Idra Novey is the author most recently of Clarice: The Visitor, a collection of poems and images in collaboration with the artist Erica Baum. Her debut novel, Ways to Disappear, is forthcoming in 2016. Novey’s earlier poetry collections are Exit, Civilian, selected by Patricia Smith for the 2011 National Poetry Series, and The Next Country, a finalist for the 2008 Foreword Book of the Year Award in poetry. She’s received awards from the Poetry Foundation, the Poetry Society of America, the National Endowment for the Arts, Poets & Writers, and the PEN Translation Fund.
Writing about Exit, Civilian, Ron Slate observed, “Novey’s pieces seem to condense many reactions into small spaces – cool playfulness, outrage, disorientation, discomfiture, wonderment. At the core, one encounters both curiosity and repulsion, and a query of all motives including her own.” Although Novey packs much into the small spaces of her poems, there is an openness to Novey’s work. In poems like ‘On Returning to My Hometown in 2035’ Novey balances her projection into the future with images tethered to a familiar rural America:
The strip mall half empty since
my elementary years abides only
chemicals now, the lot sequestered
behind fences, its metal tanks checked
each September for leaks in the seals.
The poem is slyly political beneath its simplicity:
we used to sled, old hills oranged now
for warning, only the edges still brown.
Novey, in an interview for Commitment Now, said, “I read the news constantly. I can’t imagine writing without taking into account the world around me.” And while her work is marked by the world we live in, it is not contained by it. Novey’s work is surprisingly imaginative – the curiosity and wonderment that Slate points out is present here, especially at the end of the poem, as Novey flies by in her “Honda pedi-plane.” But what’s really remarkable is the subtle unveiling of perspective in the ending image:
in a lawn chair, her hair so long
it met the ground. There’s no idling in
the skyways now, which is why
I can’t tell you if she was dying.
The poem is filled with images of a desolate, chemical-stained town, but the speaker’s lack of emotionality at the outset keeps the poem from reading overly dark. Even at the end, there’s a matter-of-fact quality to the speaker, who states simply that she can’t tell if the woman is dying but registers no emotional reaction. Perhaps the most telling word in the whole poem is “denier.” Novey seems to imply that the woman sitting outside amid the chemicals is denying the reality of this place in 2035. And while she may or may not be dying, her long hair is a sign of life. There’s a beauty here, in both the image and the speaker’s telling of it. The “denier” begs us, and the speaker, to question the reality of the world: Is it so chemical stained we can’t sit outside anymore, or can we? And while the question is there, the speaker can’t wait for an answer in a place where: “there’s no idling.”
Place is important in much of Novey’s work, from the poems influenced by Central and South America in her first book, The Next County, to those in Exit, Civilian, that are marked by her time spent teaching in the Bard College Prison Initiative. In an interview for Guernica, Novey talks about the importance of place:
Novey began translating while living in Chile and teaching creative writing at a shelter for abused women. She has translated several books of Brazilian poetry and, most recently, Clarice Lispector’s novel The Passion According to G.H. Novey teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.
Clarice: The Visitor, London, Sylph Editions, 2014
Exit, Civilian, University of Georgia Press, Athens, 2012
The Next Country, Alice James Books, Farmington, ME, 2008
(Translator) Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H., New Directions, New York, 2012
(Translator) Manoel de Barros, Birds for a Demolition, Carnegie Mellon University Press, Pittsburgh, 2010
(Translator) Emilio Lascano Tegui, On Elegance While Sleeping, Dalkey Archive Press, Champaign, IL, 2010
(Translator) Paulo Henriques Britto, The Clean Shirt of It, BOA Editions, Rochester, 2007
PoetryFoundation.org, Poetry Off the Shelf: ‘Appalachian Poetry: Idra Novey on the poems of James Wright and Irene McKinney’
PoetryFoundation.org, Poem of the Day: ‘La Prima Victoria’ read by Idra Novey
PoetryFoundation.org, Poem of the Day: ‘Of the Divine as Absence and Single Letter’ read by Idra Novey
PoetryFoundation.org, Poem of the Day: ‘The Visitor’ read by Idra Novey
PoetryFoundation.org: Harriet blog posts by Idra Novey
On the Seawall: Review of Exit, Civilian by Ron Slate
NPR, NewsPoet: ‘Idra Novey Writes the Day in Verse’
Guernica: ‘Idra Novey and Andrew Zawacki: Courting Influxes’
The Days of Yore: ‘Idra Novey’ interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Commitment Now: ‘Interview with Award-Winning Poet, Idra Novey’