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 Williams’ book Howell (Atelos). Recorded August 21st. Transcribed by Maia Spots.
Andy Fitch: Normally I’d start with more general questions, but I last interviewed Evie Shockley, and we discussed the complicated legacy of Black Arts Movement poetics—how BAM seems quite generative yet also quite constrictive in its impact upon subsequent writers. And I remember, in the past, you citing BAM’s personal importance. As a poet suspicious of stable identity formations, of instrumental language, your career could seem antithetical to what BAM advocates. But have you found space for your work under the BAM umbrella, and can you describe this space? Can you trace a perhaps convoluted trajectory in which BAM’s liberatory struggles help to produce your own liberatory aesthetic practice?
Tyrone Williams: Absolutely. I began taking myself seriously as a poet during high school, the early ‘70s, in the middle of BAM (depending how you cite the movement’s historical trajectory). Again, this is high school, so I thought of myself primarily as writing love poetry, occasionally some political poetry. I remember trying to address what seemed an absence in both fields. I admired what I saw from BAM, to the extent that I knew about it, but conceived of myself as trying to complete this other project, defined by traditional love poetry. Then as I went to college and beyond, reading and thinking more about BAM, I began to sense its contradictions, its gaps, how I could contribute in my own way. I didn’t have to restrict myself to one tiny sector of romantic poetry based on the faulty premise that BAM already took care of all social and political and economic issues. Some of these same problems needed to be addressed from a different angle. And I still see myself as operating (though you’re right that much of my work could seem antithetical to certain reductive formations around identity politics and so forth), as following in the wake of BAM and with BAM’s spirit—trying to create new spaces for African-American culture and people, not just in terms of a popularized embrace of African-American music or whatever, but every aspect of what it means to be black in this country.
AF: When you mention the spirit of BAM, and say you detected absences within what BAM produced, it sounds as though you also sensed an invitation to engage and address those absences, rather than an imperative to deny them.
TW: Well I never felt directly encouraged nor excluded, because I wasn’t involved. I was so out of the loop. I read much but didn’t know anyone. Certainly my most supportive teachers did not recommend that I follow BAM’s example. Nonetheless, I felt included. Though never personally addressed, I sensed that this movement spoke to me.
AF: Perhaps BAM’s emphasis upon community engagement, its thematizations of place and urban space, can lead us into Howell. If we take Howell literally as a place, a distressed community, do you see yourself somehow speaking of/for/to/with that community? Alternately, we could explore how you here have abstracted BAM’s modes of public address.
TW: In terms of that particular community, and also one of Howell’s central figures, Timothy McVeigh, I tried to enter, to a certain degree, what you could call a sympathetic space. I didn’t want to write from some point of pure critique, pure abjection, whatever those might mean in terms of slamming McVeigh or adopting a supportive point of view. Rather, I wished to enter a sympathetic relationship with broader events that lead to the Oklahoma City bombing. So this book begins, in part, by describing relationships between the colonists and their surroundings, their environments—in terms of Native Americans already present, but also in terms of immediate flora and fauna (here the book’s first part pays homage to Susan Howe’s work). Though of course it remains impossible really to enter another historical period, or another person’s consciousness, so points for critique do soon arise.
AF: Along those lines, your endnotes, like many endnotes from the poetic past, could be said to obscure more than they reveal. The first note opens by telling us that three online histories of a small Michigan city inspired Howell. This doesn’t explain why you or anyone else ever would read those histories. The subsequent sentence asserts that media reports mistakenly claimed Timothy McVeigh came from Howell. Here parallels start to appear between the faulty logic of our political discourse and of McVeigh’s own quixotic project. At the same time, McVeigh’s inscrutability seems to stand in for your own, or for your language’s, or for all language’s inscrutability.
TW: You definitely sound on the right track there. I understood why Atelos wanted to include these notes. But I didn’t go into more detail because I preferred to foreground questions of mistakes, questions of error, of misreading or inscrutability—both in relation to language and to history. It turns out that Decker, not Howell, is where Terry Nichols, not McVeigh, came from. Still as you said, these mistakes show how misreadings actually constitute our sense of history, yet remain references to real events which occurred. That provides the motive for including such figures but also explains, from my point of view, the necessity of trying to enter a sympathetic relationship, rather than presenting a cold critique. We all. . .I’m not immune to misreadings or misinterpretations or inscrutable tendencies. So when people call this book quite inscrutable I say, that’s the point.
AF: Though a couple preceding books stand out as clear points of reference. Paterson seeks to embody both a gritty, post-industrial city and its anthropomorphized poetic subject. Ginsberg’s Howl of course resonates, along with Whitman’s line “what howls restrained by decorum.” And here we could draw some contrasts as well, between, let’s say, the active embodiment that Paterson or Ginsberg’s incantatory delivery of Howl presents, and the disembodied howls your book produces. I’m thinking of McVeigh’s displaced explosive howl, of Malachi Ritscher’s implosive suicidal howl. Or this may veer off topic, but given the historical span in which you developed this book, I couldn’t help re-hearing Howard Dean’s so-called “howl” following the 2004 Iowa primary—that supposed end to progressive dreams. Do any number of disembodied or multi-bodied howls play out here?
TW: Yes. For example, in one section, each of five poems starts with the word “how.” One refers to the aftermath of the Six-Day War. One line presents all those symbols from a computer keyboard that traditionally indicate swearing or cursing. But I also took this, as you say, to stand in for a silent howl. Malachi serves as something of an alter ego to McVeigh, since rather than kill other people, he chose to kill himself. His howl gets counterposed to McVeigh’s.
AF: Just as you refer to contrapuntal howls—I brought home a puppy two days ago, and suddenly a howl seems a form of call-and-response, rather than an expression of solitary grievance. Howls I guess should be answered.
TW: That sounds like American history to me, in terms of the catastrophes that punctuate our history. One howl produces or elicits another, and so on and so on.
AF: Here could you describe a bit Howell’s structure, in whatever way you see fit? Do you conceive of it as primarily organized around the book-length concept, the section, the poem, the line, the word, syllable, letter? And what role does the integral/arbitrary numerical scaffolding (like “Part 1,” “Part 1+”) play in binding together or dispersing various scales of meaning?
TW: When I began to think about Howell as a book, I wondered how to organize the various ideas I had. I didn’t write these poems sequentially. Separate parts arrived at different points. So I thought in terms of assemblage, then came across 19th-century etchings by William Hogarth, in particular his series sometimes called The Descent of Man. Hogarth produced these parables in woodblock form that take you from one scene to another, illustrating moral lessons. One four-part sequence concerns a young boy who starts out abusing animals, then kills a horse, then winds up in the third frame killing a woman. He gets arrested, and in the fourth frame undergoes vivisection—live autopsy. Looking at Hogarth I thought, this is it, this is how I’ll organize the book. So my book’s first half, if you will, raises problems related to the treatment of animals (horses specifically) and the abuse of women. The last section, “Xenopsy,” celebrates Malachi, and this celebration allows for the vivisection of McVeigh. “Xenopsy” plays on “autopsy” and so forth. Of course, amid the book’s four basic sections, I include many smaller frames. You mentioned the “Part 1” and “Part 1+” division, which derives from the fact that the second online history I found for Howell actually attempts to refute the first. So questions of where Part 1 ends, where Part 2 begins, get confounded.
AF: I guess Paterson seems quite empirical by comparison, in terms of assembling scientific data. But for Howell I think of Jewish scholarship’s midrash tradition, of endless commentary, unceasing argumentation.
TW: That writing has fascinated me for a long time, which may explain why I’ve just started teaching (last night, to the horror of some students) Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves—this 670-page tome containing every postmodern quirk you can imagine, all organized around a guy who receives a manuscript from his friend, which someone who died in this friend’s house wrote. This manuscript presents the story of a movie that never got made, so the narrative keeps getting framed and framed, with footnotes to the footnotes. Do you remember Pale Fire by Nabokov?
TW: The students didn’t know that last night. And I pointed out how we think of all this as quite postmodern, yet it also revives the 18th/19th-century frame novel, where a character finds a manuscript, say in Poe—or how Wuthering Heights gets told in flashback, partly in letters.
AF: In terms of such dynamics between architectural frames and mimetic scenes, Howell’s “Biographical Sketches” come to mind. Do you conceive of these as having representational ends? If so, what gets represented? An actual, embodied historical figure? Something closer to the abstracted/erroneous historical and mnemonic processes you’ve mentioned? Or if we look at “Two Days in Chicago,” this poem seems to track a continuity in the Chicago Sun Times’ canned, tickertape idiom—both before and after Malachi Ritscher’s November 3 suicide. This hints at interesting affinities between the indexical and the elegiac. Does the piece’s depersonalized-seeming procedure offer a distinct means of evoking or imagining Malachi’s lived historical presence?
TW: That particular piece does get counterposed to the “Biographical Sketches.” The sketches do provide, albeit in lineated form, snapshots of particular historical figures. But with “Two Days in Chicago” I wanted to say, alright, here’s someone largely insignificant according to the media record. His dramatic act of committing suicide just provides another statistic, another plain fact rolling across the tickertape as you watch television. The event only acquires significance in retrospect. So I mixed up this two-day set of divergent stories, with passing reference to a man who immolates himself on the Kennedy Expressway. I didn’t want to ignore the sense of desperation behind Malachi’s act, which had to seem futile except perhaps to people who knew him. It lacked the kind of impact. . .I can’t remember the mother’s name who travelled around a few years ago protesting the Iraq war.
AF: I can’t remember either, though of course I knew it quite well then.
TW: Exactly. She had her fifteen minutes. But Malachi Ritscher emerges as just a statistic counterposed to the “great men of history”—an ordinary, unknown man, who commits what he sees as a heroic gesture, protesting the Iraq War’s injustice. Of course McVeigh himself had served in the first Gulf War, which provides another connection, both in terms of the futility of fighting that first war, and in protesting the second.
AF: I love how your work often adopts procedural constraints, but for pieces that project something like the elliptical, ephemeral tonalities of the lyric, rather than the monumental scope and glacial pace associated with much contemporary conceptual writing. You seem to prefer these short units, not the tomes that you have praised. “Walk, Stop, Look and Walk (Live)” stands out for prompting such questions about the fleeting concept’s place amid the disparate catalogue. Could you follow up on the many procedural “hows” that comprise this apparently gray, uniform, monolithic “Howell”?
TW: I didn’t want to foreground one procedure, one method. I hoped to draw from as many poetic forms as I could. To back up a bit more generally: I saw Language writing as an attempt not to erase what had come before, but (again, as with my own relationship to BAM) to complement that—to say, here’s what’s missing, here’s what we haven’t yet done, here’s one part of the larger picture. This suggests that narrative and the lyric still can possess a certain validity, even when co-opted by the market or some ideological or institutional apparatus, such as the academy, the workshops, the prizes and so forth. To me, Howell’s narrative and lyric pieces echo, even as they depart from, Walter Benjamin’s fragments or feiulletons, like little particles that cohere in nuclear physics, which only exist for a nanosecond. To me this reflects how we experience life, experience history, through fleeting moments of clarity. I don’t think we could exist as human beings without those moments, however quickly they collapse. That helps to explain why my procedural poems tend to cohere around specific (ordinary) people. Then other poems address more celebrated figures, such as Joe Strummer from The Clash, because we do have bodies that get swept up in broader historical currents, over which we have little control.
AF: Several Joe Strummer references appeared in the 60 books I read this spring. So his death had its impact.
TW: It did on me. I loved the band, but especially what he did after The Clash, which embodied the boldest hopes for this whole era of music—that you don’t just fade and play Las Vegas, you keep pushing forward.
AF: Back to the ephemeral, to capturing the nanosecond, could we talk about your Aunt Sally poems? Some seem to respatialize source texts—presenting structures halfway between comics and sentence diagrams, both reifying and reconfiguring cognitive sense as it passes from one medium to another.
TW: The Aunt Sally pieces return us to Hogarth’s third frame, to that woman who gets killed. I had came across this Aunt Sally dream book, a book used by people playing the numbers. I don’t know if your readers will know what that means.
AF: They should.
TW: So I began researching the phrase “Aunt Sally,” which I hadn’t realized once served as a nickname for the British game skittles. Skittles anticipates bowling, billiards, horseshoes. You set up a wooden doll called an Aunt Sally, with a pipe, and try to knock the pipe from her mouth. People also called this game quoits, which I use in the book. But that term “Aunt Sally” seemed to suggest some racist detail from the British past, though apparently scholars do not consider this a racist toy or game. One just happened to throw things at this Aunt Jemima-type figure. So here I decided to use Aunt Sally within the context of game theory, which circulates throughout the book—to treat this character as completely innocent in terms of racist overtones. Nonetheless, in terms of race, to say nothing of gender overtones…you don’t see a man standing there with a pipe in his mouth.
AF: A white middle-class British guy.
AF: And then what function does Aunt Sally serve in U.S. slave narratives?
TW: It provides a supposedly kinder, gentler term for describing the nanny figure. Dream books then appropriate this image, since the grandmother stands for the wisest member of the house—however problematic that might seem in terms of stereotypes and so forth.
AF: Again those translational, transnational, transformational trajectories for Aunt Sally somehow parallel the status of your English pit ponies. A book about Howell produces associations with Detroit and the auto industry and forms of labor that make themselves obsolete. Here could we talk more generally about processes of doubling that occur throughout the book—how these might relate to questions of double consciousness, of an experimental poet addressing broader social concerns?
TW: Howell’s pit pony part comes through more research. I went to find out about these horses used in the mines, obviously thinking, as you said, about labor’s economic value in present-day Detroit. But also, as problems of violence and violent suppression arise, these relate not only to labor struggles, but back to BAM. When one horse accuses another of betraying the horse community, I had in mind this Invisible Man passage, where the protagonist mistakenly enters a union meeting and they start calling him a fink. He must be a fink because he’s associated with finkism and so forth. This ridiculous send-up of politicized paranoia unfortunately anticipates certain aspects of BAM. But the pit ponies don’t just present an allegory for human labor. They represent animal labor, too. That was real experience. People more versed in ecopoetics, such as Brenda Iijima, can address this better than I can, but I wanted to present these oppressed animals not just as a metaphor for human suffering, but as a sentient part of our lives, of history.
Tyrone Williams teaches literature and theory at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of five books of poetry, c.c., On Spec, The Hero Project of the Century, Adventures of Pi, and Howell (Atelos Books, 2011). He is also the author of several chapbooks, including a prose eulogy, Pink Tie (Hooke Press, 2011). His website can be found here.