This interview focuses on Chelotti’s new book x.
Jasmine Dreame Wagner: Tell me about your choice of title: x. Is “x” a variable, a value that could and might change within the context of a system? Is a poem like a mathematical function where, in the act of writing, you can search for and define a feeling or a thing? Or is “x” a Roman numeral? Does it refer to a street address, something secret you are counting or counting down from?
Dan Chelotti: At first, x was a mistake. Before McSweeney’s ever saw the manuscript, I was unhappy with the title, so I took the title off and replaced it with an “x”—a variable—and asked my friend, one of my most trusted editors, for some suggestions. My editors at McSweeney’s asked this friend if he knew of any books worth looking at, and he sent them my book. Next thing I knew, my editors were in touch asking if they could publish x. I agreed, and it took me a couple days to tell them that “x” wasn’t the title. They went on to mount some serious arguments in favor of x, and it didn’t take them long to convince me. x is any and all of the things you mention, or it has the potential to be any of those things. When my editors started fighting for x, I reveled in the potential for questions like yours—that “x” would be pushed around by the reader and turned into a Roman numeral, or a variable, or a street address, or a million other things that I haven’t thought of yet! Actually, the process through which a reader will take on the title is not all that different from the process I used to write this book: I would be on a walk or a drive thinking drifting thoughts, and I would say, Hey, I can make a poem out of leftover sushi; I can make a poem out of anything. In the same way, the reader can attribute all sorts of poetic meanings to x. It’s easy to proliferate a list of things it could be (an old lover, a warning label, a treasure map) but at it’s heart it is a little glitch that appears in the system that can’t be accounted for—a mistake that, if you can accept it, will take on a life of its own.
JDW: I love the moment in your poem “Magic” where you ask: “Why do I expect magic / only when things break down?”
Could you talk a little bit about your thoughts on magic and mathematics? Magic and poems? Magic and how we use language to make others feel like they’ve witnessed or been transformed by magic?
DC: Your question made me immediately think of Duchamp’s geometry textbook (which he asked his sister to hang off the balcony and expose to the rain and wind so the straight lines and theorems could get “the facts of life”). There is a lot in x about the inadequacy of facts when it comes to truthseeking, or the way the world often mistakes factual knowledge for wisdom. What I love about Duchamp’s gesture is that it strikes me as a magical or alchemical gesture—the combination of a human system and nature that resulted in a work of art (his sister went on to paint the textbook). In “Still Life on a Scrolling Background,” I actually use a quote that is attributed to the alchemist Hermes Trismagistus: “When stirring the lead into the mixture, do not think of a white panther.” Of course, the second you ask someone not to think of something, they will think of it. Or tell someone the urinal they are looking at is art and they won’t be able to stop themselves from thinking of the urinal as art. This is what artists do, what poems do—they alchemically transform facts into art.
JDW: I like the idea of poems alchemically transforming facts into art, that the written word performs an act of magic. This also makes me think of “magical thinking” and the way humans—humans not even involved in making art or intentionally committing a creative act—often engage in magical thinking in order to change, or survive, or press onward through grief. That a future, like a work of art, can be alchemically crafted.
In your poem “Grieving in the Modern World,” you speak of how grief can be freeing. Is this at all related to the way people “magically” think their way through grief, how magical thinking can empower a person by allowing them to feel that the future can be determined by pure desire, longing or sadness?
DC: Grief allows people to abandon themselves, and, in that abandonment, people can find a terrible freedom from the burden of whatever responsibility they held toward whatever or whomever they are grieving. I just saw Jonathan Richman in Brooklyn this past week, and he sang: “If we don’t suffer, life is a can of Pringles and a screw-top bottle of wine.” “Grieving in the Modern World” showed me, through a few images, the many ways in which people attempt to avoid the freedom that grieving provides (which is summed up nicely in the Richman line). But notice how I said that the poem showed me these thoughts, these ideas. When I wrote the poem I was on my lunch break, and I was looking out the window of my office avoiding grading quizzes for my next class. I certainly wasn’t thinking about magical thinking. I wasn’t thinking at all. If I was, I would have known that the poem would fail. I write poems to find out things I don’t already know. A person does what they can to realize they are alive. I sometimes find it quite impossible to remember that I am, never mind the inherent freedoms of being alive; poems have always been my way of confirming my own existence.
JDW: How about design, meter, and repetition—alchemically speaking, are these compositional elements akin to gold, mugwort and eye of newt? Could you break down your magic into a formula?
DC: Teaching someone how to write a poem, it is important to take the poem apart and separate out the elements. But to write a successful poem, the alchemical transformation occurs when all the parts stop being parts, and you can stir the lead into the mixture without thinking of a white panther. I curl at calling this kind of synthesis a formula. When I write, I am incredibly suspicious of formulas, poetic toolbags and systems. I am very suspicious of thinking, of ideas. I’m even suspicious of facts (even the fact of a word can be misleading!).
JDW: Okay. True or false: An artist creates an object; the object alchemically transforms material into art?
DC: False. Even if this might be generally true, it rings like too much of a formula. I’ll defer to Kenneth Koch: “No one knows where poetry comes from.” I could pretend to know exactly how it happens—but it wouldn’t be anything like when it happens.
JDW: True or false: A person exists into the future; the person alchemically transforms the past into the future?
DC: If your binary here is bumping into Nietschze’s idea that one must make of one’s life a work of art, then this is how it is done. But I sludge through life most of the time. Most people I know sludge, sludge, sludge. Ideally, your idea would be true and all people would be transforming the past into the future by being alive. Most people, me included, are stuck in either the past or the future—riding whatever quiet wheel of suffering is most alluring to them. But poetry helps. Art helps (“Asphodel,” O’Hara’s “Ode to Joy,” “Over 2000 Illustrations with Complete Concordance”).
JDW: Thanks for indulging in my binary! I like the idea of “sludging” through life. It feels inwardly forceful, like a secret endurance we all possess, like we are all pressing through psychic ether. Perhaps it’s part of the American character. When I think of “sludge, sludge, sludge,” I see Atreyu’s horse being sucked down into the Swamp of Sadness in The Neverending Story or the bad guy in Robocop being wasted by toxic waste—80’s pop-culture references, but if Los Angeles is truly the new Venice, and if we are truly living in a nostalgic feedback loop, then current art nonetheless.
This actually reminds me of a moment in your poem, “Food Court,” where you write:
My wife and I talked about
how we will care
for each other when
our memories dissolve,
about how we will find
a way to live in London
before we die.
I can feel the “sludging” forward in this poem, the inertial pull through the food court, through the movie theater, through the mall, slouching towards “London,” which becomes not London itself, but an ideal, a utopia or a kind of heaven, and not so much a place but a state of being to which one strives, aspires, “sludges” to reach.
I’m also really taken by how comforted I feel when reading “Food Court,” despite the dark vibe of commercialism and colonialism (images of too much ice in our vampire collector cups, bleached horse skulls lining our roads.) There’s something very intimate about the image of a husband and wife sharing dreams and family photos despite the crass commercialism of outsized Photoshopped food and piped Muzak and blinking lights.
Could you comment a little on “Food Court” and sludge and intimacy in post-industrial life?
DC: First off: poor Artax!
There’s a great Russian word that doesn’t have an English equivalent: predpolagat. The closest we have would be the verb: “to plan.” But that doesn’t quite parse it. I know the word from a Pushkin poem, from the line which translates as:
We plan to live, but suddenly, we die.
This kind of planning contained in the Russian verb is the kind of planning you would do with an old friend: We really must get together; we must spend a week hiking the Cascades; we must; we must. But you and your friend both know that, in all likelihood, these plans won’t be carried out. This kind of planning, this kind of hoping, is a sad antidote to strip-mall sadness, but an antidote all the same. So often my intimacies with the people close to me are intruded upon by such things in “Food Court” (sugary corporate “necessities” consuming the history of the ground that things like malls are built on), and it’s really hard to get to that hopeful place, where we can just be human and desire something simple, like a trip to London. But because this kind of planning contains the knowledge that the plan probably won’t happen, it translates London into London, a state that we hope to achieve together. But we won’t. We can’t. Going to London will never be London.
JDW: I’m really interested in the influence that you draw from this Pushkin poem. Could you either elaborate on Pushkin’s influence on you as a writer and reader or perhaps elaborate on others who have equally contributed to your philosophical development or development of style and voice?
DC: The Pushkin poem I quoted (“It’s time, my friend, it’s time”) is an important one to me because it is the only Russian poem I have entirely memorized. I’ve recited it everywhere, and on every occasion—scattering my father’s ashes, whispering it into my newborn daughter’s ears. And because I’m thinking of Pushkin, I’m thinking of other Russian poets. Daniil Kharms comes immediately to mind, his sense of play, his maddening repetition. He was a writer that really changed the way I wrote when I was in college. Max Jacob (see the love poem I wrote him in my book!) was monumental. His poems are exactly what Spicer is talking about when he says that the perfect poem is made of an infinitely small vocabulary. And Spicer—his “Psychoanalysis: An Elegy”—wow. And Notley’s “At Night the States.” And Frank O’Hara may as well have written the world. Maybe you weren’t looking for a list like this, but this is what happens in my brain when I start thinking of poets and poetry. I think of a poem, and another poem comes flying in and the two poems start talking. And then a poet’s entire oeuvre brings over a bottle of wine, and before you know it the turntable is fired up and they are all dancing.
JDW: Is imitation an essential part of your creative process? I’m thinking specifically of your poem, “A Piece of Music That Sounds Like Sorrow is Not Real Sorrow,” and the way you say:
I want to do nothing but imitate
the voices of others sometimes
I want to do nothing but imitate
the last thing I’ve read or the song
I’ve just heard so much so I wonder
if I am anything at all
I have to admit, even as I read this poem, my mind automatically begins to craft its own imitation of it. Just now, I was sitting in my living room, reading your poem, listening to doors swing and bang shut along the corridors of my apartment building and I started to think: “I want to do nothing but imitate / the voices of doors sometimes / I want to do nothing but imitate / the last door I’ve slammed or shut / I’ve just heard so much so I wonder / if I lock anything at all.” It’s as though the human brain, once introduced to voice and the possibility of imitation, can’t help but imitate. Do you think imitation is an essential component of the human condition?
DC: This is one poem in the book that was written to be published in a particular place: Court Green’s “Frank O’Hara Folio.” I read a lot of O’Hara poems and then sat down to write, focusing really intensely on moving with real springy enjambment to create long sentences, like those in “Ode to Joy.” I don’t directly do this kind of exercise very often, but I think I do it unintentionally all the time. I’ll be reading a book and really get into a poet’s sense of line, for example, and then I’ll get in the mood to write, and later notice that I’m testing out that sense of line. I feel that after every poem a list of credits could roll—listing all the influences that the poem draws upon. All art, from conception to completion, is collaborative in this way. We learn to do new things by imitating the things we love. That’s how we learn to speak in the first place!
JDW: Could you tell us a little bit about the next book or idea you have on the horizon?
DC: Recently I have been writing a lot of haikus because the folks at McSweeney’s want to do a haiku per day on their website to celebrate national poetry month. I started writing them and fell in love with writing them. I have around 60 right now. What will come of them? I’m not sure. Outside of that project, the new poems I am writing seem to be longer than most of the poems in x. The title of the poem I’m most excited about might make a really nice title for a collection: “The Quiet Parallels of Distance.” Other than that, I don’t really know where I am heading. I’m just letting the poems pile up. I’ll worry about the book they’ll end up in later. Right now it is all about generating and generating new work.
Dan Chelotti is the author of x (McSweeney’s, 2013) and a chapbook, The Eights, which was selected by Yusef Komunyakaa for the PSA’s 2006 National Chapbook Fellowship. His poems have appeared in Fence, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, Barrelhouse, jubilat and many other magazines. Chelotti is an Assistant Professor of English at Elms College.