Hiding behind the Quotidian: a conversation with Burgi Zenhaeusern
by Nancy Naomi Carlson
Behind Normalcy (CityLit Press, 2020)–a smartly written exploration of what hides behind the quotidian–is Burgi Zenhaeusern’s debut chapbook, winner of the Harriss Poetry Prize. Ordinary animals and things become imbued with an undercurrent of violence, like the checkout plastic bag that longs “to choke something / along the creek” and the great blue heron with a “graceful dagger” beak. In Zenhaeusern’s universe, we learn to be wary, like the deer in Rock Creek Park with:
. . . a vague
sense of danger
that lets you hesitate
there on the side
of the road like
dusk gathering shape.
I was curious about the background of Behind Normalcy, so I reached out to the author to have a conversation through email.
Nancy Naomi Carlson: First of all, congratulations on the publication of Behind Normalcy! What does this publication mean to you vis-à-vis how you view yourself and your writing career?
Burgi Zenhaeusern: Thank you very much, Nancy Naomi! The gratification of being able to hold a book of my own is still sinking in, after many months. And I mean holding as in holding the object of my efforts, as if I had been kneading dough for a long time, and now my hands are tired, but satisfied—a sense of accomplishment and validation after all. Though I have been writing intermittently for very long, I didn’t come to poetry until about fifteen years ago, in my mid-forties. I had finally relearned to take my aspirations at least as seriously as I had been taking everybody else’s. In that sense, the chapbook is a culmination and an immense boost to continue no matter what. Especially as, with my late start, age has become a real factor, both in terms of working time left (I’m rather slow) and in how unfavorably age is perceived, even more so in the absence of a formal career (writing or otherwise). I was fortunate enough to have the choice not to pursue a salaried career. It is a whole other debate how good an idea that was, and one I periodically have to settle with myself. But it is without question what I wanted, even fought for.
NNC: Let’s talk about the title. How did this title come to you? Were there other titles you considered?
BZ: The title didn’t change from submission to publication. For a while, I thought I might reconsider. Then I forgot. By now, it has come to represent this book. I like the idea of taking a title from a fragment within the manuscript, sending the reader on a treasure hunt of sorts, which is what I did. The phrase “behind normalcy” appears in the poem “aubade/s,” which can be read in vertical columns as well as horizontally. It appears in the first such column: “behind normalcy a dark June day fattening.” Quite ominous. I felt ominous when I wrote that poem, still do for that matter. For the book I wanted a less definite phrase. And I’m happy with the choice, considering how nicely it corresponds with the cover, my photographer friend Alan Sirulnikoff’s image. Gregg Wilhelm at CityLit Press did a beautiful design job integrating it, heightening the suggestiveness of both title and image. And like so much of what has been written before the pandemic, “behind normalcy” has gotten an additional ring to it.
NNC: From what you’ve said, I know you didn’t write this book overnight. How long would you say this book was in the making?
BZ: In some aspects, it was written over the last decade, as the successor to abandoned manuscript attempts. It’s actually a much condensed version of The Pilferer, my latest full-length manuscript. In another aspect, all my life? I’ve been writing with breaks for very long. As a child I used to draw stories about elves and fairies, and the like—half drawn, half written. I wish I were as prolific and confident now as I was back then. By the time I came to the US from Switzerland, I had begun a novel, dropped it, began another, dropped that one too, and eventually stopped writing. It took realizing that I didn’t have to write in German and prose to find my way back to writing and a sense of vocation. Shifting from German to English shifted my writing from prose to poetry. My journey as a writer is very much a linguistic one as well. And then again, Behind Normalcy began with emigrating to join my husband over twenty-five years ago. Most of my poems echo my life since then, how I’ve come to call the US home. They explore becoming/being White (growing up in Switzerland I didn’t know I was White, everyone in my world was White at that time), unfettered self-identification, the privilege of being welcomed.
NNC: I’m struck with the richness of sound found in these poems, like this particular line about the great blue heron: “lunge after lunge against an ever urging need.” How does sound fit into your writing process?
BZ: Oh, I love sound. And rhythm and phrasing for that matter! Thank you for remarking on this line! It took years to write, the whole poem did. There was precision, absolute focus, and fluidity in the heron’s hunt. Any beauty originated in that alone, nothing else. Hunger is not a metaphor. I knew that from the start, but couldn’t convey it for the longest time. Usually, with sound I proceed intuitively, unless it’s jarring or draws too much attention to itself like an unintended rhyme for example. I don’t usually write in rhymes. I work with echoes. But I don’t plan them. I’m more attuned to rhythm and phrasing. As soon as a poem begins to take shape I read it out loud, make changes until I can read it without stumbling. And if I like it I might just go on reciting it for sheer joy. Until the next day happens, and the next. It all has to do with breathing. I used to play the recorder quite seriously, briefly considered becoming a musician even. A wind instrument teaches you to breathe and how to manipulate breathing for the sake of phrasing. That is how I revise and how I read, my own writing and others’.
NNC: Some would classify some of these poems as “experimental” in terms of form and syntax? Can you talk more about this experimental tendency?
BZ: I do enjoy playing with a text’s potential. Though form for me is rarely a poem’s original stimulus, nor a goal by itself. I just play around until I find a fit, and sometimes the answer is an object poem. It was the poet Molly Spencer who first noted this tendency and encouraged me to explore it. I’m very grateful to her for that! The other eye-opener was watching and hearing Tyehimba Jess read from his work, Olio, at the fantastic Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. What he does in Olio is simply amazing! I still remember how liberated I felt after his reading. I also like how the idea of play engages the reader differently. With explicitly interactive texts, the weight and importance of input from writer and reader is nearly the same. I mean it quite literally when I tell the reader “you are a poem’s lungs.”
NNC: Who are some of your literary influences? Any Swiss writers?
BZ: Since my focus had been on fiction for so long, ever since I’ve started writing poetry I’ve been trying to catch up with reading it, which includes the more traditional canon. But, my fascination is with what is being published now in the English speaking world. I’m pretty much out of touch with the Swiss and German literary scenes. As a writer I very much live and work where I am. Also, influence for me is usually temporary. It all flows into one big pool of wonders and possibilities. I’m inspired by so many writers. And the more I read the better my inner ear becomes. And my English language ear cannot get enough practice, believe me! I compare influence to dancing along others on the dance-floor. No matter the style, if they’re good, their dancing goes into my step.
NNC: Do you think your Swiss background has influenced your writing?
BZ: Difficult to say. I mean a lot of it has more to do with being a foreigner than with being Swiss per se. Cultural aspects come to mind, meaning that for a lot of things I lack contextual fluency: I came here with another country’s memory and consciousness. Google is my go-to place. A dictionary definition is a helpful crutch. But, so much of a word’s aliveness comes from its use, from growing up with it. And then there is the question of what sort of English is my English. Am I parroting, appropriating? Lots of pitfalls along the way. On many levels I felt I had to be reassembled when I started out in the US, similar to my pomegranate poem in Behind Normalcy. Ultimately, some part of me has never fully crossed. It hovers above the two worlds like a tree branching across the ocean. Foreignness—its outer manifestation in my accent—is a potential and a difficulty. I try to harness it. The question is finding my specific place in this web I now call home and speak from it.
NNC: You’re also a translator. How does the process of writing your own poems compare with the process of translating a poem?
BZ: Translation is a rare, always enriching foray from my usual practice of writing poems. When I translate, I’m in two languages at once, at least at first, something that doesn’t happen when I write my own poems. And I’m forced to step outside of myself, following another poet’s lead, like accompanying a soloist, if only in the sense of making a poem in another poet’s voice. I see translation as an ultimate act of reading. I don’t think my approach for translating a poem versus writing my own overlaps. The processes set out from opposing directions. It’s only during last revisions and fine-tuning that I use the same strategies for both, to improve flow for example: when the translated poem has been lifted into its target language completely, and I don’t have to constantly go back and forth to compare patterns, line-breaks, etc. I’ve never translated my poetry, nor written any in German, and the idea doesn’t appeal to me. And until it does, I won’t. But I love reading translated work of others, especially when I can follow the original.
NNC: What role does family play in your writing?
BZ: My writing has been largely autobiographical so far. In that sense family has provided important source material: the relationships, memories, and in my case motherhood. Family is stories, the ones I tell myself and how their telling changes over time. Family means rootedness for me, my origins, and what I make of them. Nothing is static, and hence everything is continually worth coming back to. Who knows where it goes. I suspect I’ll always write something or other about motherhood though. To watch my kid discover life and me learning alongside him is a never ending source of wonder.
NNC: What are some of your future writing projects?
BZ: While I hope to continue (after all, questions of place and Whiteness remain as relevant as ever) I’m no longer sure about how. Though I don’t have existential worries right now, I feel profoundly interrupted. The paradigm has shifted. Meanwhile, I’m still sending out The Pilferer, reading as much as I can, and writing the occasional review. My latest project began before the pandemic. It picks up threads from my previous work, including Behind Normalcy, and it implies some research. But for now, new poems are down to a trickle and the project lies dormant. I hope to pick it up soon.
BZ: Thank you again, Nancy Naomi, for your questions. I’ve greatly enjoyed trying to answer them.
Burgi Zenhaeusern is the author of Behind Normalcy (CityLit Press, 2020), winner of the 2019 Harriss Poetry Prize. Her work appears in various online and print journals. She volunteers for a local reading series and lives in Chevy Chase, MD. Find more at burgizenhaeusern.com
Nancy Naomi Carlson, poet, translator, essayist, and editor, has authored 10 titles (six translated). An Infusion of Violets (Seagull Books, 2019), her second full-length collection of poetry, was named “New & Noteworthy” by the New York Times. A recipient of two NEA literature translation fellowships, she was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award, and the CLMP Firecracker Poetry Award. An associate editor for Tupelo Press, her work has appeared in such journals as APR, The Georgia Review, The Paris Review, and Poetry. www.nancynaomicarlson.com
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.