Interviewed by Eric Magrane
Jared Stanley is a poet and artist whose most recent book is EARS (Nightboat, $15.95). Sam Lohmann, writing for The Volta, called EARS “a manifesto of interdependence and susceptibility, a theory of the senses, and a deliberate sequence of jokes about lyric address.” His forthcoming work includes a chapbook, Ignore the Cries of Empty Stones and Your Flesh Will Break Out in Scavengers (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs), an artist’s book, Shall, and a major gallery installation in collaboration with the artist Sameer Farooq.
This interview began in summer 2017, when I stopped to have lunch with Stanley at his home in Reno, Nevada, and handed him a set of opening questions. The conversation then continued over email into June 2018.
Eric Magrane: Thanks for agreeing to an interview/conversation about your book EARS. I’m writing these preliminary questions on the deck of the cabin that I’m staying in here at Playa in the “Oregon Outback.” It’s late in the day—we’re moving into the crepuscular light and space—and I’m looking out at the horizontality of the lake marked by soft ridges in the distance. I think it’s fitting that the physicality of the landscape and our movements through the landscape—and with it—will somehow play a part in shaping this conversation. I’m thinking about your poem “Herm,” which begins with a walk, and goes on to ask “If the poem is an axis, what / Are the lines which cross it, / Its immersions, its alongsideness?” I love how the poet and reader are made to inhabit a poem as a landscape, and how the lines we make driving these Great Basin western highways between immersions will cross each other. Okay, so I’ll start with a few questions. I figure we can begin here, and then extend the conversation later through email, that other immersion.
In the poem “[One Reason to Gain Years]” you write, “I’m pretty sure I’m a sorcerer,” and I’m struck by the animism woven throughout the book. There’s the playful pre-pubescent animism of the poem “October”: “Animism explains / why I stole action / figures from the back / of their untidy closet, . . . anyway what / is more animist / than a Transformer?” And then there’s this in the poem “In Pierces”: “a raccoon’s corpse changed / to coyote’s muscle, to ant’s blood” and “I eat drunk waxwings whole.” So, I want to ask you: Is EARS a spell?
Jared Stanley: I suppose like many people, I am trying to have a spiritual life under the particular circumstances we live in now—I don’t really need to enumerate them, but they include the sense that ‘our’ world, such as it is, is not long for ‘the’ world, and that ‘our’ world was really a means of creating lots of suffering and lots of illusion to cover for that suffering. The loss or passing into history of ‘our’ world fills me with tons of ambivalence. I mean, I am a punker, so fuck all of it, you know? But then, when it goes, what is left? I am not really a revolutionary.
I’ve thought a lot about the extent to which a poem can be a spell. It is my fondest wish to just say ‘yes’ and be done with it, but I feel like I am a very skeptical kind of pagan . . . if you are a sorcerer, you fuckin’ know it!
Maybe a better way to approach this question is to say that I consider myself a religious poet in the heretical mold—heretical in the exhausting sense in which Robert Duncan meant it—that the ‘dis-ease’ of being a poet is to be constantly overturning your own sense of what constitutes ‘the poem’ and its relationship to the real and to ‘pretense’ about the real.
But ultimately, poetry is magical, even in the way it disappoints, because it disappoints only when it is not magic. There’s lots of disappointing poetry. But also, Neil Gorsuch exists—what better example of evil sorcery do you need?
EM: EARS is filled with bodily sensory apparatuses. The ears, of course, and much more: every time I turn around in a poem it seems there’s an eye or a tongue or an eyeball or eyebrow hairs or fingers or a dog licking an ankle. Can you tell me about a poem as a sensory apparatus itself?
JS: Yeah, you’re right. For a long time now, poetry has been, for me, a kind of method of transcribing the drama of staying with my senses, and not ‘escaping them’—which seems, at the very least, like a bad idea. I derive so much pleasure from my body, that it only seems right to honor its short time on this earth with a continuous (and maybe obnoxious) recording of how great it is to be alive. You know when Prince makes that “ooh” sound in his work, like in “Raspberry Beret”? When he goes “That’s when I saw her . . . Oooh, I saw her.” I feel like that every day, like all day. Like “ooh I’m gonna rub my hand on that fucking butter knife right now it looks so cold.” Life is pretty erotic, you know? And I think my poems are pretty erotic, too. I don’t think of loving the world as anything less that loving its exuberance, and wanting to just make some kind of skin to skin contact—not with a jellyfish or whatever, but you know, maybe with Poison Oak? Sickos like Scott Pruitt interest me because they seem to misunderstand what their bodies are for. Maybe people like that just rub money on their faces? I mean, at least dollar bills have a texture. But maybe they just rub bank statements on their nipples? That would be really sad.
EM: That does sound really sad. What I’m hearing you say is that there is a politics to staying with your senses. I really don’t want to fall asleep with a picture of Scott Pruitt rubbing money on his face or his nipples in my mind, but taking that example, this guy was in charge of the agency that is supposed to protect the environment. The “environment” could be understood as bodies, materials, and energies interacting in space and time. So, now that poison oak and Pruitt have entered the conversation, I’d like to hear a little more about how you think about the politics of poetry.
JS: There’s gotta be a politics to staying with your senses, because your senses are for sale, and politics and economics seem to be the same thing, in this world of weaponized markets and naked power. The drummer and herbalist Milford Graves has some very important things to say about how our culture pushes us to misunderstand the rhythms of our bodies, the notion of regularity, and by extension, enlightenment ideas of politics and of the body; the whole metaphor of that body, mind, universe are ‘machines’ is rendered absurd if you pay attention to the predilections of your arms.
As for my sense of the politics of poetry, I don’t have anything profound to say. To me, my poems feel tragic and anti-utopian. When D. Boon sang “No hope! See, that’s what gives me guts!” I heard a voice that wasn’t trying to shame me into feeling positive. The political elements of the work are motivated by despair and disappointment. Mercifully, that’s only one element of living among many which the poems vacuum up. We humans are wrong: we are not the center of the universe, or the pinnacle of creation. And that’s more than a relief—it’s a stone cold fact.
Formally, some of my work is invective, which is an undervalued mode, given how much we talk about empathy or intersubjectivity to the detriment of other strong emotions which are also a part of politics. I’ve got this chapbook coming out (Ignore the Cries of Empty Stones and Your Flesh Will Break Out in Scavengers) which is concerned with the curse as a vehicle for political poetry. A curse is a speech act which purports to have efficacy in the world, and so is strikingly different from the kinds of positivist ideas of reasonable poetry for sensible people. If there’s anything U.S. history tells us, it’s that extremists can abuse reasonableness. Curses are unreasonable; they are a weapon of the weak, and poetry is weak in a sense which I love and cherish: it’s vulnerable, subject to annihilation, and so, obviously, superior to the language of politics in that it is closer to the fragility and delicacy of dreams, the ground of our fleshly experience. I don’t mean for that to sound totally mystical, but I think that the privacy of our bodies and their imaginations are fundamental to an experience of social life, and poetry is one of the axes along which we find the degree of aloneness and amongness that is the ground of politics.
Also: the appointment of Neil Gorsuch was, in effect, a coup.
EM: When I saw you in Detroit at the 2017 Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) conference I was struck by the physicality of your reading. Specifically, I seem to remember that while reading you contorted somewhat and pulled at or gestured at your ears. Did I imagine this because I had been reading EARS? I don’t think so, though that could have happened. If not, can you tell me something about how you think about the spatial bodily expression of poems? Does it connect with the poem as a sensory apparatus in this book?
JS: Yeah! I love it most when poetry really makes you feel your body—like, when a really earthy, smelly poem makes you just want to stick your face in the dirt. I want the poems to come out of my person—not just my voice, but the wiggling of a finger and all that. One line in EARS reads “think and the mouth’s a pore” and I really like to think of all the maximum porosity of my body in that way. I mean, that makes one vulnerable—to poison, let’s say, to contamination—but I am for whatever impurity my skin can suck in. Isn’t it wonderful how your body is a record of your life? Laura Wetherington taught me about that.
EM: When reading EARS, I also noticed mountains and sleeplessness. Can you say something about your (or the book’s) relation to these things?
JS: Well, I live in Reno, which is surrounded on all sides by mountains. They loom. There’s a lot of alpenglow, and yet they’re kind of ugly mountains. They’re aren’t really picturesque, and that appeals to me.
The sleeplessness I think you’re referring to is in From the Sea Ranch. I’m not quite sure what to say about it, besides the fact that it’s a love poem about sleepwalking lovers ritually scooping out their eyes and putting them in coffee cups in a damp driveway. It’s a dream vision. I sleep very well, most of the time.
EM: There’s so much in the poem “Abundance,” which makes sense, of course, and I think maybe this poem is a kind of spell too. And I just think it’s great that Werner Herzog’s voice ends up in here saying “Squirrel”—thanks for that!
JS: Yeah, I loved the idea of writing a poem called “Abundance”—it just seems so wrong for our moment. I should have called it “Precarity.” But, I really had a lot of tingles writing that one, and it was written all over the country, in a summer when I had to travel a whole lot, and all that travel seemed to give it a lot of its alloverness. I started the poem in Reno, wrote a whole bunch in Honolulu, then more in suburban Washington D.C., and completed it in the Winnetka (Illinois) Public Library. That poem had a lot of hands in it: Allison Cobb, Catherine Theis, Lauren Levin, Craig Santos-Perez, Steven Seidenberg, Chris Martin, and John Coletti were all very crucial to that poem at important points. To the point where, say, I told Coletti “I really need a figure for something looking great while blowing up” and he gave me that opening image of fireworks setting a tree on fire. He just tossed it off in g-chat. So, you know, it’s a good idea to have friends who are great poets and can get you of out a jam. It’s amazing how a poem can be really composed out of a complex web of conversation—it’s a miracle, really.