This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Jennifer Moxley’s Clampdown (Flood Editions, 2009).
H.L. Hix: Since one aspect of my project is to engage poetry by conversing with it rather than pontificating about it, I am especially interested in the sense that seems formative in Clampdown, of poetry as itself a conversation. The poems seem to be talking with Alice Notley, James Schuyler, Robert Creeley, Constance Hunting, and others. Do you mean for the book to be a conversation in that sense, and if so why was it important to make it such a conversation?
Jennifer Moxley: I can’t imagine that this quality is unique to Clampdown, as I have always thought of poetry as a conversation. For me, poetry is a conversation back through history, forward into the future (Whitman: “I consider’d you long and seriously before you were born”), and with the present as well. I am influenced by Creeley’s sense of “company,” and Duncan’s “responsibility is to keep the ability to respond.” In this isolated and isolating art, I am comforted by the belief that a “conversation” can take place through literature, across time, as it were. I feel this is a foundational aspect of the art. Dante revivifies Virgil so they may talk. Clearly the poet would not have bothered if Virgil had not spoken to him first. Our works are invitations, often rejected, despite which fact they send their signals still. I cannot accept that I must “make do” with what my historical moment has on offer, nor that I should be moved by something I read and not manifest that feeling in a response, and a wish to so move others.
Another aspect of “poetry as conversation” emerges through my definition of lyric poetry. I have written on this, so will only summarize here: lyric makes real the response to the social conversation for which there is no space or permission, it is the voice of the silenced interlocutor, formally framed and decorated so as to escape censor. Thus conversation in poetry need not be wanted, or shared. It can be, and often is, a provocation.
The connection between the conversation and the essay also intrigues me insofar as both are spaces for trying out ideas without the pressure of having to be right, or of having thought one’s way all the way through to the end. I feel that the thinking that takes place in these forms is both generative and generous, unlike the thinking too often rewarded in academic contexts.
Then again…I am fond of direct statements of belief and the audacity of saying “it is so.”
When you send me your questions as a response to Clampdown you ask that the conversation not end when you close the book. In many ways this is much more meaningful to me than a good review, which is not for me, but for a “reader” whom I have not yet met.
HH: The poems also seem to me to be meditative in a particular way, not unlike the way I understand Montaigne and Emerson, say, as thinking of the essay. How resistant would you be to a reader viewing Clampdown not only as a collection of lyric poems but also as a collection of verse essays?
JM: I would feel no resistance to such a reading, in fact I’m usually very open to whatever reading a reader wants to give my poems. Though it would be false to say that I wrote Clampdown with the essay in mind. I do write poems in the intellectual tradition, that is to say, I believe the poem is a space of thought rhythmically arranged. But that is just one aspect. Poems can also tell stories, and, I think very importantly, represent the complexity of emotion and memory. (Your “Remarks on Color” is certainly a fine example of this.) There is an aspect to knowing that takes place in a realm that cannot be defined as “rational,” or even “real.” This poetry shows us. The essay strikes me as more suited to a kind of “account” of the thought process. “This happened and I had a thought…”
Your question was written no doubt without the knowledge that I am in the process of completing a book of essays at this very moment! But this project was begun after Clampdown was finished. My essays, very much inspired by Risset, allow me a certain kind of thinking that I don’t usually do in poetry. They are more evocative and calm, I believe.
HH: The description “providing a meaning to bring to / a future in which we will not be” (56) is spoken as part of a brief critique of “this kind of just war.” As a disembodied phrase, though, it could be applied to poetry. How does that possibility participate in (what I take to be) the book’s attempt to “cast a cold eye” on both war and poetry, to oversimplify neither but also to be duped by neither?
JM: “To be duped by neither.” The question might be, rather, how to have convictions and passion without blindly embracing this or that ideology? An unsettled aesthetics. I’m not suspicious of poetry, but of any too-narrow definition of it; likewise of the idea that poetry is somehow “superior” to other pursuits. I can’t say I understand war, but I resent the way it bullies away all other thoughts. As for “a future in which we will not be,” that is the “deal” poetry, or any art, offers mortals. Though it is not particularly comforting, how glad I am that past poets took it!
My book The Line is much caught up in the complexities (read resentment) I have felt about this “deal.” In some ways, it allowed me to write my way through it. But, there is it, showing up in Clampdown!
That said, an addendum: there is meaning in the present, the meaning that takes place in the process of writing, of shaping a life in words. But it is evanescent, often dissatisfying, and difficult to bottle.
Poet and translator Jennifer Moxley’s collections include: Clampdown, The Line, Often Capital, The Sense Record, and Imagination Verses. Her poem “Behind the Orbits” was chosen by Robert Creeley for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2002. She has published a memoir and translated three books from the French. Her book of essays, There Are Things We Live Among, will be published in August 2012 by Flood Editions. Though a California native, she now lives in Maine with her husband, scholar Steve Evans, and her cat Odette. She teaches poetry and poetics at the University of Maine. For more information on Moxley visit: http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/moxley/