Christopher Schmidt: I want to start with a line from Don’t Go Back to Sleep, your latest manuscript, which you’ve generously shared with me. The line is “Question lyric authenticity.” What qualifies as lyric authenticity for you, and how should we go about questioning it? Does it have anything to do with your earlier description of lyric as “a return to paradise, but unsullied by language.” Is lyric an attempt to return to some state of innocence? Or is poetry more authentic when it acknowledges its fall from origins?
Timothy Liu: If we strip these kinds of spiritual terms, like paradise, for a moment, what I would say is that the emotional life, the life of feeling, is what gives life value. And a lot of intense feeling happens at a pre-verbal level, before we ever master language. It’s amorphous, chthonic, unformed, but it’s there. A lot of times I’ll wake up from a dream and I don’t remember the narrative or the images, but I’m in the soup of the feeling. I don’t have a language for it, but it’s there and I can stay with it for a while. Feeling actually can be unmitigated by language. And we use language to try and put it in a ballpark. When people first go to therapy, a lot of times they don’t even know how to talk about their feelings at all. And so the big joke is, you start with the three basic ones, which are sad, glad, and mad.
CS: Which rhyme.
TL: Which rhyme. And many people, they will work on that for the first couple years of therapy. Just at a basic level, people don’t even know if they’re sad, glad, or mad. When I go to a poetry reading, I often feel like the nuances of feeling are missing from people’s poetry. There are a lot of poets who are very spectacular and pyrotechnic with language. But after a poetry reading, when you sit down and have a drink with one of them for half an hour, you start to notice that they have trouble with feeling on the sad, glad, mad level. Which shows up in the work. “Question lyric authenticity” makes me ask if what I’m hearing or reading is lyrically authentic. Does the song have feeling? Does it come from a true place, or is it just tap dancing? Is it being fancy, is it a little smokescreen?
To me, reading a poem is like going on a date. If you go on a date and the person you’re going out with is just being ironic, it’s very tiresome after a while. Because what you really want to move towards is intimacy. You want to say, okay, you don’t have to impress me anymore. Tell me something about yourself. I like moments on a date when you can ask: When was the last time you cried? When was the last time you read a poem that made you cry? Have you even written a great love poem? If so, will you read it to me now? I’m not fancy when it comes to poetry. All these things have to do with lyric authenticity.
CS: You mentioned feelings that can’t be expressed in language. Is that why you think you’re attracted to poetry? Because there’s some kind of musical quality that conveys feelings beyond the semantic?
TL: Poetry is an art form that produces intense feeling, and that’s why I’m attracted to it. I just went to “The Ring Cycle” last week—basically, eighteen-and-a-half hours at the Met over the course of an entire week. I don’t question any of the feeling states that that opera stirs in me, and it’s the same thing with poetry.
The difference is, when I read poetry, I immediately feel like I want to do it. When I was an undergraduate and read Louise Glück’s poem, “Mock Orange,” “It is not the moon, I tell you. / It is these flowers / lighting the yard. / I hate them. / I hate them as I hate sex, / the man’s mouth / sealing my mouth, the man’s / paralyzing body—”, I remember thinking, Fuck! This is not Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. This is not a chick flick. And the feeling—she captured something that I recognized. You could say she created the feeling, but so much of poetry is recognition. And then the very next thing you want to do, besides re-read the poem, maybe memorize it or buy the book, is you want to be able to do that to someone else.
Poetry is like that. At its finest, it touches very deep wounds: individual, collective. It’s ecstatic, it’s spiritual, it’s healing. It rearranges the way we think about things. And it awakens us to feeling. Because so much of what we go through in life numbs us.
CS: You mentioned “deep wounds.” I’m wondering if you want to talk a little bit more about the relationship of your poetry to trauma. In one of your poems, you write about “the kind of smile abuse / survivors had, a kind of smile / that turned me on…”
TL: That’s a poem called “The Gift.”
CS: There’s an eroticization of trauma here that reappears in another poem. You write, “The body / of my mother being rolled / into the morgue’s gas jets / is what I picture whenever he / enters me.”
CS: The title of that poem is “Building Trust.”
TL: “Building Trust.” [Laughs.] Two of the darker poems in the manuscript.
CS: Could you talk more about this? Is there a relationship between a paternal/maternal trauma and a later erotic trauma? Or perhaps not “erotic trauma,” but an attempt to exorcise trauma through eros?
TL: If we think about the whole myth of Eros—whether it’s Eros and Psyche, or I like to think of Cupid, the son of Venus—it’s the arrow goes in the body and makes the wound. Let’s just say it’s a figure for the loss of virginity. That you fall madly in love for the first time in your life—you don’t want to be separated from this person. And then, sexually, you’re going to receive pleasure at the same time you’re going to be wounded. You’re going to bleed, you’re going to be torn open. It doesn’t matter if you’re two men, or a man and a woman, or two women. And there’s a confusion because we know that pain and pleasure reside on the same continuum. Pleasure is the stimulation of our nervous system, and the minute you cross the line with too much stimulation, it’s pain. It’s a mystery, because we don’t know where that line is at any given moment. Every person has their own relationship to that. Bondage and discipline. S & M. While that’s not exactly my thing, I do think about the psychic economy between top/bottom, force/surrender—what parts of me are more sadistic and what parts masochistic. All this would go on whether I was a poet or not. Trauma goes on regardless. But I do think we’re all carrying wounds that we want to heal. And before the healing can occur there first must be a recognition, an awareness.
What comes first is the feeling. It gets triggered because of the traumas that we all share. It’s very traumatic to be born. It’s very traumatic to grow up and be utterly helpless and try to acquire language and deal with these two people who are supposed to take care of you. It’s traumatic to go to school and become socialized, then have hormones flooding through your body. To be rejected; we all go through it. This is just the trauma of being alive. Life is an ecstatic experience full of the traumatic. No one escapes it. We all have this in common.
CS: In the preface to “The Thames & Hudson Project” your collaborative chapbook with Hansa Bergwall, you mention a “Barthesian Striptease.” I wonder if you could explain what you mean by that. There is certainly an element of erotic autobiography in your work, even to the degree that one critic said that you “search for secrets in the semen.”
TL: Really? [Laughs.]
CS: You don’t remember that one?
CS: That was Charles Altieri. Anyway, it seems that there is also a measure of role play and erotic feint in these erotic expressions as well. Is that part of what you mean by the “striptease”—a revelation that’s also a masquerade?
TL: What I remember writing is, “The Barthesian Striptease the peanut-crunching crowd keeps shoving into see.” So, I’m actually marrying Roland Barthes and Sylvia Plath. I think it’s “Lady Lazarus” where she talks about her attempts at suicide to be almost like a kind of circus performance that the crowd is hungry to see. The Barthes comes form The Pleasure of the Text, one of my favorite books. Basically, he feels that art and seduction are both trying to hold the viewer or reader’s attention. Can the writer keep you in thrall or do you get bored and set the book down before reaching the end?
When Hansa and I were collaborating, we were interested in something beyond mere seduction. It wasn’t enough to just hold each other’s attention. Rather, what would it feel like to sit with another person and enter a third realm where both of you dissolve? Can those ecstatic states be caught in language? I don’t see that happening much in our poetic culture.
CS: And the chapbook with Hansa was an attempt to create this kind of third realm?
TL: It was kind of a challenge, a retroactive challenge, because at that point we had already written the poems. How to articulate our project to someone else? And to say, do you, reader, value ecstatic love? Have you ever entered the third place with another person? Because that’s what we’re going to show you.
CS: Can you say a bit about the nature of the collaboration?
TL: The first half of our chapbook collects fourteen collaborations, poems we wrote together in/from an ecstatic place. The second half of the book consists of poems that we wrote back and forth to/for each other when we were apart.
CS: How did you write the collaborative poems?
TL: We basically took turns with every other line, sometimes every few words.
CS: Writing in the same room?
TL: At a bar, on the A train, at one of our apartments. But also emailing and texting. And what we noticed after a while is both of our voices dissolved into a third voice. In fact, a lot of people who know both of our work pretty well have no idea who wrote what. As time goes by, we ourselves can’t always remember who wrote what. I think that’s why we wanted to have the collaborative poems in the chapbook first, to introduce that third voice before separating our voices out. But even in the second section, we don’t attribute who wrote what poem, leaving readers to guess.
CS: Does this blurring of voices disturb the “authenticity” we discussed earlier? What if the reader can’t tell who wrote the poem about stalking the other’s house at 4 a.m.? Does it matter if it’s an “authentic” fact, or just drawn from our common vocabulary of love, jealousy, and erotic obsession?
TL: The stalking under the window image is not mine. The question remains interesting because when Hansa sent this poem to me, I had to ask myself, should I look out my window tonight? Is this a figure of language or is this reportage? Perhaps it matters less if the event actually happened than the fact it’s been fastened to the page. So I wouldn’t place much privilege on whether this or that actually happened. That’s the thing—question lyric authenticity. Louise Glück writes in her book, Proofs and Theories, “Truth is not about facts.” You can make something up that’s more true than something that actually happened.
Philip Levine was a teacher of mine. And he tells this story of where he gave a reading and afterwards a woman went up to him and said, “Mr. Levine, I’m really moved by that poem you wrote about your sister fighting cancer. It moved me to tears.” And she said, “I just want to know, how is your sister?” And he looked at her and blurted out, “I don’t have a sister.” So, what just happened there?
CS: The contract was broken.
TL: He was 60 years old when I knew him. He probably had known someone who had died of cancer. Or maybe he had a relative who had some other disease. Or maybe he had a sister he didn’t want to talk about. What I think is important is that the reader— or the listener in this case—had a strong reaction. And she wanted to know more about this feeling he had stirred up, to pursue it right into autobiography, as you say. She wanted to attach it to the real world. And that contract was broken. Phil didn’t allow it. It was a rude awakening for her. And frankly, I would love to know what poem we’re talking about. Because ever since I heard this story, over 23 years ago, I’ve wondered if he hadn’t made the entire story up.
CS: Because you haven’t found the poem that she was referring to?
TL: No, I haven’t. I haven’t looked that hard, but I remember when he told this story I couldn’t think of what poem it was. So, in the back of my mind, I’ve often wondered, what if this story’s made up? Authenticity is a very weird question. A friend of mine in grad school once wrote a poem in which he took on the voice of his girlfriend locked down in a mental ward, dealing with her past of having been raped. After he read his poem aloud in workshop, the women in the room were livid. They thought his poem was bullshit. They said he failed at making the speaker’s voice credible. In poetry, we seem to pride ourselves on having a very sophisticated shit-detector. They were questioning his lyrical authenticity.
CS: Let’s move on because I want to talk about how this authenticity effect works formally in your own poetry. In your last few books what I’ve noticed is that there’s a tendency towards a more reduced poem, or an elliptical poem with shorter lines and lots of space between them. There’s a kind of sparseness to the landscape and a methodical purpose to the way the lines end. But added to that, a kind of metaphorical excess. In the shorter poems, that happens by leaps, in the gaps between the lines. But in a second kind of poem, usually a prose poem, the excess is more headlong and fleet. There’s almost a kind of metaphorical promiscuity or extravagance that’s inbred—one metaphor comes tumbling out of the previous one. Can you talk about that tension?
TL: Well, I’m interested formally in the difference between end-stopping every line versus the torsion you get with a succession of enjambments. In the former kind of poem, what you do get are enforced pauses so the lines can linger before attaching themselves to the next thing. Take a book like Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette where she tweezers every few words with quotation marks. You can’t read it fast. At all. So why would you want to slow down a poem? I would say this: feeling takes time, is slow. Most of my own poems are shorter than a page. The reader can take in the poem’s itinerary with a single glance. Perhaps I employ end-stopped monostichs to slow them down. Imagine if you read a poem where every line was full-stopped, only it’s a 500-page poem. That would produce a different feeling! I don’t know if you’ve ever read Lisa Roberston’s R’s Boat . . .
CS: I reviewed it.
TL: Can’t remember if she full-stops every line with a period or not, but I remember the lines are quite varied and extended. So they shift the poem’s sense of duration. It matters if you’re in for a long ride or if you only have to read eight lines.
The second type of poem you talked about, where one line just smashes up into the next—it’s a kind of vortex, the unit of the sentence unspooling nimbly down the line breaks.
Everything’s kind of rolling along, happening really fast. And that’s a bit like film montage. If you think about montage, you get everything in quick succession. And you can do that either with traditional punctuation and lots of enjambment, or you can leave all that out.
I’m sure we’ve all had coffees with people who have motor mouths, narcissistic to the max. There won’t be a lot of nuanced feeling going on, but maybe other kinds of energy. Which can be good for poetry—a kind of manic incantation, let’s say, something like Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Think about how long those lines are. We have this phrase, “people going off” because their buttons are pushed; they’re upset. And so maybe that’s what’s happening in poems that rely less on end stops and are smashed together.
CS: Does one type of poem contain more feeling, or are they just different kinds of feeling?
TL: Now I’m wondering if there’s inherently more feeling in full-stopped monostichs than poems that ramble down the page. I’m not sure. But I can feel a difference when I write a poem with full-stopped monostichs. That sense of disjuncture and rupture. Of course I’m not the only poet writing in double or triple-spaced monostichs. But when I read poems like these in magazines, I often think, such and such a poet doesn’t know how to contain the energy, how to torque and preserve the necessary tensions.
CS: Of course there are poems in Don’t Go Back to Sleep that don’t fit either of these categories, which are often more narrative. These poems capture a third feeling—or are they different spaces that you’re writing out of? Landscapes?
TL: When Beethoven writes a symphony versus a quartet versus a sonata, he’s Beethoven in all of them, but the palette is completely different. I think that’s the kind of question that I’m asking. There’s part of me that wants to write a very moving poem that’s based in narrative, where I’m not being so pyrotechnic with language. I really want to try to capture something else. It doesn’t matter if the poem is written in full-stop monostichs. Or if it’s a little bit more surreal and kinetic and manic. Or if it seems a little bit more calm and narrative. It’s just different ways of getting at the same obsession. I used to worry about this, especially between my third and fourth books. I’d think, well, are my narrative poems too mainstream? Not avant-garde enough? Say Goodnight is very lyric, narrative, composed on syllabics. I felt Hard Evidence had to be a complete break from it. I wondered, can I accommodate these different impulses under the same covers, or am I going to be seen as a flip-flopper?
CS: What led you to the break between those two books?
TL: When my third book came out, C.D. Wright said to me, “Tim, I’ve just read your book, and I really liked it a lot.” Then she said, “But, honey, you’ve got to loosen up.”
TL: What she meant was loosen up my syntax. Her syntax was much more inventive than my own. When I was writing the fourth book, I wrote 90 fourteen-line sonnets, triple-spaced, in which I threw out traditional punctuation and syntax. And I ended up keeping 20 of those poems from that series, which ended up as the second section of Hard Evidence called “To Calamus.” That’s where the break came. I thought, she’s right; I’m very uptight. My syntax is very Mormon, is what I thought.
CS: Mormonism was part of your upbringing, correct?
TL: I converted when I was 14, but it was definitely a big part of my growing up.
CS: I wonder how this upbringing relates to what you call your obsession. Do you want to describe this obsession? I assume it relates to erotic philosophy. An erotic philosophy that maybe sees pleasure in abjection. And which returns again and again to parental oversight—perhaps also its calamitous withdrawal—as the theatre of that abjection.
TL: Wow. [Laughs.]
CS: [Laughs.] Did I just say that?
TL: I should pay you $200 dollars an hour. Hearing you describe it, I might put it this way: I’m interested in the forbidden. And I’m interested in that moment where you’re about to lose Eden. And I’m very interested in transgression. I think transgression is the portal to authenticity. As my therapist likes to say, “The feeling never fits the form.” I just got married last July, when it became legal in New York State. And, in a way, I felt like I was marrying the wrong person, because the person I was most crazy about was marrying someone else.
And I said, how can this be?
And the answer is: the feeling always exceeds the form. It’s bigger than the forms we are given. A couple months after our wedding, my husband and I created a nuptial ceremony that we “put on” at Poet’s House in order to honor and celebrate the relationship that was uniquely ours, the whole happening documented on film. As it happens, the Beloved whom I did not marry, also participated. In order to be true to our feelings, we have to invent new forms.
What does this mean when it comes to the practice of poetry? The poem, in some ways, always fails. The poem can be magnificent, but it’s always a shadow of something else that’s already lost. Beyond transgression, there’s also redemption. I do think erotic experience is redemptive. It participates in a spiritual dimension, by which I mean invisible realms beyond the five senses. Beyond reason. Beyond our bodies that will decay and fail us in the end. There’s something bigger out there than all of us. And how do we get there? You can’t get there without transgression, without breaking the law. Breaking the preconceived forms in order to arrive at un-conceived forms that are more true to yourself and to your nature.
This interview took place on May 15, 2012. Transcription by Alison McDonald.
Timothy Liu is the author of eight collections of poetry, including Bending the Mind Around the Dream’s Blown Fuse (Talisman House, 2009) and Polytheogamy (2009), a Saturnalia Artist/Poet series collaboration with artist Greg Drasler. With Hansa Bergwall, he is the author of the chapbook The Thames & Hudson Project (Field Press, 2012). Liu is Professor of English at William Patterson University and a core faculty member in the Graduate Writing Seminars at Bennington College. He lives in Manhattan with his husband.