We had the chance to chat to poet, Madeleine Cravens, about her wonderful debut collection, Pleasure Principle (Scribner), which came out on June 4th. Many topics cropped up in conversation: resisting closure; writing Brooklyn and the Bay Area; lying, the elegance of single stanzas, and Louise Glück’s generous mentorship, among many other things.
In Pleasure Principle, the poet investigates characters, locations and objects, creating a personalised sketch that touches on many themes: daughterhood; restlessness; homecoming; urban planning; New York (but really America); departures; superstorms; sisters; sapphic moments — we could go on. 
The poems are imagistic and conversational. They very much live in a simple and elegant declarative mode, and although most are crafted in single stanzas, the poet also offers a long, fragmented middle section titled, Desire Lines, which serves as a pleasant change of pace. 
In the world of the collection, Cravens does not shy away from the mundane, and manages to build a universal topography of emotions by seeking the sublime in the daily — her lover’s blue coat, a tipped orange cart, Jacob Riis beach or a phone call. The poet’s language is full of humour, pathos, and a bold curiosity for error, a curiosity which is present from the very first poem in the collection, Leaving
The book is propelled by the pleasure derived from failure and the way life — images, tones, characters and encounters — comes together in many parts which eventually, make a whole yet holey story.
 In one of the poems, Narrative, the speaker states: 
Obstacles must separate characters from their desires: this is called plot. 
Cravens is devoted to the lulls that often colour the distance separating us from what we desire. In Pleasure Principle, she is asking us to revel in this distance with her.
First of all, huge congratulations on publishing your debut collection, Pleasure Principle! We wanted to start off by asking: what was the first poem that moved you in a memorable way? Maybe a piece that urged you to pick up a pen?
When I was in high school, a teacher showed me the poem Dream Song 14 by John Berryman. I was so stunned by the the first sentence: “Life, friends, is boring.” I thought poetry had to reach toward sentimentality, so I assumed I didn’t like poetry. I didn’t realise you could write a poem that could be anti-epiphanic, that could resist closure. I wouldn’t say I found pleasure in the experience of reading Berryman’s work. But it opened something up for me.
In This Little Art — a brilliant book about the impulse of writing and translating — Kate Briggs says,“I write because I read”. There’s such a refreshing simplicity to this statement. Do you think it can be this simple?
This does seem to match how it works for me. I also think I write because I see. Keeping track of the visual –– landscapes, furniture, clothing worn by loved ones –– has always been important to me. I like to think of poems as a sort of subjective form of evidence.
What books are currently on your bedside table, and who are some of the poets that you’ve admired throughout the years?
On my bedside table is Lyn Hejinian’s long poem Happily, which was recently published as a small book by Litmus Press. And Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail.
Louise Glück was an important mentor of mine at Stanford. Through reading, I’ve learned immensely from George Oppen, Solmaz Sharif, and Sandra Lim.
In an interview with The Paris Review, Louise Glück said “everyone who writes is a seeker”, a phrase that rings particularly true when reading Pleasure Principle.  Could you tell us a little about sharing space with her when putting together the collection?
I loved how unsparing Louise was. Her honesty felt like the ultimate act of generosity. She told me I was too attached to writing poems that sounded like poems, too dependent on the fragment. She cut about a third of the first draft of the book. You couldn’t have an ego and work with her. You had to be okay with being eviscerated. The trick was realising that she was very funny.
Fiction and invention are very much alive and well in poetry and they are so necessary, even if one treads the line with a sort of autofictional retelling of something that is anchored in the real event or person. Throughout your collection, the speaker is so concerned with character, and action, and therefore narrative development, but she is also so aware that the story-event-poem can be “rife with holes”. Do you lie in your poems? 
I love this Oppen poem, A Narrative, that begins:
“I am the father of no country
And can lie.
But whether mendacity
Is really the best policy. And whether
One is not afraid to lie.”
I do lie, but mostly through exaggeration, or imagining within an actually experienced scene, like you mentioned. Or to put it this way, I am not concerned with telling the truth when I am writing a poem. I am not even sure what telling the truth means in the context of poetry. I do care about authenticity though.
You love a single stanza. Is this form a sort of vessel that holds an unbroken, living instant, or do you approach it differently?
I do love a single stanza. I like the feeling of containment, of trying to hold a stream of associative thinking within a single shape, the satisfaction and elegance there. A very tiny story.
Are there any non-writerly activities that are a big part of your process?
To be still enough to write, I need to get a lot of movement in my day to day life. Sort of like a dog. Walking is important to me, as is running, and swimming. I like to get to the moment where I have no thoughts, where the self dissolves. And then sometimes from that empty space an unexpected bit of language comes. So many sentences in my book came into my head as I was running around Prospect Park in 2020.
Your mention of Prospect Park and sentences cropping up in your mind immediately reminds me of the middle section of the book, Desire Lines, the long poem in fragments which is set largely at the park. This poem holds a different pace to the opening and closing sections of the book because of its form. Could you tell us a little about the three-part architectural composition of the book, and how you threaded the narrative and the single poems together?  When did you know Desire Lines needed to be in fragments?
Desire Lines was actually originally in couplets, but then someone said that formal constraint didn’t align with the roaming feeling of the poem, and this felt like correct advice, so I made the sections more irregular. It was Louise’s idea to have each section be on its own page, which opened the poem up so immensely. Brevity was the key, rather than length. As for the three-part composition of the book, I knew I wanted the long poem in the middle, with more traditional sections on either side.
The speaker is constantly moving, be it through Prospect Park, a sex shop, a bodega, or even Beirut and California. At one point in the collection, a character, Meg, wryly says “you’re not dead you’re just not in New York”. The city, but particularly Brooklyn are a huge part of the emotional and physical topography of the collection. Could you tell us some more about your approach to writing place and the way your relationship to writing and the city may have changed once you left home?
I had a very hard time writing after I left New York. Observation is extremely different here: I’m so often looking at a landscape through a car window. This felt abhorrent to me for at least a year.  I felt like I couldn’t get close to anything, like there was a film between me and what I was seeing. And my neighbourhood in Oakland is much quieter than the neighbourhoods I lived in in Brooklyn. What I’ve gained, though, is a slower way of thinking, and a relationship to nature I didn’t have before.
Is there a new project you’re working on at the moment that you’re excited to share with us?
Right now, I’m trying to write about the Bay. I wasted a lot of time hating it here. But now I am attached to it, and I want to make a record of the things I’m seeing, certain places, the people in my life.