Candice Reffe is a poet who worked for over twenty years in the New York fashion industry. Her debut poetry collection, Live From the Mood Board (2019), a uniquely witty and lyrical reflection on her experiences in the world of fashion, won the Elixir Press Antivenom Poetry Award. She’s published poems in journals such as Ploughshares, Threepenny Review, Hotel Amerika, Poetry Daily, and Witness; and she’s received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. In 2012, as an executive at Eileen Fisher, she received the fashion industry’s Launch Innovator Award. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she writes and works as a strategic advisor and coach.
Interview with Candice Reffe
By Sara London, WTP Poetry Editor
Here on Fifth Avenue as if biologically
driven, spring after spring we design
a collection. Start with fabric, color,
swatches pinned: double-weave, délavé
blue as a dragonfly’s thorax. Cross-
dyed silk, even under fluorescence
a humming bird wing’s iridescence.
A ropey tape yarn sheeny as milkweed
as creamy (pods cracked open, seeds
parachuting). Lest we get sidetracked
by the release our hearts mimic,
we layer on business analytics:
What sold last year, what didn’t.
Excerpt from “Fashions of the Times,”
Live from the Mood Board (Elixir Press, 2019)
London: I think our readers will find it interesting to learn that, until recently, you were a fashion executive in New York. How did poetry fit in with your significant responsibilities in that world?
Reffe: Writing is a discipline. Language is a refuge. I commuted from Northampton, Massachusetts to Manhattan every work week and stayed in a hotel. When I came home, I’d unpack my suitcase, do laundry, read and write, repack. My dates were with poems, not people. Every vacation, long weekend (thank you Washington and Lincoln, Independence and Labor Days, thank you MLK, thank you Jesus) was defined by writing. I’d generate new poems that I’d keep working between these breaks from the corporate calendar.
I was surprised by how much of the poet’s mind I used in the workplace, a blank page with its own requirements. In fashion the word “story” is used to describe a collection that spans a four-month period—each month has its own contained “story,” and across the four months there’s a larger narrative—color, texture, style, materials are analogous to diction, syntax, form, the use of repetition in a poem. I revised and edited the collection, directed its narrative through line; in business, that connect-the-dots thinking is called “strategic.” I pioneered sustainability, with a goal for the clothes to become 100% sustainable. Leading large-scale change requires a process parallel to the creative process—you start with not-knowing, and from that discomfort, from a few clues, you discover the shape of a new direction and follow it. You persevere. As an executive, I led the company’s vision and strategy. I learned how to make use of power with grace, courage, and integrity—and in collaboration with others. I think poets have a similar relationship to language (which holds the power the poet collaborates with). Balancing work and art at times was impossible. Writing was a deeper imperative, my soul home—and I was the breadwinner for my family. Eventually I began to write about work—and the two worlds merged. About a year ago, after I left the corporate world, and had already completed Live from the Mood Board, I started a new book project with a conscious intention to make use of the mind that knew how to design complex business strategy—and to apply it to writing instead. I chose a different form—a hybrid of prose and poetry, to take on new subject matter. I’m not sure I would have if I hadn’t had experience in another realm, which gave me the confidence to breach entirely new territory.
London: What factors most guided you in assembling the poems in Live From the Mood Board? What sort of challenges did you encounter?
Reffe: The title guided me. It plays on mood’s double meaning, as a psychological state and as a tool—the mood board, a collage of images designers make to translate a design concept. I thought of the book’s structure as an arc of moods with movement from section to section, and as a collage—our moods translated through the workplace, family, society. When I first spread out the poems on my living room floor, I considered language and images that echoed across the book—how near or far I placed these poems from each other, so the repetition was deliberate and built a musical and thematic score between poems and across the book. Once I realized the structure was inherent in the title, it was easier to find the final order.
I came to accept that there isn’t always a neat division—or resolution—moods are blurry, so are collages…so is life! There’s coherence and there’s paradox, tension, argument—the division into sections; the momentum from one section to another contains and reflects this wobbliness, while at the same time propels the book forward.
London: When and how did your commitment to writing poetry begin?
Reffe: My original commitment began without words. When I was a child my imagination saved me from the mean girls in the neighborhood, from antisemitism, from the chaos of an immigrant family figuring out how to assimilate. I played outdoors for hours by myself. I assigned each tree in our yard an orchestral instrument—and then I’d conduct them, playing a symphony. By the time I was nine, the impulse to make things up found its form in language. By eleven, with the arrogance of oncoming adolescence, I decided I was a poet. (And poetry a matter of making wise pronouncements.) I didn’t major in English at college, though from time to time I’d write a bad-romance poem. I didn’t come back to writing until my 30’s, when I committed to writing as a discipline, a craft that required rigor and mastery. Decades more until I had enough skill to write well. Commitment also meant perseverance: every manuscript I wrote was a finalist or semi-finalist in a book contest—I continued to commit in the face of rejection. I had a family to support. I committed to writing despite the distance between the work I did for money and my art. I committed to making each book manuscript better than the last. The life of a writer means committing over and over. Each time, I opened the door to the backyard where my imagination was still at play.
London: How has your poetry writing evolved over the years? What are the most noteworthy changes that have occurred?
Reffe: Some years ago, I showed a manuscript to a poet I didn’t know and who didn’t know me: she had no reason to dissemble. That manuscript had placed as runner-up in a contest—I’d received an encouraging letter from the editor the week before. The poet I didn’t know said to me: “this isn’t a book.” She told me to ditch it. She named a few of its problems. Some were writing problems—solving those required me to be a better writer. But its essential problems were my problems—an orientation toward lyric suffering. The tragic romantic? The victim? A narrator I thought infinitely interesting—except of course she was mostly interesting to me. Oh shit, I thought to myself, this isn’t only about changing the writing, it’s about changing the self who writes it.
I had no idea if I had the capacity to write differently, but I had the will. The narrator in the previous manuscript was often alone. The poems repeated the same gesture: she was inside looking out, woe is me. By the end of the poem she’d have an epiphany observing the natural world. I erected a set of rules. Rule One: put other people in the poems. Rule Two: no inside looking out. Rule Three: no self-preoccupied suffering. Rule 4: no epiphanies via nature. The language became more important than the narrator, more important than the obvious content—the language and form through which the poem manifested was the content. The change of rules also released a different layer of emotion: Anger fueled these poems instead of suffering, so did humor.
London: Can you talk about a poem that gave you particular challenges?
Reffe: The centerpiece of the book, a section called “The Drop Rack,” includes a single long poem, “Fashions of the Times,” from which the book’s title is plucked. It started out as a much shorter poem and grew to twelve pages. I knew there was something there—but it wasn’t on the page yet in the early draft of the manuscript—perhaps two lines captured where it could go. I stayed with it, constructing it slowly. Listening for its multiple themes and building them out. Allowing space for history to enter, for the personal to invite the political, in the unlikely, behind-the-scenes setting of a fashion collection. Its form was different from the other poems in the book—its instincts were less about speedy association, jumpy juxtaposition; instead its pace was slower, it wanted to explore multiple points of view, invite a layered emergence of meaning. Occasionally I was bored while writing it and I had to figure out whether that meant the writing needed revising or my attitude did (not everything in life has to be fueled by ferocity). It’s become one of my favorite poems in the book…and one I look to, as I point in a new direction.
London: How much revision do you typically put poems through?
Reffe: Even now when I have the actual book in my hands, I have to keep myself from revising poems (when I read from the book, I do sometimes read slightly different versions penciled in my copy).
I think of revision as muscular, textured, layered—it feels physical, the painter hefting oils, making the image visible. It includes a willingness to paint over what was there before; if what was there retains a residual power, it simmers beneath the surface. I think of revision as an act of listening to what the language, music, diction, form is saying. Pay attention, they whisper—and I do. I scrap what’s not working—unless there’s a badly-written clue that may still be relevant; I follow what is working. Different poems present different challenges. I hate it when the end isn’t clear, doesn’t become clear as the poem develops, because that usually indicates a deeper problem, that the poem (and me as its writer) hasn’t yet made a leap past what I already know into what I don’t, often a leap through fear. I watch for complacency of any sort—whether it’s a syntactical gesture I’ve become overly fond of, or a way of seeing the world. As the territory of the poem becomes clearer, what I attend to shifts, typically gets finer. By the time I’m done I’ve been over every mark—I’m sure I still miss things.
London: How does the climate—meteorological, social or political—stimulate or distract you in your writing life?
Reffe: I walk fast around parks and bike paths with earbuds in my ears, listening to the news, fuming, broken-hearted over what is happening. When I worked in fashion, one of my responsibilities was human rights and the company’s environmental impact (clothing is a notoriously dirty industry). I’m ridiculously opinionated about capitalism’s structures—the current trend that business thinks it can solve the world’s ills and make a profit while doing so, when its actions supported by government, only perpetuate the worst of our times—climate change, the wealth inequality gap, technology’s tyranny. In the current economic structure, the big boss is a minor god and the bosses who trail in his or her wake are acolytes unwilling to question the status quo that sustains them. I admire poets who are able to write well about the exigencies we are enduring. As a citizen I’m channeling my own urgency into canvassing for voter turnout! Since publishing Live from the Mood Board, I’ve turned to a hybrid form—not because I don’t believe poetry can address these subjects, but because the mixture of prose and poetry is enabling me to write into an arc of history and politics blended with personal narrative and mythology—it’s an experiment in addressing the state we find ourselves in (no claims for its success—just me at my desk).*
London: How important is it for you to share your poems-in-progress with others for feedback?
Reffe: At some point, extremely important. I wait to show a piece to someone else until I’ve done as much as I can with it—I don’t want to ask them to work any harder than they need to—it’s an act of generosity to read someone else’s work in progress. I put writing down for a spell to get more distance, to see it more neutrally, as a reader. When I reach my own limits, or have specific questions, I ask for feedback. What I think is clear may not be clear to a reader. Maybe I haven’t gotten to the core of the poem’s meaning. When I’m taking a lot of risks, I need to know which risks work and which are failures—splat!—regardless of how I might feel, what I might think about them. When I first started the hybrid essays about a year ago, the form was weird enough that I had no idea if the writing was working. About four months in—when the shape of the first piece was clear, I showed it to a few friends, to make sure it wasn’t an utter flop. “Keep going,” was the feedback I got, and I have.
London: Is there a particular quote by another writer that remains especially resonant or insightful for you regarding the writing of poetry?
Reffe: “I don’t view myself as a musician anymore—I view myself as a human being that functions as a musician when I’m functioning as a musician, but that’s not 24 hours a day. That’s really opened me up to even more perspectives because now I look at music, not from the standpoint of being a musician, but from the standpoint of being a human being.” Herbie Hancock.
There’s something he’s getting at that speaks to the quality of being that an artist can access—the source from which creation manifests, and the importance of dropping identity when it becomes a barrier between you and the object you’re making.
*This interview was conducted in the winter of 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States. This postscript was added in April, a few days before Easter:
I’m writing this postscript three weeks after our federal government declared a national state of emergency due to the novel coronavirus. New York City is hitting the curve’s peak: yesterday, someone died every two minutes. In Northampton, some wake at 4 AM and sleepwalk the day. Some are busy stitching masks inside their houses for local hospitals. Some can’t afford a place to shelter in. A bite of cold persists in New England. When the sun appears, I turn my face into it—not as a metaphor, but as a fact.
Copyright 2020 Woven Tale Press LLC. All Rights Reserved.