This interview by H.L. Hix continues a series that began as multi-question interviews but now has taken the form of one-question “mini-interviews.” To ask a series of questions about a book is to keep returning to the book and thus to emphasize its opacity, to regard it as one would regard, say, a painting. To ask a single question, Hix tells himself, is to emphasize the book’s transparency, to regard it as one would a window, as what offers a vista, what frames for us a world. The subject of this interview is Juliana Spahr’s Well Then There Now (Black Sparrow Books).
H. L. Hix: Early in the book, these two lines appear: “Things should be said more largely than the personal way. / Things are larger than the personal way of telling” (23). For me, these lines resonated throughout the book. They echoed back over the first section by way of reminding me of Leslie Scalapino’s assertion that “individuals in writing or speaking may create a different syntax to articulate experience, as that is the only way experience occurs.” They made me see the “swirl of connection” (47) as centripetal rather than centrifugal, and the infusion of this work with fulfillment of the demand that “poets need to know the names of things” (70) as enlarging. My question has to with its relation to the last section, “The Incinerator,” which seems to me the most “personal” part of the book in the way “personal” is often used when describing poetry: How does the attempt to say things “more largely than the personal way” inflect or temper or inform that section?
Juliana Spahr: Yes. “The Incinerator” is more personal. And yes, it is also not.
The first section of that poem, the one where the narrator is having sex with “Chillicothe,” for instance, is stolen from some version of the screenplay for American Beauty that I found by Google searching for something like “movie sex scene.” I wanted some trashy and clichéd image of “violation” and innocence to rewrite, and I didn’t want it to be pornography but wanted something from mass culture. (I should probably point out that I have no interest at all in the fact of it being American Beauty, a movie that I have seen but have few feelings about or connections with. I was just looking for something generic.) Then I altered it some. I placed it in a cornfield, which is the cornfield of my memory from behind my childhood house. And by the end I started altering the bodies so the genders were no longer clear. And I cut all of this with passages from a critical study on Appalachia. And also some language from Muriel Rukeyser, because I am obsessed with “Book of the Dead,” and I thought of the poem as being in dialogue with both Rukeyser (who goes unnamed but appropriated) and Hannah Weiner (who is discussed in the center section).
So maybe it is “personal” in the sense that it is idiosyncratic to my thoughts in the moment I was writing it. And yes, the setting is personal. The cornfields in the backyard. And other parts come from memory too. I did spend some time in childhood with the neighborhood boy watching the trash burn. Very intense memory of the strike anywheres. And yet somewhat not “personal” in the usual sense of that word, in that it is somewhat built out of mass cultural images and deliberately manipulated. I wanted this to be obvious but I couldn’t figure out how to make it obvious because it also felt so arbitrary. Still feels like something I didn’t deal with all that well in the poem. I’ve somewhat let it be read as “real,” as “Chillicothe” just being a name replacement rather than a use of a cliché.
The alphabetized lists in that poem are a mixture of personal memory and Wikipedia information (again, going for the obvious) and some books and articles about Appalachia. I thought of the first list as pre-NAFTA. And then the second list as post-NAFTA. Both because NAFTA brought big changes to the economics of the region (the papermill that loomed so large over the town during my childhood was owned by Mead, and they quickly pulled out when they could; the mill still limps along somewhat “worker owned”). And because around the time of NAFTA I grew up and left the town.
But there is another story, a personal and idiosyncratic one, here that is almost said. . .I wrote this around the time that Stephanie Young and I had published that article “Numbers Trouble,” and there was all this talk on the webbernet about the numbers and what they meant. And I was struck by how often when the numbers talk got too intense, there was a tendency for someone to tell a story about the economic situation of their childhood. So several times people said, ‘Oh the numbers don’t matter,’ and then credential themselves by saying something about being working class. But often they were no longer working class, and they would be saying something about their childhood. And I wanted to try to think about that gesture. Somewhat about why narratives about class often seem stuck in childhood. And what it means to try to see one’s personal story within larger economic changes.
Juliana Spahr edits with Jena Osman the book series Chain Links and with nineteen other poets she edits the collectively funded Subpress. With David Buuck she wrote Army of Lovers, a book about two friends who are writers in a time of war and ecological collapse (forthcoming from City Lights). She has edited with Stephanie Young A Megaphone: Some Enactments, Some Numbers, and Some Essays about the Continued Usefulness of Crotchless-pants-and-a-machine-gun Feminism, with Joan Retallack Poetry & Pedagogy: the Challenge of the Contemporary and with Claudia Rankine American Women Poets in the 21st Century (Wesleyan U P, 2002). And several times she has organized free schools with Joshua Clover: the 95 cent Skool (summer of 2010) and the Durruti Free Skool (summer of 2011).