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 Beachy-Quick’s book Wonderful Investigations (Milkweed Editions). Recorded July 6th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: In your first essay’s first sentence you identify yourself as a “nature poet.” Could you give a condensed sense of what you mean by the term, both within Wonderful Investigations and within a broader ecopoetics context? In doing the reading for this interview project, I’ve been struck by the diverse range of contemporary poets who adopt that potentially fraught (because perpetually contested) self-definition.
Dan Beachy-Quick: That essay’s initial draft came out of a panel talk on ecopoetics, for which I’d been invited to participate. I still don’t feel particularly associated with ecopoetics, although I feel real sympathy toward it. The panel just provided an excuse to think about how my poetic concerns, and hopefully my poetic practice, address the world in a caring and protective manner. I had been reading much about initiation rights, early mythology, heroic cycles. I’d wondered how poetry might offer itself as an initiatory experience—not only to the poet, but to the reader, amid a kind of liminal space where assumed writer/reader relations get undermined. Initiatory processes move a person, from a profane relationship to the world, to one in which, through a symbolic death, they are reborn into a sense of the world as a sacred place. Similarly, to engage a poem risks a rewiring of one’s nervous system, one’s perceptive ability. This suggested to me a way of attending to the world on the world’s terms and undermining subjectivity in any normal sense.
AF: I like then how this first sentence serves as invocational gesture. You establish the space in which the book will operate.
DBQ: The first sentence also establishes that I don’t think poetry abides kindly to pre-formed self-definitions. To consider oneself a nature poet could come at the cost of severing oneself from the actual object of concern, since to become a nature poet means to open oneself to certain forms of bewilderment which might, upon first glance, have little to do with nature. Here I’m very, very influenced by Wittgenstein—his sense that the only thing one has with which to imagine the world is the world, and his broader sense that any use of imagination confirms in the most radical way what it means to be a nature poet. Any honest and ambitious use of imagination requires a return back to the world.
AF: Lots of threads there I’ll want to pick up. First, do you make distinctions between the writing and reading of poems and essays? Should we assume that these four essays enact a form of thinking, of questioning—coaxing forth an equivalent interrogative stance in the reader? If so, does it seem problematic for us to wrench particular concepts from the textual tapestry? Do anaphoric patternings, syntactical convolutions, verbal repetitions provide access to your prose’s prompt as much as any extracted idea would?
DBQ: I do believe that attending to those rhetorical devices might be as productive as any thematic dissection. I’ve learned, as I’ve taught myself or apprenticed myself to essay writing as an artistic practice, that the essay offers this opportunity to slow down or mimic thinking’s convoluted processes—to make thought available not as some fixed, static conclusion but through a prose that follows the sinews and ligatures of how it feels to think. Those remain huge concerns for me. I often feel disappointed by more purely academic work when it doesn’t invite readers into this drama of how it feels to be the person thinking. The essay’s great promise, from Plutarch to Montaigne up through Emerson, presents this need to think as a basic human need, one that isn’t simply rational, isn’t simply ideational or even wholly reasonable. So I wanted to write essays that trace a particular, peculiar labyrinth with no special agenda, taking every possible turn that seemed interesting, probing every avenue of approach in pursuit of a concern. I hoped to juxtapose perspectives that don’t start in close proximity, and to use the essays to depict what that collision looks like.
AF: I’d asked about syntax, about form, because the performative implications of your prose intrigue me. This performance echoes the performance of philosophical poverty that Stanley Cavell detects in Emerson’s writing. The “I” adopts a learned yet not scholarly, or at least non-professionalized tone. It appears as exemplary autodidact, less inclined to impart knowledge than to provide testimony of having learned from (rather than having learned about) particular books. You’ll dramatize the effort required to recognize our own inherent ignorance, rather than obscuring that state behind a claim to critical authority. And even your unimpeachable-seeming mode of personal testimony can’t help but undermine itself with the concluding reflection “I’m still not saying it right.” That specific rhetorical gesture recalled Wittgenstein kicking the ladder away after climbing up his Tractatus. Or Proust’s On Reading Ruskin comes to mind, as the reader ultimately gets cast back upon her or his own faculties, and, accordingly (hopefully), the world appears afresh. Is it fair to place your essays’ implicit points along this experiential trajectory?
DBQ: Absolutely. I hope for Wonderful Investigations to provide the experience of needing knowledge, or moving towards knowledge, a knowledge that these essays realize they can’t really offer. So the reader does get thrown back on his or her own faculties, hopefully with a renewed sense of those faculties, hopefully questioning ways in which we’ve been taught to say: this is how it feels to know something; this is how it feels when you’ve read a book correctly. When I’ve had significant reading experiences, I never felt any of that. To me it feels more like falling in love. It bears those same mysteries. And as naïve as it sounds, I want to write about things I love, to write honestly about love’s complexities. I want to write so that readers of a certain bent of mind, or bent of sensibility, can be affected, can be reaffirmed (by their own strength) that this is why we turn to books—that the reading process doesn’t divorce itself from analytic rigor, but also doesn’t stand subservient to it.
AF: You seem to have described an erotics of reading.
DBQ: I love that phrase.
AF: Can we further discuss your own experience as a reader, perhaps in regard to Thoreau’s and Emerson’s dazzling performative styles, to the erotics of their books? Given your descriptions of Walden as in part a work of song (and your more general investment in philosophical definition as an initiatory, ritualized, ongoing process, rather than a set of static claims), I assume that stylistic/rhetorical concerns typically labeled aesthetic take on much broader depth and resonance in your reading of them. Your love for Thoreau’s prose comes across in the lengthy quotations you provide. In Emerson’s oratory training, his propulsive sentence-by-sentence thrust, I hear something of your own poetic lines. And again, Thoreau’s ironic undertones, which apparently earned him (I don’t know if you’ve read David Reynolds on this) a reputation as a hilarious, highly entertaining public speaker, creep into some of your later tales. But here’s the question: Can you explain why reflections on particular literary or rhetorical devices don’t factor more explicitly into your current investigations? You don’t examine Thoreau’s and Emerson’s prosody—at least not explicitly. Are there specific affinities, enthusiasms, insights into their prose styles you want to offer here?
DBQ: I’ll start with a simple answer. I feel as if I’ve learned about paragraphs from Thoreau and sentences from Emerson. I love Emerson’s ability to write a sentence in which you become so immersed that, by time you reach the end, you’ve forgotten how it started. This genuine philosophical bewilderment arises as if each sentence contained a kind of compass needle, and the next sentence’s compass might point in a completely different direction. Then Thoreau provides a bodilyness to the paragraph. He’ll write stunning sentences, but I fell in love with how Thoreau builds perception and thought across sentences, into the shapeliness of that paragraph. In some ways, each of my book’s four main essays attempts to find a balance between the sentence as primary epistemological unit and the paragraph as primary epistemological unit. I’d become curious about the sentence as a source of knowledge, a source of encounter, and then how the paragraph’s context forces each sentence to sharpen its point, or undoes it, undermines it, expands it, or alters it. Even now, several years after writing these essays, I still keep searching for a genuine balance. Balance isn’t even the right word. But that motion from sentence to sentence as a paragraph builds fascinates me. I think long and hard about the beauty of a sentence, the beauty of a paragraph. I’ll think about beauty more in prose I write than in poems I write. This takes me straight back to Keats’s sense that beauty teases us out of thought, that beauty obliterates consideration. I love the essay as a model for this particular torment art always asks of itself—the way beauty might be a tumult inside the more rational effort to think. I want a sentence to become so beautiful that it threatens the thought it carries.
AF: On that great note, I’m still curious why the book doesn’t foreground these formal concerns. You have described here the aesthetic, erotic, experiential, embodied nature of reading and writing. But your book never presents itself as a style or rhetoric manual. Is there a reason that it doesn’t? Would that make for too self-conscious scrutiny?
DBQ: I do think that could become too self-conscious, too self-willed. I consider the erotic a kind of middle ground, a nexus where the energies of reading and writing can meet on equal and co-creative terms. To willfully design what a sentence looks like, to deliberately map the rhetoric in advance of the writing, removes you in some ways from the erotic compulsion, which must embed itself within the work. So in the midst of writing I don’t feel thoughtful in any normal way. I feel curious about how the sentences themselves point toward what the next sentence might be, what the next concern has to be. Thought becomes less a reasoned, objective activity than a form of momentum. I’ll feel devoted to tracking that momentum, to courting that momentum, to making it available to the reader—because I take the erotic quite seriously and sometimes quite literally in the work of writing. But the person who tries to seduce does not start from a good position. The one who would seduce already must be seduced. The writer has to experience what he or she desires a reader to experience.
AF: I’ve asked questions related to what we loosely could call style in part from curiosity about your choice of literary sources. There does seem to exist a lively line of scholars drawn to the erotics of Thoreau and Emerson. Your praise of Emerson’s sentences and Thoreau’s paragraphs echoes Perry Miller. But Sharon Cameron, Stanley Cavell, F. O. Matthiessen also come to mind—readers whose strong libidinal attachments depart from our typical conception of academic writing. Does it seem fair to say that scholarly reading need not preclude the modes of attention you just described?
DBQ: Definitely. Of those you’ve mentioned, Cavell has most seduced me. His book The Senses of Walden made me realize I needed to write about Thoreau, to have that experience.
AF: So the reading of Cavell, rather than of Thoreau, initially served as prompt?
DBQ: Or seeing that someone could write about Thoreau in the way I desperately wanted to write about Thoreau. Cavell gave me a kind of license. I’d felt very nervous—perhaps because I don’t have a Ph.D. I’d decided not to pursue this direction, because I worried it might complicate my relationship with work I love. Whenever I’ve written essays concerned with academic topics (be they Melville in A Whaler’s Dictionary, or here Thoreau, Proust, Emerson, Keats and Eliot), I’ve felt this deep insecurity and shyness and audacity and arrogance at play, which for a long time stymied my willingness to take the risk of writing about literature in ways I wanted to write about it. But Stanley Cavell in particular, taking Thoreau and Emerson quite seriously as philosophers, made me feel OK enough to try it myself.
AF: Hopefully this sensation of insecurity, of feeling radically ill-equipped, eventually became productive. That sounds like Emerson’s American Scholar approach.
DBQ: It is. And I take seriously Wittgenstein’s notion that philosophical work picks apart the edifice of one’s pride.
AF: Given the risks implicit in writing a collection of literary essays outside academia, I’d love to hear more about this particular book’s origins. Did your Melville book prompt this one? And you mentioned completing Wonderful Investigations long ago. What happened in between?
DBQ: I started Wonderful Investigations after moving to Colorado from Chicago. After I’d finished A Whaler’s Dictionary, a four-year gap occurred before I really started writing essays again, these essays, which took three to four years to write. I’d wanted to pay attention to literature in the way I thought it used to receive attention (I’m referring to the 19th century, to Thoreau and Emerson, how a public intellectual, whatever that meant, also could be a poet). I miss in contemporary poetic culture this space where poetry provokes something beyond the reflexive production of yet another poem. So I wanted to participate in this sense I had of the poet as thinker. I felt deeply connected to, and moved by, 19th century American writers I loved, as well as by Keats, whose letters I consider as profound a document of soul-making (understanding the soul as something that thinks as well) as we have in the language.
AF: Again it interests me that the legacy of those mid-19th century American writers has called forth such diverse poetic responses. Here I’m thinking of D.H. Lawrence’s Classics in American Literature, Charles Olson’s writing on Melville, Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. But in your own case, you’ve mentioned anthropology as another source material. Can you discuss your reading into anthropology? Is it deliberative research? Random exposure? Part of an ongoing project or a piece of your past?
AF: Useful in the way Cavell’s book became useful for you?
DBQ: Yeah. This goes straight back to Emerson—to consider something useful because it liberates.
AF: Well with preceding topics still in mind, could we discuss the pairing of your essays with your tales? Do the tales enact something first thought through in the essays? Do they privilege doing over thinking? The increased irreverence as the tales progressed definitely made me reconsider, for example, what had seemed a more earnest, urgent tone that had come before. So could we address how these different book components function when placed in this particular sequence? And I wondered if the ostensibly archaic category of “tales” here. . . does that demonstrate an appreciation for broader narrative traditions, as well as for Borges, Barthelme, Robert Coover?
DBQ: Certainly Borges, but other sources for me include Hawthorne, the Brothers Grimm, the Scottish writer George MacDonald. Reading George MacDonald convinced me I had to learn how to write a fairly tale. I’d started writing these tales way back in Chicago. A couple of them predated the essays. Fairy tales present a literature devoted to wonder, to the difficulties of wonder and its tricksterish quality, or ironic qualities. So I began to attempt that in fiction, which for me felt nuts. Although I really don’t think of fairy tales as fiction—I think of them as fairy tales, with a real distinction between those two. And again, fairy tales led me to reading about magic, initiation, ritual, about archaic art that remained present in the human imagination for countless ages (none of which appeared in my graduate education, which had prioritized learning to write a decent poem over cultivating an appetite for the wonderful). Of course, encountering the wonderful complicates what it means to think, to consider something. And so I got caught up in the writing of essays and continued to work on these fairy tales, until. . .actually my friend Srikanth Reddy suggested that these projects might belong together. So I began to place them in a kind of mirror relationship to each other, amid a form which tries to approach wonder, to conjure it, without triggering the immediate evanescence of that very thing it desires to speak about. In some ways, I feel that a great fairy tale writes itself, in order to create within itself a space of wonder, and shows absolutely no concern for the person reading it. The fairy tale can seem astonishingly selfish as a form. That feels quite different from the essay.
AF: As you describe the fairy tale’s self-centered nature, I wonder how much of this comes from its murky origins in preceding tales, preceding modes of literature, which could be oral, or choral, or performative. When we access the fairy tale, do we access ancient ways of engaging story or narrative, far removed from contemporary notions of respectable literary expression, engagement, identification?
DBQ: I think that’s true. There’s a noble history of the fairy tale’s relation to serfs, to the underdog. This destabilizing form of literature privileges the one without power always defeating the one with power. These stories, inherited through oral traditions, take pleasure in the downfall of the ones you’d love to see fall down, yet lack the power to attack. But your question points toward something equally important about fairy tales, which has to do with the nature of the symbol—not symbol as a literary trope, but symbol as Blake uses symbol, or encounters symbol. Symbols have this remarkable way (out of the myriad possibilities of their meaning, which nonetheless show one ostensible face) of providing an image that apparently can be understood, dearly loved, seared into the mind, yet also a source of trickery. The fairy tale gives us this moment of recognition, but also resists the possibility of a symbolic reading. The fairy tale lets itself fall into the labyrinthine difficulties of what a symbol might mean. That’s what I meant when I described the form’s selfishness. It attends to this internal life in ways that really stun me, to which I felt attracted, addicted, apprehensive.
AF: Your book’s preface announces that the first tale most fully enters this wondrous realm, while the last tale does so the least. Given that statement, I expected greater disparities between the two. But short, clipped cadences give both pieces a similar pace. His- and he-driven constructions propel us each time toward an enigmatic conclusion. Beyond their attachment, as your preface scaffolds it, to different ages in human development, can you describe how these tales each enact differences (here I’m going back to your “Hut of Poetry” essay) in experiential “environments”? What types of environments or spaces of initiation does each create?
DBQ: I hadn’t thought about the tales’ similarities. I’ve always focused on their differences. The reader might sense less difference than I do. For me, it’s really about the protagonists’ relationship to these experiences, the ability to accept them versus a kind of questioning of them. The first tale never questions the nature of subjectivity or objectivity. A being just exists within this particular world—which gets accepted as a kind of fact. Then as the tales progress, especially to the last, a doubt that the world is as it seems somehow develops, pressing back on or against the first tale’s initial wonder. It is this removal of the self from that self’s experience which tracks each tale’s gradation.
AF: And just to be clear, the tales do seem highly differentiated. But continuity appears, too. A Heideggerian idiom definitely emerges in the essays. Then this movement from essay to tale seemed very Nietzschian, in terms of a more stylized endeavor, perhaps with just as pointed a pedagogical thrust, but going about it through alternate means, as Zarathustra or Prince Vogelfrei does.
DBQ: Reading Heidegger was one of those eye-opening, world-shaking events, with his language that I wholly recognized and felt preformed in me, yet didn’t understand at all. Just as I’d felt first reading Wittgenstein—that experience’s uncanniness, in which the work of poetry seemed fundamental to the continuing functioning of the world as a world, became hugely moving and tied back to readings in Jewish mysticism and religion that remain important points of reference (ironically enough, in relation to Heidegger). With Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy opened up a realm of influence I still feel deeply mired in, which treats the mythic world and the fairy tale as crucial to contemporary poetic practice. Beyond Good and Evil also challenged me, as he discussed what we consider when we tire of thinking. That felt similar to Heidegger’s point in “What is Called Thinking?” when he says that if we ask, “Are we thinking yet?” we are not thinking—just as, with poetry, the work never yet has begun. You do all this work then sense that it takes you to the beginning of some other kind of work, which feels both beautiful and absolutely maddening.
AF: To close, could we address your book’s assertion that language is revelatory only when connected to the real? I’m curious how this corresponds to formalist criticism, someone like Viktor Shklovsky, his famous emphasis upon making the stone stony. Early in Wonderful Investigations, you say: “The semiotic crisis of modern poetics, the sense of a word’s arbitrary connection to the object it names, the indefinite distance between signifier and signified that feels as if it threatens language’s ability to name anything at all, is not a modern crisis at all.” In terms of that statement, and in comparison to, let’s say, Language poets’ readings of Shklovsky or Saussure, is your point that such readers ought to broader their historical scope? Or do you sense some fundamental incompatibility between their mode of inquiry and your own?
DBQ: I don’t think they necessarily need to broaden their inquiry, nor do I think I’m necessarily involved in a process so different than what Language poets have done. To me, Shklovsky’s emphasis upon making a stone stony reminds us that imagination as a tool remains invested in the actual. In the sentence you quoted, I mean to suggest that the difficulty of representing a world that is, already, in advance, real, always has produced epistemic difficulties—problems we too easily assume emerged only in the late 1890s or whatnot. This semiotic schism between word and the thing named doesn’t feel new to me at all. It feels as old as names themselves. It feels biblical. You can find as much evidence of that crisis in Genesis as you can in Derrida.
Dan Beachy-Quick is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Circle’s Apprentice. With Srikanth Reddy, he wrote Conversities, and with Matthew Goulish, has written a poetry and prose consideration of Proust, Work from Memory. He is also the author of two books of prose: A Whaler’s Dictionary, and Wonderful Investigations. He teaches in the MFA Program at Colorado State University.