Zach Savich: The titles of many of the poems in To the Heart of the World (Rescue Press, 2014) invoke close friends—”To John Bowman,” “To Cassie Donish,” and so on. In the book’s notes, you say that this “to” should not be read as “for” or “about.” Could you say more about this distinction? It seems different from the mention of others in, say, Richard Hugo’s letter poems or Jack Spicer’s poems dedicated to friends, not least because some of your saluted intimates–John, Cassie–re-appear in poems addressed “to” others. This resurrection happens most affectingly, I think, in “To Missy Walker,” when you abruptly say “Cassie has asked / for a story,” a narrative involution that recalls both the work of Craig Arnold and The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night. How does this manner of address reflect what you’d consider the sensibility or gesture of the book as a whole? I’m curious, more generally, about the role of people–should one call them characters? that seems inaccurate–in the book. Plenty are present, but a sense of solitude remains, of one “walking down / any street / with books or / nothing” who is thinking tenderly of absent others. Perhaps the preposition of record, then, should be read with an overtone of a Whitmanic “with?”
Andy Stallings: This gets quickly to one of the core tensions in my own experience of the book: the sense of presence, multiple and shifting presence of lives, in the absence that wouldn’t be solitude without an other, which roughly sketches also a less felt, but inherent, absence informing my experience of presence, the presence of other lives that is in the present overwhelmed by my own experienced solitude. I really love your proposition of “with” as an overtone to the poems, but only in the sense that “with” is also, importantly, “not with.”
I think of the titles as the offer of a handshake that can be refused by anyone in a crowd, but cannot exactly be refused by the person named, who is also not in the crowd. In that sense I am, rather lacking subtlety and gentleness, attempting to make sure that I am “with” at least one person I’m not actually with, for the duration of the poem. And that wish to talk “to” another, or to be “with” the other, is derived from my days and nights, the loneliness that I have no right to feel, lucky as I am to have as much family, as many friends, as much of a public passage among people as I do, but which I feel constantly, even so, the loneliness that is the heart of my experience of life.
That’s the role of people here — to be absent enough that I can imagine them as having to hear what I say via a poem, rather than walking beside me, hearing my voice. And that’s also where the distinction lies, that I draw explicitly in the notes, between “to,” “for,” and “about.” They’re differences of proximity, I think, but also of relationship, and of finality — and I think the generally accepted usage of “to” includes elements of both “for” and “about,” so wanted to clarify. If a poem “about” Carolyn Blessing presumes me as authoritative regarding her biography, then my revelation of biography would be a statement of that authority, an authority I do not and would not wish to possess regarding any of the people named in titles — especially since many of those addressed in titles were students, a very specific sort of relationship that I’ve always hoped to complicate but not blur. “For” also seems to me to be a bit of an appropriation of another person’s experience. It presumes a relationship on which I’m comfortable putting a sort of seal — a poem “for” someone is a bit like an epitaph. It doesn’t exist in conversation, which is to me the representation of the constant motion of things, the always-changing nature of the relations between people and things. “To” opens up a little further — it’s a clear indication that someone should listen, that someone should be there, but it doesn’t direct that person how to feel, and offers the possibility of their responding, which several people have done, wonderfully. As I say, I like “with” also, though that more clearly puts the reader in the position of the listener, makes their overhearing explicit. I like that it exists as an overtone one might imagine, since you did.
ZS: “The loneliness that is the heart of my experience of life”–I’d be tempted to ask about the largeness of that statement (and about its echo of your book’s title: what’s the relationship between “the heart of my experience of life” and “the heart of the world?”), except that it seems so well-matched to the pensive, earnest pronouncements about life and poetry that appear throughout the book. In “To Carolyn Blessing,” for instance, in the midst of a brooding, careening meditation on addiction and narrative you write
I was thinking of
the self as continuous
but the self is
it is emergent
insofar as it exists
the self exists in
This is itself eruptive exposition, and the phrase “discrete eruptions” seems to fittingly describe the book’s approach to narrative. “Here is the story / I’ve always known / about addiction,” that poem says later, breaking into story. The passage also offers a version of the self–existing in relation to others and to nothingness–that your discussion of being “with” brought to mind. I know some of the book’s poems first appeared on the social media poetry site InkNode; your discussion of connections across solitude could apply to many online interactions. How did social media impact the writing of these poems and your thinking about poetics? “To Sally Beauvais,” especially, suggests ways in which an online poetry “community” can variously enhance, agitate, and soothe the “gulf between us / of unknowing.” The book mentions several poets who share your interest in talk, in declaration–Antin, Cendrars, Vallejo. Would Cendrars be tweeting?
AS: I’ve been thinking about poems and talk, and I think they have very little in common. Talk is, at its best, purposeless — or maybe, rather, directionless. It lacks proportion, it goes on forever, in its best instances with gaps of weeks or months or years that don’t necessitate rethreading, it doesn’t give shape to anything, just motion. Poems, on the other hand (there must be exceptions), have direction, even when they may lack purpose. Even Antin, in his talk pieces, isn’t really talking with, but to, a group of people, and always is headed in a direction, always does ultimately give formal coherence to his talks — even if his direction is less clear to him than the average poet who writes or, especially, performs a poem. While I think his work is about as formally radical as a poet’s work can be, what it isn’t is talk. It’s talk pieces.
In a poem I left out of To the Heart of the World, I wrote this: “when they sit there at the small tables / with books open beside them / and Facebook open before them / they’re too certain which one is poetry.” Here’s the thing: dumb as that sounds, I actually mean it. I see a much stronger resemblance between status updates and poems than I do between either and talk, and I doubt I’m alone in seeing that correspondence. A big part of what’s isolating about Facebook is what’s isolating about writing a poem — its underlying directionality. A status update or tweet isolates because it is formed and directed, just as a poem does. Neither has the value of talk, which opens constantly.
I would make a spectrum like this:
talk ——> e-mail ——> poem ——> facebook/twitter
That’s a spectrum of increasing direction, purpose, and isolation (in which e-mail takes the place of the letter, is interchangeable if there’s still anyone writing letters besides Melissa Dickey and Jay Thompson), and I find human value the further to the left I go. Do I really value e-mail more than poems? Yes, I do. Would I really rather talk with a friend than read or write a poem? Yes, I would. Do I value a poem the more it moves to the left end of the spectrum? Not really, or not necessarily. So when I say that I see a poem as a way of talking to someone, I really don’t mean that I see it as talking to someone. It’s a stand-in for when talk isn’t possible, not much of a stand-in at that, and if genuine talk were always possible, I can’t see how there’d be any need for poetry.
Would Cendrars be tweeting? I sincerely doubt it. But not due to any sense of the newness of the form, or any baseness that its widespread use might lend it — after all, Cendrars was the real, honest futurist of them all, the contemporary of all contemporaries. Rather, because of the formality. Cendrars, rightly or wrongly, I take to be one of literature’s great talkers. Of course, he wrote rather than talking, but his prose (and most of his poetry) had the character of talk. It’s what I admire most about it, and why I find him to still be a vibrant source for thinking, talking, and writing.
ZS: I like that spectrum. What would be on its y axis?
AS: I could imagine a few different y axes, none really better than the others: an unknowing ——> understanding axis, a duration axis, an axis of forces and types of movement metaphorically representing degrees of conversational motion and depth (this would be my favorite, including perhaps a spiral, a rhizome, a double-gyre, and a black hole).
But the truth is, I think this is a spectrum already containing an x/y axis. The four stages of the spectrum each are a quadrant of the x axis directionless/directional and the y axis communion/isolation. Like so:
ZS: This feels like popcorn philosophy in several senses–it’s compellingly munchable, it seems like it’d be most fun with lots of hands (and salt) in the bowl, and each item of the schema is a lively kernel that might leap (when heated) to another quadrant. The “directional” is the liveliest leaper for me. A status update, for instance, seems very directional toward its medium, determined by it, but less directional toward a specific correspondent, one who might receive a message and be in some ways composed by the exchange (when I scroll through Facebook, I react, but I’m not positioned/posited as I am when I receive a personal email). To return to prepositions, a status update is directional through, perhaps, moreso than to. Well, maybe your chart accounts for this: “isolation” overtakes the “directionality” of the status update…Rather than revise the graph, though, I’d like to ask you about revision. This is your first published collection. How do you see it in relation to your earlier work? What do you consider consistent across the decade of writing that preceded To the Heart of the World, across the many graphs we’ve imagined or made? More basically: how did this book develop?
AS: It has a clear origin and path of development, so I’ll just tell the story. For a decade I’d been writing manuscript after manuscript, moving around a lot stylistically and never able to stick with anything for very long. I became heavily invested in teaching, and in 2012 I had a poetry class that altered my sense of what poetry classes could be, a group of amazing writers and people who I love dearly. It was a magic class. Not long after it ended, first one and then, three weeks later, another of the students from that class died — one of a heroin overdose, the other by suicide. I was scheduled to give a reading in New Orleans three days after the second death, and when I reckoned those events against the poetry I was preparing to read, there was such a gigantic gap that I couldn’t see how I’d read those poems and face myself the next day. They felt completely insufficient to my actual emotions and the people who’d be listening. I like Antin’s definition of an artist: someone who does the best they can, given the circumstances. Given the circumstances, I did the best I could. I broke my poems into a hundred fragments, pinned them to the wall of Melissa’s parents’ house, and wrote a 45-minute long poem that scarcely approximated what I was feeling. And I read that, and it served a sort of cathartic purpose for me and for my students who had lost two friends. And afterward, I came home and thoroughly confused my well-meaning father-in-law by explaining to him that the reading had gone very well, but that it was, for me, a total failure of my poetry. Which it was. And this book was my attempt to make my poetry into something that more totally resembled my person. It sounds trite to say that, I realize, but it’s an honest fact, and I can’t tell you how necessary it was to do so. This book is evidence of my being alive among other people. In that sense it revises my earlier work, which had more to do with writing poems than with being alive.
But there are consistencies in my poetry nevertheless. There’s a poem I wrote before we ever took a class together as undergrads, called “Stellatum,” that isn’t dissimilar at all, in terms of rhetorical/musical direction and emotional register, from “To Carolyn Blessing,” “To Missy Walker,” and especially “Contact.”
ZS: Could you say more about how the work you read at the reading was “a total failure of [your] poetry,” even as it helped the reading? A failure in what sense? Do the poems in the book court related types of “failure?” They certainly invoke it. In “To Sally Beauvais,” for instance, after you describe the film festival in Romania, the poem discusses how art can provoke shared grief that also reveals the difficulty of shared understanding (“we are the same / we are not the same / whatever Cosimin / saw when the screen / showed Ceausescu / dying it’s nothing / I understand & no / amount of conversation / afterward in the lobby / could make me”).
AS: A few different kinds of failure here. The failure of my poetry at the point of the reading in New Orleans was important only to me — I’d be surprised if anyone else felt it was a failure. Because, it wasn’t really a failure of the poetry, which had been written under other circumstances, and which I’d found sufficient to those circumstances. It was a failure of the poetry relative to the human situation I found myself in. The evening before I gave the reading, I’d stood by a bonfire in the batture of the Mississippi River levee and held Ian Zelazny’s sister, who I’d never met, while she broke down for the first time since her brother died. Three weeks earlier, I’d done the same with Hunter Deely’s mother. I had never anticipated such an outcome of teaching poetry to talented young writers. Because poetry was so fully a part of my relationship to Hunter and Ian and their families, it was necessary to reconsider my poetry, and it failed in my eyes. I knew that the poetry I’d written ten years earlier would have been sufficient to the situation in a human/emotional sense, but it wasn’t so great poetically. I had to find a way to bridge that decade.
There are three sorts of failure my book regularly courts, if you ask me. One is its status as poetry; another, its relationship to sentimentality; the last, the potential poetic failure of acknowledged human failure, as in the example you quote above. You’d make a different list, maybe (and I’d love to see it). The “status as poetry” failure is most apparent in poems like “To John Bowman” and “To Jay Thompson,” which purposely (and purposefully, I think) ramble in the direction of prose, and wear their discomfort with poetry rather openly. The second potential failure is most apparent nearly everywhere, and has been the line I’ve at times faithfully and at times fearfully toed for 10 years. I’m always most satisfied with a poem when someone reports that it’s made them cry. Not out of any meanness, but because that’s how I feel, full to the brim of emotion, most of the time, and I like the poems best that convey that condition. The third is the least like failure and the most like biography. Fundamentally, I have no faith in humanity. I see no way past the fact that we fail ourselves and one another as regularly as we breathe, meanwhile giving narrative proportion to the necessary fiction that we do the opposite. For instance, the idea that these poems are “to” other people, when they are really, and rather obviously, to, for, and about myself.
And actually, it would be easy enough to think of just about any poem in this book as the record of one or several sorts of failure. I’m thinking of “To Carolyn Blessing,” for instance, in which the failure of an idea leads to the human failures of all the stories at the end of the poem. And of “Point Clear,” in which the condition is one of hoping without hope, and the poem is full of small failures. And more obviously, “To Missy Walker,” where the successful resolution of the long story is ultimately also a complete failure on the human scale. But I think as important as all the failing is the resolution in an abundance of love and hope in spite of it all. That line from “Point Clear,” (if it’s hopeful to hope without hope / then yes we’re still hopeful) is the most meaningful line in the book, to me, along with, maybe, the last several lines of “To Carolyn Blessing.”
It’s interesting how your question opened this up for me — I wouldn’t say I had been explicitly aware of myself as writing a book of poems that dealt with hundreds of kinds of failure.
ZS: You’ve mentioned several ways that teaching has impacted your writing. Does teaching also involve types of revelatory failure?
AS: I think here I have to differentiate between failure and experiment. Nearly every class I’ve ever taught has been an experiment. I make extensive preparations, but usually don’t decide what to do in a class session until I’m en route to teach, or in the middle of teaching. This leads to frantic, last-second photocopying at times, but also to weird and interesting class structures that necessarily involve the students in their shaping. An example from a class last summer. I had assigned Rae Armantrout’s first book of poems, but was bored with it and, on a beautiful day, didn’t want a boring discussion. I had about an hour until class started, and I decided to break the book up into its hundreds of individual lines — I don’t know how I managed to do it in an hour. Then I assigned each student a portion of the lines, and told them they had 2 seconds to read the next line from anywhere on their sheet of lines, by any process of choosing they wished. We read continuously until everyone ran out of lines. As we went, we numbered the lines we’d read, and I collected them in a stack that let me reconstruct a new book out of the old, if I wished to, which I never did. When we discussed the book afterward, there was a general sense of appreciation for the structure of the original book that I would have had to force us towards in an ordinary conversation — and there was also awareness, totally unattainable in ordinary discussion, of the multiple versions of the book that could exist if we wanted them to. This was an experiment in the sense that I had no idea whatsoever of the outcome, beyond that all the lines would somehow be read, and only a limited sense of what the learning might be in that session. The ways in which it actually failed were finite, and balanced by the ways in which it did not. But the ways in which it *could* have failed were many, and importantly, available and obvious to everyone participating. That sense, of failure narrowly and collectively averted in passing time, is where I find the possibility for revelation in teaching.
It’s taken a long time for me to see this method of class preparation as productive. I think there’s a myth of careful planning in teaching that I can adhere to on a structural level but which doesn’t suit my personality in the moment of teaching. For years I thought of this mode of preparation as careless, as evidence that I would never be able to replicate success in the classroom. But the evidence from my classrooms was otherwise, and eventually I came to my own understanding of teaching, in which the moment of crystallization often comes at the moment just before or just after failure, and with the full cooperation of the students. The difficulty is that I’ve left behind me a long trail of worthwhile assignments that I’ll never touch again — and that I can’t ever explain how it is that a class got from one point to another. The beauty is that teaching a class is not that different from writing a poem.
ZS: I wonder if these words–“failure,” “experiment”–are ways of talking about process. A lot in the Bradshaw posts you linked to, for example, reflects on a process that led him to new insights; the “failure” was that he didn’t have those insights before he learned them from the choices he made, from the techniques he tried. In this sense, what would it mean to “not fail,” but to still live, make choices? I mean, to put it cheekily, that when I make coffee I have failed to make tea, when I write a sonnet I have failed to write a villanelle. “Experiment” seems similar–even when I’m teaching something I’ve taught before, it remains an experiment, because the people in the room are different, and so am I. What’s your vision of what success would look like, in writing or as a writer? It’s clear that you aren’t a poet for whom success would mean becoming a minor celebrity online, or being among minor celebrities, or accruing accolades.
AS: It’s very difficult for me to imagine what it would mean to “not fail” and live. The movement from Herakleitos to Kratylos interests me, so far as I understand it. Now, when you make coffee you’ve failed to make tea, but maybe also and primarily you’ve failed to make coffee — your experience of the coffee you’ve made is an experiment of coffee. Failure doesn’t prepare me for future non-failure, experiment doesn’t clear the way for non-experiment later, experience prepares me for the experience I just had but not the one I’m about to have. So, yes, I mean “failure” and “experiment” as ways of talking about process, but what else is there?
I don’t know that I have an idea of what “success” would look like as a writer. I guess it would look a lot like failure. Which means I haven’t gotten past Keats after all these years of feeling like I was past Keats. Poetry for me has always been so much about motion rather than revision, progression rather than perfection, that I’m surprised (genuinely surprised) to be able to admit, six months after completing them, that I still am happy to have written the poems in To the Heart of the World. I don’t know what that means in terms of their failure or success as poems — but I know that regardless of how I feel about the book as a finished thing, the poems I’m writing now are something altogether different. As though they could be anything else.
Andy Stallings lives in Massachusetts, where he is an English teacher at Deerfield Academy. His first book of poems, To the Heart of the World, came out with Rescue Press in 2014.
Zach Savich is the author of four books of poetry, including Century Swept Brutal (Black Ocean, 2014). He teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia.