Thomas Fink: Honey and Smoke contains several long poems. In the 40 sections of the prose-poem, “Black Swan,” at least 2/3 of the sections pertain to the political history of Newark, New Jersey. Later, we’ll address how these parts relate to others that seem to be about very different topics, but for now, let’s focus on the interplay of the accumulation of knowledge and questioning (doubt) in these sections. In the fifth section, you point to the cause of the Newark riots of 1967 by saying that “the history of Newark,” though “central to understanding the political narrative of race and Civil Rights,” had been “largely ignored,” and that “Jim Crow… had a red beak and leathery acne-red wattle in the social fabric of Northern cities like Newark” (53). The fourth part consists of 17 questions and one final, highly metaphorical declarative sentence. These are the first five questions:
How to explore the effect of the Newark riots? How do the city police escalate violence? How do the state police escalate violence? How does the National Guard escalate violence? How do female looters strip mannequins? (53).
As for effects, section 7 praises how “a democratic process can breathe new life into a place terribly wounded by riots, racial conflict, and military intervention” (54), and section 9 articulates both positive political gains due to “African Americans [using] innovative tactics in Newark to gain political power” (54) and the dilution of gains “in response to feathery white backlash” (55). These two parts also respond to a later question in section 4 about effects: “What is a city peopled and run by African Americans?” The three middle questions are not explicitly answered in the text, yet the repeated use of “how” rather than “do” indicates in advance that police and the military act in ways that reflect their complicity with institutional racism, and the 18th section contrasts “Russian coverage” of the riots with NBC’s, which “rarely showed the extent of police brutality against female protestors” (57). As for the “female looters,” section 30 describes Life magazine’s coverage: “Black women deliberately disrobed the mannequins, since they obviously didn’t represent the constituency of the stores” (59).
Other questions in section 4 include: “Does Anthony Imperiale hate blacks? Does Amiri Baraka hate Jews? Does Amiri Baraka hate whites? What is Black Power? What is liberal integrationist tradition?” (53). Some of our readers may not know that Anthony Imperiale was a Newark public official who consistently fought against measures that would improve the lives of black residents, and he expressed militant views of white “self-defense,” though in later years, his development of a volunteer ambulance program apparently did not discriminate against African-Americans. Newark-based Amiri Baraka, whose son Ras became the Mayor of Newark shortly after the poet’s death, needs no introduction. The distinctions between Jews and whites implicit in the Baraka questions are, in fact, indicative of a debate that has gone on for a very long time in both African-America and the U.S. in general. This is further complicated by the fact that Baraka’s political views evolved several times during the course of his career as an author/activist. There are only two further references to Baraka; the first is the title of the 28th section, which consists of a quote taken from a piece he wrote on John Coltrane: “One of the most baffling things about America is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here” (58). Of course, whether that “beauty,” for Baraka, includes whites and/or Jews is open to question, but section 20 indicates that during the Black Nationalist period after the Newark riots, this was not the case: “There was a thin lattice of irony in not only the reaction to the riots, but the riots’ consequences as well: Baraka’s demagogic sexism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism, taken for granted in many militant reactions” (57). In section 9, you offer a partial explanation: “Sometimes the same liberal-minded people who stressed racial equality were so disillusioned by racism that they embraced nationalism and separatism” (55).
Sean, could you please give us a sense of your intentions in representing the racial politics of Newark history and the exemplary figure of Amiri Baraka through the interplay of these questions, assertions, and ambiguous statements (or statements that elude full contextualization) in “Black Swan”? By intentions, I mean both your intervention in the national conversation about racial power relations and its history and your general desire to create a text that affords an experience or embodies an event. In this light, it might be useful for us to hear how the structure of the prose-poem came about in the process of composition. What would you like the reader to grasp, and what difficulties of interpretation would you like to pose for the reader?
Sean Singer: My intentions in representing the racial politics of Newark history in “Black Swan” grew out of my dissertation, a sort of cultural history of Newark since the events of 1967. I found that I didn’t know how to write academic prose and had to learn how to do it; it’s a very different, almost opposite project from writing poems. Poems are about metaphor, or putting things together, whereas academic prose is about taking things apart. In any case, I wanted to find a way to include everything I’d been thinking about in my research—which included Baraka, Philip Roth, Lynda Hull, Helen Stummer, and Grachan Moncur III—in my poetry. The collage form seemed like an organic way to do that since it mirrors the content of the poem. I used found statements: quotations, data, pieces of prose, lists, and more lyric moments of poetry to express what I thought about Newark, its destruction, and various moments of beauty. The 40 sections represent the 40 years of memory from the riots/uprising until I started the research in 2008.
I find it ironic that Baraka, who is so closely associated with Newark, changed his outlook and identity many times over the years, yet Newark itself seems incapable of reinvention, at least in what I call the “cultural imagination”, which is the way people imagine Newark. What I’d like the reader to grasp is that it’s easy to live one’s life totally ignoring Newark, but once you start paying attention to it– in particular to its many writers and artists– it’s almost mythological. Newark is the microcosm of all of America, and thus is the ideal place to do American Studies, the field my Ph.D. is in. I think the difficulties of interpretation for the reader are trying to figure out one’s own place in a city like Newark in poetry. Newark appears later in the book, and it emerges almost like a “character”; it’s an underdog and it shows how the situation there has been designed by American political priorities, via many steps, through education policies, transportation policies, housing policies, banking policies, cultural phenomena, and other things, to make Newark mythological.
TF: The texts of the sections of “Black Swan” that have people’s names on them usually entail a quote from that person, but sometimes they don’t. The dance choreographer Kazuo Ohno is quoted asking whether we’re “genuinely free when crammed into a sack” (54), and I think you mean us to relate this to the “sack” of racism or duBois’ “double consciousness”; the passage from George Oppen reminds us that the Objectivist poet gave up writing poetry for many decades because he believed he encountered “situations which cannot honorably be met by art” (57), yet your own collage-poem is striving to “meet” a very challenging situation honorably, and it also includes sections 23 and 25 arguing for the efficacy of poetry. Your use of the Diane Arbus quote about “freaks” being “born with their trauma” and having “passed their test in life” and being “aristocrats” (60) is complicated, since you are obviously not calling any of the citizens of Newark “freaks” and since Arbus’ homage is countered by those critics who believe that, rather than honoring the “freaks,” she exploits them in her work. The “Pier Paolo Pasolini” section has a passage about photography versus cinema that I have been unable to attribute to him. In the case of “Jeanne Lee,” the quote does not come from her, but from Raoul Vaneigem.
Could you tell us something about how you’ve set up these sections to speak to each other and to some of the Newark parts? Also, what is your take on the Arbus quote, what motivated you not to use direct quotation in the Pasolini section (if I’m right about that), and why did you place the Vaneigem passage in the Lee section?
SS: I used the quotes from people—filmmaker, poet, dancer, jazz musician, etc.—to allow other voices to enter the collage.
Perhaps they contradict reach other or don’t reach a conclusive statement. For example, the section ‘Suspect #2’ is a verbatim fragment from an email alert sent to the Rutgers community when I was there.
I don’t know that Arbus was necessarily exploiting her subjects, but I do think her statement adds a wrinkle to the way Newark is conceived of in the popular imagination.
TF: I’m inclined to agree with you that Arbus wasn’t necessarily exploiting her subjects; I was just repeating what others have suggested. But what wrinkle was she adding to the popular perception of Newark, specifically?
SS: Part of my dissertation is about social documentary photographers, specifically in Newark and Buffalo. I read the photos of Helen Stummer and Milton Rogovin as texts, as evidence of the creativity in cities during the so-called period of ‘urban crisis,’ about which much has been written by historians. But they never even mention artistic production. Arbus fits into those in away through her portraiture. In the cultural imagination Newark is frequently overlooked as a freak show . . . but it’s really an amazing and creative place.
I’m pretty sure I have a source for the Pasolini quote, and I thought Jeanne Lee said that; I didn’t know it was attributed to Raoul Vaneigem.
For the hybrid collage pieces in the book I wanted to include different textures or levels of language . . . they’re nonfiction non-poems and the different voices from my research seep in. It’s like when you’re walking through the city hearing or mishearing all the cacophony around you.
TF: What you think makes these hybrid collage pieces “non-poems” within a book of poetry? I thought they were at least prose-poems.
SS: They use various forms, I think, beyond the scope of most prose poems. They’re partly like essays or creative nonfiction, and partly lyric poetry. The Kafka piece, for example, was actually published by Salmagundi as fiction, but it’s nonfiction. Genres are really meant to limit you, if not kill you, so it doesn’t matter what they are.
TF: Speaking of that wild Kafka text, which comes right before “Albert Camus” and “Italo Svevo,” you take Peter Drucker’s contention that Kafka invented the hard hat and won an “American Safety Society” award for it “in 1911” (11), and you run with it, as well as with references to Kafka’s obsessiveness about sex. While Kafka in his diary called sex “a disease of the instincts,” you place the phrase in Milena Jesenska’s mouth, along with an allusion to The Metamorphosis: “’That half-hour in bed was to you…a disease of the instincts. You must be an insect’” (14). “Franz Kafka—Serious about Your Safety” also lives up to its title by including other research on safety members and by demonstrating cogently that “Robert Frost’s ‘Out, Out –’” is “a description of the importance of workplace safety” (12). Indeed.
I’m guessing that you are mocking the stereotypes about Kafka by deploying them, at times, so hyperbolically. What got you interested in rewriting Kafka’s life? And by rewriting, I mean to ask what motivated your development of the fictional elements? Does it matter if you believe or want your readers to believe Drucker’s claim, bolstered only by a personal anecdote from family members? Or is the contrast between the deep insecurity in Kafka’s fiction (and much of the received story of his character) and the possibility of Kafka’s tremendously melioristic gesture is cause enough for your multi-genre effort? And can we say that parts of this text function as an oblique way of doing literary criticism?
SS: I’m interested in the gray areas between fiction and nonfiction, and how whatever distinctions there are could be diminished. I don’t think I’m mocking Kafka per se, since he’s one of my literary heroes, but I am playing with ideas of narrative—fiction or nonfiction ones.
I got interested in Kafka’s life when I was doing all sorts of odd jobs to support myself while I was writing. I was interested in how his work life and writing might be entwined. Also, after 9/11 there was a kind of hypervigilance about safety in New York. The city had all these posters up about how they’re ‘serious about your safety.’ That was the impetus for the idea.
As far as rewriting his life goes, I was more interested in the differences, as I said, between parable and the ‘data’ that he invented the hardhat and worked in insurance, etc. I used his letters and quotes from elsewhere, like Emerson, to play with these concepts.
The development of the fictional pieces were to get at the core of the Kafka myth. I also found that I could use him as a subterfuge in a way to be a little autobiographical.
No, I don’t think it matters what readers know or believe. The insight of the contrast between Kafka’s insecurity and his gift to writing is correct. He was visionary in that way.
I don’t think I was considering literary fiction when I was writing the piece, but I did want to explore form and content through Kafka’s persona. I tried to do so in other ways in the book, too. For example, with van Gogh, Joplin, the whale, the Conversation, and so on.
TF: Let’s talk about “Whale,” a ten-page poem of (unrhymed) couplets with varied line-lengths. What prompted you to use the couplet form? And what might readers make of the juxtaposition of powerfully differing elements: scientific information, sometimes abetted by trope and image—“A sperm whale’s ear, bigger/ than a fist, hears twofold noises:// the telescopic part hears squawks./ The enlarging cathedral part// hears echolocation—” (35)—and quasi-theological evocations of “amazing grace” (34, 38), poetic analogies between whale facts and “drumrolls” (42), “music encoded” (43), etc., and such hints of the sublime as “true intoxication gurgled up in a thermos/ of adventure” (35)?
SS: Around 2000 I became fascinated by Melville and whaling in general. I did a lot of research. I wanted a form that would match the content: the vertical movement of the sperm whale and the size of it. I find the couplet to be a challenging form because the integrity of the line is laid bare. I wanted to see how long I could make the lines without losing their surprise. The various modes and elements are another way I tried to merge fiction and nonfiction. The poem demands a lot from the reader. I don’t know what readers might make of it.
TF: On the average page, I see a lot of relatively long lines but only one or two extremely long lines. Here is a specific passage with the longest line at the end:
Squawk: related to the whortleberry.
Correction….a hoarse squall, never from a horse.
Sometimes known as night heron, with a creak,
a screech, a ghost eating caviar.
Utter like a public-address system,
like a bimaculated duck, with windup gears.
Next to the inflatable balloons, there’s the echolocation. (35)
What strikes me here is that, even though there is no enjambment (as there is elsewhere in the poem), the variation of end-stopped lines and ones with a comma indicating the end of a clause, the placement of caesuras and, in one line, lack of them in a given, and the alternation of line-lengths does maintain “surprise.” Are the line breaks here mostly dictated by thematic units or some other principle?
Also, given the significant demands that, as you say, the poem makes on the reader, would you attribute this challenge to vocabulary (“whortleberry,” “bimaculated”), the need to assimilate scientific data, uncannily surreal imagery, paratactic movement (as in the passage above), and/or anything else?
SS: Interesting questions. I don’t recall my specific thinking when I wrote the poem, but I think looking at it now, the line breaks are thematic or sometimes rhythmic units. I wanted to maintain their energy and see how wide a leap I could make between couplets.
I suppose the level of surprise, which is an eternal principle of literature, could be a mix of all those things you mentioned, and also the subject matter—that the gender roles of whales and those on the ships like on the ones where Melville worked were reversed.
TF: Could you give a few examples in the poem of those gender role reversals and say what they signify to you?
SS: The epigraph sets the scene and there are a few examples: ‘When the whales eat . . . mouth inside her mouth.’ on pages 36-37 is one. Also the information towards the end (41-42) about my obsessions with pianos is in contrast to the mostly women of the 19th century who were instructed in piano.
TF: Speaking of music, your first book, the Yale Series winner Discography (2002) mostly takes jazz as its subject. Honey and Smoke has a fair number of poems about music, especially jazz. Do you perceive a continuity or shift in the ways you articulate your “obsession” with jazz and music in general in the two books?
SS: I think jazz is a way of choosing to be joyful in spite of conditions. It’s one thing to use jazz as a subject matter, which I’ve done, but it’s more complicated to use it as a metaphor, as a way of thinking about rhythm—or multiple rhythms happening within the same poem. In this book, I think jazz is a tool for me to try to make poems that appear simultaneously spontaneous, yet inevitable somehow.
Jazz is a sound more than anything in the book, and I wanted to convey its textures even in poems not explicitly “about” jazz music.
TF: The appearance of spontaneity is characteristic of “Disassembled Parts of a Bass Clarinet,” an eight-page poem whose first two sections are in couplets and whose third has no stanza break. The impression of spontaneity comes from “disassembled parts” reassembled, the leaps of allusion—frequently involving jazz luminaries and, again, Newark, and later, Harlem, as well as Dogon culture. What do you remember about the development of this long poem?
SS: I was again interested in longer couplets and looking for ways to include disparate sets of information, some from my research and other more personal. I suppose those are the ‘disassembled parts’. There was originally another part of the poem, a kind of sonnet form about the musician Weldon Irvine that never made it into the book, though it was published.
TF: If the task, as you put it, is to make the appearance of spontaneity “inevitable,” what qualities might be said to engender inevitability in the juxtapositions of the following early passage:
The Newark photographer says that when he was a kid,
There were 12 or 13 movie theaters downtown.
Now, only a tiny porn theater, a spit’s distance from the Museum,
Shows octaves of skin. Part of the lip stretches behind the knee,
Smooth as a Mercury reissue, and the precipice, glistening
Like a roll’s glaze, has been pushed up and down across
Sarah Vaughan’s orgasmic ‘Uh’ noise at 2:35 in ‘Body and Soul.’
The Dogon wear purple fringes, and their pearl millet
Sing vessels of donkeys beating caryatids, like the sandstone
Bandages all rectilinear with masks secured by the teeth. (90)
SS: I’d say that those lines mix information about Sarah Vaughan, or public memory, and smaller more local information, or private memory, together. The photographer is George Tice, an extraordinary Newark photographer who I interviewed. He was somewhat unhelpful as a source, but his pictures are astounding. In the poem, the Dogons’ astronomy, Newark’s losses and triumphs, and the lyric are knitted together so that the blank spaces allow for the leaps.
TF: Though poets are not responsible for explication of even an atom of their work, I’d be curious to hear your gloss on the “theater” showing “octaves of skin” and “part of the lip stretches behind the knee . . .”
SS: I’m not sure what I was thinking when I wrote that. Something about Sarah Vaughan’s recording of Swingin’ Easy and the fact that much other memories of Newark that exist in the cultural imagination had faded away made me think of the connection. The noise she makes at 2:35 in “Body and Soul” is nonvocal, almost instrumental or animal. Like it was an accident, not part of the chorus, verse, or any improvisation. This poem is a place where I felt free to say anything, to make any kind of metaphor . . . fragments of notes I had from jazz performances, other poems, and my own feelings about 1980 on East 80th Street.
TF: There are passages about poetry in two of the texts we have already discussed. The first seems to articulate what poetry enables, and the second focuses on the kind of poetry that the speaker initially encountered and that made him reluctant to engage with poems:
Poetry helps us to read nuance and subtlety into urban crisis’ because it does not take politics as a way out. It constantly refreshes and engages language, and it engages the reader not as mere consumer, but as a producer of the text. Therefore, the reader’s ethical and imaginative sensibilities are employed with the mechanisms of a poem. (“Black Swan,” 58)
For a while poetry did not interest me, with its flailing,
Corruption, boredom, obsequiousness, and general green color.
It was a cloak used for taunting by everyone, assholes all.
Flaubert thought the same thing about the bourgeoisie. (“Disassembled Parts of a Bass Clarinet,” 91)
Do these passages actually reflect two of your attitudes toward poetry—for example, the first involving what you are aiming for or the second what you want to avoid? Or are one or both passages meant to be placed in a “voice” intended to be a vehicle for dramatic irony? Here’s another way of putting it: Do you want to be seen as offering your own metapoetic pronouncements or do you eschew such gestures?
SS: I thought about your question carefully. Since the poems are fiction, they’re in a voice and I’m ambivalent about a lot of poetry; there are moments when I agree with one or both statements. I don’t think of them as pronouncements so much as contradictory, yet compatible ideas about poetry.
Poets are in general very smart, but also frustrated, dissatisfied, conflicted, and jealous. Poetry as a practice and process can be life-rewarding, but the theatrics surrounding poetry—the institution—really adds nothing to our trade and can be ultimately solipsistic. But poetry as the Supreme writing art is what it’s all about . . . and it does encourage readers to be producers rather than consumers.
Thomas Fink is the author of nine books of poetry, most recently Selected Poems & Poetic Series (Marsh Hawk Press, 2016). He has co-edited Reading the Difficulties: Dialogues with Contemporary American Innovative Poetry (U of Alabama P, 2014) and a volume on David Shapiro’s work (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2007). A Different Sense of Power: Problems of Community in Late-Twentieth Century Poetry (FDU Press, 2001) is his most recent book of criticism. His work has appeared in The Best American Poetry 2007, and his paintings hang in various collections. Fink is a Professor of English at CUNY-LaGuardia.
Sean Singer is the author of Discography (Yale University Press, 2002), winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America and a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts; and Honey & Smoke (Eyewear Publishing, 2015); and two chapbooks, Passport (Beard of Bees Press, 2007) and Keep Right on Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water (Beard of Bees Press, 2010). He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers-Newark. He drives a taxi in New York City.