Sasha Steensen: I’ve just read your new book, Bitter Green, and it strikes me that it is a divergence from some (though certainly not all) of your earlier work. Much of this earlier work is multi-vocal, using persona (Thomas Swann), quotation (Swallows, for example), and overwriting and excising techniques to challenge the sovereignty of authorial intention and the primacy of the written text. In Bitter Green, the mother is a fundamental figure, but she is gone, and this absence has forced the speaker to re-adjust or re-position his own social compass. The book strikes me as both highly personal, and desperately concerned with one’s presence in the larger world. But the poems do not rest comfortably with the interior (private, familial) and exterior (public, social) binary any more than they accept a trajectory whereby the familial seamlessly turns into the social.
As I move toward related, but distinct, questions about the relationship between what we experience as familiar and what we experience as strange, I find Denise Riley’s description of the dynamic between family and non-family incredibly compelling:
There is an unspeakable outside, an imagined asocial space, where something howls beyond the edges, prowls in anguish around the dark perimeter encircling the glowing campfire of the family…. There is a strong argument for rejecting this imagined lure of the thought of the wild outside versus the regulated family inside. It is the lure of the tame which may best render strange the familiar.
I don’t mean to suggest that this new book abandons earlier preoccupations (with the soul, with influence, with history), but rather I wonder how this new book might be using the personal to render these familiar subjects strange once again.
Martin Corless-Smith: My increasing sense as I write and as I live is that the unit we call self is as floating and various as the one we call other. I don’t mean a wishy-washy self that has no intentionality, I simply mean that the dynamics of being involves constant and shifting interactions that require and produce selfhood—we are made as well as offered during every interaction. We read ourselves in others.
My family offered a loving environment. We lived close, and most everything ran through the expectations and needs of that group. That does change as you grow up and away. For a long time, it was not replaced. I find now that I am less certain of the role of family, as opposed to say friends or even peers.
As I’ve said, I feel that some of my writing is not so much to an individual (or as an individual), as it is a gleaning from the realm of other towards making a lyric self I feel moves around a description of being I have sympathy with. In this regard, reading through lyric poems becomes a kind of utility of the other wherein I notice the frisson of intimate relation. Self and other are in this way coeval.
I’m interested in your relation to family in House of Deer, as you take it to be a fundamental, almost molecular formation. You work with the word Family as almost a noticeboard where important shifts of inclusion and exclusion take place. It is at once handled as opaque and as banally familiar. Do you see poetry as being a kind of family making experience? As opposed to say the lover/reader dynamic of the love lyric?
SS: I wanted to explore the ways in which the speaker of that book (sometimes me, sometimes not only me) has been formed by a noisy set of speakers (my own family members and the larger voices of the culture) who seem to be constantly narrating the parameters of family.
I wanted to be a mother who had critically examined, to the best of my ability, the cultural conditioning I had received. I had to go outside the family to first get glimpses of this. Just as the love poem falls short, leaving the lover bereft, so would the poem that longs for a family. I am wondering now how Anne Carson’s triangle might work here. The lover and the beloved always face a third component—that which comes between them, a kind of hole that is both inside the lover (though previously unnoticed) and outside (as a kind of chasm forever separating lover and beloved). Carson asks, “who is the subject of most love poems? Not the beloved. It is that hole.” Perhaps that hole exists between the family and the member too.
Carson evokes Aristophanes’s famous image of two lovers being cut in half, perpetually searching for their other half. In some ways, the offspring might be thought of as the product of this reunion, but of course, that offspring no more fills the hole than the now present lover does. We never fully realize the intimacy we desire, in part because of language’s limitations, and each person with whom we desire intimacy reminds us of this hole. But, as you say, the poem also arouses and fosters intimacy. Ultimately, poetry acknowledges separation. And yet it is precisely because of this acknowledgment that poetry is able to offer something other than separation. Not union, exactly, and not simply communication, but relation.
MC: Empedocles believes that the daimon (call it soul) is produced at the instant of cosmic break up. The ground for this breakup is god, or a sphere (and sometimes the Golden Age), which I suppose we might think of as personal pre-existence, the womb (earlier?). For Empedocles, it is strife that forces the rupture in perfection, and this rupture produces the daimons that can be individually incarnated.
In his introduction to The Poems of Empedocles, Brad Inwood says very succinctly that “we give up bliss to gain personal identity.” The most interesting aspect of Empedocles’s daimon is that it is a rather odd mix of elements including water, earth, fire and air, along with love and strife. So it is a nexus of commingling effects. When we think of the birth of consciousness, we might think of it as just such an event, rather than as a kind of manifestation of a sovereign self. There’s no doubt that the event of birth is pivotal, but so is the use of eyes to see light. We don’t think of ourselves now as the origin of all we see. Consciousness can be thought of as an event. I like that. And if we think of Carson’s Sappho, it is her use of love as the originating erotic rupture that seems to be both the awareness of otherness, and the awareness of our distance from it. Selfhood is the isolating experience of consciousness.
I read and write not to reinforce a version of me in the world, but to actually disappear to a degree into exchange. Poems and paintings are some ways I manage to disappear successfully. Music as well, of course. It is only the coy, sheepish post-coital explanation of what I was just doing that makes criticism or articulations of the value of poetry seem necessary. The ideal poem feels something like one is reading it as much as writing it. I don’t want to be met by a decent idea or by a clever revelation that represents my thoughts on a subject (though I suspect the majority of what we write is a pastiche of the real event). Most poetry is a ruse to get off. Not all of it is honest about the fact that it doesn’t manage to.
You seem in your writing to want to play with the idea of language as a spell. Your poems play with mishearings, false cognates, the true beauty of the fraudulent. But also in the way that rhyming takes on a magical aspect, a kind of ritualistic rhythm, a powerful something is motivated, we are drawn into its spell, into a rich world of what might be said and what that might actually do! So that language speaks through us, and we are like puppets to its game. We are possessed. I wonder if you feel that the real game of poetry is the slippage, the misfirings, the weird that creeps in. The way we mean things we don’t even know yet? The job of the poem is to distract us from its real task which is a glorious possession. Something like that?
SS: I often experience poetry as an illocutionary act. It isn’t just the excitement I feel in the presence of a powerful poem. The poem acts. When I read certain poems, I feel so addressed, and I shift my position as a response. On the other hand, I often feel physically handled when I am writing—I am being pushed around, but obviously, I welcome it.
“Ritualistic” seems right, especially if we think of it in terms of what ritual does to time. If ritual exists to collapse time so that we might move closer to previous iterations of that same ritual, can poetry be said to do the same to language? The poem is a long instant, indeed!
A few years ago, I wrote 40 poems over the 40 days of Lent (and you kindly published this chapbook—Waters: A Lenten Poem—in your wonderful Free Poetry series!), and the image of water appears in nearly every poem. A few months later when my parents’ house burned down in a forest fire, I felt shored up by those 40 poems.
As far as the poem distracting us from the “real task which is glorious possession,” I can’t say for sure. I suspect one does need distraction for this possession to take place. I am intrigued by your notion of honesty, in terms of what you say about the fraud of conjuration and maybe even your notion of poetry as a ruse to get off. How can the poem be honest while also giving itself over to the “beauty of the fraudulent?”
MC: The idea of honesty and fraud is not as serious as it sounds perhaps! I feel as if the truth content of a poem has played out as far too important in the theoretical defense of Poetry since Plato got all bent out of shape about it! I rather doubt anyone has been woefully led astray by the assertions of a poem! Or at least not in the way Plato is concerned. The reading of a poem as you describe it—the immersion—seems to me to be an opening, something like Duncan’s field as he is permitted to enter and re-enter. The job of the poem is to supply material to get there. The semantics are the ruse. A poem is already a leap of faith to a certain degree. One is receptively charged.
But the truth was there in the performance. In the flourish of liveliness, the approaching of true vitality that haunts us. We are held away from the essence of being by our own self-consciousness, so the poem’s events are really just a way at the performance of living.
SS: I have never understood what was meant by the poem being “true.” A poem doesn’t seem to me to be either true or false; a poem just is. On the other hand, poems can hold back, knowingly and unknowingly. Or rather, the poet holds back, and so the poem falters. But then there is the deliberate seduction—Whitman waiting for the John. This is not “false” because, in a good poem, there is vulnerability on both sides. And, as you say, the reader knows what she’s getting herself into.
But before I begin to sound like I believe that the poet does control the poem absolutely, there is another sexual parallel worth exploring. The holding back necessary in good sex can also be a liability. Hold back too much, and all you have is body. No orgasm. Don’t hold back at all, and it is over too soon—very little tension is built, and so, very little is released. But, of course, you can’t be thinking about how to build tension and when to release it the entire time you are having sex. It feels oddly similar to me, writing a poem. The tension is built and released in the rhythm of the poem, and this is not something that I can think into existence. I listen. The poem tells me.
MC: In his Handbook of Inaesthetics, Badiou discusses poetry as holding something always unknown. His sense is that the poet must preserve the secret in a way, that the job is to say around what one is holding. I’m sympathetic to the idea to a degree. Derrida says something very similar about Celan’s work in his essay, “Shibboleth.” But I feel they tend to face the unknown internally. They see the poem as a crypt (encrypted). I don’t fully agree with this internalization. We do the same thing when thinking about the soul. We don’t know what it is we discuss, but we house it “in” the body. We feel certain that it must be in there. But it seems to me that the poem and the body have their working out there in the open. And it is the open we explore. It seems infinitely possible. The poem points outwards to otherness. To possibilities. In sex, I suppose one of the things we know is that we don’t know the other. Imagination seems to me to be as fraught as Soul in the way it gets described.
SS: Imagination—yes, fraught. But I think this is why Stevens felt it important to reconsider. Because in order for it to be a mechanism of intellection, it must also be a mechanism of perception. I’m still trying to figure out how this might be different from Kant, who seems to think of perception as the outcome of the imagination at work. Interestingly, there is this moment in “Adagia” that I wanted to quote, and when I went in search of it, I found that the line just before it is a line Stevens uses twice, once in “Adagia,” and again, in The Necessary Angel, when he briefly mentions Kant. Here’s the “Adagia” first:
La vie est plus belle que les idées. Perhaps there is a degree of perception at which what is real and what is imagined are one: a state of clairvoyant observation, accessible or possibly accessible to the poet or, say, the acutest poet.
And The Necessary Angel:
The philosopher proves that the philosopher exists. The poet merely enjoys existence …. Kant says that the objects of perception are conditioned by the nature of the mind as to their form. But the poet says, whatever it may be, “la vie est plus belle que les idées.” This is a bit of a summary, and also somewhat of a simplification of the process, but for Kant, appearance and consciousness meet via the imagination (as opposed to thought) to form “perception.” The point (degree of perception) at which the real and the imagined can be “one” (the same thing?) is where the poem seeks to go, but it is also the point at which ideas must fall away.
MC: I do feel that Stevens wanted his poems to be flourishes of imagination at the threshold of perception, but I don’t think they are. I think they are very very good embellishments on ideas of perception rather than perceptions themselves.
SS: Maybe I’d say the inverse—Stevens wanted his poems to be flourishes of perception at the threshold of imagination. It seems the imagination is more of a constant for him, and perception something we move in and out of, and glimpse from a distance and then only briefly. We can’t see ourselves seeing or hear ourselves listening, or taste ourselves tasting, etc.
MC: I’m happy with the way you describe Stevens as well! I don’t know that it changes the constitutional dilemma, if there is one: the difference between doing and knowing. I mean I’m not particularly worried by what a poem is and what it isn’t to a degree. I like its uncanniness, its coming close and drifting away from what it might or might not be.
It is as if we are uncovering rather than manufacturing at times. I agree that the poem is the event of engagement. Poems and reading are, simply put, part of my environment.
I suppose I feel less excited about the poetry world per se. I have a sense that there’s a huge contemporary arena and it doesn’t feel like I want in. That sounds a bit churlish, but it is a matter of trusting one’s enthusiasms. It’s probably why I’m painting more these days. I like talking through ideas with my students. But I’ve only so much energy for being part of the wider world. I’d rather go for a walk with my son than attend a conference.
SS: That’s probably why you came to mind immediately when I was approached about this Conversant project. I, too, would often rather go on a walk then go to a big conference. Sometimes I worry I am setting myself up to become even more reclusive—on my little plot of land on the outskirts of an already small town. But then I realize how deliberate this has made me about what I do attend, and that feels right. And I have poet friends here who I can talk to daily.
MC: I live so far away from society, and it strikes me that I must prefer it. I am sociable, though here I don’t have poet friends per se. Students. Past and present. And perhaps I have books. So the walks I take with poets are of a different order. Wordsworth hikes the hills, Dorothy and William. John Clare studies the hedgerows. Whitman is lazying in a hot spring. Herrick is marveling at the promiscuity of dancing youth. Keats is really already looking past the sunset.
I hope we take a walk together soon. To continue a walk together.