Noah Eli Gordon
photo by Ravi Durbeej
Noah Eli Gordon's latest books are A Fiddle Pulled From the Throat of a Sparrow, which was awarded the Green Rose Prize by New Issues Press, and Inbox, just out from BlazeVox. His forthcoming books include Novel Pictorial Noise (selected by John Ashbery for the National Poetry Series and due out from Harper Perennial this fall) and Figures for a Darkroom Voice, a collaboration with Joshua Marie Wilkinson (who conducted this interview for Rain Taxi) forthcoming from Tarpaulin Sky Press. He is also the author of the books The Area of Sound Called the Subtone (Ahsahta Press, 2004), and The Frequencies (Tougher Disguises, 2003). Ugly Duckling Presse recently published That We Come To A Consensus, a chapbook written in collaboration with Sara Veglahn. His reviews and essays have appeared in dozens of journals, including Publisher's Weekly, Boston Review, Jacket, The Poetry Project Newsletter, and in the book Burning Interiors: David Shapiro's Poetry and Poetics (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007). He writes a chapbook review column for Rain Taxi, teaches at the University of Colorado at Denver, and publishes the Braincase chapbook series.
by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
Joshua Marie Wilkinson: 2007 looks to be a big year for you—you have four new books out or forthcoming! From what I understand, each of these books is considerably different from the others, so could you talk about how you work in different modes?
Noah Eli Gordon: The simple truth is that I write a lot, that I spend much of my time doing it—even if it's only pacing around my apartment waiting for some interesting phrase to catch me off-guard, or half-reading until I find something I feel inclined to respond to. I've tried everything I can think of to bring a poem into the world: automatic writing; timed writing; making word lists; sketching out detailed charts of specific syntax and filling in the words later on; writing only in public; writing at specific times of day. The really maddening thing about it—and I'm sure this is true for many many poets—is that once you've had that breakthrough moment with a particular mode it's sure not to work the next time.
For me, being a poet is something that needs to be continually relearned. Nothing works the same way twice, which is why I think it's important to explore as many avenues as one can, to create outrageously complex and seemingly impossible projects for one's self, even if they end up in failure. Although I'm wary of labeling various factions within the poetry community, I do think this is a more generative way to consider the term "experimental poetry," as it's all about seeing what works and what doesn't. How does one experiment with language, with memory, with narrative, or even with emotional states or physical conditions? The goal is not necessarily to write a certain kind of poetry, but simply to alter the ways in which any poetry might be written.
JMW: Were your various books written concurrently, or was it just chance that they all got selected for publication at the same time?
NEG: A little of both I suppose. I've made it a point to give dates of composition within all of my books. I'm intrigued with the way that applying an actual date functions. It says: this is the sort of thing I was writing at the time, which moves all of one's work, regardless of its content, into the autobiographical sphere. It's also a way to rectify the skewed effect publication dates might have when considering the arc of the work, or the so-called progression one makes as a poet. For example, my first book, The Frequencies, is dated 2/02–11/02, while my fourth book, A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow, carries the dates 1999–2005. Over half of Sparrow was written before The Frequencies, so in some ways it's my "first book." The benefit of tinkering with numerous simultaneous projects is that it's much easier to make a home for whatever divergent or odd bit of writing one's left with at the end of the day.
JMW: There have been a few recent deaths of poets interested in exploratory modes of writing: namely Robert Creeley, Barbara Guest, and Jackson Mac Low. I'm curious about your influences... who got you started in poetry, and who from that generation of poets do you continue to return to?
NEG: Although the poets that first had a major impact on me were those I'd read as an undergrad (T.S. Eliot, Theodore Roethke, and Wallace Stevens)—it was really, oddly enough, Charles Simic who first made the idea of being a poet seem like something that I might want to do. After coming across his work in an anthology for a class, I went to the college library and checked out all of his books. I was mystified as much by the work as I was by the fact that it was giving me such immediate pleasure. Simic was my gateway drug. From then on, I tried to read everything in the poetry section; of course, ten years later I'm still working on it.
At some point, I encountered both Ann Lauterbach and Michael Palmer. Their work was mystifying in a different way. Initially, I was frustrated, in that I couldn't make heads or tails of it, but it was the frustration itself that became increasingly of interest. Once I relaxed my expectations, or even called them into question, I found that this was the sort of work I really enjoyed—a poetry that is continually renewable. Although the poets of The New American Poetry era are hugely important to me, I find myself returning more often to those in both the preceding generations—the high Modernists—and those that came afterwards, poets like Rosmarie Waldrop, Clark Coolidge, Nathaniel Mackey, John Godfrey, and Bernadette Mayer. But I'm just as quick to go back to folks like Novalis, Blake, Vallejo, Césaire, Breton, Hölderlin, etc. The work of my own contemporaries is of continual importance to me as well. I'm always excited when I run into new poems by Graham Foust, Sawako Nakayasu, Anselm Berrigan, Johannes Göransson, and hundreds of others. They make me want to try harder! For the last couple of years, I've been reading David Shapiro's poetry religiously. I think he's one of our greatest poets and hope that his Selected Poems, which will be out this year, brings him the recognition he deserves.
JMW: Now that you've come full circle in the last ten years and are teaching poetry yourself, I wonder what you draw on in the creative writing classroom?
NEG: Since I'm teaching at the undergraduate level, I'm more interested in turning my creative writing students into avid readers. I try to present a discursive sampling of aesthetic approaches to the poem, to cultivate a space where students can have that eureka! moment with literature, while breaking down various received ideas about what constitutes a poem. I do very little actual workshopping in my introductory creative writing courses. Instead, I focus on reading with an eye toward form: I want my students to ask not only what a work is doing, but how it's doing it. In this way, almost surreptitiously, I'm able to equip them with a critical vocabulary and editorial apparatus beneficial to their own work; well, that's what I hope to do anyhow.
I also use multiple prompts and writing assignments. At such an early stage, I think it's imperative that students feel comfortable simply generating work, and this tends to happen when the classroom is a place of discovery. I often build my syllabi around authors that I'm able to bring into the classroom. It's had a wonderful effect on my students, as they're able to see literature as a living, breathing thing. In a recent visit, Eula Biss, a dynamic cross-genre writer, told my students something that seemed to resonate with them. She said, "Take yourself seriously." Although it's something I could have easily said, it was because we'd read and extensively discussed her work that the students were actively invested in what she was saying. That's what I want out of the classroom—active investment.
JMW: I understand that collaboration is important to you. You and Sara Veglahn recently had a chapbook come out; you are one quarter of the Whalebone Essays with Travis Nichols, Eric Baus, Nick Moudry; you and I wrote a book-length collaboration last year; and now I understand that you've been working via email with David Perry. What is the role of collaboration for you?
NEG: Collaboration turns the romantic notion of the poet in solitary recollection inside out. It's an anodyne for that solitude. It's also an energetic charge. The camaraderie of the process forces everyone involved to jettison solipsistic ownership. But, in the end, it can help one's own work. Collaboration opens the possible, which is to say it's had—and really continues to have—a wonderfully residual effect on my own writing. I'm always willing to take more risks in a collaborative project; eventually, that willingness becomes internalized. It's carried over, widening the allowances I'll give myself, or those that the poem gives to me. Of course, sometimes it's just plain fun. For me, writing can be a tortuous process, so bringing in a little joy is a big relief.
JMW: Speaking of camaraderie, could you talk about how community and writing come together for you?
NEG: Collaboration is definitely one rather immediate and visceral way, of course. But when I think about community in terms of writing I imagine it as a nexus of celebration, one that includes all the ancillary yet necessary endeavors and institutions: literary journals; reading series; reviews; interviews; lectures, etc. I've never lived in an area with a huge social network revolving around its literary scene, so I've had to look elsewhere to be fed in that way. I've made it a point to pay particular attention to what's going on in the world of literary journals; for me, this is a big part of my community. It's the celebration. Although I do think it's incredibly important for writers, especially poets, to add something other than their own poems to the party. Whether it's doing a small press, editing a journal, writing reviews—whatever—as long as it adds something else.
JMW: Is this the impetus behind the reviews you write and the chapbooks you publish?
NEG: Yes, pretty much. As far as reviews, it's not an evaluative procedure for me. I'm more inclined to talk about what a poet is doing, about how the poems work, although the inclination itself is by proxy an evaluative stance. It's simply a way to bring a small amount of attention to what other folks are doing. Of course, it does force me to read with a willingness to cross from an intuitive engagement over into an intellectual one. I wouldn't say it's necessarily reading deeper, but it is reading almost sideways, allowing the text to do its job, I'm also trying to figure out what, exactly, that job entails.
I tend to think of reviews as a service to the community, or really to the idea of community. I mean we're at a point of production right now where it's impossible for anyone to keep up. There are so many interesting books being published. In a way, the rise in the last few years of micro-presses, of small chapbook publishing, is an alternative to being swamped. With limited print-runs, there's a sense of purposeful scarcity, a sense that a book doesn't have to take over the world via its ubiquity.
It's also a question of the literary validity of the object. Why is it that something over 48 pages with a print run of over 500 copies is infused with the aura of authenticity, while a chapbook is not? I suppose there's the notion of editorial acumen, but I've worked pretty closely and skeptically on the books I've published. I do the Braincase chapbooks in runs of 100 copies, most of which I simply give to the authors. When they're gone, they're gone. Eventually, I'd like to publish some kind of a reader to collect them all, but for now I'm okay with their transitory nature.
JMW: Considering your own prolific output, do you think there's a danger is publishing too much in too short of a time? Do you think it might alienate your potential readers?
NEG: A few years ago, Theodore Enslin wrote a mostly-anecdotal review of George Oppens's New Collected Poems, which included mention of an exchange between the two poets that has strongly resonated with me. It's also a sort of answer to your question. Enslin—who's incredibly prolific—wrote about an incident where Oppen had asked about his procedural methods, about how he puts a poem together. The two of them discussed what one can only assume were their very divergent approaches. Afterwards, Oppen said something along the lines of, "For me, six books. For you, possibly a hundred." And Enslin makes it a point to say that the statement was one of legitimacy for both ways. I bring this up because it's become for me a powerfully instructive anecdote: there's no right or wrong way to go about publishing. The books will find their readers eventually.
In fact, one of the real joys of discovering a poet completely new to me is being able to then hunt down all of the books. When I first read poets like John Yau, Larry Eigner, Barbara Guest, Robert Kelly, Lyn Hejinian, and especially Clark Coolidge, I loved that there was so much other work available, that I could try and figure out something about how each writer had changed. Once I'm interested in a poet, I'm willing to follow her anywhere, especially if this means doing some backtracking. I do think the few books that Oppen or Wallace Stevens or Elizabeth Bishop published are all masterpieces, but if I were as reticent about my own publishing I'd be somehow betraying the spirit of my writing practice. This is not to say that I'll simply publish anything. I'm as interested in the value of refinement as I am in the mess of the world. They're both operative modes for me. I worked for six years on A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow; some of the poems in there went through hundreds of drafts. On the other hand, the majority of Novel Pictorial Noise was written in a few months. I think it's about staying true to what the poem needs.
JMW: Your first two books—The Frequencies and The Area of Sound Called the Subtone—are comprised largely in prose. Novel Pictorial Noise is also prose poems and Sapphic fragments, while A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow is full of lineated poems. Could you talk about the role of prose and lineation in your poetry? Why has the prose form, especially, been important for you?
NEG: The short answer would be that prose is more natural for me. Joshua Clover asked me the same question once and proceeded to chide me for using the term "natural," but I suppose what I mean is that it's easier for me. I'm comfortable in prose. I read an interview where Eileen Myles suggested that poets should find a form that holds the way they think and a way to write that's easy for them. I think it's good advice, but I also sometimes enjoy forcing difficulty on myself. When I'm working with lineation, it's an endless struggle. There's a pervasive anxiety there; I need to be able to justify to myself the particulars of every line break, because I never compose with lines; they're always the product of revision. Sometimes I feel that the line itself is an outmoded holdover—that it's dead. Of course, then I read a poet like Fanny Howe, someone who does, dare I say, mystical things with line breaks.
Ostensibly, it's with prose that we understand, clarify, or complicate our interaction with the world. This makes it a prime target for poetic investigation, or even manipulation—another reason I'm drawn to it. A lot of my work in prose deals with stretching expected rhetorical tropes. I like to twist and expand the arc of the sentence. Ideally, there's an affinity here to the Surrealist impulse to expand the possible. For me it is more than an aesthetic decision, but I'm wary of making claims for its efficacy. If the imagination is the foundation for any act, then wouldn't it be marvelous—to use another term with Surrealist connotations—if we could expand and enlarge the imagination itself, in effect enlarging what's possible. Prose is just so rife with expectations of sense and logic that it's a goldmine for anyone interested in challenging such notions.
JMW: How do other art forms influence your work?
NEG: My poems occasionally attempt to enact the same experience I've had with other art forms, and to crib from their techniques. When something really moves me, when it pushes me toward a reverential state or just makes me rethink and question my assumptions, I love to explore how, exactly, that's happened. For example, "What Ever Belongs in the Circle," the first poem in The Area of Sound Called the Subtone, is a twelve-page attempt to mirror some of the formal characteristics of Chris Marker's film Sans Soleil. In the film, there's a striking generative disconnect between the flow of imagery and a continuous narration. With the poem, I tried to manifest the same disconnect, so the phrasings are clipped, but fused together syntactically. Although it's the impulse behind the poem's form, it's irrelevant to its success or failure. It's an interesting challenge to bring formal approaches from the other arts into poetry, especially when it seems nearly impossible to do so.
There's a poem in A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow that's much more directly in conversation with the visual arts, specifically with Cy Twombly's work. It's a sequence of sonnets called "Four Allusive Fields." I went to Philadelphia to give a reading several years ago, and, for the first time, made it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was excited to see all of the Duchamp pieces they house, but had, strangely, no real reaction to them in person. Maybe it's because I've lived with their representations for so long, or, perhaps, it's that much of the work is conceptually intellectual. But I did have an incredible experience there with the Twombly sequence 50 Days at Iliam. It was an immediate and intuitive understanding of the work—a felt response, one marrying the emotional and the intellectual. Essentially, the paintings deal with the Iliad, but they do so as pictorial gestures and notes, as though Twombly were processing information and chose to give us, instead of that information, a representation of the process. It's a system of charged, yet ambiguous signifiers, but also wholly narrative. It reminded me in a sense of the scribbles one might absently make while listening to a lecture, a kind of automatic shorthand for everything being taken in. Of course, with Twombly such scribbles—and I mean this free from any pejorative sense—are able to capture the essence of the information. For the poem, I wanted to describe my understanding of the experience I'd had with the paintings. Each of the sonnets begins with the phrase, "Cy listens absently to absent Homer," and then goes on to comment on and enact some of the ways I saw this happening. The title of the poem comes from an essay by Roland Barthes, where he talks about Twombly as working within "the allusive field of writing." I'm simply trying to bring Twombly's engagement with a poem back into poetry.
JMW: What about music? It seems like a pervasive element even within the titles of your books.
NEG: It's everything! Well, I suppose that's dangerous too. In Barbara Guest's Forces of Imagination, there's an essay where she writes about sound, about the danger in selecting words simply for their sound. It's a caution I've taken to heart. To be honest, I'm a poet because I'm a failed musician. When I was in college, I shared a large room with a friend who played drums, and, in fact, with his drum set as well, along with a few large amplifiers, my own guitars, and other equipment. We were in two bands together and practiced daily, in the same room where we slept. This was around the time that I started voraciously reading poetry. I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with having to depend on other people in order to be creative. I wasn't really good enough to do anything interesting on my own with music, so I quit. I sold all of my equipment and started taking writing very very seriously. I hadn't thought of this before, but in a way it's analogous to an odd embodiment of the history of the lyric. That sounds self-aggrandizing, but I mean it in the sense of the lyric as approaching music—Zukofsky's "Lower limit speech / Upper limit music." It's an attempt to account for the loss of the actual accompanying instrumentation.
JMW: Can you talk about this in terms of "A Dictionary of Music," the first sequence in A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow? To me, it reads like a narrative equivalent for the experience of music.
NEG: That's it exactly! The poem is about that attempt—the crossover between language and music, or, really, the impossibility of such a crossover. The poem started off with me reading an actual Dictionary of Music from the late 1800s. I wasn't paying attention to the terms, instead I read the definitions straight through, as though it were a poem. There were spots in which it was slow going, but I was still enthralled, as it seemed to almost work. I started copying down some of the definitions, rewording and rearranging them, trying to get a feel for their construction, their linguistic musicality. The sequence I ended up writing is pretty far from those definitions, but it has something of the spirit of the experience in it. Peter Gizzi, one of my teachers, turned me on to the concept of song in gypsy culture as one of the only grounded places, as a kind of home. In a way, that's also part of what the poem is exploring. Overall, it's pretty rife with subtle and sometimes hermetic allusion, as I have a tendency to conflate and collapse whatever disparate elements I'm weaving into a poem. For example, the first section nods toward the myth of Hermes creating the lyre from a turtle shell, but it does so obliquely, and I'm not concerned if the reference is lost. Sometimes a poem will move me to hunt down the origins of its constituent references, histories, and gestures, but sometimes I'm happy just swimming in it—letting it do its work. Poetry has that wonderful ability to propel one into a heightened state of awareness, or even worldliness. I'm happy when things go over my head because it's a reminder that the world is inexhaustible, that one should forever be a student.
JMW: Most poets come up against this question of accessibility—how do you handle it when people ask you about what your poetry "means"?
NEG: I love the anecdote about Rimbaud's mother asking him what his poetry meant; he said something along the lines of, "It means what it says." And then there's Wittgenstein's famous locution about a poem being composed in the language of information but not playing the language-game of giving information. When I'm teaching poetry, one of the first things I like to do in the classroom is to play some instrumental music and ask my students what it means—it helps to loosen certain rigid expectations. When someone asks what a poem means, I think they're really asking for some help engaging with and appreciating poetry. The question itself belies a fundamental misconception as to how a poem works. If there's time, I'll address that misconception. If not, I'll simply talk about what the poem is exploring, some of its formal traits, and whatever I was interested in thinking through while writing it. The default, I suppose, is to quote MacLeish: "A poem should not mean / But be."
JMW: Since we're back on the topic of teaching and developing as a writer, what do you think of all the contemporary rhetoric around the nefarious MFA industry? Are MFA programs helping or hurting creative writing?
NEG: I don't think one can in good faith talk about creative writing as some sort of singular anthropomorphic entity, and those that do seem to want to limit the art. Personally, I'm all for extreme pluralism. The argument against MFA programs is really an argument for gatekeeping. Is it problematic that as a culture we've reached a point where it's nearly impossible to live as a working artist? Yes, of course it is. But in some ways an MFA program is a temporary solution to current economic factors that dictate a lack of bohemian camaraderie. Which is to say, one can no longer simply move to New York City or San Francisco and afford to live on a few days of work a week, reserving the rest of one's time for art. Before starting my MFA, I was working 40 hours a week in a dollar store, hiding in the backroom to read when the boss wasn't around; the program gave me the opportunity to dedicate most of my time to reading and writing, and I'm forever thankful for it. In fact, in the program I attended at UMass-Amherst, the graduate student union is incredibly strong—so much so that I was making, as a grad student, six times the money for teaching a course compared to what I made teaching at a community college when I first moved to Denver. I suppose what I'm getting at here is that MFA programs can provide the means for people to dedicate their time to writing. It doesn't remove anyone from the actual world.
JMW: Let's shift gears back to the writing of poetry: your new bookInbox collects emails you received—how does it work as poetry? What's the tradition that you're contributing to here? Is it true that it's an entire book of none of your own writing?
NEG: The book is really just the execution of an idea, and a privileging of the idea over any other aesthetic criteria, which is the truncated version of the definition Sol LeWitt gave to conceptual art: "The idea becomes a machine that makes the art." The genesis of the book, outside of the omnipresence of coffee, was a passage in Tom Raworth's Visible Shivers, in the "Letters from Yaddo" section. Raworth mentions an idea he had about making a book by typing up every piece of mail he received over a three-week period. After one week, he'd gotten bored with the project because of the ubiquity of junk mail and bills. Reading that passage sent me immediately to my computer. I wondered if my inbox might yield up something interesting. I took every email that was then in my inbox, with the exception of anything from listserves or anything that was forwarded to me, and put it all into a file in reverse chronological order. Of course, it was interesting to me, but self-aggrandizement aside, it wasn't until the idea crossed into the social space that I saw it might actually have some legs of its own. I wrote a rather long email that both explained the project and asked permission to use the emails that folks had written to me. Once I saw how very mixed the reactions were—everything from praise to anger—I knew it was a worthwhile project. The book itself begins with this letter as an introduction, so I did actually write a few pages of Inbox, but other poets for the most part wrote the rest, although my mom does have the final say in the book. As far as how it works as poetry, well, I am a poet; a press that publishes poetry published it. We're dealing with the confines of definition. To be honest, I consider the book to be a work of conceptual art. I think that conceptual poetics is merely a branch of conceptual art which happens to have its greatest reception within poetry circles. Interestingly, my friend Eric Baus read the entire manuscript and said he was surprised that he actually liked it outside of its conceptual framework, that it was really a testament to the social side of what it's like to be a poet. In the end, I do hope that this comes across in the work.
JMW: I understand that you used to keep a daily blog and then gave it up only to return to it recently only to give it up again. What's your sense of the blogosphere for poetry? How do you see how it shapes the contemporary poetry scene?
NEG: As your mention of my own involvement makes clear, I've got pretty mixed and uncertain feelings about blogs. On the one hand, I think it's amazing how our ideas about community are in flux, how the Internet is able to have a very democratizing effect. On the other, I do see a real danger in the poetry blogosphere, one which is twofold: first, there's the whoever-talks-the-loudest-and-most-often-wins conundrum; of course this exists in any sort of social interaction, but, to me, it feels really amplified when it's online. Sometimes things seem to be more about carving out one's own little chunk of cultural capital than anything else. The other issue for me is the way such typing matches can effectively warp or shift how folks conceptualize contemporary poetry. I've noticed a new phenomenon in the last few years among poets who are just a little younger than I am; I call it the everything-I-know-about-poetry-I-learned-from-reading-Silliman's-blog syndrome. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to have Silliman's blog around; I think he's done, and continues to do, a great service for innovative writing. But I have had several conversations with younger poets who are clearly prostrate to Silliman's opinions. I suppose much of my concern is also undeniably solipsistic; I know I could start blogging about poetry on a daily basis, effectively strengthening my ties with a larger poetry community, while also increasing the possibility of a readership for my own work, yet something about this as a calculated move feels sort of slimy to me, hence my blog's continual disappearance and reappearance. It's the adherence to the cult of personality that bothers me. I suppose I'm more interested in focusing my energies in other areas. Although I'll admit to a voyeuristic interest in how other poets are spending their time—not necessarily in what they ate for lunch, but in what they're reading.
JMW: How do you account for the massiveness of the poetry world right now (books, programs, reading series, chapbooks, blogs, journals, broadsides, anthologies, web journals, critical writings) and the general disconnect of the "public" from poetry? Or do you agree with the premise of the question? For example, my friend's dad, a lawyer who doesn't read poetry, received three autographed copies of Billy Collins'sSelected Poems for Christmas one year, and my students on the first day of class usually cannot cite a single living poet; in fact, this year one student said, in absolute earnestness, "What about Chicken Soup for the Soul?" What do you make of this disconnect?
NEG: When I found my way into poetry, it was such a personal, quiet, yet revelatory process. I felt as though I'd stumbled into some gigantic, expansive landscape that, although it was always there, I'd never quite noticed. Because it was so personal, because the discovery was one that I never felt any sort of commodified push towards, I think it was made all the more important. Poetry will always be there for anyone who wants it. I don't think printing it on billboards or trying to attach a hipness quotient to it is going to make it any more popular. It's a real shame that all of that money donated to Poetry magazine is being used to promote the Poetry Foundation's marching band sensibilities. In fact, the marginal public appeal of poetry might be one of the reasons the art is so utterly vibrant and alive right now. To be honest, I don't care if poetry is popular, and I certainly am not going to write in such a way to attempt to make it so. Billy Collins is the sort of poet who makes his readers comfortable, confirming for them what they already know. That's fine, and explains his popularity, but it's not what I want from poetry. I want poetry to challenge what I know, to make me reconsider the world, or, at least to make me notice it in a different way.
JMW: You've mentioned in other conversations that there is a sort of mania of production that involves writing poems, that you must always have a project and that there's something sort of horrible about it. Could you talk about that?
NEG: Edmond Jabès called his time between projects the Book of Torment, which is pretty analogous to how I feel, although for me even the time between any sort of production can be somewhat tormenting. To be totally honest, although poetry has given me a life, it has simultaneously made me a prisoner of that life, as I feel a consistent and unwavering pressure to write. All the making of a poem does is temporarily relieve me of that pressure. I don't think it's the most healthy of relationships to have with one's passion, but it's what I'm stuck with nonetheless. I will say this: I feel lucky that I know what it is I'm doing with my life.
JMW: I am always struck by your uncanny ability to memorize your own poems. It seems like the poems come with severe difficulty and labor to you, but once there, they seem burned into your whole being. What do you make of this?
NEG: I wouldn't say that the making of poems is for me always laborious, although the clearing of a space in which I might make them certainly requires its own labor. I love the physicality involved with enunciations that require the entire range of vocables, words that really take on a physicality when spoken. I think it's why I'm partial to Latinate words—the lips and tongue have to really sculpt them into being. There's something about the lack of the physical in writing that has irked me. I guess I'm trying to compensate for it in some way. Paul Valéry's essay "Poetry and Abstract Thought" makes some intriguing connections between the pace of walking, the muscularity involved, and that of thinking. For him, the rhythm of walking leads to an almost meditative interior space. I think of syntax in the same way. Sometimes it creates a cul-de-sac, sometimes an oddly curved street, but, if it's one that's lived with for any period of time, there arises a sort of muscle memory, carried by one's body rather than one's intellect. I remember Tomaz Salamun once telling me about how completely physically beaten he was after writing the poems in A Ballad for Metka Krasovec. I think the writing of poems does something to one's insides. Maybe it's a carving of new neural pathways, which itself is a kind of interior violence. All I can say with any certainty is that I do put everything of myself into my poems, not in an autobiographical sense but in an auto-biological one. Maybe that's why I'm able to recall them.
JMW: What has changed for you from the days when you fell in love with Simic and Stevens? Now that you have several books and many chapbooks, that you've published poems widely and read across the country—what's different?
NEG: For the most part, nothing is different—nothing changes on the personal, day-to-day level. Writing one thousand pages of poetry doesn't make page one thousand and one any easier to write. There are certain default tics of syntax, diction, and imagery that might come more quickly, but I suppose part of the problem of writing is figuring out how to either challenge oneself to expunge these, or to work in such a way that celebrates their existence. I try not to take myself too seriously, but I do take seriously my dedication to poetry, as mawkish as that might sound. Which is not to say that I have some sort of inflated notion of grandeur, or even that I think I've accomplished anything all that important, because I really don't—rather, it's that I ascribe value to the choices I've made, not a value above anything else, but one alongside other possible choices. If I had several lifetimes I think I'd like to be a helicopter pilot, to work in demolitions, to be an entomologist, to study the Kabbalah. I like the idea that, as poets, we're supposed to continually widen the breadth of our knowledge, that reading a book, walking, looking at a painting, and having a conversation—all of these things are a part of our work. If there is any difference for me now, it's that I'm aware of and thankful for all of the other people who've made the crazy decision to become poets. Sure, it's nice to get a note from someone I've never met about my work, but then it's just as nice to give the delivery guy a big tip.
JMW: The first reading we did together, for Matthew Cooperman's series in Ft. Collins, Colorado, you said that you live for performance. What is it about live readings that is so satisfying for you?
NEG: Did I really say that? It sounds so embarrassingly earnest. I tend to get carried away when I'm reading. I've always imagined myself to read in a slow, deadpan sort of way, but anyone who's seen me read certainly knows that's not the case. In high school, I was the vocalist for a punk-ska band. We'd practice every other day or so, and play at various clubs in South Florida a few times a month. There were hundreds of people at our first show, more than at any reading I've ever given. That sort of history with performance is bound to shape one's future endeavors. Reading also has a way of activating the work, of opening new avenues of entry. There's a video from the early ’80s called Poetry in Motion in which Ted Berrigan talks about how knowing him personally won't add to his work, but hearing him read it will. I've had this experience with a few poets. When I first read Michael Gizzi, I was sort of baffled, unable to find my way into the work, but then I heard him read and something just clicked.
JMW: There's a gag on an episode of The Simpsons where the family goes for an outing to a soccer match—and soccer is pitched as this incredibly boring activity. On the marquee outside the stadium, it says: "Tomorrow: Monsters of Poetry" as though poetry were about the next most boring thing! Rather than bemoan it, let's take it seriously! Who are the five "monsters of poetry," living or dead, you'd like to hear from the front row of the stadium?
NEG: A poetry reading at a stadium sounds like a horrible idea.
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007