Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Nadelberg’s book Bright Brave Phenomena (Coffee House Press). Recorded June 8. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Could we first discuss the book-length structure? Certain poems seem to have sequels scattered throughout. “Me and the Bad Ass” gets followed, significantly later, by “Me and the Bad Ass, Part II,” and III. Travel/dream narratives get interspersed amid shorter lyrics. Thematics of circulation continue to circulate. Does that help to stitch together the overall structure? Can you delineate its guiding principles?
Amanda Nadelberg: When I started writing poems that eventually became the beginnings of this book, it seemed important to have no structure. My first book had been a project with very clear rules. I actually wrote a second manuscript between the first book and this one, based on yet another project. After that, a friend said, do the thing you’re not comfortable doing and don’t write a project. For a long time I interpreted that wonderful advice as don’t write anything cohesive. I collected scraps of notes for poems. I kept little lines in a small box. Eventually I started dipping into this material to connect…not quite collaging, but it felt like quilting (and I’m not saying quilting because I’m a woman). But stitching older lines became an instinct, a practice while writing. I’d written a couple of the early poems before I began grad school, and then grad school’s rigor and/or leisure allowed me to finish this book in a year and a half. Near the end I began to sense some wild but actual structure I hadn’t intended—which felt really satisfying. I remember first seeing it when I laid out everything on the living room floor. There were the “Badass” poems and another group of poems visually structured in a specific way. Then I saw the longer poems with asterisks that are all related, both in form and because I wrote them while watching Éric Rohmer movies. So structures existed but they didn’t feel deliberate. Looking back at that emotional timeframe, I now can detect a structure I hadn’t even imagined, built up poem by poem.
AF: It’s great that your attempt to write a book of discrete poems became its own project. Do you want to describe the project-oriented nature of your preceding book?
AN: For my first book Isa the Truck Named Isadore…well, I should say that in college, I’d had a lot of trouble with titles. My relationship to them felt horrific. So after college, I was moving to Minnesota, driving across the country, shortcutting through Canada, when a truck passed by that read “Isadore Trucking.” A lightning blip in my brain said, oh, go buy a dictionary of first names and those can become your titles—find names you want to name poems, then write that many poems. So I did, from September 2004 to March 2005. Some names related quite well to their poems’ contents while some seemed more like untitled markers. But that’s the structure.
AF: Isadore’s a good name with which to start. It sounds very Gertrude Stein. Your relationship to titles had been horrific because you disliked them? Because you couldn’t design them right?
AN: Yeah. I couldn’t recognize one. I didn’t know how to find them or what they sounded like, or I felt cocky in this act of imagining…you know, a title can intimidate by seeming self-important. Or the process of titling itself could seem that way. I rarely had trouble coming up with poems but yeah, putting that cap on felt phony.
AF: I wonder how this relates to being project-oriented, to having a diffuse, all-over consciousness spread across the work, rather than giving it a face and foregrounding how it ought to be read. Do specific books appeal to you for finding their overall structure through emergent process, rather than preemptive strategy? I’m thinking, in response to your phrase “emotional timeframe,” of projects like Creeley’s Day Book or some James Schuyler, who offers a book of the seasons—or his longer poems.
AN: I love both poets, but can’t speak to those specific works standing out in my mind. Though I remember the first time I read Christine Hume’s Alaskaphrenia I totally died in wonder of its structure-less structure. Visually all of those poems don’t look the same, yet some emotional tenor keeps her book cohesive, related to itself, while never seeming overhanded.
AF: Éric Rohmer here interests me, too. “France” circulates through the book, as does Rohmer’s attention to the weather and the seasons—both as generalized concepts and more specific manifestations. 1986 appears several times. Often these motifs hint at referential elements, potentially connected to your own life, though also at devices arranged for abstract musicality.
AN: In Iowa, Ben Estes introduced me to Rohmer’s movies, which reminded me, backwardsly, of mumblecore movies and also aspects of Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach and their films’ awkward honesty. So I began to watch Rohmer movies by myself. After I watched Claire’s Knee I wrote the poem called “Poem from Claire’s Knee.” Because I adored it, I rewatched the movie soon and found myself talking at the screen, and talking to myself, talking into the film. I didn’t speak aloud (that’s crazy!), but I wrote notes. Something about this felt productive. The poem “Another Interpretation” came from that. Suddenly I was writing a long poem that emerged through quick, almost immediate transference. I continued this method with several other films. I constructed each poem pretty much in one sitting, because I’d just pause the movie when I couldn’t write fast enough, then resume watching. These poems were written in response to—what are they called?
AF: Did you watch his seasons cycle?
AN: I hadn’t yet seen the seasons cycle. No, the “Six Moral Tales.”
AF: Oh like My Night with Maud? All those?
AN: Yes, My Night with Maud and La collectionneuse, Claire’s Knee. The world of those films made me think about France. But also watching those movies many times made France appear in other poems, unrelated to this particular series. Those French landscapes fit so well with the imagined scenery of the rest of this collection. Then during the book’s making I also watched a lot of home videos, mostly from 1986 and 1987, from family trips (sometimes with the volume off while listening to music).
AF: I like the image of you speaking, silently, to Rohmer films. Watching Rohmer feels like reading to me, in part because of his serial projects. Typically, when you watch a single film, you have no control over its temporality. You’ve mentioned pausing certain scenes, but at the theater a film keeps pushing forward. Still I love how you can pick your way through somebody’s interrelated corpus and follow your instincts and watch one film then another. And I’ll note such serial tendencies in your own book. One literary device that appears almost incessantly, like Rohmer’s repeated motifs, is analogy and, along with it, parataxis—placing two things side-by-side. So your poem “How Did This Happen,” for example, contains two “likes” in its opening sentence. The next sentence starts with an elaborate “as” clause then “like” and “as” keep appearing. Many poems here operate similarly. Even titles such as “Another Interpretation” or “Alternatives Considered” make me curious about this role of the comparative in your poetics.
AN: That’s funny because I just was thinking today when I used the dictionary how I’ll often spend more time with the thesaurus. And I wondered why my brain has such an easier time with a thesaurus than it does with definitions. So your question kind of answers that for me.
AF: The thesaurus pivot, or shift, appeals to you?
AN: It’s almost like thesaurusland is one language and dictionaries are another, and I want to belong to the thesaurus. There’s some kind of reading comprehension I get stuck on, with definitions, that doesn’t happen with “this is like this is like this is like this.” I love patterns and connection-making, like “red car, red car, red car on the street.” Pattern-seeking feels natural and comfortable. “Like” and “as” provide a mode of explaining in which you always can keep piling on likeness. What’s helpful to me about this way of thinking (I say so after the fact) is that amid all the wading through impossibility or failure or solutionless life, there’s still the delicacy of placing two things beside each other and seeing how that goes. And another point related to the beginning of your question, when you said that watching Rohmer films resembles reading: I love watching movies with captions because it’s so nice to be around people (the actors) but reading simultaneously. Also, I love to read with that kind of picture behind the reading, like a moving picture book for adults. In fact, the size of a subtitled line is often as long as lines in poems.
AF: Just quickly back to this problem of titles. They often seem to classify and define, and to interpret in advance of a poem. But now in terms of you laying things side-by-side, parallel bodies appear a lot. The final stanza of “Dear Fruit” provides an example: “What I found in the river / is the night we found each other. / Quiet, green he laid down, my / head hurt like the top of a train, / a dog shaking clouds out of the sky. / I wear a helmet so you don’t hurt / me, I wear a helmet to keep a / heart. I am a small raincoat, you / are the weatherman. Fall down, / fall down. I mean the woods.” With these bodies, the helmet, the raincoat, I’ll picture a Balthus painting’s figures overlapping on separate planes, not touching. Coupling in your book takes the form of parallax, with dreams not about having sex, but sex endlessly deferred. At the same time some longer poems do function as quasi-narratives. Those seem to move a plot along. So here’s the question: how do narrative and parataxis blend in this book? The poem “Our Flowers are Called Waterflowers, and They Need a Lot of Water” seems strung together by non-sequiturs and shifts in modes of address. I’m curious if these longer poems, such as what I’ve called travel narratives, or the “story” about Henry and bears in Alaska, do these operate according to similar procedures as the shorter lyrics?
AN: Yeah, that’s a good example. I think there was some of this smushing together in “Our Flowers.” But not entirely. And no absolute rule exists for the shorter poems. For “Our Flowers” I remember someone saying it felt very disjointed. Then I remember other people making a connection between the mackerel and the river (where mackerel might go), and a bird being by the water and some sort of scene that happens. I don’t identify this poem as nonsense. I think it tries to communicate something, and tries various ways until that something gets communicated, which might mean speaking in a slightly different manner.
AF: I’m thinking of traditional distinctions between poets whose syntax emulates visual art more than narrative (again placing things near or next to each other). Meaning can get structured through space, rather than through a causal chain of events.
AN: My parents will disagree when a friend says, I don’t understand your daughter’s poetry. My mom just described this the other day—something like, I’ll look at it as I would an abstract painting, and you don’t know what’s going on, but get a feeling from it. My father’s response is more, I don’t know what it means, but I know she’s trying to say something she means, or that I might be in that poem, even though I can’t tell I’m in the poem. And I believe in an answer somewhere between them.
AF: This fluid crisscross seems crucial to your poetry, and often gets held together by a conspicuous, though not necessarily conclusive, last line. “You Are a Thieving Joy” ends “Something like an ocean lives in the grass.” That last line takes on added heft. Can you describe the role last lines play in the book?
AN: Yes, and again, it’s funny: near the end of writing this book I took a seminar about the ends of poems taught by Geoffrey G. O’Brien. We read Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s Poetic Closure. I remember growing more conscious as a reader, though that didn’t appear to translate to my work as a writer. Looking back, I do see certain familiar spaces almost like my landing gear for a certain kind of ending. When I’ve done some readings lately I’m like, oh, that poem ends the same way as this poem—I shouldn’t read them together. Still it’s interesting you pointed to “You Are a Thieving Joy,” because that poem’s end felt wrong and stayed slightly different for a very, very long time. Then at some point I cut half of the line in half and it felt finished. I guess around the same time that I began to recognize what a title sounded like, I started recognizing the ding-dong of a poem’s last line. Sometimes I think they are interchangeable, or at least I’ll wonder. I haven’t yet made an Excel chart, but I mean, “you are a thieving joy” could end a poem. To some extent this book became a lesson in rearranging. For the “Powerage” poem’s end (actually that whole last stanza), I’d been working on the poem for a year, on and off, and originally it ended “Watch me open this cheap beer with my teeth.” Then a teacher pointed out that that stanza could be rearranged any number of ways. So I found myself printing the lines and cutting them out, rearranging them on my kitchen table until something felt right. But books don’t come in that state. My lines don’t come in a plastic baggy you get to rearrange on your kitchen table, but it would be interesting if they did. I’m open to that looseness, or muddled sense.
AF: I’ve wondered if you interact with public texts this way. I’ll encounter a line like “huffed against a fence post” and think, did Amanda just read the Huffington Post? Or AC/DC will pop up and I’ll picture you at a deli buying bottled water.
AN: I do sometimes read the Huffington Post, but don’t think…I don’t remember where “Huffed against a fence post” came from. That just seems some sort of emotional image. And I don’t mean emotional like I’m crying all the time. It just seemed a true idea. For AC/DC: around the time I wrote that poem, a friend saw me dancing and said, I bet you’d really like AC/DC.
AF: Suggesting a music to fit your dance?
AN: Yeah. It was a good time for listening to AC/DC and I like the kind of gross and bawdy, but also awesome anger in some of those songs. Those videos of Bon Scott and the younger brother, Angus Young, offer amazing feats of happy destruction. So I found myself listening to AC/DC, and liking what this did to my rhythms or durations of a sentence. “Me and the Badass” and “Powerage” are two of the book’s earliest poems. Especially with “Powerage,” once I’d finished it I knew…that poem made me realize I was doing something different, that a time was beginning in which I would write poems that could sit down at the table with this poem.
AF: Amid this AC/DC phase, mean people keep appearing—assholes and bitches. The “I” refers to having had a recent angry period. Do these playful gestures hint at autobiographical reference? Do they reflect a phase of lived experience, less in terms of events than tonality?
AN: I guess. Though there always have been mean people.
AF: Any reason why here they came up often?
AN: Perhaps the music’s punchiness got me thinking about other kinds of punchiness, about assholes. But I’ll also say: the autobiographical question interests me. I’m fascinated by the idea of the imaginary confessional. Because if Confessional poetry (and I consider this true) became forbidden at a certain point, in certain communities, still there’s something quite satisfying, reading-wise, in terms of peeking through the windows of Confessional poetry. This book resembles a mess or stew of some truth but mostly fiction, which can nevertheless feel ordinary and daily and lifelike. That’s what I admire about Rohmer movies. He’ll use lines that, if you saw them in a script, might make you say, this doesn’t belong in a beautiful movie—this is so ordinary. Or, this line costs five cents and every line of dialogue should cost five dollars. Something interests me in the mode or tonality of confessing (not in a religious sense) amid the context of make-believe or fiction. That’s more important to me than writing a book of events that actually happened. I’m comfortable in the way you can hide or not hide yourself in something believable but not necessarily true.
AF: I appreciate the classic analogy between confessional poems and a window. I like how you’re intermixing windows, paintings, film screens—how any of these could provide access to an interchangeable network.
AN: That’s good. That’s good.
Amanda Nadelberg is the author of Bright Brave Phenomena (Coffee House Press, 2012) and Isa the Truck Named Isadore (Slope Editions, 2006) as well as a chapbook, Building Castles in Spain, Getting Married (The Song Cave, 2009). She lives in Oakland.