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 Cyrus Console’s book, The Odicy.
Rusty Morrison: You have described the title of The Odicy as a pun on Odyssey (Homer) and Théodicée (Leibniz). Would you say more about this choice, about your relationship with these two texts, and/or your choice to use a pun as a title?
Cyrus Console: I have never managed to feel entirely comfortable with this title—it’s a stupid pun—but it sticks because of something the wordplay does with regard to the religious experience, or the idea of religious experience, realized or unrealized, that drives much of the writing. It really affected me when, early in the project, I noticed that you could break the theo-prefix, common in English and derived from Greek θεό-ς, “god,” in order to yield the definite article, “the.” It seemed to me that the definite article was the point of contact between form and content or between language and the world—it seemed literally to articulate “the chair” I was sitting in from “chair,” as a position in a vocabulary or as a category in the mind. Part of what I wanted the book to do was narrate a variety of religious experience that was more or less atheistic, and I liked the way the introduction of a single en space turned “theodicy” (from the OED: “The, or a, vindication of the divine attributes, especially justice and holiness, in respect to the existence of evil; a writing, doctrine, or theory intended to ‘justify the ways of God to men.'” Cf. optimism n. 1.) into “The Odicy,” which refers both to the epic and to a more general idea of wandering.
RM: The book is comprised of five sections, and each section begins with a quote (from Arthur Schopenhauer, Jack London, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, E.T. Jaynes, William Cowper, respectively). Would you speak to this choice: to create, to complicate, a relationship between a quoted source and your poetic text?
CC: The short answer is that I see them as collage elements or sampling. The quotes are attributed only in the book’s endpaper, which suggests I chose the passages (all prose) with the idea that they would form part of the poem rather than serve as glosses or citations. They have, for me at least, intense thematic value. The Schopenhauer quote concisely illustrates one sense of the evil of the world I’m writing in. The London quote is about sugar, greed and aggression—I’ll try to say more about how sugar functions in the book below. The Tooby and Cosmides introduces and combines the ideas of test patterns, rainbows and running water. Repetitive metrical and stanzaic forms function as test patterns in the book—the center section is a series of acrostics on the word “rainbow,” and the reader should be able to use the acrostic as a basic index of whether a given poem is well-formed, just as she can compare the expected rhythm of the pentameter with the observed rhythm of individual lines to test whether or not they are, in this simple sense, well-formed. Color terms are a key part of the book’s vocabulary, as is “water” and the “rainbow sign” is important to me as harbinger of “the fire next time.” As for the Jaynes quote, I like the way real grass becomes noise in a signal—television static—and “unused channel” seems like a good metaphor for the religious aspect of the poems. I wanted to write sacred literature for a world where nothing was sacred. Then the Cowper quote ends the book with a reference to the epic and also to language’s apparently progressive alienation from the empirical world.
RM: Your first book, Brief Under Water, is very different in form. How soon after your first book did you begin working on The Odicy? How did this formal shift occur for you?
CC: I have no clear memory of finishing the one or of beginning the other, although at some point I must have made a decision to give up the compositional frame of the sentence in favor of that of the line. I remember, while I was writing Brief Under Water, being obsessively worried about what I understood to be personal deficiencies of talent and intellect, whereas writing The Odicy I worried obsessively about the status of poetry/verse as an art form, whether or not it was still real or practicable, and so forth. I could say that this shift signaled a growing interest in writing as a social practice. The first book was an experiment in autobiography, whereas the second was trying to figure out, to begin to figure out, how lyric and epic fit into an industrialized language.
RM: How did you come to the idea of your central character, Tony? Did your initial intentions for this character change, as the text evolved?
CC: Certainly my intentions for the central character changed. I began with the goal of writing a coherent narrative poem, a poem that told the story of Tony—it was going to deal with sugar and sugar substitutes, pollution, extinction and Tony’s “personal odyssey” through a collapsing world. The poems added up without ever unifying that narrative. More and more, they felt like songs written to exemplify or preserve certain flavors of English, flavor combos. Toward the end, I conceived of “Tony” and “Anthony” as emblems of the trochaic and dactylic substitution that increasingly marked or marred the verse.
RM: You selected the image for this book’s cover design. What made you choose it?
CC: The image is a mountain of sugar in a giant warehouse. In the foreground, there are tiny figures and machines crawling on it. Sugar and sugar substitutes are key contents in the book. Sweetness seems like a fundamental lyric trope to me, one that evolved when sugar and calories were scarcer and more precious than they are today, or so I imagine. The main sense in which The Odicy is “experimental”—the central question the book poses and attempts to resolve—is how does a contemporary poet, lyric poet, take up a vocabulary of sweetness in a world where sugar is a health threat, and where sugar substitutes are part of a fabulously wealthy chemical industry that also produces drugs and weapons. And what does it mean, for the relationship between words and things, that we have things like artificial colors and flavors? The world increasingly consists of manufactured things, which differ from “natural” things primarily in that natural things—wind, water, stones, animals—precede their names into the world, whereas manufactured things begin as language (instructions, blueprints, commands) and are preceded into the world by their names.
Anyway, I knew I wanted sugar on the cover. As I conducted my Google image searches, the photograph in question stood out to me because it referred to the mountain of the opening poem. I liked the way the expected scale of person and sweetener was reversed (a pint-sized human crawling the western face of the sugar pile) and how the indoor (culture) and outdoor (nature) were reversed—an indoor mountain.
RM: In The Odicy, you take on some of the most immediate, most dangerous crises we face, and you do it using one of the oldest forms of poetic production. Can you discuss the intersection of subject matter and form in this text?
CC: Most of the book was written with the feeling that the world would end in my lifetime or with my lifetime (my image of world’s end is fuzzy enough that I don’t know whether we end with it). I was also feeling a lot of anxiety about whether and how poets fit into the contemporary global community or how poetry fits into the contemporary economy. One of the most reliable ways for me to keep my spirits up during this time was through the fantasy that the bronze-age artform, written poetry, actually had special potential to document and/or respond to the industrial catastrophe, not least because an epic about modernity could be transmitted post-apocalyptically, unlike a YouTube or a ringtone.
I thought if I could write a little epic, or a series of lyrics, or some combination of the two, that could enter a human memory and stay there (as opposed to a forgettable or nonmemorizable poem), that that would produce a self-correcting or self-justifying feature in the work, a way for me to know that it was real poetry or real art. It would also be a way for me to keep working despite my conviction the end was nigh, since I, a poet, if that’s what I was, would still have “work” after the grid went dark and the trees died.
RM: Can you describe your methods as a writer—your relationship to the act of revision, your use of source material, the largest challenges you faced as you worked through the writing of this text? What was the most frightening or risky aspect of writing this text for you? What was the most sustaining, enlivening aspect of writing this text for you?
CC: Writing the pentameter (in other words, constraining the poetic line to five stresses, and thus processing all language in the book in terms of distribution of speech stress—in addition to whatever else it might do, the poem was always a predetermined pattern of syllables) was the most sustaining and enlivening aspect of this project for me, as well as one of the riskiest, scariest and most challenging. I guess the challenge and risk of a given project is often what people experience as drawing them into it or on with it.
This strict, simple formal constraint, together with the stanzaic constraint (three sestets per page), was liberating because it meant that I could confront problems of invention (how do I begin? what do I say next? how much more must I say before the poem is finished?) in terms of shape or rhythm. I could envision every page in the sequence as a small, clearly delimited plot which my only job was to populate with syllables to the best advantage. On the other hand, there was the constant threat of somehow filling out this form in the same manner, rounding it off with the same type of ending or non-ending, breaking lines in the same way over and over again, at the same syntactic junctures and so forth. And these threats led in turn to interesting formal questions, like, why do I feel that two poems, which do not share any nouns or verbs, nonetheless begin or end “in the same way”? There was also the challenge of using meter in a way that was not simply mannered or nostalgic.
To talk more generally about my methods as a writer: the big challenge for me is to stop worrying and generate the text, to have faith that something worthwhile will turn up in the flow, once I initiate that flow, of language. That’s how both revision and reading fit into my practice. For me the work of revision is to look critically at the language you’ve produced and sift out or hew out the good fragments. Reading books attunes you to the sensation of encountering interesting or pleasing text and equips you to isolate it, should you be so lucky as to produce some.
RM: When you read other poets, what are you looking for? What stimulates your interest? And what sustains your interest? Who are the writers you are reading currently for kinship? Who are the writers you are reading currently to be challenged?
CC: I don’t think about most of my reading, such as it is, in terms of kinship or challenge, although Kafka and Melville are really important to me as examples of people whose writing makes me feel like we’ve shared some of the same anxieties, and they managed to keep writing through them. I have been reading Ben Lerner’s writing for, I think, as long as he has been writing it, and he continues to be a paragon for me.
In general I’m looking for writers who have a comprehensive, precise sense of what words mean and who are attentive to form. I generally read more prose than verse. I’ve just read Barry Lyndon and the novels of Dashiell Hammett.
RM: Are there artists or musicians whom you especially return to? And why?
CC: Names that come immediately to mind are Brahms, Bach, Beethoven, but I have felt distant from music for years now, something that distresses me. I guess right now I’m wearing headphones and the playlist is Led Zeppelin, early Black Sabbath and The Groundhogs, but that (the headphones and the playlist) feels like something I’ve done on a whim, maybe an effort to reconnect with my preteen interest in metal. I love prints and drawings, I want to say I love Tiepolo (Domenico), Goya, Durer, but immediately catch myself and think, can I actually name a drawing by these, or distinguish between drawing, etching and print? I guess Durer’s Deluge and his Four Horsemen, his painting Turf, Goya’s Obras Negras particularly Saturn Devouring His Children, Tiepolo’s Punchinello drawings.
However I try to respond to the question of artists and musicians, it’s uncomfortable. I’m overwhelmed by this feeling that in order to name an oeuvre I must have a position on it, but the fact is all I have are vague and sentimental tastes, and my experience of art and music has been formed through chance encounters and wholly in the absence of study or disciplined attention. And not having cultivated interest in music or art, now I spend months at a time fearing that I’ve lost my interest in them—more to the point, lost my ability to respond to them—altogether. This is a source of anxiety for me.