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The self: In conversation with Lisa Russ Spaar

The poet and director of creative writing at U.Va. discusses exploring selfhood and her latest anthology

<p>Lisa Russ Spaar is a professor of English at the University.</p>

Lisa Russ Spaar is a professor of English at the University.

Quarantine has redefined our relationship with ourselves. We are spending more time on our own than ever before. Some have seen this time as an opportunity to go on journeys of self-improvement, following programs to get shredded alongside YouTube workout videos. Some are revisiting old dreams, starting businesses or writing the next great American novel. 

Perhaps, however, increased introspection is in itself a box to check during this time. It takes effort to capture a picture of the self, effort that Lisa Russ Spaar, the director of Creative Writing and the Area Program in Poetry Writing at the University, has encapsulated in the latest poetry anthology she edited, titled “More Truly and More Strange.” The anthology was released last month, but, like most things in the midst of the pandemic, its release was robbed of its deserved fanfare, unable to be celebrated through its originally scheduled release party. Still, this is the sort of book that can be picked up and read at any point in time. 

“I think that’s what's nice about an anthology,” Spaar said. “Unlike a novel where you kind of need to keep track of what you read last night, you can open it anywhere. And then see something in it, see something reflected in it.”

“More Truly and More Strange” has an academic history. Spaar is no stranger to the practice of anthologizing. As a professor of Creative Writing, she is constantly putting together course packets — you know, those brightly colored plastic-bound collections of scholarly articles that you have to pick up from the print shop on the Corner — and collections of poems for her classes. She started teaching a class on self-portraiture poems about 10 years ago, and this book stemmed somewhat out of necessity.

“I couldn't find a book that had the kind of diversity that I was looking for [to teach] the class,” she said. “Not just demographic diversity, race, that kind of thing, but also aesthetic diversity. And so I just started assembling and you know I suddenly realized that I had enough material to and interest in making a book. So, almost all the anthologies I've worked on have come out of a course. There was no book, or I couldn't find the book, so I made the book.”

The anthology is organized into sections — I/Eye, You, Other, Thing, Animal, Place, Ekphrasis, Us, Nobody and Poem. The sectioning has an interrogative effect on the reader. It feels as though the book is playing 20 questions with you. Is the self an animal? A place? A thing? Or something else entirely? Notably missing from the section titles are identity categories like gender or race or sexuality. The poets and poems are representative across all categories — “I really wanted to make sure that we included in the book …  people who identified in very, very different ways, trans writers, queer writers, people of many different races, Indigenous writers,” Spaar said — but identity labels are not a part of the book’s organization, which seems to intentionally index some sort of separation between identity and the concept of self.

“I think maybe the way to think about it would be if you were filling out an application with little boxes, and you might have the application ask, ‘What's your gender — male, female, non-binary,’ and you would click a box, right?” Spaar asked. “And then it would say, ‘Where were you born?’ click a box, Virginia. So that's like a profiling, but a portrait of the self can be a construct. It's also so much more than that. And there's fluidity to it, too. I think the self demands a kind of open-minded and fluid flexibility … [as opposed to] a sense of just … limiting oneself to a certain set of rigid categories.”

The first poem of the anthology is Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror,” a 20th century poem, while the book’s closing poem is Charles Wright’s “Self-Portrait in 2035.” This perhaps suggests a linear progression of the self throughout the book, but this really is not the case. To think of “More Truly and More Strange” as only a time capsule of genre is to ignore the way in which the poems in the anthology reach back and push forward at the same time. There is a comfort in this for the reader, particularly the 2020 reader, whose life has likely been at least partially upended. People everywhere at every time are asking questions of themselves, and they are finding more questions than answers. But maybe that’s okay.

“One of the wonderful things about studying literature and art is that you don't solve for x,” Spaar said. “When you're looking at a poem, or you're looking at a piece of art, or anything and going, ‘What do I see here?,’ you suddenly have a sense of your own agency, and that your opinion matters. And that can sort of help partly define the self.”

There is no instruction manual for exploring the self, but this anthology is as close as you’re going to get. The one hundred poems Spaar curated for the text are all capable of standing on their own, but readers are lucky that they are all in one place together. There is quite literally something that any and every reader could take away, but perhaps the most poignant and important is simply the constant stream of “I am … I am … I am.” The phrase is used by poets of all creeds, who have completed the phrase with a variety of answers. “I am silver and exact,” writes Plath. “I am not” is the final line of Saeed Jones’ “Last Portrait as Boy.” The phrase is used 67 times throughout the book, but most of its usage does not occur on the page at all. It occurs when it lingers in your mind after you have closed the book and set it down, begging you to try to fill in the blanks on your own.

I am. I am. I am.

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