Category: February 2013 Issue

Rachel Blau DuPlessis with Andy Fitch

Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Photo courtesy of Robert S. DuPlessis.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Photo courtesy of Robert S. DuPlessis.

Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Blau DuPlessis’ book Purple Passages: Pound, Eliot, Zukofsky, Olson, Creeley, and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry (University of Iowa Press). November 9th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: The phrase “patriarchal poetics” makes me picture an exclusionary male coterie, perhaps with Charles Olson calling out “There it is, brothers.” And I can infer how analogous group-formation dynamics arise in relation to racist, heterosexist or anti-Semitic constructs. But your examination of patriarchal poetics suggests that even those individuals who try to escape this constrictive model often end up demonstrating just how elastic, amorphous, almost irresistible its discourse is—say in the “imperial” rhetorical gestures that you describe certain liberatory poets making. Could you start to sketch the parameters of a patriarchal poetics by contextualizing these imperial deployments of multiple gender identity?

Rachel Blau DuPlessis: Here’s the issue: when you first read Stein’s little essay-poem “Patriarchal Poetry,” you sense she has a conflicted (though that sounds too negative) attitude toward this topic. Noting this, I found it satisfying to observe that I, too, have a conflicted attitude. The word “patriarchal” picked up entirely negative connotations during second-wave feminism. It evoked, as you’ve described, an exclusive male coterie saturated with sexism and misogyny. Yet a more generalized usage of “patriarchy” remains quite tempting to Stein, since it suggests a type of totalizing discourse. Its “imperial” manifestation demonstrates that some poets’ subjectivity can reach any position in the sex-gender system. This provides an effective rhetorical strategy many men have deployed. They often possess the social capacity to shift among a variety of gender stances, all under a general rubric of maleness. Of course certain stances do get coded as queer, as fem, aggressive, then passive aggressive. But more generally I argue that because of male social power, male poets have had this capacity for an imperial appropriation and accumulation of wide-ranging subject-positions. The corresponding fact of women’s diminished social power precludes them, in general, from acquiring this capacity to deploy and inhabit and grab whatever subject-position they desire. And yes, women do have their own great range of female-oriented subject-positions. Though as soon as a woman reaches for male subject-positions, she often gets slapped down. Again yes, there always have been transgressive women who dress in tuxedos and so forth. But in general, male figures have the capacity to range and appropriate many more subject-positions including those that contradict each other. This gesture I call “patriarchal,” and men often get praised for it. Critics consider it a positive. Male poets struggle to retain such possibilities. You see that in the relationship between Pound and Zukofsky. Both want imperial authority, and Pound keeps slapping down Zukofsky because Pound thinks only one poet at a time can have it. Here we return to the more rigid feminist definition of patriarchy as a problematic form of dominance and exclusion. Yet my book adopts an ambivalent approach to patriarchy—noting both its oppressive and its liberatory capacities. Continue reading

Brandon Brown with Andy Fitch

Brandon Brown
Brandon Brown

Over the summer, Andy Fitch  interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Brown’s book Flowering Mall (Roof). Recorded June 21st. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: I’ll want to discuss why the Baudelairean emphasis works so well, but could we start more broadly, perhaps with New Narrative? What about past or current New Narrative projects most informs this book? Does Kathy Acker provide an important point of historical reference? Do you consider Flowering Mall to be in conversation with recent poetry/prose, memoir-/research-based, lyric/anti-lyric projects by Rob Halpern, Dana Ward, Thom Donovan?

Brandon Brown: Absolutely. I’ll start with Kathy Acker, who is extremely important for me, especially for the book’s vampire piece. That piece, which I wrote first for this book, came out of a sustained reading through Acker’s writing. I crib some forms of horror and violence and abjection from Acker. But then more broadly: I moved to the Bay Area at 19, in 1998, and have lived here since. And the work of New Narrative writers from this immediate milieu: Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Bob Glück, Bruce Boone, Camille Roy . . . nobody seems to me more relevant for a sense of politics, for a sense of the social as it intersects with politics, for a sense of experimental care. All of that shapes this book and the Catullus book I wrote just before it. As for Rob and Dana and Thom, besides being close friends, their work and influence and dozens of hours of conversation have meant more than I possibly could say. Continue reading

Krystal Languell with Khadijah Queen

Khadijah Queen
Khadijah Queen

In late 2011, I began a series of interviews that resituate the questions asked of male writers by interviewers at The Paris Review. Some question sets are archival and some are recent, but each interview I conducted is an inquiry into the gender dynamics of the literary interview. The setup is conceptual, but as the conversation progresses it can shed new light on the interview form or uncover surprising information about the subject—like in this interview, when I learn about Khadijah Queen’s experience dropping out of art school quite by accident. 

I should note that I was an editor for Noemi Press at the time that Khadijah’s book Black Peculiar was published.

This interview borrows questions asked by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah of Samuel R. Delany in The Art of Fiction No. 210 from the Summer 2011 issue of The Paris Review, Issue No. 197.

Krystal Languell as Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: Was being a prodigy important to you?

Khadijah Queen: I think it was more important to my parents. I learned to read when I was 3 years old. I was supposed to have been skipped from the 1st to the 3rd grade but I didn’t want to, for a lot of reasons, and I think they had to let me develop at my own pace. Continue reading

Kathleen Ossip with Jasmine Dreame Wagner

Kathleen Ossip
Kathleen Ossip

This interview focuses on Ossip’s book The Cold War (Sarabande, 2011).

Jasmine Dreame Wagner: When I think of the Cold War, I think of stalemates, secrecy and pervasive, unspoken anxiety. I think of difficult, uncomfortable alliances between powerful forces. Could you speak a little bit about why you chose The Cold War as the title for this collection of poems? If not a literal reference to a historical period, how are you using the historical period metaphorically?

Kathleen Ossip: The impulse for the book began as a bewilderment with the (post-9/11) present—how did we (as individuals and as a nation) get into our current predicament? By predicament, I mean the whole mess of hostility, anxiety, repression, compulsion that seems to dominate our culture and society. That mess looked very reminiscent of the Cold War period to me (which, remember, lasted from the end of World War II all the way through to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989). So I started to wonder about the trajectory—how we got from there to here—and started to explore that wondering in poems. As a title, I expected The Cold War to have a resonance both as a historical marker and as a metaphorical one for an interior struggle. Continue reading

Andrew Ross with Jeffrey Williams

Andrew Ross
Andrew Ross

Since 1993, Jeffrey J. Williams has conducted over 50 interviews with contemporary critics, philosophers and writers. The Conversant is pleased to republish a selection of these interviews. This interview with Andrew Ross took place on January 31, 2009 at Andrew Ross’ office at NYU in lower Manhattan. Transcribed by Gavin Jensen.

Jeffrey Williams: I’m especially interested in the direction of your work in the past ten years. For a while you were the personification of cultural studies in the US, especially after No Respect, which has a chapter on pornography as well as one on the New York intellectuals’ attitude toward popular culture. But in the past ten years it seems that your work has undergone a shift. You’ve written a lot more on labor, and you also moved to writing trade books. Do you see it as a shift? What happened to draw you along that route?

Andrew Ross: I certainly have moved across different fields, at least from the perspective of an academic career or academic profile, but I think that has more to do with having been released from the disciplinary constraints of my original training to learning new skills and methods. These days, when people ask me, “What’s your discipline?” I’m more inclined, if I’m being flip, to say “I’m an agnostic” rather than “I’m an interdisciplinary scholar.”

A good deal of the motivation for the shifts in my work was the result of responding to circumstance, political conditions, gaps in scholarship and opportunities to do the kind of writing I felt would be most useful. An important part has been about finding my own voice, which I think is the most difficult thing for people to do with a standard academic training. It took me many, many years to find my own voice. Continue reading

Jennifer Chang with H.L. Hix

Jennifer Chang
Jennifer Chang

This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Jennifer Chang’s The History of Anonymity (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2008).

H. L. Hix: In the first few lines of the first poem, the word “unctuous” appears; the final section of the book is “A Move to Unction.” What about unction makes it important to these poems?

Jennifer Chang: I wrote the title poem, “The History of Anonymity” roughly three years after writing “A Move to Unction.” At first, I hadn’t intended to put the poems in the same manuscript, but as I revised “The History of Anonymity” I realized that both lyric sequences are preoccupied with the process of emotional and existential recovery and both express an almost spiritual fervor. I settled on the word “unction” because of its religious and sacred connotations, but I wanted a secularized “unction,” which I hope in my poems connotes a state of heightened attention that enables healing and restorative contemplation.

I also realized that to put two long lyric sequences in one book would be challenging, so when I was revising “The History of Anonymity” I decided that the language had to work harder for the poems to connect to each other. I used “unctuous” because it anticipates the “unction” of the book’s conclusion, but unlike “unction,” the word “unctuous,” as a descriptor is more tactile and sensual. If we think of the shift from the words “unctuous” to “unction” as a sort of miniscule drama or narrative arc within the book, it could suggest a shift from the bodied to the disembodied, the material to the spiritual. Continue reading

Yunte Huang with H.L. Hix

Yunte Huang
Yunte Huang

This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy and other ideals and practices he values) and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Yunte Huang’s CRIBS (Tinfish Press, 2005).

H. L. Hix: Found texts (or texts presented as found texts—I didn’t try to check) appear throughout the book as early as “Nearly Half of Crib Deaths. . . ” (8). They seem to me to help introduce thematic concerns and to create a dynamic tension with the “made-up” poems’ interest in language itself (by attending to the referents of language). Are those roles at all related to your own purposes in including such found texts?

Yunte Huang: “Words as they are” is certainly one of the central concerns of CRIBS. As such, they are subject to cribbing in the sense of borrowing, stealing, plagiarizing, (mis)translating and so on. I didn’t provide citations for the “found texts” because the book sets out to undermine the idea of originality. It would be poetically self-defeating to provide citation. The found texts, as you have keenly observed, are treated as my “made-up” poems. Continue reading

Abraham Smith with H.L. Hix

Abraham Smith
Abraham Smith

This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy and other ideals and practices he values) and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Abraham Smith’s Whim Man Mammon (Action Books, 2007).

H. L. Hix: A reader from a certain educational background [read: a background like mine, may Miss Wilson rest in peace] would not be able to read a short poem called “Eagles” (24) without thinking of Tennyson’s much-anthologized short poem called “The Eagle.”  May I ask you to take that juxtaposition (which I take as more contrast than comparison) as an occasion for saying something about what you are trying to resist in your poetry?

Abraham Smith: Ah yups the tennyson eagle poem / i read it in a lawnchair whilst cousins batted a badminton birdie, perhaps 14 years ago / lilac bleeding into the mosquito whinnying wind / have no ms wilson to nod skyward to / thats a bit of a half bit brineless pickle / ways in which poetry is not there for us in the lions share of pub education / in one class we memorized one frost poem / snowy harness bells / some years later we “read” the iliad / this “reading” worked thusly: we were handed a xerox with 25 questions / read, then answer the questions / the answers to the xerox were stapled to the wall / and so, we loitered / donning the faux mask of faux earnestness / count 25 faux glances down at sundry clanking aegises / then sashay over to the wall, write down the answers / then sit back down / then wait to be handed 25 more questions / then loiter, then etc. / anon / talk about a yawning lion wortha education / i hope the whim book, the poetics stamped in there / i hope the whim jig does not resist / i hope it’s that abandoned barn there with vines going in at the windows / i hope bats and broken baseballs and bad breath coyotes and mice and foxes all do the buffalo shuffle in there / i s’pose the ink pot is not poetry so much as the ink black flambeau river and my early yearning haunting feeling thereabouts / the book is pretty much one adolescent pinch with screaming eyes pretty much / i guess it’s a roethke trampoline / i guess it’s roethke and dylan thomas hoboing across a frozen lake / call it rousseau with a musky fish for a walkin stick / if the book resists something it’s the unsurprised fellas who laugh back in the back of their throat and think of the wild as something to kill or to tamp back down or to tame / fence that in there / i hope i am tattling on them / i hope each word feels endangered / hope i am letting the birds in through the windows without the glassy neck / let me hobo on the peaked back of an emily d bird / let me go to heaven all along / mr. bobolink link up / how haunted i am by eagles / by rivers / i love that a young boy can bring the river home in his ears / that that can be painful / i love that a thick young man with a barrel chest and eight ten guns back home can be casually talking about this or that win or gun or winsome wind brought down the shot that woulda dropped the buck / i love that just then back deep in the woods where a little clearing opens / an eagle will swoop down and lift a fawn right off the ground and it’s adios humdrum barrel chest dude / i hope the book stands as preachment to my sundry hauntings / i love how hushed i was in that lawnchair / i love my totems: birds, wolves, and bears / i have spent most of my life trying to eye them / maybe even more than poetry they are my reading life / they the three who tear my mouth off and take it away / i hope whim works as my lost ramble, asking this: you seen my mouth? of every other pine birch and maple . . . Continue reading

Tan Lin with Chris Alexander, Kristen Gallagher and Gordon Tapper

Tan Lin. Photo Clare Churchouse.

The subject of this interview is Tan Lin’s Heath, sometimes referred to as plagiarism/outsource, the first of five phrases appearing on the cover and title page of the book. Edited by Gordon Tapper, the interview was conducted through email in 2009 and originally appeared on Galatea Resurrects.

Gordon Tapper: Does plagiarism/outsource announce the end of reading as we have known it for at least, say, the last hundred years? I know that sounds apocalyptic, but the reading environment of the web simulated within your book—if I can call it a book—suggests that we have entered the age of looking rather than reading. I sense a neutral, mirror-like posture in your book toward this shift in reading practices, but would you care to comment on whether you find this development alarming, exciting, or simply an important historical fact that you are asking readers to think about?

Tan Lin: I think the idea of what is “neutral” in a reading experience, and how to make what is “neutral” in a reading visible is important to Heath, which in some ways outsources (i.e. mirrors) the “labor/work” of the reader to other parties, who appear to be “looking on,” maybe commenting, maybe reading, maybe writing, maybe somehow just “taking part” in the text, whatever those two words mean. On some levels it’s not supposed to feel like reading at all, maybe more like participatory skimming/recording or as you suggest looking at someone else reading, and this mirrored labor practice is not so much neutral or dematerialized as something specific to web-based reading practices. It’s not clear if someone is reading this text or if the reading activity is just a kind of quotation within the text. But maybe that is all reading is in the end. Where are one’s experiences actually in this text? In other words, maybe it’s not neutral at all. They, the feelings as well as the other players, seem to be inside some sort of social network. One has experiences as one reads but what is the nature of those experiences? I was trying to explore some of these issues.

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Laura Wetherington with Andy Fitch

Laura Wetherington
Laura Wetherington

Over the summer, Andy Fitch  interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Wetherington’s book A Map Predetermined and Chance (Fence). Recorded May 19th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: Perhaps because I respect your work on the audio journal textsound, reading A Map Predetermined and Chance lead to questions about sonic elements and music-related thematics. Your book may acknowledge that [“this sentence does not rhyme,”] but its melopoetic touches, its deft assonance, syncopated prose rhythms and literal musical scores interrupted any quick assimilation of content. What are the autobiographical, literary, argumentative drives toward this diffusive focus on text as sonic performance?

Laura Wetherington: Developing textsound has influenced the work I do on the page, in that I think more about aleatory composition, randomness, Dada performance. I’ll wonder, along the lines of anti-art, how could I make a poem sound the least poetic. Maybe you mean something else by “syncopated prose,” but I’ll hear a rhythm or rhyme in my head. Other times I’ll move against that. I write freehand with a pen and paper. When I return to a draft, a poem will sound a certain way to my ear. I don’t see words on the page so much as the voice in my head replays the tape. I’ve always struggled with how to map what I hear in my head. If I think of, you know, the “Nothing Funny About a Penis” poem—that didn’t start as a musical score. It started out lineated. But I realized nobody would get it. So how could I turn the “ha ha ha ha ha” at the end, the “ha penis,” into “happiness,” in a way that made sense to people? Audiences have heard me give a live reading and said: oh god, we had no idea. Still I want to tell people something more than I want to write and have them read it. But because I’m so introverted, I make poems instead of hosting a TV show. Continue reading

Jenny Zhang with Andy Fitch

Jenny Zhang
Jenny Zhang

Over the summer, Andy Fitch  interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Zhang’s book Dear Jenny, We Are All Find (Octopus). Recorded May 20th.Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: From this project’s first line onward, we find prose formatting, often a prose pace, but also careful lineation accenting rhyme and sound play. Some sections contain blank spaces or slashes instead of punctuation. By page 20 in my manuscript copy, an “I” confesses “I lineated my prose to see if I could pass.” What draws you, as a poet, toward apparently non-poetic forms?

Jenny Zhang: Probably two things. I feel more intellectually secure with fiction. With poetry, I’m more the chubby kid making jokes about his chubbiness, or the clumsy person clowning around—preemptively pointing toward his own flaws and shortcomings and fears. And here I’ve tried to embrace as much as possible parts of me that don’t seem poetic. I’ve cultivated what you could call rants or rambles. The rant as a written and spoken form remains dear to me, helping to establish space between storytelling and narrative. Continue reading

Laura Wetherington with Jenny Zhang

Over the next year, Andy Fitch will be asking participants from his Ugly Duckling Presse interview project to pair up and interview each other. By placing parallel interviews alongside his own, Fitch hopes to demonstrate that no one talk is definitive, that there are an infinitude of possible trajectories for such a discussion to take. In this interview, Laura Wetherington and Jenny Zhang discuss their latest works.WZGrid

Laura Wetherington and Jenny Zhang: Listen to the Conversation

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Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker with Nature Theater of Oklahoma

photo of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker
Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. Photo by Mirjam Devriendt.

Nature Theater of Oklahoma talks to world-renowned choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker about dance, language, thought, intuition, irresponsible ambition, and living life with the possibility of losing everything (with also some side discussions about whole grains and mayonnaise…)

[Flash 9 is required to listen to audio.]

To download this podcast or subscribe to OK Radio podcasts on iTunes, click here.

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Vsevolod Nekrasov with Philip Metres

Vsevolod Nekrasov
Vsevolod Nekrasov

This interview series, “Conversations after the Fall: Interviews with Contemporary Russian Poets,” began as part of my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship year (1992-1993). 

Poet and theorist Vsevolod Nekrasov (1934-2009) was an important figure in the Lianozovo circle, a group of underground experimental artists in the 1960s, and one of the crucial founders of the “Second Russian avant-garde” and Moscow conceptualism. His work began to appear in samizdat (self-published) in the later 1950s, and continues to impact a younger generation of experimental poets. 

I met with the poet Vsevolod Nekrasov in Moscow in 1993 and interviewed him about his life and poetry. In the text that follows, I have interpolated Nekrasov’s poems and my translations of them. Thanks to Jacqueline Orchard for her editorial suggestions in revising this interview.

Vsevolod Nekrasov: I was born in 1934 and began writing seriously in 1956 when I became involved in a literary association. I got into the “Potemkin” Moscow City Pedagogical Institute in 1955 during the cataclysmic change of power. 1956 was the year the 20th Congress addressed the legacy of Stalin, and the year I first became acquainted with [Marina] Tsvetaeva and [Osip] Mandelstam. Tsvetaeva’s poems were sharp, unusual, not customary and gave off a strong impression. It wasn’t just for the shock, but enough for one to ask seriously: “What exactly is this? How do I feel about this?” I say about it now: I became that question. But then I just had the feeling that one ought to write like that. Continue reading

Scrub Magazine: Frances Rodríguez with Justin Yockel

Frances Rodriguez (right) speaks with Justin Yockel (near left). Photo © Paul Sepuya and Katie Kline.

Scrub was my contribution to a downtown gay zine scene that I found seductive and sexy, but was also conflicted about. So much of it seemed self-promotional and insular. I wanted my version to tell the stories of an underrepresented New York, whose stories are just as fabulous if one takes the time to listen. Scrub ended up being a one-off response. There was only one issue printed, mostly because I didn’t have a business plan. Printing is costly but I wanted the satisfaction of having a tangible artifact. Now, seven years later, I’m happy The Conversant has resurrected these interviews in an online format. It’s interesting so see how they hold up in a new context.—Justin Yockel

In December 2005, Justin Yockel invited Frances Rodríguez—his Jamaican-born, deaf, transgendered neighbor—to converse in Scrub’s Harlem office (pictured above). Conversation flowed from Frances, through Erick (an interpreter who is also deaf), through Edwin (a hearing interpreter), to Justin, and back.

Frances Rodriguez: What happened to the fish?

Justin Yockel: There was an accident, a mishap, and the whole thing fell on the floor face down. I can rinse it off if you want. I just washed the floor yesterday.

Edwin: That wasn’t me that said that. He’s asking: Do you want me to clean it off? Do you want him to do that?

FR: Yes.

JY: [returns with the Zabar’s nova pack] OK. It seems fine. I was disgusted with myself for having dropped it. I’ll even have some to prove to everybody that I have no fear. I just rinsed off the top of it. So help yourself. Do you guys want anything?

Paul: Oh, I’m just going to have a muffin.

JY: Now that you have your family photos, Frances, do you want to use them to talk about Jamaica? This is your mother, right?

FR: Yes. She died 14 years ago. She was 52. I’m 60 right now. She was young. She was younger. She had no white hair. Full, full black hair. Black mixed with gray on the top, like blue-ish. All the black people here had all white hair. They were weaker but she was strong. She had strong, black hair. Most people really fell in love with her. She should have been black but her skin tone was more tannish, so they were attracted to her. She had the most light-colored skin, like glittering diamond skin. How is that possible? I guess God had blessed her. Her mother was white. Her father was black. She knew that she had a beautiful body and smooth skin. The people—the white people, Spanish people, black—no matter what they were—they all had deformities on their bodies, wrinkles on their faces. She was beautiful. They were jealous. Continue reading

Kristin Maffei with Allyson Paty and Danniel Schoonebeek

Danniel Schoonebeek and Allyson Paty
Allyson Paty and Danniel Schoonebeek

This interview focuses on Paty and Schoonebeek’s collaborative poetic project Torch Songs

Kristin Maffei: When did you begin working on Torch Songs together? How did the idea first come about? And how did you decide on the form the poems follow, with two complementary poems of five lines each?

Danniel Schoonebeek: I’ve always been prone to antagonism. One of my few childhood memories is writing nonsense on a wall with crayon in the house where I grew up. So it follows, I think, that I want to aggravate forms. “Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.” Camus wrote that. And nowadays when I look at a wall I think, how can I undermine this with language? How can I take my own body, my own name, and aggravate it with words? I remember reading the first poem in Cummings’s 99 Poems when I finished grade school. Here was language, a poem, that couldn’t be read aloud. I loved that, a way of undermining the voice. Or the way Beckett uses “[silence]” not as a pause or lack of sound in his plays but as a beat. I suppose I also owe something to Magritte’s pipe. I was writing these poems that assumed the form of the fortunes found inside fortune cookies. They were each three lines. I think I was trying to combine the brevity of haiku with the voice of the fortunes. I was compelled by the way those pieces of paper undermine us. It’s a very antagonistic voice. You will have many friends. Doors will be opening for you. So I was trying to write poems that tell you what will happen to you, whether you like it or not. The first one stole a detail from Melville’s Bartelby, who is, to me, the great undermining and undermined character in American fiction: “Fired from love this year / you will feed / the furnace at the dead letter office.” Not too shabby, but I considered them failed poems insofar as I felt like the form was still dictating the terms. I was talking to myself when I needed to be speaking across a chasm to another person. So I abandoned them for a time. Over the next few months, I was reading the aubades of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu and listening to a lot of Nina Simone and Patsy Cline, both legendary torch singers. I’ve always loved the aubade as a form in poetry because it begins with a fundamental misrepresentation: This song is a poem. What it shares with the torch song is urgency. And I was fascinated by the misrepresentation of calling a song a “torch.” Ceci n’est une chanson, if you’re Magritte. So I felt I’d found two forms that aggravated each other well. I pitched the idea of a collaboration to Allyson about three years ago and she said sign me up. And I realize now that the form needed that second voice, with its own experiences of womanhood, geography and loss, to speak to and undermine and aggravate my own voice.

Allyson Paty: As Danniel mentioned, the aubades of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu were one important point of departure. These are five-line poems. They tend to be very direct and implicate a reader. At the same time, they are aubades, poems of separation. While the presence of a reader is keenly felt, it is felt as silence. Here is one of Ono no Komachi’s poems, for example: “How sad that I hope / to see you even now, / after my life has emptied itself / like this stalk of grain/ into the autumn wind.” That one comes with an inscription: “Sent to a lover on an empty seed husk.” I love the way the husk frames the poem as a practical form of communication from one person to another. I think of it as a stand-in for Komachi’s body—the physical entity that delivers her words. But when the husk is animated in the poem it is as a display of emptiness. In the end, it’s the absence of the body that the husk enacts. With Torch Songs I think we wanted the same kind of tension between urgency and distance. We knew we needed brevity such that nothing that happens in one half of the poem has a chance to become so established that it’s impervious to whatever happens in the counterpart. At the same time, each half needs to be enough of a distinct entity that there is something at stake when the counterpart exerts its influence. Likewise, I think the silence between the two halves needs to be palpable. The five-line Komachi and Shikibu poems exhibited that balance between autonomy and vulnerability, so we used that length as a model. Continue reading

Julie Carr with Andy Fitch

Julie Carr
Julie Carr

Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Carr’s book Surface Tension: Ruptured Time and the Poetics of Desire in Late Victorian Poetry (Dalkey Archive Press). Recorded June 20th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: Could we start with the concept of surface tension, as borrowed from physics and applied to Victorian-era poetry—specifically in terms of how a purported aesthetic of surface can be read for its participation in broader political discourses?

Julie Carr: Surface tension explains why molecules at a liquid’s surface bond with stronger energy. They do so because, with no molecules on top, fewer molecules surround them. This creates a horizontal surface density, which became a useful metaphor for describing what can happen in a poem when you read for (let’s say, just using familiar terms) content. You’ll try to understand a sonnet’s argument, but various sound associations play out among the words as do visual patterns. Surfaces also can become dense with invented languages, or borrowed languages, or pastiche, or collaged language. This density at the textual surface complicates our absorption of narrative or message. And of course these issue arise often in contemporary poetry or in modernist poetry, but most readers of Victorian poetry don’t understand the work that way. Specialists do. But for the average, semi-informed reader, if you ask about Victorian poetry they’ll think of somebody like Robert Browning or Tennyson. They’ll recall some long narrative poem or poem of deep feeling—one which doesn’t seem to engage language’s materiality. So reconsidering the Victorian-era interest in surface, especially amid a poetics engaged with ideals of transformation or sudden ruptural change, drives this book. Here I focus on three poets invested in the aesthetic surface as a redemptive space but for different ends. They are not, all three of them, Marxist or revolutionary poets. William Morris does engage a Marxist discourse. But Gerard Manley Hopkins remains focused on some kind of conversion or Christian ontological . . . Continue reading