by Rebekah Bresee
Ashley Roach-Freiman wrote “Red Bird Elegy” and “poem with a line by andrew freiman,” which appear in Rock & Sling 9.2. She is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at the University of Memphis, where she is Poetry Editor of The Pinch. Her poems are also featured in Dunes Review and THRUSH Poetry Journal.
Rebekah Bresee: Both of your pieces in Rock & Sling 9.2 mention trains and birds. What symbolism or metaphors do these characters have for you? Additionally, is there a significant tie between birds and trees or is it coincidence that they both appear in these two poems?
Ashley Roach-Freiman: Right now I am teaching a poetry writing class for undergrads, and I ask them to make a list of the things they can always rely on to provide material for their poems. These things can be symbols, metaphors, images, things they like or don’t like…just things that obsess them or continually show up in their mental landscapes. Sometimes you don’t know what those things are, though, until they’ve shown up many times. For me, those things are probably trains, trees, plants, birds, and a language of searching or longing. A lot of it has to do with the landscape of Memphis, which is urban but lush, and situated on train tracks (I live right next to a train, and used to walk the tracks to get to the bar). It isn’t a coincidence…both poems were written in a close span of time, last fall/winter, both are trying to figure out the same internal landscape, in a way.
RB: Is the narrator in “Red Bird Elegy” a cat?
AR-F: No, but you aren’t the first person to say the narrator of my poems is cat-like (see Twin Cell in Midway Journal).
RB: The last four lines in “Red Bird Elegy” are almost “covered” in red. That is, after “the blood splash of a cardinal,” the language is strongly capturing the gruesome struggle of the cardinal as it dies. This seems to contrast with the whiteness of snow a few lines before. Was this your intent? If so, why?
AR-F: That’s really perceptive. I wanted there to be a stark contrast between the waiting of the first lines, the image of looking out windows, and the active realization of soul hunger in the final lines. It’s the experience of seeing a cardinal and it’s the only color in the white and gray and brown landscape and it’s so red and the narrator wants that red spiritually because her own internal landscape is so still that the only response is to eat it, perhaps metaphorically, but it’s more interesting if it is represented in this visceral way.
RB: Why did you title the poem “Red Bird Elegy” rather than “Cardinal Elegy”?
AR-F: It sounded better. I didn’t know I was doing this at the time, but I think a spondee followed by a dactyl just sounds more powerful, if I am scanning it right. Also, I love cardinals, but every time I hear the word cardinal I think of the St. Louis Cardinals and there’s too much of a feeling of sport in it and it is distracting to me.
RB: In “poem with a line by andrew freiman” you use red to describe the leaves. Why did you choose red and not another color?
AR-F: Again, because they represent the essential color in the landscape, both vitality and season, and because the single syllable of “red” was better there than, say, “carmine” which would have been too poetic, or “brown” which would have been dull.
RB: How is “red” the same and/or different in these two poems?
AR-F: Red in “Elegy” is really more of a spiritual entity. It’s practically a character in the poem. Red in “poem” is like a paint…gives the landscape some color, to show seasonal change, and emotional inflection.
RB: In “poem with a line by andrew freiman” you play around with the text. Some lines are in all caps, some are in italics, and a few lines change into caps in the middle of the line. Was the changing in font meant to play a role beyond referencing the graffiti or the line by andrew?
AR-F: Um, not on the surface, although I love the way it looks on the page because it so reminds me of the inside of my head when it is busy, which looks like a collage. There’s an emotional consistency, but there are all these voices saying different things. Some are shouting, some are saying reasonable things, some are reading the signs on the side of the road, and then there’s the writer constructing narrative around all of that. So this poem is a snapshot of the creative process as much as anything.
RB: Can you elaborate what is going on in these lines of “Red Bird Elegy”: “birds that light the bamboo/with sound, the song bright like candles/around a room”? I really love this language and want to understand what is going on.
AR-F: Imagine sitting in a room, looking out the windows and you can see a sort of bamboo forest and no birds at all, but you hear their chorus lighting up the expanse of shadow space, so loud and sparkling and bright that it is like you are almost right in the middle of them.
RB: Rock & Sling is a literary “journal of witness”. How do these poems fit into this genre, if you call it that? Or, perhaps, how do these poems function as expressions of faith?
AR-F: I wouldn’t consider myself a faithful person, but I am always fascinated by people who claim faith. When I write, there’s a spiritual tug and a longing for that. “Red Bird Elegy” especially is about needing something outside the boundaries of self but feeling blocked by the shadow self (I realize I am in love with a shadow in myself) and trying to reconcile with that. That shadow self can be self-criticism, self-destruction, self-awareness, doubt, anxiety, etc, etc. I think that is an essential spiritual struggle, whether or not it is encountered within the construct of faith. The line by Andrew Freiman “all the talking birds on the train talking Jesus” stuck a note in me because it felt like a line of transcendental poetry and it is so musical. The birds say what they will and we interpret them, but that was a hopeful, beautiful thing, or could be read that way…it’s sort of better if the birds talk Jesus than if we do, because the birds would probably understand better than humans, I think. I don’t know. That poem has an unrequited love poem underneath, and all the things that are said are the things that couldn’t be said to the beloved (oh how I think about you), and there’s a combined sadness and joy there that’s inexpressible except through trying to project it into the landscape. In a way, I suppose the poems represent oppositional ideas — the elegy projects hunger into the landscape and “poem” projects joy, but both are about searching, which is an inherent expression of spiritual practice.
Rebekah Bresee is a junior at Whitworth University where she’s majoring in English and minoring in business. She is currently the News Editor of the Whitworthian, the university’s award-winning weekly newspaper, and she works as an attendant at the University Recreation Center. Outside of school, she’s a youth leader of high school students at the First Presbyterian Church of Spokane.