This transatlantic interview series, “The Slow Boat,” provides a setting for poets to engage in occasional conversation over the course of two months. It strives to be an invitation to further inquiry into the methods and complexities of a particular composition. The aim is not to be conclusive, but, in tandem, to further explore what it is to make a poem.
Jim Goar: Your most recent book opens with the title poem, “Burn”. This poem, you explain in the notes, “was written in response to Al Brathwaite’s The Limes Installation.” The Limes consists of 286 charred limes, one for each of the men and women burned as heretics during the English Reformation. A label with one of their names is affixed to every fruit. Braithwaite states that “The troubling and potentially heroic idea of self-sacrifice runs through The Limes Installation, and finds traction in the metaphor of the way that a fruit might give its flesh for the dispersal of a seed.” Your poem ‘Auden in Iceland IV’ begins:
If I have no children I will adopt
my parents as my own.
In our family
the children die before their elders
who are not concerned with generations.
The parents forget their forefathers’
Names, but remember their skin colour.
of fair complexions and large houses
and yards to store old refrigerators.
There is an intimate bonding here, something akin to a burning lime which contains melded generations in a single, darkening, body. Though ‘Burn’ was, as you say, “written in response to”, BURN shifts and questions the vantage of origin and response: external on memory, memory on external, twice demanding “rifle me”, but also rifling. I keep returning to the “old refrigerators”; they exist in my memory as well. Though I’ve seen them on front and backyards in Tucson, I’m unsure if the ones I’m remembering now were instead seen on TV. BURN complicates what we remember and what is remembered on us. Could we start in this neighborhood? Would you be interested in discussing how BURN struggles in and with “your” memory? Or, possibly, is BURN a form of “self-sacrifice”, or maybe the reclamation of one?
Andre Bagoo: There are several strands in BURN. One is about art’s interpretations of facts. Another is about Trinidad and the region and the state of its society. Another deals with relationships and love. I wanted all three to combine, to move the reader to feel and experience. I put the book’s title in all caps as an homage to banner newspaper headlines, to signal: there are stories inside. Each poem is an artifact which aims to inform, entertain and persuade.
Memory is ultimately an act of art-making. The way we reassemble scenes in our minds is just like how a painter marshals elements of his composition and puts them within a form. Naturally, this process is filled with fraught binaries. What we remember at any given moment may be dependent on external factors acting upon us, physiological things, yes, and also maybe immediate life experiences. And eventually, the memory itself dictates our idea of the past, and therefore, colors the present and the future.
In one of the early poems in the book, ‘An Oil Painting Is Made Real’, I reference Nietzsche’s line, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” I align with Susan Sontag’s view that art’s interpretation can be just as crucial as the art itself. The binaries of creator v. created, real v. imagined, present v. past, memory v. imagined are all under fire in this discourse. I think ‘An Oil Painting Is Made Real’ uses them to consider the mirage of desire. For instance, it looks at work by painters such as Jacques-Louis David, with a focus on how sensual images of the body would be dressed up under the cover of Greek stories like that of Hector. These types of paintings are at once imagined fantasy and narrative. They tell stories, yes, but they reveal human desires and pleasures. I kept picturing that banal, naked model in the artist’s studio: his fleshy “reality” versus the end result which is a kind of heightened sensual dream. Who’s to say which is more real?
It’s perhaps ironic that all ekphrastic art must be subject to the same process of interpretation which they aim to replicate. Readers have to find poems for them to become real. The opening poem, ‘Burn’, is my interpretation, through art, of Brathwaite’s art. It’s about the fruit that has forgotten its purpose, whose seed is stymied. I agree that this resonates with the inter-generational problems that are reported in ‘Auden in Iceland IV’. The old, oxidised refrigerators are not only out of place (they should be in better condition and in kitchens, bearing food and functioning), but they take up space in yards where children should be playing, roaming. They represent how kids end up being choked by parent’s junk.
JG: You are both a poet and a journalist. Your direction to Nietzsche’s quote that “There are no facts, only interpretations” might be a place from which we could discuss one mode in relation to the other, the bounds of each way of interpreting. But I am curious, and am searching, maybe futilely, for something deeper in the process. After all, our interpretations are active before a something is interpreted; they are there in the naming of the bounds that contain what can be interpreted. As Gilles Deleuze states, “Concepts do not just exist in the sky where they are waiting for the philosopher to come and seize them. Concepts must be fabricated.” It is this necessity of fabrication, this always earlier making (fibbing) of what is then to be interpreted, that motivates the way the story is told. You mention above that “ekphrastic art must be subject to the same process of interpretation which they aim to replicate.” I want to know about this at once before and after the fact process. BURN is not reporting just the facts ma’am, but BURN’s typography, as you mention, is “an homage to banner newspaper headlines.” This signals not only that there are true stories inside this book of poems, but in this signal, also how the reader could frame them. My question, and one I struggle with in my writing, is not simply, why make a poem and not a newspaper article or story, but further, if possible, what in your fabricating of the thing you are going to interpret motivates you toward one mode or the other? Why does one mode win out while the other remains, if not silent, ancillary?
AB: Ezra Pound said, “Literature is news that stays news.” The question, then, is what is news? I have no idea. But some would say there are basic parameters by which newsworthiness can be tested. Sometimes we feel something is news because it is important, timely (whether immediately or eternally), of relevance to us, of interest to us. News that stays news might be the eternal things: feelings, love, anguish, the long curve to justice – all the things that make up history itself, life itself.
Some of the poems are based on newspaper articles. Sometimes I read these news items and feel something else behind them. Or sometimes they just interest me. In ‘Confirmed Report of a Single Lionfish Spotted At Tobago’, for instance, I was writing after a series of newspaper articles emerged detailing the presence of that dangerous invasive species in Tobago waters for the first time. I was intrigued by the idea of the alien no longer being so; by the ecological processes which must be behind this phenomenon and, therefore, the wider environmental changes now being witnessed, studied and discussed, and by how all of this can be embodied in human relationships on the very intimate level of lovers. Something about the fish itself became a harbinger of change. ‘The Curse of Eternal Laughter’ was a poem triggered by stories in the international press on the laughter clubs of India. I wondered what it might be like to live next to one such place. Would laughter, eternal in this way, not take on a menace, a power of its own? I felt this resonated with Trinidad and Tobago society, romantic relationships and situations of crime and punishment. ‘She, of the Coco Palm Hotel, in the Shadow of Les Pitons’, came on a trip to St Lucia after hearing reports there of heavy rainfall causing a series of mudslides, one of which was said to have buried an entire family alive in their home on the side of a majestic mountain. ‘Jubilee’ came after the reports of devastating flooding in Trinidad at Diego Martin in the year of the country’s jubilee anniversary of Independence from the United Kingdom. ‘A Bulldog Upon Discovering His Image on the Cover’ came after seeing a picture of a pitbull on the cover of Newsday, at a time when pitbulls have become more common on the island, maybe due to trends relating to youth culture and crime. These animals have become of grave concern given incidents where they have killed or maimed. Other poems come from other experiences, in the news and without. The choice of poem v. news report is not really a choice. Both must exist. We need a report of the facts, and perhaps then the poem finds something else and says something or interprets.
True, if there are no facts there can be no interpretation. At the same time, even this is clearly an easily dissolved distinction. But, like the question of what is news, there are core parameters. There are some empirical facts which cannot be denied and which at a basic level are reported. Perhaps facts speak to external manifestations of phenomena, whereas interpretation is an examination of inner workings, or intangible processes and relationships, yes colored by the reality of the parameters of the mind in which they operate, but nonetheless a distinct discourse. Another thing Pound said was, “Any general statement is like a cheque drawn on a bank. Its value depends on what is there to meet it.”
JG: The founder of the laughter clubs, Dr. Madan Kataria, one day “burst out laughing for no reason at all.” The laughter, as far as he knew, had no source; it just erupted. In your poem “Confirmed Report of a Single Lionfish Spotted at Tobago”, which comes a few poems before “The Curse of Eternal Laughter”, there is also a bursting forth. You write:
Not in my mind, but in the sea.
Not in the sea, but in my body.
Upon my spine, through lung and heart,
your spotted sails fly out my mouth
When I read this, I hear a few lines by Jack Spicer:
I am, sir, a knight. Puzzled
By the way things go toward me and in back of me. And finally
into my mouth and head and red blood
O, damn these things that try to maim me
In each of these fragments there is a terrifying invasion, yet in yours, there is also an explicit expulsion. At first blush, Kataria’s laughter seems cathartic in a way that a lionfish flying out of one’s mouth does not. Yet, both events push something from the mouth into the world. You mention that you were “intrigued by the idea of the alien no longer being so.” What happens when the alien becomes familiar? Is the host, like Spicer’s knight, maimed? And, once incorporated and unrecognized, do these “spotted sails”, like the menace of eternal laughter, become more horrific?
AB: I laughed out loud when I read this because we all have those moments when we chuckle heartily for no apparent reason. We may have reasons, but to the outside world, we’re just laughing and just potentially crazy! Crazy, sane; real, imagined; alien, familiar; inside, outside – the process of experience shows us how permeable these boundaries are. Something is new before it is old. Something is untested before it is tried. Like the child approaching the first day of school with trepidation, we shiver, but then absorb and move on to another perspective. I like the dynamics in those lines of Spicer’s. I think my lionfish poem wants to talk about desire and all its contradictions.
JG: Have you heard the one where… but that is not the type of laughter we are experiencing here. A joke moves through a rigid order, and, we hope, in the end, makes those, including the teller, laugh. The laughter you describe provides an opening. As Mikhail Bakhtin writes, “Certain essential aspects of the world are accessible only to laughter.” From this opening, more laughter, or a fish, or some other might be propelled onto, or swallowed from, the stage. You should not laugh at that. But how can you not? The act, without a change in the actors’ intent and execution, is different. A poem, when read again, allowing for this unsettling dialogue, is transformed. We’ve talked about inspiration for some of your poems. I did not see it on earlier reads, but now I’m curious if we are laughing through the Dragon’s Mouth. “Wet Season” begins:
At last I’ve figured it out
What it means
to enter the Dragon’s Mouth.
There is more to this than sailing the span of ocean between Point Peñas and Trinidad. Has the narrator found a (temporary) solution inside this tooth filled home? Like Bakhtin’s carnivalesque laughter, does this figuring keep the jaws at bay?
AB: Laughter is majestic, ambivalent. It can unlock. In ‘Wet Season’ the mouth is the home of laughter, yes, but also flags another unlocking: a sensual triumph. Landscape has always mirrored the human body. Trinidad has two seasons: a wet season and a dry season. Dry season is a time fire and drought; wet season, a time of lush growth and green. The triumph is one over politics, maybe of the erotic in the Audre Lorde sense. I feel this is a major pulse behind BURN. In addition to the Dragon’s Mouth, that passageway at north Trinidad, the Dragon is a Carnival character, with a long tongue that sometimes hangs out languidly. That Dragon tongue has the potential to lash with flame.
JG: Audre Lorde argues that the erotic “offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough.” In the October 2013 Slow Boat, Johan de Wit stated:
Day after day, chapter after chapter, poem after poem, I’ll have to hang on to a mood that initially was real but must be lodged in my mind as soon as possible so that it can, through the act of writing, be exhausted before it disappears. That’s the challenge I face as a poet.
Would you mind concluding this interview on a similar note? Is unlocking (the erotic, laughter, installations, dualities: “Crazy, sane; real, imagined; alien, familiar; inside, outside”) the central challenge for you as a poet, or is there a more pressing concern at the heart of BURN?
AB: Each poem comes when it comes. And then the real work begins. I think over time, patterns and concerns emerge. But the central challenge, as a poet, is to reach readers in some way, to break into them like a wave, and, in the process, quench some thirst. I want my readers to become me, and I them.
Andre Bagoo is a poet and journalist working in Trinidad. His poetry has appeared at Boston Review, Blackbox Manifold, Cincinnati Review, Caribbean Review of Books, Moko, St Petersburg Review, Word Riot and elsewhere. His second book of poems, BURN, is published by Shearsman Books this year.
Jim Goar grew up in Tucson, Arizona. He is the author of The Dustbowl (Shearsman Books, 2014), The Louisiana Purchase (Rose Metal Press, 2011), Seoul Bus Poems (Reality Street, 2010), and the chapbook Whole Milk (Effing Press, 2006). He lives in Brooklyn, New York.