Leonard Schwartz with Andy Fitch

image of Leonard Schwartz
Leonard Schwartz. Photo courtesy of Star Black.

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 Schwartz’s book At Element (Talisman House). Recorded June 9th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts

Andy Fitch: Could we start with your title page, which identifies these works as “prose poems”? Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but the phrase “prose poems” makes me think of Max Jacob, James Tate, John Ashbery’s “Three Poems.” Your long, serialized, Adorno-esque pieces feel more like essayistic meditations. Though can you outline a prose-poem tradition in which projects like “The Sleep Talkers” fit? Do Edmond Jabès and Francis Ponge count as prose poets?

Leonard Schwartz: At Element combines lineated poems and prose formats. The long prose poem “The Sleep Talkers” almost passes over into a kind of lyric philosophy or lyric essay, departing from Baudelairian or Rimbaudian prose poetry. I read a lot of Nathalie Stephens, the contemporary Canadian writer, while developing this piece. I even obliquely addressed parts to her. Jabès long has interested me, though I didn’t read him much at the time. But Jabès constructs a textual form that allows him to think, specifically to engage in poetic thinking—which skirts oppositional binaries to plumb the richness of metaphor. And I do take Adorno quite seriously as a prose stylist, though At Element lacks the philosophical density or ambition one finds at the level of the proposition in Adorno.

AF: You’ve mentioned At Element’s heterogeneity. Formal cues highlight this fact, such as “The Impossible’s” conspicuous fluctuations in line length, which seem to announce sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic shifts in mood or epistemic register. And you’ve presented Jabès’ poetics as a prompt to thinking. Could you describe how your own thought processes get shaped by or help to shape the poetic forms you construct?

LS: The book does foreground my ambition to create linguistic structures that can house or annunciate multiple modalities of thought: ranging from the philosophical to the associational to the dream and then, of course, to sleep—not sleep as state of dormancy or rest, but as a mode of thinking in and of itself. This does put pressure on poetic form, here suggested by the title . . .

AF: “The Impossible.”

LS: Bataille’s book by that name posits poetry’s essential function as a process of thinking the impossible. He offers the terms Eros and Thanatos, the ego and death impulses, then tries to think through, or rather work through, their relationship. Likewise, my long poem “The Sudden” draws in any number of poems, written in different places, now housed amid an elastic yet unified structure. Too much fragmentation could produce homogeneity. Every piece would enact and evoke contextlessness. Too much continuity closes down a line of thinking, confines narrative, reduces everything to linear interpretation. So for me, poems like “The Sudden” and “The Impossible” foreground a structure sufficiently fragmented (so as to subdue the linear), yet sufficiently continuous (so to produce some broader context for the thoughts and emotions they present).

AF: Amid this tension between a fragmentary surface that could produce a flat rhetorical experience and a continuous narrative that might suggest a predetermined or didactic or mechanistic readerly text, can you position your own poetics in relation to something like Language poetry? On a syntactical level, on an axis between the fragmentary and the continuous, where would you place At Element?

LS: I read much Gertrude Stein. A specific type of experimental formalism most intrigues me. Yet readers often say my work feels traditional, which may be a put down or compliment, depending who says it. At Element’s line-by-line continuity does demonstrate a commitment to phrasing, rather than syntactic dishevelment. The phrases of a Wallace Stevens poem appeal to me and confirm the conservative (in a good or bad sense) role that philosophy can play in a poem. So I recognize the prison house language has to be and sense the need for liberatory forms of grammar, yet when returning to my own poems often construct a thought process that demands somewhat regularized syntax.

AF: We could consider a couple lines, such as: “One hopes that one’s writing destabilizes the static yet stabilizes the piece that was about to fall off and vanish into oblivion, letting that piece continue to exist in such a way as to be the fragment it was tending towards.” Here Roland Barthes’s self-placement at the rear guard of the avant-garde comes to mind. And I don’t mean to pin your book on any fixed continuum, but am also curious about At Element’s prefatory emphasis upon Nature Poetry. First why does Nature Poetry get capitalized? But more generally, why situate this book within the fraught definitional context of nature poetry? Of course we could outline an elastic notion of ecopoetics and find a place for At Element. But could you provide your own definition of Nature Poetry, then contextualize that within prevailing attempts to define nature poetry?

LS: Sure. I do mean to critique the notion of nature poetry as a fixed, distinct form. I’ve written pieces in Jacket and elsewhere characterizing conventional modes of nature poetry as nature porn—poems that fetishize the natural object, cleaving away historical and social context, excluding all such relations from this construct of “nature.” Like in a National Geographic program on giraffes, you don’t see sets and camera people. You don’t see economic forces and governmental policies circumscribing the lives of giraffes. You receive a reified representation of nature. So my opening preface argues that a nature Poem might not resemble a Nature poem. It may function quite differently. Here even the title At Element plays with a certain topos, a form of psychogeography. This is the first book I’ve written that seems attached to the place I’ve lived the past nine years, the Pacific Northwest. In the Pacific Northwest, one too easily falls into a specific type of nature poem. It must include a heron, a pinecone. Yet as I look out my window, as we speak, Douglas firs really do surround me. While we’ve talked I’ve watched a hawk or eagle fly to my left. This immersive relationship to other species and ecologies has produced an imperative, a responsibility of address. Still I can’t think of a more compromised literary choice than to write a typical nature poem, which converts a complex ecology into an easily consumable landscape. So “The Sudden” takes much from localized vocabularies specific to the Pacific Northwest, yet doesn’t explicitly address questions of “nature” or eco-poetics. It enacts, I hope, a dialectic between desire and aggression—not just in an abstracted Freudian sense, but in a destructively physical sense.

AF: Amid this discursive ecological scene, could you contextualize the place or metaphor or trope of sleep? “The Sleep Talkers” sometimes presents sleep as the other, as animal. Could we place sleep within the context of interspecies relations? Should we consider ourselves coeval with sleep? Do Nature Poems address such questions?

LS: First “The Sleep Talkers” distinguishes between sleep and dream. Dream we know how to deal with aesthetically—in terms of narrative and image. Sleep remains more inaccessible, as inaccessible as the mind of a cat or raccoon. Yet we share sleep with many animal forms. Each night, when one goes to bed, one reaches back toward an emergent stage of the mammalian, perhaps even beyond animal development. Sleep has stayed relatively stable over hundreds of millions of years. And traditionally, as your Barthes quote suggests, the avant-garde steps backward in order to push forward. It probes what happened prior to rationality, in order to move past rationality. Here sleep remains an extraordinary resource, a means of accessing the archaic or primeval (if I can use a bit of Romantic language).

AF: Because I’m sitting in Sydney on the morning of the 10th, as you talk in Olympia on the evening of the 9th, I can’t help but think of relationships between sleeping, dreaming, walking, mapping, singing—as such topics play out in (at least) white Australian conceptions of Aboriginal consciousness. At Element’s lyric “I” presents walking “nowhere” as a foundational form of reverie. Can you articulate an intuitive logic that links walking to sleep? And I don’t mean to take your book too literally, but did some specific experiences inform its claim to have been written “in” your sleep?

LS: Like you I have encountered these notions of Aboriginal dream time and only can admire those concepts from a distance, perhaps producing my own projected equivalents—figuring out, in my stumbling way, what happens every night as I sleep. Then for walking: the lineage of the flâneur from Baudelaire and Benjamin first comes to mind. I didn’t learn how to drive until age 39. I already spent so much time in reverie, walking around without paying attention, that driving seemed likely either to cut down my dream time or to cause a serious accident. Unfortunately I did learn to drive nine years ago, and it did restrict my time for reverie, so perhaps I overcompensate now—writing for those hours I don’t spend wandering. Driving recalls the problematics of the nature poem, because it makes the landscape static and deadens the observer. Whereas peripatetic perception needs to keep moving through some sort of scape in order for perception to happen, in order to avoid a falsely fixed and centralized point of view. For me walking, or even sitting in a train looking out the window, creates that sense of movement, motion, event, possibility of transformation, presence of the body as opposed to just the eye. I actually don’t write while walking or sleeping. But these experiences produce their affects and after-images. Part of the flâneur’s allure has to do with how his/her language likewise stays in motion.

AF: Again at the National Gallery of Victoria yesterday, looking at Aboriginal paintings, knowing I’d interview you, I thought about . . . or clusters of ideas came about Aboriginal consciousness—these prefabricated concepts housed in my head, filtering my more immediate thoughts. Here thinking itself seemed a form of reverie, just as reading does. Thinking and reading suddenly seemed not that different from sleep. Language seemed a murky dream we drift in and out of. So the question is: could we consider not only writing, but also reading and thinking, as forms of sleep?

LS: Reading and sleep go hand-in-hand or eyelid-to-eyelid,  because the eye turns down, closes a bit, diminishes perception in order to focus on an apparent nothing. Some people fall asleep easiest by picking up a book, which I don’t mean as criticism of that book. Sleep does enact a mode of thought. Any book leading one toward that state should get praised rather than castigated as boring. And I can’t embrace existing notions of a collective unconscious, but I do consider sleep both the most highly individuated of actions (even if lying beside someone, your sleep constructs a kind of absolute distance), and a highly social act. Good sleep demands extreme social trust. Sleep makes most species most vulnerable to attack. So whether or not we take turns as sentry guard, sleep happens among others, and thanks to protection provided by others. Of course we could say the same about reading and writing—both highly individuated acts dependent on a particular social tissue, on the extreme permission granted by our shared language.

AF: To get back to that cozy prison house of language: we’ve described how metaphors of sleep play out, but could you also discuss the overall construction of “The Sleep Talkers”—by far this book’s most expansive piece? Did any specific projects provide a model? At first Francis Ponge’s Soap came to mind, in terms of celebrating an overlooked, everyday element. Then the elastic address to an amorphous “you” recalled Martin Buber. I heard Simone Weil’s mystical idiom in the claims against speech and in favor of silence. Keats we know likes to sleep. There’s Whitman’s “The Sleepers.” And these points of reference come just from the poem’s opening sections (before the boulder, the paranoia, the depersonalized Oedipal conflict). But what other sleep texts does the “The Sleep Talkers” engage?

LS: Well I first should thank the French poet Jacqueline Risset. Her book Sleep’s Powers came as a revelation. That book collects short, witty, succinct essays tracking figures of sleep in her personal life and her reading. This instantly suggested sleep as a subject I’d been circling, that I needed to think about. Second, I definitely deploy Martin Buber’s “I/you” structure, both to celebrate its prompt to poetic thinking and to probe the extent that this “I/you” comes up short. Paul Celan’s poems famously baffled Buber. He couldn’t respond when Celan kneeled before him, in effect asking for his blessing. Then Emmanuel Levinas seems more phenomenologically sophisticated than Buber in some ways, especially his sense of language as a form of responsibility, of ethics—always addressed toward the “you.” Proust, by way of Risset’s suggestion, became important for the dialectic of total memory/total amnesia. Likewise Lydia Davis, who did a terrific translation of Proust, published a book of short stories entitled Almost No Memory. It struck me that Proust’s great translator herself has almost no memory or at least cultivates this self-image in her writing. I also should mention the Russian and Chuvash poet Gennadiy Aygi. He writes in Russian although he comes from Chuvashia, a minority place and language within Russia. His extended piece “Sleep and Dream” distinguishes between sleep poets and public poets—so that with someone like Mayakovsky, poetry’s relation to revolution precipitates a public action, whereas in other cultural contexts poetry becomes a sleep action, functioning almost as silent communication. And lastly (this figures in terms of content as well as form) I consider Richard Wagner one of the great sleep artists. Many of the “The Sleep Talkers’” later sections explore dramatic situations from Wagner’s Ring cycle. They take Wagner’s narrative scenes and work through the metaphors involving sleep. Brünnhilde on her rock gets awoken by Siegfried. Or Erda, earth goddess, all-knowing at the start of the cycle, just wants to be left alone and go to sleep by its end. Fafner, a giant who transforms into a dragon once he acquires the dragon’s treasure, goes to sleep with that treasure.

AF: Amid these Wagnerian references, “The Sleep Talkers’” progress also seems to drift toward personal narrative, parable, extended literary allusion. You make broader references to “self-realization” or “the education system.” I wondered if this expansive scope of “The Sleep Talkers” suggests a drive toward the all-encompassing modernist poems offered by Pound, Zukofsky, Williams, Blaser.

LS: Interesting. I do try to depict or formalize a conception of sleep that can liberate us from the stale analogy to death. And Wagnerian conceptions of the total work of art do lead us to Pound and Zukofsky and the notion of a totalizing poem, a poem that contains everything. Certainly that Poundian tradition running through Zukofsky and Olson attracts me. My poems tend to accrete or accumulate, moving towards a larger structure. Of course in terms of such processes of accumulation, Pound and Wagner likewise share the notion that all ages are contemporaneous.

AF: And just as history’s purported progress can get folded into a continuous present, the supposedly static state of sleep moves, develops, changes. Along these lines, I noticed a similar Wagnerian architectonics shaping your overall book. At Element could seem to operate as a self-contained long poem, proceeding from “Flash Light” to “Knees and Toes” to “Top of the Morning To You,” then finally returning to “Tabula Rasa.” Does an overall trajectory get implied?

LS: I hope so. I like to think of this trajectory not necessarily building toward a climax, but shifting from impressionistic atmospherics to something less visual—more slumberous, tending toward music. That last piece, “Tabula Rasa,” borrows its title not only from John Locke but from the Estonian composer . . .

AF: Arvo Pärt.

LS: His wonderful piece “Tabula Rasa” extends certain notes seemingly for hours, as if representing sleep by way of music. No one sits around and watches Andy Warhol’s film “Sleep” for the full five hours, though we can talk and think about this terrific conceptual project. Whereas Pärt, in “Tabula Rasa,” creates a sense of sleep as something pleasurable to listen to. That’s the type of trajectory I hope to track.

AF: Amid At Element’s broad tonal range, could we pause for a second on “Welter,” which seemed so tonally different from the rest? I should think through the word “welter” more clearly. At the moment, I can’t even think of what it means. But can you discuss the motivations, procedures and/or historical experiences shaping this poem which offers, instead of personal confession, a slightly detached, displaced, Alice Toklas-style combination of inference, projection, juicy gossip? Does “Welter” have a particular intended audience, a particular point of provocation? Here my question remains haunted by a line from “The Sleep Talkers,” about “that desperate, desperate impulse for more attention that ruins so many poets.”

LS: That juxtaposition of “The Sleep Talkers” and “Welter” makes a lot of sense. I think of the “welter,” as the social relations one enters into as a person, or even more specifically as a writer or poet. For each of that poem’s sections I first wrote the names of eight to ten poets at the top of a piece of paper, then tried to write one line for each person—based on the quick sensations people leave in our minds as we encounter and pass by them and overhear them and joust with them. This welter of conversation often takes place unconsciously, because one already has moved on. I wanted to probe this layer of quick conversation that happens now as technology takes us from one person to the next. So I started with the names of poets I admire or have learned from or have had conflict with and tried to recreate that tapestry or thicket of social relations one engages in all the time (pre-reflectively). Though here again, I did want the piece to present a reading experience, not just a conceptual experience. Concepts and conceptual writers and artists interest me and produce great pleasure. But here I relaxed the methodology if someone held my attention for a couple additional lines. I followed no strict, definable form. I outlined a process then let things happen.

AF: Anything you want to add about the “desperate, desperate impulse for more attention”?

LS: I won’t mention names, but do remember sitting beside a very fine poet at a Metropolitan Museum of Art event, and the fine poet wanted to machine gun everyone on stage, presumably because he wasn’t up there. More generally, this terrible inattention that most of us acknowledge as part of being a poet can gnaw at someone and transform how s/he thinks, as I’ve noticed in elders and sensed somewhere inside myself. So “Welter” seeks to pay attention (even if anonymously) to some of our peers, acknowledging the richness of our overall conversation, of the infinite ways we attend to each other without even noticing it.

AF: On this topic of elders, you dedicate At Element to the memory of Robin Blaser. Jack Spicer has received much attention for the past decade or so. Poets and critics continue to find new ways of engaging Robert Duncan’s still-expanding corpus. Blaser seems less well-integrated into contemporary poetics discourse. Could you tell a relatively ignorant reader why Blaser’s work still needs to be read?

LS: This takes us back to questions of topos and the Pacific Northwest, because I think of Blaser as the great poet of Pacific Northwest topologies, ranging from his Berkeley Renaissance days up to his time teaching at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Certainly when I moved to this area I looked out for Robin Blaser. I brought him as a guest to Evergreen. I’d met him at a poetry festival in Portugal, where his performance overwhelmed me. Blaser’s person presented a richness of voice, a richness of intelligence, a kind of imaginative grandeur—just as Blaser’s writing contains a kind of maximalist poetics that I agree we have not fully acknowledged. Still Blaser the man remained extremely generous and filled with vibrancy until the very end. I think of him as a kind of magisterial exemplum of what a poet might be. For Blaser, as I hope for At Element, poetry presents a positive, life-giving, attractive force, yet nonetheless stays conscious of all the ways this can get stymied or stopped—so that the job of poetic language becomes to sublimate, or celebrate, Eros on the sly.


Leonard Schwartz’s two most recent books are At Element and If, both from Talisman House. His e-book of interviews with philosopher Michael Hardt can be found elsewhere in this issue

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