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: Since your first two books so consistently foreground a cluster of constellated motifs, could we start with some? For instance, More Radiant Signal opens by announcing “a study of the secret life of the stick figure / whence the inland evolution of my imagination took place.” It quickly offers “internal energy fluxes,” camouflage, an “anonymous woman’s untitled secret.” I kept thinking of the Pavement song in which the listener gets chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation to the sequel of your life. Could you describe what you value in gestures of poetic deferral, diminution, performative self-displacement—perhaps in relation to preceding writers you admire, and/or to gender, to the subtleties of sound play in your poetics?
Juliana Leslie: Poetry, as I experience it, or writing poetry, more accurately, offers these chances to lose the self, or the self as a figure entitled to be the center of a poem, particularly when that inherited figure carries a language that effaces a range of possibilities, experiences, perceptions, energies. So maybe I write from the point of view of the secret, or the corner, or the keyhole. Or from a point of view that may not be human or even sentient. This latter idea was suggested to me by a friend who read More Radiant Signal. She thought maybe some of the speakers and figures in these poems weren’t human, or perhaps they were undergoing metamorphosis. More accurately, the voices and figures, or the writing itself, is undergoing stylistic transformation—not committing to a particular mode or habit or behavior.
I think of H.D. when I think of writing as a form of self-effacement or self-displacement, and what that has to do with gender. In Notes on Thought and Vision she struggles to articulate and make room for her own “sign-posts,” which are different from more official sources of influence. Her inner disposition (or style) struggles and fights against the external, historical world. These private parts belong to a different model of history or a different model of writing, in which space and time do not submit to ordinary perception. H.D. used her own writing to create a new tradition or to revive older secret traditions, in which she could be both a listener and an initiate. She was both reticent in the face of historical problems and prophetic at the same time. This practice interests me because H.D. chose not to follow a direct path or an obvious path and created the rules that would sanction her own choices. I know I’m not inventing a new tradition, but I also sense that it’s easier to write in a lot of different forms and styles, or to try out different behaviors and perceptions from weird angles, when not doing so. I have told students not to commit to a particular style or get too attached to the sound of their voice doing one particular thing, because it will change and they will want it to change. In this way I approach writing as a deliberate, intentional way to change my voice, even if it’s happening very slowly. It helps to write from a point of view that is not attached to one particular vista.
AF: Throughout this book, I’ll sense much potential lurking in the subdued, the secret. I’ll want to complete lines such as “If we let our minds work all night in the dark” with Ezra Pound’s portentous phrase “…it troubles my sleep.” Or I love how, in the Barbara Guest-inspired still-life reverie “Earth, Apple, Fly,” we soon reach “the whole canopy of the heavens // had fallen and fell / in her lap.” By what affective or sonic or intellectual processes do you sense the hermetic and the elided becoming the emergent and/or the expansive? And do you think of all language, all communication (as in “Much has been said / and much more placed / in an envelope”), as overloaded with potential energy?
JL: When trying to answer the previous question, I was thinking about a line written somewhere by Erik Satie, in which he suggests that he wants his music to be able to be heard from many different points in a room. Since I can’t remember the whole quotation or context, I’m not sure if he meant that he wanted his music to create a benign atmosphere that didn’t disturb ordinary behaviors, or if he meant the reverse—that if music has to be heard from all of these different places and zones simultaneously, then one has to disturb and decenter ordinary perceptions. If poems can have this kind of sculptural quality and take up space off the page, or if the sonic structures of a poem can defamiliarize the parts of a room or a territory differently, then I think secrets are just ordinary habits defamiliarized. That means reading poetry, regardless of form, style, mode, etc., dramatizes and draws our attention to how we ordinarily judge or perceive reality. Taking the long way around an object is a type of work and this work draws us closer to reality. It means our perceptions are political, because they train us to judge reality and to either permit or deny different types of experiences.
AF: Here for one minor repeated trope throughout this book, could we look at buttons? Buttons obviously have a poetic pedigree coming from Stein and others. And again, buttons can serve both as dainty, diminutive details and as transformative thresholds, or stabilizing gatekeepers. They open/close something, and perhaps could be said to do both simultaneously. Reading More Radiant Signal, I often thought of the famous opening to John Ashbery’s Three Poems, in which the “I” contemplates taking it all out or leaving it all in. But, more specifically, could you speak of buttons?
JL: I’m glad of the reference to Ashbery’s Three Poems, because it’s one of my favorite books, and that line in particular evokes the difficulties of composing and making decisions. Exposure is difficult for me and my choices as a writer often have to do with how much I’m willing to expose, how loud I want to be, what kind of language I’m willing to use. There are poets who leave it all in and then those that do not, or who struggle with leaving some things in. Perhaps the diminutive status of the button represents this tension between another type of revelation and concealment. It may be just the sound of the word that I really like in combination with the idea—something small, domestic, feminine (sometimes), something handled and undone, something taken care of that has to be sewn on and sometimes repaired. Buttons on a shirt also look like a list, or a series, which is appealing to me. And a pile of buttons is a very satisfying thing to touch and explore. The texture of buttons in a row is one thing, or the promise of buttons ready to be used. Some buttons are likely to fall apart but also easy to fix. To unbutton something is to revise it, as your question implies. To take it all out. To button up is to leave it all in. But also to hide. Which is maybe not what Ashbery meant, if he meant to leave it all in is to trust writing and not edit, not self-efface, or not be diminutive.
AF: Well buttons and encyclopedias may not seem to go together. Yet when I read the poem “Encyclopedia,” I recalled your poetic buttons. And in terms of how representation operates more broadly in your books, do you think of “Encyclopedia’s” carefully culled/curated inventory of referents, objects, sensations and proper nouns as implying something greater—as gesturing toward some emergent totality in the way that an encyclopedia does? Do you see your micro-catalogue as simply an accumulation of precious objects? Does this Barthesian magic circle express “you” somehow? Do all of these phenomena occur simultaneously? What rhetorical or emotive or affective vectors can you draw here for the author, for the reader?
JL: There is something that seems very occasional or random about that poem, as if each thing in the list could be anything, and none of the objects mentioned have any significant or unalterable purpose of their own—especially one that would point back to me in a way that I could easily parse or identify. I imagine them musically, the objects behaving like notes or rhythmic pressures more than actual objects. Or maybe they are, more accurately, objects of exchange or partial attention that can be replaced by something else. In that sense, these referents only reflect a way of thinking about how the world is put together. I would not say they occur simultaneously. They reflect a mind trying to control or slow down disparate parts of an environment that is probably more empty than full, more fragmented than total, or that disappears and recedes as much as it tries to become an “emergent totality.” If there is a figure for the author at the center trying to control this collection, she is probably stumbling around. There is nothing explicitly personal in the referents, and I’m aware of that being a sort of involuntary choice in More Radiant Signal. This is why I tried to write more “studied” poems in Green Is for World, or poems whose references I could remember and trace and be held accountable for. But perhaps poems are also places or environments that we try to control, and the curatorial process reveals the extent to which we can’t control our environment, our surroundings, or what ends up in our immediate vicinity. In that sense, these objects should be precious but they are not. Or they should have a more significant semantic value that means something in tension with the objects around them.
AF: Just quickly to return to More Radiant Signal: I love how a poem like “Several Always Before the One” provides a study of paratactical phrasings, of disjointed adjacencies, and yet ultimately manages to reach an evocation of embodied experience, with its “arms and legs like a button / pressed under the sign / of someone else’s skirt.” The poem “3:54 A.M. Pacific Daylight Time,” conversely, may seem to dilate on a particular moment, yet further emphasizes the disjunctive line break (also, perhaps, the segmenting and/or stitchery of lyric composition). Taken at a glance, “3:54’s” sequence of stand-alone utterances reminds me of, let’s say, a Donald Judd sculpture. Then “Two Ideas” invokes the diptych, and I picture Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls. Could you discuss the resonance, the poignancy, the erotics of things (words, sounds, people) placed side-by-side?
JL: I don’t remember writing “3:54 A.M. Pacific Daylight Time,” but I still try to write poems that explore this kind of repetition or serial phrasing, maybe because they are easier for me to write or because writing them gives me pleasure. I like reading serial poems because they offer a different kind of literacy and a more physical experience of writing as an art object, as physical material to be worked over. Readers or spectators can move forward and backward and sideways; they can experience their body from different angles, looking at a piece from several perspectives, without the familiar sequence of perceptions that involve clear beginnings and endings, or front/back, etc. Series help to rearrange space the way music or sculpture does. A diptych or triptych will ask for simultaneous readings, or for ways of reading that invite more play into the act of making meaning, as allegory does when it asks readers to shuttle between different levels of meaning without privileging any particular one over another. And I like writing in a way that will allow me to explore a particular phrase or series of phrases that extend a moment into something beyond the normal routine of everyday life. I enjoy the physical act of writing when it becomes an act of listening to sounds and putting pieces together in a non-hierarchical way. And when it approaches the speed of a different kind of thought or mode of attention that can make the language of ordinary experience and perception into something that has potential.
AF: Drawing comes up frequently in your work as well. When More Radiant Signal refers to a “cunning enticement of pen on paper,” I think of the poetic line in relation to the drawn line. Drawing, especially in more recent decades, also seems to provide a realm for probing the propositional nature of pictorial representation. It will fuse the possible and the impossible, let’s say. It may present, as in your poem “Prairie Sonnet,” “a fork in the road and indeterminate weather. Even if the road doesn’t exist.” It can pursue such scenarios simultaneously. It also can ask “Who disappears when the sun / slips behind a pencil.” Could you discuss how drawing has shaped your sense of poetic identity—especially “your” identity as a “windowpane in love / with a bright whirligig”?
JL: I think of drawing as something that writing can behave like, as something it can approximate or learn to accommodate. Other art forms can give permission to writing to work against its own procedures. Visual artists seem to spend quite a bit of time developing a vocabulary and working on technique or doing practice sketches in preparation for larger works. Working in a series can reflect this process or suggest that even disparate poems share a particular grammar or attitude. The painters I know have spent a long time developing their style and then changing it, by incorporating new materials or techniques into their work. They obsess over images and work them over again and again in different pieces. Or they perfect a technique to the point of destroying. This seems like a different mode of production than writing. But a poetic line also has a different relationship to time, because its semantic meaning suppresses its form, or puts pressure on its form. The drawn line or the painted line or the painted gesture can remind writing that language is also propositional and speculative. The whirligig is that moment when reality hasn’t crystallized, when the line isn’t yet finished.
AF: Since I still haven’t cited enough lovely passages, which enfold their synesthesiac potential energy into intricacies of sound, could we focus for a second on yet another one, such as the end to “The Age of Parts,” with its “ambit / of a lamp’s arm / cracks”? Or likewise, could we address the sense of texture or touch implicit when “That Obscure Coincidence of Feeling” arrives at “Lumps in the reading / produce diplomacy as if / when the weather / is full of people / like powdered sugar”? Given the delicate fusion of sonic, syntactical and cognitive thrusts here, how could we ever parse the distinction that the poem “Margaret Fuller” passionately posits between “what is felt by itself / and what belongs to nervous feelings”?
JL: That’s a good question. In “Margaret Fuller” I wanted to explore the historical sublime, or the way that the past inflects the present in imperceptible ways, shaping and facilitating our possibilities and giving us “nervous feelings” about what we can and can’t do. I borrowed some diction from Emerson, from Poe and from Fuller’s diaries—in the hopes of giving a sense of a different time period or at least a mood that was a little out of time. I wanted to bring a more fully-realized sense of history into the work. But history gives us distinctions and orders between things, so the end of the poem really just collapses into the boundary between those categories. The beginning of the poem has a figure at the center, and the end of the poem is more like other things that I write, so perhaps the piece is playing out that tension between different types of observation. But it’s really about me fighting against my tendencies and wanting to say something more pointed and studied and not being able to. Perhaps it goes back to the question of influence and permission. I also think of what H.D. writes in Trilogy in The Walls Do Not Fall: “but if you do not understand what words say, / how can you expect to pass judgment / on what words conceal?” I’m not always sure what H.D. means here. I think she means that words have an effect and create a surface. They have a materiality and artificiality, but they also conceal and hide an occluded history of forces that runs beneath experience.
AF: And for art/poetry fusions, Rimbaud’s “Voyelles” of course stands out. Your “The Little Sound in the Middle of Simone” appears to fuse Rimbaud’s poem with a Gertrude Stein play (in which she plays and plays and plays). More broadly, a Rimbaudian sense of synesthesia comes across throughout the book as, for example, the colors in “White Polka Dots” blend with the sounds of birds and textures of trees. Can we discuss the synesthesiac as it plays out in More Radiant Signal? One possible point of reference: I know that your former teacher Peter Gizzi considers sound as a basis for poetry’s three-dimensional, sculptural status. Does synesthesia, does kaleidoscopic affect, allow you to create a comparably sculptural process?
JL: That sounds like a really nice description of what happens, and I agree with Peter Gizzi that sound supplies the foundation and the structure for poetry—or maybe more specifically for lyric poetry. That seems to be the mode I work in and that makes sense to me. These structures create a world that we inhabit, even one that may not seem or even be real. Synesthesia blends and folds discrete perceptions or senses into an experience of reality that language makes possible, linking ideation with other senses to show that thinking creates a perceptible world. These movements provide syntax and the rhythm.
AF: Again, in Rimbaud’s poem, E is for green, and now, for your subsequent title, Green Is for World. Can you parse this title in relation to “Voyelles”? Does your title, unlike Rimbaud’s, release us from an aesthetic of symbolic correspondences—back into the world? Or is “the world” here yet another sign (I like how it echoes “whirligig”)?
JL: At one point in its evolution, Green Is for World was called “My Name Is Helen,” but that title didn’t stick very well, because it didn’t seem to capture the entire scope of what I was trying to do. Although it did capture some of the more personal aspects that show up in poems like “My Name Is Helen” and “Margaret Fuller.” So then I temporarily titled it Green Is for World, not expecting to keep it. And then that stuck for obvious reasons. I hadn’t thought of Rimbaud’s poem as a point of reference, but the influence makes sense. The language of Rimbaud’s poem is appealing to me, because it works with the building blocks of language, with basic sounds, with definitions, as if defining something were (and is) a kind of magic. It provokes apprehension rather than just comprehension. Terror and wonder often accompany apprehension, and that seems appropriate when thinking about writing and about trying to make sense of the world. For me the title works (now) because it captures the idea that writing is a mode of perception that produces correspondences in unlikely places, in thresholds, between things that don’t belong together.
AF: Finally, the idiom of the atom creeps into Green Is for World, with frequent references to atomic components, such as electrons, “gamma forms,” ages of “parts.” Yet this book also asserts the mind’s adaptability to “the integrity of the grid”—to a physical, poetic and emotional space parceled out by “elegant cubes.” Do you see yourself embracing such omnivorous systems with more long poems and sequences in the future? Does the atomic, for you, again allow for the expansive, the amalgamous, as much as for the fragmentary, the miniature?
JL: The notion of the grid came to me from a Rosalind Krauss essay on Symbolism. She describes Symbolist poetry and its preoccupation with artifice in terms of a grid. Symbolist writing is the point when writing enters the grid, the window, and never leaves. Perspective becomes framed. I found that idea really interesting, because the writers I admire, like Guest, work to control the artifice of writing and the effect of artifice on a reader—such that the miniature world of the lyric poem or the still-life tries to capture a larger dynamic at work within the confined space of the grid or the frame. Looking out of windows also seems to be a feminine preoccupation, or a middle-class preoccupation. Many of Virginia Woolf’s characters spend time arranging interior spaces, or grids, and looking out of windows, pulling the outside in. Characters share adjacent, almost symmetrical views and perspectives side-by-side, looking out at the world. This could work well as a metaphor for a long serial poem, a poem of parts arranged on a grid, with the parts offering similar but not quite identical perspectives of a shared view. The parts are overlapping, braided, intimate.
Xylor Jane, the artist who allowed me to use her work for the cover of More Radiant Signal, relies on the grid as a motif in a lot of her work. Her lines are arranged into these semi-organic, semi-artificial compositions that seem to knit together the objective with the subjective, if that makes any sense (the objective order of the world with the subjective apprehension or perception of it). The texture of the piece also behaves like water, like fabric, or like Morse code.
Anyway, I do see myself continuing to write longer sequences, and I would even like to write a book-length prose poem, but I truly have no idea how to start. I imagine writing a sentence a day or a paragraph a day, but I’m not sure I could sustain the right kind of tone or energy that a long prose poem requires, since my tendency is to go in the other direction, to hunt and peck. Right now it is just an idea more than anything, an aspiration, because I admire writers who breathlessly and effortlessly work in these large voluminous spaces. I have a hard time working that way, which is why the “grid” is appealing as a bridge between chaos and its fragments, or between the large and the small. Duncan’s Ground Work is one type of long poem and Guest’s Rocks on a Platter is another. I find myself writing sequences when I don’t want to stop writing in a particular mode, or to stop exploring a particular type of language or vocabulary. That’s where the direction or momentum comes from—not in following through on a train of thought, but giving full attention to something, an object or sensation, meditating on it, until it disappears.
Juliana Leslie is the author of More Radiant Signal and Green Is for World, which was a winner in the 2011 National Poetry Series Open Competition. With Andrea Quaid, she recently co-edited Acts + Encounters, a collection of essays written for and inspired by the 2012 UCSC Conference “Emergent Communities in Contemporary Experimental Writing,” which she also helped to organize. She currently lives in Santa Cruz.