Evelyn Reilly with James Sherry

James Sherry, Photo by Ben Sherry
James Sherry, Photo by Ben Sherry

A Conversation with James Sherry about Oops! Environmental Poetics, published by BlazeVOX, 2013.

Evelyn Reilly: You say somewhere early in the book “this entire work may be characterized as a figure of speech taken too far.” I know you might have meant this half-jokingly, but I also felt that the humor in this book was very serious. Can you talk about this a bit?

James Sherry: Well, it’s complicated in that it is funny, but a lot of readers don’t take into account the ambiguities that any writer notices in writing things down. Certainly you can go and read Jane Austin, and she has a lot of important things to say, but it’s also almost all tongue-in-cheek. I don’t think there’s very much interesting writing out there that doesn’t move between that serious tone and some humor, because everybody has to see themselves in the process of writing as being in somewhat of an absurd position.

ER: Definitely the book has those shifts in tonality and in fact what’s interesting to me is that for all of its humor and layered styles, it’s also an extremely ambitious book. You are addressing all aspects of the culture, not just the poetry world, and are basically issuing a call for people across disciplines to create a new culture, which you call an environmental culture. This makes me wonder how you envision the book’s audience.

JS: Most criticism is focused on close reading, where you pick things apart with an analytic approach. But it seemed to me that there was an important value in looking at things from a distance synthetically. Franco Moretti wrote a book called Graphs, Maps and Trees about this idea. He shows how certain ways of looking at writing are susceptible to graphs such as the rise and fall of genres of novels and others to maps and some to trees. Moretti uses tree diagrams to show the rise in importance of clues in detective novels. That process he calls “reading at a distance” which is what Oops! is.

The envisioned audience isn’t one thing, but is diverse like an ecosystem. There are places where you can find yourself in the book and places where you may think “this isn’t addressed to me.” For example, I wrote about one of the patents I was involved in and some people may say “this is too technical.” I showed the book to some science types, and they said they weren’t that interested in a detailed analysis of poetry, and I think that’s relevant to the whole environmental project. You can’t say “I’m going to encompass the whole world because I’m an environmentalist,” but you can in the sense I’m trying to do here—which is to create a platform where the abstractions get represented in a literary way so they can be absorbed by the culture.

For us to make an environmental culture work we’re not going to be able to do it with just poetry. We need the whole range of human endeavor. We’re going to need public relations to change things in much the same way Woodrow Wilson and Edward Bernays put the ideas of America and freedom together as a public relations concept. There are scientific inventions we’ll implement. We have most of the required technology already. There are political changes needed. As we’ve seen in the last few years, politicians can pretty much do anything the political system has the will to do, but we don’t really have the will, and that’s why I think the culture needs to change, since culture provides the will.

ER: I think that’s the bigness of the book. Everyone does analysis and theory, at least on the level of whatever they are involved with, but it’s harder to step in on a higher level and that’s what I admire about the book. It seems clear that this is very different from the kind of conversations people have been having around so-called ecopoetics. Those discussions tend to stay within the arena of writing poetry except when they make a leap to political activism.

JS: I’m not that interested in saying what’s wrong with ecopoetics because it’s doing what it’s doing, which is to bring new nature poetry into the contemporary world. I think ecopoetics has an important function, but I think someone like Jonathan Skinner would say the limitations of the etymology of ecology are manifest in the idea of treating the earth as a household. That kind of domesticity really cuts off a lot of important political compromises which you need to effect important social change.

A lot of people are really focused on poetry and want to stay within the discipline, which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do. They don’t want to go where I want to go and in fact ask what science has to do with poetry. We lose some value by crossing disciplines. Some of the detail is lost in that I’m not attempting to do close reading, but we gain by trying to do something that I think we haven’t been doing for a long time in our writing. On the other hand I published a close reading of Fiona Templeton’s You The City in Postmodern Culture. Close reading is not replaced; environmental poetics is additive.

ER: There’s an optimism in this book and also a kind of pragmatism, and maybe those are connected. You want to give up the guilt and shame approach to changing culture. You even connect that desire to the notion of restorative, instead of retributive, justice.

JS: The tendency in a lot of disciplines toward some sort of moral imperative is very difficult to avoid, partly because we are all brought up in one moral framework or another, and so much of our childhood is shaped by good/bad dichotomizing. But it makes it almost impossible to initiate change at the level we need to effect environmental culture if we stick to one-dimensional right/wrong judgments. We will benefit from a multi-dimensional hierarchy to help culture progress from here. If you develop the vocabulary of an environmental model, it becomes easier for people to abstract and generalize, which is what I’m hoping people will do.

ER: Maybe we should talk about the poetics of the book. You said at some point that you wish environmental poetry could have the terseness of aphorism, but I wonder why. What you’ve done is create a form that is various, maybe even excessively multi-modal, and maybe that’s what’s called for—not boiling things down too tightly. The spirit of the book is expansive and multitudinous and I thought that was a benefit.

JS: I think I was being nostalgic for intensity. The book is trying to cross boundaries of discourses and put them next to each other in ways that might bring out something new. I was doing that long before I thought of it as environmental. Parts of Popular Fiction, from the early 80s, such as “Plus Thirteen” tried to put together different discourses in the same book. There are early examples of what came to be called conceptual writing. I had a method piece where I was typing what I was hearing on a soap opera at the same time I was reading an exorcism manual. That’s the thing I’m still doing, but in a more sophisticated way, in a planned, rather than arbitrary way. So I’m actually constructing a multi-modal process and a multi-modal poetics. I think the implication of doing that includes other discourses separately and together.

ER: One way that you juxtapose these different discourses is that throughout the book you apply scientific language very literally to the dynamics of poetry and poetry social formations. This gets back to the question of the tone of the book, because this technique seems figurative at times, provocative at other times, and comic at others. But it also seems entirely earnest. When you are comparing poetic strategies to different kinds of sexual and asexual reproduction, for example, or tagmosis, it’s almost over the top from my point of view. My question is how earnest are you about this? I’m trying to get at some of the tactics of the book.

JS: If I don’t go over the top I won’t know what the limits are, so I have to be willing to go beyond what’s reasonable and acceptable to the point where people say this is just too ridiculous. But at the same time I think it’s at that edge, which will be different for different people, that we get some interesting points of view. I think Susan Howe’s writing is addressing that boundary problem in that sense that everybody who writes about others as opposed to just looking inside themselves, which is a modernist problem, recognizes there are these borders where more risky writing occurs.

But there’s another fact I am fairly earnest about: in order to get past humanism, humanity and nature need to be viewed as a single complex entity rather than saying this is the natural and the other is the human, or saying that something is an unnatural act. I think there’s a logical construction that says there is “the unnatural,” but I don’t think you can point to it because all these interactions have a natural basis. It is not a good idea for us to continue to separate humans and nature, so I’m pretty intent on procuring that effect, which is something I learned from Michael Thompson, who I think everybody should read. That’s his phrase—“humanity and nature is a single complex entity.”

ER: A major section of the book is devoted, with a lot of specificity, to tools that might help us change the relationship between environment and culture. One of these is Thompson’s idea about society being structured according to people’s differing views of nature. I found this intriguing, but I wasn’t clear about how to translate that into a tool that helps us change our culture.

JS: You’ve hit on something that’s very important. Thompson is a descriptive sociologist. I’m trying to turn that into a more predictive or imperative mode by saying that if you start to look at yourself as both a separate organism and part of an ecosystem, you will stop looking at yourself in the way that isolates you from your peers. If we start to think of ourselves engaging with our surroundings in certain ways, maybe we’ll start to change. It’s not something that happens right away, but we need to generate the vocabulary, the methods and the forms for this. We need institutions that will be recipients of this environmental culture and reproduce it. That’s not something that poetry is going to have much of a direct impact on.

Thompson compares the set of relations that Chaucer identifies at the beginning of the humanist period, when he associates each character with his job saying “what I do is who I am.” Chaucer’s characterization is an important part of capitalism, because it drives everybody into careers and activities as the identifying feature of themselves. It’s not the way the medieval world thought of people, which was that your devotion to God defined you. So you were Evelyn the woodcutter’s wife, but it wasn’t really who you were, which came from a deeper sense of your role in the divine order. Then Chaucer, and Petrarch, too, came along and said we can focus on the here and now. Today we’re at the point where the usefulness of that model is disintegrating, partly because of the information age which becomes ubiquitous for all professions. So one of the effective tools would be to view who we are in terms of the way we view our surroundings, our environment. We’re on another cusp.

ER: The second tool I thought we could discuss is what you call Q analysis, which I struggled to grasp but could sense was important. Crudely, it seemed this was about the fact that at different levels of complexity in a system, different tools of problem-solving analysis are required. You talk about environmental poetry as a tool that can operate on a certain level of complexity. Can you explain more about all this?

JS: This goes to a discussion of what is the most appropriate form of analysis for a particular problem. I’m writing more about that subject since I think it’s important. Right now most of our judgments are based on evaluative hierarchies—like/don’t like dichotomies—the Facebookian model. So we make judgments such as “I don’t like Pound” or “I like this poem” and apply them to every aspect of life. But Q-analysis shows you a different, non-evaluative, hierarchy. It says things like poems exist at a certain level and all poems are at the same level, not better or worse. Then within the poem, at lower levels, you have verses, phrases, phonemes, morphemes, grammar, punctuation, capitalization and other orthographic components. Those operate at different levels of the hierarchy. And you have books, authors, groups, distribution mechanisms, publishing, criticism—all things that exist above the level of the individual poem. If you look at poetry from the perspective of Q-analysis, you aren’t stuck having to make a value judgment every time you read a poem. Those value judgments aren’t very much about the poem but more about whether the poem matches our view of ourselves.

ER: How does that help us think about an environmental model of culture?

JS: You can start to look at how things relate to each other, um, ecologically, rather than just how they relate to ourselves. It’s very difficult to change, because there’s a fundamental dichotomy between oneself as an organism and everything else in the universe. If we didn’t separate ourselves, we wouldn’t know to eat or breathe or do any of the functions that are fundamental, based on the biological fact of the organism. This is what makes it difficult to change, because there’s this constant conflict between the organism dichotomy and this complex environmental connective tissue that constitutes the world.

ER: The self as organism versus the self as some kind of radical connectivity.

JS: Exactly! Well, um, maybe not radical but mundane connections, which is why environmentalism is potentially boring as poetry. But how do we deal with those two things going on at the same time, which is the nature of who we are—individual organisms yet highly connected or should I say dependent on external conditions?

ER: I think that’s been part of the postmodern project in poetry. Even the crisis of the lyric reflects discomfort with this issue. We haven’t been dealing with it very well, but it’s the big confusing conversation for everyone.

JS: But the problem with postmodernism is that it ended up with everything just being about language. The formative writers who began to frame that stuff—Lacan, Wittgenstein, the poststructuralists and others—really focused on the linguistic model.

ER: It became solipsistic, not just within the psychology of self, but within the mechanism of language, and it lost its connection to the world.

JS: The places postmodernism bumps up against its own limitations are what I’m trying to identify in Oops!.

ER: It’s about reconnecting language to the world in a very different moment. On one hand the book is a serious manifesto for an environmental model of culture and on the other hand it also reads as a memoir of your evolving views as an editor, publisher, writer and observer of the social ecology of poets. Did you think of it as a memoir of sorts?

JS: Not originally, but I gradually realized that’s what it was as I began to see my views change as I wrote. The book is very much composition as explanation in that I didn’t come to this book with a preconceived notion that I wanted to write down. The process of writing the book was the process of realizing what it was about and that explains a lot of the unformed parts of it or parts that seem unclear about their intention because they were really transitional.

ER: I like the moments when you say something like “Shelley, Wordsworth, and Nada Gordon” or lump Silliman and Wittgenstein into the same phrase. Is this your assertion of a place for “your writers” in the canon by putting them all under the same roof so to speak?

JS: Yes, definitely. But you can see how even 35 years ago when I started to do Roof magazine I was already thinking in this way. It just took some time to realize what I was thinking. Realization is the slowest force in the universe.

ER: I thought your discussion of the literary scene in this book was quite generous and inclusive in a way that might surprise some readers who think of you as the champion of only certain circles or schools.

JS: That’s nice to hear. But there has been criticism that my examples are too narrow, that I don’t take examples from a lot of different kinds of poets.

ER: You view different poetic ideologies as variations within an adaptive system and say variation is good because when environments change different kinds of poetry will be more useful. I couldn’t tell how far you were willing to go with that. Are you willing to cross the divide into official verse culture?

JS: Yes, specialized poetry has a place. Poetry can have an audience and a process and a value without contributing anything significant to the process of environmental change. Official verse culture is useful in refining prior innovations. A lot of “innovative” writing has become rote as well. Official verse culture will likely do little to improve our relationship with the biosphere until some innovations from environmental poetics are adopted by the official verse culture which changes but more slowly.

ER: In a recent interview you talked about there being something called organic form. You weren’t referring to the poetics of Levertov and Olson at all. You were talking about “unintentional organic structures.”

JS: A lot of people are writing naturalistically without realizing it. I don’t think the Conceptualists, for example, would think of themselves as naturalists, but I do. I think the whole process of trying to find way of creating works with less labor is a natural process.

ER: This is when I have to ask if this is your sense of humor or if you are serious.

JS: Both. It’s humorously true. Understanding this point requires that we examine our work ethic more closely.

ER: There was one moment that struck me personally, when you state that without changing our fundamental assumptions about what a truly environmental culture would require “culture provides no will to change and poetic innovations in language appear only as charming procedures, irony or satire.” There’s so much of the latter in poetry circles. Sometimes I think it’s a place of safety for poets and I’m including myself.

JS: People are often forced to deflect or to misdirect because they don’t want to expose themselves. Culture provides will to society. As writers what are we proposing for our society? What are the implications of our poetic strategies?

ER: The book makes a pretty damning critique of the difficulty of contemporary innovative poetry and the way it excludes a lot of readers from thinking they could read it for something important about the world. But you also speak positively about the same kind of writing in that it has allowed different kinds of materials and discourses to flow into it. In some ways this kind of writing sets the stage for what you are looking for in an interdisciplinary culture, except for the problem that while there are poets who may be able to branch out to reading science and philosophy, it’s very rare that the scientists and philosophers are going to come to innovative poetry. There’s a kind of difficulty poetry has that gets in the way of even very smart people engaging with it. I wonder if the question is about good complexity versus bad complexity in our writing.

JS: It’s a difficult question having to do with disciplinary classification. You can’t go out and build a suspension bridge based on inspiration; you need a lot of detailed analysis of stress factors and the math behind the strength of materials you are using. At the same time you can’t go out and play baseball in the major leagues because you like baseball and are a fast runner. You need to calculate how each player is going to contribute to the overall process of winning the game, and each player has to play at his peak. So in the poetry world, too, you’re not going to write interesting work without putting a big effort into it and including a lot of the specialized knowledge that poetry has accumulated over the last two centuries. And then you have to figure out how to boil it down; that poetic process can be intentional or inspired if I can separate those two processes. If we’re going to start to move ahead, we need to find ways to simplify that don’t misrepresent what’s going on in the world. That’s pretty difficult.

James Sherry is the author of 12 books of poetry and prose, most recently Oops! Environmental Poetics 2013. He is the publisher of Roof Books and founder of the Segue Foundation in New York City.

Evelyn Reilly’s books of poetry include Apocalypso and Styrofoam, both published by Roof Books. Her essay “Environmental Dreamscapes and Ecopoetic Grief” can be read at Omniverse.us and recent poetry in Pallaksch. Pallaksch.

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