Andy Fitch with Aaron Kunin

Aaron Kunin
Aaron Kunin

Along with Cristiana Baik, Andy Fitch is assembling the Letter Machine Editions Book of Interviews, which also includes interviews conducted by Noah Eli Gordon and Joshua Marie Wilkinson. This talk will be published in that collection, due for late 2014 release.

Andy Fitch: Could we start by contextualizing Grace Period amid your broader literary output? Some readers may assume that an author’s notebooks only could supplement his/her “serious” work. Some aphorists, some masters of the portrait or miniature or serial poem, may consider the notebook a genre like any other—with its own literary pedigree, rhetorical conventions, inherited formal or interpretive or theoretical problems. And especially since your first two poetry collections offer a circumscribed idiom, a quasi-conceptual resonance not extractable within any straightforward confessional or lyric utterance, I wonder if you see Grace Period as a real-time complement and/or extension of these poetic projects, as a fellow traveler, as a willed divergence or desecration.

Aaron Kunin: I sometimes talk to writers who have a sense of how their books fit together. Their books tell a story, or make a shape, or a cycle. Or all of their books are a single idea. My books don’t look that way to me.

My relationship to them is like this: I have two books of poems, and a third that is coming out next year. Those books have a fastidious sensibility, a circumscribed idiom, as you put it. But I try to avoid indulging my fastidiousness too much. I try to give the poems a rougher surface, to introduce some element in tension with the strict control that was my original impulse. After finding a perfectly clean solution, and in that way having indulged myself, I go back and make it a little bit murky.

Then there’s my novel, which is written in a very circumscribed idiom. Pure self-indulgence. I don’t exactly know how to describe my relationship to that book. I’m very proud of it. But if someone tells me they are reading it, I generally feel sorry for them and apologize, as though I did not mean that book for other people.

Grace Period is not like the others. You might recognize my fastidious sensibility in some of the sentences, some of the thinking, some of the handling. But there’s nothing clean about the organization of the book, and no consistency. Copyediting was a nightmare. Joshua Marie Wilkinson, an excellent editor, put together a long list of queries, paying special attention to inconsistencies of style, usage and punctuation. In almost every case, after torturing myself with the inconsistencies for several weeks, I left them alone.

How did I trick myself into sending this book, unfinished in its very nature, into the world? Strange act of folly! Sometimes that’s why I like it. Finally, finally, after years of trying, I have given up some control.

AF: Notebooks might seem to offer an unmediated record. And yet the artifice and artfulness of Grace Period get foregrounded in any number of ways (not least in its final, Eliotesque section title “The better fabricator”). To begin with some of the most basic formal elements: in terms of a deliberate cropping, your first entry fortuitously places its author within the Proustian position of writing/reflecting from bed; your second entry’s dream-word “potica” speaks to the conflation of eating/reading/speaking that will continue throughout the book; your third entry, on the efficacy of naming actions, points toward epistemic puzzles that will animate many of Grace Period’s more inquisitive passages. Or in terms of cultivating formal symmetries and fluidities: early sections of the book consistently run almost the same length, suggesting that a selection process has helped to sculpt these discrete, yet not dissimilar, units; some later, longer sections operate less as disparate assortments, and more as coordinated, choreographed sequences—mimicking the pace of a novel perhaps, as it pushes the reader through its developing plot with increasingly propulsive momentum. So I’m curious about what precisely you have given us here. Again, recognizing that the notebook itself has remained a fetishized/mythologized literary artifact for at least the last two centuries (here I think not only of Rilke’s or Kafka’s quasi-fictionalized notebooks, but of Dickinson’s fascicles, of Benjamin’s card index and Wittgenstein’s Zettel box, of Spicer’s compressed conception of the “Book”), could you discuss the erotics/poetics of the literary notebook? Does the narrative of the notebook-becoming-conscious-of-itself, that Grace Period in some ways offers, pick up on a hybridized philosophical/fictional/poetic lineage (or utopian future) that appeals to you?

AK: Sorry to disappoint you, but the length of the sections is dictated by the length of the notebooks. I always used the one kind of notebook that was available to me at the time. The opening sections were composed in small-format Clairefontaine notebooks with laminated covers. By “small-format” I mean smaller than my hand. The longer sections were composed in notebooks with cardboard covers that had a red and black design, made by a German firm that I was never able to identify. Also small-format, but many more pages, and narrow ruling. So more writing in them.

I didn’t control the juxtapositions either. The sentences appear in the order in which they were written (except the titles, which are lifted out of their original positions in the notebooks). The juxtapositions are usually unintended. They occur when I delete a sentence, conjoining other sentences that could have been written several days apart.

Still, I put some artfulness into the writing of each sentence. On the level of the sentence, this book is a work of writerly control. A kind of revision sometimes happens across notebooks, when I reformulate an idea a few times. Sometimes I have the same idea in different circumstances, not remembering that I wrote almost exactly the same sentence a year ago.

Frankly, I’m ambivalent about giving up so much control. I had a crisis early in the planning stages of this book where I worried that I had defaulted on my responsibility as a writer to give the finished book a shape. Maggie Nelson helpfully talked me down from that.

AF: A more concise way of formulating our previous exchange might be: Grace Period’s “I” (or one “I” within Grace Period) repeatedly denounces various forms of participatory aesthetics, and yet many readers may think of the fragment (the form that this book ostensibly offers) as inherently inviting the reader’s participation in the construction of meaning. So, does Grace Period provide a self-sufficient, totalizing work, in a way that many similar-looking fragmentary collections do not?

AK: I don’t see a contradiction there. The trouble with works of art that pretend to invite your participation is that they usually have the effect of limiting how you participate.

I’ll tell you a story. Ten years ago (in the middle of the period covered by Grace Period), I walked through the Yoko Ono retrospective at the Japan Society. In every room, as I was looking at the pieces, someone who worked at the museum would tell me that I wasn’t experiencing the pieces fully. “You can touch it.” “You can pick it up.” “You can interact with it.” I had to explain, “I don’t want to pick it up.” “I’m already interacting with it in my own way.” “I’m having a perfectly fine aesthetic experience.”

There are a lot of possible approaches to Ono’s work that don’t involve holding it in your hands. For that matter, any work of art has numerous approaches. But the other side of participatory aesthetics is the implication that most kinds of art (nonparticipatory art?) don’t give their audiences the same freedoms. In effect, participatory aesthetics try to limit both my experience of art that invites my participation, and my experience of every other kind of art.

Readers who think that the literary fragment extends a special invitation to interpretation, an invitation that is unavailable in other forms of writing, are making a mistake.

AF: We could think of the fragment or aphorism (feel free to parse these terms if you wish) as shaped by external pressures (as a from of writing which, due to its author’s harried life circumstances, must emerge in quick, concise, overdetermined bursts), and/or as shaped by a deliberative, cultivated sensibility (one that prioritizes the discreet, provisional, itinerant modes of inquiry that this form allows). The aphorism can take on either monumental or miniature stature, or both simultaneously). Could you describe your sense of the scale, the elasticity, that appeals to you both in the aphorism and the aphoristic collection? And along similar lines, questions of continuity, sequencing and temporality kept coming up for me throughout Grace Period. Do these notebooks trace a clearly demarcated “grace period” in your own life (pre-job, pre-LA, pre-professional poetic identity) or in ours? Does the tentative, incremental, incomplete affect of the notebook always construct its own grace period—one reserved for reflections that never need to crystallize into more authoritative or argumentative pronouncements? Does this book’s apparently timeless, almost pastoral emphasis upon the private (with almost no “news” discussed in its nine-year span), does its privileging of the ambient (“Everything else in the room was more interesting than the film”) and the overlooked (repeated praise for chairs, let’s say), amount to an argument or investigation of what anyone’s notebooks can/could/should contain? Here I guess I’m trying to coax out your scholarly interest in distinctions between personality and “character”—as implied perhaps in the early formulation: “The problems are psychological as opposed to personal.”

AK: Interesting question. Scale is a distinctive formal feature of the aphorism. In a sense, this is a target for all art: to put something that seems impossibly big into a shape that seems impossibly small. But the aphorism does this work with unusual intensity.

I don’t see Grace Period as wholly absent of news. It’s difficult to give an example of what I mean without ruining parts of the book. For example (and I’m going to be purposefully vague here), there’s a motif in some of the first notebooks where I’m comparing the state of Israel to a well-known fictional character. But I have removed all explicit references to Israel and to the work of literature in which the character appears. Leaving only a statement that should work equally well as a note in personal psychology and in sovereignty.

AF: Once again, I’m trying to get at murkier, more abstracted questions harder to formulate. Here I wonder about the extent to which Grace Period tracks your own lived experience of an aphoristic subject-hood, and the extent to which the book excavates, imitates, performs and aestheticizes such a sensibility. Grace Period offers any number of Rochefoucauldian zingers about human pettiness, hypocrisy, mediocrity. But these seemed more like surface gestures. Overall, the book doesn’t appear to provide moral wisdom or guidance to its present readers, so much as it pays homage to preferred literary precedents. Does the aphorism’s history track a line of self-scrutiny concerning the value of language (of propositional, declarative, descriptive sentences) more akin to logical analysis or mathematical proof, rather than (or in coordination with) pithy pronouncements on human behavior?

AK: Was La Rochefoucauld an author of zingers? A lot of people see him this way. The polite way of saying it is that he “was not a systematic thinker.” Which is something that gets said about many aphoristic writers. La Rochefoucauld was not a systematic thinker, Lichtenberg was not a systematic thinker, Weil was not a systematic thinker, etc. Their thought was consistent for the length of a sentence or a paragraph, and then they had a different thought.

Well, I’m here to tell you that La Rochefoucauld was a completely systematic thinker. He derives a compelling human psychology from a first principle of self-love. All of his moral judgments follow from this one principle. The difference between him and writers whose thought is commonly described as systematic is that his sentences do not have a Euclidean progression, where each sentence starts with the premise established in the previous one. (Some thinkers, such as Spinoza, seem to use a Euclidean progression to conceal the fact that their thought is not quite systematic.)

I do not pretend to have a system. Well, maybe I am not above pretending. Numbering the sentences gives them a veneer of Euclidean progression. You might get the impression that something—an argument, or a language—is being built, or stored away.

AF: Your writing consistently has probed boundaries or tensions between affective relational response and meditative self-reflection, between unconscious bodily drive and calculating intention, environmental field and internalized experience, animating desire and diffusive constraint. Poetry, with its tendencies toward allegory, euphony and lyric identification (as in: “The train and I are both getting up. / And yawning”) often veers away from single-minded, instrumental utterance in similar fashion. Grace Period may seem to privilege the sentiment that “Conversation is my form of suffering,” and yet, precisely 100 pages later, it extols “The gift of being sometimes alone.” Aphoristic collections, as we have suggested, often oscillate in their embrace of the laconic and the logorrheic (how many 310-page books by poets got published last year?), perhaps here dramatized in the repeated references to a cramped, cryptic handwriting style. And you elsewhere have discussed the paradox of a misanthropy that implicitly craves some idealized social life. So what does Grace Period crave, and how does this get reflected in its design—both as a mythologized notebook that we read about, and as the published book that we read?

AK: Unlike La Rochefoucauld, I don’t have a strict code. Instead I have values. These are qualities that I possess, and therefore value—or qualities that I don’t possess, and value even more. They could also be called problems, because the positive value sometimes unexpectedly moves in the direction of the opposite quality. This movement would not occur if I were a systematic thinker.

The best way to answer your question about my cravings would be to list these values. Here are some examples: talking and being silent; eating and refusing food (both craving and denial of appetite); theater and lyric; awkwardness and grace.

One of my values is surely the idea of a code. And, at the other extreme, the freedom of not following a code. I don’t have a strict code, but the idea of a code appeals to me. So while I disagree with you about La Rochefoucauld, I think you are right about me. What I take from him is not the code, but the style.

AF: While referring to Grace Period’s aphorisms, I also should acknowledge the greater variety of modes and gestures we find here: character sketches; recollected or overheard or imagined conversational snatches; impressionistic vignettes; didactic syllogisms; improvisatory etymologies and exegeses of idiomatic phrases, or of bodily and rhetorical gestures; rhetorical questions; false leads; etc. This depiction of the personal as the anthological reminded me most of Nietzsche’s thematized and formalized perspectivism. But certainly Weil, Lichtenberg, Wittgenstein, Pessoa, Barthes come to mind. Who else fits well in this pantheon of minimalists/maximalists, and is that a fair characterization of the genre (a genre, of course, always proclaiming the urgent need to break with genre)?

AK: I agree that it’s important to emphasize traditions and conventions within this genre. Otherwise, notebooks and diaries can seem like a kind of private writing. There are discernible patterns of influence, conversations between writers, and crucial moments in literary history where you can see the tradition developing. When Lichtenberg’s notebooks were published after his death, they created a vogue for aphoristic writing in the Romantic movement. Nietzsche, clearly influenced by Lichtenberg, disavowed all German influences, instead associating himself with French models, such as La Rochefoucauld.

I love reading in this genre. Diaries. Books of maxims. Propositions. Fragments. Characters. Burney’s journal-letters. This is some of my favorite literature. I especially like this kind of book when it’s written over a long period of time, and takes its shape from accidental circumstances in everyday life. For me, the important models for this kind of writing are Marcus Aurelius, Sei Shonagon, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, Lichtenberg, Burney, Canetti and (I can’t emphasize this enough) Louise Fitzhugh’s character Harriet the Spy, whose practice of carrying a notebook I started imitating around age 9 or 10. At that time, if you had asked me, I would not have said that I wanted to be writer; I would have said that I was a spy.

What the fictional character, Harriet, has in common with the historical examples is that she isn’t just observing. She is not aiming for an unmediated record. She puts more pressure on judgment than on observation.

AF: Again, in terms of literary precedent, psychoanalytic literature, particularly Freud and Lacan, often seems to get echoed and reformulated in your work. Folding Ruler Star offers perhaps my all-time-favorite mirror-staged, never-quite-attained object (or objects) of poetic desire. But does the journal form (the unceasing attempt/failure to realize, represent, finalize the self) always offer something similar (as does language as a whole, perhaps, since “How does one know the correct word if one has never used it before and never seen it used”)?

AK: Writing can be like a mirror. From my writing, you could learn something about me. For example, it’s generally a sound principle to assume that people write about things they are interested in.

The tricky part is that writing, if you are any good at it, is a space for transformation. I can do things in writing that I can’t do using only my body and my voice, and in this sense writing misrepresents my body and my voice. Also, as everyone knows, if you tell a story, the act of telling fixes the story in your memory, and the story replaces whatever was previously in your memory.

I’ll give an example, and since you asked specifically about psychoanalysis, I’ll tell a story about my mother. As she gets older, I seem to get younger in her eye. I’m sitting next to my mother, and she sees me as I am now, a middle-aged man, and she also sees me as I was at age 11. Sometimes she feels closer to the 11-year-old me, and responds to things I did or said at that age, which appear vividly in her mind, but which I don’t remember. In my voice she can hear the little voice, which no longer exists, that was mine at that age. Gaily chattering away.

What my mother hears in my voice startles me. My whole relationship to writing is based on the idea that talking is difficult for me; I imagine writing as an imperfect compensation for that difficulty. I think I am alive to the ways in which this relationship has become a cherished personal myth, a story that I continue to tell in writing and in speech, as (ironically) I become more fluent and confident in speech.

My mother forcefully reminds me of a different story that my personal myth has occluded. Talking was not always difficult for me. At age 11, talk poured out of me. As though I wanted to say everything. And what happened then? Did I lose this capacity, or did I learn tact? I don’t remember.

By the way, this story about my mother and me is an excellent example of how people have almost no imagination, and therefore become parasitic on other people’s fantasies.

For the record, I’m more interested in older psychologies, such as La Rochefoucauld’s. The modern psychologies that most interest me are James, Canetti and Goffman. Freudian psychoanalysis can’t help being important, even if it isn’t the first tool I reach for. Lacan has never meant very much to me. His emphasis on language feels alien to my own psychological experience.

AF: Along similar lines, could you parse this book’s thematized (eventually explicated) prioritization upon “the literal,” its aversion to metaphor, its strategic deployment of the lie? And then, much more specifically, what do you make here of entries that are, for lack of a better word, wrong? The statement “Not to have spoken is always a cause for satisfaction” seems wrong to me, and in fact gets playfully contradicted about 30 pages later, in the acknowledgment that “He can’t help regretting missed chances to have said something impressive or self-important—about his knowledge of foreign languages, for instance.” What function does the wrong serve in relation to the literal, the metaphoric, the lie?

AK: I’m trying to make statements that can be evaluated as right or wrong. When I do that, I risk being wrong. In other words, not the kind of literary experience that separates literal from figurative meaning.

My practice as a reader has always been to read metaphors, and all figures of speech, literally. I used to worry that I might have an aversion to metaphor, and I wrote about these worries in Grace Period. Was there something wrong with me? Was there a secret about figurative language that everyone else knew, but had not shared with me? I think your question is responding to these worries.

Grace Period narrates a move from lesser to greater certainty on this issue. Near the end, I write, maybe prematurely, “That’s called figurative language. I used to worry about that; now I don’t.” In other words, not my problem. The distinction between literal and figurative meaning is a rhetorical distinction, not a poetic one. Rhetoric is indifferent to meaning, and uses figures of speech to have effects on an audience. But poetry is traditionally very serious about metaphor.

For example, Herbert’s poem “Love (III),” one of the most beautiful poems in the English language, ends with the command: “You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.” This line is highly figurative, complicated, controversial, in no way a place of certainty. Meat is a metaphor, an obscene suggestion and a way of talking about submission to Love, which is also a figure, a way of talking about God. And the meaning of that metaphor is meat. The form that submission takes in this poem is tasting the meat. We might disagree about what meat means, but it definitely means meat.

In rhetoric, you might use a figure of speech as a mere instrument of persuasion. But why would you do that in a poem? The distinction between literal and figurative meaning (where figurative meaning is diminished, empty, a hoax) makes it impossible for poems to know anything. Or, alternately, makes it impossible for you to learn something that you did not already know from a poem.

So I would say that the habits of mind that sometimes make me a gullible or infuriating conversationalist also help to make me a sophisticated reader of poetry.

AF: As we begin making our way to more specific terms that Grace Period deploys, could we start with “Aaron”/”Aaron Kunin”/”AK”? “Aaron” may get presented as “short for erroneous”; “Aaron” might be difficult to pronounce, because of a “pause at the first syllable”; but “Aaron” also of course suggests, at least in biblical traditions, someone gifted with speech—a smooth talker. In what ways does “Aaron” here stand for personality as linguistic or literary or interlocutory project?

AK: Names feel personal, but they are characterological. We call them “proper names,” but they are not personal property. They belong to everyone. My name associates me with a group whose character derives from Aaron in the Old Testament, who, unlike his brother, has no privileged access to a divine source; he is merely a fluent, pleasing speaker. The character attached to my name has always felt to me like an ironic burden, because I am anything but fluent, and especially because I tend to stutter the pronunciation of my name.

I have written about the Biblical meaning of my name in The Mandarin, where the characters use “Aaron” as a generic term for a spokesperson. Anything that speaks on behalf of something else.

Pronouns are called personal, but function communally, in the same way. Earlier you were asking about a contradiction between “Not to have spoken is always a cause for satisfaction” and “He can’t help regretting missed chances to have said something.” For me, personally, there is no contradiction, because I never regret my silences. The note about regrets refers to a different person, a woman, whom I called “he” in order to avoid confusing her with the woman who appears repeatedly in that notebook, and who is actually named twice. A contradiction may remain, I suppose, since the satisfaction of remaining silent is expressed as a universal: No one ever regrets remaining silent.

Any name and any pronoun can refer to any object, and, in literature, they do. At the same time, all of the names and pronouns in my book are personal, because I wrote them.

AF: Speaking again of “your” place within this text, could we address more concretely the misanthropic tone that does appear? The suggestion that people “have no imagination” stands out. I often cannot tell whether I should be annoyed by such statements. Misanthropy always seems to me potentially revelatory in elders, but loathsome and laughable in younger people. I think you’re just a bit older than I am, but that I’m older than the “I” of Grace Period. So I’m conflicted here. What valence do you sense such misanthropic pronouncements possessing—specifically in Grace Period, and then more broadly in your life?

AK: I’m not saying that some people have more imagination than others, but that no one has very much.

I must admit, this observation fascinates me, which is why I reformulated it many times. I continue to find it rich and fascinating.

For some writers, this observation would be misanthropic. For Jane Bowles, for instance, “no imagination” is the worst possible insult. I love the scene in Two Serious Ladies where Mrs. Copperfield tells the manager of the Hotel Washington, “You have no imagination!” A devastating blow. But that same sentence, in a novel by Henry James, would be spoken with approval. James thinks that some people have imagination, and some don’t, and he likes the ones who don’t. Lack of imagination can be an attractive quality.

For me, it’s an open question. A fascinating question. I generally believe that people have almost no imagination. Sometimes I remove the qualification and simply say that people have “no imagination.” Sometimes I test my observation. For example, you can use a word in conversation, then hear other people repeat the same word, because they use the vocabulary that you give them. This can be a fun trick in a job interview, where you can use words such as “lucid” and “elegant,” and then listen to the interviewer apply the same words to you.

At one point I distinguish between the few artists who add a new form to literature, and the many others who don’t, but, again, I think this is simply the history of art, and not even a value distinction. After Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella was published, for two decades everyone wrote sonnet sequences. Sidney invented something, and other poets worked with his invention. Sidney “invented a practice,” but that does not necessarily mean that he is superior to Shakespeare, who did not. The conservatism of the history of art cannot be overstated. Thus, I observe, no imagination.

Is that a flaw or a saving grace? If we had more imagination, we might not need other people. We might not have a use for art. (Taken in this sense, my observation is the opposite of misanthropy.)

Incidentally, I’m on record as not professing misanthropy. My study of misanthropy started in September 2006 (toward the end of Grace Period), when a woman described me as misanthropic, and I wondered what she meant.

AF: Along with these questions of tone, brief enactments of retrospective condemnation, of revenge, find their way into a text that, otherwise, clearly departs from familiar forms of first-person confession. And then, alternately, when Grace Period speaks of filing as a form of “forgetting not remembering,” I wonder if the same can be said of descriptive or notational or autobiographical writing. As a scholar of the early modern, could you place Grace Period alongside the revenge tragedy? And/or: As a theorist of filing, could you describe the amnesiac implications of memoir?

AK: I don’t view writing as an effective tool of revenge. Unless you were trying to avenge yourself on another writer. That could work. Like one of those historic occasions where everyone who participated writes a book about it afterwards.

Revenge—whether in a Jacobean revenge tragedy, an Icelandic saga, or a violent street gang—is a basic form of justice. Something has been taken from me, and I’m going to take it back, and that is my revenge. Maybe I’ll take back a little extra, just so you know that I mean business. If you take something from me, and I respond by writing about it, I’m not satisfying my need for justice.

There’s a clever legal philosopher named William Ian Miller who specializes in blood feuds. He is the only contemporary thinker I know of who is willing to defend revenge as a concept. And he defends it with enthusiasm. He argues that revenge is the only system of justice that really works. An eye for an eye. Perfect fairness, perfect equality.

Miller is in a weird position, because he speaks on behalf of brutal medieval Icelanders, whose system of justice and understanding of human psychology he celebrates, but he is hardly a medieval warrior himself, and he does not live in that world; he teaches in the law school at the University of Michigan.

As for filing, well, I think it’s true that an effective system of organization conceals most of what it organizes. Concealment is the point. You collect a lot of things that you probably don’t want to look at most of the time. Except when you have made a conscious decision to look at them. If you don’t organize your email messages, and you are searching for a specific message, you might suddenly encounter something poisonous that had been floating untethered in your archive. If you had better organization, then you wouldn’t ever see that message unless you specifically called it up and prepared yourself for it.

AF: How about the conflation of eating/reading/writing that I’d mentioned earlier? We could throw in kissing, biting, certainly tasting. I think of Barthes’ affection for the human muzzle. Of the many roles that the mouth, the oral (and the corresponding aural) play in this book—could you characterize some of the more pressing?

AK: What happens is that two of my values (that is to say, both the values and their opposites) are located in the same spot. They cross in the mouth. Sometimes eating seems like the origin of the others—out of eating comes talk. At other times eating feels more like a subcategory of talk.

AF: We still haven’t addressed Grace Period’s artful pauses to present acute sonic distinction (“Leather and weather do not rhyme”), haiku-like dilation (“Pen drops to floor [from pocket] / Bottle top drops to floor [from hand]”), lyric time in which “things are happening that do not have to happen, on which survival does not depend.” Could you elaborate upon this book’s pursuit of “pure lyricism, a gesture that has no purpose”?

AK: That is the classic difference between rhetoric and lyric. A rhetorical gesture, or a figure of speech, has a purpose. The speaker smiles, or lifts both hands overhead, or rhymes two words, in order to have an effect on an audience. In a poem, the same rhyme has no purpose other than wanting to hear the same sound twice. The value of the rhyme isn’t somewhere else; it’s the same as the rhyme. The difference between poetry and rhetoric is one of the most beautiful ideas in the entire history of ideas, but I can’t take any credit for it.

You’re very kind to describe “leather / weather” as an “acute sonic distinction.” I can’t defend that observation. Nonetheless, to my ear, it sounds like a slant rhyme, not a true one.

AF: To close, I’ll just ask you to pick up, put down, expand upon or diminish one of Grace Period’s most direct injunctions: “Do the most advanced work at the most elementary level.”

AK: I like this one. When I wrote it, I was thinking about the two interviews that Jean-Luc Godard did with children, a little boy and a little girl, where he gets them to explain difficult concepts in psychology and sociology. Both Godard and the children are curious, patient and delighted with each other. The interviews show that Socratic questioning can actually be a powerful tool for discovery. It doesn’t have to be just a literary form.

You could say that the injunction to “do the most advanced work at the most elementary level” is the opposite of the familiar injunction to explain difficult concepts in plain language—the expressive ideal of someone like Lincoln, which is a useful skill. But it can also be useful to begin an education at the outermost frontiers of knowledge, where nothing can be taken for granted. When I was a student, I was always drawn to teachers who frightened me a little.

Finally, I think it’s inevitable. You have to do the most advanced work at the most elementary level. Because that’s the level at which you remember why you care about your work.

 

 


Aaron Kunin is recently the author of Grace Period, a collection of aphorisms, sketches and fragments. In Fall 2014, Fence Books will publish Cold Genius, a new book of poems. He lives in Los Angeles.