Aaron Shurin with Brian Teare: The Skin of Meaning

shurin-teare
Aaron Shurin and Brian Teare

Brian Teare: Here on my writing table I have a beautifully produced little magazine, Convivio: A Journal of Poetics, published at New College of California in 1983. A document of the minds then at work in the Poetics Program, it collects a wonderful array of poetics writing – interviews, talks, essays, journal fragments, etc. – from Bay Area poets like Robert Grenier, Susan Thackrey, David Meltzer, Joanne Kyger, and Robert Duncan himself. It also includes a still uncollected essay of yours, “Emily Dickinson and Stop Time.” So I’d like to begin with your initiation into the practice of writing poetics, which came, it seems, some time after your initiation into writing poetry. In this little invented narrative of mine, I’m imagining that Duncan and the community in and around the Poetics Program had a lot to do not only with the shift in your poetic practice between Giving up the Ghost (1980) and The Graces (1983), but also with your first forays into poetics. Is that at all accurate? It doesn’t seem incidental that the earliest essays collected in The Skin of Meaning all date from 1983.

Aaron Shurin: Well, if I can co-invent the narrative a little: Yes, certainly, New College was a poetics program, determinedly, not an MFA “writing” one, so the challenge and study was to articulate one’s interests, process, practice, and “place.” But for me there are two giant threads or vectors that coincide. First, and especially in the Bay Area, this was exactly the period of the “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E” revolution, and poetics (or theory) were being proposed at furious decibels. I, certainly, felt compelled to bring forward the underpinnings of my own work at the risk of being erased. That historical push or rush is pretty much concurrent with New College poetics. And then, it occurs to me now, that though my earlier work did not yet have an explicit poetics, it did have an explicit politics. Gay Liberation meetings, radical faerie circles, a gay anarchist study group: all of these fed my work as a wide literature of influence. My early poetry, whatever its formal differences, was supported by an explicit (and collective) politics that I now see as a poetics — perhaps I can say it was acted out rather than written down. But what I want to say here is that it really was theory, studied as theory, and when New College arrived on its historical wave I was ready to bring that (as a beginning) into a more formal, more writerly, form. And NC was the site to bring it all together. The Dickinson piece you mention was actually a coursework paper for the poetics program. And of course, the influence of Duncan, and his major work of poetics The H.D. Book, was omnipresent.

BT: From my generational vantage point, you’ve always seemed uniquely placed in the history of Bay Area and US poetics because of the exact narrative you’ve mapped out for us. Not a lot of other poets stood with you at the intersection of Gay Liberation, Black Mountain, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetics, and there are far fewer, in the wake of AIDS, who are alive and publishing today. Your crucial 1983 essay “A Thing Unto Myself: The unRomantic Self and Gender in the Third Person” creates a prescient and singular archive of predecessor and companion texts – Dickinson, Genet, Glück, Grahn, Rimbaud, Whitman – that, taken together, show gender to be discursive and performative in ways that prefigure Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. In fact, taken together, the essays before Unbound: A Book of AIDS articulate a queer poetics that critiques subjectivity in ways that seem largely absent from both Gay Liberation and Black Mountain poetics, but its critique comes with a generous embrace of “multi-subjectivity” largely absent from the arguments of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. I’m wondering if you could tell us a bit more about how it felt at the time to articulate this radical queer poetics, to become “A Thing Unto Myself” in the context of the infamous poetry wars?

AS: It was a complicated trajectory. I was flummoxed by much of the theory (I’m not a theory head, I’m a skin head, if you know what I mean) but I took it as duty to try and meet the issues. I read through all the issues of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E as they appeared, simultaneously stimulated and befuddled. It wasn’t black or white for me: I took what I needed, and for the rest rather than rejecting it I tried to propose an alternative (or plural) — really Language Poetry drove me deeper into my own poetics, sharpening my positions and counter-positions. I wanted to do everything in my poetry. I couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t want to use all the powers of poetry — let’s say, from the period, referentiality and non-referentiality. I think this confused a lot of people, but it didn’t confuse me. And really, though a congenial cat, I was also a ferocious queen, by which I mean some of my positions around gender and subjectivity and person, let’s say, were so directly linked to the battles around homophobia and misogyny and shame — and I had literally been on the barricades — and were forged by so much collective strength — that I knew I wasn’t going to let my little gay body be disappeared by “text” for example. Bob Grenier’s famous “I hate speech” comment (used to privilege writing/text over person/voice) was not for me: I love speech, which is to say the speaking subject. The language paradigm that uses pronouns to raise an image of experience in time and place was central to me. I wanted the speaking subject, but I also wanted to explode the singular point of view. I wanted the subject to be varied, multiplicitous, social, and even contradictory. And that included gender fluidity. I took it as a given that some formal restructuring was necessary — you couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle after semiotics and deconstruction, but really why would you want to? You just had to grab the genie and perform your own dance. My dance included a resolute interest in the first person as the pilot of “body” — the site of desire and shame and ecstasy; at the same time a cautionary view of language’s binary structure in relation to person and gender, the prison of “he” and “she”; a dogged belief in poetry’s transcendental powers as non-normative language… oh, I could spin out a long list. I had some comrades. Bob Glück for sure: we started publishing in the gay press at the same time, and if our interests diverged to some degree we had mutual recognition always. And, too, I am pretty much the same age as the original Language poets, and I wasn’t easily bullied (not that they tried.) In fact, my work was included in a number of Language-centered publications: Silliman’s issue of Socialist Review, Bernstein’s gathering for Tyuonyi, and several issues of Hejinian and Watten’s Poetics Journal. I learned a lot from the ongoing dialogues (and not so much from the monologues). If I shivered in the back rows of some talk that was commandeered by theory and what I call citationism — referring to someone’s idea by mentioning the person but not the idea: What Lacan says about x — I took myself lovingly but purposefully in hand and urged, “Stand up queen!” So I stood up.

BT: The urgency of your intervention into the proto-academic and tacitly heteronormative poetics discourse of that era remains palpable in an essay like “Narrativity,” and I especially admire the way your equally urgent commitment to a maximalist queer aesthetics provides you with a critical vocabulary as fierce as it is deluxe and funny. In fact, in light of your early essays, Stand up queen! sounds a lot like Stand up, Queen! And lo, she did! In “Narrativity,” as in “The Gaze of Julie” and “Synching in Tongues,” you profess a love of the pronominal drag and camp humor that underwrite what you call the “gorgeous simulacra” of queer gender performance. And you also detail and celebrate the canny critical intelligence the best drag performers bring to the stage. As you write of Lypsinka, “She is the postmodernist’s maxim brought to life: nothing is real, everything is represented.” Given the fabulous, radical Queens who have come out of San Francisco, I’m wondering if the drag scene served as another school whose curriculum contributed to your own vision of a postmodern queer poetics?

AS: Oh yes, I was schooled! It’s no accident that my first chapbook (1975) was called Woman on Fire, and it detailed my initial foray into the San Francisco Halloween streets in highest heels. It also questioned the lockdown of gendered pronouns, and ended with a vision of one of the finest smart-queens of the era, Christopher, who came to a party as a star but plugged himself into a wall socket and became a constellation: twinkling lights embedded in a swoosh of red feathers. Well, then, young poet, what do you want to be: a guy in the corner with his hands in his pockets, or an ever-twinkling ceremony of feathers and light? And what would it mean, in writing terms, to twinkle and flame? That was the very beginning, and the beginning signaled that my writing would be (among others things) FABulous! The great queens of San Francisco taught me how to slice through the multiple masks of gender; they taught me how to transmute pain and shame into laughter; they taught me the value of wit in critical commentary (and I don’t mean the easy current usage I call “guy-rony”). And then a host of instructional parallels: my wigs showed me how to frame; walking in heels on SF hills was a lesson in measure; make-up was like the power of description, shadings of adjective and adverb; sashaying and squealing opened up a pitched vernacular I once named (for myself) “American Florid.” And drag names revealed the self as a multitude and gender a performance. Or boas and wraps and trains: the power of excess, of no-limit. And lo (stand up) a queen entered a room as an exclamation point! The entire narrative of getting ready and going out, and coming home dramatized a non-normative language of devotion, ecstasy, and hallucination, and rested on the poignancy and power of self-love, of fragility and tenderness via the mirror’s imperative as lipstick was wiped off and eyelashes fell. So, to Silvana, and Sylvester, and Lulu, and Doris, and Miss X, and Tippi, and Christopher, and Shondel, and Immaculata, and Rodney, and Adrian, and Tahara, and the Cockettes and the Angels of Light and the Sluts A Go-Go and the Lavender Star Players: a deep bow — I mean a curtsey — I mean a poem that bursts into light at the touch of an eye…

BT: I’ve always loved how deeply intertwined the physical artifice of drag is with an equally artificed language, the vernacular you aptly called “American Florid.” The way you read drag names as marking “the self as a multitude and gender a performance” rhymes deeply with a passage from your elegy-essay, “After Genet: 1910-1986,” which describes an aesthetic “in which language, gesture, and dress combine into a costumed drama of social forces intimating selves.” This sensitive reading of Our Lady of the Flowers certainly justifies grouping your meditations on Genet with your meditations on drag, all of which stress the radical possibilities inherent in applying the aesthetics and politics of the performance of gender to a poetics of language. But I can’t help but think Genet’s books also dwell on the abjection and violence he saw as specific to a criminal and queer sexuality. “He saw in sex, violence, and even gender disarray,” you write in “Smoke,” “a political revolutionary force.” Given that your poetics tends to thrust (ahem) toward rapture by way of erotic energy, toward an ever-deepening enchantment by way of artifice, I’m wondering what place (if any) you’ve made in your thinking for the revolutionary potential of the second term in Genet’s trinity of sex, violence, and gender disarray?

AS: I often think of those elements being intertwined in Genet (as well as life.) I think of the paradigmatic gesture (I’m crawling through memory here) in Our Lady when Divine, I believe, enters a café and someone calls out in a drunken slur, “homoseckshual” (something like that in Frechtman’s great translation; we would probably say, “fag!”) And Divine’s inimitable response is to take out her false teeth and put them on the top of her head like a crown (Lo, queen.) I think I’m not making this up, but if I am, it’s pretty great isn’t it? So the violence of the slur is met by the ecstatic transubstantiation into — well, as I say elsewhere in that essay — a Thing. A crown. A queen. You know when I was young I used to think I was, and was going to be, a dark poet, a kind of Baudelairean kin, swimming in the pools of abjection. And there is plenty of abjection in my earlier poetry. But I seemed to veer towards a more celebratory poetics as time went on, and here I stand, ready to plug myself into a socket and shimmer. On the other hand, there is Unbound: A Book of AIDS, which can only be seen as transpiring within both the violence of the viral attack, and the violence of the inadequate and criminal civic response. And if there, again, I may be most taken by the transcendental acts of my friends, nevertheless the sorrow and fear and horror of the epidemic — the violence — are the ground from which these acts arise. In Unbound it begins with the rage of Full Circle and its revolutionary call [“So I do not propose “City of Men,” or any other creative act, as a substitution for sex. I do of course propose safe sex — medically safe but not politically safe, not socially or even psychically safe. And toward the day when the Human Immunodeficiency Virus is consigned to the dustbins of history, I’ll dream — with Whitman — “Unscrew the locks from the doors!/ Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!”] and carries through the ferocious elegy of “Human Immune.” [“Pain is healing me into submission, he wrote in his journal the secret of the universe, hell is round. You flop and thrash in fact.” And, “I take the oath worthy of your friendship exterminated in me. The lancing pan stuffing me with bucks and thwacks to distill soul’s fuck…” And the final horrific anal-oracular plea, to give voice to the disappeared and disappearing, “Come — this’ll serve as a bed — fuck my ass into my mouth.”] It occurs to me that violence may be enacted in my poetry as elegy, and for all my twinkles it may be as an elegist that I am most seriously at work. That’s certainly true of my two longest poems, “Human Immune” and the new piece “Reverie: A Requiem” which just went up on the Duration Press website. It’s an elegy, of sorts, for the transfigured city of San Francisco [“She lists in sequence the towns burned, the cities under water, what she remembers and what she’s been told, what she’s read in The Book of Slaughter and The Book of Stains, The Codex of Compton, // and the Index of Vanishing Holes.” And “It has to be collective, it has to be grabbed by the throat and shaken.”] I hope I’m not twisting your intent too much, but yes, perhaps I see in poetic elegy the dark flower of violence. I guess we could call it a “fleur du mal.”

BT: You intuited so beautifully what I didn’t say, and that I was thinking in particular about the relationship between queer ecstasy and queer abjection in your work, particularly when it comes to Unbound: A Book of AIDS. And I love the link you’ve made visible between a crucial AIDS-era text like “Human Immune” and the new poem, “Reverie: A Requiem.” But I was also thinking about the letters of Duncan and Levertov and the central role that evil takes in his critique of her work – how Duncan believed, as he told Levertov in objection to her anti-Vietnam poems, “The poet’s role is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it.” And I was also thinking that, as you yourself suggest, you seem to be up to something different in Unbound, whose essays also contrast dramatically with a poem like “Human Immune,” which was a part of the original book, but isn’t collected in The Skin of Meaning. Re-reading the essays without their companion poems and dipping back into the original printing of the book, I find myself confronting a knot of related questions: what work concerning AIDS did essay allow you to do that poetry couldn’t, and vice versa? In another poem from Unbound, “The Depositories,” you write, quite bitingly,

The enemy personified the nation. A fiction or series of fictions

exploding through with smoke, pouring sweat. At the foot of

a tree hands stuck in the dirt. Once in a while they hold on to me.

I find this tone and the tone in “Human Immune” distinct from those of the essays, and of course the disjunction between sentences is also greater, but, given your subsequent parallel practices as prose poet and essayist, am I making too much of such distinctions? And lastly, I’m wondering about your relationship to Duncan’s argument about poetry and evil, if you have one. Do you think AIDS necessitated a radically different take on the moral imagination than the metaphysics and cosmology of Duncan’s Vietnam War-era oeuvre?

AS: What a beautiful thorny knot of questions. I know these cut deep for you, as someone who has written so eloquently and movingly about AIDS. (And in fact most of the other themes and topics we’ve been covering.) First, the exclusion of the poems from the reprinting of Unbound in Skin is, of course, just because the latter is framed as essay writing. It was an artificial distinction, but paying attention to it as you do does, in fact, reveal a tonal and topical difference between the poetic and essayistic work. Then, of course, the challenge of the essays was to adhere to fact to a large degree, and that was (besides the pure exigencies of nonfiction) because I felt a particular duty as witness and chronicler — of both the highs and lows — a kind of Tiresias/Cassandra mix but with eyes trained on the present — in the face of what amounted to the eradication of cultural and social history, and also a responsibility to give proper respect to the men I knew who had struggled with and even transcended the evil that was the epidemic of the 80s and 90s (especially in San Francisco.) As I say in my new intro to the material in Skin, I needed a prose-writer’s scalpel to peel back the layers of information, and name and frame the details, but a poet’s heart to make sure the information gathered itself towards meaning: to awaken the facts so that the reader might participate as one of the community in peril and in grace. A simple task, right? I (felt I) needed to invent a new prose (for myself) that could admit the lyricism that would free the prose from single-mindedness. And maybe that idea of single-mindedness was akin to what Duncan objected to in the Levertov poems and called “opposing” evil. Hard as it was to write the essays, it was much harder for me to find a way to write a poem — and “Human Immune” was the culmination of many years of frustrated attempts and non-attempts. As you know, the poem was released by dream language, which was offered to me on waking as the phrase “Hell is round.” The difference between the poetry and the prose? If I were writing an essay, the goal would be to explain “hell is round;” if I were writing a poem (as I did) the goal would be to perform “hell is round.” So I performed “hell.” I think that is pretty close to Duncan’s idea of imagining evil. The responsibility of “hell is round” and so of “Human Immune” was to give full vent to my broken heart and so break the hearts of my readers. I wanted to shake them from complacency so that — well, so that they might participate as part of the community in peril and in grace. Perhaps, then, these two routes did have the same aim, to tell the unspeakable truth that was so invisible to so many, and rouse the conscience of a nation still mostly asleep. Was that so different from the Vietnam era’s moral complexities? Maybe not. And one other point: the essays necessitated a certain distance, since as an HIV-negative man I felt it incumbent on myself to let others speak, as it were; but in the poem the imagination permitted me to speak from multiple points of view, including the infected. I had always said anyway that though I did not have HIV in my personal body I did have it in my social body, and I could say that the poem has the virus in it. If we take Duncan’s cue that poetic imagination is also a duty (“the poet’s role”), then perhaps the distinction of the AIDS-related poems is that they’re not just about the disease, they suffer it.

BT: Thank you for untangling the knot of questions I offered in response to Unbound, the work of genre, writing AIDS, and the moral imagination. I especially love the distinction you make between the essayistic tasks of recording and explaining a fact versus the necessity of a poem’s enactment of it. Hell is round: “Human Immune” so clearly performs the dream’s message with a panicked extravagance as persuasive as your most gracefully phrased and paced essay. And while we’re on the subject of Duncan and Levertov, in the marvelous “The People’s P***k: A Dialectical Tale,” you encourage readers to see your work as the synthesis of their thesis-antithesis relationship. “I’ve only ever counted such dual inheritance as one of extraordinary luck” you write, “their immediate graces mine to learn from, their tensions played out in the parameters of my work.” I’m struck here, as I am elsewhere in your essays, by the emphasis on synthesis over antithesis, a poetics of saying and and and and and, no matter the tension produced by embracing conflicting imperatives. For instance, instead of vilifying Levertov for the revelation of her homophobia, you mark your disappointment with her limitations and honor both the grace and tension she and her work offered you. Readers of The Skin of Meaning can see this dialectic played out multiple times, as between New Narrative and LangPo, for instance. As you wrote so beautifully in an earlier answer, “It wasn’t black or white for me: I took what I needed, and for the rest rather than rejecting it I tried to propose an alternative (or plural).” Of course, this emphasis on synthesis can be read as another aspect of your lifelong vow to aesthetic maximalism, but there seems also to be an ethics at the core of this pluralist stance, particularly given the polarizing enmities at work in the poetry world. Duncan, of course, was himself justly famous for such enmities, so I’m wondering who, if anyone, modeled such pluralism for you?

AS: It’s hard to know when we’re talking about the work and when the life. Duncan who, as you say, was so contentious — and with nobody so much as his peers — in the social and esthetic world of poetry — an absolutist, in many ways, just as he saw Denise to be — was, in the poems themselves, a polyvalent collagist of eras and modes and origins. And the figure of the Grand Collage was, for him, the highest order of things. My immediate nuclear family, which was a family at war with itself, engendered endless ultimate pitched battles and serial owning and disowning. I was, in general, the lesser warrior of lesser battles, and to some degree I saw the owning and disowning and owning [literally you are not my son or you are not my father] as a kind of endless thesis antithesis for which I imagined the synthesis, since I was pulled, like my mother, by both ends of the tightrope. At worst this represented a retreat from moral consequence; at best it was a reconciling of opposites, and a recognition that the art of life is the art of contradiction. As I grew older I came to believe that the art of life — and, sure, the life of my art — was, in fact, in sustaining contradiction. The poem itself was a dynamic influx of contending forces, and this made it an active, almost alive, thing, pitched at the edge of sense and sound being transferred continually into meaning. Models for such pluralism? Most of my literary heroes, I think. Whitman, of course, not just with his avowed cosmic selfhood and I-contain-multitudes identity, but with his grandiose civic vision turning on a blade of grass, and his drama of democratic communalism laid over the sick ravages of manifest destiny and proto imperialism. Or Proust with his gossip’s heart and scientist’s calibrations, his romance of class parsed by his romance of behavioral psychology, a devotion to those he would peel like an onion. Or Colette with her gender dynamism, her broken heart and mad love matched by an unrelenting eye for truth and lies; or H.D.’s rose, trembling in a sea breeze that was simultaneously a mythic and spiritual wave: “And every concrete object/ has abstract value,” she writes, “is timeless/ in the dream parallel.” So she saw the opposing forces as coexisting, almost as of dimensions. I guess that pretty much sums up my own pluralistic vision, where contradictions are dynamically sustained in and out of time. And the tensions themselves are the “livingness.” The stretch or pull of balance or co-existence in synthesis is generative: It suggests that meaning can’t be rigid; it has to keep moving. By “sustaining contradiction” I mean the work lives in a kind of shimmy between or among the various contentions. All the powers of poetry I can harness coexist and/or combust continually, i.e. “an ever-twinkling ceremony of feathers and light.”

BT: I appreciate being reminded that we’re talking here of poiesis, of lives made in and of making, of life works that intentionally blur the line between life and work. And thus I especially appreciate your reaching into your own biography to illustrate your position as a dialectical reader and synthesizer. Your identification with your mother’s position in your family made me wonder – since you also bring up Colette and H. D. – if you could speak a bit more about the women poets in your essays, and perhaps also about the influence of Bay Area feminisms and experimental feminist aesthetics on your politics and poetics. There is Levertov, of course, but you also write beautifully about Judy Grahn’s “She Who,” for instance, in addition to Leslie Scalapino’s way and Beverly Dahlen’s Egyptian Poems. These women and the work of these women are all so different in terms of aesthetics and feminisms, and yet here they all are, at home in the multi-dimensional trajectory of your own poiesis.

AS: Of course the communities of women poets in the Bay Area are vast and different, and certainly the more experimental writers gathered in and around the journal HOW(ever), for example, were enormously important to me and many others. In addition to those you’ve mentioned, Norma Cole, Laura Moriarty, Susan Gevirtz, Gillian Conoley, Rusty Morrison, have been close allies, friends, and comrades in, as you say, living poiesis, and the enrichments came (come) not just from writing but from many discussions (and walks and lunches) about poetry and its modes and possibilities. I’d also have to mention Diane di Prima, teacher, mentor, and friend, who I met when I was a puppy and whose work and life catalyzed my own. I’m slightly cautious about naming these “feminisms”, because the relationships and the work subsumed feminism per se. And yet, of course, feminism was an incalculable determinant in enriching their (and my) lives. I taught and took as beautiful illuminator Kathleen Fraser’s marvelous essay, “The Line…”, which made the case for ellipsis, hesitation, erasure, and such as touchstones of women’s art as it was written and as it was lived. Since my own explorations often tracked the similarities of queer and gendered positioning in writing, the kinship with this was fundamental. (My work in early Gay Liberation study and action was absolutely consonant with studies in feminism, from Shulamith Firestone to Robin Morgan and Monique Wittig and on, followed, of course, by pagan practices and ”goddess” worship in San Francisco’s original “faerie circle!) Leslie’s work, for example, was right by me for many years (the poetry more than the prose); even as it confounded me it showed me possibilities for unity-in-fracture, of radial perspectives, and of course the value of the beautiful, the incomparable, the consummate, em dash. Her feminism was ferocious, and she delighted in skewering the big guys. But a bit like Duncan she also managed to choose off her most important peers, and alas we fell afoul there. But I have to say it took great courage and conviction on her part to quack back at some of the big honkers (I’m mixing bird strains) and she did it resolutely. Though we were estranged for several years, we gradually came back to a loving coexistence. And she gave me the most extraordinary gift practically on her deathbed: She called me and asked me if I would do her the favor of letting her reprint my book, A’s Dream, which her O Books had originally published in 1989, and whose cover she was not entirely happy with. Did a publisher ever ask you if you would do them the favor of letting them publish your book? No, probably not gonna happen; it was an act of pure generosity on Leslie’s part, and characteristically very slyly delivered, cast as though the second printing was something I was doing for her! And it was a great gesture of forgiveness and remorse, of healing. She worked on seeing it through the last months, if not weeks, of her life, and so that brilliant teal blue of the revised cover has life in it. As I say, feminism’s influence (on me, on them) has been inestimable, and yet if feels insufficient to characterize my relationships with Leslie and Norma Cole, for example — their insight and power and poetic intelligence. On the other hand that sounds oddly defensive, doesn’t it? It’s a bit of a language conundrum, but also the problem here for me may be that I’m not sure I know any women who aren’t feminists. I’m tempted to say in my life (now) feminism=woman, so I can’t exactly isolate it, and really, then, how could I even begin to estimate its power? And as a coda: Virginia Woolf was the writer who led me to my own voice. In To the Lighthouse she writes calmly of the lighthouse beam: “and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!” The descriptive precision, the emotional acuity, the unboundedness: well it’s, “Stand up!” and “Lo, queen!” and “Woman on Fire!” rolled into one.

BT: This is such a great answer, perhaps precisely because of that “language conundrum” you point to. How to isolate the effects of a politics from the affects of friendship, how to isolate the effects of gender or sex or sexuality from the affects of experience, the materiality of embodiment? These questions point to moments of disjunction between language (rhetoric) and our bodies, moments to which, in my reading at least, you have largely dedicated your career. Your poems often enact the exact moment where embodied experience ceases to be contained or policed by language and its ordinances of grammar – in that instant, your poems go all gorgeous with non sequitur flourish and lyric overflow, ecstatic stutter and delicious melisma. And I love how the title of these essays, The Skin of Meaning, insists on a conflation language and body. Indeed, it’s a central gesture of your poiesis, to posit a perpetual analogy between the textual and the physical bodies, which indeed blur together in a sensual unboundedness. Though those moments when language fails our bodies can also be deeply unpleasant, you argue in your recent essay “Prosody Now” that prosody “is the face and form by which the poem falls more deeply in love with meaning…and the body through which writer and reader are drawn into the embrace.” I never cease to be astonished by this idealism, this faith in language. And I’m wondering how you might figure the relation between prosody and, say, the work of elegy, or between this loving embrace and the kinds of violence we spoke of earlier – shame, homophobia, AIDS?

AS: Oh, Brian, your reading of my work makes my own work lucid for me. Prosody as the body of meaning, the means of sensual apprehension of language and the throbbing grid of intellection: There’s no privileging of content in this dynamic. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing about yesterday’s shimmering mackerel sky, or today’s lunatic political maneuver, or the loss-out-of-time of a generation stampeded by AIDS — the urgency of the work to take shape via the magic near-embodiment — the formal contours or inherence we call prosody — is identical. The poem as howl, say, needs lungs that are capacious, a skull that can resonate, a voice that can be thrown. The writer needs that from the poem, and so does the reader, who reads because she seeks knowledge of the howl, experience of the howl. In “Reverie: A Requiem, “ for example, it wasn’t till a month-long investigation into stanza formation, culminating in the invention of a stanza that was simultaneously justified and versified — the lines of the stanza were set as prose but the end of each stanza was also a line break… it wasn’t till the poem found that shape that the second and third parts arrived in a rush and the full arc of the poem came into view. The poem wanted to inhabit a dual city of circumstance and memory, the glittering city that was, and the city immediately on fire threatened with extinction. It needed the flow of rage on one level, and the disjunction or trigger to switch to the alternate current where another river flowed, with “my eyes clear and the air clear// and that blue-jewel horizon and my pledge of intent with my heart clear in my deep-breathing chest.” Every writer has to be an idealist to imagine the possibility of such enactment: you dream it for yourself and you dream it for the reader, that you might find the means to give meaningful shape to your shame or ecstasy, and that the reader might also “be drawn into the embrace,” so that shame might live to be expiated or ecstasy ignited. The reader, too, is possessed of such dreams, and perhaps now it makes sense to call prosody not a body but a book, to describe the agency of such interactive transmission as a Book of Dreams. Maybe that’s the culmination of the “analogy between the textual and the physical bodies”: the return of the figure from body to text. Which book is in your hands, of course, and your astonishment at my idealism matches your own idealism that continues to write itself forward. Perhaps it’s what you meant anyway, but for sure that we share. Dream, book, body, shame, or flourish: Language admits us such strange enchantments we seize on and inhabit as a poem.


Aaron Shurin is the author of twelve books of poetry and prose, most recently The Skin of Meaning: Collected Literary Essays and Talks (University of Michigan Press, 2016) and Citizen, a collection of prose poems (City Lights Books, 2012.) His writing has appeared in over forty national and international anthologies, and has been supported by grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the San Francisco Arts Commission, and the Gerbode Foundation. He is Professor Emeritus in the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco.

A 2015 Pew Fellow in the Arts, Brian Teare is the recipient of poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, the Headlands Center for the Arts, the Fund for Poetry, the Vermont Studio Center, and the American Antiquarian Society. He is the author of five critically acclaimed books, most recently Companion Grasses, which was a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award, and The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, a Library Journal Best Indie Poetry pick. An Assistant Professor at Temple University, he lives in South Philadelphia, where he makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books.

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