like when my body is a part of that.

Guernica: Are you referencing here the sort of objectification you mentioned earlier? The discomfort of being seen physically?

Van Landingham: I think so, yes. But it also comes from a general sense of anxiety, too.

On the page, you can be both more and less than your corporeal body in the world. There is a projection past the physical, the desire to extend beyond mortality. And so, if I’m reading a poem out loud, it feels inherently hemmed in. Like, it’s coming from a real, live, breathing person, and maybe that narrows the possibilities of the voice or the world of the poem. Especially in a lyric poem that’s attempting to move between so many different images or references. It’s hard to focus on that when there’s a person who’s standing right in front of you.

Guernica: One of the lines from your book that struck me is “I often want to suck my words back into my mouth.” Is that how revision feels to you? Like a desire to retract more than edit?

Van Landingham: I think it’s more about self-revision than revision. This desire to revise one’s own life, and one’s utterances in the real world as a correlative for what’s taking place on the page. Of course, the two are deeply intertwined.

I was just talking about this with my friend, the poet Jacques J. Rancourt, and we both came to the conclusion that the reason we’re poets is because, in the real world, we lack an ability to articulate ourselves in the way we’d like to. I’m that person who, after a party or something, is going back home and thinking, now why did you say that? You don’t even believe that! Or, why couldn’t I think of the right words? Poetry on a page, on the other hand, allows me, through revision, to figure out what I actually mean. [Pause] It’s my favorite thing.

To read more interviews from our Back Draft archive, click here.

Corey Van Landingham

Corey Van Landingham is the author of Antidote (winner of the 2012 Ohio State University Press/The Journal Prize in Poetry) and Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens, recently published by Tupelo Press. She is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, Boston Review, The New Yorker, and Virginia Quarterly Review. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Illinois.

Ben Purkert

Ben Purkert is the author of the forthcoming novel, The Men Can’t Be Saved (Overlook, 2023). His poetry collection, For the Love of Endings (Four Way Books, 2018), was named one of Adroit’s Best Poetry Books of the Year. His writing appears in The New Yorker, The Nation, Tin House, Poetry, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He teaches at Rutgers University.

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