Christy Davids: One might describe the poems in The Empty Form Goes All the Way Up to Heaven (Ahsahta 2015) as airy. The poems on the page task and reward the reader with multiple readings; they encourage and practice non-binary thinking, which is consistent throughout the book. Can you speak a bit to your philosophy of the page?
Brian Teare: That’s a good question for this book because I think this is a pretty full articulation of a shift in my thinking about the page. In both Sight Map (University of California 2009) and Companion Grasses (Omnidawn 2013), I was working off of my own kind of personal reading of Olson’s “Projective Verse”—I think that’s not surprising for anyone who knows my work—and in Companion Grasses that was particularly true in terms of thinking about prosody, and also thinking about poems on the page as being a scoring of an encounter with a place or a species. Because so many of those poems—all of them, really—were written on foot, were written in the field, I was really trying to use prosody and typography as a musical registration of an encounter, and combining Olson’s belief in the page as a kind of musical score with the ways in which breath and ear change in relation to whatever you’re in relation to. I was interested in the phenomenology of prosody—that it could, theoretically, capture or register relation differently between each encounter with place, with species, with a particular day or meteorology or whatever.
CD: —Or text—
BT: Or text, totally, given all the different allusions or citations I leave throughout the poems. So Companion Grasses, for me, is maybe in particular a really beautiful encapsulation of my “theories” around “Projective Verse” and [the poems’] relationship to ecopoetics, but I think they really believe in Olson’s organic metaphors of embodiment. Even though “Projective Verse” is so “I” oriented, when you hit it on the page all of that “I” work is meant to be translated into duration, into how you read it in terms of time—
CD: Right, how it’s activated by the reader
BT: Yeah, and that it’s also meant, in Olson’s world, to be translated into one’s own physiology—the poet’s own physiology, their breath, their ear. But one thing that I didn’t pay attention to in my earlier readings of “Projective Verse” was the role of the typewriter. You know, it’s the role of the typewriter that made “Projective Verse” possible. That the actual instrument or machine could replicate the typesetting an actual typographer would do—or mimic it at least, because typewriters generally have a kind of spacing (a kerning and a leading) that is regular and evenly spaced. And most typefaces aren’t spaced that way, so it looks different—it’s not exactly how a typesetter would set type, but it still mimics the power of setting your own work, and it’s what other poets like Robert Duncan, Larry Eigner, other people who were inspired by “Projective Verse” and sort of took after Olson’s thinking—it’s what they also used the typewriter for, valued the typewriter for. And so in The Empty Form I started using and harnessing a lot of the ideas and experiences of actually being a typesetter for Albion Books, and thinking about the poem more as a visual icon on the page and less as a purely musical or prosodic event. I think the icon part of it was backgrounded for me in Companion Grasses, though I “liked” the way those poems looked on the page, that was backgrounded to the music and the way it was a musical score, and I don’t feel that way about the poems of The Empty Form.
CD: Though it’s not not musical
BT: No, but I had really shifted my thinking away from feeling that these poems necessarily register in an “accurate” way my body or breath, which is ironic given that it’s a book so much about embodiment. That wasn’t my desire in writing these poems, actually, it wasn’t what I set out to do with them—though they may do that. I was really interested in suddenly realizing, in dialogue with Agnes Martin’s work, that a typeset field is a grid. That a typeset page is always already gridded via the lateral and horizontal leading of the page, and then the verticality of lines stacked up, and letters stacked upon letters. I was really interested in the potential of foregrounding that inherent griddedness of the page and of typesetting itself, and also what’s possible in terms of digital typesetting, which is in some ways even more gridded—
CD: And more limiting
BT: And more limiting—although there are ways to get around that, but in terms of setting things in Microsoft Word, which is what I was doing, that’s really limited in terms of the griddedness, and I actually liked that. I wanted to work within that constraint, partially because I didn’t want to make life hell for my eventual publisher, or any of the journals that I was publishing in—and these were hard enough to set for the journals that I did send them to anyways. All of that is to say that the big shift for me is away from the page as field, as a musical score, and toward the typeset page as a grid in which there are limitations, but also in terms of returning to the grid again and again—which is what all of us do as writers—it really mimicked for me what Martin was doing in terms of exploring the grid as a space for, you know, forty years. And what she would speak of as a limited vocabulary is a rich place to start from, actually, even though it seems small—and as anyone who knows my work knows, I tend to write (have tended to write) long poems, or longish ones; limiting myself to mostly one page poems was also an experiment.
CD: Right, it’s almost surprising when you get to one that’s more than one page
BT: Yeah, it should be
CD: They feel jarring
BT: They should, and you know there aren’t many. I think there are just three or four that are longer than one page, and I wanted that. I wanted to challenge myself. And also to stick to this kind of limited grid, because that’s imitating Martin—she painted on a 6X6 canvas for thirty years until the end of her life when she switched down to 5X5, and that was it—that was her form. And any of us writing on an 8.5X11 page are sort of stuck with that form again and again, though we can push against it. I just wanted to see what that would mean for me.
CD: I think it’s interesting, though, that you consider them constrained. I mean, I understand the idea of the poems being written under or with the use of constraint, but because—and considering this in terms of Olson, too—but because the poems themselves can be read so many different ways—because you can read across, and you can read almost backwards, or around—that each page, even though they are single poems or single-page-poems can be read ten different ways.
BT: Totally what I wanted. Again, totally not an Olsonian thing, because that’s an aspect of the visual, and it’s also not attempting to record “accurately” one kind of prosody. Because most of the poems can be read in so many different ways, the prosody changes each time you read them in a different formula, or in a different sort of way through the poems, and I wanted that because for me the one place where I feel like the typesetting connects to embodiment—besides with the reader who always takes in language through their body and experiences it bodily—was the idea that the body of the text and the meaning of the text would not necessarily be consonant. That meaning could arise in many different ways, and that there wouldn’t be just one meaning or one way to read the meaning—that multiple poems could emerge from the encounter with the typesetting. And that mimicked, on the one hand, the fact that with Martin’s work, depending upon where you stand, [the paintings] look really different. Like, right up close you see an incredible amount of hand work and detail; middle distance it begins to resolve into this kind of fabric-looking weave with a lot of shimmering; and when you go way back it’s just like this color field. I really loved the idea of a poem that could change depending on where you stood. So on the one hand there’s that, and on the other there is the notion that my body as I am writing these poems is really illegible. No one can decide what’s wrong with it, I don’t know what’s wrong with it, doctors don’t know what’s wrong with it, and often we want (as readers) the body of the poem to deliver meaning in a legible and singular way. It’s what we desire—even if we’re experimental and avant-garde, we still want a text to yield a reading. And I wanted a text that resisted that because my own body was resisting delivering up a single meaning to me or anybody.
CD: Or a diagnosis—
BT: Yeah—and there is even, in one of the poems, this sort of shame in being illegible. So while I wanted to resist even as I wanted to make things clear and try to understand my own experience, I also didn’t want to give up the kind of mysteriousness and difficulty of attributing meaning to what was happening, and I felt that was very different for me—the sort of choices behind typesetting in these poems compared to the earlier work—because the early work, whatever difficulty is there, I’m trying to register the difficulty of the relation of what’s outside of me, whereas in The Empty Form it was really all of these internal things. Not only internal, because there was the struggle with the medical system, that’s there, but—I mean, I wanted to know what was wrong too. I was disappointed that they couldn’t help, but their failure was also mine too. Failing—the fact of not being able to just rest, not knowing, and sort of persisting, but also not having a language adequate to what was going on.
CD: Right. And I love that pretty early you have the line “prescription a script,” which I think works so well in relation to Martin’s work too because immediately my mind thinks of lines, like the delineation of here’s the path that things will follow, and bodies are prescribed—we’re meant to behave in certain ways. So when you have a body that’s wild, painfully wild, you know—unmanageable or unmanaged—it can’t fit cleanly into any of the things, which speaks to so much of what this work is trying to talk about. And even the relationship of looking at Martin’s paintings from all these different vantage points—that none of them are the same—it’s clear that one “prescription” or “script” is not going to satisfy.
BT: Yeah, but what you’re bringing up is so great because I feel like one of the tensions I had with Martin, which is here throughout the work—my work—is that you have this visual experience of Martin where it’s all beautiful no matter what vantage point you are standing at, but you have very different visual experiences for each one, and yet when she would talk she was so prescriptive and so didactic and so narrow. She would want to leave experience for wordless abstracted space, she would leave you that, but she would be super didactic about, like, “This was about innocence” or “This is about this theme”—and the later titles of many of her paintings are like “Happiness and Innocence Playing”—very allegorical readings of art, and that I had a lot of trouble with.
BT: I had trouble with the script that you’re talking about—my own sense of the metaphysical values of life resists these kinds of narrowing down to positive allegorical values. But I also had trouble in terms of encounters with my own body and the medical system, the way in which our medical system and our entire culture want the power of naming. That power of naming and reducing things to a single value does reduce them—does, kind of, cage the wildness of our experiences.
CD: Well that’s what’s really interesting too about the way you use Agnes Martin’s language or the language around her work as the poem titles because a title has a very specific job of narrowing down to the “core essence” of what something is supposed to be about. And all of these axiomatic statements work in a way that’s really interesting next to the poems that can be read so many different ways, where you pull all of these different meanings out of them. And I think this use of Martin’s axioms is—kind of—a little cheeky.
BT: I’m glad! I’m glad you think that because it’s one of the struggles I had throughout writing this book. You know, I had so many struggles with her. On the one hand I love her, I think her art is incredible; I find it so moving, and her dedication to art-making is mind-boggling to me. Yeah—I mean I have a kind of unbounded admiration for her as a practitioner, and yet the way she fashioned her public persona as pedagogue I find sort of endlessly irritating.
CD: Well it tries to clean things up, like, you can see her performing the Artist with the capital A role.
BT: Right, which is I think what she did to protect herself. Now that she’s long dead, the biography is out, and other critical writings about her are out—we know she was schizophrenic, we know that she had lesbian relationships, we know that she lead a life with passions as well as aesthetics—and of course she made aestheticism into a passion. So I respect that, and I respect the ways she kept a public image that focuses on the art, which for a woman of her era was also hard. There was an immense amount of pressure to be available as a woman. I think of the women performance artists of that era like Hannah Wilke or Carolee Schneemann—and, you know, they spent a lot of time naked, which I love about their work, I think it’s amazing
CD: It’s not at all troubling though… [laughs]
BT: But, I think that speaks heavily to the desire for a commodifiable presence that exists for a woman artist, and also the role that her body and her sexuality play in the marketplace. And it’s not like it didn’t get someone like Carolee Schneemann into trouble. Fuses, her early film, was banned, criticized, called obscene, all sorts of stuff—and that also had to do with the male nudity, of seeing an erect penis in that particular film. But you know, Martin, as a much older artist, didn’t discover her signature style until she was 50. So as a much older woman and also as someone who maybe didn’t publically identify as a lesbian, but was known in certain circles to be a lesbian—her body was not available, or she was not interested in making her body available in that way (as a public consumable). And she didn’t want her personal narrative to be that either. So she worked hard to make sure the work was the focus—always—and when it couldn’t be, when she had to be a public persona, she really rendered a particular public persona of this kind of recluse sage, which can be grating and annoying, but it also did the work she wanted it to do in terms of protecting herself. I respect that; I get that, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t be annoyed by it.
CD: But it’s also interesting how you counter Martin’s distance in The Empty Form by being really lyrical, and it being really “I”-centered work—I wouldn’t say that’s the focus, but it’s very invested (obviously) in the first-hand experience of illness
CD: So that provides a balance to all of those aspects of Agnes Martin. And that’s why I think the titles work so well because they have that “coolness” and kind of learned “I know the way” tone, and the poems—the body of the work throughout the book—aren’t interested in being prescriptive, because that’s the whole idea, that prescriptive everything doesn’t work. Here’s system after system where it’s not happening, or not able to happen.
BT: No that’s great, I’m glad that comes through. I’m glad you saw the humor in that too, because for me that was one of the things about my own work that had been pointed out to me years ago, that it wasn’t funny. And at the time—and this is actually a funny story—I went to a summer writer’s conference to work with C. D. Wright because I loved her work and because she was a Southern experimental writer, and at that point I was still young enough that I could identify regionally as a Southerner in some way, and also I really identified with her work as a way out of pure narrative while not abandoning narrative. I was working on the poems in Pleasure, which are not funny poems. Like, it’s a book about AIDS and a book about losing a partner to AIDS, and I wrote one of the poems in that book in her workshop, and I remember her sitting me down for our one-on-one conference and saying something like, “Well, you’re a really fine poet, but I gotta say—your poems just aren’t funny.” And I remember thinking, “What an odd thing to say to somebody”—though considering that her work is funny even when it’s about her loved ones dying, I was like, “Well she somehow has a spirit that can do this.” But I remember thinking, and I’m not sure if I said it at the time, but I said something to myself at least, “Well I just don’t think being alive is funny. Maybe certain limited social situations can be funny, but I think our condition of being alive is just fucked.” Given the experience of losing a partner to AIDS, I just didn’t—
CD: You weren’t in a space for the humor.
BT: I just wasn’t in a space to be hilarious. What I like about my encounter with Buddhism and studying Buddhist texts, is that Buddhism is often funny at the point where Western metaphysics gets the saddest. And can, depending on the Buddhist author and the text, be kind of witty and goofy about things that we tend to speak about with the most gravity. This was also the thing that got me—I guess I got a little bit like C. D. on Agnes, and I was like, “But Agnes, you’re not funny.”
BT: And she’s not—you know—she’s always serious. And so—
CD: And inaccessible, which is part of that, right?
BT: And inaccessible. Which is, for me, why the titles help navigate experience. I’m not critiquing the titles per se, but creating a space below those pronouncements where unknowing and not knowing, and also not knowing how to suffer or suffer in the “right way,” could be held in a slightly lighter way. They’re still sad, the poems are still full of pain, but not having to make them make one meaning meant that they were open to holding meaning in a lighter way. Does that make sense?
CD: It makes total sense. And this leads into the next question I have—having listened to you talk about her work and knowing your interest in material objects (and not just the press, Albion Books, but your fascination with materiality), which goes back to your obsession with Emily Dickinson in part—you really attend to the fine details in Martin’s paintings and drawings. What comes up a few times—and I think I really paid attention to this because I have heard you talk about it—is where you can see her hand. So, my formal version of this question is: in the book you attend greatly to the presence of Agnes Martin’s hand at the fringes of her grids—marks where she trued the ruler, proof of the almost unimaginable math that went into her work. Which, I know you’re interested in the whole process behind, of what went into it, because there’s a lot to marvel at. There’s an infatuation, it seems, with the presence of the person in a form that’s devoid of the person—what she would call a kind of “pure abstraction,” which is maybe where you get the cheekiest in terms of your relationship with the titles. In what manner do these poems function as a similar kind of evidence? Evidence of pain, recording of pathologized imaginings—are these poems a kind of proof?
BT: God, that’s a really interesting question. [Sighs] What I see in her work is that earlier in the late 60’s, maybe early 70’s, she leaves a lot of what I call “a kind of found quality persisting like leftover math”—which is one of the phrases I use in one of the poems. That evidence of the hand, the dots at the edge of the grid, sometimes watercolor wash that extends outside of the edge of the grid—I feel like she left this stuff in some of the early work that in the later work she would never have left in. So she was more willing to show the process or to “show her math” in the earlier years. And I think got more interested—over time—in a bid for some sort of perfection, even though—and I should say, one thing I learned over time in seeing as much of the work as I could see in public, which actually isn’t a whole lot because a lot of it is in places you have to travel to like Santa Fe—it’s also true that in that earlier work it’s easier to see the hand in reproductions, because you can see the dots at the edge, but in the later work it’s harder to see [evidence of her hand] because it’s all in the brushwork, and in reproductions [of the later work] it’s hard to see the brushwork—
CD: It’s lost
BT: But you can see it more in person. I think I made a lot of unfair judgments about the later work because I hadn’t—and I still haven’t—seen a lot of it in person. I’m still not a fan of the color schemes, which are super pastel and naive seeming—in very deliberate ways—I’m just not a fan of that. But the brush stroke—the hand—is there in ways I just couldn’t see because of reproduction. That said, [Martin is] way more interested in showing the hand in her early work, and I think that idea of showing the math keeps the material body of the artist in the frame of the painting in a way that—you’re right—I resist the evacuation of the physical body of the artist from the frame, like, I want (in my own work) that body to be there, that’s part of my feminist and queer politics to resist the erasure of embodiment from language and from the artistic process. But I think it’s also my interest in the politics of illness—of ability and disability—especially because in my case it’s a body that doesn’t always function “correctly,” and I wanted that body to be there and be visible in some way. And I think it’s interesting that hers—and I didn’t know this when I started working with her work—was also a body and a mind that were queer and didn’t work in the “right” ways. I find that interesting—it’s not something she makes available to us in her public record, but it influenced how I thought about things over time.
CD: These are sort of related questions. We see Martin’s grid laid over the speaker as a patient who is charted, medically mapped, contained—all for the sake of some closure by way of diagnosis—a “cure.” But what’s most striking to me in this work is the sense of suspension. This is, of course, played out through the recurring themes of artistic process, the hanging and constant pain of unnamed illness, but it’s most present in the form of lyrical in-between-ness—the sheer absence of sustained stillness, of answer. Retuning to this over and over, I came to think of this writing as a poetics of suspension—or, to use your words, “a continual doing undone.” How does this perpetual state of suspension relate to your process? To your concept of the lyric? To yourself?
BT: That’s really nice. I’m glad that you see the work in that way. That question suggests a lot of avenues for me, the most literal, narrative one is that—and this is something that readers, or my close readers had a lot of questions about—I wrote 4/5 of this book before having a diagnosis, and then I got a diagnosis that has turned out to be incredibly helpful and healing in a lot of ways, but I chose not to write that into the book.
CD: Right, and that’s something that you feel all the way through.
BT: There were many reasons that I decided not to do that. One is that I think not knowing is more accurate to how our lives are actually. We live with a lot of not knowing and we don’t like living with not knowing: when we’re going to die, how we’re going to die, what death is, what it means for us. These are questions that hover behind this work: Am I dying? Am I not dying? At some point that anxiety gets dispelled somewhat, but it was a powerful question for me. And then we assume a lot in our lives about always being healthy, or that we will always be able-bodied, and for me the question became about if and when I would be able-bodied again and for how long. There’s a lot of not knowing that hovers over our lives in general, over my life specifically, and continues to hover in terms of health and ability and disability, and when I’m okay and when I’m not, that I will probably manage for most of my life—if I’m lucky that it can even be managed. So, I felt that the not knowing and the state of suspension are actually ones that we work very hard to believe that we’re not even living in. You know, that we’re “captains” of our own fate, and I think this experience with chronic illness has totally blown any belief of mine that I might be a “captain” of my own fate in that way—in terms of my own body—pretty much out of the water, that I am beholden to things, to processes that I have some influence on, but may not have control over. And what I can control is how I relate to it—somewhat. I can have more control over that than I do over what kind of ability or disability I will have. So, there’s that—I wanted to capture that unknowing and to leave it there so that the reader has to grapple with
CD: And sit with. There’s an activity to it.
BT: There is that state of being in suspension, which is a lot like sitting and meditating. You are deliberately trying to encounter your thoughts and let them go—to notice them and let them go, to have to sit in state of suspension. That might yield something else in time, and hopefully will yield something else in time. Another thread to that material narrative desire to not say, to leave us in state of suspension, was that—you know, a disability activist friend of mine makes a deliberate choice not to tell people about her disability because she feels something like, “What is it with everyone thinking that they deserve to know about my body? Why do I have to constantly narrate my bodily experience to everybody? And why do they feel that they somehow deserve it because my body is different from theirs?”
CD: Or that having the language of whatever “it is” somehow creates a box that it can fit into, and it’s closed.
BT: Exactly. And that is exactly the action that I did not want to have happen because if I ever named it, the reader could write it off. The reader could be like, “Oh, that’s solved—next, done!” and I was like, “It doesn’t fucking work that way.” What I have learned from getting a diagnosis is: that’s fine, but now I have to learn how to live with illness.
CD: And that’s an ongoing thing
BT: Right, it’s an ongoing process that is still about a state of suspension and not knowing. So I didn’t want to give the reader a name and have that be a final pronouncement for them that would then “resolve” any kind of narrative.
CD: Or close—
BT: Or close off any tension. So that’s all the kind of reason for wanting to leave this narratively in suspension: I didn’t want to create what would ultimately be a false sense of security that medical diagnosis can give you. That’s the other thing that Western medicine likes to do: now you have a name, now you’re fine.
CD: Well, and it’s why disability scholars focus so much on language like “fix” because it’s an A to B straight line of logic that doesn’t work, that does not make sense.
BT: It often does not work that way. I think there is a poetics of suspension there, narratively, in terms of what embodiment and disability and illness mean, and a refusal to make the body more legible to the reader in ways that might allow the reader to simplify an experience that isn’t simple. And to pretend to know something that even I can’t know about my own bodily experience. So I think that’s important narratively, I think that’s important politically, and I also think there is a poetics of suspension—as I kind of mentioned—metaphysically in terms of a relationship to mortality, a relationship to time
BT: Yeah, that was important because western medicine tends to have this narrative about treatment: “patient” means to be long suffering, and it has this kind of virtue—the virtue of patience—in it. A poetics of suspension might bring up humility or patience, and humility was something very important to Agnes Martin, but I was less interested in it when it’s not a choice, and one of the things that I found was that being a “patient” revealed to me a situation I was already in, but just didn’t read right. I was already in this place of not knowing when I would die, or what I would die of, or of what my body would do, or could do, or when I would be able-bodied, or when I wouldn’t be—I was already in that space, I just didn’t know it. I couldn’t see it—and it’s not that I hadn’t dealt with illness before, I had had intermittent problems for like a decade, but it just wasn’t until it became a chronic, daily issue, that I realized all of these moments of illness I had before weren’t isolated. In Buddhism it is the root of compassion that we all share this condition, and that it is the practice of understanding that we are all in this, like, waiting room together suffering in our various ways at our various speeds. We’re all—
CD: Actively dealing
BT: We’re all aging; we’re all dying; we’re all going to be ill (if not already ill); we’re all going to be affected. That’s a place where a lot of compassion for others can come from, and in The Empty Form it doesn’t come until very late, it’s not until the third section that I start making connections to other sufferers because I was so mired in my own suffering that I couldn’t see outside of it. But, I think that a poetics of suspension, as you call it, can allow for that compassion to emerge in the reader—and not making a triumphalist narrative of healing enables this. Such a narrative would simplify this compassion in a way that I don’t want, but also in a way I don’t believe in anymore. I feel like leaving the reader in a space of suspension and of not knowing is where we all are anyways, and should be the root of compassion. Often our root of compassion is, “They survived! Isn’t that great!” “They beat cancer!” And Susan Sontag would point out that all of our military metaphors around cancer, and all the moral language around being ill as some kind of failure, and I feel like all of that is so deeply fucked up. Presenting illness in these other ways allows for a compassion that begins in the right place as opposed to beginning in places that have values I find really troubling.
CD: What I like about the idea of suspension is that it’s all grey area, that it’s specifically anti-binary because while suspension is dealing with and mired in this idea—not idea, but experience of choicelessness, it’s still a matter of having to live with that [greyness] and navigating the day-to-day stuff around not having certain choices around how one’s body is functioning, and how one can or cannot function in the world. Because of the way that there’s this multiplicity in reading around the page, and meaning, and different things that can come out of [the poems]—and because there are moments of humor, and moments that are just, like, dire—those things all go together and don’t allow you to just sit down, or land anywhere solidly. And I think the non-binary element of that is really attractive because it also speaks so much more to the actual condition of living—like, we don’t actually live in a world that functions happily or perfectly with binaries, it’s constantly fraught. So, living in the fraughtness shows the condition more readily.
BT: And I like that you made the connection to the way that the poems are typeset: for me that suspension also comes within the body of the poem. Some of them read quite legibly, like the sonnets that begin and end each section—those are meant to be gridded in a different way. But a lot of the poems in the bodies of each section—they are suspended between different ways of reading them. Like my own body, suspended between my internal experience of illness versus the medicalized experience of illness versus the other modalities of treatment, like acupuncture, that were readings of my body that were more productive for me than Western medicine and yet were still just another reading that may or may not have really—in the end—“explained” anything to me.
CD: Which you do really beautifully when you talk about being in acupuncture and your head is turned into a book that can be opened and read—it’s like an alternative way of reading the body—you’re still trying to get at some of the same questions, but it’s through all these other means, all these other ways in. And even—and I can’t remember which poem it is right now—where you talk about holding the poem up to your ear like a box and listening for answers, or listening for what’s there, even. What I love about that is that it changes the way you actually interact—of course the poem on the page then appears as a little box, but it becomes this physical object too.
BT: That’s in “Any mistake in the scale and it doesn’t work out, it’s pretty hard because it’s such a small picture,” which is one of the propositions I agree with, or I don’t argue with. That poem I liked because I was trying to figure out how to get the notion of the lyric—the traditional lyric, like the sonnet, being this gridded form, you know the Shakespearean sonnet with iambic pentameter you really have the stresses across the line and the stresses all the way down
CD: The poem as a highly regulated object, a grid—
BT: It’s got a horizontal and a vertical field inside of it and both of those [elements] create the formal tension within the poem. So that notion that although lyric is a woven grid, “I put my ear to it’s little box”—I really love the way that when you are thinking through prosody that it is like putting your ear to language a little bit, and that there is a kind of physical intimacy—and this poem is kind of about the tension between the visual and the prosodic. But I still love that tension, I think it’s a really productive tension—and was productive for this book in particular.
CD: I still want to push on the idea of lyric and how that works for you. In the first section of the book the speaker is trapped by the impotency of his uninsured positionality in “late late capitalism’s miniature exam room.” However, near the end of the book—with diagnosis still unknown—there is this sense of completion, a freeing, an emptying out or transcendence: the speaker is done with “Teacher Agnes.” This is when the form breaks—Agnes’ gridlines become wavy in your translation of her formal purity—“Agnes is my teacher,” you write, “until she isn’t.” So, in terms of lyric, do you see lyric as cure—and if not cure because we understand the limitations of that language, and we definitely know you don’t see lyric as salvation, then what do you see the lyric as a salve for?
BT: Hm, tricky question. I’m going to swerve a bit by saying—you know, you were talking earlier about a poet (this was before our interview) who repeats themselves a lot, and I think one thing that I have struggled with in my own work is the desire not to repeat myself, and that’s somewhat behind my attraction to the projective page and behind my theorizing of encounter—and this is in my earlier work, like Companion Grasses—encounter as the thing from which prosody springs. Of necessity, because you’re in the field responding to each of these encounters the poem will be different, and that was true for me—totally true. I loved that about that theory and about that way of working, and I am sure I will continue mining that, but inside of that attraction is a fear and it accounts for—as you say—my obsession with Emily Dickinson—though I have never thought of it as an obsession though it might be, I can own that. Well god, if she wasn’t anything it was that she was repetitive
CD: That’s true
BT: In terms of the form and the way that the form is executed—there are a lot of quatrains, there’s just a ton of them, and there is a prosody that we return to again and again
CD: A prosody we can identify
BT: And we can identify it as “hers,” whether we think, you know, of the manuscripts and all the controversy around the manuscripts—Are these lyric poems? Are they written objects? Are these quatrains? What are we looking at? What are we reading? Why are we reading things this way?—I think these are all productive questions. However, in the Dickinson that most of us encounter, without access to the manuscripts and fascicles, we encounter a poet who is mining a signature vocabulary. Not unlike the way that Agnes Martin mined a signature vocabulary for forty years. And there are other poets I really love who are incredibly repetitive in terms of form, and the length of the poems, and a kind of signature diction, etcetera. So I began to think about the lyric—both my deep attraction to and grounding in the lyric, but also implicitly a little bit of my fear of the lyric, which maybe had to do with coming of age in the Bay Area in the shadow of Language Poetry and the lyric being—like—the dumbest, worst thing you could possibly do as a poet. And yet there were some lyric poets like Paul Celan or Dickinson who were “okay.”
CD: Or, canonically approved lyricists.
BT: Yeah, they were abstract enough, or weird enough, or whatever enough, that they were “fine.” So, I wondered—I began to think a lot about one thing that many of these lyric poets have in common was metaphysics, that Dickison’s estranged relationship with Christianity and her constant revisitation of the themes of Christianity and the afterlife—What is an afterlife? Who will be there? What will it be like? What is death? What is death a threshold to? Who has power over these things? etcetera—those are anxieties and questions she returns to over and over again, imagined a multitude of ways. And with other poets I really love—like Carl Phillips, again, returning to questions of desire, fidelity, infidelity—and seeing this come up over and over again in their signature work, I began to think that I needed to give myself permission to explore this space of the lyric with some concentration. I read an essay by Zoe Leonard, the visual artist, about Agnes Martin, and she talks about seriality, and seriality being the action of returning to the same starting point but expecting different results, and that seemed to also describe the lyric poet. New Criticism encourages us to think of each of those poems as individual poems—Dickinson’s—but we don’t know that. What if they are one long serial poem? And I’m saying what if because I don’t know, but what if hers is more of a serial project and she returns to the “same place,” but goes somewhere different each time? And that is true—even if the form seems repetitive, metaphysically we’re trying to solve the same problem in a different way. So I thought, Okay—illness seems a lot like that; I’m starting from the same place—we’ll I wasn’t always starting from the same place, some days were clearer than others.
CD: And regardless, it still comes back to the present, right? So if that’s a retuning place, then that always exists.
BT: And that was one of the deliberate decisions behind this book, that all of these poems are in the present tense; all these poems result, in some way, from sitting meditation, trying to understand my illness in the present—so, you’re totally right. The serial aspect of the book, which I do think of as one long poem, is returning to the present tense—whatever that is for me on that given day, and whatever it gets filled with. I think the lyric, to go back to your question now that I have slanted my way into it, the lyric is a salve only insofar as any healing modality is a salve, insofar as meditation is a salve. Will it necessarily do anything for you? No. The lyric doesn’t change your metaphysical situation or your physical one, either—though people do study meditators and say, “Oh your blood pressure is better” or “Oh, you’re more calm, you sleep better,” so it can change things. But I think in the ultimate big picture, you’re still dealing with the same things each time you sit down: the given situation of the now, which is really both incredibly complicated and textured and varied, and also pretty simple—like, you’re alive and you’re going to die. So, what can the lyric do given that situation?
CD: Or—it is something that you also return to in your books over and over again, right?
BT: Yeah, for reals. And I think that’s just having grown up in a resolutely Christian household where all experience was read through a theology, so all of my books are interested in philosophy and metaphysics because I don’t think I know how to read any other way, really [laughs] in a very real sense. But I also think that the question of the lyric often comes down to, “I am suffering, what do I do with it?” I even think of Catullus’ “Odi et Amo,” you know—I love and I hate, why do I do this; I have no idea, but I suffer. And that’s the basic message of the lyric—and it’s not my answer, but I often feel like it is at root of the lyric tradition in Western literature. And in Eastern literature it’s different, though it’s often not not about suffering, but the tone is different, the way it’s held is very different, and I got a lot of permission from that tradition to, kind of, hold suffering in a different way.
CD: The last thing I really want to ask you about is that you made specific mention to me that this is a book you are very proud of, and that it’s a book you would want to read. So I wondered if you could speak a little more to that, and given that it’s your fifth book what is it about this book in particular that makes it not only a point of pride, but a point of or a location of accomplishment in terms of your own poetics?
BT: [breathes deeply]
CD: Just asking some real soft questions here.
BT: Yeah! Because it was so hard to write. I was so not well for almost all of these poems and I often did not have cognitive access to clarity. I was in a lot of physical pain, and I was often in a lot of emotional and metaphysical pain and panic about what was happening to me. I feel proud that I persisted in the practice through times when I wasn’t even sure what I was doing with poems, let alone with my life. I’m also proud of writing what feels like a very different book from my other books.
CD: While still feeling distinctly like you.
BT: Yeah—I like that I told you that I felt proud of it because when I publish a book I swing back and forth between feeling immense pride and just feeling deeply afraid of the book going out. Maybe today I am more on the fear side of the pendulum. One thing that I am really proud of is writing a book that I couldn’t have predicted I would have written. I would never have thought I would write a book-length ekphrastic project—ekphrasis was never something I was hugely interested in, and I’m also someone who didn’t get an education in visual art until my very late twenties, so I feel that, too—who am I to write about a great twentieth century artist or to be engaged with her? You asked earlier about Teacher Agnes, and kind of abandoning Teacher Agnes as part of the book, and I think I am also proud of coming to see myself as a practitioner of both Buddhism and of art-making that could view her as a companion rather than someone I had to answer to, which was hard. You know, she’s a great artist and I don’t know if I am—I know I’m an artist, but who am I to be like, “Agnes, I’m done now?”
CD: But it’s a beautiful moment in the book, it’s not like a blowing-off, it’s so much more about this coming-to-terms and being in a different position in relation to her. Because one thing that’s really interesting about the whole book is that it doesn’t read like a project; it doesn’t read like, “I really want to write about Agnes Martin,” right? And the subtitle of the book, “Reading Agnes Martin” is interesting and it has that kind of dual meaning of being passive—of learning and taking in—and also has this active going out, and building an argument around.
BT: Two things: one is that the publisher dropped the subtitle, so it’s actually not on the book anymore, which is interesting. It was totally fine for me that she did that—
CD: I, of course, sat there and thought, “There’s all this interesting subtext!” [laughs]
BT: No! There is! And I’m glad that you saw that—maybe because it’s already such a long title, then to have a subtitle and an intro, like I feel like maybe the intro does some of that work of that the subtitle “Reading Agnes Martin” did. But, secondly, it wasn’t a project, and I don’t work that way. I think this book is the closest that I have come to being serial—starting each poem from a similar place—though in some ways Companion Grasses is totally the same. I might be in a different location in each poem, but I am starting with the same premise of writing in the field, being in a place, coming to know a species or an experience from being on foot, through observation, through scientific research, all of that kind of stuff.
CD: Which trains the reader to know how to be with you in the act of reading. Because even though I don’t know how it feels to feel all of these things in The Empty Form, I know how to behave with you as an author.
BT: That’s cool—I mean that’s good because what I like, or what I am most proud of with this book, is the sense in which I place myself as an author in the poetics of suspension by not controlling the way a reader reads every poem. Like, I can’t know which version of how they navigate the page they like best; I can’t know which pages work better for them. The reading process for the reader is very different than it is for my other poems, and I think that it’s much more open.
CD: Well, it’s less didactic, which is what you take issue with, to a certain point, with Teacher Agnes.
BT: I think that’s a good point, and it is also what I take issue with in theological teaching and even with Buddhism; there’s this immense openness of the practice and yet around it, in terms of the discourse of theology and often around it if you go to a more formal sangha, there is often a highly rigid structure, and I’m interested in that relationship between the rigidity of religion and then the spaciousness of a kind of meditative practice, which often takes place despite—well, in my experience takes place despite—the rigidity and yet also in some part because of the rigidity. And that is true, again, of Martin’s paintings, which adhere to a pretty rigid form—or at least a series of limited choices around form. I’m interested in that tension.
CD: You set us up for it as readers too—in the preface, you take us in and you do this scholastic reading of Martin, and you lay out her work, and you go through all of the steps that we’re ready for, and then it itself becomes this sort of swerve at the end— “I felt the same way until I didn’t,” which you reiterate in the later poem, “Horizontal Lines for Forty Years…,” “Agnes is my teacher until she isn’t.” So there’s this really interesting way in which you’re setting us up—here are all of the expectations—and then there is going to be a flip, there is going to be that moment of shift into something else. And there is no mourning; she’s not lost—there’s no great loss. It just seems like “I didn’t need it anymore in that way.”
BT: Yeah. I think there are two—the last couple of poems—one of which is really based on this letter by Lizzie Borden to Susanne Delahanty who was the curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). It’s actually the third to last poem, “Form is created as you look at it and it sinks away as you look at it.” Lizzie Borden wrote an interview with, or rather she wrote a review of Agnes’ ICA show, but in order to do that she had to go interview her in New Mexico. She writes—and I think I say in the preface—to Delahanty, “She told me all this stuff about her life, but I can’t use any if it.” She also wrote this beautiful thing to Delahanty about the ICA show and about Delahanty’s effort at curating it, and then her effort of going to New Mexico and doing this interview and writing this long piece—that it was like having a relationship with the work, and having this deep connection with the work and then having to leave it behind. Then Agnes tells [Borden]—and I quote this directly, though of course it’s not in quotations [in the poem]—“let’s not be friends / let’s be companions / of the open road.” And I thought a lot about that gesture of non-attachment, which again I am translating into Buddhist terms. Agnes says throughout her writing that you shouldn’t have pets even [laughs]—you know, marriage is hard, friends are hard, these kind of attachments are really difficult.
I did realize at a certain point that my attachment to Agnes was that—an attachment that was keeping me from seeing other ways forward. Then what I really saw is what I talk about in the final poem “When you come to the end of all ideas you will still have no definitive knowledge on the subject,” which is maybe my favorite poem in the book partially because this was—and again, I was taught that one of the reasons we all hate on the lyric as experimental writers is that there is an epiphany, right, and this alleged “insight.” And I’m standing at the kitchen window having my deep thought into the universe, and—well—I have to say that I sometimes like having an epiphany. I don’t mind what feels like having a deep thought into the world—that’s okay with me, to be honest, because they are rare. If every poem did that, I mean sure, but this poem for me was very real in that I had kind of given up Agnes, I felt I had already finished this book, but I did feel a lingering sense of maybe it isn’t totally done. I was going to end on the last line “form empties itself / on its way to heaven”—I thought, “Ah ha!” how satisfying for the title to click together. Then I remember, and this is actually about a late painting of hers, I remember sitting in acupuncture full of needles and looking out the window, and just before I went there I had been looking at her paintings, and I realized on that particular day that the cloud cover looked exactly like the painting I had just been looking at. And, in Buddhist poems, cloud cover is a kind of symbol for thoughts: they come fast and flow through and they change shape, but they are nothing.
CD: But constant.
BT: Constant, but they have no material; they vanish. So I was thinking about that, but I was also realizing while I was sitting there that one thing about giving up an attachment to [Martin] was that I no longer expected her to save me. That’s also one of the nice things about her paintings; it’s also one of the nice things about Buddhist practice: it’s about the practice and about showing up for it, but it’s not about the practice promising salvation.
CD: Or the long term end-goal.
BT: Yeah, because you will die—you can’t avoid that. So it’s more the relation of your practice to the present and to being alive. I got really happy knowing that I couldn’t be saved. And it’s not a logic that works in Christianity, you’re damned the moment that you feel you can’t be saved. And it could also be the moment where you give your heart up to Jesus—
CD: Well, it goes one way or the other, right?
BT: Yeah—but this one wasn’t going to go that way. And I liked that moment; I liked that moment of realizing that I suddenly wasn’t attached any more. And this goes back to your idea of a poetics of suspension—I wasn’t attached anymore to needing to be saved, to needing to be diagnosed, to needing a narrative of improvement, or a narrative of health, or a narrative of anything. That I was willing to be like her painting, a place that weather passes through—and suffering is part of that weather, and not knowing is part of that weather, but I would be willing to be that. In some ways in that final poem I’m still admitting that she’s a little bit my teacher, or that I still am learning from her, but I’m learning from the paintings and not so much from her as a figure.
CD: Or the dogma that accompanies the figure.
BT: Or the dogma that accompanies the figure, but I’m really paying attention to the practice, which I think is ultimately what the book tries to be about: the practice of making and the practice of coming back to the moments of making, and finding value in that—whatever those values are because I think they change every time you return. But I just remember feeling, “I’m so happy that I cannot be saved”—and also that last poem talks about the colloquial phrase, “I fell ill,” and I thought a lot about the way that seemed Christian. A narrative of fall from the Eden of health, and I suddenly realized that I arrived at this place of being ill without it being a fall. It’s just a part of what is, and I no longer thought of my old self, which the book is really concerned with (in certain parts)—the difference between the old self and the new self, or the body I once had and the body I now have. In some ways, by the end of the book that binary is dissolved by just being with illness.
CD: Because it’s about just being
BT: Right, whatever is in there at the moment. That felt so happy to me—to be ill and not have fallen there, and to not be able to be saved. So I feel like I’m most proud of that poem because it was a true epiphany for me as a metaphysical person and that felt like real wisdom, like real, and as a person made me feel better. It’s the only part of the book that actually records my feeling better—and it just had to do with the pressure of needing to be saved being gone, and no longer thinking that anyone else could ever do that was also really, really nice. And a source of humor—like, titling the poem “The End of All Ideas” and it’s the last poem—and I just thought, eh, maybe it’s a cheap parting shot, but it cracked me up, and I wanted that to be funny, and I wanted that last poem to light or lighter because I felt that at the end of this.
CD: And it ends in this way where nothing is resolved, but there is just a space of being that is okay.
BT: And that’s what I’m proud of, that I came to a place where that could be true after years of panic, anxiety, suffering, grasping after names, grasping after a different narrative, and part of my suffering had to do with that grasping. Realizing that, and really knowing it on a cellular level was really powerful—and funny! I just remember lying there, full of needles, cracking up, and just kind of crying with tears and just being so happy.
CD: Which I love, too, because even think about the language of “coming to terms with”—it’s so loaded with all this baggage of loss or sadness, and that’s completely the opposite of your experience of your epiphany. The coming to terms with was just this happiness, or a way to be happy.
BT: I mean I wanted to leave the book on that, but of course that’s totally transitory too [laughs]—it’s a moment—but that that moment is even possible, given our shared condition, I thought was pretty nice. I was happy about it.
Christy Davids is a poet who often listens to the Beach Boys and thinks about great big trees. She recently completed her MFA at Temple University where she also teaches. Christy is an assistant editor at The Conversant, curates the Philadelphia-based reading series Charmed Instruments, and collects recordings at poetry//SOUNDS. Her chapbook Alphabet, Ontology was a finalist In Ahsahta’s 2015 chapbook contest; she has been published in VOLT, Open House, and A Few Lines magazine among others.
Brian Teare is 2015 Pew Fellow in the Arts. He is the recipient of poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, the Headlands Center for the Arts, the Fund for Poetry, and the American Antiquarian Society. He is the author of four critically acclaimed books—The Room Where I Was Born, Sight Map, the Lambda Award-winning Pleasure, and Companion Grasses, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award. His fifth book is The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven (Ahsahta, 2015). An Assistant Professor at Temple University, he lives in South Philadelphia, where he makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books.