Aaron Kunin and Andrew Maxwell

Aaron Kunin and Andrew Maxwell
Aaron Kunin and Andrew Maxwell

The Conversant recently has published conversations featuring Aaron Kunin and Andrew Maxwell. Here these two friends and fellow poets talk to each other.

Andrew Maxwell: I’m stumbling toward a definition, or that’s how I’m going to start. In reading your book, I want to call these collected items remarks, or “remarks on problems.” And what’s astounding (and I’ll say this from experience too) is how very many problems there are.

We can eventually steer toward a discussion of the epigrammatic, although I don’t need a definition of that. I’m immediately interested in the character of these remarks—how many of them describe for me a sense of impedance. As if you’ve said, wait, slow up, something may be going wrong here and perhaps this is correctable. We should take notice of it.

There’s a sense of counsel and instruction, but also a sense of task-making and taking-to-task. The reader (and perhaps this is first you) is being given a problem set and being taken to task.

Aaron Kunin: Yes, I’m trying to say something like that in the motto, “Slow down quickly.” Which is my version of the old tag, “Make haste slowly.” There is a tradition that associates intellect with quickness, because thoughts quickly form, move, and generate other thoughts. I would like to support a different association. Make slowness look intelligent. There doesn’t seem to be as much of a tradition for this association.

Spenser also seems to think that the only productive way to deal with a problem is to slow down. This tendency in The Faerie Queene may just be an effect of the genre of allegory, where every encounter has to be interpreted. The necessity of spelling out the interpretations and allowing them to reverberate at different levels of reality gives Spenser’s narration of actions an enamelled quality. But I don’t think you get the sense in other allegorical poems that thinking gets better results at slower speeds. Is it like that in Dante? I doubt it.

As for problems: The important thing in any kind of intellectual effort is that they have to be real problems. For a problem to be real, it has to have more than one solution, and the reason for preferring one solution rather than another should not be completely obvious. So there are difficulties in finding a solution, and then trying to convince someone else that you have the right solution. If it’s a real problem, there can be controversy. I hope I am not multiplying false problems when I write! That would be depressing.

There’s an additional step in Peeping Mot. While remarking on problems, you are also classifying them. Each problem has a place in a pigeonhole, along with the other problems of its class. Pascal did the same thing. But here’s the difference. In modern editions of Pascal, I read all of his thoughts on “Diversion” in the same place. In your book, although many of the problems are sorted into “Attitudes,” I don’t encounter all of the “Attitudes” together, because you have scattered them throughout the book. You use the classifications as a thinking tool, but not as an ordering tool.

AM: I have a great affinity for Pascal, though the taxonomies that organize his material are the subject of some debate, and are typically the product of his editors. He came late to a structuring device for the Pensées—we know he always anticipated that the project would become an argument for faith, but frequently nonetheless its components turn against such a synthesis. I’m most sympathetic with Pascal’s assertions of the great distances between things, and of course the native suffering that attends this, but I want to separate from his famous conclusion: “The multitude which is not reduced to the unity is confusion.” That may be a beautifully simple definition of confusion, but it’s ungenerous to the secular, I think. I dislike synthesis, and the thought of totality gives me fits.

The small collection of Peeping Mot proposes a model of how I might write at length, with minimal invention, and without reducing all this substance to a “project.” I prefer that the propositions describe and compel the taxonomy, rather than the reverse, and that these annotations are apophatic in a sense—that they speak “other than” or “away from” the propositions instead of contain them.

Occupationally, I think a lot about taxonomy. But there are different traditions of taxonomy. The more dominant emphasizes limitation—that a class is defined by its limits, which must be precisely stated, refined and enforced. But another tradition defines a class by its prototypes, which can be ranked according to affinity with the class, and their intensities. So “furniture” is not defined by where it stops, or what furniture is not, but by what is intensely furniture: the chair, the sofa. But the hatrack? The rug? Less intensely so. This is a tradition of taxonomy founded on pragmatic language use, to which I am deeply wedded.

I do want to foreground the act of annotation, but want the taxonomy to be provisional, and perhaps to prove its worth. For its vocabulary to be small and valuable. So for each statement or proposition, what is it intensely representative of, and if I say that it is intensely representative of an “Attitude,” will that be useful to me? Will that explain attitudes, which I find deeply problematic? I want the propositions to systematize me, not the reverse. So I have to select well, and yes, perhaps slowly.

But I’m getting away from the many interesting things you said regarding the velocity and affect of thinking. I’m very, very interested in the latter—your manner of speaking when you say “make slowness look intelligent.” And how many of the remarks in Grace Period have this quality of “externality.” There’s an indexical quality in the speaking, as if there is a brief quarantine of the subject, during which you say: look at what he does, look at how he is, this is what he looks like. At risk of generalizing, it’s as if you’ve spoken of Spenser: You propose an objective character to the work, which allows you to describe it as enameled, for example.

AK: What you’re describing as external might be understood as a poetic attitude toward intelligence. One of Allen Grossman’s commonplaces about poetry is that its didacticism is emblematic. Poetry teaches, but only by example: “This is what intelligence looks like.” For you, and for Phillipe Beck, didacticism in poetry has a different, more traditional meaning. Poetry thinks in ideas, which it expresses in propositions. That is what “didactic” usually means, isn’t it?

Externality could also be an effect of writing a poem. Or anything that you write, or make. The impulse to write came from you. When you wrote, you put some of yourself into it. Part of your life. Then the result, a piece of writing, is not you, not your life, not a living thing.

Donne has a poem about this problem, “The Triple Fool.” The first folly is his feeling; the second folly is expressing the feeling in a poem. The justification for the second folly is that it neutralizes the first folly, “For he tames it who fetters it in verse.” Externalizing the feeling in a poem creates some distance between him and what he feels, and the distance improves his mood. The third folly is that the health-giving distance is only temporary. The poem goes into the world, out of the poet’s control, and the feeling in the poem becomes available for anyone to pick up. When other people recite his own poem back to him, the dangerous material of his feeling returns with added force.

Externality, then, is Donne’s suggestion for a quality that poetry has in common with publishing. On that account, the vector of poetry may not be entirely away from publication. At the same time, Donne may have shared some of your worries about publishing. He seems to have prepared the “Songs and Sonnets” for print publication, but, for some reason, did not deliver it to a printer. But he wasn’t opposed to all forms of publishing, since he actively circulated manuscript versions of his poems, making his poems as public as they might have been in print.

I get the sense that you and Donne take seriously the way that publishing a book means publishing yourself. Among our contemporaries, Kate Greenstreet and Anne Boyer have also struggled with this problem, and Greenstreet may have emerged on the other side, with a way of appearing in public in book-form that actually nourishes her life. The rest of us either try not to think about what publishing does to people, or just enjoy it.

(I’m also fascinated by your allergic reaction to “totality.” Let’s come back to that later.)

AM: You’re a brilliant genealogist. That doesn’t surprise me. I think you know that I’ve tried to translate Philippe Beck over the years (it takes so much time), and have been preoccupied with didactic literatures. But maybe I’ve never mentioned that Donne really began a whole set of concerns for me, and that the oldest pamphlet from my collection that Ugly Duckling will publish this spring was really instigated by Donne’s “To Sir Edward Herbert, at Juliers,” the poem that begins with “Man is a lump where all beasts kneaded be.” Well, that, and Vaughan’s prefatory comment to his first collection, which he addresses to those who “soar above the drudgery of dirty intelligence.” That’s a little embarrassing, in that that preface has Vaughan whining a bit about untimeliness and disaffection from political contingency—I think by “dirty intelligence” he largely meant journalism and partisan communication, work meant to influence more than to inform. But I rarely read as a scholar, diachronically, or as a strict constructionist, and was more interested in my twenties in what this notion of “dirty intelligence” could mean. What could that possibly mean? That, and this “lump” of Donne’s (which echoes “lumpen” and all that term contains: the vulgar, the stupid, the vagabond, the undisciplined and uncommitted). I feel allied with these things, and wanted to argue for the dirty intelligence, but I had a different conception of it—not an argument for a documentary or topical intelligence, and something not merely synthetic or reducible to, say, modules.

I was lucky to find this title from one of Lew Klahr’s short films (Engram Sepals), which allowed me to bind into a lump several concerns—a sort of calyx conceit that anchors an efflorescence at a provenant site, and that site for me is deeply mysterious. The engram is this sort of discarded theory about the seat of memory, that memory is physical and begins as a wound (and the Scientologists get preoccupied with this in interesting ways). I still like this conceit as an expression of the archive, a physical memory that is unfinished, but perhaps anchored to a site of trauma. No doubt there are Gnostic overtones to all of this, but I’m not on a mission to put the fractured pieces of a totality back together again. I admire the pulsing, messy, organic Spinozan mess of it. And this little booklet that took that title Engram Sepals, it’s full of mostly bad poems (assemblage lyrics) but I think its concerns are right. An apology for “uncorrected sympathies” and the livability in making mistakes, reliving the past, sometimes repeatedly, to learn and make use of the secular.

Which comes round a bit to my problems with both totality and publication. In coming to reading or writing, I always begin with the foundational proposition that the world is replete. I’ll leave others to suffer whether that is true or not, but let’s say I own this proposition in the mood of what Barbara Guest gives us in the phrase “defensive rapture.” The world is simply full of so much material that it’s a bit preposterous to invent something else, and certainly not in the compass (or service of) poetry. Maybe I conflate discovery and instantiation but, aspirationally, I think poetry can be the most fully equipped form of constructivism (in the educational sense). We begin with the found, the problematic found, and elaborate using these small, common, shareable densities. Like the Elizabeth Mayo model of the object lesson. This is all shareable, and repeatable, so there’s something precocious and irritating about asserting some new public knowledge that might preempt and obviate all this good learning and making.

I think oppositional poetics are typically self-limiting, but I’m an enemy of the total poetry. I don’t want to know that we’ve made progress—that this has been done, and we can move on now. That’s the antidote to reading. “The literature”: I think none of it’s finished. We just put stress on material, and life is that italic. “Publication” often presumes version control, that we can queue the facts of these books toward a fixed horizon, and you can cite them as quotation, but the thing is otherwise done. But I want to propose the quotation as a mutable green thing, the sepal: This is where we live as canker and/or blossom, unsettling the root.

So yeah, I’ve probably spent the last 20 years repeating Donne’s foolishness of circulating and mutating manuscripts to paradoxically refuse the “fetter” of verse—or Literature in the capital sense.

AK: Have we talked about “dirty intelligence” before? Hard to believe that we haven’t. It was the subject of my dissertation. I mean, I did not write about Vaughan. His phrase never struck me with any kind of force until I encountered it in Peeping Mot. But I studied the same defensive move, which occurs in so many books of poems from the English Renaissance. The books tend to begin by imagining a kind of anti-reader, someone who lacks the capacity to appreciate the poems in the collection. Vaughan calls such readers “dirty intelligences”; Milton calls them “vulgar readers,” a phrase I used to organize my dissertation, Vulgar Readings.

I argued that this defensive move, obviously intended to police interpretation of the poems, was also generative. It suggested at least two plausible methods of interpreting the poems. The humanist method of interpretation, pure rather than dirty, tends to view poems in relation to their classical sources. In a pastoral, for example: no shepherds, no sheep, just poets and poems. The vulgar method of interpretation would assume that a poem in which sheep appear is actually about sheep.

The phrase “engram sepals,” which you take from Klahr, reminds me of a fascinating essay about Vaughan by my friend Dan Gil. Dan proposes bodily resurrection as a foundation for understanding the experience of emotion in Vaughan’s poetry. Bodily resurrection means that your body, which is in the world, contains something (Vaughan called it the “radical seed” or “radical balsam,” but he could have called it “engram sepal”) that takes you out of the world, and takes the world out of you. The whole essay is about what it feels like to believe something, both as ordinary lived experience and in the extraordinary effects that feelings can have. I hope Dan won’t mind if I quote my favorite passage. He is discussing an episode from Vaughan’s medical treatise where a man dies of “excessive joy”:

Joy is killing not only because it leaves the heart devoid of life force but also because it throws the self out into a world that is destined to pass. And if you believe that joy can be killing, then it must feel that way, too….In other words, no matter its pleasures, as Vaughan understands it, joy contains a pain that is built upon the recognition that it ties you to a contingent world that is passing. Too much joy has the power to kill because of the excessive growth into the world, the over-attachment to the world that it betokens.

Your perspective on the issue of the fullness of the world is basically the humanist one. What’s truly great and inspiring about the humanists, including poets such as Vaughan (who received a classical education that could almost have been designed to produce a generation of poets and playwrights), is that although they routed all knowledge through a relatively small canon of ancient poems, this didn’t stop them from producing new knowledge, or new poetry.

It’s interesting that we continue to write poems, given that literary history is already replete with poems. In fact, it’s interesting that literary history didn’t stop with the first poem. Despite the extraordinary conservatism of poetic technique and imagination, even in the most outlandish experiments of the past century, we continue to produce new versions of old poems, and somehow, against all odds, bring new things into the world.

AM: You could draw me into a long conversation about either this conceit of the radical balsam (which I believe I’ve only encountered in Thomas Browne before, though it’s likely a common hermetic trope) or this wonderfully useful idea of joy that sort of pivots between ekstasis and prosthesis. I think occasionally of the epigrammatic statement as a sort of prosthetic device to port to, potentially extend, and qualitatively test a life. But I feel like you’ve given me a potential new opening into Grace Period with this option of the “vulgar reading.”

Is it fair reception to say that many of the remarks in Grace Period attempt to narrowly permit vulgar readings? I want to say that my immediate experience of them is that many appear to lack an upper register. Perhaps this is a conscious device, a performative device?

This isn’t true of all the content obviously, but at first blush, there are few remarks that are truly ambiguous, or that are seemingly constructed to be so. (By ambiguous, do I mean artful?) I take a remark like this as fairly typical of what I’m saying:

The only shirt available is “large.”

This isn’t really ambiguous. It’s pure description. But it also demonstrates a property (that of scale or proportion), and begs what must also exist to permit this to be so. Or rather it doesn’t beg. That’s what’s unusual. The reader must do the begging. There are no “‘large'” things alone. The lack of context forces one to imagine a world where this remark might be so. One must imagine another world altogether if this is to be preposterous, or ironic, or a problem statement—and being trained to anticipate problems or duplicity, a typical reader will. Otherwise, it’s simply true. Either this is generous or it is an accident, but you make your reader artful by leaving the context out.

There’s even a directive of sorts toward the back of the collection: “Do the most advanced work at the elementary level.” Yes, OK, let’s do it! And some of your remarks are so efficient at this. They define elegantly by demonstrating:

To understand shame, just look down.

I mean, that’s basic—if you follow that instruction, you can’t go wrong. You will understand shame in the most obvious way. It doesn’t demand an upper register. In a sense, there is no prior art. And it’s quite different from a statement like:

A very sad man gets a haircut.

That remark can read as exposition, or as a joke, or as a proverb. This sort of ambiguity of expression (and utility) seems to me fairly rare in the book. Much of the work on the language is in exhibiting what can be received (or not) at “face value.”

At face value, Grace Period can be a very, very serious book—with a speaker who is “dry” or consistently “alienated” from its society. And because it’s so full of pronouns, it feels social—I’m curious about this society, I presume it, and want to find it out. But then, read aslant, your person is not fixed to its world, and this Keatonesque disorder emerges that makes the universe seem funny or unsettling, and society is so ajumble it demands some correction. Perhaps the humanist reading is to seek a corrective second reading, an allegorical overlay, or to presume the mechanism of a joke. (To rescue the speaker?) But the more challenging (and interesting) reading is often to read the remarks straight, where something may be going very wrong.

AK: I like the implication that getting a haircut is an expression of sadness, or a prescription for overcoming sadness. There are a few other passages where I’m emphasizing the physical intimacy of cutting someone’s hair, taking someone’s picture, etc., and imagining new social rules for protecting personal integrity. Recently I was pleased to discover that Sheila Heti, who at one time was contemplating training as a professional hairdresser, has written movingly in celebration of the intimacy of haircuts.

From these extravagant statements, you might learn something new about haircuts, or about sadness. But you can only learn something from them by taking them seriously. This is a good principle of literary interpretation. Part of literature’s excitement is the contrast between its generalizing power and the finite length of any particular piece; and in an aphorism, which compresses universal truth into the space of a sentence, this contrast is intense.

The principle that we are discussing does not quite belong either to humanism or to its projected vulgar double. The humanist protocol of interpretation is correct, absolutely correct, to assume that literature makes itself up out of other literature. The vulgar protocol is equally correct to assume that names in works of literature refer to objects in the world. The dangerous tendency of both protocols is to devalue literature, to ignore its capacity for creating new knowledge. If, as a humanist reader, I already know what poetry says about sleep, then I can’t learn anything new about sleep from a poem. If, as a vulgar reader, I already know what the experience of sleep feels like, then I can’t learn anything new about sleep from a poem. In both cases, I might as well not read any more poems.

In literary studies today, in narratology, this principle is sometimes called “anti-mimetic reading.” The name is a problem, because it implies a wrong idea of mimesis, i.e., mimetic reading means that literature represents the world; anti-mimetic reading means that it doesn’t. What’s wrong is the opposition itself. Literature represents the world, and therefore is not the world. (Also note Heti’s subtitle, “a novel from life,” in other words, not the same as life.)

A few years ago, my friend Michael Clune was making a similar argument, and it took me a long time to figure out that I agreed with him, because he framed it as an opposition between representation and creation. We weren’t disagreeing, we just didn’t have the same vocabulary; what he was calling creation was something that I thought happened in representation.

All this is to say that I very much agree with you that the challenging, interesting way of reading is to take the remarks seriously. But I don’t think I can take much credit for this method of interpretation—for permitting this interpretation—except to say, yes, for me, as a reader, this is where my sympathies lie.

AM: OK. So as we’re talking about naming and interpretation, I want to ask you about the name of this collection: Grace Period. As I understand it, this is assembled from notebooks you carried over a number of years, in which you entered various remarks, fragments, statements—perhaps never intended as a collection, or a coherent one, and perhaps not as “literature” per se. (Correct me if I’m wrong, and you were on the contrary always driving toward some composite work.) But now you’ve assembled it as a book, and its title is excellent. On the one hand, it has this evocation of the casual accident or improvisation (like a “grace note”). But read without slant, it also means this period of false liberty or extended agency before a debt is called in—a suspension of penalty for a terminal procrastinator. Because you’re a Miltonist, I’m tempted to over-interpret, and read wildly into “grace.” But I’m mostly curious how you came to this title, and what it means to you. And also if you view this sort of work as the core of your literary practice, or something accidental and other—a dispensation apart from what you’re consciously working toward. You write poems, novels, criticism, aphorism. Is there a hierarchy of effort?

AK: I have spent a lot of my adult life studying Milton and other Protestant authors, and I sometimes use their vocabulary to understand my experience. I used to try to reduce the conceptual vocabulary that I take from religion, but I never succeeded, and now I have stopped trying. Maybe I’m just tired of disciplining the religious themes that I can’t seem to stop writing about.

My sensitivity to religious experience is a blunt instrument at best. For me, the first suggestion of the interesting phrase “grace period” is the Protestant one. A dispensation that I do not deserve extended to me by the universe. But my understanding of the spiritual sense of grace is mixed up with all of the vulgar senses—the Fred Astaire quality of careless perfection, gracious living, the false liberty of a get-out-of-jail-free card. For library fines and parking tickets.

The “period” is an important part of the title too. In 1997, I had a personal crisis. I was in grad school, not very happy, didn’t know what I was doing, didn’t know what I wanted to do, and then I failed my qualifying exams, so there didn’t seem to be any future for me in the profession of literary studies. Then I moved to Baltimore and felt an unusual freedom. The writing I did at that time felt joyous and free. It wasn’t work; there was no discipline in it. I would notice some papers on the table, “What’s this? Hmm, this looks like a poem. Maybe I can do something with it.” That’s a good place to be. I still feel some of that freedom when I write in my notebook, if the notes aren’t part of some piece of work.

To answer your question, yes, there seems to be a hierarchy of effort, but I’m not sure if it exactly matches other hierarchies of value. Sometimes writing that feels effortless also seems to be best. It is the best kind of writing, if writing is mainly for personal improvement. Usually I think the opposite.

AM: I agree with that freedom. My best person agrees with that freedom. It used to be an itchy word for me: “personal.” But I’m largely certain now that this is what I’m after in writing—especially in this apparently small but very free writing. To invent, as if, a right to be done with the Subject, but not the person.

I think Joubert is a model for me. I always admire that he did not publish (perhaps, however, accidentally), and grew to accept an increasing lack of systemization in and for his work. “Increasing lack” sounds preposterous, but I say that meaningfully, because I think it made him more productive. In his late notes, he can give the most positive recommendations: “One must die lovable (if one can).” Or: “Let’s go: and follow your mistake.”

When I’m at my best, I can be strong, joyous and certain like that: “On dancing: Be confident and glad. / Don’t live as if you have a face of rotten teeth.” But then, like Char, I’m attracted to the obscure sides of the phrase, and find those are what carry with me the longest, even yielding a poem now then—which is often just an argument that seeks to join or refute some unenforceable principle. Joubert is given to this too. As in a proposition like this: “Facility is the enemy of great things.” Which itself deserves such a long poem, to reprove or surrender to it.

It was interesting to read your interview with Andy Fitch and see you discuss some of the models that have been important to you. We share some: Lichtenberg, Canetti, Wittgenstein and Nietzsche—the latter of whom, with Emerson, tied me up with directives as a teenager and had me filling up notebooks with any number of those categorical and unenforceable propositions. But the French are a constant: Joubert, Char, the taxonomies of Fourier, the whimsical news accounts of Fénéon. (And we’re tremendously lucky that the New York Review of Books has brought so much of aphorism back into print.) I’m always intrigued by the densities of the French models, though shy occasionally of the complexity there.

You mentioned to me elsewhere that you want to talk about complexity, no? Let’s do that in the next part of this interview.


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.

Andrew Maxwell is the author of Peeping Mot and Candor is the Brightest Shield. A founding editor of the journals The Germ and Double Change, he co-directs the Poetic Research Bureau in Los Angeles, where he is also a radio DJ, scattered papa and manager of semantic and behavioral modeling initiatives at Google LA.