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 . . .
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 Halpern’s book Music for Porn (Nightboat). Recorded July 1st. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: As I work through these interviews I’ve found myself tracking a resurgent interest in New Narrative—a sense that New Narrative poetics have not received their fair share of critical attention, have not been thought through sufficiently by a broad enough range of contemporary poets. You of course have helped to encourage this interest. Can you place Music for Porn in relation to several exemplary New Narrative poets, texts and/or concepts? Does it make sense to speak of a second-generation self-consciously consolidating inherited insights, experiments, practices? Or do New Narrative’s deft evasions of conventional literary categorization preclude such distinctions in the first place?
Rob Halpern: Where to begin with my relation to New Narrative? I’d been out of school seven years before I found myself in Dodie Bellamy’s writing workshop in 1996. One crucial forum for nourishing young Bay Area writers is this network of writing workshops that take place in writers’ homes. Finding myself in Dodie’s workshop (with Kevin Killian participating) allowed me to realize that my writing actually might be legible. After the death of my first love, James, in 1995, I’d lived in a state of terrible doubt and uncertainty—not only about the readability of my work but whether a writing community existed for me. Yet by then, forces of attraction already had taken over. In the late ’80s, when I arrived in San Francisco, I’d looked up three writers who I knew lived here and with whom I felt a sense of affinity and desire for apprenticeship. I actually looked up, in the phone book, Robert Glück, Aaron Shurin and Kathy Acker, and just by way of a cold call I sent them each a naive fan letter, together with what must have been a crappy piece of writing. I dropped these cold calls into the void of the U.S. postbox. After several months, I received generous, encouraging responses from both Aaron and Bob. Never heard from Kathy. Perhaps she’d already left San Francisco. But the fact that I received positive responses from Bob and Aaron was incredibly important. It offered a departure point of sorts, a permission-giver, though it would take five more years before I’d actually meet Bob through Dodie’s workshop (I met Aaron sooner). Bob also ran a workshop out of his home, and I began to attend that in 1997. He became a crucial mentor, a teacher and now he’s a dear friend, as is Bruce Boone, who makes a cameo early in Music for Porn, in the first sentences of “Envoi,” which serves as a kind of introduction to the book. Bruce’s Century of Clouds and My Walk with Bob remain classic New Narrative works, and my “Envoi” invokes Bruce’s writing, in part because I fear Music for Porn betrays New Narrative values. So “Envoi” rehearses a moment from a walk I took with Bruce, when he asked about my book’s obsessively recurrent figure of the male soldier. For Music for Porn to pass as New Narrative, that soldier would need to be a person in my life with a nameable name. Instead, the soldier feels more like a negative imprint of all my social relations—a feeling I announce by citing this conversation with my friend Bruce. Of course the soldier, sadly, will never become my friend, which helps suggest the stakes in this book, and why friendship remains so crucial to its structure. In “Envoi” I write, “This would be the place in the story where Bruce asks me about the figure of the soldier in my book, and whether it has some bearing on my intimate life, or whether the soldier is merely an abstraction is the flesh real? and I’m struck by his manner of asking.” Bruce’s question contains serious implications for my writing, and I want to foreground this while simultaneously introducing the soldier as a cornerstone in the architecture of a fantasy. This departs from early New Narrative works such as My Walk with Bob or Robert Glück’s Elements of a Coffee Service, both of which were formative for me. I can’t imagine myself as a writer without that work. At the same time, I feel as though I’ve departed from both texts’ writerly values, insofar as Music for Porn privileges a critical fantasy over the narration of living relationships. That said, Music for Porn’s soldier fantasy seems inseparable from my lived social relations. And here I could point to a tension I feel I’ve inherited between New Narrative practice (developed among primarily gay writers in the early ’80s) and a politics of form that one might say characterizes Bay Area Language writing, if not Language writing in general, whose rigorous critique of conventional narrative values also has shaped my poetics. I don’t want to reproduce familiar generalizations, though. New Narrative shares an equal investment in form yet proceeds from a different political stance and probes distinct formal problems. In my own talks and essays such as “The Restoration of [Bob Perelman’s] ‘China,’” I’ve attempted to rethink this relationship between New Narrative and Language, for example, by way of Soup magazine’s second issue, edited by Steve Abbott, who christened the phrase “New Narrative.” That prescient journal issue articulates and illustrates what this “New Narrative” project might look like. Most impressive about that issue of Soup is Steve’s decision to include a wide range of writers representing divergent literary practices—creating conditions for what Jacques Rancière calls “dissensus,” or the perceptible presence of two worlds in one. Steve’s expansive editorial vision provides new possibilities for presenting tensions among various poetic approaches within a complicated early ’80s Bay Area writing ecology. Similarly, in early issues of Poetics Journal, Barrett Watten and Lyn Hejinian adopt practices of inclusion, again to make legible productive tensions and differences. Only in the afterlife of such projects, amid what often go by the name of the “poetry wars,” do we think of these dynamic, syncretic, symbiotic writing communities as discrete, segregated, sectarian schools. So here I’ve offered a circuitous response to your question. I too find those historical tensions outlined above quite productive. I’d like to think that my work engages and complicates the relationship between both projects—through its movement toward narrative, certainly, but a narrative as indebted to Lyn Hejinian’s and Carla Harryman’s mode of distributive narrative (or non/narrative) as to forms of storytelling that I learned through my apprenticeship to Bruce’s and Bob’s work.
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 Lasky’s Book Thunderbird (Wave). Recorded June 22nd. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Your title could seem goofy, but doesn’t. That poise amid potential vulnerability makes it smart and charming. And you’ve never been shy about your admiration for Plath. So can we start with this title, Thunderbird? Do you enjoy picturing thunderbirds? I personally do.
Dorothea Lasky: A confluence of ideas made me decide on that title. First, I tend to write from the ground up. I finish individual poems without necessarily possessing some book-length idea. Then as I collected these poems, I noticed themes of airplanes, flight, large mechanical birds and different demonic forces—also death and the transference between life and death. My mom’s a professor of Native American art, so I grew up around Native American imagery. The thunderbird of course connects to a Plath poem. But once I decided to call this book Thunderbird, many thunderbirds started popping up. A murder story happened at the Thunderbird Motel. My parents drove Thunderbird cars. There’s the liquor. And some readers make comparisons to the search engine, though that seems less of an inspiration.
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 Tiffany’s book Neptune (Omnidawn). Recorded June 13th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: In Neptune Park’s epigraph, Strabo, the Roman geographer, declares, “I shrink from giving too many of the names, shunning the unpleasant task of writing them down—unless it comports with the pleasure of someone.” I’m interested in the role preemptive or productive apology plays in your poetics. Who are some of your favorite apologizers? Robert Walser comes to mind, perhaps Joe Brainaird.
Daniel Tiffany: I haven’t thought this through carefully, whether Strabo’s statement suggests strategic calculation or an embarrassed admission. I like the way he doesn’t just apologize for the obscurity of certain names and places but acknowledges his hope of “comporting” with someone’s pleasure. I appreciate an apologetics qualified by the hope that someone out there just might want to hear terribly dull things. I also love Strabo’s way of cataloging obscure places, tribes, peoples he has heard or read about—almost as an obligation, from a sense of duty.
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 Schwartz’s book At Element (Talisman House). Recorded June 9th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts
Andy Fitch: Could we start with your title page, which identifies these works as “prose poems”? Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but the phrase “prose poems” makes me think of Max Jacob, James Tate, John Ashbery’s “Three Poems.” Your long, serialized, Adorno-esque pieces feel more like essayistic meditations. Though can you outline a prose-poem tradition in which projects like “The Sleep Talkers” fit? Do Edmond Jabès and Francis Ponge count as prose poets?
Leonard Schwartz:At Element combines lineated poems and prose formats. The long prose poem “The Sleep Talkers” almost passes over into a kind of lyric philosophy or lyric essay, departing from Baudelairian or Rimbaudian prose poetry. I read a lot of Nathalie Stephens, the contemporary Canadian writer, while developing this piece. I even obliquely addressed parts to her. Jabès long has interested me, though I didn’t read him much at the time. But Jabès constructs a textual form that allows him to think, specifically to engage in poetic thinking—which skirts oppositional binaries to plumb the richness of metaphor. And I do take Adorno quite seriously as a prose stylist, though At Element lacks the philosophical density or ambition one finds at the level of the proposition in Adorno.
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 Kim Stefans’ book Viva Miscegenation (Make Now). Recorded June 25th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: For readers most familiar with Brian Kim Stefans the practitioner of digital poetics, could you outline your early development as a poet—specifically in relation to this manuscript’s playful, art-savvy, personal-without-the-person aesthetics reminiscent of the New York School? Reading Viva Miscegenation I thought I recalled the jocular tones of some John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Ron Padgett maybe; the sentence-based propositions of Lewis Warsh; the serial constructs of, in different ways, Kenneth Koch and Ted Berrigan; and then the subsequent, reconstructed lyricism of Eileen Myles, John Yau, David Trinidad.
Brian Kim Stefans: I’ve certainly read most of those poets. The younger poets you mentioned, such as John Yau or Eileen Myles, have interested me, yet none of them captivated me the way Ashbery and O’Hara did. Those two, like Ezra Pound among the modernists, presented this fantastic way to learn about an era’s artists. Reading Ashbery’s art criticism, you discover a bunch of authors and painters and cracked idealists you might not otherwise have come across. But I first began writing poetry very much under the sway of Pound and Arthur Rimbaud and Sylvia Plath. Prior to coming to New York I’d read anybody—both Robert Creeley and Robert Lowell, for instance. Language poetics didn’t stand out until I’d moved to New York. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein baffled me at first, but soon I was drawing quite a lot of ideas and inspiration from their work. When poets first got to know me that’s the kind of writing I seemed to do. Nobody sensed how much I borrowed from Lowell or Philip Larkin or John Berryman. Viva Miscegenation does have one poem that I consider “after” Elizabeth Bishop. I try to remain open to all writers I’ve engaged with some seriousness in the past (Hopkins is another example). And now that I’ve moved away from New York, I’ve started to see my poems as texts that circulate in a broader culture with no idea who I am or what my literary circles are. Though part of why I took to Language poets was they appeared to follow through on what most interested Pound—innovation. Pound categorizes (I can’t remember exactly) three or four classes of poets. After innovators come those that exploit the innovations, say Robert Browning.
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 Hong’s book Engine Empire (Norton). Recorded June 26th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Could we start with the title, Engine Empire? Placed one on top of each other, those words look like a reflection. I pictured hood ornaments and vaguely assumed a book about cars or Detroit would follow. Instead we travel to the mythic/historic American West, to contemporary (yet industrial age) hybrid-city China, then finally to virtual, cybernetic spaces from a computer-driven future. Chronology contorts as places and times get combined and conflated. Though does your book trace something like the material genesis, evangelical spread, imminent internalizations of a rapacious capitalism?
Cathy Park Hong: Yeah, I didn’t want it to sound like an editorial on rapacious capitalism, but, of course, capitalism was on my mind. The title actually came much later. It riffs on John Crowley’s Engine Summer, this beautiful sci-fi novel, and it definitely produces a mirroring effect—both words beginning and ending with “E.” At first I’d thought of the title as “Engine West” but that felt so fixed, so located, overemphasizing the book’s first section. “Empire” you can interpret any number of ways. And “Engine,” yeah: you think of cars, Detroit, but it also fits with the final section’s search engines and so forth. I should clarify that though I called capitalism one of this book’s buzzwords, I never had that deliberate thought while writing. I didn’t set out to provide some commentary on Western imperialist/neo-imperialist expansion. I tried to stay attentive to the present, beyond the interior self, tracking the individual’s relation to community, to the city, to family, to one’s civic duty. When you think about such topics you can’t avoid the ramifications of corporate life. Likewise Manifest Destiny kept popping up. All three sections. . .well the first two happened accidentally. I’d lived in California. I started watching lots of Westerns and writing Western poems, then it spiraled into thinking about the frontier, about expansion. I wondered where does expansion now occur, once we’ve completed our geographic mission? But I also want the book to feel intimate. It also explores individual lives.
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 Schomburg’s book Fjords Vol. 1 (Black Ocean). Recorded June 22nd. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: “Fjord” is one of the best words. But do you think of a fjord’s sheer surface as somehow analogous to these compacted prose poems? Also, from what I remember, fjords now have disappeared in some places and popped up in others. Do you envision a Volume 2 following this one? Or does your title Fjords Vol. 1 make just as much sense on its own? Should there be more room in life for Volumes 1, just Volume 1 of something?
Zachary Schomburg: That title has little to do with literal fjords. I love the word’s sound, and wanted to say this word for the rest of my life when I talk about my poems. A fjord emerged in one of the manuscript’s earliest pieces. That poem appears first in the book. I wrote this poem knowing its first-person subject would experience death, but unsure where this death might come from. I think I wrote it late at night, and wanted to finish, and the phrase “from the fjords” sounded funny to me. It seemed such a strange place for this death to come from. So I first titled the book “From the Fjords.” Then the concept of fjords became much more interesting—not for those fjords actually receding across the world, but as this word that means “from where the death comes.” I listened to a lot of black metal at the time, and “fjord” seems like a part of the metal dictionary. It also sounded analogous to how poems, or prose poems, look and feel to me. I wanted to say, these poems are fjords. A chapbook came out called From the Fjords, and I liked already knowing that the full manuscript would get titled just Fjords, straight up. The idea of adding Vol. 1 came right before publication. I didn’t want to stop writing fjords. I knew for my whole life I could write these kinds of poems. Unlike my first two books, Fjords offers a distinct formula. I wrote each poem in one sitting. I have several ways to plug in information to make these poems exist. They resemble each other. So when we added Vol. 1 I definitely thought I would write a Volume 2 and a 3 and 4. Or Volume 3 could come next or whatever. It interests me how books fit together and accumulate and fulfill their own role within a catalog. I have this fantasy of putting out books in volumes.
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.
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.
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.