Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Wetherington’s book A Map Predetermined and Chance (Fence). Recorded May 19th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Perhaps because I respect your work on the audio journal textsound, reading A Map Predetermined and Chance lead to questions about sonic elements and music-related thematics. Your book may acknowledge that [“this sentence does not rhyme,”] but its melopoetic touches, its deft assonance, syncopated prose rhythms and literal musical scores interrupted any quick assimilation of content. What are the autobiographical, literary, argumentative drives toward this diffusive focus on text as sonic performance?
Laura Wetherington: Developing textsound has influenced the work I do on the page, in that I think more about aleatory composition, randomness, Dada performance. I’ll wonder, along the lines of anti-art, how could I make a poem sound the least poetic. Maybe you mean something else by “syncopated prose,” but I’ll hear a rhythm or rhyme in my head. Other times I’ll move against that. I write freehand with a pen and paper. When I return to a draft, a poem will sound a certain way to my ear. I don’t see words on the page so much as the voice in my head replays the tape. I’ve always struggled with how to map what I hear in my head. If I think of, you know, the “Nothing Funny About a Penis” poem—that didn’t start as a musical score. It started out lineated. But I realized nobody would get it. So how could I turn the “ha ha ha ha ha” at the end, the “ha penis,” into “happiness,” in a way that made sense to people? Audiences have heard me give a live reading and said: oh god, we had no idea. Still I want to tell people something more than I want to write and have them read it. But because I’m so introverted, I make poems instead of hosting a TV show.
AF: Well this book definitely engages audio performance. Though what you’ve described sounds more like studio production, with an emphasis upon editing—shaping some equivalent to a live sensibility, perhaps, but through any number of behind-the-scenes decisions.
LW: Right “live” performance doesn’t really exist in my poetry since so many revisions take place. I’ll concentrate on where quick cuts come in or how to layer sections of static, replicating the mental disjunct that happens.
AF: As you describe this process, could we address “Dancing the Be-Hop”—a serial, polyphonic (sometimes purely phonic) project with excerpts apparently arranged out of sequence? Does “Dancing the Be-Hop” provide an ongoing aleatory performance? Should we expect to see more of it in the future? Has a particular seriality of music and sound, projects like Nathaniel Mackey’s “Song of the Andoumboulou” and Robert Duncan’s “Structure of Rime,” directed you toward this enterprise?
LW: I can’t say, for now, that this current series suggests the start of some bigger broader project, but maybe it should. Aspects of the phrasal turns, the homophonic play, the rhythm or craziness probably show up in my new manuscript of fake translations. But that poem came from trying to wrap my mind around a friendship where the other person kind of had gone crazy, had a psychotic break, or some type of break. I hadn’t known her very long. Then as she unraveled, I kept wondering who else has she been. Has everybody known her to be this way? Or has she now entered some different experience of the world? I sensed if her friends back home saw her they would do something. Though in a new friendship, what does one do?
AF: Again in terms of intimacy and its erotics, sexuality receives much thematic attention, often amid constellated concerns of time, measure, breath, orgasm. Does this intersection of music and sex point back toward your interest in embodied experience, whether on the page or at a reading or in sound files?
LW: I sort of want to change that “music” word to some other word. I like what you said about embodiment. Rhythm for me suggests less the playing of an instrument than how we use our bodies, live in our bodies, feel our bodies when we pay attention to them or don’t pay attention. I’ve worked as a massage therapist and consider the body a complex system/series of interrelated rhythmic patterns and functions. And as a person with a female body, I’ll think of how female bodies fit into literary history—about women as makers of literature versus women as objects of literary attention. You know, T.S. Eliot wrote about “The Wasteland” that Ezra Pound gave him a bunch of semen. There’s this really, really male idea of genius. James Joyce expounds upon his own genius and maleness. So I think when a female body shows up here in terms of rhythm or orgasm or music, I’m pissed at those guys and responding to that.
AF: Assonance (a term hard to take seriously in this context) seems to suggest friction, rubbing—rather than the steady male orgasmic tap of metered rhyme. Similarly, your frequent repetitions of words, of phrasal clusters, establish a tactile pleasure in the turning of the verse line itself. Here I recall “The Open Glass of Water,” with its emphatic return to “ocean,” “impossible,” “illevel,” “vestment.” Could you discuss these deployments of repetition in terms of thought or experiential patterns you wish to evoke?
LW: Perhaps the single-word repetitions, or the clustered repetitions, link to massage or hippie incantations, or mantras, or meditation. Or these repetitive sections could track how things sound in my head. Then I’ll put it on the page and feel such relief to see the thing I’m hearing.
AF: What about Stein, Blake, Hopkins—anyone there of particular interest?
LW: Stein obviously, absolutely. Hopkins not so much. Who else did you say?
AF: William Blake, just in terms of the “ha ha happiness” stuff, which now makes me hear Devo’s “Peek-A-Boo.”
LW: I can see those links, though I wouldn’t say reading Blake makes me rush to the page and write something. Here’s a story instead of an answer: I spoke to Jared Stanley, who just has moved to Reno as well. We read each other’s book. And he asked, where does your poetry’s tone come from? And I said, what do you mean by the tone, I listened to a lot of Ani DiFranco in my twenties, it’s that kind of fuck you tone, maybe. And Jared said, that’s not the tone. So I said, I don’t know, Heather Christle? He was like, no. And I responded, OK, I don’t know for me, how about you? And he said, Robert Duncan obviously, that’s why I write poetry, still no one ever says my poems sound like Robert Duncan’s. And I could say to Jared: of course Tender Buttons or The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas has done something inside me, but it’s not as if I went from reading Stein to writing poems. I don’t have a good answer here.
AF: That is a good answer. I also found interesting how sexuality often gets presented as a somewhat solitary, self-referential experience. You’ll describe all orgasms as “just me clapping for myself on the inside.” Or I have notes about one scene: “He undered her—pumped her chest like emergency rescue / until she was only the space in the middle of her brain.” How does this alignment of the sexual and solitary relate to the pleasure and performance of poetry?
LW: Right. Of course that “clapping for myself on the inside” part presents a joke about the muscular contractions of female orgasms. This type of bravado again responds to Eliot or Joyce, as if to say: OK you guys, you claim this brilliance coming from your penis, I want you to know that every time I have an orgasm, that’s me giving myself a standing ovation. Here I don’t think of the line as solitary, but as communicating to other generations of poets. For the lines “he undered her…until she was only the space in the middle of her brain,” I went through this phase, after Stephen Grant killed his wife in Michigan. I lived there, and watched the news and felt horrified like when I’d been in Berkeley and Scott Peterson killed his wife, Lacey Peterson. I started to think about how I don’t understand what the word “love” means when some people say it. Or what does it mean to say, hey, let’s see each other again? Does that imply, let’s see each other then I’ll put you in my trunk and dump you in a river? This seems an important topic because it happens a fucking lot. So for a while I couldn’t stop thinking about what it means to love a person then bring harm to her. So that poem actually describes a guy drowning his partner. And if you believe in some hippie massage techniques that I may believe in, the brain has these different ventricles. The ventricle in your brain’s middle called, I think, the third ventricle, provides this hole where spinal fluid moves to and from—traveling up into your brain then back down to the bottom of your spine. Perhaps part of me thinks that hole is where a soul enters and leaves if we were to have one. I just imagined someone holding this woman underwater, until her soul exits her body through the hole in her brain. So once again, not solitary sex. Or maybe exactly that thing. The ultimate conclusion I’ve come to is that the more intimacy I share with another person (whether my mom or my sexual partner), I still don’t really share their consciousness and they do not share mine. We can love each other and have completely different experiences of that.
AF: Sure I think of Virginia Woolf on this topic, how we remain ultimately alone in our progression through life, even if alongside others. And here I’m curious about the directional pointers you provide throughout this book—what you expect us to take from them. I mean, for example, how long and unwieldy certain titles seem, even for the first poem “In the Day I Dream in Future Tense: Past Sedative Plus Perfect.” Does this deliberately disrupt our expectation for a lyric poem to yield compact, comportable, assimilable truths? Does it hint at the challenging mélange of tones and tactics to come? And of course, given that this first poem only runs eight lines, do you like the idea of directional pointers that don’t necessarily lead us down the correct path, as much as there ever is one?
LW: Yeah, I hadn’t thought about it quite that way, but it is kind of like: now that I have your attention, let me just talk and see how long I can keep this breath going. I do appreciate how that poem sets up an expectation then does something else. I prefer long titles because…perhaps it’s the Charles Bukowski in me, the part that wants to say whatever, just to have a conversation. And I definitely like to include pointers, different types of indices, sometimes leading in the wrong direction.
AF: On this question of length, can we move toward your book’s longest poem, “Visiting Normandy,” which incorporates, according to the notes, accounts of D-Day from an oral history transcript of Lieutenant Carl H. Cartledge, Universe of New Orleans Eisenhower Center, June 14, 1988? Why this particular transcript? And what about your broader engagement with transcription? To what extent do “Visiting Normandy’s” clean, descriptive lines suggest a strict documentarian text? Given the musicality of this book’s previous sections, does deadpan delivery here take on its own distinctive sonic/rhythmic qualities?
LW: Maybe this last section feels like creative non-fiction which just happens to get included amid a book of poetry. Only that’s not at all true, because I’ve made up parts and conflated and excised and attributed incorrectly. But this poem felt like it needed writing because when I think of my own identity…on the one hand I’m obviously a feminist and for the longest time felt non-violent. I attended a Quaker high school and grew up wanting to help people, with kind of girly ideas. Then in my 20s I came to this understanding of myself as perhaps potentially violent. So part of me thinking about men killing their wives in my poems, or in the world, made that all seem not outside normal human behavior. It happens quite often. We all could be capable of it. So what does that mean for me, who thinks she’s non-violent, yet in fact comes from a military family? All the men on my mom’s side serve or served in the military, all the way back to the revolution. We’ve fought in every war this country has had. So when I think about these forms of violence, this family history, I think, oh you know what, if I had been a man, I probably would have joined the army, but instead I’m a woman, so a feminist. So I came to this new understanding of what my life means. My grandfather fought on D-Day. In 2004 I went with him to receive the Medal of Honor. Lieutenant Carl H. Cartledge is my grandfather. I’ve held onto his transcripts since I was about 10. They helped to shape this meditation on intergenerational violence. Because certainly now, in Normandy, buildings look different, but people know. They’ll say, our city center used to look this way. The history here comes from listening. That poem came out of non-fictional, direct experience, though I did grapple a lot with how it sounded. I couldn’t fully determine…it doesn’t sound quite right in my mind. If the book had not been published, I’d still tinker with it. But at that point I just let it go.
AF: These intergenerational questions interest me again in how they relate to editing and a layered, studio-based performance. Your detached, descriptive, prose-like pacing will address (incongruously) quite confusing situations. As an airborne body plummets to Earth, you’ll write: “He pushed his thumbs into the saddle / of the chute, sat down, and quickly unbuckled his leg straps, / preparing for water landing. He was working on his chest straps // when his show caught a small tree / and he smashed into the marsh.”
LW: Maybe that disjointed relation between pacing and scene connects to your question about how titles point in one direction while their poems move another way. Some passages from Lieutenant Cartledge sound quite calm. Still they refer to D-Day, when half the soldiers dropping from planes won’t make it, when others will kill people for the first time, with all that insane adrenaline—while the prose describes it kind of matter-of-fact.
AF: Does this matter-of-factness still contain musicality, desire, poetic pleasures?
LW: It’s hard to answer in the affirmative about pleasure here. But certainly I do get drawn to the disjunct between a plain tone and dramatic events.
AF: Typography, format, design get emphasized throughout the book. Here the boxed texts resemble comic-strip thought balloons, or the gerrymandered erasure poetry of Tom Phillips’ A Humument. Can you comment on those boxed texts? Did the occasional insertion of autobiographical snippets seem to call for this boxed approach? Does it reflect the intergenerational dynamics implicit in your real and imagined returns to Normandy?
LW: Right. Those boxes offer clarity. I wanted to separate two narratives, the present tense and super past tense, the lived situation and the transcribed text.
AF: The boxes worked well. I also love how you take up your own name with pride and gusto in poems such as “Weather Patterns.” To quote from “The Encountered,” how does it feel to have a name “made like clouds”? Or, more generally, could you discuss the pleasures of threading your signature into this most remorseless, erratic, unyielding of natural phenomena? I mean the weather (though sometimes I also heard “Wuthering”).
LW: You know a “wether,” as my name actually gets spelled, means a neutered sheep.
AF: Which maybe works, too.
LW: It seems quite cloud-like. But so how do I relate myself to the weather? I lived in Michigan five years, where it stayed so cloudy I just wanted to die.
AF: I know it.
LW: So weather remains important to my happiness. Sunshine seems essential. And after teaching in the New England Literature Program, during April and May, way up in Maine, living outdoors and hiking a lot, I sense why weather, or nature, the elements, always have been forces with which poetry must contend. We couldn’t exist without the outside somehow making it into our poems.
AF: Cage brings the weather in, for example.
LW: Right. Because the whole idea of his Lecture on The Weather is to say no chaos really exists, that randomness happens amid a natural order. So when weather blows into my poems it comes this way—no matter how random they seem.
AF: I like that.
LW: The end.
Laura Wetherington has poems in the Sonora Review, BathHouse Hypermedia Journal, Fence, Levure Littéraire, Otoliths, Verse, Eleven Eleven, Bombay Gin, Oxford Magazine, and Just Magazine. Poems are forthcoming in the Minnesota Review, Drunken Boat, and in a Nightboat anthology, The Sonnets: Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare. A Map Predetermined and Chance, her first book, was published in 2011 by Fence Books and was selected by C.S. Giscombe for the National Poetry Series. The Brooklyn Rail called the book “humble, folksy, romantic, tough, inventive, and not over-programmed.” A chapbook, Dick Erasures, is available as an e-book from Red Ceilings Press. She is currently working on a book of fake translations.
Wetherington co-founded and currently edits textsound.org. She has taught for the French Ministry of Education, University of Michigan, the New England Literature Program, Eastern Michigan University, and Sierra Nevada College. She is currently the Assistant to the Director of Sierra Nevada College’s low-residency MFA program in creative writing. Recent grants include funding from the Nevada Arts Council and the Vermont Studio Center.