Small-press publishers have the lucky opportunity to talk candidly with authors about the downturns and updrafts of the creative process which brought them to the moment of completion that we call a book. As Omnidawn’s co-publisher and senior poetry editor, I’ve had that great good fortune. It finally occurred to me that the readers and reviewers of these books might enjoy hearing some of this talk, too. Of course, a book of poetry needs no introduction or liner notes. But I’m always interested in any stories about how and where authors’ intentions and the actual creative work tangle together. So I started asking each of our authors a few questions in writing, and then enclosing these “interviews” with our advance/review copies. When the book is published, I post the interview on the book’s web page. The Conversant’s editors have asked if they might select some of those interviews to publish. It is my pleasure to say yes! The interview focuses on Calvin Bedient’s book, The Multiple.
Rusty Morrison: When I first read this work in manuscript, I heard echoing in it Deleuze’s assertion, “A principle of the production of the diverse makes sense only if it does not assemble its own elements into a whole.” I felt stunned by the myriad ways that this collection of poems is, to use Deleuze again, “An addition of the indivisibles.” One could say that you marry contrasting dictions and categories, using their intimacy as interrogation and that you juxtapose the literary, the sacred, the lascivious. But that would not reflect the disarming coherences, the unexpected accord in which these poems accordion forth, unfurling such a lively, uncanny, daunting music. Yet music it is. I’ve not read poems like these before. Can you speak to your intentions for the book?
Calvin Bedient: That is an extraordinary description; what hopes I have for the book’s reach can be found somewhere along the generous way of it. Indeed and instinctively I cultivate diversity and divergence, on the one hand, and on the other a jump-cable linkage or lyrical coherence of opposites. My writing is alive to me only if it is strange and surprising at every point. “I’ve heard that before” or “I know that connection” are anathema. What good is a poor copy of what has already been done? I listen for the work’s difference even from itself. All on its own, as it were, the poetry wants to show that, loosed from its common discursive ruts, experience tumbles forth in a mixture of dismay and delight. Even so, the work’s unresolvable elements may join together in a vital motion that surpasses or at least contests its splintering. This motion, this drive to feel out the “indivisibles,” results, in part, from a need to keep the work dynamic, to reject the notion that history has squashed life. Despite their skepticism, the poems sometimes behave as if they want to attain to an uber stage of music and feeling that will bind the elements, bind them in flight. For it really does seem to me that in some (though not clearly not in all) the poems the elements are being assembled and united, not just serially paraded. But, again, the shattered and shattering constitution of being prevents totalization; it founders before the inappropriable and groundless sense of existence. You see how I go around and around in circles—dialectic as rotation.
RM: How/why did you begin The Multiple? Which poem or poems were the first you wrote? Did your initiating impulses change as the manuscript evolved? How do you see this book in relation to your last book?
CB: The new book refers to multiplicity more explicitly and frequently than the previous books do, but the others, especially the third, Days of Unwilling, also crackle with the pain of it. This time around, I wanted to italicize, beginning with the title, that the work doesn’t simply flout stability but, on the contrary, seeks a deeper-than-usual coherence of a more-than-usual number of parts, including a range of vocal tones, of “personalities,” hence of varying vantage points. “Is there enough chaos in you to make a world?” is the challenge I face when I write.
Some of the poems in the last part of the collection were written before the others, and were intended for the third book; but as that book tilted more and more toward “unwilling” experience, the more “willing” poems seemed out of place. Of course, it’s truer to experience to combine the yea and the nay, as this new book does, whether through juxtaposition or immediate admixture. The Multiple gradually moves from cries against life to affirmations but not without backslidings and resistance. This emotional variance of course contributes to the overall effect of multiplicity.
RM: Would you tell me a bit about yourself?
CB: I was raised in Washington state in small towns surrounded by sage brush or wheat and got my Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Washington, after studying piano at the Whitman College Conservatory of Music. I taught first at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, then taught at the University of California until my recent retirement. I’ve been a visiting instructor at Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A founding editor of the now defunct New California Poetry Series, I co-edit Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry & Opinion. I’ve published books on contemporary British and Irish poetry, Robert Penn Warren, The Waste Land and the Yeats brothers. I live in Santa Monica, California.
RM: Who are the authors with whom you feel a kinship? Who are you reading currently?
CB: “Modernity,” as Joshua Clover writes, “is the failure of the epic.” We no longer have “an aesthetic mode whose very thought is the whole.” My poems share in the modern emotional protests against the death of the epic. Perhaps the father of such poetry was a boy, Rimbaud. Valléjo is a great early-twentieth-century example. Césaire, Jorie Graham and Dominique Fourcade are others. If I added more names I would still have to underscore at list’s end that these writers do not sound alike. It isn’t a style I refer to, but a high-strung response to the loss of “an aesthetic mode whose very thought is the whole.”
RM: You chose the image that is used in the cover design for this book—a David Goldes photograph of liquid drops caught in a crystalline stillness as they pour in free-fall, with all the force of gravity, from such height. This image seems resonant with many issues of temporality that your poems examine. Can you talk about your reasons for your choice?
CB: David Goldes’s striking photograph, an imposing large print of which I saw hanging in The Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis, is a classically cool image of an almost comically makeshift attempt to “catch” multitude, to contain it. The various would-be containers are obviously too small for the task, and so shallow that some of the water spurting into them bounces out and forms droplets on the table. Mysteriously, the ready-to-serve table of the traditional still life has been swept clean of nature’s organic abundance and subjected to darkness and a variety of pestering, discreet, vertical, rather vehement downpours that come out of nowhere. The photograph savages the still life and opens it up not to the heavens but to what may be the void.
All this perhaps bears a rough similarity to my poetry’s efforts both to confront and control an inexhaustible chaos, a dynamis that we can’t explain; we can only try to deal with it. Art may tend to be like a jar, as Wallace Stevens suggested, but reality ceaselessly pours, pours now. The temporality in question is one of unrelieved duration marked by impersonal speed (those jetting streaks of water). Art can’t keep up with it without trying to grow legs, to run—to be, like the spread-out containers, all over the place, if not ever successfully everywhere.
Classical art focuses on the jar; Goldes’s photograph gives the circumstance of the jar, its ambiguous position between effectiveness and defeat.
Calvin Bedient has published three books of poetry prior to The Multiple: Candy Necklace (Wesleyan), The Violence of the Morning (University of Georgia) and Days of Unwilling (Saturnalia Books). He is currently editing Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion.