This interview took place on a road trip from Woodstock, CT to Hartford, CT to visit activist and Holy Cross graduate, Chris Doucot, at the Catholic Worker house on Clark Street. The night before, Metres had given a poetry reading with poet William Wenthe in honor of poet Robert Cording, who was our mentor when we were students at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. The topic of the conversation was focused on Metres’s 2015 book Sand Opera from Alice James Books.
E. J. McAdams: Last night, you were giving a reading at Holy Cross where you went to college and got started as a poet. When did you feel like you wrote your first poem and that you were a poet? Can you remember a poem or a verse that you felt like was the beginning?
Phil Metres: You know, I just had to give a speech to a high school assembly, and one of the things that I had to do was make an argument for English and creative writing as something worthy of study for these high school students. It was a great opportunity to explore the basis, the foundation, for that kind of study. And naturally what I wanted to do was speak to them, reach them where they were in their own lives – as high school students, because that’s where poetry started for me.
There are lots of possible ways of talking about genealogy and causality, so it’s really hard to determine. But I distinctly remember reading T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in high school when I was a senior in my AP English class, and wondering how the hell this guy knew how I was thinking about things. I totally mind-melded with that dramatization of a person locked in self-consciousness, unable to act: “Do I dare descend the stair? Do I dare eat a peach? Do I dare disturb the universe?” There was something that really appealed to me and my sense of confused masculinity. At that age, you’re just raging with hormones. And I was at an all-boys school, and had no way of dealing with this seethe. Prufrock was this invitation to feeling that I wasn’t so alone. In my aloneness, I wasn’t alone.
That was something that others had struggled with. And I think I’ve always found in literature, these echoes. Sometimes paralleling my experience. Sometimes very different. But feeling like, in the process of reading, and then writing, that I was not so much … not alone, not in exile. Prufrock, I think, was this really important poem for me. You know there are other moments too ….
EJM: But what about as a writer of poems?
PM: Yeah, yeah. After reading that and “The Waste Land,” and some other things, I just started fancying myself a poet. My mom had a Masters in English and loved Wordsworth. So, when I would come home and talk about the stuff I was studying, she was totally into it. She was very supportive, and I think she loved the romance of the poet as an idea, as a myth. And I did too. [LAUGH] It was a way that I could identify myself that would make sense of the very things that made me feel so much an outsider.
I didn’t really know what to do with that so I just started writing madly. I was numbering them when I started – hundreds of poems. Right around the same time, we went on a vacation and visited the Mayan temple at Chichen Itza and that totally blew my mind. It made me think of “Ozymandias,” which I had just read. The sources for me, the one’s that first started making me write, were the classics. I fell head over heels in love with this beautiful girl that my sister knew. My grandfather died, and then I went to Mexico. So, just like the great primal themes – love, death, encountering otherness, travel, whatever. I was writing all these poems that were probably terrible, but they were enthused by language. Once you find this kind of medium, it’s such a beautifully empowering, primitive thing – to be able to use language and have language use you. It was a great organizer of all the chaos that I was feeling inside and outside, not a simple ordering, but a way of making it into music, the way that music is just organized sound. In the same way, poems were organizing all sorts of things for me and giving them sense.
Your question was when did I feel like I really wrote a poem? I don’t know. [LAUGH] Maybe it took years. I mean every time you’re writing a poem, you think this is it – this is the best fucking thing I’ve ever written.
PM: If you’re doing it right—you know, some days it doesn’t feel that way—but if you’re in the groove, it’s the most beautiful trance. Then, of course, the heat cools and you have to deal with its gnarly-ness or its incompletion or whatever.
But that’s a weird question. The first poem … if I were ever to write a selected poems, I think the first poem would be “Ashberries” – probably because it took me so goddamn long to write. And I feel like it says so much … it captures so much that I was unable to capture. The poem literally took me about ten years to finish. The weird story about that poem is that I arrived in Russia in 1992 and was absolutely entranced by the place. Immediately I started working on a bunch of poems and this was one of them. I had three of the four sections written within a month of being there. It’s an epistolary set of poems about encountering this strange place, but there was something wrong with it. Every year, I would bang away on it again and see what could be done. About eight years later, I realized that the terror of the experience wasn’t there. This other section that was the third section which was dealing with that terror finally came to me and it was like that image of the gestalt – everything is just pieces until something makes everything come together like iron filings to a magnet. I was so grateful that that happened. So you know it was …
EJM: … the beginning?
PM: Yeah, I think so.
EJM: One of the things that Bill (Wenthe) said last night that I thought was interesting was that it’s really important for a poet to know another poet who takes their poetry seriously. You talked about how your mother did that. Who was the first poet to take you seriously? Do you even think it’s important?
PM: My first workshop at Holy Cross was with Cyrus Cassells. That was a great experience for me because I needed to share my work. Poetry was becoming too much a kind of self-congratulatory act. It is dangerous when you write like that. You want a poem to be like prayer but it’s more like masturbation, you know? [LAUGH] A workshop is still a really good way of making sure that you’re not just jerking off. [LAUGH] You want a poem to be a conversation, a dialogue. You want it to be this medium by which we encounter the other in ourselves and the others outside of ourselves. I distinctly recall and still have all the drafts where he wrote in red pen that I was being sentimental. Like every one of them has the word “sentimental” on it. I felt a little burned by his critiques and I knew that he favored other poets in the class, which hurt my ego. But it was not necessarily a bad thing because I saw actually how good the others were, how they were light years ahead of me.
But Bob, Bob Cording, obviously. Cording was the one who took – I mean it was the most beautiful, generous thing – he took my work seriously and took me seriously. And so what Bill said exactly was my experience. When I think about the poems that I was giving Bob, it kind of astounds me that he was able – not to just simply put them in a drawer and say, okay, these aren’t very good. [LAUGH] You need to write a lot more and a lot sharper than this, but he didn’t, he just said this is what I think this poem is about, this is what I think it’s doing, this is what I think it needs to do. I’ll never forget that great grace that he gave of just being a listener and taking my work seriously.
EJM: So I want you to talk about Sand Opera, which I have seen gestating over the years. How did you get to the point where you knew Sand Opera was in the right form and that you were ready to publish it? Because it took a while.
PM: It was definitely stages. People like to disparage the idea of poetry projects and they say, “Oh, the poem is a thing,” but I think both ways of exploring poetry are beautiful and important and necessary. I oscillate between them. I have some big general ideas of something I’d like to do, and then there’s just these individual things that happen, these individual kind of moments which are poems.
I’m not sure chronologically what the first stuff I wrote for Sand Opera actually is, but I know that working with the Abu Ghraib testimonies of 2007 was the most important start. I was working through the various drafts that began with testimonies, and then started to work with the Guantanamo Standard Operating Procedure manual. Finally, I began appropriating the language of the testimonies of the United States military personnel. When all of that started to come together, that was a thing. In a way, that is itself a little opera and so that was the thing I felt most strongly about. So almost every summer, I had a different thing that I’d start getting obsessed with.
There were these poems that were told from an Arab-American point of view about 9/11; those are the Home Front poems. I am fascinated by the possibilities of the dialogic. I always like to see poems having conversations with other poems. Instead of just having these Home Front poems be on their own, I put them alongside the testimonies of a guy who was rendered at a black site. It created a nice friction. By then, I had enough poems that it seemed like something, but it went through a lot of permutations – I’m embarrassed to say how many drafts. [LAUGH]
So after it was accepted, I actually pulled out a section and put in two other sections. The editor had one comment, just one comment about the whole book which was that the sequence “Instants” (which I love and I want to put in another book) seems like an odd man out in the collection and I wanted to figure out what to do if I took it out. So I just said okay, I’m going to see what happens if I take it out – the reason it was in there in the first place is it’s a poem meditating on lots of the same issues, on the optics of domination and our desire to control our bodies and the sexual component that’s related to that. It tells the story of Edward Muybridge. So there are many reasons why it does connect, but because so many of the other poems were so topically connected, this one just seemed a little off so I said to Stephen Motika, who is the guy who was my editing buddy – that’s what they call it at Alice James, “editing buddy” – I said, you know, I really get what you’re saying and I feel like if there were two sections like that I could justify it but if it’s all poems about post-9/11 and then this one, it feels too asymmetrical, so I took it out. I looked at all the other stuff that I had written and decided that I wanted to do some things that hadn’t been done in the book. I wanted to have a greater diversity of points of view and voices and to work with some Iraqi voices that weren’t necessarily about the war. Poems like “The Iraqi Curator’s Power Point” is really important to me because it’s about this guy who loves this artistic patrimony of Iraq and is devastated by its plunder. There was another poem for Nawal Nasrallah, who’s a friend of (my wife) Amy (Breau) and me, called “A Toast (for Nawal Nasrallah)” that I wrote for her beautiful cooking.
And there are some other poems also in there like this poem from a poet, who asked to be anonymous; she sent me a letter responding to the book, and said that she was having a hard time responding to it because she had a friend at Indiana University who was working for the State Department who was a historian and he committed suicide. I had that letter around for a while when suddenly I thought that it needs to be in the book because what that letter shows is that there are a lot of people affected by this, a lot of people who experience a crisis of conscience. We don’t really know why he did it and …
EJM: Well, there’s a sense of something nefarious.
EJM: That he didn’t do it.
EJM: Someone did it to him.
PM: Right, yeah.
EJM: Going back through what you’ve talked about today, it seems like you’re often looking for what’s missing. Do you think that that’s a fair characterization, not only in terms of what’s missing from the book, but a real sense of which is the voice that’s missing? Is this what drew you in general to the Sand Opera project?
PM: Absolutely. You immediately made me smile because there’s something there. I could say a couple of things about that. One is that I’m very interested in works of art that are dialogical in the Bahktinian sense, for example, what Tolstoy does in War and Peace where you see how all these different characters see things from these very different points of view. Everyone talks about Dostoyevsky’s dialogism, but I think that Tolstoy is really fascinating too. What has drawn me to poetry is just listening to voices, listening to the still, small voice as they call it or Michael Stipe’s singing, “Could it be that one small voice doesn’t count in the room?” “Shaking Through” is the song. And when I heard that, I was like yeah, why does one small voice not count? I had an ambition that I wanted the book to be bigger than a protest. The arias were able to do that. I felt like I’m responding to the coherence of this as a work of art, not simply as a response to the Abu Ghraib torture. And so, I always feel like that you know a work of art is getting close to being where it needs to be when it seems way smarter than you are.
PM: Sometimes I read a poem of mine – like I did last night – and think, “Who the fuck wrote this?” Literally, I was reading it but I couldn’t remember writing it. You know? I literally don’t. I’m like wow, that’s a pretty good sentence, a pretty good line.
PM: So I’m sure there’s always this feeling, and there are ones that you don’t like, but I think that the way the work arrives mysteriously, and if it continues to be a little mysterious too, I think that that’s probably a good thing. I love that anecdote, in Dean Young’s book of poetics called The Art of Recklessness. He says that he had a conversation the other day with Robert Hass in which Hass said that he still really doesn’t feel like he knows what he’s doing. And then Dean Young says, if Robert Hass says he doesn’t know what he’s doing, then we need to figure out how to be better at not knowing what we’re doing.
PM: And I think that, to me, that’s true. That just was such a relief. Because I think of Hass as this sort of encyclopedic mind whose work just seems so deft and magical.
EJM: One of the things that you said just now is that you didn’t see this as a pure protest. And what that makes me think is that I know you study both the tradition of war poetry and the poetry of the resistance to war. You gesture toward what a poetry of peace might be. In particular, your idea of the home front feels like something new in poetry, or at least a place for exploration in our conversation. This past year I read Simone Weil’s essay “The Iliad: Or the Poem of Force,” and your poems are exploring force and forces, and how they’re put on people’s bodies but also how they’re put on you at home. We at home – we’re not in the battle. We’re not always in the protest. We’re at home, and we’re moved. Do you want to talk a little bit about how you’ve been thinking about force and the home front?
PM: Yeah. Well that sequence of poems is called “Home Front/Removes.” I wanted to think about the space in which I found myself, in which we find ourselves, which is very often distant from the scene of battle. There’s a reflex gesture, in our culture, to celebrate the authenticity of the first person narrative, and that has meant, in our culture, that the soldier’s view is the one that is most authoritative and exciting, and closest to the action. But in the process of writing my book Behind the Lines, I wanted to create a critical space and see how poets dealt with this, in a sense, bias. This rejection of the imagination is part of our culture. We are ingrained with a fear of the imagination. Rukeyser talks about that in The Life of Poetry very eloquently.
“Home Front/Removes” is setting alongside each other the domestic and the global. This domestic experience of 9/11 filtered through an Arab American point of view, which is basically my point of view. I just want to say a word about the Removes, though. I was really interested in Mohamed Bashmilah’s story, this Yemeni national who was detained and rendered to black sites. I was thinking about the way in which the story that he was telling was weirdly, hauntingly echoing a text that I used to teach in a “Major American Writers” class, but I stopped because I just got sick of it. It was Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative. So she was an American settler, and got captured by Native Americans, and was taken from place to place. But it’s a book that’s a testimony to her keeping the faith amongst these “savages.” And reading this guy’s story, I thought, he’s fucking Mary Rowlandson, you know? We’re doing exactly what this narrative is militating against and so that’s why it’s called removes. It’s also that she—the reason why I use the word “removes” is that Mary Rowlandson refers to each of her displacements as removes, which has a kind of geographic and also theological register. I was fascinated by that idea. And also, of course, we are removed in all sorts of ways, so it just seemed like a really interesting kind of binary with home front. Okay, so back to the home front.
EJM: One section of your book is called “Home Front/Removes,” but let me throw out that I think there is an element of the whole book that might be called a “home front practice.” I know on your blog Behind the Lines: Poetry, War, & Peacemaking, you have wrestled with the question of, what can a poem do? What can a book do? What can a poet do? And I felt like there was a gesture in the book to almost embody a kind of home front practice or a way that we could all position ourselves toward the violence and oppression in our world. Is that fair? Do you see the other poems at all fitting into a kind of home front practice?
PM: Oh absolutely. So the first poem is an invocation. It is a kind of prayer and then we move right into the arias. But then the next section, it begins with a poem which is sort of a classic American depiction of the domestic scene in which a guy is picking up the newspaper outside who sees an image of this woman, this Iraqi woman mourning in the paper. And I self-consciously wanted to move us to that space which is where most of us find ourselves most of the time: we’re encountering war through a newspaper or something online. And so that was a really explicit attempt to acknowledge my place-ness on the home front.
And just as a term, it goes back to that thing that Paul Virilio says which is that the real war is the endless preparation for war, which he gets actually from William James, who, in his essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War from 1910,” which we read in Professor Michael True’s class at Holy Cross, says the exact same thing. James was saying at that time that we need to think about where the war is starting and where it’s permeating. Because we live in this society where a huge percentage of our taxes is going to not only defense but security, and then paying down interest on our excessive expenditures, and “defense and security.” We need to think of the home front as a site of, as a part of—it’s a part of battle space, really. I mean, not just the political battle, but all the ways in which we’re constantly being interpolated into a kind of imperial subjectivity.
You know I listen to NPR and there are all these moments where you can hear multiple sides of stories and critiques, but the energy and the social force of the project of so much of journalism has maintained the cold war consensus about how we talk about what it is that the United States is. We’re constantly being immersed in it. Because I’m interested in the Middle East and have this Saidian critique of Orientalism, it’s so obvious. You start to see the ways in which there’s some kind of little gesture pandering toward these other points-of-view, but ultimately, it often feels self-congratulatory – “We’re interested in you,” you know? “You representative of all you other, you know, brown people.”
EJM: So that’s interesting. Someone could in a very surface way read your book like that. Talk a little bit about what you are doing that’s undermining that potential to pander.
PM: I think that that’s the thing that I wrestled with the most, ethically. The most primitive version of this question is: are you benefiting in some way, from writing about the suffering of others? And are you positioning yourself as an authority on speaking about those others? And I think those are the most important questions to ask. That’s what Spivak was asking in “Can the Subaltern Speak.” She’s saying, you liberals who think that you are representing unrepresented positions, you think you’re giving voice to people but you’re doing what she calls epistemic violence to them. You are not representing them. You are—I don’t think she says benefiting from them, but you’re missing the target. You’re not hearing what you need to hear. And what I love about where she’s coming from is this Derridian ethics that’s basically saying there’s a certain impossibility to the project of representation. And then you’re constantly either relying on a transcendent thing, or you’re cutting something out. And I think that’s a fair criticism of the work. I mean, any time you start representing, you can be engaging in epistemic violence. It’s the question of the frame.
EJM: When I read your book, epistemic violence is not what’s coming across to me.
PM: Well, that’s good.
EJM: Clearly, from what you just said, you wrestled with the questions that Spivak raised. So how do you think that ethics and framing comes across at the level of the writing, at the level of language, at the level of the page? How did you challenge facile readings? Because it seems very successful.
PM: [LAUGH] Well, one thing is that the book employs what we would call investigative poetics, or documentary poetic kinds of approaches which enable you to start thinking about focusing on the dominant, official narrative that’s doing erasure.
There was this interesting thing, I don’t know if it even exists anymore, called White Studies or Whiteness Studies. The idea there was basically what African-Americans during the Black Power phase of the Civil Rights movement were saying, why don’t you fucking talk to your community instead of trying to hang out with us? Hey, get your own shit straight. So I think that that’s one of the things that’s happening. Have you seen this redneck on YouTube talking about white supremacy? He does these little YouTube videos and he’s literally talking to white people about starting to confront the racism, the white supremacy in the dominant culture, and it’s just hilarious and awesome. And it’s just an anecdote to say that we need to look at.
I remember when I was in grad school Barbara Harlow said that instead of studying literature we should be reading the NAFTA agreement because that is going to really change everything. This was in the 90s. This piece of legislation is going to utterly change the lives of millions of people in ways we don’t really know exactly. It’s part of globalization: building these highways, these vertical highways between Canada and Latin America. And we need to look at it very carefully. That’s one approach: Look at what people are saying, test it out. See what it reveals to us. It’s representing the marginalized voices. You just look at what’s out there and take it on its terms like what Zizek said about moving through the fantasy. What is this really saying about us? And showing that mirror, which is a classic enlightenment idea of what art does. So that’s one way.
By virtue of some of my relationships and I think working with the text of those voices, there was something that in the Abu Ghraib part and the removes says something about how the art should be changing. It should be changing you in some way. And I feel like I found reading those things really, really hard. I saw myself as trying to carry those, the fragments of those things, rather than trying to show them to others to prove something. It was like I was just kind of trying to be with those voices that could I have no geographical access to. And I don’t know if that makes any difference at all but, I, I knew that it was affecting me and I thought that in light of how much objectification of those bodies was happening that having those voices is, as part of a retelling, important.
EJM: This provides a good transition as I want to ask your about the recurring focus on the eye in sight, the focus on the ear in hearing, and the focus on the body in sensing and feeling. The problem with being on the home front is that the things you are bringing forward in the book are happening in the world but they’re hard to feel, right? First they’re hard to see – they’re missing – they’re removed, but then they’re very hard to feel too. You seem to work with the material in the poems to try to feel, and then to bring that feeling across to the readers. Please talk about how you see sight and hearing and the body?
EJM: Not in general, in the book.
PM: No. Right, right, right. I’m just thinking about if you go to the epigraphs that there’s this …
EJM: Yes. They both have eyes, they both have sight in them.
PM: Yeah, the Saint Paul quote reads: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” I’m aware of what Laura Mulvey calls our “scopophilia.” She describes how we’re creatures dominated by our sight biologically and culturally. Specifically she talks about the male gaze and the cinema, and how our sight is part of an individual, as well as a cultural-political, optics of organizing, ordering, control and domination. Our sight has all these potentialities for many good things. Obviously, I was not saying we should all pluck out our eyes or anything; however, if we only focus on, for example, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the photos themselves were part of the torture. The fact that they were taken and the fact they were disseminated were part of the abuse of these men’s bodies. And that was all happening on the level of optics. And so the fact that the hearing was not part of that. It was—you know something that I’ve tried to learn over and over again in my life is how hard it is to listen to other people. I am amazed how flawed I am at this. If I don’t want to hear what somebody’s saying, I don’t and I think that true listening is really an act of genuine, radical openness and love. So we were talking the other night about Levinas’ ethics of the face to face. To me, it’s not just the optics of the apprehension of the face, but it’s the oral engagement with this person’s voice, their stories, their reality. And that’s the part that I think the book is trying to do. You may notice that I was a little bit inspired by Harvey Hix who wrote this book called God Bless in which he took the speeches of Bush and Bin Laden and worked with them. I got obsessed with his listening, how he was listening carefully again to what Bush was saying and what Bin Laden was saying and worked with them and made them into poems. I just thought there was something really beautiful about it – and he was doing what a good citizen would do, a good person would do, which was listening to what my president is saying and asking, “What does this mean exactly?” And this is what our enemy is saying and what does it mean exactly? One of the observations that he made which I thought was the most profound was that Bush professed to never listen to what Bin Laden was saying, but it’s clear all of Bin Laden’s speeches were directly related to what Bush had said. How weird that is. I went into poetry to express my own voice but I’ve gotten much more interested in what everybody else was saying. [LAUGH]
EJM: Yeah, well, it seems we have come full circle as one of the first things you talked about was how when you read Eliot you felt like you were alone, but alone with others.
E. J. McAdams is a poet and artist who lives in Harlem. His exhibition Trees Are Alphabets just closed at The Bronx Museum of the Arts and was reviewed at Hyperallergic. He is the author of two chapbooks, 4×4 (unarmed journal) and TRANSECTs (Sona Books).
Philip Metres is the author of Pictures at an Exhibition (2016), Sand Opera (2015), I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (2015), A Concordance of Leaves (2013), To See the Earth (2008) and others. His work has garnered a Lannan fellowship, two National Endowment of the Arts Fellowships, six Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Hunt Prize for Excellence in Journalism, Arts & Letters, the Beatrice Hawley Award, two Arab American Book Awards, the Watson Fellowship, the Creative Workforce Fellowship, the Cleveland Arts Prize, and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant. He is professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland.