Jon Curley with Norman Finkelstein

Norman Finkelstein
Norman Finkelstein

This interview series poses one question over and over again to a slew of poets of various aesthetic modes. My intention is two-fold: to encourage these poets to examine and imagine whatever notions and natures they discern in their work, and to trace their thoughts about conceptual alternatives to the patterns and trajectories they perceive there. In thinking otherwise, against usual models or presiding instincts, they are free to delve into various realms of possibilities, creating fresh commentary on their current practice and procedures, and theoretical visions which might guide them ideally, provisionally, even counterintuitively. The prompt in some cases generates follow-up questions which the subject can agree to answer or just ignore, and keep silent (silence, too, is a kind of answer). After all, the free-play prospects my line of questioning wishes to pursue must also consider the poets’ freedom to take it on their terms, not my own.

Jon Curley: Can you envision what kinds of poems, whether structurally or thematically, you might consider writing beyond the realm of your past practice? Are there elements of poems outside your usual patterns and activities you might try to integrate into your work?

Norman Finkelstein: Jon, the timing of your invitation to do this interview couldn’t be better, since I recently completed assembling a volume of my new and selected poems. So I’ve been reflecting a good deal on my “past practice,” while at the same time thinking about the current series of poems I’ve been writing, some of which conclude the collection. I find the range of forms and procedures which constitute my practice over the last thirty-five years or so to be startlingly varied. There are overtly midrashic poems based explicitly on precursor texts, a mode which begins in Restless Messengers, if not earlier, and comes to a head, as it were, in the title poem of Passing Over. There is the full blown seriality of Track, generated through various numerological and recombinatory procedures and formulas. There is the overt engagement with projective verse and open-field composition in “An Assembly” (in the volume Scribe). There are collage poems of various types. There is the manic code-switching and use of ghost voices (à la Jack Spicer) in Inside the Ghost Factory. Code-switching of this sort continues in my current work, From the Files of the Immanent Foundation, in conjunction with an increasingly palpable narrative impulse, about which I will say more below.

Despite this variety, I believe there are a number of tendencies that remain constant in my work. For instance, for a long time now, I have written largely in terms of serial forms, sequences, books. It’s not that I can’t or won’t write an individual or free-standing lyric. But I find that poem calls to poem; they coalesce into larger structures. Additionally, intertextuality, especially in the form of commentary, is always functioning in the poem at some level. I’m a perfect example, for better or worse, of what Stevens means when he writes that “Poetry is the scholar’s art.” And then there is the consistent sense that the poem comes from “outside,” that the poem is a “practice of outside,” as Blaser famously noted of Spicer’s work. I would not claim, however, that my work is not at least in part self-expressive. “I” am a presence in the work, but perhaps no more or less than a host of other presences. In this regard, Keats’s negative capability remains a fundamental principle of composition for me. There have been occasions when I have felt a kinship with prophetic and shamanic impulses, the sense of possession one senses in poems such as “Kubla Khan” or “Ode to a Nightingale,” or closer to us, Duncan’s “My Mother Would Be a Falconress” or Bronk’s “Of the All With Which We Coexist.”

But the poem for me is also a making. The Objectivist insistence on the construction of the poem, the poem as a constructed vehicle for thought, judgment and perception, serves as a crucial (and I would say, secular) counter-force in my writing, and certainly tempers my visionary extravagances. Here, figures such as Williams, Creeley and Oppen loom large for me. They remind me—and I often need reminding!—of what we might call the reality principle in modern poetry. The poem as machine made of words, versus the poem as haunted house or interior mindscape. It could well be that out of that tension comes much of the writing in Track, where the combinatory procedures both determine the construction of the poem and allow the ghosts to come in.

So to return to your original question: what then are my “usual patterns and activities,” and what, if anything, can be understood as outside of them? When it comes to innovation, experimentation or simply going beyond what I’ve previously done, I always think of Duncan’s claim to being a “derivative” poet: I’m not concerned with experiment for its own sake, or rather, if I can quote another of Stevens’ adagia, “All poetry is experimental poetry.” Likewise, when I consider the apparent heterogeneity of my writing, Duncan’s understanding of the “form of forms” helps a great deal. As he writes in The Truth and Life of Myth, “In the Form of Forms all events, persons, presentations, stories are redeemed or revealed as form and content; as in the Freudian reading of the dream, all parts belong, no member is to be dismissed as trivial or mistaken.” When I feel that something new is happening in my work, that it’s taking a turn into unmapped territory, it’s both exhilarating and scary, and is frequently accompanied by a sense of the unheimlich. But I also believe that this new revelation will come to be seen as part of my Form of Forms, the gradual accretion that results in my particular constellation, my own expression or version of what Duncan calls the grand collage.

As for my current work: in 2009, after a strange, serendipitous visit to the Edgar Cayce Association for Research and Enlightenment, I wrote a poem called “Tour,” which inaugurated a sequence which has come to be called From the Files of the Immanent Foundation. This sequence constitutes a sort of “hidden narrative.” As I understand this notion, there is a subterranean or partially veiled “plot” unfolding from poem to poem. Chronology is blurred; character and “voice” are indistinct or only momentarily glimpsed; certain perspectives and tonal registers predominate, but counter-forces are always palpable as well. As the poems get written, they increasingly refer back to what has gone before, but not really to “explain” anything, as in, say, a conventional mystery novel. Unlike much of my other work, the order of the poems in the series is not the order in which they were written, and part of my efforts have involved arranging them to produce certain effects commonly associated with narrative. The first set of twenty-five poems may be read as complete in itself, but I am currently at work on a second set that carries the “story” forward.

These poems are about the formations and deformations of institutional power: how these matters enter into and produce discourse, affect the psyche, generate ideology, belief systems, myths, rumors, secrets, etc. Some of the poems maintain a single level of discourse or a more or less singular code, but others do not—they may appear to be conversational, but they involve a good deal of “code-switching” (as is the case with many of the poems in Inside the Ghost Factory). These tend to be in the “voice,” or maybe, the “heteroglossia” through which the Immanent Foundation makes its enigmatic utterances. As for the Foundation itself, it is not a governmental agency, not a sect or cult, not a fraternal organization, not a think tank, not a research institution. But I think it “exists” in the spaces between and behind all such entities. It is unquestionably hermetic, and the search for gnosis plays an important part in its self-definition and activities. The Foundation also seems to be in a state of crisis as the sequence proceeds, but I suspect that it may always already be in such a state. To be sure, it suffers from what the philosopher and literary critic Eric Santner names in his book The Psychotheology of Everyday Life a condition of “Egyptomania”: a psychically and socially rigidifying defense mechanism resulting from “coming too close to a surplus of validity over meaning, necessity over truth, that is at some level operative in all institutions that regulate symbolic identities.” What may overcome this condition? Poetry.


Norman Finkelstein is a poet, critic and Professor of English at Xavier University. He is also a research candidate at the Cincinnati Psychoanalytic Institute. His recent books include the serial poem Track, Inside the Ghost Factory and On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred In Contemporary American Poetry. He is the editor of A Momentary Glory: Last Poems, by Harvey Shapiro, forthcoming from Wesleyan UP. He recently completed a volume of his new and selected poems, tentatively titled From the Files of the Immanent Foundation.