In his monthly poetry podcast, Radio Free Albion, Tony Trigilio interviews poets about their recently released or forthcoming books. Always informal, each interview is a conversation—two poets talking about the work and play of the creative process and showcasing some of the most innovative new work in contemporary poetry. This interview with Leonard Schwartz was transcribed by Cameron Decker.
Tony Trigilio: Hi Leonard, how you doing?
Leonard Schwartz: I’m fine Tony, great to be with you here on Radio Free Albion.
TT: Thanks, it’s great to have you on the show. You know, I want to talk about If, and I’m going to start with something dangerous.
LS: Uh oh.
TT: Yeah, I know. Let’s put on our crash helmets. You know, part of me doesn’t want to start a poetry interview talking about grammar, but, you can see what’s coming, but I really appreciate how the book, the title and the refrain, the repeated refrain of the book, it hinges on the grammatical concept, the subjunctive mood, but you do this with a real sense of mood and atmosphere.
LS: Well, thank you Tony, and I’ll try and be as grammatical as I can in my spoken responses. Speech is often not grammatical, but yeah I mean I wanted in the poem to see how far I could go with that two letter word “if” as a hinge. And of course the “if” in the sentence structure often leads to an “if/then” clause: if A is true then B follows. But the ungrammatical aspect of the book is that “then” often doesn’t follow. The “then” that follows the “if” often doesn’t follow, so it’s an extended sequence of “if”s. There are occasional conclusions, contingent as they may be themselves. There are occasional “then” statements that come in. But how far could one ride on the “if”? It’s a little bit like Keats’s Negative Capability, where you’re trying to live with contradiction without resolving things into too obvious solutions or diagnoses, but at the level of grammar, as you say.
TT: I think the connection to Keats’s Negative Capability is really helpful in thinking about the book, thinking about, as you said, the social contract sort of says, for language, “if A,” there has to be a “then B.” But the book doesn’t do that, and I think that’s where poetry happens, in that spot where with the subjunctive, the conditional, I think that’s where we fall into a poem.
LS: The subjunctive, the conditional, the hypothetical is a term I speak of also, as if one needed to live in that circumstance or condition in order to aspire in any way to the condition of truth—that propositional statements, certainly categorical statements, always simplify, and our capacity to live with “if” grammatically and epistemologically, and dare I even say metaphysically, are what the poem proposes, at least hypothetically, to engage with.
TT: I knew we’d move away from grammar, as risky as that start was. The poem is so concerned—the book, I mean we’re talking about a book-length poem—but the book is so concerned with living with that “if” and the impermanence that comes from living with that “if.”
LS: Yeah, and I do appreciate the fact that you pointed to or wanted to ground the discussion in a discussion of grammar because certainly we have the notion of the prison-house of language, that we need to, as Frederic Jameson puts it, we need to liberate ourselves from preexisting structures of grammar and language in order to think of new thoughts, or be free of the constructs that language imposes. And of course from the revolution of the word, from Gertrude Stein and Eugene Jolas and others forward, there’s been the argument that consciousness can only by liberated by liberating ourselves from the structures of grammar. So as a poet who sees himself aligned with those lineages, but is often told that I sound very traditional, which I just have to accept, I’m glad that to you or to some readers, certainly for myself, the desire is to mess with grammar at some level and to remove some sense of self-certainty that grammatical structures can falsely create. And only from that point of view can we begin to talk about lived experience—since a poem is made out of words, once those words are liberated from one grammar, they begin to create a new experience or a possibility of a new one.
TT: And they create a sense of possibility for new ways of being. Earlier you said “maybe I’ll get metaphysical,” and I want to get metaphysical for just a moment, because I’m thinking about how new ways of grammar, new ways of language, make us see ourselves and the word differently—the physical self, too. In the book, there are these moments where I’m digging, as a reader, so much into the “if” statements that it feels like the seer and the seen, the subject and the object, are collapsing into each other. There’s this one moment where you have this image of windows and mirrors, and mirrors and windows, and it almost sounds like Blake to me, without the lovely excess of Blake—it doesn’t have that sense of overwhelming excess but it does feel like it has that kind of lineage. Is that sort of an eccentric reading or is that something you’re hoping for as a poet?
LS: That’s really interesting. I certainly do think that “if”as a statement contains anxiety (because one would like to have some kind of certainty), but also something ecstatic (because everything is possible at that point when there is no diagnosis). Everything is still possible, so “if” has that liberating capacity. Certainly Blake for me, it’s more The Marriage of Heaven and Hell than late Blake, but “create your own system of thought or become enslaved by somebody else’s,” as Blake puts it in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, seems to be a pretty crucial imperative for the poet or anyone working with words and concepts. And so in that sense I can embrace the notion of imagination in Blake for sure.
TT: And that moment from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell reminds of one his proverbs of Hell—and I’m going to misquote it really badly—he says something like “what is now true was once only imagined,” and I think that’s another space where your “if” statements can reside, in that really ecstatic and noisy place of the imagination.
LS: It’s true, one of the other vocabularies of the poem is something drawn from what I’m going to call the “psychogeography” of the Pacific Northwest, the place I’m relatively new to, having only lived here ten years but nonetheless am now attracted to. So I did want sort of draw off of a particular psychogeography that I hadn’t been able to name for myself before, and make it pass into language and into being in a certain way that it hadn’t before. The other thing I wanted to comment on, Tony, in terms of your comment on subjectivity and objectivity, I forgot to tell you in my previous book At Element, I solved the problem of subjectivity and objectivity! Didn’t you know that?
TT: It seems like such an eternal problem to me that I don’t even trust when it feels solved. Can you talk about the solution a bit? [laughs]
LS: I borrowed from Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman, who coined the term “sobjectivity,” which takes subjectivity and objectivity and joins them together into a single term. The conclusion is rather tragic: the solution to subjectivity and objectivity, I’m afraid, is sobjectivity. That takes care of that.
TT: So the problems of philosophy are solved with the sobbing of sobjectivity.
LS: Sadly, yes. [laughs]
TT: Well, I’m taking my feet out from the window. I’m going to come back into the room. In a few minutes I want us to hear an excerpt from the book. Before we do that, can you talk a little bit about your choice of the couplet for If?
LS: It seemed to me that the couplet was quick enough to move energy from where I was getting it all the way over to where I wanted to get it—but from multiple sources, so it would move quickly and allow me to be nimble in terms of thought, but substantial enough that something could be developed, that it wouldn’t just be a fragment that would be without any context whatsoever. It seems to me the crucial matter is how to figure out a structure that is going to be fragmented enough so that you don’t close down the possibility of multiple motifs through a poem, but not so fragmented that every piece is received without context. In this case it seemed that the couplet allowed me to be both somewhat scattered, fragmented even, and at the same time establish continuity across time and across thought.
TT: I think that comes across for the reader, that mix of just enough of the fragment for language to be prominent. But also that sense of nimble energy I think is really important in the couplet. And for me, too—couplets always do this, but especially in a book like yours—that simple white space between couplets allows this mix of the nimble movement of the couplets with the slowed-down pace of reflection that I get in that white space.
LS: That’s very encouraging, because I would like to think of the poem as creating a possible space for thought, as well as for its linguistic structure that is other than thought and is material and has this kind of space and song—but I don’t think the two things exclude one another. I’m grateful for your reading.
TT: Let’s hear an excerpt from the book.
LS: Fantastic. I’m going to start reading from the very first section of If. There is a prologue. Maybe I’ll start with the prologue and then go into the first section, and then we can continue talking.
TT: Sounds great.
LS: The prologue and section one from If:
If we are “signs without interpretation”
In place of a prison I transplant a trillium.
If we are signs without interpretation
“I” is something extra to the flower.
As we are signs
The local line that is the moon
And the express line that is the sun/
Since we are signs without interpretation
This or that comes to a grinding halt
One can fill in the blank oneself
A logging truck a train a stick of lipstick
The name wouldn’t matter
If this wasn’t the realm of risk.
Is this an ocean or individual waves
Always the same like on the first occasion
Or ever the first occasion (as Stein insists)
Insisting repetition does not exist.
The mountain thinks in us
We know that much for sure
As forest forms
In all their rain and animal pheromones
Press upon the window
The shade of the tree
And the shadow of one’s body
And the shades of those gone
Making of us melting glacier
And solid rock.
If Mount Everything is mostly invisible
And then Toweringly There
If our every triumph
Turns out to be a darkest hour
If the tiniest nodule of sense
Portends either apocalypse or joy
Depending on how
Sense is voiced…
Down the road
They live in a Buick Century.
Across the street they live
In an Impala with a view.
In our own Century.
It should be easier to accept
Having a home
Neither urban, suburban or rural
“Everything fifteen minutes apart by car”
With its cognitive rites, signs and cemetery,
Gran catch-and-release of identity
As each being passes into the other
In the hermitage of hypotheses
Certain images disclosing
The dyslexias of grace
So many eons spent hunting in the forest
Flipped to the forefront of consciousness
News about who’s way down there in the
Cave’s zip codes or out on the ocean
Sucking a philosophy that depends upon
The appearance of seabirds
Of which we moderns are still
The sounding boards.
Tricycles, it turns out,
Were just a phase
The bio in biography writing out
This other, much longer genesis
Just as the latest wireless communication
Provokes a smile befitting Hermes
Which a wilderness of holding patterns at the airport
Cannot erase, sudden dyslexia, grace.
If too often things reveal their own formulae
Earlier than they should and are reduced to genres
It is not yet known which god idiosyncrasy serves
But surely we prize these wiggles and wanderings
And credit must go somewhere, to
Someone, for our particular accretions.
Now I think it is my turn to miss the point
Yet a voice has many arms and builds us a life
Even after language is pillaged of its magic
And flowers no longer know our individual names
Foothills continue to give meter to the way we speak
And glaciers give it weight, thrown boulders
Suggestive of the force of things, so violent
So fragile and so forlorn that by comparison
You can fit any one of our endeavors
Into a little pocket on an ice cube tray.
Does a text ask you to identify with it
Or to imagine that other on its ground?
Maybe my kid will explain it to me later thanks to
The clarity of speech with which she is blessed.
Sometimes I drive her someplace in perfect silence
Postponing our discussion on the theory of reading
O those statues of Hindu goddesses with many, many arms
Are no false infinite, in fact one could be the reader
Holding her many books, one in each hand,
Passing each suggestively before her eyes
Taking in its suggestion without needing to put
A single of her other books down.
The dance of the reader spawns
More dancing arms with more
And miniature galaxies
New grasses flaming near the summit
Undulations embedded in a rock
Rug of moss, thorns, berries, tender
Thefts, forest vortex, febrile mind.
Here is the tree that must be center-post of the world.
This is the tree that is the center-post of the world.
No, this is the tree that is the center-post of the world.
This is the tree that is the center-post of the world.
This: the tree that is the center-post of the world.
This is the tree that is the center-post of the world.
TT: You had mentioned earlier that it took you some time to get adjusted to the psychogeography of the Pacific Northwest. Can you talk about that a bit, the psychogeography and maybe the adjustment too?
LS: Sure. I did move from New York City to Olympia, Washington, where Evergreen State College is, for the job they for some reason offered me here. That was now ten years ago, and it has its points. Certainly one of its points is the psychogeography of the Pacific Northwest, which is so rich, so mysterious. Robin Blaser’s book (and Robin Blaser’s person—he was alive when I first came here) his book The Holy Forest had been very helpful for me, very crucial to me, as has actually Seattle Opera’s “GreenRing.” They do Wagner’s Ring Cycle and they call it the “Green Ring.” It just basically means they have a few Douglas Firs on stage. But that’s helped too in terms of a certain mythos that one suddenly begins to see and become aware of in these forests here. As I speak with you I look out my window at a vast forest. I live in the woods now, and it’s silent in some ways and speaking in other ways. I’m not in a position where I want to get explicitly mystical in some sense about it, but on the other hand one becomes aware of things, of the voices of certain kinds of things. Maybe I could put it this way, with a somewhat farfetched analogy: Carlo Collodi was a nineteenth century Italian novelist who wrote Pinocchio. We tend to think of Pinocchio as some old myth, it’s a nineteenth-century Italian novel and it begins (and this is the important thing about puppets and things and objects) something like this: “Once upon a time there was a king” yelled the children. “No children, you’re wrong. Once upon a time there was a piece of wood.” And certainly what we have here in the Pacific Northwest is a lot of wood. To try and make sense of that wood and those forests has been interesting for me. So language like “nurse logs” and so on suddenly begins to take on meaning in a way that it hadn’t before.
TT: I can see from your view, everything begins with wood. I’m thinking of my view right now in my study in my apartment. It’s of the brick of the neighbor’s apartment building. You know, that’s Chicago. It’s very cold here so everything kind of has to begin and end with brick. But it was really helpful to hear you talking about that, because I think place is important to any artist. For poets, maybe because our antennae are out so strongly. Sometimes I think we’re wearing our nerves on the outside of our skin. I don’t think we talk about place enough.
LS: It’s true; it’s really crucial. I love that image of wearing nerves on the outside. The thing about If is that it happened so fast. It’s a fairly long poem by my standards, a ninety-page poem or so, and it mostly happened in a single summer: June, July, August 2011. I was actually going back and forth between Washington state and New York a lot. I don’t want to associate New York City with brick, but I do associate it certainly with the built, and the presence of the human in an overwhelming kind of way, which is what is attractive about it. And I think the contrast back and forth between Washington and New York really helps bring into focus what’s distinctive about one place or the other. So I do agree that topos, location, is crucial, and not being knowledgeable about Native American mythos of the area (though I’m sure there’s all kinds of knowledge contained there—but without access to that), here in the Pacific Northwest, one is face-to-face with the landscape, without names that are going to allow us to grasp a thing. And that’s particularly challenging, particularly exciting and particularly generative of, I hope, new language.
TT: I can see how that would be generative. It’s giving you an open space physically and imaginatively to work with.
LS: Yeah, and so many of the names are so inadequate even if they are there. Mount Rainier: what kind of name is that for that extraordinary mountain that is most of the time invisible, hidden behind clouds, and then suddenly appears as if right on top of one? Mount Rainier doesn’t do it as a name.
TT: I was glad you also talked about the length of time it took to write If, in the final note you have, “Olympia-Seattle-New York June-September 2011.” It got me thinking more about my experiences as the reader. It has that sense of momentum and energy, so that when I got to that part of the book, I thought it’s only fitting that this has a kind of…it’s a really reflective book, but it has a diaristic feel also. I’m wondering, thinking more about my experience as a reader, how would you describe your perfect reader or your intended reader for If?
LS: Oh wow, that’s a very difficult question. I always feel like I’m in a kind of vacuum, and this is why I’m particularly grateful for your time and care and attention on the book. Is there a reader? is of course the question. The great poet William Bronk, who I used to visit in Hudson Falls, New York, in the 90s, told me once, “I just need four or five readers to continue—that’s all I really need.” I wasn’t sharp enough to ask him, “Who would those four or five readers be?” But it’s difficult for me to answer that question. I don’t have an idealized view of the reader, obviously, since I’m in doubt always as to whether there is going to be one. But I suppose the reader I have in mind is probably someone involved in the poetry world at some level. Not necessarily, but most likely someone involved in the poetry world I’d like to be in a conversation with about what’s possible in form, what’s possible in language. Impersonal approaches to the personal, since the poem is at some level personal, but I think impersonalizing in its structure. So Tony, I think you’re the ideal reader, basically is what it comes down to.
TT: Well thank you, that’s an honor. I really like the way you put that, that the ideal reader for our poems might just be someone who wants to be in a conversation about what’s possible.
TT: Well let’s hear another excerpt from If.
LS: That would be a pleasure. I’m going to skip to a later section of the poem. This is section eleven, and perhaps I will go straight through section eleven and end there:
Having a child is like buying a used car–
You never know what you are going to get
Offers Robert Kelly, underscoring the tangibility
Of reincarnation: a transaction, not mere doctrine.
As for the constant temptation to
Overstep the bounds of the accessible
Even as one remains
Humble, every year growing ever more so…
If Time at any rate is more than
A social construct and poetry
Exists as an arrangement of time
Sometimes we are greater than the socius
As we measure ourselves
Against a star or a squid or a kumquat
Not competitively of course–
What would be the point–
But from playful feeling
Towards other entities, creatures, artifacts.
If the coast is crumpled skin and salt water is
A rubbing in the wound, a wave up the leg
If I am so lost in my passion
It’s inconceivable to me other are not passionate
If in the caves the crystalline
Painted images by candlelight
Are said to flicker, so that one
Seems to tear out one’s insides to feed a fox
Or offer one’s arm to a hungry tiger, or become
The cat to which a glance is offered
Offering mine back in a fantastic exchange
In the oblivion of the sensual present tense.
A goat in the sun, that’s right,
A ram at the center of the sun
That knows instinctively how to
Lead all the sheep home to the grass.
And the lava flow of trucks and ambulances,
Buses, motorcycles, families, isolate individuals
In their private cars hurtling into our common
Non-being in the not-so-sensual present.
And a goat in the sun with a tongue and curled lips
If a ram in the sun could tell stories to the drivers.
There is so much desolation in these rural towns
So many fathers dying of cancer
So many wives soon-to-be-widows fearing for
The future of their children, and so many children
In wheelchairs and everyone, everyone
Wilting under the heat of an approximate optimism
I too inadvertently propose.
What is this taking of pleasure in the movement
Of one’s limbs, in a wisp of summer breeze,
If not the quintessence of carnal delight?
If I’m a raincloud and can’t stop talking
We all get drenched.
Although false memory comes to be studied
In one big shower, “memory showers” are constant:
Literature asks us to remember events we have
Never experienced, words repeatedly ask us
Atomized individuals to attest to things we have
Never known, the cognitive fluidity of language makes
Sorrows I could never have foreseen
Become part of our common past:
Broken capillaries, unmet expectations,
Downed countries, more.
Today let’s remember to use fire at least once
And engage in big game hunting.
Plenty of throat to play with means
Plenty of sounds to murmur or mime.
If one can say with assurance
One did the right thing in opening the door
If laughter is excess of meaning demonstrating
Absence of meaning
If I dwell in an unwillingness to come to the point
Waiting for the unknown to rise like the solar force itself
If one doesn’t need to see a signature to know
Forms of the human prior to homo sapien
Composed very different poetry on the savannah
Of possible forms, fired very different kinds of pop guns…
What if dimorphism was more terribly pronounced
And men were four times bigger than their wives?
How much less intelligent would that species be overall
Notwithstanding the myth of gentle giants and their ilk?
More to the point: what circumstance
Put me on the phone the other day with a stranger
Bewildered by her plight, a grieving woman
Who wasn’t sure what was coming next?
If sickness and death are premised on
A notion of perpetual warfare and profit
If a guru claims a tree asked her to rescue it from
The axe and I don’t believe it even if I like trees
If it is true that if we weren’t carnivores we would
Never have invented music
All I can suggest is there should be
No hiding out in essences.
If we identify with anything in a book:
Author’s bio note, blurbs, maybe
Copyright page: all else therein generates
The imaginary, not the self-identical.
I said what I could to her, with the limited means
Afforded me by phone, without any illusion I had helped.
Some of Leonard Schwartz’s work, collaborating between poetry and puppetry, can now be seen and heard here. Perhaps this explains why he has Pinocchio on his mind in the interview.