Tag Archives: Summer 2016

Interviewing the Interviewer: A Conversation with Andy Fitch

andyfitch
by Caleb Beckwith

Andy Fitch’s most recent books and projects are Sixty Morning Talks, Sixty Morning Walks, Sixty Morning Wlaks and (with Amaranth Borsuk) As We Know. With Cristiana Baik, he recently assembled the Letter Machine Book of Interviews. He has dialogic books forthcoming from 1913 Press and Nightboat Books. He also edits Essay Press, teaches in the University of Wyoming’s MFA program, and directs the MA program in literature.


Caleb Beckwith: I'd like to start by asking how you first became an interviewer. It’s clear from Sixty Morning Talks that your craft as an interviewer is well-refined, but how did this come to pass?

I know I became an interviewer by accident. Having joined The Volta as a perhaps too-eager undergrad, I admired The Conversant from afar before jumping at the opportunity to join as soon as an editorial position opened up. To say my path into interviewing was anywhere close to planned would be wholly incorrect. I'd never really thought of interviews as a particularly generative form of archival material until looking at The Conversant as part of my poetry education.

Did you also simply find yourself in interviewing? Or was your involvement in the genre more purposeful, directed and planned?

Andy Fitch: Thanks for the questions, Caleb.

Chance exposures and embodied circumstances tend to shape what I work on, I guess.

In terms of literary experience: as an undergrad, I loved one oral-history project focusing on African Americans growing up in Jim Crowe-era Mississippi. I could absorb the narratives so fast and yet they stayed with me and kept me thinking in a constructive way that more polished historical narratives might not. I probably learned less from this reading experience than from others, but felt more intellectually engaged. Studs Terkel’s book Race got assigned in a class the next semester, and offered a similar experience. After that, I always had my eye out for transcription-based projects (John Cage, David Antin, Steve Benson, Tan Lin, Alice Notley’s idiomatic and speech-inflected work, Pat Hackett’s ventriloquy through Andy Warhol and vice versa, for instance), and by the time my friend Jon Cotner and I edited this special issue of the Belgian journal Interval(le)s, I had encountered much more interesting work in polyphonic transcribed prose than in single-author written texts. Jon and I had begun putting together our own book, Conversations over Stolen Food, which 1913 will publish soon. We both were pretty oblivious, as I still often find myself, and heard of Kenneth Goldsmith one random day in early 2006, amid our conversations work, and went to meet him at a reading and he joined us at a grocery store the next afternoon, and I think our dialogue publications started coming more frequently after Kenny solicited a piece. Then my friend Melissa Dunn pointed me to Hans Ulrich Obrist’s interview collections, which prompted lots of amorous identification. Finally, while meditating one day, which gives me any ideas I ever have, an expansive interview collection with poets seemed possible. Then first, for practice, I interviewed Anna Moschovakis. Many people probably can attest to what a thoughtful and devoted friend Anna is, but she also is super fun and seemed the ideal person with whom to try out something new and to know something smart inevitably would come from it. Then, soon after, the interview book started with another all-time favorite collaborator, Amaranth Borsuk.

Then, in terms of miscellaneous life details: I had moved to Wyoming for work by this point, and felt pretty desperate to stay in touch with lots of interesting writers, and always to meet new ones (the only way I typically learned of new writers had been to meet them at parties, and in Wyoming you can see old friends at parties, but you rarely can make new ones). A visual disability had grown increasingly problematic as I worked on my PhD, to the point at which I couldn’t read the New York Times anymore, so that I started getting lots of news listening to interview shows online while cooking and stretching. As I assembled my first scholarly manuscript, it seemed clear I had little future in scholarly writing. I wanted to evoke ideas, or get people to think up their own ideas, but drawing out a well-informed, watertight, provocative prose argument felt too depressing.

Then in terms of recent history: as social-media conversations became an increasingly popular form of poetics discourse, I felt increasingly isolated, because my eyes can’t read much off of a computer or a phone. But also, beyond physical incapacities, I probably used my eye trouble as a crutch to avoid having to read friends’ Facebook posts and such. I just never cared. Whereas with conducting interviews, I love learning extensively about somebody, then talking at length to the person, then putting together a fluent record of a complicated exchange. I actually don’t think of interviews as predominantly archival material. For me, dialogues comprise a form, or genre, or mode of inquiry like any other, just as worthwhile to read as any poetic or critical or philosophical text.

CB: I identify with this narrative even more than I originally expected to, especially the contrast you draw between the interview and academic argument. Do you see the freedom inherent to the interview form in its social, dialogic qualities? The improvisatory performance that necessarily accompanies oral, rather than written, engagement? Some mixture of the two?

I’ve definitely observed considerable differences in the sort of conversation that happens across the different forms of real-time conversation and written exchanges like, let’s say, this email correspondence. But I haven’t yet had enough experience with these separate forms to theorize about the strengths and weaknesses of the critical documents produced by each. Could you speak a bit to the different modes of criticism produced by these separate interview formats? Beyond the practical reasons already described with reference to your visual disability, does the oral form possesses a particular appeal for you? You mentioned transcription—with reference to David Antin and Steve Benson—is there something about the translation from spoken to written media that you find particularly exciting/illuminating when it comes to poets talking about their poetics?

AF: Lots of interesting questions. Definitely the social component of dialogue appeals to me. I’ve always envied, say, people involved in theater, working together, at night, in a dark and echoing space. And feeling some sort of almost athletic performative rush every night in public sounds great, as I articulate it right now (though, as a writer, I often dislike performance).

Also, for dialogues, I especially love the degrees of texture, or layered syntactical and rhetorical depth (less concerned with content here) that they offer to prose. I think of dialogues as a form of fortuitous juxtaposition, as much as of purpose-driven inquiry. I like when one person doesn’t answer the other’s question, or when a question gets misunderstood or misremembered first by the interviewee, but then by the interviewer too—creating any number of shadow or potential or lost qs-and-as. If we could consider the “plot” of a conversation to consist in such volleys and in the embodied durations that situate them, then that’s the plot I find most musical and most intellectually generative, and that I most prefer to follow. And that plot often (though definitely not always) seems juiciest when people talk to each other in real-time. Email-based exchanges have their place too, of course. I experimented with them while assembling The Letter Machine Book of Interviews. But since I don’t typically think of dialogue as “getting anywhere” (we’re still mortals, still going to die and lose our precious thoughts, still listening impatiently and not really hearing each other, still destroying other living beings all along the way—for me, that’s the perennial and ever-timely content), the types of hyper-composed responses that poets and scholars tend to offer in email-based interviews often get in the way of the best material.

In “From Speech to Writing,” I think, Roland Barthes catalogues his lifelong attachments to the mother tongue, to writing with the mouth, to attuning oneself to the human muzzle. That makes perfect lived/intuitive sense to me (though I would add that I love dogs’ muzzles even more).

So again, I don’t mean to sound evasive, but I often don’t think of dialogues as straightforward critical documents, so I don’t know if I have much to add to your smart question on that topic. In terms of critical discourse, I can say this: whenever I attend an academic conference, I mostly just think about how panelists seem to want to appear authoritative, imposing, compelling, convincing, but that it might work better for them to come across as disarming. I’d so much rather have panelists construct rhetorical space to coax forth my own thinking, instead of telling me about their thinking. I have the most intellectual respect for people who can do this, and I don’t consider this response entirely indulgent or narcissistic on my part. I just sense that thought gets stale pretty fast and needs perpetual refreshment. Dialogue at its best provides and dramatizes one antidote to this lamentable fact.

Many of my peers emphasize their investment, as teachers, in processes of active learning. I’d love for their scholarship to pick up more on this animating pedagogical impulse. And of course I have overgeneralized and gotten a bit reductively carried away here in my discussion of present scholarly practice—I blame the fact that I’m sitting in a reverbative room with the door closed, and not talking to you in person!

CB: Were we sitting together in person, talking, I could read gesture and tone, judging when, where and how to diverge from your divergences. I’d probably joke in some way, as jokes tend to open that space of freedom, interpretation and warmth you describe. It’s what I sought in my pedagogy when I taught writing—and teaching—in grad school, and you now remind me that its probably lurking somewhere in my own turn towards the interview as a primary critical form. This turn also coincides with my decision to leave PhD life over very similar dissatisfactions with the academic form, but that’s another conversation.

If dialogic interviews are open, exciting and accessible in the ways you describe, what happens as you transcribe them? I know I, for one, can’t bear to transcribe my own interviews, as the conversation immediately feels stale. Not to go back to one of those perhaps too-smart questions, but I think of David Antin—his sense of transcription as translation that necessarily occurs in order to keep the piece alive in the moment of composition (both talking and writing). Antin, then, changes the talk piece in order to preserve it—to maintain its spontaneity. Interviews don’t allow this. So, do you find the energy of a dialogic exchange translating to the page, for readers? Or is the appeal of the dialog the places that it gets you in conversation, not necessarily the process of getting there?

I’m slipping into cliché here, but this is the place in conversation where I’d complicate that comment by undermining it with a self-deprecating shift in tone—signaling that I am at least aware of my devolving into the process versus product platitude.

AF: Oh man, Caleb, now I feel that I have irresponsibly overstated my case. We don’t have to discuss it here, but I’m all for you returning to grad school. I just don’t know of many other comfortable places to gain one’s literary footing. And I should add to any critique that I so far have made of academia: academia provides one of the few social spaces (in the U.S. at least) in which a professional institution tolerates a decent amount of non-normative behavior, and even endorses and encourages constructive critiques of itself. But hopefully you have found something better. I only have waited tables and worked in the academy so far.

In terms of transcribing: I can’t do it anymore, because I basically can’t look at a computer screen except in sliding glances. But I totally loved transcribing. People complain about transcription taking so long, but it thrilled me to create an intellectually dense 20-page document in three hours. And I retained enough spare consciousness (which otherwise doesn’t happen when writing) to stay aware, moment to moment, as a new piece came together and grew longer and longer. I fluidly made the types of small-scale editorial decisions that most interest me as a writer, and felt a sense of dialogic plurality pushing out from my brain, and couldn’t believe that work ever could come so easy. To add my own cliché: the overall experiential process resembled, say, watching flowers bloom in accelerated video footage. I also of course trashed my wrists, ears, back, neck, even somehow my knees transcribing, but I definitely miss it.

I actually find most parts of interviewing pretty fun, and fueled by desire (always at play for me when work comes easily, comes socially), to the extent that I never can tell which of these process-based energies find their way towards a pleasing experience for readers. I tend not to think much about a reader’s experience, and I think I use the “socially beneficial” alibi of an interview focusing on somebody other than myself to worry even less about such questions. Interviewing provides useful intellectual stimulation (and refreshment—I do interviews between other projects), keeps me reading more widely, offers a focused and intimate engagement with somebody new and hopefully helps the interviewee’s work to circulate. I also enjoy editing texts and can’t imagine many days of life without editing. With interviews flowing in, I endlessly have new pieces to finalize. For all of these reasons, I have remained hooked.

Reading David Antin’s transcriptions provides its own great pleasure, and I do always try to think of new ways to refine and reshape the texts I produce. But I sense that the counterpoint processes at play in dialogue (partially described above) provide more space for transcriptive spontaneity to endure in such texts, as opposed to the translational properties so prominent in documents from Antin’s and others’ site-specific performances.

Just to keep the labor from going invisible here, I now pay people to transcribe for me. I have worked primarily with two terrific transcribers: Maia Spotts and Nicole Monforton. I really enjoy working with them. Both Maia and Nicole have added much to the texts that they send me. And I enjoy professional relationships in general, and especially talking shop. This discussion makes me feel sentimental. I just hallucinated (from gate C3 at the Fort Myers, Florida airport), the folky sound of wood knocking wood in Die Meistersinger. Maybe a fellow passenger set that as his/her cellphone ring.

CB: I now fear that I’ve overstated my case as well! Though I also understand such mutual neuroses as an unavoidable component of conversations between poets—people who dedicate much of their life to evoking and detecting subtexts.

I believe you’re right about graduate school/the academy as one of the few spaces in which the non-normative is not just permitted, but encouraged. I should also add that my own—recently terminated (suspended?)—grad school experience was both open and nurturing; if anything, I was given too much space, intellectually and emotionally, to explore the lines of critique and change that presented themselves as necessary during those years of my life. Ultimately, I chose a line of flight from the academy, for now at least, as that sanctioning of the non-normative came to feel even more restrictive than the predictable/traditional prohibitions of 9-5 working life.

This was partly because, like many writers of my generation, the professional poet/academic lifestyle came to appear as less and less of a realistic possibility than it was to even the grad school cohort preceding me. Appropriately, it was Brian Teare, one of my grad school mentors, who laid the foundation for my necessary turn to the interview, when he remarked that with greater institutional credentials comes greater institutional oversight. As we see the credentials of the academy become increasingly de-valued by, among other factors, the overpopulation of MFAs and literature PhDs, I find the interview to be a profoundly honest reckoning with the work/reward equation required by the current economic climate.

That said, I’m also sure that this attitude is determined by profession (and writers of my ilk seem to be increasingly eschewing the academy, even those with the advantage of a giant foot in the door) at least as much generation. How much, or little, do you find interviews affect your and/or your interviewees professional lives? Clearly an interview doesn’t do as much for a CV as, say, a University Press monograph, but does it help? Does professionalization enter into the equation at all? And how, if at all, does this affect the conversation itself?

I ask all these question as a person whose professional life—including but not limited to academics—continues to benefit from the publicity and experience the interview, as a form, affords.

AF: It probably makes sense for me to speak more to the experience of the interviewer than the interviewee here, just based on my own work. But I do think that interviews benefit interviewees, and not only for obvious reasons of promoting their writing. Amazingly, even for the most engaging, smartest, most fascinating books, authors seem rarely if ever to have participated in an extended dialogue focused on a given project and its infinite possible ramifications. Or, at least, interviewees often claim surprise and appreciation for that part of the conversation (I never know of course who is just being polite—like people complimenting you after you give a reading). But, for me, that relatively untraceable part of the exchange, helping to create that possibility of focused discussion for an author who clearly deserves it, makes an interview project already experientially worthwhile and aesthetically/philosophical sufficient—without much concern for professional consequences.

But then moving onto professionalization: as a person never all that inclined towards tracking (or, perhaps, just never earning much) professional recognition, I probably can’t gauge well how much professional benefit one gains conducting interviews. I do remember, at a relatively early point in my writing career (basically at the start, in my late twenties—I’d never felt very future- or career-oriented until that point, and certainly didn’t write much or think of myself as a writer), deciding that I couldn’t stand putting much effort into submitting (still blissfully oblivious of the whole need/process of promoting) my work, and that instead I would put extra time and effort into the work itself, and just hope that something sustainable came about. And interviews and related dialogues/collaborations always seemed to have a life of their own. It felt much easier to find a home for them, particularly without as much internal friction (corny Midwestern shyness, mostly).

So I guess we could consider these developments as benefits to the interviewer, though they still make little sense to most university hiring and tenure/promotion committees. From what I remember, my university still requires that professors’ CVs relegate interviews to some shameful category I forget the name of, separate from articles and creative publications. I’ve ignored that requirement, and nobody has given me a hard time. But beyond this local, anecdotal experience, I don’t see many job postings come up for writers working in dialogue, in interviews (I do remember one, at a school where I would really love to work, and I got an MLA interview even though the actual job description focused on theater, and the whole interview went really well until the last question, when somebody asked: “So how do all of these projects connect to theater?” and I mumbled some dumb response about how my girlfriend worked in casting).

Still I should say that space always exists to make the case for what you most want to write, as a worthwhile literary endeavor—that tacit, even unconscious assumptions we make privileging certain forms and methods and modes of discourse can give way, sometimes surprisingly easily, to an energetic push, and that hopefully you and I and many others have, in terms of dialogue, made that push for some time now. Though people do still often characterize my interview work as “generous,” which cracks me up. Imagine if, after you gave a reading, everybody told you you had been really generous up there. Or you found out that the person you had a serious crush on primarily thought of you as generous. I actually think of myself less as generous than as pursuing certain intellectual/aesthetic/situational desires in pretty relentless fashion.

For what it’s worth, I feel I perhaps have failed to provide the honest reckoning you asked for, particularly in terms of the current economic climate. Instead your phrasing returned me, after several lost decades, and via YouTube, to R.E.M.’s song “Time after Time.”

CB: If not the requested reckoning, your mention of corny Midwestern shyness and R.E.M. provided a welcome opportunity to reflect on the way that my own disposition towards the interview might also stem from my upbringing in the American South, more particularly Athens, GA. After spending the first twenty-three years of my life in Georgia, I’ve now triangulated the country, living first in Philadelphia, PA and now, as of six months ago, Oakland, CA. Though the communities found in both of these moves were 100% by design, I still feel fortunate to have inhabited two of the more vibrant poetry cities this country has to offer.

About a year into my time in Philadelphia, I was lucky enough to organize a reading group involving some of the poetry all-stars I daydreamed of learning from/studying with for, quite seriously, years before. At that time, my eagerness was only matched by my own brand of shyness, so the job as a point person negotiating the schedules of my idols was far beyond my reach. We maybe spent a month trying to plan our initial meeting, as I simply could not imagine myself as the person who disappointed (insert accomplished elder poet here) by scheduling the meeting at a time that they couldn’t attend. Finally, after weeks of mutual headaches, Brian Teare—oddly enough, the same mentor who I mentioned earlier in this conversation—pulled me aside and remarked: you’re being too Southern.

Brian was from Alabama, so he properly read my passivity as a, perhaps deviant, strain of Southern gentility; in me, he seemed to have recognized an earlier version of himself as a displaced, disidentified Southerner. Needless to say, I’ve encountered similar experiences out West, though California—and especially the Bay Area—has a proprietary brand of “chill” that’s changed the shape of these encounters from their origin with Philadelphia’s characteristic bruskness.

Though I’ve now long-since departed from this younger passivity, I must admit that I gravitated towards the interview as path of least resistance—or, more accurately, a path of less promotion. I wonder, since your Midwestern identity led you to the interview as a means of publication, how has it shaped your demeanor as an interviewer? In my experience, the same Southern disposition that earlier made it difficult for me to schedule group meetings has also allowed my one-on-one conversations to archive a critical depth that I truthfully never expected when I first started the practice of interviewing some time ago. If, as you suggest, interviews are really about giving writers an active role in the reception of their work, then they might prove a critical space in which a more modest inhabitation of intellectual space achieves the most. Generosity be damned, though, because my friends who let me interview them are doing me a favor. Thanks yall. All yall.

AF: “Proprietary” stands out as a particularly funny word there. I do remember feeling that Bay Area chill as a 22-year-old, and opting out, preferring neuroses, attending Woody Allen films by myself at Berkeley’s California Theater. And I love your formulation of constructive interview approaches adopting a modest inhabitation of intellectual space. I hear echoes of what Stanley Cavell refers to as the philosophical poverty performed by Beckett, Wittgenstein, Emerson. For me, let’s say in grad school, Joe Brainard and Andy Warhol stood out as the authors most willing (or able) to provide space for the reader’s whole embodied being to think. And I always admired their acute transformations of purported Middle American blandness, passivity, taciturnity into a Hegelian contemplative echo chamber—one in which to think or talk or read about “nothing” might mean to enact thinking for the first time. But I don’t mean to emphasize any regionalism, which I’ve never really believed in (perhaps because I don’t come from the South). I identify more with Barthes’s mode of domestic structuralism, working with the exact same desk, lamp, office arrangements wherever I go. And in terms of Barthes: I meant to say that I would take your sense of good interviewers giving interviewees a more active role in a work’s reception, and apply that idea analogically for what my favorite writers do for/to their readers. So I often think of dialogues as closet-drama enactments of what it means to read at all, to think through somebody else’s thoughts, to dwell within an identity symbiotically assembled alongside all the other identities around you (your family, your peers, your texts). Warhol (ventriloquized, again, through Pat Hackett) said that his films attempted to “show how people can meet other people and what they can do and what they can say to each other. . . . and if you thought it could apply to you, it was an example, and if it didn't apply to you, at least it was a documentary, it could apply to somebody you knew and it could clear up some questions you had about them.” Rather than scoring petty argumentative points, my favorite dialogues tend to try for something similar. Like now you’ve made me veer towards more regionalist identifications. Do any good interviewees ever come from the East Coast? . . . Ah yes, Charles Bernstein, Leonard Schwartz, maybe early Errol Morris and Frederic Wiseman, maybe Rosebud Ben-Oni comes from there, or Cindy King. Studs Terkel of course, even if he seems so Chicago.

CB: This conversation just led me to discover that the interviewer whose style I most consciously try to imitate—ESPN/former Grantland NBA reporter Zach Lowe—is from the East Coast. More specifically, Connecticut, which seems very much apart from the NY/Boston/DC/Philly corridor, which I think we both referred to as “Northeast,” but which backs up your throwing of a productive wrench into the South/Midwest constructions I drew earlier.

Like the art interviewers we discussed earlier, Lowe simply lets his guests talk. But what his role as an NBA reporter highlights, for me at least, is the way that interviewing itself is predicated upon privileged modes of access. In my experience at least, it’s been tough to occupy the gracefully semi-present position of our ideal interviewer without some prior social credentials—and that means access. For example, though we’ve actually never met in person (very much looking forward to AWP now), I’ve worked with you on The Conversant long enough to 1) ask for your time in the form of an interview, knowing you well enough to trust that you’ll enjoy the exchange and 2) feel comfortable diverging into, let’s say, basketball as my mind takes me there. Lowe is the same way, though his access to actual celebrities highlights what you might be aware of my now getting at—poetry and the oft-perceived (though mistakenly so, in my mind) star system of its own.

So, if poetry, like any creative field, involves the exchange of social capital, how does this impact interviewing as a craft? Do you think of these exchanges at all? As a younger (let’s hope one might say up and coming) poet, I know I can’t ever totally put these exchanges out of my mind. For example, as much as I pride myself on my interviewing acumen, I must also acknowledge the social and material conditions in which that acumen developed. In my case, it was an editorship at The Conversant (not to mention scholarship for free grad school) that emboldened me enough to ask for interviews with perceived poetry “celebrities” in the first place, which then led to friendships, more publications, and the wheels keep spinning.

AF: Might I admit that my current desire for increased privileged access leaves me somewhat clouded on this subject? I’d love to start, say, a “Death and Disaster” dialogue series in which I interview prominent philosophers, climate scientists, bioscientists, astronomers, computer engineers about humanity’s most pressing existential risks. I’d love to interview a generation of conservative leaders around my age about their current stances regarding climate change—as a sort of time-capsule project to dredge up and reflect upon two decades from now. I probably spend more time than a grown adult should fixated upon certain late-twentieth-century-and-beyond musical acts (Sparks, The Clash, Prince, New Order, The Smiths, Pet Shop Boys, PJ Harvey, Björk), and would feel so incredibly lucky to talk to them.

With that scale in mind, I for now (for this present discussion) don’t feel all that guilty about social capital arbitrarily assigned to me at birth, or at least about any modicum of privileged access built up through excessive work since then. For sure I could put this social capital to more precisely focused purpose, but, alas, I think I would need still more privileged access to do so. So I just want more privileged access. Don’t dialogues sometimes make you say obnoxious things? But here I’d hate to preclude the glib, the catty, the naively aspirational. I think we need to harness these tendencies more productively, towards more progressive ends. I don’t know this Zach Lowe figure, but that name gets me thinking of my own hero, the musician Chris Lowe, and his famously lousy performances as an interview subject. His silences, his superficial-seeming asides always help to sharpen my thinking. I don’t hold him accountable to his words. I have a galvanizing crush on him.

CB: Now that’s what I call access! This is the point in the interview where I should show all my cards, explaining how my own growing frustrations with the conversations—both present and online—surrounding poetry capital lead me ask others about it in the course of almost any interview. That’s to say that I’m both appreciative of and relieved to read your very timely reframing around actual power, actual capital, actual concerns.
Still, I find myself in these conversations increasingly often, and I can’t tell if it’s due to any particular era or geography in which I currently find myself.

I brought up social capital as relates to interviewing half-expecting to make this turn. In my experience, the interview is the critical form best prepared to illustrate perhaps the most underlooked aspect of any poetry scene—the real, lived social bonds structuring them. The best example I have here is the interview chapbook I put together for you and Essay Press. I’ve known Gordon Faylor and Danny Snelson since I moved to Philly three years ago now, and I think them as friends first and poets second, both being huge support structures as I navigated the major life changes that led to my leaving Philly for the West Coast. Divya Victor, the only contributor whom I did not know personally beforehand, became a dear friend over the course of the interview. Through the expressions of a whole range of affects (especially frustration) that friends so often share, we came by the rarity of a new adult friendship.

This is not to say that having one’s friends as an editor at a journal, small press, or some other outlet doesn’t help---Gordon, for example, has been my publisher at Gauss PDF. Rather, in my experience at least, friendship always precedes the convenience. Or they at least become so conflated that one can’t disentangle the social from the aesthetic bonds, making the interview a near-perfect document of their inculcation. Do you think of the interview in this way? As a way of accessing, or at least illustrating, the ineffable effect of coterie in poetry? Or should I say “sociality” to signal the endearing register of my tone—one focusing on affection rather than exclusion?

AF: I guess I mostly interview people I don’t know, and probably won’t be meeting soon. Again, I did start on dialogue by collaborating with friends, and did do my first interviewish exchanges with friends, and it meant a lot to start Sixty Morning Talks with two good friends, Amaranth Borsuk and Chris Schmidt. But more generally, I tend to think of interviews as talks that happen with people I won’t talk to often. Interviewing provides one of the only prescribed forms of professional acquaintanceship that appeals to me. To repurpose an American sage:

I’d love to follow what intense young people say on social media but I can’t

I’d love to go to a conference and feel engaged enough to attend some of the panels, but I can’t

I’d love to pick up (or download) a cool journal and just browse and see what I find, but I can’t

I’m not the type.

And then, to quote this sage more directly:

By the way, people will often try to convince you to do something by saying that it doesn't matter if you're not the type, or that you could be the type if you wanted to be, but don't break down and try to do something that you're not the type to do, because you know what type you are, nobody else does.

Focused exchanges about authors’ books have provided one of the few available approaches for me for what feels like genuine interest, let alone spontaneous friendship. And I do feel quite friendly towards interviewees afterwards, like we once had talked all night at a party.

So does that count as coterie? As cagey cultivation of professional sociality? To me, it just feels like quite personal, compulsive habit. And then we dissolve back into text, long questions. It doesn’t have to solidify any more than that.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

An Interview with Jonathan Weinert

Weinert Photo
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 Jonathan Weinert’s In the Mode of Disappearance. Weinert is co-editor, with Kevin Prufer, of Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poet on the Recent Work of W. S. Merwin. He has received the Nightboat Poetry Prize, the Copper Nickel Editors' Prize, and a fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.


Andy Fitch: Since the back cover frames this collection as a “bulwark against the forces of fragmentation and disappearance,” could we start with you cataloging some of these forces? At different points throughout the book, these might include personal forces, interpersonal forces, historical, political, ecological, technological, linguistic forces. We also could consider specific moments in the text, such as elliptical, autobiographical-seeming allusions to “the complications,” or to “every woman / I had ever lost, or would.” We could look at such localized instances, or we could speak in much broader terms. But if one were to claim, let’s say I were to claim, that the world always contains forces of cohesion and appearance as strong as those of fragmentation and disappearance, would you dispute that claim, and on what grounds would you dispute that claim?

Jonathan Weinert: I wrote the bulk of this book almost 10 years ago now. You would think if I wrote it that I must be very intimate with it, and I am in certain ways. I feel in some ways at this stage that it’s almost a book written by someone else. I have this kind of distance from it. I think that there are specific things that I’ve probably forgotten that may be fresher in your mind than my own.

AF: That’s part of the oral-history project here.

JW: Though to take your question in a broader, philosophical frame, I think that if you were going to assert that there are forces of disappearance and incoherence (and I think that there clearly are), and that the book investigates those, then disappearance and incoherence could only have a meaning against a background or a presumption of coherence and appearance. Something can’t disappear unless it has already appeared. Something can’t become incoherent unless there’s a coherence against which it could be measured. I think that this tension drives a lot of the poems in the book, and that the engine of them, the source of them is really fundamentally personal. A lot of these poems came out of personal pain and personal history, but they’re clothed in historical, philosophical, linguistic and artistic clothing, if that makes any sense at all.

One of the problems that I struggled with while writing this book was how to get at this kind of core sense that I’ve had with me ever since I can remember of there being . . . I don’t know if “forces at work” is quite the right phrase, but that there’s always been a struggle to feel as if my existence is on an equal footing with the world’s existence. I don’t want to psychologize myself too much, but there is definitely a sort of therapeutic dimension to this book that I think is important to mention. It’s not that the book . . . I wasn’t going through analysis or anything when I did this book. It’s not the result of that. But it’s really a result of questioning myself and questioning this experience and perception that I’ve had that it’s late, and that I’m always arriving a little late and that what I see and what I’ve experienced is always somehow slipping away.

inthemodeofdisappearanceAF: I’d love to explore how some of these questions and experiences of perception play out. For example, in terms of In the Mode of Disappearance’s paratextual scaffolding, the opening Bachelard epigraph on the cosmos and its narcissism, this idea that “the world wants to see itself”: could you begin to situate your poetics, or the place of this book’s poetics, as it mediates that desire of the cosmos? Maybe, for instance, we could introduce an axis or basic tension between your engagement with mortality and your engagement with analogy or description. This book’s opening “Song of Urthona” seems to establish a stark dichotomy between potential fate and accomplished fate: “Isn’t yet is heaven. / Is no more is hell.” But I’ll also hope to get back to that poem’s very first line: “Like is only like since the world was lost,” and to think through not so much “isn’t yet”/“is no more,” but how “being” or “is” relates to “like.”

JW: The Bachelard quote isn’t complete by itself. I feel like it’s completed by the Simic quote that follows: “Reality is very nice as an idea, but who wants to look at it in the face?” Which is funny as Simic often is, but it’s dead serious as well, which Simic also is. There is a tension between the cosmos wanting to see itself and this whole notion of wanting to and needing to turn away. That kind of contradiction is emblematic of what happens in the book, I think. That’s picked up in “Song of Urthona,” which makes a bow to William Blake, whose poetry is very important to me. He’s really the first poet I fell in love with. Urthona is one of the main figures in his cosmology. Blake was the great poet of contrarieties. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he said that without contrarieties there is no progression. These ideas are in my mind a lot. Whether it’s obvious or not (because it is a little bit oblique here), to invoke Blake in this way at the beginning of the book sets the stage for how contrary forces in the world attack each other or play themselves out.

As for your question about “like” and “is”: along with Blake here, there’s also the sense of paradise lost and the Fall. Blake deals with this extensively in his prophetic books. It’s also of course biblical. It doesn’t necessarily interest me to quote biblical text, but this idea of a paradise or a time of unity that has been lost, a golden age from which we’ve fallen—whether or not that’s true historically, it’s recapitulated to some extent in each individual life. There’s a sense of wholeness that children often have, especially really young children. That sense can get shattered for a variety of reasons, sometimes simply by virtue of becoming self-conscious, conscious of the world, and conscious of one’s separation from it.

In a world of unity and paradise (if you want to use that biblical language), there can’t be metaphor, because there isn’t any distance between anything. So in my book there’s a sense in which being able to see something is a loss, as is being able to compare things and to connect things. Even cohesion and appearance are predicated in some way on a loss of unity, because if there’s no difference between who I am and what I see, what I am and what other things are, then there can be no metaphor, there can be no language, there can be no relationship, there can be no literature. So there’s a kind of elegy even in the act of seeing that presides over this book.

AF: Well in terms of a child’s potential sense of unity, naming plays an important role. And again, I’ll want to get to a variety of modes of disappearance that this book addresses. But I’ll start with how naming seems to relate directly to disappearance here in numerous ways. This phenomenon perhaps gets literalized most concretely in the grandfather figure arriving and contriving some German-sounding name, resituating himself westward in multiple senses, moving as far as he can from the particularities of his Eastern European past. Then this grandfather takes as his assumed birthday July 4th, so that both personal and national identity suggest forms of self-invention but also of self-eclipse, also destruction of others. Likewise, the naming of oneself can take place in some edenic or narcissistic moment, but it also could suggest a desolate lack of any nurturing environment that names you. It could indicate freedom or devastation. And apocalyptic tones certainly circulate throughout the book, evoking prophetic traditions like Blake’s, like biblical traditions, but also I thought a lot of Thoreau amid these New England scenes—of Thoreau, as Stanley Cavell describes him, formulating America’s historical position of simultaneous morning and mourning. Cavell’s Thoreau asks whether we should consider this continent a discovered land or a stolen land, a land of opportunity or of genocidal aggression and ecological devastation. Similar tensions seem to circulate in relation to naming here, to how the world gets defined. Even the Charles River, let’s say, not only gets personified, but gets Anglicized, then subsequently gets poisoned. So, more broadly, how does naming abet and/or resist disappearance in this book?

JW: That’s a great question. It’s interesting that you point to my grandfather’s story. Some elements of this book are strictly autobiographical, and that’s one of them. At the beginning of World War I my grandfather indeed came to the United States from Romania. He claimed all his life, until he was 88 years old, that he came from such a small village that he didn’t have a surname. So he made up this name when he came to the States: Weiner (without the “t”), because he had uncles, so the story goes, in Germany who made wine. “Weiner” is winemaker. And then his wife, who was second- or third-generation American, my grandmother Esther, prevailed upon him to add the “t” to the end of the name because there were too many Weiners in the phonebook.

When I was a kid I heard the story repeated over and over again. It was only when I got older (in fact well after my grandfather died) that I started to question that story of naming, that origin story. There seemed to be some kind of mystery around my grandfather’s origins that nobody in the family either knew or cared to find out about or wanted to clear up. So there’s this sense of the great good fortune, which was accidental really, of my grandfather leaving Romania before the rise of Nazism and all the horrors that happened beginning with World War I itself and through World War II and after. There is a sense of his act of naming himself when he came through Ellis Island as somehow bound up with the history of the destruction of the Jewish people, and a sense that my existence depends in part on what my grandfather did accidentally.

Bless you for calling the book Thoreauvian, because Thoreau is one of my heroes. I’m living right next to Concord, Massachusetts, so I drive by his and Emerson’s houses almost every day. I think that comes through in the poems, especially in the long “Wellesley, Massachusetts” sequence where I had, on the one hand, this rather acute sense of myself as a member of a Jewish community that had been uprooted. We never could find out from my grandfather or even from anyone on my mother’s side of the family where our family came from. So there was this sense of rootlessness and also this sense of having just narrowly escaped the Holocaust.

I also had the sense of being this Jewish kid in a very Jewish middle-class family context growing up in the town of Wellesley, Massachusetts, which couldn’t be more blue blood if it tried. It was full of old money, very WASPy, lots of Christian Scientists, and Wellesley College, of course. My father taught at a private girls’ high school, so I grew up on this unbelievably beautiful campus. It was like a little Eden, now that I think about it. There was solitude there, which I loved. There was beauty there, which I didn’t fully appreciate until later. But it was really kind of an artificial landscape, almost an artificial place to grow up even within that town. All around me was the Cradle of Liberty, the Battle Road to Lexington and Concord, and the first Thanksgiving—all of the American origin stories which were fed to me in elementary school the way that they were to all kids in the ’60s and early ’70s.

This was the beginning of a more cultural questioning of received notions about America’s origins. There’s an echo here between my question about the received notions of the origins of my family and my family’s name and, on a more national/historical level, the origins of the country. In both cases there is something that seemed to be . . . “taboo” isn’t quite the right word, but there are secrets, right? The dirty secrets of the founding of America have to do with genocide and all of the horrors that we know about now. The Pilgrims weren’t necessarily the heroes of the story.

AF: I thought about “Wellesley, Massachusetts” here as well, specifically its abecedarian formatting, its alphabetized catalogue or index. Again, one could draw historical comparisons to a rhapsodic Whitmanian catalogue, but instead I recall a couple of more contemporary examples in which abecedarian formatting seems to track Manifest Destiny and its consequences, enforcing disappearances. With Cathy Park Hong’s abecedarian in her book Engine Empire, the narrative keeps pushing west but ultimately encloses the mythological Western frontier as we get farther and farther down the alphabet. Her project siphons off possibility even as it celebrates the lovely sunset always on the approaching horizon. Or Juliana Spahr’s list of disappearing animals in her long poem “Unnamed Dragonfly Species” also arranges disappearance in this alphabetized fashion. Similarly, in “Wellesley, Massachusetts,” your own abecedarian at first seems to trace the growth of the poet, at first seems autobiographical and chronological, though eventually that chronology splits apart or breaks down. So, within the broader context of your book: if the “isn’t yet” is heaven, if the “is no more” is hell, does it seem better or worse for semantic or alphabetical chronological order, for one’s steady progress through life, or across the continent, to break down?

JW: I know Juliana Spahr’s work though I don’t know that particular poem. But this also makes sense with what we were just saying a moment ago. If I can remember the circumstances of writing the Wellesley sequence, I had been reading Charles Olson’s Maximus poems. Something about creating a whole that is also internally fragmented very much appealed to me. That’s certainly the way that Olson’s book hangs together, or fails to hang together. But there’s an attempt there to create a whole. In the simplest possible way, the alphabet provides a readymade framework for holding something together. And the only person who would need a readymade framework to hold something together is someone who is afraid it’s all going to fall apart. I think that’s also part of the impulse toward counting in this book. I should point out that this book’s title poem, “In the Mode of Disappearance,” is numbered with all the digits, 1-9, and I think that’s an echo of the alphabet as well.

AF: Yeah, when I realize I’m reading an abecedarian, or perhaps also with 1-9, I’ll feel a sense of traction and room for growth as I start to get into the rhythm of it. Though then I’ll also encounter the anxiety of the impending end. Death already looms because I know a “z” must come. So even amid such an expansive sequence, closure seems present from the start.

JW: If you look at the “z” section, I really made a strenuous attempt to create an opening at the end rather than a closing, because I agree with you: the sense of closure is very strong here, because there’s “z” and then that’s it. There’s nothing after “z.” But I wanted to see if I could create this representation of something, of a life or part of a life, that would then serve as a prelude rather than as an epitaph. I think that even if I wasn’t entirely conscious of it at the time, there was a . . . I had to bring a fair amount of attention and energy to the problem of how to defeat the very strong closure of this sequence. I think of it almost as a chrysalis, where it’s closed and it’s final and whatever the life of the creature inside had been, that’s over. There’s no turning back from that. But there’s also the possibility of another life beyond that. To me, that’s how this poem works with the abecedarian framework. That’s one way to talk about it.

AF: That’s terrific, and I had forgotten part of my initial question, where I’d meant to ask if, as order does begin to break down a bit, near the end, that creates this sense of opening you’ve just described.

JW: That’s a happy accident, I suppose you could call it. If you Google In the Mode of Disappearance you won’t find a lot of results. You’ll find my book, but you’ll also find an essay written by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, whose work you may know, but I didn’t. The phrase “in the mode of disappearance” obviously was translated by somebody, but it’s this famous thing that he said. Because I was startled by that coincidence, I read some of his writing, which I found really fascinating. It had nothing to do with the origins of my book, but it’s curious that there’s that kind of resonance there. One of the things he says is that you never name a thing unless it is disappearing. Or the name of something only appears when that thing begins to disappear.

We touched on something like this earlier with the opening poems of the book, but here the attempt to gather together all the letters of the alphabet has to do with erasing something almost in the act of naming it. Naming it is erasing it. The letters in an abecedarian poem are there to create some kind of a whole, some kind of a unity, some kind of coherence, but they’re also unmoored from their function. You have the whole alphabet there, but it’s not performing an alphabetical task. It’s not doing anything. It’s not naming anything. It’s almost like the constituent elements of naming have broken down, even in this act of trying to put pins in things so they don’t fly away.

AF: I grew up in a suburb called Glendale, which didn’t have any remaining glens. Next to us was Fox Point, which had no more foxes. But as you refer to Baudrillard and how naming relates to disappearance, I wonder if we could bring in another point of literary reference: Wallace Stevens.

JW: He’s one of my very favorite poets.

AF: He emerges throughout, by direct allusion but also by philosophical implication. Stevens seems to serve as mediating angel between some of these axes of mortality and analogy, of being and naming, being and seeming, perceiving and reflecting, reflecting and disappearing. So could we place your poetics perhaps in relation to Stevens’ supreme fiction? Or we could just talk about the restorative power you find in a Stevensian syntax—in your own elegant, simultaneously spare and dandyish phrasings such as “the lake with something like / a lake.”

JW: After Blake, Stevens was one of the most important poetic discoveries for me early on. I love his work. There was a period of time when I tried to imitate what he did, which is not really possible. People don’t talk about him as much anymore, but his influence is still really vital in a way that the influence of a lot of other High Moderns is not. That said, I think that “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” has had less influence here than a poem like “Anecdote of the Jar,” where there’s kind of the creation of unity through the assertion of unity, or the creation of a place through the assertion of place, which Stevens does so beautifully.

I feel that for me, or for now, or both, that this isn’t really possible anymore. That part of Stevens’ project isn’t something that can be sustained any longer. I’m not quite sure why. I’m not sure that it even actually worked for Stevens, except that in the moment of conjuring a poem like this one, and there are many others that I could name as well in his work, it does momentarily do what it says. I love that about Stevens. It’s that kind of moment in Stevens that is deeply moving and inspiring to me. I think that a lot of what I was doing in my book kind of moves against the background of that experience as a reader of Stevens’ work—knowing that although I could write a poem like his, it wouldn’t seem authentic to the experience that I’m trying to represent here.

AF: Well we’ve discussed a bit the importance of place, for providing some kind of grounding. And Stevens’ poetics certainly contains euphonic element, abstracted elements, metaphysical elements, but also tactile, place-based elements. I’d love to hear more abut how attachments to place shape your book. Here I think of birthplace, travel destination, sights and scenes of the everyday. In terms of a bulwark against fragmentation, place seems essential. I’ve asked concept-heavy questions, but I don’t mean to discount the pleasures this book takes in including the at-hand world, its crystalline particularities, its “jesting in that private language / only close associates enjoy”—or here even just talking with coworkers at lunch in a food court. We also encounter vibrant idiomatic inflections as terms like “skanky” appear, or seemingly sampled references and nostalgias such as the “is you is” recalling “Is You Is Or Is you Ain’t My Baby?” So could you correct some of my overly abstruse formulations by discussing the concrete importance of place, of shared sensory and sensual embodied experience, in this book?

JW: It’s a fair point. I look back through this book, and I find that the attempt to discover a place or to place oneself is very important. There are all these specifically named places. There are specific places where I hiked in the mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. Some poems give their coordinates by degrees and minutes, to place them on the map of the earth. There are poems about specific places in Mexico, two poems about towns in the South of France that get specifically named. All of these work together to try to find or name or locate a space where coherence and appearance can take place. Appearance has to occur in a coordinate system somewhere.

The poem “Air Routes of the World (Day)” is interesting in this context. The poem is based on a screen print that I saw in the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. That print presents a map of the world, just a standard projection with all the continents in silhouette. But then the air routes that some airlines fly (like you see in the back of an in-flight magazine) are traced over the continents, and the continents are erased. So all you see are the routes with the nexus of the big cities where the hubs are. You can see (even though all the places have been taken away) the ghost of the continents under this net. It’s almost like the artist has thrown a drop cloth over the earth, but you can still make out the general contours of everything. I thought that was really beautiful and also kind of disturbing.

There’s something here about how places get constructed. It isn’t necessarily the named place that one goes to. It isn’t necessarily the vacation one takes to the beautiful places in the South of France. It’s not even necessarily the place where one experiences one’s childhood as an Edenic birth. There’s an imaginative construction that has to take place in order to create the space where one can feel a sense of cohesion and wholeness. That’s one way that you could talk about the whole enterprise of this book.

AF: As you described that Louisville-based art project, I looked over your cover again, and, as you’d mentioned the ghost of the continents, I thought about how this cover has a Rothko quality. I also see an Edward Hopper diner-scene palette. And I also see Jasper Johns’s faded flag paintings. The Rothko stands out the most, with this appeal to the lumen of light and the numen of experience. So we could discuss your cover’s artist Anne Stahl at any point, but also Brenda Hillman, in her intro to your book, considers it paradoxical to talk about plural modes of disappearance. We haven’t fully addressed disappearance yet, but could you offer a more expansive sense of what it may mean to emulate disappearance within this book—perhaps particularly within the title poem, where a coastline might retreat as description approaches it, where understanding might make an object or its beholder disappear? Or later, in “St-Bresson’s” tactile depiction of how “the disappearance knits its covering: / one membrane at a time,” I no longer can parse disappearance from momentary being—from appearance itself. You’ve mentioned that perceptions of fragmentation or disappearance imply the presence or possibility of something whole. But at the same time, it seems that for something to appear, this other element of disappearance has to occur, has to insert itself into the world.

JW: I think this is one way that disappearance as a force, if you want to call it that, is both destructive and creative. I think that idea gets shot through the whole “In the Mode of Disappearance” poem, in lines like “Effacement’s not of novelty, / but everything adjacent to it seems / renewed.” So it’s nothing new, effacement. But when something is taken away, there is also the opportunity to see things in a completely novel aspect. There is the sense that one’s existence in the world impinges on other things in ways that you can both know and not know. There’s a kind of terror of what one does completely unconsciously, by virtue of existing, in terms of being a destructive force for other people, other creatures, other things. As you trace your path over the earth, you’re inscribing your presence. You’re inscribing your lifetime and your life, your being. But you’re also defacing the world, and you’re destroying something that might be more pristine had you not drawn the pen of your life across it.

I think that there’s a tension between disappearance and appearance, but there’s also a tension within disappearance itself. I’m very interested in that, and in how one can be a point of consciousness in the world without also being a point of destruction in the world. How one can see and be harmless. I think that’s a very troubling question, and it’s very difficult because it requires an unflagging effort to become more and more aware of the consequences of one’s existence. I think that there are serious limits to how much we can become aware of ourselves and the effect we have on the world we live in, and on others in the world, and by others I mean not just human others but nonhuman and inhuman others as well.

Sometimes I have a sense that the world would be better off if we weren’t here. I think that’s where the apocalyptic visions start to enter, through this fear that simply by virtue of how human beings exist in the world, that we are destroying something that would otherwise be perfect without us. Since I wrote this book, that sense has only become more and more pointed with the incontrovertible evidence of climate change and the destruction of species. It also has to do with the way that we act toward each other, and the violence we do to one another and to ourselves.

AF: I feel a question arising but it may seem kind of small in relation to what you just said. It interests me how we started this talk with you mentioning that your own self-perception can seem so much less substantial than the world. But now we’ve started to address how one’s presence can seem overbearing upon the world. I wonder if we could explore that threshold or tension, perhaps, if this doesn’t seem too much of a stretch, by tracking the place of shadows in this book. Here we might put shadows in relation to narcissism, in relation to mortality, to some sort of quasi-Platonic linguistic idea of perfection or wholeness. But more specific questions also arise for me, such as what discrete hue or significance should we attribute to “the shadow of a blue-veined hand?” Why do we need to hear of its blue veins while considering its shadow? Or what allusive edge to the Eliotesque “double” streaming behind the “I” while this “I” walks along Eliot street? How and to what extent do shadows stand in for this “I,” which seems at times to pick up shadow-status in its own life, which refers to serving as its mother’s ventriloquial device, “the bellows for another’s breath”?

JW: Shadows still appear in my work as much as anything else. I haven’t ever quite put it the way you just put it, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not onto something. If you look at the poem “New Earth,” maybe this offers a way into that topic. The poem is talking about shadows. This is definitely one of the kind of apocalyptic moments in the book. The poem is not placed specifically, whereas other poems are very specifically placed. And here’s this fantasy of the last day of the earth, again with biblical overtones: “Everything was passing out of sight / like shadows blown apart by wind.” So here we encounter this notion that, as substantial as everything may seem, everything has a shadow life as well, and that may not be different—it may be the same existence, the same materiality, even, seen from a different point of view. When the boy walks along Eliot Street with the shadow streaming behind him, there’s a sense in which the boy and the boy’s shadow are not really different, so that the boy could be the shadow’s shadow. There’s something potentially overwhelming about one’s existence, but also there’s something exceedingly ephemeral about it. That is on the one hand a sorrow. It could be a source of sorrow. But it’s also a mercy on the other hand.

You mentioned the Platonic world. I do think that that is also at play here. This is a world of shadows, according to Plato, and unless we wake up and question our perceptions and are rigorous with ourselves, with what we believe, to try to arrive at some kind of truth, then we are looking at shadows of shadows of shadows. The manifest world itself is a reflection or a shadow of a more perfect world. So now we’re back again to another version of the Fall, aren’t we? It’s philosophical rather than religious, I suppose you could say. Yet I think that it functions in almost the same kind of way.

If there is a world of forms, if there is an ideal world, it’s somehow affecting everything that we experience and that we are, but it’s also out of reach. We can’t get back to it, if we were ever there. It’s not something that Socrates talks about in death—he doesn’t talk about going back to the world of forms. He says we don’t know what’s going to happen. But this sense of a wholeness that’s just out of reach, it exerts a pressure both to find a way to break through to it and experience it directly, but also the pressure of a beautiful idea that will only ever remain an idea. That’s another kind of a shadow that follows everything around.

AF: In terms of shadow text, your acknowledgments cite Christina Davis for her ingenious editing and generosity of spirit. Could you flesh out a bit how those elements of Christina’s shadow presence contribute to this book’s final form?

JW: I think this was the third Nightboat Poetry Prize winner. The press was very new at the time. Kazim Ali had called me to give me the good news, but between the time I won the prize and the time the book came out, he had handed the reigns over to Stephen Motika. Christina, who was the poetry editor at the time, was the constant for me in the process of shepherding this book from a manuscript to a finished publication. She worked with me very closely on the manuscript, and questioned a lot of things. We backed-and-forthed quite a bit. She did a lot of very careful line-editing, asking about the necessity of certain things or how things were related. I remember making not an enormous number of revisions, but some crucial revisions based on her commentary. I remember also she made some suggestions that I didn’t take, but she helped make the book quite a bit stronger in the end.

I also spoke with Brenda Hillman for a couple of hours after the book was accepted. Brenda had some comments on the poems as well. I remember taking one poem that was five stanzas long and cutting it down to one stanza or two stanzas based on her commentary. So there was certainly a collaborative spirit which I found very useful and very enjoyable.

I ended up designing the book myself, and typesetting it. I really appreciate Stephen allowing me to do that. I was able to extend the theme of the book and the feeling of the book all the way through in a way that to me was . . . I felt very fortunate that I had the opportunity to do that.

I had picked this cover art that you mentioned, the Anne Stahl painting. I was trawling the Internet to try to find something that I liked, and I found an image of this painting, which turned out to be a very bad JPEG of a painting. The color that you see, this green color, is not the color of the painting at all. When I got in touch with Anne, the painting had been sold to a private collector in Dublin, so she arranged to have a photographer go to the collector’s house and take a high-resolution photograph of the painting as it hung on the collector’s wall, so that I could use it for the book, because I only had this really crappy JPEG. When the photo came back, I was startled because it wasn’t green. It was all different colors. It was red and slate and so on. So I asked Anne if she minded if I distorted the color spectrum to make it look like the bad reproduction I had originally seen on the Internet. There was a collaborative process there too that reflected some of the other things that happened with the book. I love Anne Stahl’s work. She calls herself an abstract landscape painter. I thought that was just a remarkable way of putting it. You can see that in her work. There are a lot of parallels with what I was trying to do in the poems.

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An Interview with Lytton Smith

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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?

whileyouwereapproachingLytton 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.

allpurposemagicaltentAF: 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.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

An Interview with Douglas A. Martin

Martin Photo
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 Douglas A. Martin’s Your Body Figured. Martin is the author of eight books across genres, and his Kathy Acker exploration will be published by Nightboat in 2017. He teaches in the low residency MFA program in creative writing at Goddard College, and is a visitor in the English Department at Wesleyan University.


Andy Fitch: If we could begin with this book’s epigraph (“So I’m a thief. . . . born to plagiarize, to imitate, to act as the promoter of my masters. I steal, I take, until the word ‘take’ can be altered: I take off”): I loved those lines from the start, but as I read through Your Body Figured, they seemed to pick up increasing resonance. Proceeding modes of writing through or out of existing texts, both in your own work or in someone like Kathy Acker, come to mind. Or certainly the legacies of Western portraiture and religious/historical painting, which have their own modes of taking—both from the study of the physical world and from the history of representation. And in terms of this particular book’s structure, I most immediately recalled Stein’s Three Lives, though also, strangely enough, The Sound and the Fury and The Hours, especially in the Hart Crane section, with its impending death by drowning. But here, more broadly, could you talk a bit about your own poetics, about your own personal or literary lineage in relation to that impulse to take until one takes off? What appeals to you in watching others take until they take off? What draws you to that type of art-making practice?

Douglas A. Martin: I can start with the idea of taking until you can take off, through the idea that all of my writing foregrounds the idea of how I’m taking from my own life. I’m stealing from my own life in a way, and from the people around me, but in service of getting somewhere else. I’m starting with an autobiographical impulse, to get a better vantage on the circumstances of the life that I happen to be in at the moment and how that life connects to others. It’s a movement forward from the kind of ethical questions that get raised by my more nakedly autobiographical “I”-driven work: what do so and so think of your portrayal of them? The kinds of questions a painter doesn’t get much, I imagine.

So a problem or an investigation around a representation that’s being worked out in the service of a greater picture, a greater fiction. The thief aspect for sure—me going into these lives and taking the bits of them that I need, that I want to make off with. There’s that. But also, in Clément’s epigraph, it’s very important to me the flight in the phrase of “take off,” in the sense that Clément means lyric flight, yet I also mean disclosure: taking off the costume, the realist trappings of more traditional fictions or novels. So there’s that.

And then Clément’s book itself brought a lot into focus for me in terms of what kinds of stories we tell ourselves, why we tell ourselves these stories. In her book, she is mainly concerned with how the Wolf Man is seduced by seeing his story affecting Freud. So he becomes involved in manipulating the image of himself he’s putting forward for Freud, which perhaps could just be boiled down to transference or countertransference or that fancy language. But the idea for me was that there would soon be no grounds actually for the story being told other than to seduce. That was important to me.

yourbodyfiguredClément’s book also aesthetically operates with these more straightforward case studies interlaced with her own responses to her reading and writing and transcribing at the time. That’s something that I wanted to bring into the second person the book operates in—this second person that’s calling out to the figure that I happen to be narrating, but that’s also fulfilling my intent to narrate how well I think the dynamics of the book are going at any particular time. Certainty Stein is a big part of what I hope to echo and take permission from. Three Lives particularly was a real turning point for me in my prose writing, to see the kind of ekphrastic writing that she was doing. Not in an attempt to recreate, but to create in parallel ways. People know her attempt to do in prose what Cézanne and Picasso were doing in painting. For me, it became an idea here of how to write a sentence that would look like a face in a Francis Bacon painting, in the way that particular smears and abstract gestures are also interacting with more figurative elements, straight-up representational elements. Clearly such moments appear in the Hart Crane section, but around that more subliminal space as well. What would the background of writing look like in the actual paragraph, in an actual sentence? I thought of each paragraph as a kind of canvas I was framing. So what particular elements am I bringing together into the frame? My goal with this book was to take these three aesthetic touchpoints and to make my writing mirror in some way the dynamics of their own production, also their lives.

I wanted to move from the more classical representation of Balthus into the more fragmented, visceral Bacon. And then the way Bacon’s life is haunted and his painting is haunted by the body count that is collected in his actual life. There’s also a kind of body counting that’s adding up in my narrative. Those become the ghosts of my own writing-forward. There’s an attempt to bring this together in various frames. I’m also taking from Bacon the triptych, letting the three parts work as three separate panels that have their own narratives within them. Painters, and then the poet Hart Crane . . . these figures, these images and personalities I was not particularly invested in before I began the project. If I already had been, there would have been overdetermination. When I truly think about a painter I want my writing to be like, outside this conceptual frame, it’s Rothko. Stein was doing Cubism, but how would I do his kinds of vibrations, kinds of blocks against each other in sentences or passages?

For Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury: I’m reading that right now for the first time ever. I spent my early writing life, my twenties, avoiding Faulkner, because I already came from the South. He was the master of what one must do to be serious. But I don’t understand why people haven’t moved forward from that, why that’s not where the line in the sand is that you would see from. When I think about the reception of my own writing and what seems “difficult,” there is an actual precedent, you know?

AF: I’ll try to pick up on a few of those topics—processes of seduction, translation, mirroring especially. A different form of constructive theft in this book takes place through the phenomenon of mirror-stage identity, let’s say, or through tropes of projection. The Narcissus figure often comes up. First we encounter Balthus as a young artist studying his own image, or thinking through his own image in relation to selected figures: “You are a boy studying his own image through selected figures of myth, those you think might resemble you. There is Narcissus.” In this Balthus section, we also encounter viewers finding their likeness in museum paintings, mothers seeing themselves in the springs of their daughter’s steps. The city then becomes a reflective surface on which Hart Crane, and presumably all other urban residents, search for themselves. Crane as writer and reader searches for himself in reflective projections on Rimbaud. Crane’s suicide closes on the act of watching oneself die. The sea becomes a mirror here, as, in the Bacon section, does a drink. The surface of a drink in a pub becomes a mirror. The mirror behind the bar makes these cramped confines perhaps seem more spacious. And Bacon’s violent mode of portraiture reveals the narcissistic edge in all boxers, who square off in various places in this book. Or the “ai, ai” of Greek tragedy becomes “I I.” So I think of how painters’ canvasses, presumably authors’ and readers’ pages, all provide further reflective surfaces.

DM: Something that Bacon’s paintings show us is how reflections distort. It’s actually part of the content of his paintings. When you see a mirror in a Francis Bacon painting, you also see what the mirror is framing or holding within its glass, and you note a disjunction between two planes kind of faced off against each other. So you see in the shaving mirror how George Dyer could see his cheek looking like its portrait’s palette. That becomes emotionally resonant for another viewer. At the time that these paintings were being made, Dyer himself was a viewer of them, too. So he sees his own self become an abstraction before his eyes. He’s also seeing a subjective view of him from the person he’s with—held in that partnership and that pairing’s reflection. That’s intense.

In terms of how different sections of this book gain access to different emotional registers, it’s important that Bacon wanted his paintings placed behind glass. There’s the glass, as at the meat counter. The meat behind the glass. There’s you trying to get at, to be able to touch. There’s you in front of a painting, seeing your own self caught in the glass somewhere between the painting and the thing holding the painting away from you. You yourself are interpolated into the Bacon painting through the medium of the glass put in front of the painting. Balthus’s paintings do not have glass in front of them, because they are meant to present more of a classical control.

When you’re viewing a Balthus painting, like The Mountain, a pretty epic breakthrough painting for him, what you’re seeing is people are living together on different levels of reality. Some of their eyes are almost meeting. Some are turned away. One figure has stationed himself more on a particular peak and understands how to set himself up in physical space. So how much of this life or that is mirroring my own, and can I represent it? In doing that, am I doing violence to it or a violence to myself? When a life is distorted this way, it is distorted in the service of what?

Between Balthus and Bacon, Crane the poet becomes the place this all gets funneled into for me, in my reading of the surface of Crane’s poetry coming out of an autobiographical torque. I attempt to read Crane as if I could enter with him into a dynamic of getting ahead of himself or behind himself. How rarified a thing did the line need to be for Crane to have the frame of it and be done with it? Disjunction for me begins to play out in his life between the work he’s creating, the kind of genius he’s expecting of himself, and how a specific kind of spiraling despair doesn’t match up—and entrenches him.

It’s like: what can I take from each life, to try to read the next life through these sets of givens, these types of tropes? Here is how Balthus would paint an orange; here’s how Crane would write about an orange; here’s the orangeness of a Bacon painting. Narcissus, Hyacinthus: I’m thinking about those myths, boys who have been turned into flowers, for very different reasons. There are a number of versions of that. I began to work with this idea. We accept it in myth that there are a number of versions of how so and so was turned. We don’t allow ourselves that elasticity when we approach biographies of artists. There has to be a reason why Crane jumped off the boat. But truth resonates between the levels it's true on.

As a gay writer and someone who began by writing autobiographical fiction, it’s hard to get away from chatter of “You’re just a narcissist,” “You’re just a gay man,” “You’re just looking for yourself in somebody else,” “Why does your boyfriend look like you,” a kind of baggage that you already have to create in the face of. So for Bacon or Balthus: how am I going to do the figure, given the many ways that the figure has already been done? And when I look into Narcissus and see actually there’s a kinder read on that myth (which is that he doesn’t think he sees himself in the water—he thinks he sees his sister), how does that change the landscape? If I look at the Balthus body of work not as little girls that he wanted to sleep with, but as little girls that he might have rather been arrested in having been, it opens up. It opens up a frame. Then with Bacon, to feel the actual tenor of his work, his colors, his palette…no, you can’t have Narcissus with Bacon. But you could have Hyacinthus, because Hyacinthus has his own post-Apollo moment, because he got a disc brained in his head and blood blooms. That’s resonant.

Reality, the dynamics and the drama around it, is pitched to various frequencies. One can almost think about how in some ways a Francis Bacon painting is shrill, suggested by the screaming, the mouth, that kind of thing. And the “ai” sound echoes because of the way that Bacon’s paintings are being written about in the context of Greek myth—which he specifically moves to in the end of his life in paintings after Dyer.

AF: In terms of how reflections distort, or how partnerships get reflected, or interpolations within the representation: could we draw in the reader a bit more too? The Narcissus myth does carry homophobic pejorative connotations, and definitely the reader gets implicated as a narcissistic figure here. You mentioned the “you,” the figure of the “you,” and I always have admired how you, Douglas, succeed across your almost-autobiographical writing at slipping into myth. In this book, early on, Rilke emerges as “the one who wants to teach you how to slip into myth, will father you in that.” And this book’s immersion in the second person helps it slip into myth in a variety of ways. Across its historical triptych, “you” always remains: the character at hand, the embodied reader pulled across the text’s historical pivots, the reflective author consolidating and restructuring these narratives (more like you, Douglas). Also it seems, just from what you’ve said in the past, that this book might have some never-named real-world addressee, a “you” in your life at that time. So the “you” here stands for all of these multiple things in one. It becomes the papering over of a contradiction. That, if I remember Roland Barthes correctly, would fulfill one definition of myth.

DM: It’s the most interesting subject-position in English to me, because it’s tense. You run a risk of mistaking yourself in front of it. For me, “I am an other,” and there’s Rimbaud, enacting that crisis constantly in front of my face. It’s always Lacan’s mirror stage. It creates a site where you yourself have to reflect on being distant from yourself, to cast yourself outside of yourself. You’ve taken something off. You’ve flown out of yourself.

I like “you” also because it’s so impossible at times to discern if it’s singular or more plural, more general. It’s the thing in English that can do what the “on” can do in French—being a kind of permissive space, because ungendered, unmarked, not so freighted in certain ways. A tense that will allow me to get away with things in English that the “I” would trap me in. If you’re reading a book that I’ve written in the first person, without named characters, you will periodically perhaps as a reader remind yourself: Well, this is or isn’t the author. This is a character.

I think the second person turns that dynamic onto you, or situates it within you: This isn’t really me, but what aspect of the character is really me? That creates a loop of seduction, here thinking very much of Baudrillard’s book on the phenomenon. The circle wraps you within itself. It’s caught up in the lyric tradition for me. Why are we calling out? What are we calling out to? Are we calling out in the hope to be put back together? “I” asserts a distance “you” wants to bridge, to wit: Crane.

AF: Or again in terms of how this overall triptych holds together: you mentioned Lacan, and Your Body Figured provides this sense of depth or of layered registers of a perspectival self, all of which get implicated in this book’s “you.” And when I think of the Lacanian mirror stage, I think of the attraction of the coherent surface, of the projected/reflected image, versus the ever-unsettled intertextual depths of the self perceiving that surface. And part of what interests me is how the various layered elements of this book’s “you” work so well in attracting us to the exquisite surface, to the assured syntactical movements of the text—and make those all the more alluring because they have the eloquence that we think we lack as multi-perspectival beings. So when I read “You are studying the sun through the steepling of your hands, shading over your dark lashes, hands held first as if in prayer, then more splayed laid out, the light dappled,” something about the delicacy of that sentence embodies me as a reader. Then by the next page, when I get to, “Why don’t you go into your room and read, dear,” this embodiment of the reader gets literalized. Overall, the preceding syntactical movement (its mood) anticipates the delivery of the definitive statement, somehow further implicating me in the narrative. A sentimental education precedes an articulation. Do you admire such affective sequences in certain authors? Have you deliberately constructed them for us here?

DM: It’s me bringing together a couple of things that I respond to in disparate writers that I read. So that kind of sensation thing is really true and very resonant and embedded in the book, a kind of undertow of the entire book.

At the same time, or around beginning to write this book, I was reading Gilles Deleuze’s book about Francis Bacon, The Logic of Sensation. When I’m reading books like that, it’s not a matter of buying it or not. It’s just for me a different way to approach a reality I am immersed in already. So Deleuze has all these different ways to read that I haven’t been taught to read. I want to try to create from those propositions of his and see where that might take me—to lay my own assumptions aside. That’s also on the page, in the actual composing, that dynamic at work as well: I myself am chasing after something.

Narratively, whatever sensation I’ve tried to entrap in that movement of the sentences (the steepling, the light, the dappling), that ironizing of the very levels of language that I’m playing between determines how in or out of focus I am, how metaphorical or not I’m being in what I’m asking the reader to follow. There are moments when I also want to take the reader’s hand and say, “Yes, we are on the same path,” or, “This is how the path that we are going to go down has been marked.” There’s a practicality for the reader. We’re following the same direction, and readers can then recalibrate focus or not, with these sentences like the pointers pointing me towards where I want you to hone in.

AF: It interests me that the pointers come later. That seems the inverse of how, say, a title works, at least if we think of a museumgoer contextualizing this moment of perception by first reading a title and having that frame the experience of seeing a painting. I love in your writing how, if such clarifying moments do appear, they come almost as afterthoughts, given the experiential process that the reading already has induced.

DM: Yeah. I don’t think that the writing works on readers if you give them the answer before. To go back: an early boyfriend who’s very connected, for me, to Crane, and also to the problems that I have with Crane, gave me the idea when I was writing my first manuscripts that writing itself should be revelatory. It’s not that I myself know that I believe that. But the person I wanted to read my book believed that. So I was going to make that happen.

I’m thinking about how my writing does or doesn’t reflect what I love or appreciate about a writer like Colette (huge for me). Colette, Kristeva says, wants to give us “the flesh of the world.” But my world is so so different than hers, much plainer. Anemic, even. That itself feeds into the writing style that feeds into the setup of the book. Balthus could romanticize a certain part of his life, childhood with Rilke, because Balthus had somebody there at that moment to vouch for what he was doing.

Crane wants to romanticize poetry. He keeps falling down with the ability to romanticize his own life or to enact his romanticism because, in my view, he has nobody there with him.

Then with Bacon and Dyer, it’s watching any romanticism that one might have be destroyed before one’s eyes: both of them share that. That’s what I’m interested in too. It’s really essential how the confusion in the last part of the book exists in the second person—the “you.” Is this the figure I’m narrating to? Is this the figure I’m narrating narrating to himself? Is it me narrating to the reader’s attempt to narrate the figure? I want that kind of opening up of the plane of the horizon. Is the “you” the writer? There’s a kind of confusion too between the subject and the object that happens all throughout the Bacon/Dyer section. I’m the subject of these paintings. How easy is it to receive myself as that objectified subject? I can’t, because of my subjectivity. Does that make sense?

AF: It does. I wonder if we also could bring in some historical context here. For this sequence of three biographical narratives, I sense something progressively less “successful” about each individual. At the same time, homophobic pressures effect these characters on a familiar historical trajectory. For early-modern Balthus, gay desire never seems to and perhaps doesn’t need to get explicitly stated. No such category needs to exist. And homoerotic desire can remain a nurturing principle throughout. Crane seems to encounter the most overt external aggression, and the most corrosive social circumstance, with the tragic trajectory of Crane finally finding this resilient traction and self-expansion near the end, just before capitulating to some hetero-normative dream that’s never going to happen, and then suicide. With Dyer’s case, homophobic critique seems the most internalized, domesticated, gendered, even as broader public sentiments now seem slightly more accepting. So you’ve described the aesthetic trajectory of these three figures. Could you discuss the historical eras or historical sweep depicted through these individual characters?

DM: I think that’s how this is a historical “novel.” Those cultural dynamics lead to how these three characters are to greater or lesser degrees able to mythologize themselves. The mythology of Dyer that attracted Bacon was one that Dyer himself became trapped in. I think Crane too becomes trapped in a myth that poetry should be operating at a certain level, that there’s the real world and the reflection of that real world. I don’t exist in any of these historical periods. I exist in the period in which I’m writing the book. So I only attempt to frame this in a way that I myself relate to. I have to give each of these figures my own issue, and explore how that would play out within their time frame, in their particular dynamics. In that way, I’m like Narcissus and each of them is like the pond. I’m trying to find my reflection in them, right? Does that root me or not? And is that a good or a bad thing? When I’m brought up before, am I brought up before in a satisfactory way, or short of something?

For the book to work there is a maturation that happens, a maturing of an aesthetic. A kind of tweaking of the aesthetic. That’s why also it starts with Balthus’s willfully idealized childhood: which I feel very separate from, which allows me to shape that section differently. Then come the middle years of Crane. It’s specifically Crane in the city. It’s me in the city at the time of writing the book, myself feeling like I’m not a poet, I’m not quite a novelist, or I want to write sentences that represent painting and documenting. There’s that. The last section is a kind of failure of the very thing that Crane could not get.

In the earliest incarnations of the book, the first two sections went into female figures as well. The Crane narrative had a whole other section that went into Georgia O’Keeffe, and had a really complicated circuit of O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz being at a Crane reading, with Crane feeling Stieglitz was getting at in photographs what Crane wanted to do in poetry. As a reader of Crane’s poetry, I get completely befuddled by this perception. Also within that, O’Keeffe for me is a success in part because she leaves the city. Historically, I’ll think: What would Hart Crane’s poetry look like in the time of Frank O’Hara? It would look like Frank O’Hara, right?

AF: Yeah maybe because we met at the CUNY Grad Center, and because I think of you as a scholar as much as a novelist or poet (obviously with no need to make such clear distinctions), it here interests me to track your theory of the case in each section for each artist. Balthus takes refuge in eroticized images of girls as a screen for his own remembered, idealized, eroticized relations to Rilke.

DM: And to his mother, I would add. This is important—how I’m translating or projecting Freudian theory onto these people.

AF: Then with Hart Crane, you depict distorted elements coming out of family life, with Crane reinventing himself by adopting names from both his feuding mother and father, with such tensions best crystallized in Crane’s effusive/diffusive vision of the bridge. You talk about that bridge figure signifying male-male sex. And then, with Bacon, you imply that his mode of portraiture, at its best, should get directly traced to his oft-dismissed relationship to Dyer. Normative critics might consider that relationship an indulgence, whereas you consider it much more generative and fundamental to his work. So my broader questions are: what sorts of empathic, projective research did this book entail? Did you discover these theories of the case for each figure through the writing itself, just progressing sentence by sentence? Did you arrive at these positions through reading or through participating in something like scholarly discourse on these people? And how has your empathic mode of research on these three figures fared? Have you talked to readers who identify strictly as poetry critics about your take on Crane, or art historians about your take on Balthus? What happens when the myth of this book moves into the external world of purported truth—into something like scholarship?

DM: I’m writing as I’m reading. I’m constantly already engaged in dialogue with the critics. None of these are my ideas solely. They are my form of entering into a dialogue with ideas that are already out there, and calibrating how much sense these make to me or not. I want to be responsible to the work that has already been done. But that’s part of the thieving as well that I’ve taken up with Clément. The basis. Was The Bridge a failure, and if so, why? Because Crane tried to make it into more than it could hold? Well what in my book mimics or mirrors or could offer a set up of The Bridge? This becomes the touchstone for the structure of my book. If one critic says one thing about Rilke and Balthus, I can begin to proceed from that. I’m trying to make sentences that hold up in light of what I know. What can I still illuminate in light of the actual lay of the land? What can I still find? How do I cruise around that (to use a gay metaphor)?

I quote or misquote Bacon as saying “Fact leaves its ghost.” A kind of ghosting of the facts, this, but to what end and in whose service? To tell a narcissistic story to myself. OK fine, so I’m going to claim narcissism and feed that back into it as well. It’s an attempt to recuperate everything that could frustrate the image I would stand before. Then when I’ve made that image, when I’ve done what I can with what I’ve been given, what ultimately am I left with? I’ve gotten to the place where I can step out of that, come back down to the ground and be there in front of it and look at it, so am I sad? It’s kind of like . . . I know I’m bastardizing Roland Barthes for sure, but I’ve created a reality effect, and what are my affects around that? Then I go back to the work with that in mind. Like I’ve put all the brushstrokes on the canvas now, and this has got to be a bit more, or this brought into closer contours with this.

So I’m reading the critics. Not novels about these artists. I’m reading the art critics. For Crane, I’m reading the scholars. This person would think this because of being homophobic, and I’m going to fight him on that. Or I’m reading some little footnote in a Balthus biography, about a poem that Rilke dedicated to Balthus. I go find that poem and read that poem. This is really charged from my viewpoint, but nobody has written about that. A kind of uncovering happens, to go back to the opening epigraph, if I can clear away particular agendas by writing around these figures who have become my characters.

So each of these characters, in a way, does become a screen for me as the author. But not for some coherent identity or biography. Perhaps for particular emotional states. A painting doesn’t have to tell a story, right? You just look at a painting and you’re meant to feel. So how do I make feeling happen between me and the reader? Not how do I make the reader feel what I feel. How do I lay out a set of propositions? A set of positions? How do I model my feelings so that a reader can have reactions to them, can be in a kind of active dynamic with me? Rather than: “Oh yeah, they got what I meant to say about so and so.”

AF: You had mentioned emulating an author like Stein, who somewhat transposes Cubism painting into prose. But it fascinates me how much this book seems ultimately to be about reading. And based on everything you’ve said, how did you then present this manuscript to Stephen? What kind of book did you tell him you had sent him? Or how did you describe what the book is or does?

DM: At the time when I was writing this book, Stephen and I lived in the same neighborhood. We live in the same neighborhood again now, but it’s a different neighborhood, weirdly. And our houses upstate are by each other’s. We keep following each other around, and he has always kept abreast of my work’s development. Stephen was very aware of the setup of this book, and that there was a really big agent attempting to sell this book as a breakout.

I’m always writing a new book even when books are being shopped around, and none of my books has been published in the order that they have been written. I wrote Branwell after this book, although Branwell was published before. This book was the first book of prose that Nightboat did after the Fanny Howe reprints. Stephen was aware of the history of the manuscript. It had not come out like I’d anticipated it would. He asked to read it, and he gave astute notes. It was with Stephen that I got rid of all this Artaud stuff with Balthus, and decided to actually keep Balthus in childhood before that mountain painting, again a pretty monumental juncture in his career. But that’s another thing I decided to do with each of the artist characters: to find particular, potential turning points (or not) within their own developing work—as this book was for me as well.

Then when Stephen decided to publish it, we were trying to decide what to put on the back of the book, how to actually classify it. My thought was not that I wanted it to be fiction. I wanted it to be labeled lyric essay/art criticism. I don’t see myself as one thing particularly. I say sometimes that I’m a poet but I work in the novel form. That’s what I do. That’s what makes sense to me. I think of myself as someone who makes particular interventions into genres that already exist.

I was very flattered for this book to come out after Radical Love. And where the press has gone, since this book, has been really incredible.

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An Interview with Martha Ronk

Ronk Photo
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 Martha Ronk’s Partially Kept. Ronk is the author of ten books of poetry, including Transfer of Qualities (long-listed for the National Poetry Award), Vertigo, a National Poetry Series selection), In a Landscape of Having to Repeat (a PEN USA best poetry book), and Why/Why Not from UC Press. She has had several residencies at Djerassi and MacDowell, is an NEA recipient, and is the Irma and Jay Price Emeritus Professor of English at Occidental College in Los Angeles.


Andy Fitch: Could we open with your “Partially Kept” section’s distinction between Sir Thomas Browne, let’s say (writing as botanist or gardening enthusiast, constructing an analogical, perhaps anthropocentric engagement with the garden—he’ll describe the plants’ “precocities” for instance), and a more modern sensibility that sees intricate, almost grammatical interweavings amid the garden and/or language (with “the sentence itself” at one point described as “an integument of flexible green / evoking a beginning and end / a half mirrored         a whole        a half, and beginning again—”)?

Martha Ronk: For me the sections fit together, because in all of them I was trying to think about the shifts of syntax and sentences and vocabulary dependent on the influence of location. In the first section I hoped to take up Browne’s focus on plants and gardens, and also to set his belief in a symbolic world order against our more despairing worldview; I felt I was entering an arena—the text of The Garden of Cyrus—in which plant life and the life of sentences intertwined, each creating the other. One poem names this location: “The particular state wherein you reside.”

In terms of differences, I was interested, in the first part, in the way in which Sir Thomas Browne has a sense of the world as divinely ordered, as repeating a certain shape or a certain number. He demonstrates confidence in the structure of the world because it’s a reflection of the divine, whereas today we are skeptical, confused, not even sure of how we’re going to finish a sentence once we start it, not rooted in that kind of cultural belief. I wanted to play with these differences all the way through. Secondly, I realized that for every section of the book I was influenced by the specific place I was in when writing. One location was Browne’s essay and my desire to connect my academic work and creative work—that is, the way in which the texts I taught in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature classes connected to the poems I was writing today.

Other locations included gardens. I wrote in a garden in Vermont called North Hill, which is a famous garden that was put together by two men who are professional gardeners and professional garden writers. I had a cabin at the back of their property, so every day when I took a walk I was in the middle of plants I didn’t know the names of, and things they knew the Latin names of, and thinking about petals and shapes and root systems. Part of the time I also spent nearby at the MacDowell Colony. So I think I’m often very influenced by both an arena I’ve chosen, which happened to be this literary essay, and then too the things that I see out the window especially when the rural view is so very different from where I live in Los Angeles.

partiallykeptFinally, all of the parts of the book were threaded through with a sense of disappearance. The past has disappeared. That kind of language has disappeared. That way of looking at the world. Disappearance runs all the way through, sometimes directly in an elegy or with an elegiac tone, and sometimes just with a vaguer sense of: I can’t remember the past, or I can’t see very clearly, or I’ve gotten older and the person I was isn’t there anymore, and the place I grew up isn’t where I live now. In Partially Kept I also wanted to suggest the silence of gardens and of elegy; I had had a few conversations about silence, some with Elizabeth Robinson, and I wanted to write a book that was opposite to the book I had written just before, Vertigo, where everything was rushed and crammed together. There I was interested in pushing sections of sentences together and still having them work syntactically. Now I wanted poems that were quieter or slower, allowing for spaces and contemplation.

AF: In terms of writing a disappearance, writing a silence, I also wonder about writing the invisible or incorporating the invisible into a visual repertoire. Even your opening epigraph from Browne states: “Light that makes things seen, makes some things invisible.” So I’d love to hear more about the importance of the invisible, the enshadowed in gardening, as well as about the broader place of silence, of the invisible in your poetics, or poetry in general, or rhetoric in general. Here I recall, again from Partially Kept, George Puttenham’s conception of rhetoric deceiving the ear and mind. And also, since you mentioned Vertigo, and given your interest in Sebald, and Sebald’s interest in Browne: when I read your book, I connect Browne to Sebald, and then to death, to reflections on death. So could we add to the topics of disappearance, silence, the invisible, that crystallizing topic of death?

MR: You’re right about Sebald bringing up Browne for me again, and the influence of Sebald’s sense of memory and of the way in which the past is lost and people have lost memories because of the war and because of the Holocaust. Obviously I didn’t undergo that history, but I’m really interested in what you remember, how you remember, what your perspective is as opposed to somebody else’s. Even your own memory changes over time because of circumstances or even because your body changes.

I was interested in the use of “rhetoric” as a defense, a somewhat artificial or heightened language as a protection, words spinning out as cover. I have a poem called “Let Rhetoric,” where I am trying to say something about how often we fall back on the rhetorical (imaged as the color red)—mainly because we don’t know what to make of things and can’t comprehend, for example, “how many years it’s been since the world began.” Our mind is dark in some way, and so we use rhetoric as a kind of prop or foil. But I also was just interested in the way in which, in the past, using formal rhetoric (as I think Browne does) was just what wordsmiths were trained to do, and, as Puttenham suggests, a source of creativity, a “lying” that is also able to create imaginative art. I don’t have an exact answer, but I was certainly interested in the effects of juxtaposing levels of language to convey cultural assumptions, most obviously here Browne’s sense of oneness with nature and my own estrangement and even despair, as in “Refusal,” where I counter Browne’s description of the glory of flowers with a line that echoes his own diction: “yet doth not suffice.”

Then I wanted also to use spaces in some of the poems, especially at the beginning but also in the dangling modifiers at the end, to assess the effect—because I’d never done it before. I had never quite believed that if you leave a space it meant quiet or silence, but I came to appreciate the influence of the visual on the verbal, the white space against the text. Partly because I had been reading Barbara Guest, whom I greatly admire and who does it in some of her very suggestive and ambiguous poems.

AF: I’ll want to catch up on how the different sections here get spatialized. But before we move too far from an emphasis upon perspective and how perspectives change over time, I wonder if we could bring in another recurring motif or scene—that of climbing. When you mention the types of individuated perspective that appeal to you, I think of this book arriving at expansive vistas, but not offering any totalizing, universalizing glimpse. Instead of expounding some God-like view, you offer a quite human view, still with something impervious to objective knowing, even from such heights. So in “Alpines,” for instance, I come across lines like “pushing up through the narrows above the snow line.”

MR: “Alpines” is focused on the extraordinary flowers you find when you’re climbing above the tree line. I happened to be in Colorado, and I became aware of the way in which the tiny flowers are able to push themselves through the stone. I saw myself as having to push through silence in order to get at any kind of language. So it really was my effort to feel a kind of analogy between that sense of effort or push. Everyone had always told me I had to see alpine flowers, since I was writing about flowers, and I had never seen these. So I happened to be teaching a class at the University of Colorado, and I got to go for hikes that took me there. But my perspective was most often down at ground level, trying to see quite tiny exquisite flowers.

AF: Yeah you’ll offer glimpses of human embodiment, rather than some soaring, floating vision perched above everything else.

MR: In the poem “The Fold,” I look at a fold in a petal, and then I fold my body over so that I’m down in a kind of crouch trying to see smaller things I wasn’t able to see when standing up; you just wait there in silence hoping that this will open up your vision and aural senses. It’s almost as if it’s a physical imitation of something seen, just because you saw a petal folded over.

AF: It also interests me how you here have described perspectives changing over time as one ages. I guess because you had mentioned perspective, Nietzsche and the concept of genealogy came into my head. Partially Kept seems to offer something like a Nietzschean/genealogical approach. Visions of gardens might have taken on symbolic significance for Browne, or overtly sexual symbolic significance for Shakespeare. By the time we reach someone like Coleridge, conceptions of the organic have developed a slightly different allegorical significance or locus. The decorative patternings of someone like William Morris then come to mind, again transforming the significance of gardenesque imagery. And in your book I sense each of these registers circulating. So while it makes sense to think of a garden as a spatial tableau laid out before us, I guess gardens also can offer a temporal tableau, with various elements growing and dying at the same time, even as our mind perceives one present snapshot. So could you talk about gardens as studies in/of time as much as in/of space?

MR: Yes, you are right: gardens do offer a temporal tableau and certainly mean differently in different eras and indeed geographies (think of the formal gardens in France). I wish I had attended more to these questions in the book, but more obviously, I got taken up with transience and the way in which gardens capture that sense of fragility and disappearance. One morning in Vermont when my “job” was to deadhead the daylilies, I was very aware of the fact that they are there for a day and then they just droop over and are completely gone. I’ve always been interested in the fragility of things, and with special urgency now because of climate change, but also because of the accidents of reading. Years and years ago I was teaching Japanese literature in translation and I encountered the phrase Mono No Aware, which suggests the strong empathy that you have towards things partly because you know that they’re dying, that they will die in a moment. If it’s a drop of dew, it will dissolve. Shakespeare, of course, makes us ever aware of transience, not only in the sonnets, but also powerfully in his plays—spectacles for a brief period of time and then gone, as when Prospero describes the pageant fading, leaving “not a rack behind.”

I’m always somehow drawn to that sense of how fragile things are and how a garden means so differently depending upon whose language you happen to be in or whose century you happen to be in. I think about the kinds of gardens that Queen Elizabeth put up. She made gardens in the shape of an “E,” for Elizabeth, just one more way in which she used symbolism to solidify her reign: appearing as the Virgin Queen, for example, or wearing a dress embroidered with eyes and ears to indicate that she knew all that was going on in her castle; she had spies.

Still I don’t think that I was historically focused enough in this quite personal book. It was really more that I had certain obsessions that came upon me from reading a piece of literature—not only from looking at flowers, but from encountering a piece of literature that was so extraordinarily different, where I didn’t know words or I could never have constructed a sentence like that. The possibility had disappeared. Also a very dear friend had recently died, and I naturally contemplated both his death and my own. On rereading I was shocked to recognize, Oh, there are several suicide poems. I hadn’t meant to find myself drowning or smashed to gravel in “Sound,” but there I was.

AF: Well alongside such sunderings, could we address how principles of grafting play out? For poems like “My partial tongue” and “The particular state wherein you reside,” we learn only in their last lines that their titles come from Browne quotations. So a generative, active mode of grafting occurs, where you have taken what could seem impossibly other and created something of your own from it.

MR: Yes, I was trying to use grafting all the way through, trying to quote Browne’s original phrases and to acknowledge my own dependence on their evocative brilliance. I felt somewhat stuck in my own writing and I had wanted to change. I felt as if this intimacy allowed me a joint enterprise—that’s where the “Partially” comes from. Each of us is present, but partially. I’m also dedicated to not having that language lost, to not giving up on teaching language that’s difficult (“unearthing the difficult past onto the blank page” in “Incision”).

I saw Browne’s language as generative in unexpected and often surprising ways, “errant in germination.” One of the reasons I like immersing myself in different texts, putting myself in the company of other writers, is that they do change your vocabulary. They change what you write about or they change the length of lines. So in Vertigo, I tried to write really long, complicated lines in the way that Sebald does, as both an homage to him and as a way of influencing what I was able to produce by imitating in this specific way. Partially Kept is a very different project, but I hoped for a kind of grafting from one person’s language to another’s and also from the grafting of plants to language.

I know that in some ways I operate from a kind of antiquated interest in imagery, while many contemporary poets are not so interested in imagery. I think part of it is my training, and just my visual sense of things. So many poems that I have written over time are about photographs or about paintings or about using ekphrasis in some way. My next book is about photographs. Anyway, I can’t get rid of imagery. I’m stuck with it.

AF: Your use of imagery does not come across as antiquated at all. Intriguing lines will appear, like “some analogy squeezed from proximity,” or “metaphors configured vine and branch-like”—pointing towards both metaphor and metonymy, fusing both imagistically and rhetorically that basic twentieth-century critical dichotomy. You’ll kind of move laterally. You’ll take what you want and then embellish upon it, but more in orientation towards the language itself, towards the prose itself, rather than towards the ideas.

MR: I hope so. In the poem “the stalks of mint,” I imagine lifting up the plant and seeing the way it sends out tendrils much as we germinate memories—you find yourself thinking about somebody’s face, and then about the way in which ink on a wet page runs off by itself in unexpected directions. It was one of those poems that really came from Browne’s line: “the stalks of mint set in glasses with the root end upward & out of the water.” I kept thinking about how it’s upside down, and the roots are going out and how sentences could go like that, and memories can move like that and ink drawings as well. I tried to stay in the material world, just as memories are often rooted in the chair you’re sitting in.

AF: Overall, Partially Kept seems to offer this continual lateral spread outwards, and/or this binding/integrating/synthesizing of whatever happens to come into a piece, into the book. But elsewhere you also have emphasized pruning or editing or solitary work. I wonder about that tension between the centrifugal movement, the outwards-reaching syntax, but then also this centripetal pressure, this inward-focused way of shaping the individual poems.

MR: Well, I spend a lot of time revising. I’m not somebody who can move slowly. I can’t move my body slowly. I can’t move the line slowly. So I end up with way too much, often opaque to me later. Especially in this book I had to do an enormous amount of cutting, particularly in the first part, but throughout as well in order to create a coherent manuscript. A number of poems don’t work alone. They need to fit together to work. So in some ways, the book has to be read as a whole to work. Some of the later poems could stand alone, but I prefer always to think that I am creating a book, not a series of stand-alone poems.

AF: And I don’t want to neglect the book’s other two sections. Again, questions you raised earlier about this book’s spatialization stand out in relation to these questions of pacing you’ve just brought up. The “No Sky” section fascinates me in part because it seems to start so breathless, with no physical space, similar to what you’ve described as your more familiar mode. Following the sculpted depths and textures of the “Partially Kept” section (with its silences and its spaces), “No Sky” felt like pure, flat juxtaposition, as evoked in the line: “Each item put next to the other, so something will be yielded up.” But later in this “No Sky” section space does begin to creep back in. Long lines start opening up. The later poem “Events” for example presents those single-word, hook-like extensions of lines, providing additional punctuations. Then this whole section culminates in “An exceptional reality’s” elegant densities. That piece’s thematics of dormancy, of potential energy, begin to coalesce into something more like a narrative, a manifesto, an apologia—however you want to describe it. Could you describe putting together this “No Sky” sequence? Perhaps we also could discuss your sequencing of the whole book, with, say, a movement in this one section toward something more like narrative fiction by the end, like prose.

MR: One other thing I would say, for instance, about “Event” is that I was really interested in how hard it is to delineate where an event begins and where it ends. In other words: you call it an event, but where did it start, and where did it end, and what kinds of things made it happen? How much is it about what I would call a participatory and willing obsession, so that you’ll impose an artificial form onto amorphousness? The shape of the poem tries to capture that by including one-word lines—a word left over as it were. More generally, this section tries to come at loss in a more discursive way, but still focused on a blank sky or a gap in the sequencing of time, or on an arbitrary label that leaves so much out. I wanted to suggest all that is omitted from any frame (the frame we call a poem or a day or an event or an interpretation), the random other stuff that is neglected. In “Interpretation,” a poem evoking Emily Dickinson, I tried to suggest that reading is influenced not only by the words, but also by “a blue under her tired eyes,” memories, overreading, “the delicacy of her skin,” old marginal notes and the continuous rain.

Much of this section has to do with time, and trying to get a sense of when something began, when something was over, and what that meant. Part of the reason for this is actually biographical. I was in a garden in Vermont and it was August (which comes up in the last section) and it was time to go. I had to go back to the city. The days start to be charged not because tomorrow you’re leaving, but because in three weeks you’re leaving. The future impinges. So you start to think about the frame. I’m really interested in the frame—going back to Degas, and the ways in which his framing is “off,” with half the dancer outside the frame and the focus often on what is customarily left off to the side. You can get a sense of the wonderful power of framing by holding your fingers up in a kind of square, walking around the room and framing it differently—how that changes the nature of what you think the room is like.

Years ago I was married to a photographer, and he’s the one who said: “No it wasn’t photographers who invented photography. It was Degas.” I think about that often, especially with regards to windows. Looking out a window from different vantage points changes what you see and therefore what you write. So I got interested in the experience of “after visiting for a time, it’s time to go.” I also thought through the anecdote about Emerson’s aphasia, because it coordinated with my sense of not being able to think of words that I wanted to get ahold of, and not being able to think of a language to communicate this lapse. When Emerson couldn’t think of the word “umbrella,” he said, “The thing that people take away with them,” which wouldn’t help very much. But I thought it was a very creative way to deal with his aphasia and also a strong reminder of the way language fails us.

AF: I actually read your book in mid-August. I felt deeply the sequence you’ve described. The “Partially Kept” section came across as one’s release amid a world of objects, of nature however defined. With “No Sky,” I had the sensation of returning to the world of work—or to the office or desk at least, with this latest deprivation providing for its own charged, crystalline vision.

MR: You’re absolutely right.

AF: Then with the elegiac, autumnal concision of the “August” section, I felt I just had undergone a very narcissistic encounter with your book, reflecting/projecting my own life in my own mid-August, but you actually did want to sequence that type of trajectory?

MR: Yes. So that it was not only about time in general, but also this specific sweep of time, and then the profound way the shadows change and the weather changes. I’m in California, so I know people who are natives who tell me there’s lots of weather here, but it’s not the same as being in Vermont. Since I grew up on the East Coast I miss that weather all the time. You’d think I’d get used to not having it, but I don’t. It was always reassuring to be there and have the sense that the year is really turning and the end of summer is clearly coming.

AF: That for sure came through. And we’ve discussed a bit your process of pruning for this book, your process of arranging the different sections. Could you put that all in the context of working with Nightboat? At what point did Stephen get involved? Which drafts did he see? How did the book take on its lovely square shape?

MR: The poems were pretty much finished. I thought it was so odd a book that nobody would ever publish it. I’d finished it but didn’t know what to do with it. When Stephen asked me if I had a manuscript and I said I did, I also said, “I just have to warn you: it’s very odd.” He just didn’t blink. I think Nightboat is wonderful in that way. They just seem (I say “they” but it’s probably mostly Stephen) open to so many different kinds of things. I saw Brian Blanchfield when he was out here for a conference at Cal Arts. He drove me to the conference, so we had time to talk. He’s about to have a second Nightboat book come out, and it’s so different from many of the others and from mine. I was so happy to hear that. It just confirmed for me in that one example the way in which the press is open to so many kinds of poetry.

So often poets fall into groups that exclude others, and don’t pay attention to those who write in different ways. It seems so limited to me. I want literature to open all the doors that I can’t open by myself, and to allow me to see things that I wouldn’t otherwise see. Nightboat is extraordinary in its range and openness and quality. I love also the cover on my book. I like the fact that the cover is white and that these odd little pods are showing up out of the snow, and that it conveys a sense of the work within, a sense of the partiality of plants and of blankness and loss. It just seemed so fitting for how I thought about the book. I was very, very happy. Everybody I’ve showed it to thinks it striking, perfect.

AF: HR Hegnauer did terrific work again. And for those flowers on the cover: I also thought of Ophelia. I thought of the snowscape you’ve described, but also of flowers streaming past, through water.

MR: There is an Ophelia poem.

AF: “Drowning,” right? It’s place in Partially Kept interested me. Or similarly, the Anne Boleyn reference in your “August” section could seem to shift the tonality of this book, to offer a gloomy non sequitur. But actually, to me, both instances seem to undergird much of what happens elsewhere.

MR: I hope so. They were again poems of disappearance. The poem “Sound” is about not being, and disappearing in the gravel, and “Drowning” focused, yes, on Ophelia and the painting by Millais. I had published an academic essay on Ophelia and the way in which she is imaged, and, in fact, I worked for many years on a long academic project about ekphrastic women in Shakespeare’s plays, on the way in which the characters at certain points became emblem-like—the transformation of a character from speaking to a frozen picture. That found its way into “Drowning.” The Anne Boleyn poem is there partly because of the sense of wanting to use dangling modifiers. It was my experiment again with trying to figure out if there are things one can do to suggest a kind of silence, a lack of transition.

I had read, I don’t remember where, of somebody who says the poem is a cylinder. I don’t think I made that up but I might have. Anyway, then I was interested in giving an example of a dangling modifier in which words are left out, and then watching the coat slip off her shoulder and thinking about the danger of being in that court, and being exposed physically, because she was being pursued by Henry. Everyone was frightened and spying was endemic. Do you know the Wyatt poem “They flee from me that sometime did me seek”? It led me to the sense of her extreme danger.

AF: Again on this topic of dangling modifiers, of delicate contiguities, things arranged side-by-side, one of my favorite such moments appears in the lines “Not that red, but geranium red in the sun / over the phone explaining.” I just love the sense of simultaneity, that color coming from the activity which happens to get placed next to it. I also hear echoes of James Schuyler, one of my all-time favorites, with his line “sitting thinking biting at a hangnail.”

MR: Thank you for saying that about James Schuyler.

AF: We could talk more about the “August” section, which seems so Schuyleresque, and which completes this triptych.

MR: Yes, all the way through I’m trying to contemplate time and the way that time changes, and then in the last section I bring it down to something more matter-of-fact, to the end of summer. So these poems are all hued with that tone at the very end as I try to attach myself to things around me so that they don’t slip away. If you can only remember clearly, then the fact that you’re going to lose them and move away, that the season will fall and the plants are going to die and wilt—but still if you just can name them. . . .

In many ways, that effort has been for me so much the function of poetic language: trying to keep things from going away, trying to get hold of them in some way, or to state them in some way that seems to be true. To write so that “everything won’t be forgotten.” But this attachment is very much about things that are forgotten. You say, “OK, if I could just know the name of this, that will keep it. That will nail it down in some way, if I only know what the name is.” Of course it doesn’t work. I think those of us who use language are always trying for this, trying to keep everything from floating away by trying to write about it despite failure.

AF: Does an aphoristic tradition appeal to you for such reasons? A tradition that does try to capture, within the embodied sweep of a single sentence, something more durable perhaps than the content it describes?

MR: I don’t think so. Rather, because of my background I think of Shakespeare sonnets where he talks about the ultimate death of the beautiful young poet, and claims that he will keep that poet alive in verse—which seems so impotent a desire as enacted in the poems. Although the final couplet asserts “My love shall in my verse ever live young,” the other 12 lines describe the power of death and destruction. The first 12 and the final two struggle against one another. One might say that the poem succeeds, in part, by means of a grand rhyming couplet. Again, that is why the title of my book refers to “Partially.” May the language in the poems function well at least “in part.”

One of the things I’ve always thought is that if I were to write a poetics, it would have to do with the poetics of failure, and the way in which all the things that you claim or that you try for are already based on the limits of language. I hope that this comes through, maybe in the sense of fragility—the sense that language is as fragile as the little alpine plant. I hope that’s an undercurrent in my work. Maybe that’s why the elegiac always gets in there. People have said to me “Your poems are so melancholy.” For me, failure has to be acknowledged, needs to be faced in some way.

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An Interview with Michael Heller

Heller Photo 2
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 Michael Heller’s This Constellation Is A Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010. Heller has published over twenty volumes of poetry, essays, memoir, and fiction, the latest being Dianoia, a new collection of poems published this year. Among his many awards and honors are the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Prize, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, the National Endowment for the Humanities Poet/Scholar Award, and recognition from the Fund for Poetry.


Andy Fitch: Could we start with a lived history of how This Constellation Is A Name came into being? Had you long planned or hoped for this type of full-scale collected volume spanning more than four decades? Did it emerge as a Nightboat-driven initiative? Who made the selections that did occur, and did this happen with any overall project plan in place? I, for instance, would have loved to see the Beckmann Variations prose sections included, but I also consider this a lovely, quite generous volume, with its spacious design presumably making some cuts necessary.

thisconstellationisanameMichael Heller: The history of the volume is a bit murky in my mind, but as I remember it, blame for the book must be shared between me and Stephen Motika. Stephen, as you know, works at Poets House, and there was a period in 2010 and 2011 when I was there quite a lot, giving a seminar on modern poetry, coming to meetings and events. I had published Eschaton in 2009, the Beckmann book in 2010, and I had a fair amount of work published in magazines and online that had not yet been collected in book form, including about 20 pages of my Segalen workings, and, despite my general carelessness in thinking about my “career” and my age, I think it was Stephen who said something like “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a big book, your collected, come out around your 75th birthday?” Which, of course, is exactly what happened. I gathered all the work of my previously published volumes and the new work into a collected poems. The result was a beautiful book, which I feel honors my work and, I hope, honors Nightboat. And naturally, I have the usual ambivalence about publishing a collected—it’s at once very satisfying to feel the book’s heft, its weight of completed ambition, but also, it has that old “intimation of mortality” aspect as well. Indeed, a few times when inscribing a copy for someone, I’ve written “This book is a tome, but it is not a tomb.” Luckily, I’ve had a bit of a productive run since then, and Nightboat is going to publish my new collection, Dianoia, this year.

AF: This Constellation’s attentions to multiple temporalities intrigued me. As the endnotes, let’s say, explained the origins of the phrase “yellow submarine,” I wondered precisely whom/when this book is for. I also noted that it privileges biographical over bibliographical chronology (with A Look at the Door with the Hinges Off, written early, yet published several decades later, still presented first), even as the ruminative return to certain elegiac preoccupations diverts from any progressive timeline—pushing eschatological examinations towards new formal possibilities as much as towards any personal or historical resolution. So could you discuss the types of internalized temporalities you see This Constellation Is A Name now offering? If, as the poem “East Hampton Meditations” suggests, we often seek, through writing, to bind ourselves to the dead even as we reach towards those to come in the future, how does this book aim to combine those projects?

MH: Your phrase “multiple temporalities” intrigues me as well, and I place it in tandem with your linking to the possible raisons of an audience. To the extent that I have anything resembling a project, it is not one of specifically defining epochs, but of intervening in the discourses that have lulled or submerged us in regulated time, that have captured our mind within their logic, their cultural, economic and emotional envelopes. As you may sense from any number of poems in the book, or from a lot of my critical prose, I’m an acolyte of Benjamin, a student of, as a recent essay of mine seeks to make clear, a “now-time” poetics that hopes to interrupt time and history, and to redeem our current moment for new directions and possibilities. So if by “temporalities” one means specific segments of time, with their particular characteristics, I’d have to say that my sense has always been that poetry at its best is a matter of interference, including disruptions of those segments (this is why I have little interest in movements and groups that seem to or claim to have figured out what is necessary for any particular zeitgeist). The most profound representations of a culture or milieu are often embedded in work that critiques those eras. In “Notes on Counter-Memory,” the guiding thoughts for my memoir Living Root, I find myself enthralled by the sense that the most genuine expression of a religion is found in its heretics (in addition to Benjamin, the “patron saint” of this work, I draw on Ernst Bloch, on Gottfried Arnold and Joachim of Fiore—the last believing that autobiography consists of a “theology of crisis”). Elsewhere, I’ve called such expressions “counter continuities,” because they must not only disrupt—that seems all too easy for an artist or poet—but must offer a coherent challenge at many points to an existing state of affairs. In this sense, they are never solely about “art” or the practices of art.

That’s why your mention of “internalized temporalities” suggests that externalized ones (are we thinking Pound, or certain late-twentieth century poetic movements that want to flash-freeze certain periods?) are perhaps more “objective,” that if one just expunged the self out of the conception, we’d be in truth and light? “East Hampton Meditations,” with its last section’s concerns for “memory” and “traceries” expresses the interrelationship of these two themes in terms of errancy (of “having lost your way”), which, if one thinks hard on it, is also the condition of our freedom. And which is its redemptive power, “not for now / but to remind one / of the dead // or of those yet to come.” The thought here is an echo of the last prose entry in my Living Root:

He could not meditate on death, which he did not know. He could think about illness (or dying?), about the decay before one’s eyes which is visible and which can be imagined through one’s own fevers and flus, through one’s injuries and hurts.
He understood his parent’s deaths as at least a kind of closure while all other lessons about “death” invoked only false nostalgia, sentimentality, and guilt. He understood that the only logical response to a closure was to evaluate what had come before. The “value” of a death, of a closure, can only be an utterance of sorts.

AF: You mentioned a spiritual striving beyond solely artistic concerns, but an inclination towards ekphrasis does remain one constant across this collection’s manifold formal, intellectual, emotional explorations. And you have spoken eloquently, both in your own voice and in ventriloquistic engagements with figures such as Max Beckmann, about how the most meaningful ekphrastic work departs from trying to capture or affix nature or art, from trying to settle into descriptive linguistic rendering, from speaking in words alone for the mute and inarticulate. So I’d love to hear you discuss or parse your engagement with ekphrastic and mimetic tendencies. I think of your preferred typed of ekphrasis as an emulative rather than a descriptive mimesis—an effort, as in certain forms of Chinese painting, to become the rustling leaves, rather than to record this phenomenon. Along such lines, I admire not only your empathic/ekphrastic engagements with a diverse range of artists (Piet Mondrian, John Coltrane, Rachel Blau DuPlessis), but also your knack for constructing a syntactical rhythm that operates like a heartbeat, like the subaqueous pacing of coral’s growth, like a window’s sunlight “without thought,” like an egret or heron, like a creek. Of course, as This Constellation Is A Name notes, poets long have picked up on Homer’s efforts to mimic, through poetic pacing, waves breaking off Hellas. But what do you consider your distinctive contribution or attraction to questions of how ekphrasis, mimesis, radical empathy might play out in a contemporary poetics? Or if we return to the early lines “the human scales the world, the / successive / reminiscences of a thing’s / properties,” what role have your longterm ekphrastic engagements played in refining your sense, your phenomenology perhaps, of embodied human consciousness, of interrelationality, of formal arrangements prioritizing the fragment and/or the ongoing, asymptotic, ever-incomplete utterance? What in lived experience and/or adjacent realms of knowledge does your poetics most emulate?

MH: That is one extensive question. If its sentences were not in the interrogative mode, I’d say that it pretty well (and generously so) captures manifold aspects of my writing, of my concerns. My “engagement” with particular artworks—not only visual ones, but literary ones as well as music and opera—is complicated. As I say in the interview in The Poetry and Poetics of Michael Heller: A Nomad Memory, artworks are “nexes of intelligence and experience . . . arenas, perceptual tests and challenges, sometimes acts of possession in the psychic and spiritual sense, at once disturbing and pleasurable.” I have no program for my encounters. Rather, over the years of wandering around galleries or concert halls, or looking in books, certain works have seemed so powerful and seductive that I’ve wanted to respond, to understand my responses, and to see where these lead. In the spirit of Picasso’s “a picture is a hoard of destructions” (Wallace Stevens cites this remark in The Necessary Angel, also insisting that “a poem is a horde of destructions”), it is this disturbance that I seek to articulate, something which lies neither purely in the artwork nor in the culture in which it is placed, but in the intellectual and emotional energy that links the two. How to express that, which seems the territory of poetry and art as opposed to the discourses?

As a poet, I’ve wanted to submit my worldview to destruction (something perhaps linked to my studying Buddhist thought and its practice, as I would call it, of a kind of self-destruct). One senses immediately before certain works: they are not pleasant, not confirming; they move and instruct as teachers and parents often do, disabusing as well as instructing. What I want my work to embody is this double energy of construction and deconstruction. Powerful works don’t leave one in the desert, in nullity. But can a poetics really “emulate?” Is that a legitimate question to ask a poet who has said from the start that his entire “career” constitutes a series of blunders and accidents?

AF: Well, the pursuit of a blundering, accidental career itself seems to offer one way of emulating how existence as a whole plays out. And here I wonder if tracking your longstanding engagement with a variety of spiritual, philosophical and scientific worldviews might help. A pre-Socratic (later, of course, Keatsian, Emersonian) emphasis upon “hidden harmonies” arrives early in this book, with corresponding formulations of insight’s lightning flash: tracing, let’s say, Platonic models of internal and external oblivion (“One dark outlined against a dark”); tracing Walter Benjamin’s conception of a text’s occasional illuminating bolt followed by its “‘thunder rolling / long afterwards.’” And your scientific/engineering training adds autobiographical context for this collection’s atomistic depictions of photons, of perception, of Robert Delaunay’s attempts to reach “‘sources of emotion / beyond the limits of all subject matter.’” Could you talk more about formative poetic, metaphysical, anti-metaphysical influences on your work, either figures or ideas or approaches?

MH: For me, the vocabulary of science is essentially metaphoric. The physical world, its objects and weathers, comes to us without any names or labels. We’ve constructed the entire discourse and, from my perspective, embedded our longing, our hopes and desires in that labeling—an impulse that co-arises I would imagine with the dawning of literacy and orality. The pre-Socratics, whom I read closely when I thought I might get a graduate degree in philosophy, were highly influential, Heraclitus in particular, whose fragments form a tone poem of the highest order. It’s important to remember his divine Logos comes to us on top of centuries of animistic and shamanistic activity, with all their hope for connection, their fear of disconnection, fear of the sun going out, of harvests lost, with all their hope, loss, salvation. I think the point for me is that language alone can never quite account for language, that we are always in relation to both words and experience/existence in its broadest terms. My readings and my influences, with few exceptions, are not systematic. I’m much more of a magpie reader. The notes in the back of This Constellation Is A Name, well, they constitute a constellation of sources I’ve drawn on, to which one could add the usual suspects, most importantly what I have taken away from readings and rereadings of Oppen and Benjamin, from the work of phenomenologists such as Merleau-Ponty, on through Buddhist texts dealing with Mahamudra and dialectics, to all sorts of cultural and historical readings, anything that contains or gives me the mysterious frisson of a human working him/herself out via language. My “career” is essentially one of continually going on in this direction.

To give you some early instances: the Delaunay quote comes from “4:21 PM On Saint George’s Clock: Film” in my earliest full collection, Accidental Center. It is one of a number of poems in which my background in the sciences plays a significant part, not merely in this poem’s deployment of technical diction, but in its constant recourse to something like the inexpressible, as in the ending: “each frame isolate as our lives are // but a lonely gesture to the next.” Any number of other poems, such as “Telescope Suite,” “Incontinence” (about our response to the space program), all lead to justifying (if that is the right word) the vision in the book’s last lines, from “Birds At The Alcazaba”: “for the otherness is beautiful / and terror and delight / in the same moment flood the heart.” This habit of speculation and observing persists. It has almost nothing to do with audience or fashion. And whatever has evolved in my work orbits around the understandings and consolations—curious word, but it describes the feelings of resolve and momentary completion—I achieved for myself in that first book.

AF: Moving outwards then, across This Constellation’s full scope, and still at a relatively abstract level, could we also try to trace an ever-evolving, often cosmic conception of love—compared, early on, to “the cold light / Touching stone / Across the distance,” and subsequently refracted throughout this collected text, which so often suggests that “only love is at the end of it”?

MH: That conception, as you describe it, is, in the most profound sense, not one I feel comfortable addressing—a fear that anything I might say would only reduce what has led to a resolution that can only come about via poetry. It seems to me that, aside from the conventional uses of the word “love,” you are pointing to a place in my work where the term is all that’s left of what I am able to say, as though a process of awarenesses and realizations led ultimately to the brink of speechlessness. Oppen talks of an ennobling clarity, and it seems to me tactful, even necessary, not to qualify or overdefine such endpoints, such completions made possible by poetry.

AF: Perhaps then we could address the redemptive force or at least the respite provided by erotic and sexual experience, as much as by abstracted conceptions of love. Early on, sex gets tied to restorative forms of silence, darkness, chiaroscuro, to corporeal simplicity amid embodied engagement with others and with the world (if an example helps to clarify: “half-light, half-dark arcings / of pleasure and silence— // so much done together / natural, cloven / yet joined // audacious desire / have you writhe under me / come so sweetly”). Lyric often has valued the restorative power of the erotic or of nature (or nature’s nearest equivalent, as in “Adulation’s” Cheeveresque reappraisal of suburban comforts, alongside a more cynical friend’s snide remarks), and you artfully pick up on such traditions. But then later this collection references “the galaxy seemingly drained of that covenant.” Or your Baudelairean “Like Prose Bled Through A City” constantly pivots from aesthetic serenity to individual human suffering. Here no such poetic solace seems conclusively serviceable. So we could talk about the legacy of erotic, lyric, pastoral tropes offering redemptive tonalities throughout your books. We could also or instead discuss what seemed to me like the emergence of more wary or pessimistic tonalities accruing in later pieces. I remember, from an interview with Jon Curley, you stating that your work seeks to bridge a distance “between what has already been said or written and what a constantly changing world would require.” What has and what does your world require of the erotic?

MH: I quarrel with your use of the word “respite,” as if some version of the erotic amounted to a longeur. The way you use “redemptive” also is tinged with a kind of use-value, suggesting the efforts of self-appointed salvationists. I guess what I’m asking is: can we talk of requiring something from the erotic? Isn’t it quite the other way, that the erotic seems to exert demands on us—more broadly, that on every level, the world is a seductive place eliciting our intimacy, our indwelling, our understanding? To go back to your earlier question, isn’t this the “cosmic” dimension of the erotic, its all-pervasive energy? I’m speaking of something larger than sexual attraction, though our personal intimacies can almost be seen as metonymies of other relatedness. The religious responses to such energies range across the whole spectrum of behavior, from the ascetic’s attempt to shut out the world, to unreflective embracing or dancing with this phenomena. As I’ve often said, the world beats on the poet. I’ll add for clarity that the erotics of the world beat on the poet. The sound of that drumming, as it is shaped in language by one’s psyche and physiology, is his or her poetry. Registering those beats, and how to live with those registrations, is what I am about, what drives my seeking and my receptivity to the currents flowing around me.

And naturally, part of that registration is sorting out the signals and so on that one receives, and trying to express one’s sense of them. I think, in this regard, I’d characterize “Adulation” not as Cheeveresque, but as a tongue-in-cheek take on the simultaneous desire for and disparagement of the gods of celebrity, of patronage—the seductions. The narrator’s poet-friend exclaims, right at the start of the poem, that “adulation is the structure of the world,” and what ensues is a dialectic of hopes and fears (and revulsions) attendant on the tropes of wanting and getting adulation.

If fame is a new religious marker, one of the casualties is the old animism, especially in its updated literary version as nature poem, or within the pastoral poem tradition. This is the old “covenant” of spiritual meaning I’m referring to, which has been drained from the universe (“the galaxy” in that poem).

AF: In terms of such a loss, an elegiac trajectory of course starts to solidify across this book’s arc, shifting the center of gravity away from youthful observations and erotic attractions, to catalyzing concerns for disappeared and disappearing perceptions, individuals, cultures, languages, ecosystems. Most specifically, reflections on your parents’ deaths, on the destruction of Eastern European Jewish communities, on September 11th and its aftermath, resound across much of this book’s second half. By the time you publish Knowledge, your poems implore their readers, their author, themselves not to let meaning nor self-definition perish. And, simultaneously, your poems continue to evolve away from a more elliptical template, towards something more like narrative. “Through The Binoculars” basically asks how one becomes elegiac: “How does one lose the sense / Of the hymnic and must sing only of what is past.” Could you begin to answer that question in terms both of your autobiographical and poetic development, addressing your ongoing dialogues with your parents, with certain literary figures (Benjamin, Baudelaire, Freud, Celan), with certain cityscapes?

MH: I don’t plan a trajectory a priori. Rather, I feel like I’m investigating particular situations. I’m looking for a path, sometimes one that seeks to find its way back from loss that can properly be called elegiac, such as in the poems dealing with the deaths of my parents or other figures that are important to me. I don’t conceptualize ahead of time. Thus what begins in elegiac form (as in “Through The Binoculars,” where I tried to come to terms with the death of my father) turns out, in its last sections, to be something of a praise poem: “Beautiful the world the dead have left us to see / Beautiful the shell, thin and delicate in its own right, Yet beautiful as a beautiful woman.” It’s as though the poet here turns the corner on grief by transmuting his loss. I can’t account for how I got there—all I can think of is something like what Zukofsky says of Shakespeare, that he had an “inexpressible trust of expression.” I seem to do that kind of trusting.

As to the figures you mentioned (Baudelaire, Celan, etcetera), I’ve said elsewhere that I consider my poetry to be a relational act, that my arena is the in-between, that my encounters with the dead are teaching situations. I don’t want to imitate them but I would hopelessly hope to approach their depths of intensity, comprehension and lyric beauty. The only way I can go at it is by reading them and by learning what I can about how I use language.

AF: Since you yourself have emphasized, in this book and elsewhere, your departure from an earlier, more self-consciously “experimental style,” could you discuss in detail what points of continuity and differentiation you detect between earlier and later parts of This Constellation Is a Name? For me at least, early desires to let attention wander, slip (thereby affirming being: “Stopping to let the attentions wander. An absurd elusive sense of self all the more alive because what seemed to slip away was just that attention, the holding of which was proof, at least in words, of the term ‘alive’”), don’t seem so far removed from statements, significantly later, that you have lived long enough to know you love fragment-like “figments,” (“thigh turns and orchid boats peeping shyly”). And again, your subsequent depiction of “Life as pointillist” seems a logical step. So I guess I wonder if you have refined early tendencies, more than you have abandoned them. Or what, specifically, has disappeared since the early work? Or for a potentially different microcosmic consideration of your evolving formal process, could you discuss your rewriting and subsequent re-rewriting of Shelley in “Without Ozymandias” and “Stanzas Without Ozymandias”? How especially does this latter poem, with its less fragmentary syntax, serve to point readers away from a symbolic realm, toward more “spiritual thought and its ramifications”?

MH: In This Constellation Is A Name (which is nearly 600 pages in length), that very self-conscious phase of experimentation, mostly occurring in the mid-’60s, is confined to the first 25 pages. It was a time when I was obsessively concerned with what a poem ought to be, and my subsequent disillusion with that period stemmed not from the work, which was very well received (published, anthologized, praised), but from the goal I had set for myself, which seemed narrow, narcissistic and of little use-value to anyone. I stopped writing, though I continued to read as deeply as I could in poetry and everything else. Then I met Oppen, read his work and corresponded with him, and began to see a way for myself, not in imitation but in seeking for truth and clarity. My little machines made of words could be valuable to me—audience was never a big consideration in my thinking—if they were engines of such seeking. Once I crossed what seems now to have been a psychological and even ethical barrier, I began writing again, and could see my earlier writing in a better light. There is in my files much more work from that early period, and now that I’ve warmed to it again, I may yet publish a book-length collection of those poems.

AF: I also sense many potential questions regarding the form of Stevensian (extended, lightly serialized) meditation that serves you so well across these volumes. But, given what we already have discussed, could you offer further elaboration, from the Beckmann Variations prose, on how a poetics, how your poetics, might engage “the inexpressible” less by capturing and confining it than by immersing oneself in successive streams of words and works? Again, how does this trajectory within one multi-part serial poem outline This Constellation Is a Name’s more broadly constellated prospects for polyphonic and perhaps perpetual communication?

MH: Here I’ll repeat Zukofsky’s “inexpressible trust in expression.” This is about as far as I need to go for a “poetics.” All else is theme and variation on what any particular nexus of subject, sound, influence brings up. My interest in using prose, in sensing the poetics of prose, goes back to my readings of Baudelaire, to the figurations and frissons I find across all sorts of writing, to my study of the Japanese poetic diary. But that is like describing a tool chest, because ultimately what matters most is where the activity of writing, of getting down with the material at hand may lead one. My memoir Living Root, for example, led me into a kind of Midrashic structure: prose, poetry, commentary on the poems, what I not so jokingly call “Jewish haibun.” What the form—or multiplicities of form—seemed to enable was discussions of personal history, quarrels with tradition, poetics. And though This Constellation Is A Name is mostly poetry, I feel it inhabits similar discursive/anti-discursive space. I’m of the school of Valéry, who said he didn’t finish a poem but finally abandoned it.

AF: Amid the many intertextual excursions, the elegies and dedications, a sense of aloneness, of isolation, also appears. Sometimes isolation extends an infantile sense of helplessness. Sometimes this book seeks to find within feelings of emptiness a feeling of freedom. Sometimes this sense of isolation gets placed under the sign of death and each individual’s unique engagement with death. Sometimes personal apocalypse eventually merges with communal apocalypse—as Eschaton, say, closes on the September 11th attacks. Given This Constellation Is a Name’s celebration both of isolation/silence and of engagement/conversation, how would you characterize the place here of the solitary, the singular? Do such solitary sensations, for instance, provide their own form of shared experience?

MH: We’re speaking here about solitude, and you’ll recall Rilke’s formulation of love as “two solitudes saluting each other.” Our condition, our solitariness, seems so fundamental, and it is—nothing original here—the essential impetus to communicate, to write poetry. Which is why I have referred to poetry as a relational act, a bridging that begins in recognition of apartness. A physics and metaphysics of poetry stem from and return to that condition. So yes, it is a “shared” experience, an unavoidably shared one. It began on day one of civilization, maybe earlier.

AF: Following from those last topics, I’d again like to pick up one of this book’s own lines of inquiry: must a poem always “witness something”; can it ever “simply come to take its place / Beside these lovely things”? And if you would rather not address such questions so directly, does it at least make sense to track, as this collection’s elegies begin to accumulate, an emergent emphasis upon individual testimony, individual recollection, as in the deathbed “St. Francis Hospital” scene of “Miami Waters,” with its conjecture that “Perhaps the world / which does not cohere in the world, / coheres in one self, in one rememberer”? Or, even more broadly: as you have lived and written across the twentieth-century’s second half and beyond, how has your estimation of individual testimony changed?

MH: That phrase “come to take its place / Beside these lovely things,” which comes from my sequence on Paris, “Fifty-Three Rue Notre-Dame De Nazareth,” could lead us back to your previous question on solitariness. The passage is ironic/semi-confessional in the sense that the poem’s narrator attempts to locate himself between some position of pure aesthetics and that need to witness (hence communicate across the solitude to another). It’s an attempt to work out our poetic legacy, beginning with the admission that the narrator is “another legatee of Mallarmé”:

I have strained against the tongue
Until the word displaced
The world’s foreign body.

Have played with the exclusionary pun . . .
And yet, and yet

Those “yets” constitute a self-demurral as to where one is going. The passage continues with a catalog of pleasurable objects, foods, sights for the eye, etcetera, before it gets to that question of taking place or witnessing. I think what I’ve tried to do in that passage and in the other sections of the poem (because as you know it moves from the bourgeois pleasures of daily life, its “tourism,” to contemplating clashes of politics, cultures and the modern horrors of our times) is to stage as powerfully as I could the deepest questions of writing poetry, as did Baudelaire and Mallarmé, who are the poem’s agons. Which is why the concept of chance and the depiction of urban horror thread through and populate the main sections of the poem. I will say that if one is looking for my ars poetica, my feeling of the relationship between art and life, it probably can be found in reading that poem.

As an answer to your question about “individual testimony,” no, it hasn’t changed, but deepened. The more serious question might be: is there any other kind witnessing? In my forthcoming book of poems, Dianoia, I confess to “falling in with the spirit of the ‘I,’ the ‘I’ that lost credibility.”

AF: On this level of the individual “I,” I sensed a slight increase in oppositional tones (at least addressing the literary world) in This Constellation’s later stances “for love and against concept,” dreading a world of “only irony,” mocking “that tepid faculty-room tea” and corresponding “idea / of an impotence authored by others.” Could you discuss these emergent tones, again perhaps in terms of your own lived experience with and through poetry?

MH: These observations (maybe you want to call them quips) arise naturally from the subjects I’m dealing with. But perhaps my inner crank is also kicking in. I subscribe to Oppen’s resistance to “Art,” a realm of pseudo-professionalism, career-hunting and academic self-loathing which has now become all-pervasive—with my question in “Ordinariness Of The Soul” being: “for whom ought / the muse to be real?” Part of the via negativa of any serious poem is the thread through, as Geoffrey Hill calls it, the climate of contexture, the “enemy’s country” of received opinion, movements and groupthink. Yeah, I am a crank.

AF: To close, this book’s concluding “Tibet” sequence returns us to many preceding concerns. Echoing, for me, Roland Barthes’s Empire of Signs, your project’s pursuit of “non-human Tibet” (as known not from outside, but from within) returns us to the empathic/ekphrastic/mimetic prowess of your poetics. Efforts here to channel the high-altitude, incantatory, exclamatory ecstasies of your own private Tibet recall both Shelley’s Mount Blanc and This Constellation Is a Name’s ongoing explorations of the Colorado landscape. So could you position this sequence as looking both backwards and forwards across your corpus? We could discuss more specifically the potential you found in Victor Segalen’s obscured, proto-Orientalist text “Essay on Exoticism.” We could discuss how this paean to a timeless, projected Tibet squares with realities from your own lived history and from that nation’s, or how/why it elides doing so. But what, for you, for me, makes “Tibet” such a fitting conclusion to this collection?

MH: Those are very kind words, identifications and comparisons in your question. Let me say that the “Tibet” project is by no means over. My new book Dianoia has another six numbers of the sequence, and there will be more to come. But to the broader aspect of your inquiry, Segalen was both a pioneer and supreme strategist of “Otherness” (writing in French, of course, creating or doubling the otherness for me, a writer in English). He was an exemplary strategist, because the creation and deployment of “a language that never originally existed,” as Haun Sussy says of Segalen’s Steles (this is a statement equally true for Segalen’s Thibet series, and I hope for my own “made-up” transpositional efforts), enables an approach to the exotic or Other that simultaneously distances and yet honors our fascination. And isn’t poetry—when we call upon it to do what we, at the deepest level of ourselves, wish for poetry to do—giving us the world in a “language that never originally existed,” one freed from the entrappings and discourses of previous thought? So yes, the “Tibet Sequence” is part of my personal Archimedean lever to move my sense of the world (in all of its comprehensiveness, as I understand it) that one iota or degree that will give us a momentary grasp again. In one new section of the sequence I call this “the bright shard beyond any tangent of being,” something beyond our acquisitive psyches, beyond our possessiveness, a revealment that simultaneously restores the world and ourselves in it. Revealment and opening up is what I want my poetry to do for me, and maybe it will do that for others.

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An Interview with George Albon

Albon Photo
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 George Albon’s Fire Break, winner of the NCIBA award for poetry. Albon’s books include Empire Life, Brief Capital of Disturbances (Small Press Traffic book of the year in 2004), Step, Momentary Songs, and Aspiration. He lives and works in San Francisco.


Andy Fitch: At least one reviewer has noted a Stevensian slant to Fire Break, with its reflective/observant vantage starting from the first line: “When they told the myth in the present tense / I looked around.” Stevens’ meditative idealism, his contemplations of the world contemplating itself, often through fugitive glimpses, producing subtly modulated sonic reverberations—all of that comes through in Fire Break’s direct references to “harmonium,” in your book’s crows perhaps substituting for blackbirds. But then also late in the book appears an appeal to “Example not symbol / in the sustaining hemispheres,” and there I sensed something like a William Carlos Williamsian “no ideas but in things” sensibility asserting itself. I don’t know if Williams offers the perfect fit here. Any number of precedents come to mind, definitely George Oppen, Larry Eigner, both mingling between these provisional polarities I’ve presented of ideated vision and concrete fact. But could a Stevens/Williams spectrum potential bookend Fire Break’s tones, rhythms, registers, impulses?

George Albon: Benjamin Landry wrote that review in The Rumpus, and Stevens is indeed an important poet for me. But that first poem is actually concerned with the paintings of Barnett Newman, especially those enormous monochromes with, however, a few thin and differently colored vertical stripes. The poem looks at these paintings where, against an undifferentiated background, a moment of genesis occurs. How did that happen? Why did that happen? The poem is concerned with that passage: from the undifferentiated not only to something, but to a moment of something. And how do we respond to that? Likewise, there is no Stevens connection with the crow. I was watching a crow one afternoon and thinking about it. As far as I can tell, there are no direct references to Stevens anywhere in the book.

On the other hand, there must be a strong semi-conscious presence, because you and Benjamin are completely right. Stevens has been with me since I was 12. Even the little formal things I encountered back then, for example, “Two Figures in Dense Violet Night,” with the tapering tercets, and the last line of each tercet four syllables long, or “Sea Surface Full of Clouds,” where he seems to be saying the same thing over and over but giving you new nouns each time—when you’re 12 and you think you read a lot of poetry and then you read this poetry, you almost wonder if you’ve read anything. But of course those few formal details give way to the larger importance, which was that he was the first poet who made me realize that a seemingly privatized meditative state could be tactile, that it could reach down from a high place and take you by the hand.

I agree that there’s a line that maybe starts with Stevens and ends somewhere else. For me, in this book at least, the endpoint is perhaps Oppen rather than Williams (though Williams is in that line). I’d say one of the trajectories in what I’ve done starts in Stevens and now lives more presently in Oppen. But you know, they’re brothers in so many ways. They are both minds confronted with ontic facts and each one’s inquiry proceeds from there.

When I’m talking about this curve, this line that maybe starts with Stevens and comes to Oppen, there are whole other lineages that I’m engaged in as well, and that have possibly inflected other books. There’s Pound, there’s Mandelstam, there’s Celan, Dickinson, Spicer—it just goes on and on. So it’s a very populated . . . it’s not an easy walk from A to Z. It’s a crowded subway car. I’ll never untangle the mesh produced by the poets who matter to me, and that particular line from Stevens to Oppen is certainly one of the threads.

firebreakAF: From what I remember, Barnett Newman called that series or at least one painting from it Concord, and for me Concord and Hartford stand close together, perhaps with Passaic on the other end. But definitely Oppen comes to mind quite early, with the serialized vignettes you offer—those almost coherent yet discrete vivid scenes, sometimes erotic instances. But returning briefly to Newman: Fire Break soon seemed to address a lot of paintings, pictures, photos, films. I began to think of Roland Barthes, and I won’t get this precisely right, but Barthes describes photographs providing a sense of spatial continuity (of objects lying beside each other), but also of temporal discontinuity. Photos bring back to us a different time, or juxtapose two temporalities in a way that can disorient us. So I think here less of poetic “images” in the conventional sense of that term, more of abstracted questions concerning visual representation. The immediacy of certain travel scenes within the book, for example, also carries this sense of temporal discontinuity. I’ll wonder who this “I” is. I’ll wonder how or why this “I” has arrived at its present location. Spans beyond the scope of a specific lyric’s temporal frame remain obscure. Then later this book offers moments in which time itself seems to get laid out before us in a less disorienting fashion or less discontinuous fashion. You’ll refer to “‘before’ / evening as / in / standing // before it.” Could we focus on Fire Break’s untitled, implicitly serialized lyrics, in order to approach this book’s representations of space and time, perhaps to some extent in distinction to the more constrictive scope of much late-twentieth-century epiphanic lyric poetry? Again I’d love to hear more about Oppen’s place.

GA: Let’s start with the fact of the “I.” With these poems I was interested in using “I” a lot, and especially in starting poems that way. It’s a little tricky as to what I wanted from that “I,” and whether it was a personal “I.” It both was and wasn’t. It was like when you keep going back to middle C. The “I” was middle C. It’s a place to start, but by the time you’re at the end of the poem, you’re not in middle C. You’re somewhere else. You’re in a tone cluster. But then turn the page and you’re back at C. I began to be drawn to this practice of seeming to start on a sure foot but not staying on it. If you say “I saw this,” or “I did this,” you sound like you’re on a sure footing. But by the end of the poem, though you’re still inside experience, the footing is perhaps less sure.

This happens in Celan where . . . well, with him, it starts right at the top. He omits the “I” and from the beginning you’re plunged into a situation in such a way that the experiential character is hard to determine. So in quite a few of the poems, I liked the idea of starting surely and then ending openly—not so much unclear as open. It might help though if I spend a moment on the way the book started, because each book that I’ve written is a different inquiry for me. This one didn’t begin that way but it joined these ranks pretty quickly. I had started going out with Dennis in June of 1996, and we were a little way into the following year and April was starting in a few weeks. So we were heading toward our first anniversary. I had this idea, right before April started, to do something I almost never do. I would just write a poem a day, expecting it to stay loose and casual and just be a lark. A little bouquet of poems to commemorate the place I was at. Not that they would focus on us, but I had a lot of “love energy,” if you know what I mean, and it stoked the project.

The poems did get written, one a day, throughout that whole month. But very soon into this month the project’s original purpose fell away and the poems were starting to talk a certain way and ask certain things. Each seemed to want to get to the bottom of something. I became preoccupied with what these poems were asking—asking of me and asking in general. And asking for sequence. They were untitled, and spare, and vulnerable. In other words, this project turned into another inquiry. This happens every time I try to keep things loose! It turns into questions. So, as an example, for one of the very few poems that actually stayed in the book after that month:

High blank
of just

“woke up”

a low
steady sound

—car engine

on—timbre not
dynamics

going through
foldings

across
the yards

The poems from that first month are on that level. They’re not terribly involved. They were attended to, but they’re sketches. But that kind of poem started falling away, all the way up until Stephen took the manuscript. For 15 years it had been this intense laboratory. I would throw poems out and add new poems, and what is now the first poem was written years after. In fact, a couple of them got in there after Stephen had accepted the manuscript. The very last poem is the one where I’m talking to the guy on Market Street. He’s selling his CD and I’m asking about his beats. So it was a long trip, and I was almost sad to let the book go, because it meant that I couldn’t keep obsessing with it.

But you’d asked about space and time . . .

AF: Yeah, I think you already have started to address how space and time get constructed through this book.

GA: There is a sensation of slowly elapsing time in some of the poems. There’s a line in one of the poems about movement of honey down a wall, where I’m misremembering something Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote in Hope Abandoned—that Osip loved to watch things like honey dropping down a spoon, because it was actual movement of time. He loved real-life instances of slow time. But somehow I remembered that the honey was coming down a wall. I can’t imagine why I remembered it like that. But I did want to try and distend time. You’re also slipping away from the “I” when that happens. You’re becoming just that-which-notices or that-which-is-doing-the-perceiving. But by that point it’s not really the subject doing the perceiving. You’re part of the process, a factor, not the main player.

AF: Maybe we can focus more on that particular liminal “I.” Here I think specifically of the work-a day-persona that Fire Break constructs. And I don’t know the details of your professional life, so you could discuss your actual job if you want, or begin to address this “I” who writes “between folds and revs,” who “invents under duress.” I think the most exemplary related section might start “Clipboard on my bed when I wake up.” Here the “I” gets saturated in a specific space and time, yet progressing swiftly to the claim that “the noise and sprawl of willed commerce will / be mine as soon as I // leave for work.” Encountering pivots like that, I’ll sense some dream life or unconscious of capitalism, something sweeter than Fredric Jameson, more similar to Frank O’Hara’s lunch poems, though O’Hara soon will return to the museum, not precisely willed commerce—which seems different.

GA: “Will be mine” is ironic, of course—it’s the last thing I want. But yes, there’s always the reality of having finite time to work on things, and maybe the fact that I wanted to try to write a poem a day for a month was in response to this feeling of: I’ll just do it. I’ll just write a quick poem. You know, not a poem for the mantelpiece. Quickly, one a day for a month. We all have our day jobs and we all have our loved ones and the dance of life is in finding the measures. On the other hand, I’ve never wanted to exemplify time constraint in the work itself. I might write about time constraint, but I don’t want to necessarily fold that in structurally.

Still there is a lot of writing just before you go to work, or you carve out some time to do this or that. The poem you’re quoting, with the “clipboard on my bed,” is atypical, because I wrote that very quickly and it was about a workmate who had died, and I had had this dream the night before his memorial that I met him on the way to the library. But that poem came out as quickly as it took to write. It was journalism, though with a lot of stray thoughts. So that particular “I” is less filtered than some of the others. But yeah, you’re always working between occasions and responsibilities, between obligations.

AF: O’Hara offers one model in which work shapes the poet’s haste. But many moments with an opposite pacing also arrive in Fire Break. Your example of honey dripping down the wall points to a poetics of the present, fugitive, overlooked, ordinary moment, and to the forms of spare-time art that one can make from such moments. These scenes seem effortless in your book, the way that “The refrigerator kicks on to my left, dull traffic / off the parkway on my right.” Though even amid such immediate scenes, we often move towards the foregrounding of sonic play by a poem’s end. Sometimes such developments get thematized, as when one lyric asks “if I keep // listening what / will I start to hear— / if I keep // reading will / the frame take over.” Or a compressed, notational-seeming poem like this one below will echo for me Rimbaud’s “Voyelles,” Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, but also Larry Eigner:

Cirrus for stem
brushed up to
the stationary

cumulus
wind-current
brought

clearing into
visible forma-
tions

blip and roil
moving into
the area

Again I’ll sense an O’Haraesque attention to the (albeit less glamorized) moment, an attention that seems phonically or sonically to investigate itself by this poem’s end. Does that trajectory of a reading experience here make some sense to you?

GA: It does, and I adore Eigner along with you. He’ll provide a sequence and by the end there’s a new pathway you couldn’t have predicted. Or rather, it stops being a path and becomes something like a skywalk. I don’t know anyone else who can constellate nouns and make that effect. Or often with Eigner you’ve got the constellation of particular nouns, but then there will be a single time in the poem where he gives you a general noun.

AF: Just as here you end on “the area.

GA: Yes, the way that a weather forecaster says something is “moving into the area.” And as you say, some experiences move toward the sonic. I am very concerned about sonic life. I’m also a musician and a songwriter and a very, very active listener. Another poem that might support what you were saying would be the poem that ends with “The attack is not the note.” I’m in a park and then I think of Morton Feldman. He said he wanted his pianists, when they depressed the keys, to do it as “matter-of-fact” as possible. Then I’m in this park and people are relaxing and it’s “world-language in the not / so immaculately heard,” and the “I” thinking of the / large man his every day / suit and tie.” Because that’s how he dressed, right off the rack. Then that sentence: “The attack is not the note.”

What’s important here is the murmur, the rustling. Like in Hölderlin, the secrets don’t come down from the mountain, they don’t come from Zeus. The secrets are the rustling. With those two poems, there’s an appeal to listen to and honor the sounds that have not been converted into power tools. There’s a book by Gemma Corradi Fiumara called The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening, which I cited in the Oppen lecture I gave about 15 years ago. Her book is concerned with coercive sentence structures and sound structures used by, in her words, “the accredited managers of rationality.” Our job is to recognize power syntax when it happens and not take the bait.

AF: Just to return briefly to that particular line you quoted, “world-language in the not / so immaculately heard”: somehow it recalled for me a moment in “Of Being Numerous,” with Oppen perhaps walking across a bridge on a freezing cold night and sensing pure consciousness by himself, and he embraces the city, the mineral fact of the built city—but that still seems different than your less pristine “world-language in the not / so immaculately heard,” which you treat so affectionately, with such intimacy. Anyway, I sense myself approaching a question about you skirting any “us vs. them” rhetoric, unlike, say, Oppen’s “baseball’s their game / because baseball is not a game / but an argument” or “That the juices my flow in them / Tho the juices lie.” Even in Fire Break’s critique of strip-mining, for instance, you include the lines “Products say to do that. / The rock moved to get to here, it became us.” You seem to offer a sense of self-implication, whereas I’ll think of Oppen sometimes finding himself distanced from the social world he’s critiquing.

GA: If I can say it this way, I am preoccupied with what we could call the aesthetic experience. I’m not trying to define Oppen’s position here, but I know that in his letters, when he describes something as “aesthetic” (and I do too in certain contexts), he often means “merely” aesthetic: in other words, a beauty effect or a rhetoric effect. But a real aesthetic experience has nothing to do with beauty or rhetoric. I’m writing a book, or I’ve written it actually—it’s sections of a bigger book, four essays about the lyric. I’m trying to get at a certain lineage of thinking about the aesthetic experience, a kind in which aspects of the non-verbal are indispensable, as they often are in visual art. I mean, just walking down the street. You’re getting something that isn’t seeking verbalization. You’re still in nature as it were. But you’re also in your mind. The real aesthetic experience says: Now what? It’s your move.

With some of the poems in Fire Break, I’m trying to get at a feeling of vulnerability. If you write in short lines and you don’t use a lot of words, you can keep things in a state of exposure. It’s as if the poems had become weather-beaten, and this is what’s left. A lot of the visual art that has come to mean a great deal to me uses stuff that we don’t usually think of as lasting very long, like cardboard or plywood or house paint instead of artist’s oils. It’s a recognition of vulnerability, made with everyday materials. It allows a more intense feeling of life.

AF: In terms of exploring the aesthetic and vulnerability, I remember one sequence that I should contemplate having tattooed across my chest: “Activism, as of desire. / Relaxing, in the political.” What would it mean to relax into the political?

GA: Well, it would mean that you let certain of your hierarchies go. The fate of the planet is everyone’s fate, and that issue is number one in my own hierarchy. That fate is not separable from the fate of nations, the fates of the nationless, and so on. But it should be a constant nudge in everyone’s mind—the Western nations in particular, and the U.S. even more so, who pioneered and exploited the petroleum lifestyle and the creeping slow violence such a lifestyle has wrought in other parts of the world. And yet we still “can’t imagine” not owning a car. So by relaxing, I mean to relax one’s hold on these “unimaginable” phantoms and start imagining other alternatives. Get rid of the armor and let the skin touch the other skin. The planetary imperative, all our skins touching. Straining to align on this one issue, if no others. That’s what we need to do.

AF: I think of Joe Brainard’s “People of the World: Relax” to some extent in relation to what you just said. And as you raise global questions, I wonder if we also should discuss locality. The phrase “urban renewal” actually could mean something positive in Fire Break, amid lines like “left with the pave / of yourself,” in which a mode of attunement that seems specific to this precise location will arise, with which begins “the speckle.” So should we address the Bay Area, including of course leaving the city of San Francisco for a bit, but staying close by?

GA: I myself don’t see a Bay Area feeling here. Maybe it’s there and I don’t see it. My sense is that these kinds of observations could happen anywhere. I feel like I could have lived in my hometown in Illinois and found the same number of things to feed my preoccupations. The details might be different but I would find them.

AF: My eyes just fell on: “Light of the coast which is a bundling blue haze / above blue water // Arches of the bridge set down in the ravine / not seen from cars.” But I only have a few months’ familiarity with San Francisco, so maybe I’m projecting. I have another way to ask about locality here. You seem to have suggested that this book inquires into place as concept more than place as specific location. And Fire Break also offers occasional erotic glimpses, lovely portraits of one’s lover. And if we consider Freudian conceptions of ambient attunement: if I attune to the landscape in general, for Freud this often hints at a fixation on the maternal body. Or sometimes for Freud, in a therapy session, if I’m really admiring the wallpaper, that might reveal transference from my affections for the therapist. Then with your own attunements to immediate locality, whether or not a “you” gets mentioned, I’ll sense something like desire, sort of like erotic desire. You might not name a body, but does something like a body generate much of the affective experience that here gets documented through the description/transcription of physical place?

GA: Well, a good example of that would be the poem that starts “My garden / born from a scald,” because that is Dennis’ body. He went to boarding school in Hawaiʻi. There was some rowdiness in the shower room and they threw him in, so he has a scalded place on his back. That’s what I’m describing. So what I’m concerned with there is an eros of . . . you don’t necessarily have to know this is a human body, someone’s body, but an erotic atmosphere should still come through the words. Like I said, Fire Break was a valentine to the first couple of years of what has become a very long relationship. I certainly wanted the lover’s body in there. There is the lover’s body, and I hope it’s other things as well when the reader reads the poem. Recently, working on my prose book, I was “given” a new section to write, even though I thought the sections had been finalized. It’ll be a section on love and learning, and the dynamic between them.

In Brief Capital of Disturbances, another book of mine, I say, “Sex, to get to nudity.” There’s something about the naked body that is just so overwhelmingly . . . so much starts and ends with the other’s naked body. So how could we imagine desocializing until you really are in the midst of that first quality, that first appearance of nakedness: an entire universe?

AF: On this topic of eros, but perhaps more abstractedly, Fire Break presents many portraits or studies of vision itself. We’ve mentioned paintings, photographs and film, but certain scenes seem to foreground an epistemology of the subject’s place amid his/her environment, all traced through accounts of vision. I can give some brief examples with such quick entwinements of perception, relation, reflection. I think of: “merely optical— / of looking // at pines / some ways / from one // another— / though the / non-optical // jostles.” Or we encounter perspectival shifts in this study of the crow as transitory, aerial, animate, ultimately visual being: “The shadow doesn’t / fly, I change before / it does, then / I hear the caw / recede as it I imagine / changes to a scan.” Here these great inversions of inside and outside take place in relation to vision. The poem’s apparent observational subject only gets constituted by the vision perceived.

GA: We have to become guardians of vision against the telematic onslaughts being waged on our eyes. Guy Debord’s take on the image-commodity society of his day was exactly right, in my opinion, and that aspect of society, the spectacularization, has ballooned and accelerated to such an extent that I don’t know if Debord would even recognize it. We are living under a reaction regime that we seem to be all right with. There is some opposition to this, but even more acquiescence. I don’t want my thought patterns to have to conform to a succession of optic finger snaps. When I see kids and adults in thrall to their image-suppliers, I just think: Life is being taken away.

AF: I want to get back to image, but Fire Break also contains less contextual information than any other Nightboat book I’ve seen, with no back matter, no explanatory notes . . .

GA: Yeah, I don’t like notes . . .

AF: . . . and the briefest of acknowledgements. But also: Nightboat covers so often present an iconic cover portrait, often a figure, not necessarily the author. But instead, for front and back here, we get Clare Rojas’ patterns. How does this particular book’s design fit the aesthetic, the idiom, the ethos and eros that you have in mind for Fire Break?

GA: Well, I love her work. It evolves constantly, and the abstract area that she’s moved toward, the sharp color divisions she gets by masking, are pretty great. Seemingly simple, and then you look longer, and it’s not so simple. And the pattern-works . . . I’m not sure I’ve seen any except on a computer. I don’t know their presentation history. I was researching the newer abstract paintings when I found them. I love ornamental abstraction, in Islamic art for example, and these patterns of Clare Rojas had a similar pull. Also, I love her side career as a songwriter with a free website—something I want to do myself some day if I can ever find the time! She and Ed Gilbert from Gallery Paule Anglim were very helpful. (Ed had also helped greatly with a previous book, Momentary Songs, when I was eager to use Canan Tolon’s work on the cover.)

AF: In terms of how you’ve characterized a lot of Fire Break’s short poems operating, in terms of a seamlessness in which two patterns that don’t really match by any stretch get placed side-by-side, Rojas’ front and back cover blend so well within the overall codex of this book.

GA: As far as the experience of getting the book ready and making it, this was an extremely positive experience. Margaret Tedesco did a beautiful design job. She presented Clare’s art in such a way as to serve the simplicity, but, like the art itself, Margaret’s design goes to a place beyond simple. And Stephen gave me whatever trim size I wanted. The fact that this book is slightly wider than normal was just right, because while there aren’t a lot of long lines in here, there are some, and there is some prose and that extra bit of width respected all of these various text volumes. It’s a slight difference, and slight differences mean a lot.

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An Interview with Paula Cisewski

Cisewski Photo

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 Paula Cisewski’s Ghost Fargo, winner of the Nightboat Books Poetry Prize. Cisewski’s other poetry collections include Upon Arrival and The Threatened Everything (which will be released in 2016 through Burnside Review Books), and her first collection of lyric prose, Misplaced Sinister, appeared in 2015 through Red Bird Chapbooks. She teaches both academically and privately, and curates artful literary events in the Twin Cities.


Andy Fitch: Could we start by placing alongside each other the three loose categories of haunting, inheritance, language? From its start, Ghost Fargo feels steeped in an upper-Midwestern idiom of strip mall, beet field, refinery stink—all of which, you say, preceded us (haunting us by shaping our present, perhaps prompting our dumb questions, our sloshy self-responses). This ghosted Fargo becomes place as symptom, as myth, as structuring principle, but also some specific locale we just might reach in real life, if lucky. Does that description more or less fit? Does it help to explain why, as this book’s last poem tells us, Ghost Fargo follows you wherever you go?

Paula Cisewski: The speaker is definitely steeped in a landscape throughout the book. And you’re right: it’s a landscape where she feels haunted and which she has inherited—everything you just talked about. And Lake Agassiz is a bit of a part too, which is the glacial sea that the Midwest was covered by. The speaker in the beginning of the book is almost obsessed with and overwhelmed by the hauntedness of everything that’s around her. Hopefully, by the end of the book, she feels more like she’s synthesized the idea that hauntedness is just a part of her, and she’s more actively part of the landscape that she’s inhabiting.

AF: So we move from one particular local landscape to broader questions of how everybody finds him/herself situated within place and time in awkward and overlapping ways?

PC: I think so. “Fargo” is a word that a lot of people are so familiar with. It has that long “O” in it. It sounds haunted. It sounds humorous a little bit, because of the movie and the TV show—that dark humor. But I felt like it repeats so often in the poems that it becomes almost hypnotic. That it can become almost non-meaning and stand in for other people’s landscapes and experience of middleness, of in-betweenness. Ghost Fargo was somewhat based on Dante’s Purgatorio in the beginning.

AF: As a Midwestern-born reader, certain details crack me up, such as when what starts out as a whole forest soon gets more realistically assessed as just one tree—your pet sapling grown from pine. But here and elsewhere, I wondered how Ghost Fargo’s “Midwest” gets read by different readers. Lines like “Lake Agassiz! I metal. Leather. Gun rack. Love you” or “As they say, You Can’t Happen In The Same Shit Twice” might stand out more to someone searching from afar for (in Eileen Myles’s phrase) a fresh young voice from the plains. But to me, coming from the Midwest, the indirect, antiquated, all-too-familiar ring of phrases such as “I didn’t care for it” (which starts a lyric), or “I begin to like her some” (which ends a lyric), or just “take care,” “what do you know,” “would be grand” provide the most pleasure. Does each reader by necessity select, construct his or her own Ghost Fargo?

ghostfargoPC: Maybe so. You’re the first person who has ever pointed out those specific phrases. So that’s fascinating to me. They definitely come up in my consciousness as part of . . . not eavesdropping but just the language you pick up here almost unconsciously. I guess, when this book came out, it was the first time that I started being identified as a Midwestern writer. Also it’s only my second book, so that was alarming to me, because I am a Midwestern writer but “Midwestern poetry” feels like a dismissive phrase that’s code for tameness or the bucolic landscape being overused as metaphor—which isn’t in my mind what the book offers.

It’s been a while since I’ve read from Ghost Fargo outside of the region, just because I’ve since written other work. I feel like any kind of “regional” poetry gets marginalized a bit. Is a Brooklyn poem universal somehow in a way that a Fargo poem is not universal? That doesn’t seem true.

AF: Well for me it seemed that, beyond an obvious Midwest that non-Midwesterners may find, you represent a more delicate, more elusive Midwest here.

PC: I was just going for a sparseness and definitely more of an internal landscape. But I have lived on the plains for a long time. So I’m sure it’s just that SPACE that’s here.

AF: Again, growing up, I heard a lot about Lake Agassiz. But I particularly appreciate your depiction of plains flatness as its own form of ocean bed. I picture Yves Tanguy beach scenes when surreal components arise amid Ghost Fargo’s physical landscapes—like the random-seeming forest beach, shoring nothing. And some Lake Agassiz descriptions could serve as an ars poetica: “For nobody’s gesture’s need be inelegant, / resembling a landscape overcome / then abandoned by sea.” Could you discuss whatever elements of taciturn defeatism, or optimistic dawn-to-come, or any other lyric inflections that meditations on Lake Agassiz still provide for you five years after publishing the book?

PC: There’s something about smallness that I hope I will continue to think about—just temporariness that I will always continue to write about. Nature as well. My forthcoming collection is called The Threatened Everything. The book is another kind of haunted landscape, but the work is more obviously environmental and maternal than other pieces I’ve written. I think that’s part of what I was getting at with Lake Agassiz. “Agassiz” is the name of a lot of things in Fargo. It is the Catholic school. It is a public building. The inhabitants didn’t necessarily know what it was. I feel like that’s just reality at this point. Ghosts are in our language. We’re deeply affected by them.

AF: Other tropes soon start accruing in the book. The mourning doves arrive early. The implicit pun on “mourning” and “morning” takes me back to Stanley Cavell describing Thoreau’s sense of morning/mourning. Cavell presents Thoreau addressing morning as kind of an endless improvisational newness and discovery, but with mourning as recognition of the unspoken, genocidal, ecologically devastating underpinnings of any American present. So America always evokes morning and mourning, perhaps like the flooding/receding Lake Agassiz. And I don’t have much biblical knowledge, but I believe a dove flies out first from Noah’s ark.

PC: As far as landscape goes, mourning doves are one of the brown birds. There are so many brown birds in the Midwest. They are plain and beautiful. Then something about the spelling of it—thinking that it’s “morning” without the “U” a whole lifetime, and then realizing that the bird is mourning with the “U,” which is so much more true and so much more accurate to the song of that bird. I think that does suggest a new perspective or relationship by the end of the book. You’re correct. I don’t know if I consciously thought about morning in Ghost Fargo, but I can see where the speaker is waking up in a more active or more able place by the end.

AF: Also in terms of mourning, amid a multitude of tangible absences in the book (from the former sea, to pronouncements like “My Fargo has gone missing,” to the X-Acto-knifed photo of a headless mother, the loss of a brother or the father of one’s son), could we discuss, however abstractly or concretely you wish, various ways in which the autobiographical does haunt these poems? And your more recent work examines America’s prison-industrial complex—a different form of absence/presence.

PC: That’s something that I’m looking at now: what “story”/autobiography is, and how it enriches or corrodes. There’s a missing brother who is somewhat autobiographically accurate in Ghost Fargo. I say at some point, “Would he like it? Standing in for every missing one?” There is also at least one poem, “Beloved Math,” about a missing father. There are not as many missing bodies being grieved as there literally could be in the book. There is at least one “brother” poem in every one of my manuscripts. And I am now working on a lyric memoir for the first time, which is terrifying. It more directly addresses the part about living with loss. It also looks more directly at punishment culture and the larger landscape of loss. It looks at how we as a nation correct and punish rather than accept or educate. It also does look at absence and presence and trying to trust or distrust memory and the fragmented nature of it.

AF: Returning to mythic Midwestern elements in the book, absence/presence manifests in Ghost Fargo’s performance of a scrappy improvisational lyricism, in passages such as “Pennies flattening on the track quick / think what else what else.” “Song of Free Dryers on Tuesdays” starts “Song with a now in it. A hey now now. / A sea chant. Song of drunken trees . . . The not-me / stuck in my head all day song.” I sense here an ever-emergent poetics beyond the pale of what poetry typically presents as culturally relevant. Laundromats and pennies flattening on a train track wouldn’t necessarily count elsewhere. But your book seems animated by, rather than ashamed of, such sparse facts. Midwestern absence perhaps provides for its own generative principle, for a different type of presence. Or when “Vintage Blue Anywhere” opens by stating “You think everyone knows / all about a thing so you don’t / write it down, don’t say,” I sense that old Midwestern shame, but also that, if we can overcome this shame, then we might discover a world we can speak about and have access to and find quite invigorating and enlivening.

PC: I remember growing up and realizing I was just going to have to figure out how to make my own fun. I think the book feels like that sometimes, with that homemade aesthetic. There’s also something defiant about living in a place that’s termed “flyover country” but which is home and obviously thriving and vivid. I’ve lived in Minneapolis longer than I’ve lived on any outskirts or in a smaller town. So I’m almost a tourist in that kind of silence now, too. Ghost Fargo was a little bit about that—revisiting that space. There is something (I don’t know if it’s particular or peculiar to the Midwest, but I think it is) about that strange silence where certain things are assumed off-limits. Breaking those silences is transformative.

AF: So not just physical space, but this cultural space as well (which again might for some suggest isolation or loneliness) can become for you a source of comfort and familiarity, a place where you find traction to do writing?

PC: It is. I have trouble writing even when there’s another person at home. Which seems a little bit spoiled. My husband and I are the only two that live in the house now. He’ll just be doing his own thing and I’ll have my door closed in my office. But I’ll still feel like I need some more space. So I definitely rely on the amount of solitude I am permitted here. I think I might be like that no matter where I live. I know other people, Midwestern ones, who certainly don’t need that same amount of room.

AF: If we could return here to communication, to language: cipher-like phrases appear throughout the book. “Love you” pops up often in those off-the-cuff flourishes I’d mentioned. Could you describe how “Love you” plays out here? Does it sometimes stand as meaningless cipher? Or does it always at least quietly invoke some essential, irrefutable lyric or elegiac utterance? Something weird often happens with pronominal shifters. The reader never knows, when “Love you” arrives, if he/she overhears strangers talking, if he/she has become the addressee, the beloved.

PC: For “Lake Agassiz! I metal. Leather. Gun rack. Love you”: that’s from the point of view of these characters called The Loverboy Girls addressing the lake, the sea. Then “Surf sound: dial tone: I love you:”: it’s the primary speaker addressing that gone sea. Silence again. I do say that a lot—don’t I!

AF: Sometimes it seems directed at a subject, but sometimes it seems simply the last phrase in a list of phrases.

PC: I’m paging through the book looking for more “Love yous.” I totally believe you that they’re there.

AF: Did you ever want your reader to feel implicated, to feel sort of addressed (and loved) and sort of not, or to ask when “Love you” became a hollowed-out phrase?

PC: It’s not actually a hollowed-out phrase for me. I know when I read aloud from “the poor choruses” (which ends with “I love you”), I look up to the audience and say it to them. I feel like it is directed. There’s a lot of loss in this book, but I felt the poems in some way were loving. That feels like a ridiculous thing to say.

AF: Loving of the reader? Of the world described in these poems? Or creating abstract, inclusive space where one (poet included) can feel loved?

PC: Yeah, so there’s a theme I guess, speaking of themes that might carry through to The Threatened Everything, the next book, where there’s a lot more of that love. There are a couple actual more direct love poems, and there are some places I can think of off the top of my head that say loving things. I think it’s about the kind of camaraderie of living through a silence or an absence or an alienation—that this is actually something we’re all doing together. So I think it is meant to include the reader, to connect with the reader or the listener.

AF: Through another form of silence, sort of? I guess I just mean: we have the problem in this interview of two Midwesterners talking about silences. But it interests me that your poems won’t provide a rationale or an explanation for why they love us. They just tell us in an offhand way that they do. So here I can picture relatives of mine who demonstrate little interest in my life perhaps, but nonetheless tell me as I leave that they love me. Of course to some this again could suggest absence, isolation. But sometimes that barely expressed or almost silenced “Love you” reaches us.

PC: Yeah, even with “Leather. Gun rack. Love you,” where it’s just fragments: cutting off the “I” there now seems like exactly what you’re talking about—that the subject, the “I” is even cut out from that in the Midwest. It’s just “Love you.”

AF: Right, which to me can suggest an atmosphere of acceptance, of foundational security, but which departs radically from what we expect a lyric poem to do. Like compared to Shakespeare’s “Let me count the ways,” “Love you” seems the opposite. But anyway, given our Midwestern reticence, can you offer any topics we have skirted, but that seem of special importance to this book?

PC: My eyes just landed on “tourism.” I think that’s an important part of the book actually. I don’t know if it’s overtly talked about. The speaker is in a lot of different landscapes, a lot of different areas and is never the first one there.

AF: Well, tying in here absence, the role of the lyric or the role of elegy (presumably more about monumentalizing, memorializing), I come across many statements that feel light, understated, but also resonant, almost aphoristic—like memorable one-liners: “The nearly constant / non-attendance of carnivals,” or “we momentarily glorious boxcars of nowhere” or “this plainness I play host to.” The elegiac, the enduring, for this book, seem to depend upon such processes of post-textual haunting. These lines don’t overdramatically state “This is an aphoristic statement.” But they seem designed to stay with us.

PC: That might tie in with the way I think about the odes as well. When I was working on Ghost Fargo I started to retrain my view about what an ode was, and what’s worth attending to. There are plenty of things that I have an uncomfortable relationship with in my day-to-day life. It seemed like I should either honor them or omit them if possible. So that’s another theme: Weltschmerz (I love that word), or sloth, or trying to hold absence, or to continue a loss even. Really looking at discomfort with loving eyes. Not necessarily loving the whole, but just looking honestly at something or the role it plays.

AF: Do you feel driven to make the scenes you see memorable or remembered? I don’t mean made big and important, but made enduring.

PC: Yeah, I want the reader to see what I see. Or feel what I feel. That it’s not a fly-over image.

AF: Again on the topic of certain motifs arising across the book: I like how they leave this authorial stamp, almost a residue. You may never directly foreground certain phrases or tones or objects, but I don’t think I’d ever forget them in relation to this book. As an example of these auteur-like, recurrent or idiosyncratic tropes, since we’ve already covered “Love you,” could we consider blood oranges? They appear multiple times, and for me offer a quiet Frank O’Hara reference. Painting remains important to you, and O’Hara’s “Why I’m Not a Painter” puzzles over oranges.

PC: It’s a little spontaneous as an image, but I think it appears especially in contrast to these frozen sparse landscapes, in some of these winter poems, with just that desperation for nourishment, sharpness or blood. It’s shocking to open a blood orange.

AF: Did you work, by the way, with Kazim or Stephen? How did your engagement with Nightboat shape this book and its iconography?

PC: I talked mostly with Stephen about the trajectory the book would take as a physical object. It was great. I couldn’t believe I would have some choice about the cover art. It’s a painting that my husband did before we were married that I couldn’t believe had a headless woman and a ghost tree. But the person who worked with me in terms of editing was Christina Davis. She was still at Nightboat at that time. Her aesthetic was beautiful. She had a light hand and she was really intuitive. Her ability to condense language was a beautiful gift. Her eye for looking for places I could cut was really helpful. She was on a train a lot when she was editing my book. She said that was perfect for her. I loved hearing that.

AF: Along the lines of Christina’s enthusiasms, I want to ask more directly about the term “Fargo.” I haven’t seen the film Fargo. I don’t know if the movie ever parses the syllables “far” and “go,” or prioritizes the long “O” sound you mentioned. For now, I can’t think of a sound more resonant of place than “Fargo.”

PC: Yeah, it really doesn’t have to do with the Cohen brothers. They have definitely helped that word gain some kind of cult status. But it’s the sound of it. It’s the words inside it. It’s the way that it moans with “ghost.” For me, it is a private landscape that I left on an autobiographical note. I think that particular flatness and silence is inside of me. It was a place I could go to. It is about a grounding and a physical place. I’m just finding that silence internally. The direct details of Fargo in the book are not always Fargo, either. Some are in Minneapolis. Some are in the small town where I was born. Some of them are in Tennessee. It’s not literal in that sense.

AF: Finally, could we get to “Fargo Bardo,” which has this spontaneous tonality that I love? Maybe as a point of reference we could focus on its insistent word “by.” I think of “by” as indication of attribution (by X author), or of adjacency (something close by), of timeliness (completing a project by X hour of the day), of purchase, of farewell.

PC: Or getting by. The Red River is another piece of real landscape that really does flood every year. It’s an emergency many years (for residents working with a piece of nature in a way that the nature doesn’t want to work). It’s an annual emergency. So there’s something about that. By doing this, by doing that. That kind of “by.” That human insistence and again that coming together, but to a place that’s a middle place again—there’s still waiting. The people who are protecting themselves, or ourselves I guess: we’re still waiting. That compulsion to protect that middle space, I think that’s pretty problematic and pretty human.

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An Interview with Juliet Patterson

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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 Juliet Patterson's The Truant Lover, winner of the first Nightboat Books Poetry Prize. Patterson’s latest collection of poems, Threnody, is forthcoming from Nightboat in October. Her recent awards include the Arts & Letters Susan Atefat Prize in Non-fiction, the Lynda Hull Memorial Poetry Prize, and fellowships from the Jerome Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board.


Andy Fitch: Since your book’s back cover so clearly indicates several literary influences shaping this debut collection, could we start with those? First, for Emily Dickinson: the presence here of an abstracted lover-like figure (I think of your “Dear She” and such) evokes Dickinson’s master letters, with you sometimes adopting the role of this lover’s wife, with this lover also found inside oneself. Then by the time we reach a sensuous lyric like “Origin,” which closes on “a lover with you / without you, without a / You,” we approach Dickinson’s asymptotic pursuit of love as quasi-spiritual quest. So given these varied relations between the “I” and the “you,” I wonder if we could discuss how relationality plays out in this book—first alongside Dickinson’s poetics.

Juliet Patterson: Just an early love of mine, she is and was. So I guess the way you articulated how Dickinson mutates around the position of love, lover, loving is so fascinating to me, in that her poems feel sort of private and sometimes clouded or veiled. Other times they feel so piercing, depending for me as a reader on how I’m encountering them from my own shifting position of mood or emotion. As a poet I was really wanting to try to achieve . . . although one could never achieve her brilliance, in my opinion, but I wanted to achieve at least that effect of having a narrator or speaker who feels somewhat fluid. And Dickinson offers permission to hide, but also always to be bald-faced in terms of emotional stance or in terms of at least creating a response in the reader that’s emotional.

I mean that’s the main aim I think: to strike at the heart of emotion. It’s less about meaning or reason or intellect. Really I’m trying to stir some kind of movement in the reader. That’s ultimately what Dickinson does for me. Certainly I can puzzle over her semantics and try to unpack her meanings, but what draws me to her work so deeply is the fact that you’re impelled by the emotion of it. To use her phrase, the top of your head gets blown off. That’s what I think I was after.

AF: For this “I” that in some ways echoes Emily Dickinson’s “I,” did that evolve throughout the putting together of this book?

JP: Yes, I would say so. Like any young poet, in the beginning I was probably writing pretty confessional work. I was never a very heavily narrative poet, but I had some teachers who really pushed me in that direction. Then when I started working more narratively and more autobiographically . . . it’s almost like my skin bristles at the thought. So I wrestled with those sorts of modalities for quite awhile, before I could figure out how to be more slippery but also to be honest. To stick to the truth, but not be so autobiographical, because that didn’t really interest me as a poet. Again I wanted the effects of that. I wanted a narrator that’s convincing and authentic, but I wasn’t so interested in telling my “story.” That’s another thing about Dickinson. There is the story of course behind each of those crystalline poems that she makes. But it’s not the story that’s important. It’s the moment of the poem that’s important.

AF: You used the terms “piercing” and “private,” wanting to combine both tones. Here Wallace Stevens comes to mind, most sharply crystallized, for me at least, when “Half-December’s” opening somewhat rewrites “The Snowman,” pushing towards the phrase “snow packed with personification.” But more generally, in relation to Stevens, when you offer a seemingly straightforward assertion such as “There is a rabbit on the lawn,” I rest assured that the literal and the allegorical will get entwined in complex ways. Does Stevens help with that particular type of rhetorical vector?

JP: Precisely. My first impulse as a writer is to lay down images or descriptions which for me evoke an emotional state or feeling. The reader may or may not pick up on that unless there’s some sort of anchor. As I said, I was pushed in a much more narrative direction for a while and I didn’t feel happy with that. So rereading Stevens over and over helped me see that you can use rhetorical devices and somehow begin to fuse that more imagistic emotive state with something that might approach a narrative state. Stevens also gives a lot of permission obviously for just being highly imaginative and nonsensical. I don’t think I’m by any means making the kinds of leaps that he does in terms of rhetoric or narrative, but I was just so excited by that in his work. Also the precision he has with language and image itself. The bald-faced image in a sense, which is a little bit opposite of Dickinson, who is a little more ornamental in the way she describes.

AF: Yeah Stevens’s images often seem bald-faced, as you say, but ultimately ungraspable, whereas Dickinson might come across as more veiled, though the emotional impact stays quite immediate. You also said you had a period of rereading Stevens. Simply because I once had to read through all of Stevens, and many other people seem to have done that: did you by chance ever read through all of Stevens, and let Stevens wash over you, and became someone slightly different afterwards?

JP: Yeah. I think all three poets mentioned on the back of this book are people I studied in that way. Sort of of my own accord. Each of them . . . their voices kind of penetrated me in a way that few others have. You know, with my first book, the hope is that I’m paying homage. I’m obviously also a beginning writer at this stage and I’m being somewhat derivative, but it is an homage in the sense that I felt, bodily, as though I had absorbed those voices, and so not simply imitating—that I had absorbed them and sort of matched them up and represented them in a way.

AF: Reading through so many Nightboat authors right now, I’ve lost any sense of the term “derivative” serving as a pejorative. That just doesn’t register, because so many different poets of course rewrite traditions that intersect in complicated ways. And for your own book I’d love to bring in Lorine Niedecker as well. “Prayer for Lorine Niedecker” takes its subtitles, your notes tell us, from Latin butterfly names. Again, as with Niedecker, I appreciate here how textures of sound, of elliptical affect, of visual detail first seem to capture the physical referential world, but then also seem to eclipse it, just as the phrase “morning dove” disperses amid the call for more, more. This lovely movement reaches just beyond the referential, towards some implicitly ecstatic pursuit.

JP: That could basically be my mantra for my aim as a poet on Earth. Just knowing I am an image-maker primarily, that’s sort of my greatest strength. That impulse in me can be maybe decorative, pushing towards metaphoric or highly figurative language. Why Niedecker was so important and also Oppen and the Objectivists in general was their way that they pushed against that, and used such seemingly simple language and seemingly simple standing images. But as you say, they operate in an eclipse. That world that they’re sort of describing can create a new world. To me there’s nothing more exciting as a reader.

So I’m just trying as a writer to create what I enjoy as a reader. But for this process you’ve described: I think often that’s missed. I have had the experience of readers telling me that that sensation isn’t coming through for them. Everyone is different, but I think a very potent question for me as a writer is: how does one describe and articulate (to quote Stevens again) basically the ineffable? But to do it, you create a new world, right? I’m not trying to replicate reality. I’m trying to create a new world which has physical elements, spiritual elements, emotional elements and even intellectual elements. It’s a tall order but that’s always sort of what I’m reaching for. So the position of the speaker isn’t necessarily being revealed. Much like Niedecker, right? Although maybe Niedecker is a little more overt in her persona “I” than I am at times.

truantloverAF: Well maybe bringing in Francesca Woodman would make sense here, as we constellate some of The Truant Lover’s most prominent points of reference. In this book, the pieces that seem most ekphrastic often contain anaphoric lines or clustered repetitions (I think, for instance, of “copy, copy, copy”). When those moments help to shape a poem, they offer something like an embodied act, almost how painting or drawing would make use of such repetitive physical gestures. But then late in the book the line arrives: “repetition denies being.” So what does repetition create then—does it create artifice? And where would you place Woodman’s constructions of identity, which often take the form of self-portraiture, maybe displaced self-portraiture, often in the idiom of the nude?

JP: Those poems about Woodman’s work came in late, when I was putting the manuscript together, because I realized I did have a few ekphrastic pieces. Obviously the book is very image-driven, and to me it seemed to be at least questioning or talking about the power of image or the power of seeing. And I’ve long admired Francesca Woodman’s work. I was really just trying to fill some gaps in the manuscript, and I just took a shot at trying to talk to some of her photographs. She also I think kind of stood in . . . not consciously, but I would say in hindsight I think she as a figure in this book sort of metaphorically stands in for that idea of a lover or someone that mutates a bit. There’s also a lot of silence around her work.

AF: Critical silence? Or silence in the work itself?

JP: A little of both actually, but more in the work. A melancholy and a silence, I guess, if I had to use two words to describe what I thought my own book was aiming at. As well as beauty obviously. And these are just placeholders, abstract nouns that are placeholders. But somehow Woodman’s work just became really important. So to get to your question about repetition: I do think I was trying to use the device of repetition rhetorically as a kind of gesture, as a sort of painterly gesture, to use your metaphor. But I also recognized the weakness of it. It’s like a rabbit hole. If you go too far down the rabbit hole you can’t find your way out.

I was puzzled over this idea of how repetition works in an artifact, in a piece of art, as opposed to the way it works in real life, in real time. I think we’re comforted by repetition, certainly if you think about children. They sort of thrive on repetitive scenarios. But there’s a way in which, as an adult, repetition can bind us spiritually—in the sense that are we as present to our experience if we’re just repeating things over and over? So I think that’s where that line “repetition denies being” comes from, and that’s something that I was puzzling over in my own sort of personhood, but at the same time, as an artist, loving the idea of repetition, being a more lyric poet, loving the idea of refrain of song that repeats, of something that you’re coming back to, that notion that you’ll land on something familiar.

Then getting back to Woodman: if you look at the stances of her nudes, the portraits that she does, the self-portraiture, that’s a highly repetitive gesture in terms of the position of light, the position of the body. There’s a lot of repetition and yet there’s always something new going on. Somehow her photographs, in the way they look and think about the body, just seemed very poetic to me. “Revelatory” might be a better word, but even that’s not a very good way of explaining it. She haunts me. I guess that’s what I’m saying. She’s in here because there are a lot of characters who haunt me personally in this book.

AF: In terms of haunting, Jean Valentine’s introduction brings up Robert Creeley as a potential stealth presence. Your first poem’s “immaculate white bed” recalls William Carlos Williams’ “Nantucket.” When I encounter “milk peas” I can’t help hearing Keats. Then for “New Year’s Eve,” when the poem gets transported by this postcard-based pivot to the tropical, Elizabeth Bishop surfaces, in the suddenly semi-present, semi-estranged “other” that the poem invokes but doesn’t really address, or doesn’t deliver to the reader I guess. But you also list any number of correspondences between your poems and contemporary writers’. Could you describe the importance of some of these literary relationships with contemporaries, and/or the more general drive in your poetics to write through/alongside/with others?

JP: One of my teachers, Olga Broumas, used to say to me: “Every word should fit in your mouth.” I sort of took that to also mean that for certain lines, certain phrases, certain poems (individual poems by some of the poets we’ve discussed and also by some contemporary poets you see my lifting from), there’s bits of language that I cannot forget. I’m not the best at memorizing whole pieces. Sometimes a line, a word, a phrase or a single image will just haunt me. So I guess I thought certain authors influenced me in that way, that those are bits of experience I carry with me. The language is so embedded in my psyche that way that I consider it an experience. So it has moved beyond the experience of being a reader and reading a fine piece of literature. I’m actually having an experience with that voice, if you will. At least in The Truant Lover, which you know sort of echoes, samples or collages sometimes, I think that was my way of trying to embody this experience.

AF: Sure, and Cindy Sherman, let’s say, could have played a very similar role to what Francesca Woodman plays—in terms of these dispersed, semi-referential forms of self-portraiture that also provide social commentaries or reference past images. But Cindy Sherman doesn’t play that role here. Francesca Woodman does. Does this fact of selection depend upon the haunting process, so that Francesca Woodman becomes the right person to bring in, whereas Cindy Sherman does not? Or could she have been?

JP: I don’t think so. I mean it’s also sort of a sense of feeling that I have as an observer. So when I look at Cindy Sherman’s work, I don’t have anywhere near the same feeling that I have around Francesca Woodman’s. I’m not saying it’s better or worse. It’s just a different palette of experience. So yes, I would say that maybe with all of these writers and artists I have selected, there’s certainly a sense of silence. What’s not said is equally as important as what’s said. You might say that’s true of all poets, but it probably isn’t. Secondly, there’s a sense of high level of attention to language. Again, you could say that’s the case for many poets, but there’s a wide continuum of how people exercise rhetoric, syntax. Most important is what we talked about in the beginning of this conversation, which is I guess sort of getting back to: how does one achieve a sense of real presence on the page, yet without divulging personal experience?

Thinking of Jean Valentine’s work, I’m so fascinated by the gaps and the fractures in her poems. Those are the moments that totally excite me, and in Jean’s work, there are many. Yet the poems are often anchored by that speaker speaking directly and very gently and very honestly to you. What’s interesting is what’s missing. So for Francesca Woodman, there’s a lot missing in her photographs. Even in the frames of her pictures. She’s often shrouding or covering or distorting the face in some way. If you’re a person doing self-portraiture, that’s a very interesting gesture to explore, versus Cindy Sherman, who is very much more focused on what can be seen in the face. So that’s what initially comes to mind.

AF: In terms of what remains hidden, what never attains presence, how important or how elastic do you consider unities of place and time in your lyric poems? I can give an example of what I mean. For “Off Bernay,” you offer coastal references. The poem seems very much to capture a specific place, a specific moment. But . . . do you still live in Minneapolis?

JP: Yes.

AF: For some reason, perhaps because I too come from the Midwest, coastal waterscapes from the Midwest also seem present in your poem. And often your poems will immerse themselves in an immediate, at-hand, lyric self, but one that drifts as well—just as, in our own lives, when one really immerses oneself in a given moment, one also always realizes how multiplicitous and how diffusive and not temporally focused any momentary selfhood remains. So we’ve kind of talked about this all along, but could you describe rendering the specific, immediate scene, yet knowing that doing so actually scatters you across time and place?

JP: I think that’s really true. Going back to Emily Dickinson: you know by all accounts she barely left her house, yet had these large landscapes embodying her work. For me, it could be also just that, being from the Midwest, born and raised here, living here most of my life, there is nothing more compelling than the ocean or the coast. Whenever I’m around it I think I’m more inspired to write. My second book though is more anchored in one place. So I don’t know how to answer your question. I would say that for The Truant Lover, and given the concerns we have articulated, I was most interested in a place that was more temporal—that wasn’t so grounded.

The second book is more grounded, at least in a season, in winter. So it happens to be more descriptive of the Midwest. It’s funny: I know I work hard to have the ingredients of place in my work, but I think the first impulse is much more ephemeral, that it is lyrical in the sense that it almost is disembodied in terms of a landscape. But that’s also why the Objectivists and people like William Carlos Williams are so important to me. They remind me of the ingredients of real time and place.

AF: And again, just to clarify, I don’t mean only to bring up points of literary reference from the past. A contemporary queer sensibility certainly starts to solidify in the book, often around elliptical tropes of marriage, culminating perhaps in the pre-Obergefell cake-of-soap wedding ring. Also whispers of a breakup accrue. So I don’t want to overlook the personal component present in this book by only asking intertextual questions. We could address the place of the autobiographical in your poetics. But we also could just look at a specific line. The book ends on: “In forgiveness, one might easily believe all poems / were about her.”

JP: I want readers to attach as little or as much biography to the speaker or to me the writer as they need. That’s the hope. Certainly I won’t disavow my sexuality. These poems are sensual. They’re based in a body. At the same time I honestly didn’t know how to tackle that head on, let’s say in the way that maybe an Olga Broumas would. Or Jane Miller. They’re two really influential poets to me in my early writing life. I wrote The Truant Lover at a time in history when queer poetics was waxing I guess. Personally I felt a little resistance to being this sort of overtly queer poet, but at the same time I wanted to handle that delicately. I guess I would describe myself as an elegiac poet. So a lot of my concerns in this book did revolve around relationships of all forms, but certainly there was a large important singular relationship that was a breakup, and I was kind of in a bad state. So some of what’s being addressed speaks directly to that.

AF: Here we also could address this book’s title. Can The Truant Lover refer to you, to someone else, to some composite figure? What place does “true” have in “truant” here? And maybe this only happened for me, among all of your readers ever in history, but I had Madonna’s “True Blue” in my head for the rest of the day because . . .

JP: Wow, that’s maybe not good.

AF: No I don’t mind the song. But I blame your book’s blue cover.

JP: I honestly hadn’t thought about “true” as a microcosm of “truant.” I only thought of truant in the literal sense of being late or tardy or . . .

AF: Skipping? Playing hooky?

JP: Yes, and the title I guess I would assign more to me or to the speaker of this book than to the other. Although it certainly could be assigned to the other. Maybe ultimately I feel like it guided the book in the sense that this book confesses the desire and hope to . . . or confesses that one is a hopeless romantic, but at the same time is failing at that project and being tardy so to speak. Maybe there’s a meta-narrative about owning one’s truth too late.

AF: That’s interesting, to think about a hopeless romantic failing at her hopeless project. Is that even possible, I wonder. But also, returning to the cover: with that crack in the pavement, “Tru” gets cut off from “Truant.” And then “Mutant” comes to mind with how the colors split and reflect.

JP: That’s probably more the brilliance of the designer than me.

AF: Well in terms of Nightboat: this book won an annual Nightboat contest. Contests can provide for a sudden, surprising, sometimes disconcertingly fast-paced relationship. Could you place winning this contest on a personal trajectory, or on a continuum of affinity with other books you admire in the Nightboat catalog?

JP: I was actually their first contest winner. I’m the first poetry book. Kazim and Jennifer were co-editors. It is a little risky sending to a new press but, in any event, they took such extraordinary care with the book and the whole process. It was just an amazingly positive experience. So I’m just lucky that Nightboat has flourished and changed in the way that it has. Stephen’s presence has widened the aesthetic of the press, and I admire the marriage of intellectual and urban-based material that he’s brought and mixed in with this more lyric work. I’m really lucky that they’re going to do my second book. I can’t think of a better home for me.

I think at the time of the first three books certainly, or first three contest winners, I felt a deep affinity with their aesthetic. I felt like at that time (it’s already been 10 years) that what those poets were up to was already a little out of fashion, if you will. It wasn’t the kind of work that was necessarily getting a lot of play. I feel tentative saying this. In a way it’s like this high aesthetic beauty and high lyricism was sort of, not disappearing, but other things were taking over. I think that’s still kind of true right now. But I felt like I was in such good hands from the very beginning, and that they had such a vision for creating a stable of writers—which is also a little out of fashion, given the politics and the economics of the poetry business.

A lot has changed in 10 years, certainly with the appearance of micropresses and a lot of small alternative presses which are re-supporting young poets and poets that might not be in fashion with whatever aesthetic seems to be leading the charge. And this press runs at such a high level of integrity. I’ve been writing a long time, and I’ve heard a lot of nightmarish stories particularly about the contest environment, but also about small, mid-list presses. I just think they’re doing such high-quality work and they’re doing it well.

An interesting story is that you had to submit two copies of the manuscript, and I had xeroxed my manuscript, and Jennifer and Kazim were reading the manuscript separately. Jennifer put me in the final pile and Kazim didn’t. They started talking about the book, and I think she said he needed to read it again or something, and he said “But I was reading the book and there was some big gap right in the middle.” As it turns out, my xerox copy was missing 10 to 12 pages, so it didn’t read well. They emailed me in the process, because they looked at Jennifer’s copy and realized that that was different. So they emailed me: “We’re looking at your manuscript and we just want to make sure, were these pages missing, or—?” That’s an example of . . . they didn’t have to do that. They could have just thrown me out the door for that mistake alone. So they have good hearts.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016

Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living

Ricky Jay
Whose Peregrinations in Search of the "Little Man of Nuremberg" Are Herein Revealed
Siglio Press ($39.95)

by Jeff Alford

See Gallants, wonder and behold
This German, of imperfect Mold.
No Feet, no Leggs, no Thighs, no Hands
Yet all that Art can do commands.

matthiasbuchingerThis is the first quatrain of a poem celebrating the life of Matthias Buchinger, who, born in 1674, lived to be an accomplished magician, micro-calligrapher, and musician despite his lack of limbs and an adult height of twenty-nine inches. In Matthias Buchinger: “The Greatest German Living”, esteemed collector and magician Ricky Jay chronicles his obsession with the Little Man of Nuremberg, illustrated profusely with ornamental and wildly detailed micrographic works by Buchinger that have since found their way to Jay’s private archives.

Jay maintains a respectful distance from anything exploitative: the “how” of Buchinger (“a joynt . . . at the elbow, with a bone about an inch long & a thick muscle about two Inches long”) is glossed over on the way towards the more celebratory “who”: this was a man not who only overcame his disabilities but a performer who revolutionized self-promotion and advertising. His routine, consisting of feats like threading a needle, showcasing his calligraphy (rendered in both upside-down-, micro- and mirror-script), cup-and-ball legerdemain, and performances on unique instruments of his own creation, traveled throughout Europe and garnered significant notoriety. Souvenir etchings, featuring the various states of his performance, were sold and lavishly inscribed by Buchinger, “born without feet or hands” (an epithet he was wont to include with his signature).

Ricky Jay is not at fault for what occasionally feels like a shallow biography: there’s a dearth of information on Buchinger and Jay has done a commendable feat in his synthesis of the little material available. He bridges the lacunae in Buchinger’s history with educated, well-researched conjecture, and he uses these ideas with the few written sources he's found to shape a remarkably realized life.

Buchinger was culturally nimble: Matthew Buchinger in England, Matthieu Bouchingre in France, he was well-versed in the languages of the continent and maintained an entrepreneur’s confidence regardless of his realm. Jay unearths letters between Buchinger and various benefactors, and the little correspondence available provides some insight into his personality. He was a businessman capable of kindness and levity, and a family man, too. Buchinger’s breathtaking family tree (composed of two mesmerizing sheets, reprinted here with cut-outs) outlines, with curling flourishes, the birth of his fourteen children to four wives over twenty-five years.

One of Buchinger's most famous works is a self portrait in a luxurious powdered wig. Upon closer inspection, one can see that the waves of Buchinger's wig are composed of text: seven complete psalms and the Lord’s Prayer roil through the man’s coif. In later pieces, one can just barely make out the Ten Commandments and Apostle’s Creed integrated into some architectural details of an interior drawing. These tenets are not just impressive in their craft but compelling in their content: To discover the words, “I Blieve in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth” and to think of the hand (or lack thereof) that penned them warrants a profound moment of reflection. One can interpret Buchinger's piety as trusting God’s will, or, alternatively, meticulously seeking affirmation that his corporeal fate is part of some grand design.

Reading Matthias Buchinger: “The Greatest German Living” feels at times like being pulled around a collector’s library by its frenzied curator. But perhaps that “The Greatest German Living” is more about its investigation than it is about its subject is the true goal of the text. Tangents abound as Jay recounts stories of other collectors and magicians: names are dropped with little resonance, and, a lengthy digression later, finally circle back to Buchinger. The book includes a slew of bibliographic sources in the back matter, but also features floating, numberless footnotes in many of the margins, disconnected from any particular passage. When a paragraph, bordered by this marginalia, cites a drawing reprinted elsewhere in the book and mentions an “important relationship” upon whom Jay will elaborate later in the volume, it’s hard to know which way is up. Like Buchinger’s micrographic wig, we’re left to swirl among the details.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2016 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2016