by Andy Fitch
After publishing my Sixty Morning Talks interview collection, I have begun work on a more focused, single-press interview series, offering a comprehensive oral history (a cinéma vérité, in prose) of Nightboat Books’ diverse and ambitious output over its first decade of publication. For this newer project, it particularly interests me to track interpersonal and intertextual constellations that have helped to shape the work done by Nightboat’s authors, publishers and designers.
This present talk focuses on Lytton Smith’s While You Were Approaching the Spectacle But Before You Were Transformed by It, and The All-Purpose Magical Tent. Smith is the translator of several contemporary Icelandic novels by Jón Gnarr, Bragi Ólafsson, and Kristín Ómarsdóttir. He is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at SUNY Geneseo.
Andy Fitch: I’ll try not to ask many questions based on personal associations, but when I reach the lines “how / wrong it would it be to pass this way / without seeing: plains, receding; / a contested election; a travel / brochure,” it seems relatively safe to bring in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Questions of Travel,” which, amid its own self-doubting explorations, states “surely it would have been a pity / not to have seen the trees along this road, / really exaggerated in their beauty, / not to have seen them gesturing / like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.” And we also could include the epigraph from Bishop Henry King, with its: “That from my Countreys smoke I never mov’d: / Nor ever had the fortune (though design’d) / To satisfie the wandrings of my mind… / Therefore at last I did with some content / Beguile myself in time, which others spent.” Additional indications of outsourcing arise throughout the book. But could we first contextualize various questions of travel, with Elizabeth Bishop and/or Bishop Henry King in mind? Could we also move, as this book does, to more abstracted questions regarding the ethics of present-day armchair inquiry, armchair lyricism?
Lytton Smith: I do see the book itself as a sort of unlikely travel narrative. I was reading Bishop’s Geography III in the early stages of writing this, and wondering about the ways that book risks cultural appropriation. One of the central concerns of While You Were Approaching the Spectacle but Before You Were Transformed by It is this sense of feeling involved in or even obligated to a distant place, but also not being part of it, having a question about whether it is better to do nothing because one is not connected to it. Or whether it is better to do something at a distance while realizing one has the luxury of being at a distance—and the challenges of not being able to perceive fully because one is at a distance.
AF: When you say “to do something,” do you mean to write, to represent? To act in some other way?
LS: The book is trying to find a place where writing becomes a form of action. I was thinking a lot about Williams’ idea of whether one gets the news from poetry. And I’m fascinated by recent projects by say Carolyn Forché and Natasha Trethewey bearing witness to, for example in Trethewey’s case, the event of Hurricane Katrina. Those projects seem to me often to be either time-bound (in that they relate to the sort of moment in which those events take place—there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s the primary sphere of influence), or to be successful to the extent that the reader feels a connection either to the poet or to the place. So what I was trying to do here, and it’s one of the reasons why I don’t name a place at any point in the book, is to try and explore the processes by which we are involved in far-off events. And these are all around us. One of the things that comes out of Kenny Goldsmith’s Weather project (whatever one thinks about that project, which has been hugely divisive in the poetry sphere) is the way suddenly you get the weather reports from Fallujah on your news. You’re implicated in a foreign space, whether or not you are prepared to be implicated in it.
AF: It sounds fun to keep the ambiguity going as long as we can. I still don’t even know if you went to this mythic land of M.
LS: I will say without revealing too much that there is more than one place. As I was writing, I sort of started to write about one place. Then events that were so similar would happen in another place.
AF: Well the book presents no fixed, certain observing “I” either. Place does not get named, but neither does poetic subject. It might become quite constrictive to demand an analogical referent for either of those.
LS: Yeah, and this is one of the reasons why it felt to me like a book that had to have a very prominent “you.” That “you” is of course the figure of the observing writer. But it is also the listening reader. The other epigraph that starts the collection presents Myung Mi Kim’s beautiful idea of listening in “error gathering,” with for me that wonderful play on errancy and travel, or trying to understand a language that is foreign in her context. And she’s working beautifully with both Korean and English. So this idea that it’s not just about looking. It is also about listening and trying to hear something. There is one part of this book that is written in a non-Anglophone language, a reminder that the stories that are being told here are a translation.
AF: On this question of approach, of translation, could you begin to address the misleading table of contents, the repetitions of cyclic patterns (we could talk about “pattern” and “patter” at some point)? Numbered sequences will get threaded through and across what seem like autonomous poems, somewhat reminiscent of Robert Duncan’s Passages series. Recurrent invocations of “graft” make me think of corrosive bureaucratic graft, but also of regenerative biological grafting, also of graphs, of grids (enclosing the world, but also expanding outwards).
LS: As I was writing this book, and it did transform the book, I was reading a lot of serial poetry. Passages is part of that. But also things like Maximus, a lot of Leslie Scalapino (aeolotropic series), pretty much anything from the twentieth century I could get my hands on that claimed the serial, people like Umberto Eco theorizing the serial, Benedict Anderson. This is a book that thinks about series. There is a part of me that imagines the potential of another book with exactly the same title to follow at some point.
That’s also riffing on your term “outsource,” because this is a book of sourcings. The lines you cited from the “]Grafts[” section are taken verbatim from documentary sources. That happens at various points in the book. Perhaps the best way I can answer the structural question is to say that I compose books more than poems. Yet as I was writing this I began to wonder whether it was a book: it felt like an excerpt from something larger. Hence grafting, recognizing you’ve only taken a part of something from elsewhere. Then thinking about how the poet M. NourbeSe Philip has these beautiful and troubling lines in her book She Tries Her Tongue, about transplanting as a metaphor for the middle passage. Taking something out of context and then having to deal with that.
Where I wanted to take the serial-poetics project is that the poems run into the margins off the edge of the page. We are working with a rectangle of white space that is itself an arbitrary construct. I wanted the reader to have a sense that there’s actually more to read but we just don’t have it, either because we’re not on-site, or because we have not recorded adequately what has come to us from the site. I was reading a lot of nonfiction books about the problematics of going to this particular place, because to go and be there on the ground and help is to support a problematic regime.
AF: So again to observe means to implicate oneself.
LS: Potentially in ways that are destructive. But I didn’t want to say “Do not go there.” In a sense, I hope the book becomes a way of travelling. That’s where the Bishop Henry King quote is an ironic start. We could look at it and say we disagree profoundly with Bishop Henry King. You cannot sit in your armchair and travel. Yet there is something earnest about it, particularly at this moment in the twenty-first century, when we do that all the time. Coming back to the Elizabeth Bishop: she allows us to do this. We do travel through reading. But we can’t forget that we haven’t moved. The book attempts to remind us (in phrases like “an armchair’s human tendency”) that we are not on the ground, that we are distant from the place.
That’s another way to answer the structural question—to say that the book offers a series of attempts to reach this destination though you don’t know where it is. You know it’s the spectacle. You’re asking directions. You’re trying to find it and you keep turning back on yourself, but you’re not going in circles. You’re moving slowly forward. I imagine a kind of reaching the spectacle in the last few poems, which move toward an argument. An argument actually may be what we need from a poetry that is responsive to unrest, to disaster, to oppression in distant spaces. Something that is aware of the form that these events take even more than of their content.
That’s what struck me by looking at readings and accounts of how people were dissenting and how people were protesting. The ideas often seem to cross geographical spaces. You could be in Latin America or you could be in parts of Taiwan and you would be having similar oppressions and similar challenges. You might have a specific form of dissenting that allowed you to have some kind of political agency in unlikely circumstances. Similarly, the ways that oppression was visited upon one were also interestingly formal. For example, the incidents in the book where we see media appearances (refugees being given bags of grain and posing for photos): once you become aware of the formal processes by which this is happening, you maybe have a little bit more agency to intervene even from a distance.
AF: In terms of transnational overlaps, many sourced poetic collections try to document each archival reference. In While You Were Approaching (less so in your previous book, The All-Purpose Magical Tent), you keep the origins, the sources, a bit more opaque. Does that lack of explicit allusion fit better with this book’s dystopic content? Should the sudden clustering (sometimes conspicuous terms will become omnipresent, such as “metonymic,” “tympanum”) both intrigue us (as verbally attuned readers) and raise our suspicions (as political subjects)? Should it trouble us not to know how this discourse gets fostered, with what rhetorical intent?
LS: Right. It’s a really important question because, again, I like the idea of the outsourced. That sense that things have been moved from or to elsewhere. But they have gone outside of what we can trace back. So in the days of Google one can spend an amount of time trying to track down phrases, but one knows the reader isn’t going to do that in most cases. Still I want there to be a certain questioning and even suspicion of language. Some of the sources I’m using come from dictatorships, propaganda materials. These are sources we are meant to resist and be unhappy with. Others are sources that we are maybe inclined to agree with.
The one source I will document is a phrase from the Russian revolutionary Alexander Herzen, about things being wrong in Russia. He talks about something being at the edges of the picture so that you couldn’t quite see it, but it was there. So that seemed to become a motif for the book—that something isn’t wrong with this picture, something is just off-picture. If only we could see it, we might know what was wrong. That’s in one sense the way that sourcing works in this book. Perhaps if we knew the sources we’d know the answer, but so often we don’t.
Not that this is a direct response to the things happening with WikiLeaks and Snowden and Citizenfour, but of course those were all going on at the time I was writing and raising these questions of: where are we getting our information from? How ironic is that information? And not “ironic” in the overused sense of the term, but through the duplicity of language. I fundamentally trust language. I also fundamentally distrust it. I think a lot of poets possess that sense that if you don’t interrogate it, it’s problematic, but if you do interrogate it, it’s beautiful and gives you access to doing something meaningfully. When I say “meaningfully”: again I do think of writing as a form of action, with the emphasis both on form and on action.
That is not to say that I believe that writing a poem does make a material difference in the life of somebody who is in jail for political reasons on the other side of the world. We have to be careful to qualify what kind of action writing is. But I do think writing does more than just provide information. If all a poem did was say “This is happening,” then we could do that by a news report, right? But poetry allows us to sort of look at the processes through which something is happening, one of those processes being language. And hopefully to recalibrate, to sort of say: “Well look, let’s come at this through a different angle. Let’s re-see the situation.”
Reading has to be as an active practice. I think we’ve all heard somebody in some quarter turning around and objecting to poetry (or to, for want of a better phrase, “experimental writing”) because you have to sort of look things up or think about them. I worry about that, particularly at a time when it’s so easy to look things up. Melvin Tolson used to say to his students that you had to go look things up in the library, because that’s where white folks kept information they didn’t want black students to know. Obviously as one moves toward the Civil Rights era, and for students at a historically black college, that has specific cultural ramifications. But I’m thinking too of Susan Howe feeling the restrictions of not being able to go into the university library—being banned on the grounds of her gender, among other things. Libraries and archives have often been a space for the restriction of knowledge from people you do not want to access it. So for those of us who have the possibility of reading actively, there seems to me to be an ethical obligation to do so.
That doesn’t mean that you have to look everything up. I think if this were a book that wanted people to be looking everything up, there would be footnotes. There would be a list of sources at least. But it does mean that the book is asking for a kind of reading practice that seeks to make connections or ask questions. To wonder: just how seriously is this epigraph from Bishop Henry King meant to be taken? Why do we find ourselves moving from “pattern” to “patter”? The book talks in various places about how language slips. We’re just one letter away from saying something very different, revealing something very different than we had maybe been about to.
AF: Here, in terms of questions of reading, could we look at an individual piece? “Mad Dogs and Englishmen Palinode” offers one obvious choice. What types of questions seem most relevant to you in relation to such a piece? Questions concerning this palimpsestic text’s process of construction? Biographical/narrative questions concerning what previous statement (perhaps some banality of initially enthusiastic tourism) this palinode seeks to take back? Questions of this piece’s localized significance within the overall manuscript? Questions of types of reading process you seek for this piece to illicit (suggesting, let’s say, an affinity or a contestation with contemporary Conceptualist discourses, which may encourage the non-reading of a text)?
LS: It would be the question with “Mad Dogs and Englishmen Palinode” about which narrative gets primacy and how one narrative might drown out another. While I am influenced by those working in the palimpsestic tradition (I’m thinking about Susan Howe’s work, and also Craig Dworkin’s critical work), this poem’s pages are carefully arranged so that you can read both texts. The eye has to struggle to do so. Again there is a slipping between the two. The quoted lyrics, Noel Coward lyrics, were of interest to me because the phrase “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” is such a common idiom growing up in the UK, yet I don’t think most people realize where the context comes from. Or that when they invoke that phrase, there is sort of maybe an awareness that Brits do not do well in sunlight. They don’t realize that they’re also invoking a kind of racist discourse which is about making fun of other cultures and asserting an imperial primacy. Of course one could say that Coward is being very flippant and trying to make us realize that. But I’m not quite sure that’s how the lyric works actually. I wonder whether it gets away with perpetuating the sneering condescension.
So it was important to take that as a fragment existing in popular culture, which doesn’t bring with it the full meaning of the white attacks, and to set that against a very different narrative taking place in the same space. The prose narrative becomes difficult to read, and hopefully emotionally so, because of what happens to the monk at the end of it.
But the question is whether we get there. Are we still reading at that moment? Are we prepared to engage with those events? Or are we already looking away and moving on? I’m perfectly happy for one response to this poem to be the fact that the reader doesn’t read it. I’m not going to go quite so far as to say that I believe in the not-reading of books, because I think to not read a book you also have to have read it, in a sense. I think that’s maybe there for Goldsmith. You’re sort of making the decision to not read the book after having read it. Or you’ve read it enough to know what you’re not reading.
AF: Then on the dumber biographical side, I did wonder (perhaps because the All-Purpose Magical Tent revels, albeit ambivalently, within its own idiosyncratic idiom) about this new book’s topicality. What did first draw you, perhaps in a charged, affective, emotional way? And then how did the book’s allover abstracted design subsequently pull you back? If it helps to consider a specific passage, could we look at the swift progression from “a cool bowl of riverwater,” to a “righted alms bowl,” to “the oil and wear / of water traffic, the flesh / memory of the drowned, bloated and dissolved”? Could we explore whether this quick sequence corrects clichés of travel writing, whether it reinforces clichés of journalistic reportage, whether it does both and pursues other divergent agendas as well?
LS: I think this is a moment when the book is trying to invoke these journalistic clichés, and one way to frame those is to think of the recent stories about people like Brian Williams embellishing his involvement. This book has constantly found its subjects after being written, because these processes repeat. What is happening with Brian Williams has happened before and will happen again. So the book somehow anticipates that.
This is also a moment when the book tries to move towards the fact that we need to be aware of and look at and take stock of the fact that there are people who are dying. There are these decomposing bodies and nobody is able to even retrieve the bodies. People are barely able, because of the spaces where this is taking place, to document that fact. Hopefully the poem is still aware of things like how the phrase “taking stock” has that residue of stock footage, something you might film and maybe not use.
The problem remains: what to do as a writer. Some of Susan Sontag’s writings on the ethics of war photography are an influence. This is the poem in which I’m trying to move most towards that argument, where it is about the impossibility of censoring form. So this idea of the alms bowl—it comes from a tradition where after the massacre of Burmese monks by the Burmese junta, one way that the monks decided to protest was upturning their alms bowls to prevent military officials from giving alms and therefore entering into the cycle of karma.
There’s no content to that dissent, no “I’m going to say specific things.” But there is this very significant and very powerful formal gesture. This argues that it’s not enough to notice the event. It is also about trying to chase, I mean trace (and chase, maybe?) the formal responses to oppression. Those gestures might cross space and communicate more than a journalistic reporting (“This happened—this many people were killed”), because those gestures keep going, happening. I would be writing about one incident which had particularly affected me, or which I felt some kind of implication in, then something very similar would happen, elsewhere.
AF: Could we also talk a bit about references to climate, to the ubiquitous approaching tides and floods in this book, to early descriptions of the lowlands going to sea, such as “We’ve battened our homes to / land, given the domestic up to ballast”? And then later the punning references to “the fluid existence of State” got me thinking about a broader historical mutability of the earth itself. Fusions/diffusions of space and time happen throughout the book, like that fluid existence of the state, or when “an instance of lightning” gets “suspended across space.” Then for “It Took Place in a Town I Think Called M,” for this poem’s title and its use of the verb tense “would”: I don’t know grammar well enough to describe where “would” lies, but I think of it as constellating among the conditional, the subjunctive, the imperative. Could you discuss what you find most appealing or most menacing in such instances of unmoored temporality?
LS: I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of borders, which have always seemed so imaginary to me ever since being a child. I mean political and national borders, growing up and not seeing where England ends and Wales begins and why. Does it feel different to cross over to Wales than to cross between counties in the UK? So that imaginary quality of borders. And land itself is porous, because landmasses have moved, once joined up and now no longer. Erosion. And tsunamis, as powerful, destructive, temporary instances where sea takes over land, are everywhere in this book—both coming from real sources, real tragedies, and as a conceptualization of this fluidity.
Then in terms of unmoored temporality: I wanted early on in the book to have that sense of the addressed reader (the “you” who is travelling, but not quite sure whether the events one finds oneself in are taking place now, in the past or in the present). The “you” is sort of drawn to that “it would have been.” Not “it will be.” And also to that hypothetical, right? The “if.” Even if this event has taken place or is about to take place, it’s still further conditional, because the thing that’s about to take place may actually at the last minute not take place. That poem, like a number of others, doesn’t really end, to the extent that it returns to the start. The “would have” in the last line brings us back into the “would have” in the first line. That is something that carries over from The All-Purpose Magical Tent—that interest in the cyclical, the thing that comes back. And maybe a fear that we don’t absorb often enough from the lessons of history, that we’re not quite reading far enough, that we’ve lost the documentary evidence.
My students now are talking about not being familiar with 9/11. That seems to me to be so recent an event to be unfamiliar with. I think for my generation we’re still trying to come to terms with that event. But for younger students, it seems hazy. How can we make history come back? I’m not sure that it’s by simply providing all of the content, because at some point you can’t do that. You can’t name every single moment of silencing, of suppression and oppression, and every single disaster, and get everybody’s attention equally from that.
AF: Well perception often emerges as a calculus here, either by the individual body or by the authoritarian state that can “discover misuses for equation, / analogy.” So we could track phenomenological concerns, for instance the earth’s curvature posing a potential problem for our peripheral perceptions. We could return to questions of mapping and borders. We again could look at the Elizabeth Bishop-like entranced awkwardness before a map: “a / spectrum, a rainbow laid out on the / limited rectangle of a page.” But could we somehow get to “Conversation Within/External to the Spectacle’s” partial utterance that “refraction is / eventual documentary / in relation to what”? Here of course one’s reading can move horizontally or vertically, can land on “photographic reprints of monks / disappear,” or “photographic reprints of monks / the junta will / disappear” or “in the next / frame / the junta will / disappear.” So could we consider this book’s vertiginous perceptual vantage in relation to its broader statement that “The camera / substitutes an image where / the eye retains a set of movable parts it / conflates over time”?
LS: It’s this sense of language trying to make something happen at this moment and failing because, in one sense, either way you read this, whether you do down or across, you want the junta to disappear—except it doesn’t. “Patter” hopefully also picking up on “pattern,” because even if the junta decides to have elections, somehow the junta will then return in a new form. I’m very interested in ideas of phenomenology, partly coming out of the Icelandic/Norwegian artist Olafur Eliasson. His work is often about the ways that people’s presence changes their environment. His piece Your Colour Memory explores how, if you have somebody standing in a room with a light projected onto a wall, if the light projected is green and then the light projected turns to white, the person who is in the room will actually see red, because red is overcompensated. Your retina sends red signals to the brain, even though the light is white. So somebody then walking into the room who never saw the green light will see white. Two people who are verifiably seeing correctly are perceiving a very different thing.
That phenomenon gets alluded to in a couple of places in the book. It becomes a metaphor for the idea that we haven’t arrived at the wrong interpretation—it’s just that the way we perceive the world partly depends on our context (which could be cultural, but it could be physiological, or it could just have to do with the chance of when we turn up). Those determinations are going to mean that we are seeing the same thing differently. Hence I wanted some poems to pose the question of: in what direction are you reading? I’m a great believer in the idea that form is never more than an extension of content. So if you’re thinking that color, after all, is errant, or if you’re thinking about questions of refraction, you are then, I hope, thinking about the ways in which language is beginning to scatter across the page and complicate its own flow. Perhaps one reason I come to poetry (and one element I see in everything that Nightboat publishes) is that poetry is a way to recognize and question our habits, particularly our habits of moving through the world in language.
AF: Could we expand upon light as an optics or a thematics throughout the book? “Your Light Experience,” with the lines “The sound of an emergency, / voices passing the open window, and you / are no longer sure what light is / as it surrounds you,” presents one place to start. Or “Camera Obscura” offers an instant allusion to Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, whereas the poem’s opening lines, (“This matters the / way light realizes the natural, the constructed / angles on a building steadied against / the deforested ascent, descent”) recall the demystifications prioritized in Barthes’s Mythologies.
LS: Yeah, absolutely. I got fascinated by retinas and rods and cones as a way to think about the phenomenological apparatuses by which we come to engage the world. That could be that idea of the camera obscura as an optical device. You mentioned the tympanum earlier, which is part of the middle ear. I love the sound of the word, and its connection to the ear, but a tympanum is also a decorative wall surface. It has a specific architectural position, over an entrance. I assume the reason for this usage of the term is because a tympanum is a threshold. What I’m interested in is the way that light enters the body or enters a space.
And light has this tremendous religious symbolism. I was thinking a lot about the ways in which monasteries have been constructed as spaces that invoke height and deities, that think carefully about the way that light might enter. While this book isn’t directly about trying to parse the implications of religion on how we respond to questions of distance, there is that legacy of the colonial missionary project of which the book is aware. It is thinking about these spiritual spaces as having legacies even beyond the specific circumstances and contexts of religious gathering. And so the monks in the book represent various different faith traditions at various points. That’s actually less about trying to trace those specific traditions. But it is trying to think about the traditions of a language that is partly religious, even if we’re no longer using it religiously. To take it back to light: something has entered from somewhere else. Something has changed the environment perhaps in ways that we can’t fully understand or perceive.
AF: Again alongside light quickly come questions of color. “The work of colour,” your book tells us, takes place “inside the eye.” At times this book critiques the monotonous monochrome of state-managed propaganda. It describes “an official language / denying colour its emotion and colour.” And your responses today have clarified my sense of your weariness regarding color revolutions. References to the Saffron Revolution, let’s say, can serve as emblem, theatre, galvanizing symbol, but also as abstracted, decontextualized, dehistoricized brand—especially given our superficial superimpositions of one democracy movement atop another. Media reports can throw around the names of color revolutions in the same way perhaps that a map can shade a country without delineating the lived circumstance of its people. Color in the piece “Your Projected Horizon” seems to get contrasted and/or confounded with detail, with experiential blur.
LS: I started out writing partly in response to the Saffron Revolution, only to then discover that the Saffron Revolution was a misnaming, because the Burmese monks don’t wear saffron robes in general. They wear something that I would call either maroon or terracotta. The Saffron Revolution was named because of journalists seeing pictures of Thai monks protesting in solidarity. I can’t correct that record. I wasn’t going to write a series of letters of complaint to newspapers. So I wanted to explore how much it matters. How important is it to recognize that while there is an emptiness to all of these different descriptions of color (and they are abstractions), they’re also some kind of attempt to recognize local circumstance?
In “Your Projected Horizon,” “event gathers in the corner of your eye.” You’re seeing parts of things, a sandaled foot, the door’s hinges. Does that foot stand in for a particular person? Where in the political spectrum might that foot be situated? At what point do we know enough of the picture to trust the picture? I think of color as metonymic. But metonymy is this fascinating thing where a fragment is able to gesture to something larger, to something that the fragment is continuous with. That to me is what metonymy is. It’s contiguity. And yet we also have this problem the whole time of asking: do we have the right larger whole here? Have we read the picture correctly? That’s where blur comes in as well, the sense that what we are seeing we are maybe not seeing clearly. And this fact may not matter, provided we know that there is a blur to it—that it is a partial image.
AF: How about, with questions concerning visuality, if we touch on this book’s lovely design, if you describe HR Hegnauer’s role, one you credit as “aviation”? Sometimes, let’s say when an agrarian idiom arrives to legitimate state-managed spectacle, the text suddenly pulls us into its own central margins. Or titles often get truncated. Sometimes this happens quite subtly, almost undetectably. Sometimes the text emphasizes these truncations. Or so many elegant arrangements allow for one-page pieces in this book, so that they’ll seem brochure-like, pamphlet-like, attention-getting but perhaps untrustworthy.
LS: HR did the cover but I did the interior design. Fairly early on, I started composing in InDesign, because I wanted to know exactly where text was falling off the page. Where print text runs into the margin or off the page, there is more text in the InDesign file. I was trying to control exactly at what letter things got cut off, while recognizing that, given how cutting paper works, it’s never going to be exact. There’s variation.
There were moments composing when I would write something and white it out as a way of managing to get the exact space, the example being “The News From Poetry.” There is a complete poem there, and the words are still there, but have become invisible. The record is not complete, and that partly happens through design. I want the book to feel “partial” in every sense of the word. I think that’s one reason why I wanted the two epigraphs, for example, to be on top of one another—in a sense replacing Bishop Henry King with Myung Mi Kim as we move forward.
AF: Impressive work constructing that design. And I remember, for your first book, you had acknowledged Stephen Motika as “recoverer, inventor.” Could you describe your evolving relationship in putting together these books with Nightboat? Did Stephen have a more interventionist role in the first? Have you internalized components of that experience and carried them over into the second project?
LS: Stephen has become a friend and interlocutor. He is somebody whose poetry I read with great interest and listen to with great interest. The way he has influenced me transcends Nightboat. But for me to find myself on a list with Myung Mi Kim is astonishing. I can’t begin to process that. It’s no surprise that her words end up as an epigraph to my book, because that’s a conversation that I want to be having. This happens to take place between Nightboat texts, although it also goes beyond them. The idea of non-sourcing the book comes from a Futurepoem book—from Garrett Kalleberg’s Some Mantic Daemons, where he has a similarly playful kind of “some or all of the words in this text come from other texts”-type moment.
That was the moment when I first started to think about what it might mean to non-source. And I love that Nightboat emphasizes trying to get into print that which has gone out of print, but without ignoring what is about to be published: the new. The fact that they have the prize and they’re prepared to do a second book by somebody who won their prize, alongside, say putting an Édouard Glissant book into English translation—that’s an unusual fusion. There are wonderful presses devoted to recoveries, and wonderful presses devoted to new work. There aren’t too many that do a combination of the two, and recognize that the two projects are linked to one another.
AF: Yeah, we already have discussed this book’s perceptual/cognitive trajectories, its “peripatetic route from / landscape to captured image to / printed paper to half-thought of / travel.” But if we continue to the subsequent sentence (“The wind / chimes, the poplar trees, a / newspaper ink-wet and thick- / leaved”), I can’t help hearing Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” Have we left out any legacy of the lushly lyrical you want to discuss?
LS: Right, there’s a travel-narrative poem and a travel-lyric poem. I hope that doesn’t suggest a division between the two, because I don’t believe that lyric is opposed to narrative, or that lyric is non-narrative. I’ve never been able to get that false binary. The lyric for me is about the recognition of our involvement and situation within a particular temporal moment, a temporal and geographical moment that can suddenly change into another moment. The lyric poem can slip between time periods without us quite realizing it.
Lyric seems to me to be an important aspect of this book, because there are discernable events that have happened that we need to relate to, and yet these events keep happening in different ways. You’ve got the reference to what’s happening in Iran and the Green Revolution. It’s fortuitous. That’s what lyric allows—that sense that these things do go together. I’m glad you cited that Pound example, because I often offer that to my students as the definition of poetry as the art of juxtaposition. What poetry does more than any other literary medium, I think, is to juxtapose things in order to create third things that weren’t there before.
I’m hugely influenced by Olson’s “La Preface” (with lines like “Buchenwald new Altamira cave”). He’s not saying that the concentration camps are the same as the caves at Lascaux. That would be almost unethical. But he is saying that if we can think about human desire even in the face of awful tragedy, if we can try and make some kind of expressive mark and communicate across time, then we can recognize some form of contiguity and connection between those two moments, as unalike as they are. Metaphor and simile won’t work, but metonymy will remind us that there’s a connection, even as we recognize that there is a problem in making that connection—that it has a falsity to it.