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Ashley Toliver's 'Spectra' Is Her First Major Book Of Poems


Ashley Toliver has written her first book of poems - "Spectra." She joins us from Portland, Ore. Thanks so much for being with us.

ASHLEY TOLIVER: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: May I ask you to begin by reading from your poem "Standing On The Lawn Outside Your House With A Match And A Gallon Of Gasoline"?

TOLIVER: (Laughter) OK. (Reading) This morning, in the cupboard, I found your last quarter-inch of whiskey, settled amber in the Mason jar, same burn on the horizon, the last Indian summer. You sat naked at the kitchen table, carving the nectarines free from their stones. When the cold math of winter arrived early that year, I thought the first fist you seamed into my cheekbone was to get to the proof, to the pit of the marriage. You asked, if somewhere we find the itch of the lumber, do we find compassion for the ax blade that splits it.

SIMON: This is very tough stuff.


SIMON: And I have to ask. Is this an abusive - are you writing about an abusive relationship here?


SIMON: Yours?

TOLIVER: It isn't mine. I think the emotional undercurrent is, in some sense, true to my experience, but the facts are not.

SIMON: Well, what was the experience, may I ask?

TOLIVER: When I had my daughter in 2012 - she's 5 now - it was a bit of a surprise. I was studying for my MFA at Brown, and my partner was here in Portland. And I think a lot of the poems in that first section came out of this period of really severe disruption, considering what that commitment looks like and what could go wrong. Everything was so amplified for me at that time.

SIMON: Yeah. The second part of your book is called "Ideal Machine."


SIMON: If I could get you to read a section from page 26...

TOLIVER: Sure. (Reading) Here is where I take you behind the eyes, a glistening star. Here is where I take you bone-thing. I made a gift. Pull it out. Star in me, salt bright and still. Listen how the cut is made across my face, could move any feeling. Here is the site I've dog-eared for you, taut as any waiting, my sudden fold of luck pinched lightning, we can't put our hands on but you do. My brain arriving through the darkness like streets mapping out this mine. This mine. This mine.

SIMON: This mine is your child?

TOLIVER: It isn't, actually. It's a bit of a story. I, as I said, had my daughter in December of 2012. And just about a month later, my vision started to deteriorate.

SIMON: Yeah.

TOLIVER: And I finally found an ophthalmologist who scheduled me for an MRI. And that's where they found a tumor on my pituitary. And the pituitary is this little, pea-sized gland. And I had this tumor that had grown to about the size of a quarter that was sitting directly on top of my optic nerve, and that's what was causing the blindness. So I had pretty immediate brain surgery, which was a trip. And everything is fine now, but I was really haunted by, I think, those two things occurring so close to each other - having my daughter and then having this tumor removed. My body had just created this being who brought so much joy and love and delight into our lives, while it was also, at the same time, assembling this tumor, this other body - equally, my own creation but this one with the capacity to destroy me.

SIMON: You know, I don't want to drag religion into this, but it seems to me as if a gift and a challenge was put down on exactly the right person to express it.

TOLIVER: (Laughter) I hope so. That would be ideal for me.

SIMON: Who becomes a poet these days? Or do you have any choice...

TOLIVER: Who becomes a poet? I didn't have a choice. I don't remember exactly when I started writing, but I do remember writing absolutely terrible poems every night before going to bed in eighth grade and then graduating middle school with spiral-bound notebooks just filled with awful stuff. But I think having the opportunity to come across poetry and discover poetry before having any kind of formal education in it is a huge part of how I learned to turn to it, to process through it.

SIMON: And how do you think a line of poetry sinks into us?

TOLIVER: Poetry - maybe I should say the right poem or the right book. I think it has the potential to open us or jostle us into a fresh way of experiencing the world around us. I think poetry enters your body when you speak it out loud, you know? It changes your breathing. You read it on the page. It changes the interior rhythm of how you speak. I don't know. It's magical to me and utterly mundane, you know? At the end of the day, what it is - it's words on a page. But I think poetry gives us a chance to view our experiences - the tragedies as well as the great joys - as mythic or archetypal. And I think that's an empowering experience.

SIMON: Ashley Toliver - her new book of poems, "Spectra." Thanks so much for being with us.

TOLIVER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.