Melanie Hubbard: So, your book I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say seems to owe a direct debt to Agha Shahid Ali’s various statements that “a free-verse ghazal is a contradiction in terms.” It’s as if you took up the gauntlet he threw down. Your poems dispense with the ghazal’s traditional end words (radif) and anticipatory penultimate internal rhyme (qafia), thus ungrounding the ghazal’s dissociative leaps from couplet to couplet; in effect you’ve written highly disjunctive free-verse couplets. But I suspect you went for Ali’s “tease,” “How does it not hold together?” (See his essay in An Exaltation of Forms.) Check yes or no. I mean, have you destroyed the ghazal in order to save it? (I’m pretty happy not to be bludgeoned with repetends.)
Anthony Madrid: I read Shahid on ghazals relatively late in the process of writing Slave. Three quarters of the poems in my thing already existed in their present form before I ever laid eyes on any of Shahid’s writing. So it would be misleading to see a lot of gauntlet-and-response there.
Meanwhile, I would like it entered into the record that I am not against making English ghazals with radif and monorhyme. In fact, I want to try it. But there are many problems. The radif thing, for instance, is a real stumbling block. Nine times out of ten, English-language poets do it by recourse to a prepositional phrase—”in the rain” and the like. But that comes off feeble. You can’t end couplet after couplet with “in the rain.” My suspicion is that Urdu (and Arabic and Farsi and Turkish) poets do not have this problem (or have it less), because the syntax of those languages more readily allows sentences to end with stronger parts of speech. Someday I hope to know enough Urdu to check.
MH: After Ali’s essay, the master-slave dynamic of the title becomes clear as the ghazal’s address to the poet, the difficult “allure” of the form’s offering the poet the freedom to choose his own chains. Is the ghazal an erotic form?
AM: I like that interpretation of my title.
Eros, however, is only a subcategory of a larger thing with which I’m fascinated—and this is perhaps a good place to trot out my favorite thing out of Nietzsche:
Reife des Mannes: das heißt den Ernst wiedergefunden haben, den man als Kind hatte, beim Spiel. [Jenseits von Gut und Böse, §94]
The mark of maturity is to have regained the seriousness one had as a child—at play.[Beyond Good and Evil, §94]
That’s deep as anything. And it makes me cry.
Anyhow, yes: forms, eros, foreign languages in general—all these invite to Serious Play. Chain-choosing is part of it. But also bargaining and stockpiling. Index-making.
MH: If the ghazal is often or even primarily about longing for the unattainable beloved, and earthly suffering, by exploding the ghazal, are you ending suffering?
AM: No, no. I don’t even want to end suffering. I would rather improve it. I want it to come from better places, and I want it to lead to better things. (Not talking about poetry here; just speaking in general.)
Ghalib is actually very good on this theme. He knew the difference between good suffering and meaningless suffering. He wanted the stuff to count. His specialty was precisely the suffering that bears the same relation to human life as the tuning pegs on a guitar bear to the strings. You make the strings “suffer”—but then they’re ready to make music.
MH: I wonder if your purposes include reconciling “mainstream” and “experimental” writing?
AM: No, I just want poetry to be good effective writing: I don’t care whether it’s an experiment; I don’t care if it’s normal. Let it be either or neither or both, so long as it’s good.
MH: These poems seem very attuned to poetry of all times and places, the entire inheritance, not just, say, English and American of the last two hundred years. What moved you to look beyond the usual Western inheritance?
AM: I am one of these ones who, aged nineteen, accepted Ezra Pound as my personal savior/tour guide/pigheaded father/guru. There are lots of us walking around. He made it seem like one could and should read 900 books a week forever and teach oneself Danish and Pashto and this kind of thing. (Finding out that he was bluffing a lot of the time actually came as a relief, but by that point I had contracted the disease).
MH: Why is the language of the poems so stately, “Speaking gorgeous English into [our] glasses” (62)? To be sure, the poems deliver from the street and the temple, but the tone is pretty high. Why?
AM: That’s just me writing what I actually like. My prejudices in poetry all favor the superhuman. Christopher Marlowe is my idol.
MH: There are niceties of syllable length in various ghazal traditions, sometimes resolved in English using syllabics or iambic meter. Others go by ear. Have you written these with any constraints?
AM: Yes. Ideally, the lines should have four major stresses with fairly long rushes of unstressed syllables between, and should be recited “trancily”:
i TOO have been to CANdyland but i FOUND myself missing the DEATH cult
i MISSED the spectacle of the WOUNDed bones being OPened and INstrumented
bill VARner when he was STILL just a boy wrote a STUNning line of arabic VERSE
he wrote the CREScent moon is a SCIMitar || the SUN a severed HEAD
Ideally, a word at the end of the second line of one couplet should prompt (by rhyme) a word near the beginning of the next couplet:
Oh der alleszermalmende Kant! The all-crushing
Or rather all-to-nothing-crushing Kant.
I don’t want that guy to be right, ’cuz if he’s right I’m a fool.
A fool and a bad role model for my students.
I took a bottle, mashed its bottom into a thick coat of paint.
Then I stamped a ring of kisses into the palm of my hand.
I did wrong to try to understand these sensualist children…
[and so on]
However, I did not hit upon that rhyme effect in 2001 when I began devising all this material, but much later (I don’t remember when), and so it never attained to the status of a requirement. One thing I can tell you: The later the poem, the more likely it is to have rhymes like that all over it.
MH: What do you think about rhyme?
AM: That it’s a drug. That it’s going to have a comeback. That it’s awaiting its knight.
That everyone loves it whether they know it or not. That it represents a negotiation with the Arbitrary and the Demonic.
MH: You are free with marks such as the upright bar |, accent marks, quotes, capitalization and all caps. Did you get a special stamp on your poetic license? I am especially interested in the bar, and in your apparent valuation, via accents, of speech inflections normally lost to printed English. Would you say your poetics is speech-based, even dramatic?
AM: Naturally I’ve had my doubts about all those marks. Questions include: Are they intelligible? Are they warranted? Have they been deployed with reasonable consistency? Are people going to get annoyed? Heaven knows I get annoyed when I try to puzzle out the equivalent signage in Gerard Manley Hopkins. All that fussy orthographic sassafras—it’s probably indefensible.
At any rate, my purpose was to make whatever’s on the page match what comes out of my mouth. So, for example, small caps represents a kind of melodramatic tone I strike in performance on the words and phrases that are so rendered. The upright bar [ | ] marks caesuras in places where I thought nobody could be expected to anticipate them.
MH: I think your marks are pretty clear. I love the caesura mark especially. What got you interested in the ghazal?
AM: A chapbook I got hold of, 20 years ago: Poems by Ghalib, a saddle-stapled pamphlet printed by the Hudson Review. Twenty poems, free translations, half by Adrienne Rich, half by William Stafford. That book fucked me up for life.
MH: Your poems mock but also deliver “Golden Advice,” and I wonder to what extent poetry is or must be wisdom literature for you.
AM: Wisdom literature is very close to my heart, but I don’t insist on it. The main thing for me is colonizing others’ vocabularies. I want to do for others what my poetry heroes did for me. That is, I want to provide handy verbal constructions that will add color and force to conversation. Also, I should like my poems to be of use to solitary losers whose self-dramatizations stand in need of some King Kong rhetoric.
MH: You went through a PhD program instead of getting an MFA (right?), and I wonder where you got your impetus and sustenance for the long haul toward the book. Are your idols all in books, or did any living poet mentor or inspire you?
AM: No, I have an MFA. University of Arizona, 1996. But it’s true the poems were all written in Chicago during the PhD years, 2001–2012.
Where did I get my sustenance? The usual. Whatever I was reading. Babble sessions with my friends. I also had a few key encounters that helped things along. For instance, I had never listened to James Brown before 2003; obsessing over him was a great experience. I didn’t know I still stood in need of being liberated, but there it was. And then after about 2008 I got all excited by a handful of books by people more or less in my generation. Dan Chiasson’s Natural History, Robyn Schiff’s Revolver. A thousand others.
MH: These poems offer a performative self or selves and seem very Byronic in their irony, sincerity, calculated posing, charming of the reader and worldliness. Has Byron been an influence? Who else? Is there any Kahlil Gibran knocking about in your history? When did “poetry” come into your life, and why did you find it necessary?
AM: I read Byron late, late. My book was 95 percent done before I started fussing with Don Juan and Beppo and that kind of thing. Gibran I’ve never read.
I started reading poetry when I was sixteen or seventeen. T.S. Eliot’s Complete Poems and Plays—the first book of poetry I ever bought for myself. I had been inspired by Col. Kurtz’s reading aloud of “The Hollow Men” near the end of Apocalypse Now. I knew poetry when I heard it.
As for why I found it necessary, the most elegant answer to this question might take the form of a slide show of photographs, revealing what I looked like when I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old. The images would be of a young person sexually deracinated to an uncommon degree, sentimental, mean, buck-toothed, scheme-y, crying . . . Every viewer would see right away that here was a person in strong need of something to “take his mind off things.”
MH: Ghazals are often performed to large, participatory audiences and their repetends facilitate collective chanting and response. Do you have no nostalgia, or radical longing, for such a collective culture? That is, since you’ve dropped the repetends, are we stuck with the private individual? My sources say No.
AM: I’m actually OK with poetry as a microworld. I don’t need to play to a soccer stadium full of poetry gobblers. I hate microphones anyway. Stages, podiums, all that. I like readings that are held in people’s houses and apartments.
I’ll tell you what I wish, though. I wish U.S. poets loved the Norton Anthology (and all it entails) like I do. There’s a fantasy that runs deep with me. I strongly desire to catch all allusions (within reason) and to deploy allusions and have them be caught. I want the poetry microworld to be like a witty household in which even the least member has happy access to miles of deep ritual and hyper-efficient idiom. That would be cool. And one does live that way, to an extent. One knows which of one’s friends are well-informed and animated by a love of all that good old stuff. One is drawn to them.
I’m saying it would be pleasant if all poets were like that.
MH: Would you have any Golden Advice for poets who must make a living outside of academia?
AM: To them I say: I know thy works. I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it, for thou hast not denied my name. Behold, I come quickly: Hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.
Melanie Hubbard’s publications include We Have With Us Your Sky and Gilbi Winco Swags. She is also a Dickinson scholar and is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Literature at New College of Florida.
Anthony Madrid lives in Chicago. His first book is I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say.