Ugly Duckling Presse has just released Andy Fitch’s interview collection Sixty Morning Talks. Here Fitch interviews Cole Swensen about her book Gravesend. Recorded June 25th and July 20th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Could we first contextualize Gravesend amid a sequence of your research-based collections? Ours, for example, comes to mind. What draws you to book-length projects, and do you consider them serialized installments of some broader, intertextual inquiry? Does the significance of each text change when placed beside the others? Or do they seem discrete and self-contained?
Cole Swensen: They revolve around separate topics, yet address the same social questions: How do we constitute our view of the world (which, of course, in turn constitutes that world), and how does the world thus constituted impinge upon others? Ours examines an era in which science put pressure on definitions of nature. We cannot pinpoint when such pressures started, but 17th-century Baroque gardens give us a chance to focus on this pressure and question the accuracy and efficacy of making a distinction between science and nature in the first place.
In short, both books question how we see, and how this shapes the world we perceive. Ours examines 16th– and 17th-century notions of perspective in relation to conceptions of scientific precision, knowledge, beauty and possibility in Western Europe. Gravesend poses quite different questions, foregrounding that which we do not, or cannot, or will not see. Certain passages address this directly, such as “Ghosts appear in place of whatever a given people will not face.” Communal guilt and communal grief remain difficult to acknowledge because our own lines of complicity often get obscured. Perhaps our inability to deal directly with such guilt and grief causes them to manifest in indirect forms. The English town of Gravesend offered a site through which to examine this because it can be read as emblematic of European imperialist expansion—a single port through which thousands of people emigrated, scattering across the world, creating ghosts by killing cultural practices, individuals, and in some cases, whole peoples. But the word “Gravesend” also hints at an after-life, a life that exceeds itself. The town of Gravesend stands at the mouth of the Thames. When people sailed out of it, they cut off one life and began another. So the concept of a grave as a swinging door seemed crystallized by the history and name of this town. And ironically, the first Native American to visit Europe, i.e., to have gone willingly (even before Columbus, many had been kidnapped and brought back to Europe, but), the first who seems to have regarded it as a “visit,” died in Gravesend, as she waited for a ship to take her back to Virginia. The New World, the Western hemisphere, finally capitulates to Europe, and dies of it.
AF: For this trope of a swinging door: When I think through the book’s distinct idiom (again in relation to your other projects), Gravesend seems to prioritize the gap, which I first had thought of as the false start, but which now sounds more like the second start. That brings to mind Roland Barthes’ preference, in rhetorical terms, for anacoluthon—when an entirely new subject and predicate emerge mid-sentence.
CS: Yes, through this wonderfully slippery form, the direct object becomes the subject of the subsequent verb. Grammar creates a leap in subject matter that the subject matter can’t make by itself.
AF: Exactly. Just as, in your book, the tales of Henry James and Edith Wharton appear first as appropriated texts, then veer toward vernacular testimony and/or stylized sonic variation. Syntactical pivots overlap with broader breaks in the narrative or discursive flow.
CS: Actually, the James and Wharton tales are not appropriated in the way we currently use that term. They are retold, which is different. When a tale (or any bit of language) gets retold, all sorts of distortions arise, allowing these tales, as communal constructs, to grow—to twist, to change, to evolve, or devolve—whereas appropriation (the verbatim incorporation of another text) freezes development, traps content within an individual history, ties it irremediably to a specific ego. That said: Yes, the gap is less a false start than a second start. The stutter is not a stumble, but an insistence on endless beginning. In Gravesend, the gap provides the central formal principle, at times creating a gulf, abyss or blind spot, at times a bridge and at times a re-ignition. What these different uses have in common is their suddenness, and it’s that suddenness that links them, and thus the poems, with death, for no matter how prolonged an illness, no matter how foretold a death, it is always sudden. The poems’ structural gaps point to the sudden absence that is death, but also to the presence of absence that is the ghost (when a ghost passes, it erases the air). The book’s interviews operate differently. They track the differences between a ghost story as told by a person who has experienced it (which almost always contains no narrative arc, no character development, no moral, no point whatsoever), and literary ghost stories, which tend to follow a traditional narrative arc and deliver a strong moral message.
AF: In terms of how interviews inform this book, could we discuss the endnotes? You go out of your way to announce that interview sections do not quote people in their “exact words.” Initially I wondered, why don’t they? What has changed? Then as I began to think this through, a clear…
AF: Should we more or less start over? We could return to a general framing, to get warmed up. Or I could continue with questions about haunting and transcription.
CS: Why don’t we just move on to haunting and transcription? As I wrote this book, I was thinking about writing as always haunted (à la Derrida, who touches on this often), always testifying to an absent voice. The fact that a voice and its transcription are not commensurate places us in the zone of the uncanny. Writing always echoes the uncanny. All writing gets lined with the ghostly.
AF: And in Gravesend, this haunting becomes further manifest when you engage other people. Your transcripts raise the broader questions: How does the historical event (you approaching, and interacting with and recording another) haunt the poetic text that later surfaces for readers? How does an interviewer’s question haunt an interviewee’s answer, and vice versa?
CS: Anecdotally, when I visited Gravesend and talked to residents, I started off by asking, how do you feel about your town’s name? And I got absolutely nothing. First of all, I’d asked a bunch of English strangers, how do you feel? Stereotypically, that won’t work. And it didn’t. So I switched to something more factual: How did this town get its name? And they immediately could step out of themselves and tell a story. Similarly when I asked, have you ever seen a ghost, I noticed people using the “I” to step away from themselves, and tell a story that often had nothing to do with themselves (or featured themselves peripherally). So, to generalize, storytelling’s power to transcend personal history through a marvelous self-estrangement, occasioned by the “I” as communal space, struck me. Since then, I’ve recognized the extent to which literary ghost stories use artifice and convention to bring such strangeness back into familiarity. This denies the personal ghost story’s uncanniness, unfathomability and pointlessness. That pointlessness seemed the most important aspect of the stories I collected. They never describe someone seeking retribution. They never serve to warn anybody. Yet the literary genre demonstrates a deep unease with this type of story, to the point that we cannot write something (perhaps tell it, but not write it) without trying to make it “meaningful,” even if our effort destroys the actual story, the actual “what happened in the world.”
AF: You’ve mentioned that different questions call forth a different “I” to answer them. Could you describe how call-and-response gets structured both into the telling of a ghost story, and into this book? How do you envision your reader assimilating a ghost story Q-and-A?
CS: First, this book’s overall framing brings up for everyone, I would imagine, their own thoughts on ghosts. And discussing ghosts can prompt people to unlock their entire worldview. We articulate who or, more importantly, what we think we are by answering the question: What is a ghost? Likewise, when we read such questions posed to others, we tend to answer them ourselves, and then ask more: Does it matter whether something is “real” if that something has an effect in the world? Do we only classify something as “real” if we can perceive it with our five senses? In this regard, ghosts remain unsayable, and that’s the part that haunts the writing—evoking all the other unseeable, untasteable, unfeelable, unhearable intimations pushing beyond the limited range of our senses. To some extent, both types of ghost story (the literary and the anecdotal) just try to tell us what a ghost is. I find that many of my projects simply try, above all, to define their principle term, whether it’s “garden,” “window,” “hand,” etc.
AF: As you describe the dim prospect for a definitional (or even a descriptive) book about ghosts, I think of Freud’s take on the epidemiology of jokes—that if I hear a joke, if I undergo its shock, this produces surplus tension, which I only can relieve by telling the joke to someone else. Do ghost stories, however unsayable, get passed on for similar reasons? For you, as the interlocutor here, have you been haunted by stories you’ve heard? And if you can’t deliver or define their ghosts, do you at least intend to show us how a ghost story spreads?
CS: Good questions. The reference to Freud is particularly apt. And of course, no definition ever becomes definitive. It remains bottomless, bound to another set of words, which again overflow themselves, creating new momentum. So yes, the stories overflowed and demanded retelling, and I retell them frequently. But back to Freud: You’re getting at why I don’t use people’s “actual words.” I don’t use them because the story itself keeps turning over. As soon as someone tells it, it’s no longer his or hers. You immediately pass it on. You share the anxiety, diffuse the confusion, negotiate the belief—all as a collaborative, communal process. Most important perhaps, a tale allows us to perform this communal activity even when the whole community can’t be there.
AF: To bring this back to your writing, could we discuss the relationship between your in-depth research and your elided, elegant, erasure-tending textual surface?
CS: Actually, I never work with erasure. The fragments build up toward a surface, rather than starting with a “complete” surface and then removing pieces. The projects I work on constantly build toward something that never gets achieved. Each of them asks, what is a whole?
AF: And how do these syntactical vectors correspond to your archival or intertextual research? How does your engagement with scholarly content get refracted or traced through surface dynamics?
CS: Through that engagement, I hope to transpose a given body of knowledge into a different mode—to see how content changes through a shift in textual devices. If we think of poetic language as that which disrupts the one-to-one (the ideal, impossible) relationship between the word and the thing, then the higher the degree of poeticity, the more disruption present. I try to use such disruptions to create fissures in a subject that offer new points of access.
AF: So a project like Ours does not just introduce some new idiolect into poetry. It introduces poetic rhetoric into the investigation of gardening.
CS: Right. I feel it’s very much that way and not the other. It interests me how poetic language (how non-referential aspects of language, such as sound, juxtaposition, ambiguity, ellipsis) can augment the referential—particularly with subject-matter not typically addressed by poetry.
AF: Well your description of gaps as generative got me thinking about additive composition in visual art, that some pieces don’t start from a basic global structure, but get assembled as the local details get put together. Here could you discuss your sense of how poetic collections operate, again in relation to haunting? Can we think of Gravesend’s incremental or interrupted pacing as haunted by some broader (though additive—not originary or teleological) progress binding it all together?
CS: I do hope for some weird doubling or echoing, with the poems acting both as component parts and as self-sufficient units. The model of fractal geometry comes to mind—in which a given figure repeats across widely differing scales, so that a given structure (such as a book) can get broken down into smaller and smaller, yet equivalent, structures.
AF: Once more Gravesend traces the basic principle that words and meanings always haunt each other, with…
CS: Or we could say they overflow each other, to return to that term. I think of haunting in terms of overflow, a kind of intangible overflow for which we can’t account, paralleling art as a form of excess—a lavish uselessness that a society only can indulge in once it has met its basic needs. Art celebrates this available excess, as, in some ways, do ghosts. Ghosts flaunt an excess of life by living beyond their deaths. That same defiance marks all art.
AF: Have we left out other types of haunting? Certainly Dickinson’s death-as-chivalrous- suitor trope comes to mind.
CS: And her dashes. She can put such presence into the absences indicated by those underdetermined/overdetermined slices. But though death may seem a chivalrous suitor, does this have anything to do with ghosts? Do ghosts, after all, have anything to do with death? I found while writing Gravesend that the ghosts people told me about were not necessarily connected to death, nor did they evoke a threatening presence. Instead, they had more to do with time. It has always fascinated me that we can move through space, but not through time. We get pinned on a continuum, trapped in a single time, while all the dimensions of space stretch out freely before us. Yet ghosts possess a different relationship to time. To describe or define a ghost becomes tantamount to describing the relationship between space and time. A ghost is the articulation of the incommensurability of time and space. In short, I think ghosts do exist, and that they are not at all supernatural. Ghosts are completely normal entities that just happen to exist beyond our conceptual abilities because we cannot conceive/perceive time with the fluidity that we do space.
AF: At one point Gravesend opens onto a genetic history, as we encounter the familiarity of a face—of all faces. So the past haunts the present in any number of ways. Does the future haunt as well? You’ve already cited the line “Ghosts appear in place of whatever a given people will not face.” This gets followed by the passage: “There are days / the entire sky is a ghost though again it’s not necessarily what you’d think / bright sun full of birds you’re in a park and everything in sight is alive.” That sequence evoked for me (if you don’t mind an overliteralization) a sense of daily premonitions—let’s say about apocalyptic climate change, about the constrictive horizon shadowing today’s bright sky.
CS: Right, and also about our contemporary expansionist activities. Gravesend only queries Occidental ghosts because I wanted to address the Occident’s effort to haunt its way into everybody else’s culture—and not just historically, but now more than ever. We’ve created a situation (politically, ecologically, et cetera) in which the future inevitably haunts us. What should be open questions have become much less so. We have predetermined, preoccupied, our political spaces and closed many doors prematurely.
AF: I guess we always haunt our descendants as much as our ancestors haunt us.
CS: And as you said, we also haunt our own futures. We think of haunting as coming from the past, but haunting actually pulls us forward. It eliminates choices. And it is we, it’s always we, who haunt ourselves. But again, I’m not sure this has anything to do with ghosts, and the more I worked on the project, the more I saw them as separate.
AF: Gravesend provides cumulative references to the photograph, to the gramophone. These objects offer eerie, fin-de-siècle affects. But they also point to a present haunted by media narratives, which, like ghost stories, reflect, embody, ameliorate and exacerbate our loneliness.
CS: I’m so glad you brought loneliness into the equation. Loneliness is an emanation of the empty body. The poem “The Ghost Dance” addresses the emergence of the “gramophone voice,” which constituted an invention (or re-invention) of disembodiedness. So the poem asks how that disembodied voice differs from the voice-of-the-other-within that Tolstoy discusses in The Kingdom of God is Within You, in which he attributes the internalized voice to God. And in terms of Occidental culture’s imperial reach, we have a strange confluence of dates, a single recurring year, 1894, that saw the publication of Tolstoy’s book, the beginning of the gramophone’s commercialization, and the recording/filming of the Ghost Dance, which likewise sought to access internalized voices and visions. The fusion of this internal voice with the radically externalized machine voice created a fundamental shift in subjectivity—and as you point out, we’ve multiplied and become increasingly occupied by such voices ever since.
AF: Somewhere you’ve described the historical development of the ghost—moving from being an intimate to being a stranger, which again seems to trace the trajectory of us becoming strangers to ourselves.
CS: Yes, we empty ourselves by projecting our lives onto the recipe lives we watch in film, television and advertising. Contemporary media offers myriad ways to externalize ourselves through a variety of self-emptying processes. The idea of a society whose ghosts don’t even want to know them—it’s because we’re not there to be known. To ghosts, we must look like empty shells.
AF: Well, for me, just envisioning you walking through an English town asking people questions… it’s sort of like you did what we all want to do with ghosts (or strangers), which is ask them questions. And the ideal outcome would be some collaborative construct in which our voices could comingle.
CS: Precisely. That’s why I’d wanted to present the interviews the way I did—to have a communal voice, with no distinction between where one ghost story ends and another begins, or whose ghost story is whose. We participate in the tellings, but no individual creates them. We inherit them.
AF: I have one last, slightly biographical question. I loved the early line characterizing death as “endless endlessness that replaces us.” How does this concept of an endless endlessness relate to your own propulsive, itinerant, project-oriented approach to poetry? Do you feel haunted by previous and/or future projects? Do you just complete one and move onto the next?
CS: I always miss a book once it gets finished, because (of course) I select topics I love. I could have happily kept on writing poems about medieval paintings, or ghosts, or gardens for years, but I impose limits and structures from a desire for communication. There’s a limit to the number of ghost poems any sane person will want to read. I try to keep this in mind, which means that sooner or later I have to end each book. But I’m always sorry. Certain projects stay with me longer. Gardens remain especially important. I did a book in 1991 on the Luxembourg Gardens, then did Ours in 2008. I’ve done that with paintings also—come back to them. I figure that as long as you leave 10 or 15 years between projects, people don’t realize that you’re repeating yourself. So in that case, no, they don’t haunt me as much as I would like them to.
Cole Swensen is the author of 14 volumes of poetry, most recently Gravesend and Ours, both of which were finalists for the LA Times Book Award. She has also published a collection of essays, Noise That Stays Noise. A 2007 Guggenheim fellow, she’s the coeditor of the Norton anthology American Hybrid and the founding editor of La Presse, a small press that specializes in contemporary French poetry in translation. She divides her time between Paris and Providence, where she teaches at Brown University.