Thursday, September 18, 2008

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Table of Contents

Interview with Crag Hill (January 2005)

Interview with Thomas Fink (January 2005)

Interview with Nick Piombino (February 2005)

Interview with Sheila E. Murphy by Thomas Fink (March 2005)

Interview with Eileen R. Tabios (April 2005)

Interview with Jukka-Pekka Kervinen by Mark Young (May 2005)

Interview with K. Silem Mohammad (June 2005)

Interview with Geof Huth by Crag Hill & Ron Silliman (July 2005)

Interview with Barbara Jane Reyes & Paolo Javier by Eileen R. Tabios (September 2005)

Interview with Stephen Paul Miller by Thomas Fink (October 2005)

Interview with Jean Vengua (January 2006)

Interview with Mark Young (January 2006)

Interview with Michael Heller by Thomas Fink (January 2006)

Interview with Bob Grumman by Geof Huth (January 2006)

Interview with Shanna Compton (February 2006)

Interview with Sandy McIntosh by Thomas Fink (March 2006)

Interview with Jim McCrary (April 2006)

Interview with Gary Sullivan (May 2006)

Interview with Aldon Lynn Nielsen (May 2006)

Interview with Michael Farrell by Richard Lopez (June 2006)

Interview with CA Conrad (August2006)

Interview with Anny Ballardini (May 2006)

Interview with Denise Duhamel & Nick Carbo by Thomas Fink (September 2006)

Interview with Jack Kimball (September 2006)

Interview with Geoffrey Young by Thomas Fink (September 2006)

Interview with Jordan Stempleman (January 2007)

Interview with Ernesto Priego (January 2007)

Interview with Catherine Daly by Thomas Fink (February 2007)

Interview with Karri Kokko (February 2007)

Interview with Jill Jones (March 2007)

Interview with Javant Biarujia by Sheila E. Murphy (April 2007)

Interview with Barry Schwabsky (May 2007)

Interview of Peter Ganick by Sheila E. Murphy (June 2007)

Interview with Joseph Lease by Thomas Fink (August 2007)

Interview with Stephen Vincent (August 2007)

Interview with Alan Davies (September 2007)

INTERVIEW WITH NOAH ELI GORDON by Thomas Fink (October 2007)

Interview with Mary Rising Higgins by John Tritica and Bruce Holsapple (January 2008)

Interview with Jessica Grim (January 2008)

Interview with Tom Mandel by Sheila Murphy (January 2008)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Interview with Tom Mandel by Sheila Murphy

This interview with poet Tom Mandel was conducted in two phases – Spring 1998 and Winter 2007-8.

The first phase focuses on Absence Sensorium, the book-length poem written collaboratively from 1993-1995 by Tom Mandel and Daniel Davidson, working via email and phone calls. Dan committed suicide in 1997 as the book was going to press.

Absence Sensorium comprises 526 seven-line stanzas; each line is either 7 or 11 syllables. The form is Spanish, called a silva, and was used by Luis Góngora, among others. Published by Potes & Poets, Absence Sensorium is available from Small Press Distribution .

The second phase of the interview began in late 2007 after the publication of Tom’s most recent book To the Cognoscenti.

SM: What aesthetic traditions most directly influenced the making of Absence Sensorium?

TM: I wanted to write a long poem with a peripatetic feel, sort of "let me walk you through my experience," and had been reading Dante and some other long Renaissance poems as a way of thinking about the project. In one of Góngora’s long poems I found a verse form called the silva and suggested it to Dan. We experimented with it and found that it was both extensible, as I'd thought it would be, and also ample enough to contain two minds, as I'd hoped would prove to be the case.

On the other hand, although AS is above all a poem of history, it was not influenced by Pound's idea of a "poem with history." Starting with the old verse form we chose, AS seems to *reach back* to root itself, rather than rooting itself in a method or theoretical position. But in the poem tradition plays a role of innovation; the gestures invoke or employ tradition, but are not traditional.

SM: I'd be interested to learn your perception of AS in relation to other long, meditative or exploratory poems or poem sequences you value. With this in mind, what particular aspects of AS seem to you unique?

TM: AS is at once autobiographical and "investigative," to borrow a word I heard Steve McCaffery use when he was visiting a few weeks ago. I don't think that's unique but it seems somewhat unusual among recent long poems. To the degree that the poem poses questions of poetics they are asked about (and of) the object of the poem rather than its form or structure or its status as discourse. This too seems unusual, maybe it's a matter of degree.

What's unique of course is the collaboration. Reading our work, Dan and I often could not remember which of us had written a particular section. Our contributions fused in the poem's crucible, yet as we wrote it seemed quite dialectical, often it felt as if we were as much contesting as considering. Contesting the object. This led us to treat the present as history -- a traditional and even prophetic stance for the poet? -- to return to your first question.

SM: AS seems very immediate in its engagement with a myriad of details reflecting both your and Dan's read on the present tense. These details spiral into stories, political statements, lamentations, dialogues, chants, foretelling, even prayer. Did the "frame" of the selected form feel large enough or broad enough to include all that your minds sought to bring in to the work?

TM: The form was a stable element in what was an unstable act, as all collaboration is and ought to be unstable. We were able to challenge each other, to encourage, object, cajole, demand. Surprisingly, we kept on responding. The result was - probably inevitably - a poem that in a way is in cantos, though they are not foregrounded. What I mean is that we addressed each other in the writing, drawing a picture or telling a story to convey something one to the other, and these work like cantos, contained episodes along a path of the poem. Obviously, this is not the real meaning of the word, but I'm thinking of the narrative function of a canto in Dante, for example. Given that, the formal frame of stanza and line was a known, even a comfort, setting off into whatever came next.

SM: Where/how does AS factor into your own development as a writer?

TM: That'll become clearer as time passes. I'm just starting another long poem and it most definitely takes off from AS.

SM: How does AS seem to factor into prior or other work by Dan Davidson?

TM: To speak simply and frankly, as I must speak of my lost friend, Dan was immensely proud of AS. To speak of his work, on the other hand, I think that may be beyond me. His death still seems like the present moment, like Dan now, something very hot for which I've found an insulated carrier but cannot put down, hoping for a time to come when I can unwrap it, handle it, feel and think it through.

A few words, all the same. From my first read of Product, Dan's work seemed to me to define and occupy obsessively an analytic solitude, a subject whose sole object was the social. His work had force and scale in its abutment to the social, which it pushed and that way knew. An interest in interacting with the solitude I felt in Dan drew me to our collaboration. AS seemed to recoup other qualities in his person; I found myself thinking for example that he might be ready to play music again - he'd been a musician and song-writer for some years, but not during the time I knew him. I remember once sitting in his room, monastico-leftism-mess, and he picked up an acoustic guitar and began to improvise a fluent beautiful music. I hadn't known even that he played, and it was a shock.

SM: What is most important about AS as to the genre to which the piece belongs, to your and Dan's work, and to you personally?

TM: "To be human is to be a variant" - where did I read that recently? What I like about AS, and want from poetry now, that I read and that I write, is variance and room for variance. AS is a phenotype that holds the genotype in judgment.

SM: Let's talk about the format selected for AS. Is there significance in the length of stanzas and the syllabics of the lines, or were these choices made arbitrarily?

TM: Not arbitrary, although I'd thought of the silva as a seven-line stanza, wrongly as it turns out. The other day I looked it up in the Princeton Encyclopedia for the first time. It's a verse form wherein each line contains either seven or eleven syllables but strophic breaks can occur freely. So I'd misconstrued it. But the number seven is not arbitrary it is immensely significant, even perfect. And eleven is a variant on seven. Yet, when you repeat something you are applying it and you are changing it. That is, a world arises, particular not formal, which also changes the formal device, adaptively one hopes. As the rabbis used to say, "to the wise a hint is sufficient."

SM: Was this poem created with any preconception relative to its length?

TM: Dan and I had written a couple of earlier collaborations, short poems just for fun - to see what would happen, that is. We wrote a sestina and a villanelle. So it seemed natural to stretch out. We quickly found that we had a large project on our hands. But we did not want to establish a set number of stanzas, the regularity of line and stanza length seemed enough. AS ends with the 526th stanza. That is, at a certain point we felt it was time to end it and we did something to bring it to an end.

SM: Were PROSPECT OF RELEASE and AS written concurrently? How would you compare these works in terms of focus, aesthetic contribution, process and direction?

TM: I finished Prospect of Release in 1992, and Dan and I began AS about a year later. They are very difficult works to compare, quite different. In AS the stanza form is used to propel the work. In Release the variant-sonnet is used to contain the individual unit of the work. I use a sonnet form in Release which I've never seen elsewhere, the stanzas are of 4, 3, 3, and 4 lines in that order, a form that reads as balanced and internal - unbreakable even armored. But repeated lines, phrases, words throughout Release propel the thought, the single, variant, broken thought that is thinking into, through and out the work. I could never write another poem like Prospect of Release, because it is as unique as that single thought. But I could write another poem like AS, despite the fact that its conditions were unique and my collaborator dead.

SM: What thematic currents in AS seem most important to you?

TM: I think I want to ask you that question. What themes stand out for you?

SM: I'm very interested in learning your perceptions about collaboration as an aesthetic possibility for writing. There seems to be growing interest in the practice of collaboration. Can you speculate as to what is behind this? Clearly, you and Dan have brought collaboration to new heights with AS.

TM: Collaboration is deep in all human making and doing, of course. It's great for it to become more of a possibility in poetry. My generation of poets is known in part for its effort to de-establish the "I" from its authoritative and even monarchical position in the poem, and of course collaboration does that directly.This revolution against the “I” is repeated, as the coup so often merely remodels the ego's throne room in the name of a revolution that in retrospect seems one of taste rather than poetics (viz. Surrealism).

I find it hard to sustain an interest in the theoretical discourse behind this effort. I was raised on philosophy, and I don’t see critical theory as having much of a grasp on its object, let alone the ability to re-frame it. That sounds sort of arrogant; others may view the matter differently. Perhaps I just don’t find critical theory useful to me as a poet.

In fact, thinking about the "I" in any form - sovereign, exploded, evasive, missing, etc. – strikes me as a boring mystery, somehow a way to imagine that the corner one has written oneself into and must write oneself out of is somehow more interesting than the object itself. Nope.

Perhaps the theoretical work of the last decade on complexity and emergence will open a bigger window on the processes by which poems are written and communicate, than what passes for critical theory, or Theory capitalized, or poetics as we have it, or whatever. But, I should *write about* this rather than make these kinds of pronunciamentos, and I don't have the time to do that writing, so . . .

. . . I'll say some more about collaboration. In the case of AS, collaboration with Dan turned out to be dangerous, as we entered into a deep and entangled dialogue and then my interlocutor killed himself. I have found it difficult to disentangle my spirit from this loss.

SM: A number of the following questions relate to thematic instances, stemming from your asking me about what themes stand out for me.

SM: Throughout AS, there exists the sense that experience consists of a "pileup" of present tenses that eventually comprise a history, fluid in character and laden with differently shaped "rules." At some point, there is a reference made to glass breaking into slivers that soon after do not show. Over time, things change, gestures evolve, and the remainder is transformed, sometimes to the point of imperceptibility. Quoting another passage, "An accurate picture of the inner world/ finely sifted over seven hundred years/ of plasticity, invention and pleasure/ fell to nothing in a day." And from another, "The present is the perfect rebuttal/ and is the easiest to apply. The past/ is completed before the plaster has dried." Would you address the issue of present tense, history, and experience?

TM: The first lines you quote are mine. In the second passage, which was written by Dan, I notice for the first time the play on grammatical tenses: present perfect, past complete (as in compound past tense, or the passé composé tense in French).

The view of history I inherit, and I think it's "our" view of history now, derives from Walter Benjamin's famous image of the angel of history before whose eyes the past piles up as wreckage. This image is an isomorph of Benjamin's statement that "every great act of civilization is also a great act of barbarism," which I know I'm not quoting quite accurately here.

It is important to think radically the meaning of these passages from Benjamin -- to think with them rather than about them.

The antinomian endgame Benjamin's vision implies, thoroughly motivated by the twentieth century he witnessed, must be absorbed well beyond an identification of the evidence for its truth in Benjamin's time and in ours. It is not enough, in other words, to bracket what humans have done in history in an ethical category of revulsion, to make it into the other human 'We,' of which we are only formally a part -- the Nazis, the church, the Chicago police. It has to be faced in the present tense, and the present tense is 'We' in a realer sense. It's Tom Mandel, it's Dan Davidson, it's Sheila Murphy; reader, it's you.

Not enough either to ignore or suppress the experience, the grammar, of intellectual and imaginative transformation which enters our lives from all that's happening with technology in our time. AS couldn't have been written without computers and email. This interview ditto.

In saying this I'm anticipating the end of the poem with its extended meditation on participation and resistance and its focus on what we make now, which though it seem the future is another past. In AS, the question of history immediately poses that of the individual, twinned in this telling but still the individual. How does the teller bear the tale he makes and tells? Experience in AS is a question posed. What I do rises up and asks me what it is I do. I'm not making the future but the past; what do I make?

We don't have available to us a level to which we can rise for resolution, as, at least formally lets say, Dante did. Or, we do, but we are aware of its evasiveness.

I like to think of the phrase "Grant unto Caesar that which is Caesar's," for example, on which so much of Christianity depends, that division of the world. I like to remember how easy especially Roman Christianity found it to cover in the dark the distance created in the daylight of this phrase. And I like to remember that these words are a moment in a centuries-long dialogue among the rabbis of the early centuries about how to view Rome. Without Rome, the rabble would destroy us Jews or the Egyptians would, one of them says. So instead the Romans destroy us? another replies. The issue cannot be resolved, but somewhere in the Talmud a prayer is repeated, somewhat humorously and altogether seriously, "that the eye of the policeman not fall on me." But, it did.

SM: One of the primary issues I derive from this book concerns privacy and communion, which could be turned and seen as privacy IN communion. One line, "Approach is easy, access indecisive" seems at least distantly related to this aspect of AS. When communion is referenced in the book, the sense is of a difficult, demanding one, imbued with a sense of its own unlikelihood. Could you say more about communion as related to AS?

TM: I think it's community or communication but not communion. Whatever else AS is it is a dialogue between two very different individuals and in that dialogue we repeatedly model but also miss the difficult acts of communication and building (or accepting) community which seem so critical in a world where very very little is of that form. The great value of poetry now is in modeling ways in which an individual creating form engages, in however demanding a way, the community we build on communication. What you are seeing as 'unlikelihood' - I think that difficulty is rather how critical such communication is.

The community we need and model in poetry is not like created, objectified culture - e.g. canon, value, meaning. It is like the communication among ants who by that communication span the distance between two branches (or roots) which otherwise would seem to be impossibly apart.

SM: Memory seems to function as a device for survival, a gradually depreciating supply of itself. On one level, memory (an arbitrary construct?) seems self-validating, either artificially or with some value. How do you perceive memory in AS?

TM: The questions you've been asking in this session turn me into a philosopher, and I'm not a philosopher, or rather I'm very given to philosophy but I hope I'm a better poet than a philosopher. Still, they are good questions, but I experience a struggle between answers that have to do with our intention and those in which I'm a reader of the poem. I don't know which are which or which are more useful.

In a notebook last year, I doodled out part of a song that went:

"'I remember, I remember.'
Memory says – the great pretender,

Claims it happened, it really was
One way or the other, and all because

It seems so in my head today
As present (presence) passes my way."

If memory is an artifice or construct - tho I think actually it is a form of adaptation - it is nonetheless of inexhaustible supply and not self-validating but a kind of glue to bind something problematic to something else which is posed as a known. That's the way it works in AS I think - and here I am answering as a reader, not providing insight into an intention - but the collaborative process gave the poets the opportunity each to question what might be a fixed value in another's words, so there is a lot of fluidity in the position memory occupies.

SM: As AS progresses toward the final (approximately) quarter of the book, there seems a buildup of intensity, wherein explorations from earlier in AS concerning present tense, history, communion, and survival confront contemporary life. The imperative of self protection intersects with politics and a larger, perhaps more threatening, picture. A fundamental solitude that permeates AS seems especially true here. Quoting again, "how to guard/our silence from an alien ear" and "No adjustment of your set is possible" seem also apt. I sense that we are looking at politics and life as spun from a great distance. Can you respond?

TM: The buildup of intensity in AS seems to me to be exactly the intensity of the poem experienced at a point where you have already read a lot of the poem, where you have a lot of the poem to bring to the later part you are reading. I'm interested in the phrase you use: "politics and life as spun from a great distance." I think that corresponds to an intention deep in the poem; the object of the poem seems to arrive as if from a great distance and with a lot of torque or spin on it. How to deal with its object, the poem itself what must it say and be? - it was very demanding.

Let me illustrate this point with a story: I had a curious experience once at a concert of the San Francisco symphony with pianist Charles Rosen, who played Schoenberg's piano concerto, an angular, harmonically-demanding work in two movements. Laura Davies Hall, like many modern orchestral halls, features a curving section of seats behind the orchestra. During the concert, a man in one of these seats, no more than a hundred feet from the piano, and seemingly right in Rosen’s view, began to twitch violently. Soon he was flailing his limbs in a mounting frenzy which seemed to be not just attuned to the music but a part of it, a strange dance to Schoenberg's music.

The seats around him were empty; his troubles went on for a long time. But, shortly before the end of the concerto, a couple of men slipped into the section where he was seated and helped him leave. I learned later that the man was an epileptic, and that he had recovered from the fit that had come upon him during the concert.

As it happened, I met Charles Rosen a few years later in Chicago and asked him about this strange event; what had it been like to play Schoenberg as it were accompanied by an epileptic fit?

Rosen recalled the concert, but in his concentration on the music and his musical collaborators, he had noticed nothing of what I described to him. It was news to him, strange and shocking.

SM: The book posits an ongoing tension between "participation and resistance" in human existence. Would you address this?

TM: A tension and an identity, or at least the need and the attempt to keep both active, an attempt that can fail. Yes this theme is at the heart of Absence Sensorium, a theme that can never be resolved.

SM: Your comments about variance and room for variance stimulate another question: Do you judge form in light of its capacity to generate variance?

TM: Yes, exactly. The variance and the variants a form spawns. And at a given time, any form may be productive in that way (e.g. our use of the silva in Absence Sensorium). For this reason the debate about form and formalism – 'experimental' poetry vs. 'conventional' poetry – seems misplaced to me. Experimental poetry can be as minimally variant, as indistinguishable from its sources and its neighbor-poems, as so-called conventional poetry.

Somewhere in A Poetics, for example, Charles Bernstein points out that many personal poems of memory, personal apotheoses, are like each other. I.e. far from being “personal” they reproduce conventional tropes; they’re pretty much all the same despite their stress on the uniqueness of the moment and of personal memory.

He’s right; it’s a valid critique, and I agree with him. Often you can't tell one of these poems from another, and you could interleave lines from one “unique” experience into another and little would change.

But, right or wrong, the critique reproduces exactly the one his opposite number, writing from the traditional camp, usually says about 'experimental' or 'formally-demanding' poetry. "It claims all to be individual but you can't tell one from another!"

The remark is itself a rhetorical trope. You can apply the critique itself invariantly. It says and means nothing.

I stand with what Osip Mandelstam writes: "an artist considers his world-view a tool and an instrument, like a hammer in the hands of a stonemason, and his only reality is the work of art itself." A stonemason doesn't waste time talking about his hammer, all new and different.

SM: The words "Everything survives its end" seem particularly painful, given the circumstances following the completion of the book. Perhaps more hopeful, "What will replace thought" calls into question the centrality and eternal nature of that kernel of existence? Can you comment?

TM: Perhaps instead we should see "Everything survives its end" as hopeful. I don't know. I wish what we wrote had a message. It does. I wish people could get the message. Well they can. I wish poetry could make a difference. It must make a difference, and perhaps it will. Perhaps it has. It does.

SM: I'm very interested in your comments about what I consider a syndrome of disguised mimicry, wherein certain practices are anointed "new," while their predecessors are branded as "old." Students especially may gravitate toward a passkey approach to writing, in an effort to sort "the good" from "the dross." This is probably de facto a process of secretly having a canon. In fact, *competence* (a writer's ability to work effectively in a form) seems a more pertinent issue in this case, certainly moreso than style. You've indicated that some distinctions are at least inappropriate and misfocused. Issues of *making* are more central. Could you talk about what you consider the most important aspects of *making*, as applied to AS?

TM: To orient yourself in any facet of life, you have to read signals in the environment. The most prominent ones are in essence indicators of what we might call "fashion." They tell you something about the subject at hand, but mostly they tell you whether it is in favor and in what ways. Until you are a fair way down the road and have gone through this orientation and reorientation many times, how can you know the significance - even the status - of this set of orientation signals? You can't, that's why you need them in the first place.

So, things may seem new which are not new; things may seem valuable which are maybe less so than you think. Other phenomena, especially those which are not assertively connected to the dialectic of fashion, may escape your notice altogether at first. And the social structure of the intellectual landscape may be invisible.

Maybe the problem is the lack of a canon, rather than that there’s a secret one, if it’s not too strange for an avantardist like me to call for a canon. Something to push against. Canons tell lies of course; they orient you – and they make possible the disorientation in which real ideas begin. So we need those little signals and we need to recognize them and drop them.

In conversation many years ago, Ron Silliman described us all as having constellations of figures (poets) in our minds and we orient ourselves and our work by these constellations. When you are young, the constellations consist of older poets and their work. As time passes, the points on these schemata begin to be occupied by one's own work the work of peers. That’s a really helpful way to look at it.

The past really does seem fixed, like the heavens which we can’t avoid seeing as already made rather than in the making. And, if you can't escape the sense that there is a fixed issue of form in poetry, wherein gradations of value inhere, you are in trouble as a writer. That is why we have nth generation NY or Language poets and even surrealists.

People like their expectations fulfilled. But new poetry should confound readers’ expectations. It should create new expectations. It’s a hard problem. The American “experimental” tradition is, by now, a pretty predictable phenomenon. But, then, poetry is always in a crisis and coming out of it.

SM: The awareness of active readership as a concept seems to be gaining momentum. At this meeting place of the writers, their work, and the reader, what are (at least) *some* of the important aspects that a *reader* must bring to the gathering?

TM: There are many kinds of reading of course. We don't read a new work of writing in the same way we read even a modern literary work with an established place of some kind in our culture. We don't read Tom Raworth the way we read Sam Beckett; nor read Jean Day the way we read Tom Raworth for that matter.

In fact, how useful is the word "read?" really. I read the sports section; I read Thomas Bernhard; I read a review of a new recording of Nielsen's 6th symphony; I read the distance to Lewes DE on a roadsign. Stopping for lunch, I read the name of the restaurant, the menu, then, while waiting for my salad, I read a new poem Doug Lang just gave me.

Active reading refers to what happens after I read, and that makes me re-read perhaps.

When I read Jane Austen, it's like looking at someone across the table from me. All of the work is facing me and I it, and I'm trying to figure it out. But, when I read Jane Austen, it's like being shoulder to shoulder with someone very far away, and we are looking not at each other but at a shared scene, and she is opening shaping defining teasing that scene for me; or we are collaborating to figure that world out we're both facing.

So what you bring to reading is what you bring to finding your way to Lewes DE, picking lunch from a menu, caring a lot what your friend has put on the page, sensing your place in the world from the writing acts in it undertaken by a close contemporary.

SM: Your remark, "A stonemason doesn't waste time talking about his hammer," prompts me to ask what you believe would be a useful exercise for students hoping to write, either alone or collaboratively.

TM: On seeing the work of Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes is said to have remarked: "I durst not speak so freely." I don't know whether my sense of what a starting writer should do is of a kind to be welcomed.

I notice that you frame the question as about "students hoping to write." But, my first advice is to stop being a student. Stay away from schools (especially graduate schools) of creative writing or poetics, above all. Believe that the new is what doesn't yet exist rather than what was just announced.

Move to a large city where you can be anonymous and hang around with the most interesting people you can find. Fill your mind with exceptions. Take seriously what people think is trivial. See if you can reconstruct a baseball game from a box score.

SM: In consideration of the type of experience that AS is, I'm wondering about the way time factored into the making of AS. Was the project "slow and steady" or were there pauses between segments? Were there points at which you needed to halt the work and clear the slate, or did it progress at an intense pace?

TM: There were some slowdowns relating to life issues of availability for the work, and there were other periods of really intense communication. Overall, however, it always had momentum. It was never on the back burner but always the current project for both Dan and me.

SM: (Your story of the Charles Rosen concert is rich and offers infinite possibilities. Sometimes when focusing on a particular historical situation, I find myself awakening to layer upon layer of realization of the significances from multiple viewpoints, in addition to sensing several adjustments resulting from the positioning of these viewpoints in time. There is no complete story.)

TM: Or none that is not complete, or there for us to complete. Situating event in context to purpose about describes every waking moment.

SM: Would you discuss the issue of access as related to AS? It seems that this work would be reachable (at least to some degree—impossible to project another person's ability to grasp) to individuals not already steeped in literary theory and contemporary poetics. Like other work of yours, this book offers the reader a way into the outer reaches, if the reader is willing to go. But there are ways in, in any case. Is this important to you, and is it conscious, or just the way the work evolved?

TM: I deeply hope you don't need to have studied literary theory or poetics to read my work! Poetry determines theory not the opposite. I use my own reading in - penchant for - philosophy (I really don't like the word theory and am glad to see that it is fading from use) and theology in just the way I use my experience of the quotidian world and other more formal interests.

I need to know some math and physics to write, because I need them to understand the world, and I can't write without some understanding of the world. I need to know something of the history of writing to write, because this history is necessary to the development of vision and technique, necessary in other words - like physics and math – in order to have something to say.

All of writing is about having something to say. Otherwise there are more rewarding ways to spend your time than spilling words on a page. Unless by so doing you reach practical goals like being published, winning a grant, getting invited to the conference, or getting tenure. There is nothing whatever wrong with these goals, they're normal issues of professional advancement, the exact equivalents of being promoted at GM or made partner in the law firm. They have of course nothing to do with writing, with poetry.

Somewhere Max Weber refers to two ways to communicate. By explanation and by example. A poet has to do both.

There is an ineluctable value for articulation in writing; however it may be counterbalanced by other needs and interests it never departs wholly and usually leaves a way to get to it (a sign or map of itself) at the heart of a piece of writing, however complex in form, that comes to have value for readers, for people. Perhaps the path in a work that leads to articulation takes the reader to as you call them "the outer reaches." Certainly, I could not know that about my own work or make such a claim for it.

But articulation does lead to the person writing being a whole and offering an example. What we call poetics is a section of a discourse that may lead along this path. Often, the wholeness or articulation or "something to say" is not visible in the piece of discourse we examine as poetics or theory. This does not mean it is absent, though it does mean that we may find ourselves misled by such a piece of thought. We may find ourselves devoted to the facts of truncation rather than those of implication.

People want what concludes a sense of meaning and shores up a sense of self. Just as they want a template for what is "good" writing and "new writing" even though this is by definition unavailable, so they want what I just lumped together in the phrase "some practical goal."

Our natures lead us to frame whatever is before us as the legitimate object of desire. A male pigeon courts a female pigeon, does his display. Absent a female pigeon, he will court another male. Absent these, he will court your shoes or a crack in the sidewalk. People are not significantly different in this regard.

SM: Do you think of a "composite third person" as the author of AS, or would you prefer to think of the situation in a different way? I'm interested in hearing about the development of the writing presence that created AS.

TM: I think of myself as the author of AS, and I think of Dan as the author of AS. I don't have a third thought which seeks to resolve these two. The second of the thoughts I have in an incalculably and irrevocably and annoyingly different way than ever I would have imagined. Think how much fun it would have been if you'd been able to interview Dan and me, and we'd been able to collaborate on being interviewed. Think of what a great human experience that would have been. Dan can't have that experience, and he has denied it to me. Infuriatingly, he denied me the chance even to say, "Dan - wake up! Don't forego the great experience that will come." Hence, I must say it now and here, and it must mean something totally different from what it would have meant to shout it in his living ear.

SM: To what extent were you thinking of a hypothetical reader as you wrote AS? Was the reader for you Dan, or Dan and others? Or no one in particular?

TM: Dan was the first reader for what I wrote - very much in the way one usually occupies the first reader position for oneself. And vice versa of course. His responses - in the form of what he did next on the book - took the place of lets say rewriting of which there is almost none in AS (save corrections). I at least had no hypothetical reader in mind. Dan was "in mind" but not as a reader as the writer, as in other words, another version of myself I guess.

SM: To what extent have you participated as a reader of AS? What are some of the things you've learned from reading it? As you read the work now, (how) has the work changed?

TM: That is a wonderful and difficult question. In a way, it asks "how have you changed?" as much as how has the work changed. I don't think I have a good answer right now. Perhaps I'll find my way back to the question as we go along here.

SM: If you were to project ten years into the future, what difference do believe the Internet will have made in developing communication toward "the community we build on communication"? Would you be willing to share how it feels to you to use the Internet for communication? (How) is it different from other ways?

TM: To project even two years into the future of the current transformation is impossible, let alone a decade! It's obvious what the limitations of the net are as social space, community space. Range of activity and expression are very limited; emotional range is really shallow; spontaneity hardly exists at all. There is no real social development without that people give to it with all their faculties and the net just doesn't have a way to accept most of what people are able to do.

That said, it's pretty extraordinary what happens between and among people even now. With a large number of people around the world my relations have changed immensely, deepened and become more significant, because of e-mail. And the Web offers people a pretty rich context for prepared communication and a context for spontaneous group communication which is...improving - that's the best I can say! As you know, I'm involved in this stuff, specifically in creating tools for open social space online. We have a long way to go.

Some tools and technologies are available; lots more are needed. One certain thing, at the point at which we really can experience social space online, we won't be thinking about the Internet, anymore than you now think about the telephone network when you call a friend. Dial tone, ring, busy signal - we don't experience these as technologies but as facts about the world.

Interviewer’s Note: The following segment of the interview began in the autumn of 2007.

SEM: Tom, your new book, To the Cognoscenti appeared a few months ago. As you reflect upon your own work over the past 30 years, what emphases or changes seem most important to you now?

TM: That period – 30 years ago; the mid-late seventies – is on my mind these days, because of writing The Grand Piano. I suppose I’m quite a different person from the one back then, although others would know better than I.

I imagine I began by thinking about poetry and then about people who wrote poetry; I don’t think about these subjects very much any more. I think about poems, and I think about poets. Seems quite different to me.

A poet is the intention of a poem. Over time, as one becomes one’s own biggest influence – or rather one’s experience does – the work gives up particularity for a greater individuality, becoming more like a body of water, a meadow, a desert of sand than it is like a cityscape or even a dwelling.

In that sense, my work of thirty years ago has changed – perhaps more than I have. Recently, while writing a piece for the GP, I reread a long poem I wrote in 1978 or ‘79 called Some Appearances. It ends

The stairs had been carpeted one by one
We perceive the object riddled with its error
Senseless parallels along which we padded
Now tell me your theory one more time

SEM: I sense from your response a renewed vitality of the empirical, or at least a questioning of an orphaned sense of theory. Would you comment on the place of experience in your recent thinking?

TM: Sometimes I think of myself as the only member of a literary movement to be called "restlessism." Of course, there may be many members of the school who know nothing of one another because that ignorance is part of what defines it. Still, I lay claim to having founded it.

We do tend, as human beings, to value highly whatever we possess in abundance. When I was young, and my thinking was unimpeded by experience while being propelled by the quick, fresh hardware of youth, I valued theory more highly than I do now that I have an abundance of experience. Now I value experience above all else.

This is true despite the irony as to theory in the poem I just quoted – Some Appearances, written in the '70s. Or perhaps the irony conveys my interest in theory back then. After all, the first thing irony does is assert the phenomenon it ironizes. One could say the same thing about the title of my newest book, To the Cognoscenti. Are there any?

I note that your question associates the empirical and experience – and seems to oppose them to theory. I've just been reading a lovely essay by Deleuze with the title "Immanence: A Life." I think it was the last thing he wrote. It argues for a "transcendental empiricism" not of sensation nor of representation. It is "a [1]qualitative duration of consciousness without a self."

Perhaps this conception allows us to recapture theory and experience in a single frame: the frame of poetry – 'frame' he says, and means a rim of flame. [1]

But, don't you want to ask me where I was born and what I learned from my mother?

SEM: What do you see as (some of) the most exciting aspects of current or recent poetry? Oh, and lest we forget your prompt, what role did your early life play in your writing? :)

TM: Uh oh, now I’m in trouble. I get sent a pretty good number of books, and I try to read as many of them as I can. But, that’s not enough for me to make an intelligent comment without leaving out too much by too many.

Mostly, the names on my reading list would sound like the waiting list for the old folks home.

I suppose my biggest interest in new poetry is that there be new ways for it to reach people. My measure in this regard is a 13-year old in Lahore. How does new writing reach her and how does she reach out for it? The advantage of mainstream media is that, for example, she may be found by e.g. Rae Armantrout’s work because the New York Times reviews it. The disadvantage of the burgeoning academic interest in new poetry (and this is not meant as a critique of ‘the academy’: that’s too easy) is that it expresses itself in contexts that won’t find my 13 year old – in hiding places, institutional endpoints, resting places of reputation.

Why is a 13-year old in Lahore my measure? First off because I’ve met her; I know her. And also because my own relation to poetry was changed by what found me at that age: a Time Magazine article about Ginsberg and the Beats. It led me to the San Francisco Renaissance issue of the Evergreen Review, a volume I bought at a literary bookstore in downtown Chicago back then (I might have been 14) and which I still have on a shelf somewhere.

Blogs help new poetry reach new readers. And, I like to see work that actively uses the compositional and presentation possibilities offered by new technologies. Mimeo, and then affordable printing, transformed literary magazines. We need to extend that further online. Magazines and presses that mimic print online can be useful, but obviously much more than that is possible. I do like Jacket, Fascicle and particularly mark(s) which makes effective use of Flash. But so much more is possible – and needed. So I’m waiting for that and, probably, wondering why I don’t make something myself.

As to my early life, my mother, more about that anon.

SEM: Let’s conclude with some of your early influences and experiences, combined with what advice you might offer to new writers and readers of what we may continue to call innovative writing.

TM: Back to my mother? She wanted me to be a Doctor not a poet. She had been kicked out of medical school in Vienna when the Nazis arrived and had in mind that I would make this right. A few months before she died in the mid-nineties, she got to see my daughter get her MD, so all’s well that ends well.

The first poetry I read was Charles Greenleaf Whittier – is that how you spell his name? – in a book printed during the war on paper that had grown brittle and brown. I was a little kid, sitting behind an arm chair in the living room of my family’s small apartment in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. They had arrived in America only a few years ago; how they came by that book I do not know. I liked the way the words were splayed on the pages and that the brittle pages felt so frail.

My first influences were the beats – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Brother Antoninus. Then I read Eliot, of course, everyone did, and Pound. I was absorptive rather than selective since I didn’t know (or care) what was what. I remember with pleasure the Oscar Williams anthologies of modern poets; I loved the work of Gene Derwood, for example, and I still do – does anyone read her any more? Please do; hmmm, maybe I can drop in a link right there. Yes… there’s Gene Derwood

I was lucky enough to go to the famous Big Table Reading in Chicago in 1959 when I was still a teenager and hear Allen Ginsberg read from Kaddish. Gregory Corso read that afternoon as well, but Kerouac wasn’t there (although I saw and heard him read from On the Road on television! on the Steve Allen show), nor was Burroughs. You can’t have everything – still, why not try?

[1] Mandel, T. To the Cognoscenti. Atelos Press. January, 2007. 47.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Interview with Jessica Grim

Tom Beckett: Where did/does poetry begin for you?

Jessica Grim: I feel trapped and inarticulate approaching a question like this. who cares about biography? everyone? I didn’t read poetry until college, or very little. and then it was bad; I took a couple lit & “creative writing” courses at Humboldt State University in the early 80’s – Jorie Graham and James Galvin were teaching there and I took a course with Galvin. Oddly the passionate connection was from an end-of-career lit prof – I remember him looking out the window with these watery blue eyes, reciting pieces from memory by Shelley & Keats. I’m trying to think about exaltation. maybe that’s because I’m reading Fanny Howe right now. but wanting “discovery” to feel, have felt, exalted…. but guess what. because from here, at nearly 50, the exaltation attending discovery looks hopelessly young to me. I had embarrassingly juvenile experiences with poetry on into my twenties, at SF state (I’d transferred to a place with a “real” creative writing program) where I was taking a class w/Kathleen Fraser on women writers. it’s not that the poems I wrote were horrible certainly not more horrible than anyone else’s at my “level” -- so I guess that’s when – those classes at SF state – poetry began. the classes by the way included short story writing, which I distained based on no particularly good evidence and certainly on very little experience. I remember writing a story, ala Robbe-Grillet, about walking down a mountain road and coming to a deserted town and stepping behind a crumbled wall in a vacant lot and seeing a car drive slowly past. that was the action, the climax, a car moving slowly down the road of this deserted town. so thank god for poetry, right? there was a lot happening in sf at that time, 1984, 85, 86… a lot to take in, a lot to go to. I became involved with Michael Amnasan, and he was hovering around the fringes of the writing scene, forging difficult – which is to say always troubled, always problematic, ever unsettled – connections with some of the Language folks. but going to readings and talks. there were things that had already ended by the time I was starting to be aware of the scene – Perelman’s talks, the grand piano series… but still, there was a lot of vibrancy and intent swirling around. Mid-80’s San Francisco.

In terms of my practice now(adays) it begins infrequently, and rarely where I “left off” unfortunately. It’s rare for me to find the time & space to write, so I tend to start over again each time I write. But my son’s now 8, my partner’s cancer (the pivotal focus of the last year) is officially undetectable, and I’m starting to see the possibility of light in terms of the job I started just a few months ago (after many yrs as a reference librarian I made the move to collection development/mgmt). So maybe that’s all the past & present biography needed?

TB: Let me ask a bit differently, Jessica-- what gets you going? What makes you want to write?

JG: A quiet house, some peace, an awareness of what it is that constitutes – or approximates – equilibrium in my life. Sometimes a flare of anger or disgust or despair relating to situations or occurrences in the world; often times reading. Writing is required, back to the equilibrium thing… I realize I’ve approached the question(s) as if the responses are going to be about external motivators (is the weather right? the temperature? do I have the right cup of tea) which is unfortunately telling. I never have the right god damned cup of tea. Sometimes some okay writing happens anyway.

TB: It's a fact for most of us who write poetry that it all happens in the midst of life without much enablement. I know of no one early on saying to me, "Tom, your future is in literature. Go forth and inspire!" Quite the contrary. I have been disappointing relatives for over 50 years. I say this for comic relief, but also to make the point that this thing of ours (la cosa nostra, if you will) is a life decision which informs the way one sees the world and that it has consequences. What does it mean to you to be a poet? Is there some special responsibility involved?

JG: Once again I want to deflect the question and its suggestions. Too big, too grand, too claim-making. I mean really, a special responsibility? To what or whom, I wonder. But naturally these questions are not as absurd as they at first strike me as being. So assuming I decide to take the questions seriously – only fair, eh? – here’s the rub: I am uneasy thinking about such things right now in light of my “decreased output” as a poet in recent years, and my decreased (nearly to nil) engagement with writing community(ies). If I want to think about what it means to me to be a poet I’ve got first to recall that I am one (please excuse the melodrama). Let’s assume I can do that. Through writing I express – attempt to express – this existence I know. I express that existence because it is not enough to live it. It feels very small simply to live it in fact. Dailiness happens and the range of occurrences, thoughts, emotions, interaction attending – or making up – the dailiness is, well, compartmentalized and let’s face it often wholly mundane. Work life, family life, life with friends. Meaning is there of course but it all slides on through. The writing I do – the poems I write – do not create an entirely different meaning exactly, nor a meaning that is particularly imbued with a “higher” understanding of or approach to this existence I am in. But distinct I’d say, in some fairly dramatic ways, from the meaning created and lived in the dailiness. If the writing is working well there are connections that occur there that do not occur otherwise, at least not in my experience of daily life. And yet obviously those connections wholly refer to and are engaged with the mundane living I do. The pleasure I find in writing is the pleasure of the surprise, often, of creating something in the juxtaposition of words/phrases/sentences (even) and sounds that twists in just such a way. It’s a screened record, really. But one that feels “true”, to me. To how I think about the world and respond to it. This was the existence that I was in, that I created for myself as a human, with all the composite elements of what I was “handed” and what I made. It sits alongside. The responsibility is to myself – to create this parallel line which is my writing and which carries with it a response to my life’s days. I do think of a future reader in my son – which is probably pretty bankrupt. He may have very little interest (in some imagined future) in how his mother understood the world, or very little patience for getting to that through reading. Is that odd, I mean in the sense of unusual, I wonder, to write for my kid. In some measure. I suppose that looks a lot like responsibility of a kind too. The notion of consequences is interesting. I find myself thinking “if only” – if only I’d written to the detriment of something, against my -or anyone else in my lifes’ - better judgment. Hm.

TB: When I think of your writing I think of your preoccupations with physical location and with description. In your book Locale there’s a poem I’m fond of called “It/Ohio.” It begins so:

Because I’m afraid to fight

my heart ticks in my leg.

The poem is immediately anchored in a sense of bodily anticipation.

Would you talk a bit about how you came to write this poem and what was at stake for you in it?

JG: It was written in the first months I’d moved to Ohio (from SF, most immediately- but in any case I’d pretty much lived in urban circumstances up to that point). Amidst a fairly thick sense of alienation and a general condition of being stunned by this move I’d made. I was trying to negotiate with myself this thing I’d done -- packed my stuff and driven out in a truck, to take this job I’d applied for on something of a whim…

Ohio – what a great word! But here I was living in it. In a liberal arts college town that felt stiflingly conservative socially. Political progressives packaged up in nuclear families… and they all seemed to go to church! So landscape as escape. The flat, “uninteresting” landscape. Pretty much devoid of topographical noise, at least here in the NE of the state. Getting on my bicycle and riding out into the cornfields on these country roads was a kind of acting out, a bodily, as you suggest, reliance upon the power of landscape to ease my way. I was mourning in particular the sense of anonymity I’d always enjoyed. I was pretty pissed actually. I moved in August – it was hot, and it was humid, and there were cicadas. I could be interested in the physicality of these things; I could observe them, and judge them, and decide upon their narrowness… which was of course my rage at the narrowness of the humanity I’d smacked myself up against and annoyance at myself for having done that. I felt cowardly somehow, in the encounter. As if my inability to assert myself and my “singular” values, my inability to impress myself upon this community – instead sending myself out into its hot still loneliness… was a failure. But I could take something of all of this for myself, for my sensibility… I could cruise around on the roads dividing the acres of soy from the acres of corn… and notice some things about the sky and things about the bird and animal life… and then write those. When I’d only been in Ohio a few weeks I had one of those unsettling experiences that, because I had no equilibrium at all, became symbolic: I’d awakened in the middle of the night having to pee, and on my way to the bathroom in my still unfamiliar apartment walked right into the edge of a door – so had a kind of serious-looking black eye for a couple weeks. Domestic violence! Ohio smacked me! And this sense of distrust I felt from people around me – no one believes that people from places like New York or San Francisco willingly move to places like Oberlin – and they expect you to leave at any moment. So when you do things like buy a house or “settle down” with someone here – people get all relieved… “so you ARE staying!”. And after 16 yrs I’m one of the people who doesn’t trust that people from places like NY or SF will stay. I think I’ve strayed from “It/Ohio”. I wanted to put Ohio in its place. It was messing with me. And the love/hate relationship continues to thrive today.

TB: Heh. Tell me about it.

The list of innovative writers who left Ohio could go on and on. Hart Crane, Bob Perelman and Juliana Spahr most immediately come to mind.

Recent years have seen a proliferation of blogs, listservs and innovative writing in cyberspace, which has had something of a decentralizing effect in the poetry world(s).It’s now a little easier for innovative poets to operate from Ohio—or, say, Australia, than it once was.

You’ve so far resisted starting a blog. What are your thoughts about this new environment for writing?


At this point in the game becoming a more active participant in that environment as a poet doesn’t hold a lot of interest for me… even if it can, as you suggest, be a way of alleviating the “condition” of isolation which I sometimes whine about. I would rather use my limited writing time & energy in other ways. I find the blog scene interesting enough, and there are a handful of poetry blogs I skim with some regularity-- and projects like ubuweb, which pulls in such an incredible variety of fabulous content, really excite me. Another part for me is that I spend many hours of my work day up to the eyeballs in online communication of various kinds, no choice (and guess what! We have a library blog! And guess what! I feel guilt over not posting to it with enough frequency to make it dynamic and cool!). Another mouth to feed… I was thinking of a kids online “environment” my son & his friends were into a couple years back… kids “buy” a pet – some kind of cute fuzzy cartoon thing – and then they have to feed it, and if they let it languish, it gets all sick and weak. I don’t think it actually dies from neglect… but maybe it could? So, yeah… the intention is to continue my resistance. I kind of revel in the retro on this one. For the time being.

TB: What's at risk for you in a poem?

JG: Pretty much everything? What do I think about, hold important, how do I relate to the world I’m in, how do I pull it in, through language, to do something, anything… What am I capable of, really? It’s funny because when I get into the rare conversation about poetry with someone around here there’s this assumption, a given, that my work is inaccessible. I despise that conversation, yet never seem to have a great comeback. What’s accessibility got to do with squat, I mean I don’t want to talk about my work in terms of who “gets” it, of who it’s “gettable” to. And yet, yeah, just yesterday I had lunch with a poet in the creative writing program here and the topic of my doing a local reading came up… and her assumption was that I’d want to make sure to read with someone who was “more accessible” – so the audience, wouldn’t, what? Hate it? Hate me? But what’s funny of course is that I think of my work as being entirely direct, entirely transparent, and pretty ragged emotionally at times. Which is not to say it’s a walk in the park or something that’s going to lay out the linear stepping stones… but it’s as true to my experience of this life – right now right here where I am – as I can be. Everything is at stake for me then. At the same time that absolutely nothing is – it’s poetry after all.

TB: Who do you think of as your poetic forebears?

JG:Stein's important to me always, in and out of time. And Duras and Leduc, the 20th century French women narrative obsessives. Not that you'd see that in or know that from my work. And of course the west coast folks, Hejinian, Scalapino, Silliman, actually, all really important to me in the 80's when I was first encountering Language stuff. Coolidge I loved. Mine, My Life, Tjanting. Forebears sounds so heavy though, let's just call it all influence. Niedecker, her wondrous brevity.

TB: Could you speak a bit to your process as a poet? How do you approach writing a poem?

JG: For the most part I write in bound notebooks, in which I put somewhat random date markers; I then return to the notebooks -- usually after an "aging" period of 6 mos to a year -- and transcribe into electronic form what I find of interest, or usable. The percentage of the work I find "usable" varies, but roughly 60-70% I'd say. Sometimes there are long dry spells -- both in terms of the actual writing, and in terms of what I find of interest in returning to the writing. And there are also pockets of material, where I'll transcribe many pages almost verbatim. I generally keep the line breaks and other spacing from the handwritten work. I find that the rhythm and pacing as I originally thought them are usually right. Then I have these files of quite rough material -- with "titles" like "trans 10/06-7/07". Sometimes there are discreet sections (a page, several pages) that are "natural" pieces, and I pull them out-- often there's theme involved... stuff written while in certain places or while thinking about certain things, or in response to particular events or circumstances, or around texts I'm reading. On occasion I also write a discreet poem to be that, or where there's no question in my mind that's what it is. Usually, again, longhand in the notebook. I'm not necessarily thrilled with my process -- it seems, well, inefficient -- but I'm resigned to it, and find something about its cumbersomeness comforting.

TB: Why does poetry matter to you?

JG: In terms of the writing it's a singular site for me for exploration, all manner of delving -- be it personal, political, social -- and all manner, by extension, of learning. This'll sound corny but I understand the world and what I'm doing in it better through writing than through any other act, or situation, or encounter. And the encounter with (experience of? consumption of?) the world of texts "out there" - what miniscule piece of it I'm able to find my way to - is and has been life changing. Of course, and always. Transformative texts, reifying texts, troubling texts. How can that "mattering" possibly by articulated? Inarticulate texts...

TB: Is there a text of yours you can point to that came to you as a kind of breakthrough? And if so, could you talk about its occasion and what it came to mean for you?

JG: "Fort Recovery" is a piece about the death - the suicide - of my mother. I don't recall exactly how long after her death it was that I wrote it, but it was a good 6 months at least. It's one of the pieces I mentioned earlier that, uncharacteristic of how I usually work, took on theme/event quite explicitly, and took on sentiment and emotion. It wasn't breakthrough in a radical sense but it reminded me that I did in fact still find useful a direct and emotionally raw "voice"... I wasn't going to bother with my usual critique and self-editing self-consciousness... she jumped off the (god damn as I always seem to say) Golden Gate Bridge, afterall, so who was I to create anything particularly subtle or nuanced out of that? It gave the event, for me, its due dramatic response. Not "healing" mind you, never that, god forbid; but an iteration of (my) agency attaching to an act - a fact - that still these years later haunts me, and can overwhelm.

TB: As a poet, what most concerns and preoccupies you now?

JG: The power & privilege of language - the privilege I reserve for the language of my writing and how that works. The world I'm depositing my kid into -- in broad strokes and then trying to move beyond the guilt and panic of it into something else... or figuring out if that's possible in writing. And how my privileging of language circles back into those very trenchant concerns. Reconnecting with friends & writers I've been out of touch with... I'm very recently back in touch with Melanie Neilson -- she and I co-edited Big Allis in the late 80's/early 90's -- and we've started a collaborative project - which makes me very happy. That's the nutshell. Oh, and keeping the balls in the air - it is not a glamorous preoccupation but it suffuses all.

TB: Thank you, Jessica.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Linescapes: An Interview with Mary Rising Higgins

Mary Rising Higgins is the author of red table(S (La Alameda 1999), oclock (Potes and Poets 2000), )locus TIDES(( (Potes and Poets 2002), Greatest Hits, 1990-2001 (Pudding House 2002), )cliff TIDES(( (Singing Horse 2005), )joule TIDES(( (Singing Horse 2007) and Borderlining: Pieces from R and B (Small Chapbook Project 2007). Her poems have appeared in such magazines and journals as Blue Mesa Review, Cafe Solo, Big Allis, ecopoetics and Central Park, and she recorded poems for Vox Audio. This interview took place in her home in Albuquerque on February 11, 2007, just before her 63rd birthday. Two months after the interview, Mary again became ill from complications of breast cancer and began receiving hospice care. She died on August 26, 2007. Bruce Holsapple and John Tritica

John Tritica: Mary, I would like to start with the question of what you see as differences between red table(S [1999] and )locus TIDES(( [2002] , )cliff TIDES(( [2005], and )joule TIDES(( [2007] . There’s an obvious difference in how the poems look, yet you could take lines from red table(S and find similar lines in )cliff TIDES((. You could recognize the same poet as having written both. Can you address what you see as being the differences?

Mary Rising Higgins: If I think about red tables(S first, that was written while I was still teaching in the public schools full-time. So red table(S was fitted into working life, staying up past midnight with my students’ work, planning new things for them. And I was limited as to when I could write and would begin Friday evenings after dinner. I’d turn on two 5,000 watt neon lights to keep me alert. I’m sure my house glowed for blocks. But I would work late on Friday night, and then I would work as much as I could Saturday and Sunday. That’s how these poems came to be constructed. I couldn’t begin to think of the long poems that make up the TIDES(( trilogy; the process that goes into the work of these books is so utterly different because with them I’m retired, working perhaps three days a week at CNM [a community college in Albuquerque]. So, yes, the work comes out of the same center, but the process out of which the work derives is utterly different.

Bruce Holsapple: What does that mean to you, “comes out of the same center”?

MRH: Well, comes out of my center, a center of being, a center of collecting. Essentially, I have not changed in terms of requiring a certain auditory gesture, as the means by which I enter the poem’s beginning. However, with the TIDES(( series, if I say that I’m going to work a five-hour day and my window opens when I get out of bed in the morning, instead of after a week’s work, late on a Friday night, that’s a very different window from which to begin one’s creative work.

JT: That was 1995?

MRH: Yes, and I did that through the last year, because the needs of students are endless. But when I got to oclock, my life had changed dramatically. I was recovering from experimental treatment for breast cancer; my sister had come to live with me because I needed twenty-four hour care; she had dragged me through the illness. But I was exhausted and embarrassed by the amount of sleep I needed. Actually, oclock began with 9:00 a.m. I was amazed and depressed that I couldn’t even get up at 9:00 a. m. That was the first poem, and suddenly I realized: Write a twenty-four poem series that could embody the way I felt the poem could function. Also, I was fortunate. Peter Ganick, the founder of Potes & Poets Press, happened to read red table(S and sent an e-mail to me saying that whatever I project I was working on, he would publish it. I think I had gotten to the second poem by then, and I was delirious with the sense that, because of the kind of work Peter supported, I could go as far as I was capable with the work in oclock, and I did. In fact, indirectly, he suggested the title for oclock. I sent him the first draft [of the manuscript], and he wanted me to add body to 2 a.m. He did not say anything about how I should add body. 2 a. m. just needed to be able to stand with the other poems, which he called my “clock poems.” I thought, what a perfect title, oclock! I liked the foraging methods employed in working with oclock, so when I moved into the TIDES(( series, they retained elements from oclock. But these poems are each built around a particular letter. I think the first letter I addressed in )locus TIDES(( was “D,” because I love Beverly Dahlen’s work. So I thought that would be a good place to begin. I think “D” is less visual than succeeding works. The dripstone is something that occurs in a cavern, and I thought that was a good metaphor for how the work in that particular poem developed, because it was such slow going. I personally find the poem that works best for me is a poem where I just have to roll up my sleeves and do battle with the beginning. Then, suddenly, it will take off. Dripstone is like that.

JT: Beginning with oclock, the TIDES(( series develops a 8 ½ by 11 inch format. Why do you think that larger page format evolved, or at least is conducive to your work?

MRH: It started accidentally. I was toying with the idea of the arbitrary rectangle of the page and thinking about how a visual artist would approach that rectangle. That has to be addressed in the publication of one’s work. There have to be margins. You can only deal with certain perimeters. Editors and publishers don’t care to pursue the complexity of work that escapes those perimeters. So I started out seeing what I could do with the 8 ½ by 11 rectangle, leaving margins on all sides that would be appropriate for publication. And I simply became so comfortable with the page size that, even though I wanted to break the work down at different points for a smaller page, it just wasn’t conducive to the work that evolved in the larger format. Though it would be glib to say that the poems are built for the page, in fact I became enamored of doing everything I could think of to the page with the poem’s lines in the large format. So, it didn’t start out intentionally but now I’ve become rather intentional about it.

BH: You shift from a more traditional poetry, flush left, in red table(S and in oclock that boundary disappears. There’s a floating element involved. After you finish oclock, you turn to the abecedarium? So initially you have a frame you’re hanging things in, but then it becomes wide open. What tensions hold the work together after that?

MRH: I think in the TIDES(( series there are certain components in the way the work is built that hold the poems together. I collect words over time that begin with the letter, usually words I hadn’t heard or seen used in a particular way in text before. I mean, I had this clipboard, and I arbitrarily put twenty-six pages in it, and I carried it around with me. Do you really want to know about these things? Okay. I also had notes to myself about what I was going to look for. I was going to look for writers, words, and things I didn’t know enough about.

BH: Did you know the subjects?

MRH: Oh, not at all. The subjects were going to come out of the words collected, come out of dictionary meditations, meditations on the writing of the poets.

BH: You were going to invent?

MRH: Well, with language, one is never going to invent whole-cloth, because language creates the cloth. I feel so constrained within the language itself, and wanted to create an homage to text, as I’m working because of its beauty, because of its social-civil qualities, the conscience of language, the function of language, how one can construct a life out of the questions that language can present. So while I love that term, “whole-cloth,” I’m very much caught in the conundrum and quandaries of language itself, as we all are.
The shapes in TIDES(( become increasingly affected by the shape of the letters historically or currently. When all of those things are put together, the poems take on discreteness. I have to say, I get exhausted easily now, particularly over the last year. I’ve entered a re-diagnosis for the cancer. I’ve really been scrambling to stay on top of my work. But when I lie down at night, I always keep my journal next to me—it has a pillow—I’ve only taught one poetry workshop, but the students laughed so much when I began talking about my process. They thought I was really too weird for words. But actually it comes out of Denise Levertov’s poem “Writing in the Dark.” Here was a woman who had a full life, ran a household, and so when she thought of things in the night, she’d better get it down. I notch the page. I do not open my eyes. I can lay the journal down; I can pick it back up; I can find the notch and proceed, but I imagine how the poems are going to look on the page. That’s how I construct the forms. If it is the twelfth letter in the alphabet, it’s going to be a twelve-page poem. Now if it’s the second letter, of course it’s not going to be two pages, it’s going to be a multiple of two. If it’s the 26th letter, it will be a divisor. It’s a fabulous way to construct the poem as you wish. You have arbitrary boundaries to work within, but they’re nourishing and beautiful because they’re only about tethering the work on the page.

JT: So there’s an interplay between improvisation and structure?

MRH: The work is highly structured. It isn’t just numbers of pages. It’s structured in terms of line, how many syllables there will be in the line. For example, “Dearest L” in )cliff TIDES((, the lines are governed by the twelve-syllable line. I permit a thirteenth syllable simply because I don’t want the line to become sing song. I will permit an eleven-syllable line. But “Following L,” if I remember correctly, is twelve pages in twelve-syllable lines for the twelfth letter. However, the improvisational, and sometimes the stochastic, enters.

JT: It gave you, within that imposed form, a freedom. It generated the material, if you will.

MRH: Absolutely it helps generate the material, and as soon as I sense that it’s getting dead on its feet, change is called for. That’s when I will add, subtract, or bend a shape so that it looks more fluid.

JT: It’s far from “anything goes.”

MRH: It is never anything goes. Why? Because I think that when one deludes oneself into thinking “anything goes,” in fact we’re governed unconsciously by our sentiments, or orientations, and whatever is going on in our lives. Certainly these things are occurring in my work, but the work is always that homage to text, and how text functions, as a serious component for connecting us.

JT: Which contemporary poets—in the last twenty, thirty years—do you see your work fitting in with?

MRH: I think my work fits wherever there are women whose work pushes the envelope of how the poem has been written or appeared, say, within the last ten, twenty years. Lyn Hejinian and Susan Howe are the two primary poets who let me see that I could write a poem about whatever and however I needed. During a two month writing retreat at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, in ’89 and 91, I was able to spend time with their work. I started the poem “Transitions for Eurydice” in Taos. That poem came directly from reading Howe’s Defenestration of Prague. That was the poem through which I began methods I use when writing now. It’s the longest one in red table(S, and has elements of collage and disjunction that are more about mid to late 20th century. You know, one has to write that way. Our lives are that way. Everything we are presented with is that way.

BH: Are there other poets in the concrete tradition that you call upon for inspiration—or do you understand yourself to work within the tradition of concrete poetry?

MRH: Not at all. I don’t understand myself as working with a tradition of concrete poetry. Why? The word and the letters with which I am working always take precedence over the form. The form generates out of language. Actually, I’m not terribly fond of concrete poetry. I’d like to think that, if my work were pushed flush left, it would work certainly as well as it does when it takes various forms on the page. So that takes me out of that tradition I think.

BH: You’re using the page more like Charles Olson and Susan Howe, for example, use the page?

MRH: I would say so, yes, and when I do enter engagement with visual form, it’s affected by historical or current shapes for the letter the poem builds around. Or, it has to do with an emphasis on the dynamics of the poem, a way of opening the line, so that the reader can have a gap or perhaps be drawn in a dynamic way toward the next line. It isn’t about, okay, this poem is going to look like that shape from nature. It’s never about that. I always can go back to the letter out of which the poem is deriving—or it is about sound and movement in the poem. Linescape, really.

JT: Speaking of movement makes me think of the structure of the TIDES(( trilogy. How did you conceive of that structure?

MRH: I had an opportunity for a three-day retreat at Abiquiu, NM, Ghost Ranch, and I wanted to construct a series that I could learn through, which I could grow with as a poet, where I could engage in an homage to those women poets whose work encouraged me to think about new ways that women have been writing since the 1970s, and I thought that an abecedarium was absolutely the right path for a poet to take. It’s endlessly interesting. Certainly in childhood I remember falling asleep by going through ideas having to do with the alphabet. Did you? It’s a marvelous way to set up going anywhere for any length of time about any topic. And so the original working title for the TIDES(( series was Driving from the Shoulders. This was never intended to be mainstream work, you know, right up on the road. Also I was thinking of the shoulders of women who had come before me. I am still working on a last triptych that addresses letters Y, A, and V. Just recently I’ve begun to think, even if that poem takes me a year, it will be fine, because what’s my intention with that long poem? It is to do as many things as possible that I have not done, to read and become aware of things that I have not become aware of, that can help to generate a poem.

JT: My next question is part statement, but it gives you full-range to respond, and disagree if you want. But I think in “waive SHIFT” [in cliff TIDES((] there’s an innovative approach to the placement of words on the page; in particular, I’m thinking of page fifty-six and fifty-seven where it’s almost like we’re looking at a mirror of some sort. There are dancing figures of language there:

Would you comment on how you worked out the visual design of the text and how the visual design impacts on the significance of the poem?

MRH: W is a beautiful letter. It’s very organic and here I’m focused on elements of its shape, so page fifty-six gives the reader an almost cubist perspective on “W”, but on page fifty-seven I’m focused on elements of shapeliness and brush stroke—I do like to give a brush stroke appearance, even to ancient letter glyphs. So that’s what was going on in my head. Though I don’t expect the reader to come away with what I intend, but rather the reader, entering the work, will come away with what the reader is able and willing to carry away.

JT: I wonder, though, about when you look at, say, page sixty-three, if we’re reading from left to right, there are a number of ways you can read this. Have you scored this in a particular way? You don’t offer instruction to the reader.

MRH: No, I wouldn’t presume to do that. Now if I were reading this for an audience, absolutely I would score it. When reading I want the text to come through in as straight forward a fashion as possible. Also, I don’t want to become caught up in an alternative reading. I don’t want to become lost in it (as my eyesight is no longer the greatest). But for the reader, my hope would be to approach this work as a viewer approaches an abstract painting, for example, or a listener approaches a piece of contemporary classical music. And that is, in the energies that you bring to the work, what do you carry away with you this time? And my hope would be that a reader who actually would come to this page two or three times would leave with something slightly different—perhaps quite different—each of those times.

JT: In that sense, who would be an ideal reader, if you could create a profile?

MRH: Well, it would be a reader somewhat like myself and the people with whom I have close relationships who are addicted to poetry; people who love to read contemporary poetry and contemporary writers. It would not be the reader who wants to be told what to think, or is reading to escape. It has to be a reader who will create meaning in an autonomous fashion—you know, without being dominated by authorial aspects, but would rather go into the work as a kind of adventure and take away what is possible, and actually become excited by how the work changes as you begin reading across lines, or in reverse, as opposed to straight down along the lines. That is when the work begins to breathe with you, I think. For poetry to work rhythmic knots of meaning begin to function in new intense ways—you breathe with poetry. It isn’t like prose that lies there on the page telling about something and taking you somewhere (in the more expected popular prose, at least.)

BH: So would you “allow” a reader to take whatever they wanted to from your poems? Could they come up with any possible interpretation?

MRH: Why not? If I go to a dance production, for example, I am looking for new vocabulary in that dance work. I’m not a dancer. I don’t know what I’m “supposed to be” looking for. But I am looking for movement, motions, steps, and what I take away with me, I love. Why couldn’t a reader approach the page as I approach dance, jazz, or contemporary classical music? trusting the beauty and surprise?

BH: But I think you’re also saying that your poems are meaning-based. Doesn’t that involve intention?

MRH: Oh, yes, they are meaning-based! And when I read them aloud, I follow what I think is the most standard way of reading the work, so that someone in the audience who would not read it, but is willing to listen will come way with something fresh and new and be able to say, as people sometimes do, “Well, it sounds good.” [Laughs.] “I wasn’t sure what it meant, but I like the way it sounded!” .

JT: So would you say that a reader has to grant you a certain amount of semantic excess?

MRH: Yes, I think anyone who came to this work in a prescribed way would be disappointed or become confused, would be actually quite frustrated.

JT: Yes, I’ve been there. Not for long, but I know the feeling.

BH: What would you tell that reader?

MRH: To go inward and to permit the work to mean differently, creatively each time he or she approaches it.

BH: So in some way your poetry is about the meaning-making process itself?

MRH: It is about that and that is my homage to text. I can remember reading things as a child and having no clue what they meant, but knowing, trusting the text, knowing that if I let it go and returned to it later—even if I had to wait a year, it would begin to mean for me.

JT: It’s also giving one’s self over to the reading process?

MRH: Yes, deep reading is a process. Also, I would say there is sometimes disjunction between auditory elements and textual elements in the work and that is on purpose, because there is sometimes a joy in the music of the syntax that is not necessarily the same as the meaning of those words in the labyrinth of their construction.

BH: So there is a multiplicity of approaches and there are layers that you work from?

MRH: Each poem is highly layered, I feel. Any word in conjunction or disjunction with another word is going to refer and refer and refer, if you just go back into the clause.

JT: To what extent are these poems verbal meditations, as opposed to silent meditations?

MRH: What a great question! I will confess, they are primarily silent meditations, but when I stumble, when I just don’t know what word to place next, I begin speaking aloud, whatever those lines should be, to know what has to come next. One thing I avoid is a loose, limp line. I want a tight line.

BH: How do you determine whether the line is tight or limp?

MRH: I think of the tight line as one made with no unnecessary word, with rhythmic tensions at the level of the syllable.

JT: If I could chime in here—as you state in the “afterword” to )cliff TIDES((, there are “rhythm knots.” There has to be tension. Where there’s a syllabic structure sometimes, there’s a very strong rhythm, and the rhythm holds it together.

MRH: Yes, rhythm holds it together, and if I think, oh, this could be a line of prose, something will be deleted. I’m sure other poets could argue that some of my lines are prose-like, but always I’m looking for tension, and that does make the work exhausting, especially for a reader who comes to the poem for escape. One thing I have to say is that I do not write so that you can remember something you forgot, like from some earlier point in your life. I mean, a reader may be reminded of something in their life, but I do not write a narrative poem that reminds us of events, a middle class nostalgic towpath along what might or might not have taken place in the lives of most Americans one knows around life or death or birth or divorce…those things we like to be reminded of, an escapist reading.

BH: And what is it that irritates you so about that approach?

MRH: It isn’t that it irritates me. It’s that if I want that approach I could simply get in my car, drive to a bookstore and find books waiting on the shelves. I don’t want to do what I’ve seen done before. Someone could argue, oh I’ve seen work just like yours. But no one has done that in relation to my work. My feeling is, I started writing poetry too late to spend time writing like someone else.

JT: That’s a key point. You didn’t start writing until you were thirty-nine years old.

MRH: Right, my first poem unfolded finally when I was thirty-nine.

JT: Some twenty-four year ago, but that’s not that long, and you didn’t have the apprenticeship some have in their twenties and thirties.

MRH: Right, I think the apprenticeship was served differently.

JT: What happened took place much more intensely and there are some fifteen years between when you write your first poem and when you retired from being a schoolteacher.

BH: What is the transition? What are the recognitions that go into being “innovative?” Where does Lee Bartlett’s class at the University of New Mexico enter into this?

MRH: I should be honest about my beginning, eclectic reading. As a child I read whatever I could get my hands on. When I was eleven, I happened by accident on a Wordsworth poem. That is where I first discovered the difference I look for between poetry and prose. Of course, I was reading poems voraciously when I went into Lee Bartlett’s poetry workshop. I was reading contemporary poets. I was reading New Mexico poets, a lot of John Ashbery—I loved Ashbery—he is my favorite poet all the way through red table(S and probably appears in numerous disguises from poem to poem. I hadn’t read anyone whose work I liked as much. Then I was introduced to the Language Poets, I think in 1983-84. Somehow I got into the graduate poetry-writing workshop with Lee Bartlett and Lee was just so open to a highly creative point of view. During one class he said, it doesn’t matter what you say, as long as you can put it into a philosophical construct. He said many things that felt perfect for me, because I knew I’d have to write poetry in some ways unlike what I’d already read. I’ll tell you, I was by necessity a sleeper in class—I’d been working all day—and if it wasn’t exciting, I was dozing. But when Lee brought in the Language poets (in the first issue of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E), what I heard led me to think, oh, this is new—like “news that stays news.” And I could try to write a poem that might be read with serious attention to its content! And right off, you’ve got a higher number of women than any place else, and women are not objectified or marginalized, but an integral part of articulating Language Poetry. And I felt, okay, now I can address a poem at the scale I felt a poem should be addressed. I had just read Bachelard’s The Poetics of Reverie for another class. And that was not about the means by which I would write a poem, just as if I were a painter, I could not paint trees as I remember particular trees from childhood. Suddenly, all right, the poem could disjunctive, about the functions of language itself. The poem could occupy a larger scale and from varied perspectives.

BH: This was your chance to walk the blank, so to speak?

MRH: Yes, I had kept journals and toyed with lines, but only as I considered visual work. I wanted to become a photographer, but that’s a whole other story! I couldn’t become a photographer after I purchased a house where the water was too hot to use for all the darkroom equipment I had purchased. (And the water heater was not up to code and I had no way of changing that.) Well, thank goodness, what a relief! I had already become so tired of all the chemicals. Poetry has no polluting chemicals that must be carefully recycled! It is so clean! [W. C.] Williams thought about becoming a visual artist—as did I. Well, you have all that equipment and set it up, and I’m tired by then. Poetry is not like that. The more one writes, the more one wants to write. So it was a great gift that the water temperature at this little house was over ninety degrees and nothing could fix that. You have to have water at sixty-two degrees max, if you want to process a good black and white print. And I was fortunate to get into Lee Bartlett’s class, so I said to myself, I will just stick with this, give it a try. I was teaching fifth-graders in public school and my mind needed something outside of the classroom.

JT: In )locus TIDES((, there’s a poem called “rotations of N,” and I love the first line: “day bridge event phase you try telling[.]” Here is my sense of your work: although there is almost never a linear narrative, nevertheless I still feel that you tell bits and pieces of stories. And there is still some biographical hook. Earlier you were talking about the process of meaning making. I think it’s related.

MRH: Language becomes a highly experiential medium at times.

BH: How do you mean language becomes an “experiential medium?”

MRH: How one articulates an experience actually modifies that experience. Yet these are words. I’m thinking of Wittgenstein’s remark that language is contiguous with nothing. But we fit into language, and language fits with us. So, indeed, my work is extremely experiential: “day bridge event phase you try telling[.]” I mean we know that when we tell an event we leave out so much and put in some things. Later we might remember things that we put in and forget completely the things we left out. I’m exaggerating, perhaps. But the experiential components of language are profound in terms of what’s provided by and what we must provide to language, if we address the world through it.

JT: I feel that once you go beneath the structured surface of your poems, there’s a code that becomes intimate. I don’t think it depends on you as a personality, ever, but that code enriches my reading.

MRH: I’m glad to hear that. Move to page sixty-four, the last page of “rotations of N” [in )locus TIDES((], because there’s a quote by Anne Noggle, the photographer, who used her face and body as part of what she was depicting. I heard her say on a PBS television program: “Who will look into my face and find me there?” What does the face tell us about the self? What does the word self mean in her question? It becomes exquisitely layered.

JT: And that’s, I think, how the philosophical concept of identity comes out in your work, and so it strikes me that although your work is philosophical and difficult, if a reader persists, she will find points of connection, a kind of intimacy, if you can learn that code.

MRH: Yes, I think it’s a process, an experiential process with language, where word by word I’m carefully building a line that engages, as often as it can, with the experiential components of language in a fresh way. I don’t have opportunities often to talk about my work, so forgive me for sounding naïve, but I would posit that, for most of us, the concept of self is quite delusional, you know, how we use that word, what the word means to us. Those are profound words: me, self, I. How do they mean? That this quote would come from a photographer who devoted her medium to self-portrait and who then asks this question—I loved hearing that.

BH: What role does self have in your work? What is the “concept of self” for you?

MRH: It is a permeable, modified, always changing center, and that is why I use, for example, the “I” not the tall “I”. I think the look of I, as opposed to the capital, is particularly important. I have a definition of self, but it’s spiritual. The self is a medium through which all the unknowable source of all that is and is not explores the manifest and non-manifest multiplicities of reality. That sounds too metaphysical. But if I wrap my head around that, how self constitutes, well, what is not possible? What is possible? The range is endless. Where are we?

BH: I notice a politic and an acute awareness of what nature “does”—the walks, the observations—in your poetry, so there’s a political aesthetic in your work.

MRH: Yes, the political does enter. I can’t seem to avoid it. Yes, it permeates.

JT: In what way do feminist strategies in constructing meaning enter in?

MRH: I think if we thumbed through all the TIDES(( books we would find very few male pronouns. Part of this is reactionary; I mean, you can guess I’m sure that as a girl I didn’t read a book that had feminine pronouns unless it was something like Little Women or The Five Little Peppers And How They Grew. And I grew out of those books rather quickly. So the really important things I read always had male pronouns, and my work sometimes compensates in response to that. What else would you ask about that?

JT: One feminist strategy is to upset traditional patriarchal expectations and hierarchies of meaning…

MRH: Absolutely. I’m always exploring how language functions. I avoid didacticism. If the reader is willing to re-enter the work, some poems can be repaginated—as the source pages of )cliff TIDES(( indicate—some poems can be read in reverse or from various entry points. Often there are opportunities to go in a different direction, by virtue of the fact that there might be two columns or a letter shape in a different font and shade that drifts behind the main text. There are fonts co-existing with one another. It isn’t that one must dominate the other, and the reader can choose to read them separately or contiguously. So there are choices.

JT: In “O Canvas” [in )cliff TIDES((] another example is the different voices?

MRH: Oh, Ophelia, Orithyia, Ona, the North Wind, yes! These are based on visual art and literature. If we look at page sixty-five, “O figure,” there’s Ophelia talking to Hamlet (and herself). She drowns herself, then realizes things could have been quite different. She takes on strength; yes, it’s a feminist engagement with Ophelia’s ghost. She becomes assertively no nonsense. And Orithyia becomes another figure, from mythology, who is carried off by the North Wind. I have to add that the epigraph by Rochelle Owens is wonderful: “On the bus she hobbles/ in golden stirrups.” That makes anything possible. Some epigraphs must be placed in the poem after the first draft is well completed because they’re constraining, but this was an epigraph that I wanted right up front because the image was so nourishing for me. When Ophelia becomes mixed with Lady Mac Beth on page sixty-seven I need that encouragement. [She reads.]

my own river hem scarves about my feet
                                     on days I am worn
                                   jewel shards mirror in
                                  long-lipped shadows lit
                                        you see yourself
                                      orchid scent spackled
                                                                                                a foiling length
                                                                              I kiss the sword blade blood groove
                                                                                           tang and pommel ring

                                                                             invite me

She becomes, I think, intimidating, as she begins to realize her power, as opposed to the Ophelia who drowns herself.

BH: What you said about a reader taking anything they want from the text earlier, I understand that you allow that process, but I also hear you speaking in fairly “intentional” ways about what you’ve expressed, so in some ways you have an agenda. If a reader doesn’t follow that agenda, fine, but you propose to let anyone to read what they want, yet connecting the writer and the reader—as you phrased it earlier—would again broach the problem of intention in poetry.

MRH: I suppose one could read this without ever realizing that speaker is Ophelia. I can also imagine someone thinking it’s about me. But that’s neither here nor there. “O Canvas” may have taken on more precision because of the shapeliness of O and the literary figures, Ophelia and Orithyia. However, I’m not a particularly didactic person. My intention is to facilitate meaning for the reader; I respect a reader’s ability to come to this text and get things from it that I wasn’t aware were there. Why was I not aware? Because I am working with language, which is so rich and continuously beyond me. I trust that if I write a line and you read that line, you can bring more, or certainly differently, to that line than I bring, and can leave with more than I got out while writing it. Because I think that happens often for writers, don’t you think? But I do have hope that I could write a line and you could go away with more than I ever thought about for that line, by virtue of the richness that you bring to it.

JT: Is it wrong for me to think because of its circular form, that it’s a feminine letter?

MRH: It’s a feminine letter and to entitle it “O Canvas” I was thinking actually of images. These take shape in feminist “sub-poems.” Orithyia becomes almost dangerous. She might have been carried off by the North Wind, but she has the last word. She will let go of everything except who she has become through challenge and time. Yes.

JT: And there is anti-war discourse in your work.

MRH: There is. Yes, in “O Canvas,” right here, it so happened, while I was working on it, on page seventy-four, fighter planes from Kirtland [Air-Force Base] flew over—they were deafening—I mean, yard birds were actually knocked off their perches, knocked to the ground by the fighter planes going overhead. So the date and time is here.

fighter planes explode high thin air above
gray cloudcover housing for distributed world
this afternoon though not yet will I cut my throat
while small yellowed hailstones roof tin snare clatter
high desert sleet wet air smelling of seasalt and
shell fish or blood mixed with tears just before
swallowing as disfigured doves and sparrows
shoot up to scatter struggling for balance

Of course that quote, “not yet will I cut my throat” comes from Oppen. But yes, disfigured doves because they’ve been eating everything we have in our environment, so they’ve got strange faces, beaks disfigured. It’s quite a literal “snapshot” of what happened. That is pointed out in the source page.

BH: And to some extent, your whole approach is a political stance?

MRH: It cannot be avoided if one is going to be innovative. The very act of innovating is a political act. John and I had a conversation yesterday, and it awakened me to the fact that I despair at the beginning of the 21st century, that we are embroiled in this “pre-emptive strike” war. What a grief! And sometimes when I’m writing, because I’m engaging that experiential language, the overtly political just comes in and takes over.

JT: You incorporate various elements of what you term “Newzak.”

MRH: Late 20th century it was “Newzak.” With the current administration, it’s become “Newsblast.” The news is no longer something you could listen to in an elevator. It used to be you could do a task with the news on in the background; you weren’t suddenly caught up in something horrifying. Perhaps one should have been caught up that way. I wasn’t that sensitive. But now I have to very careful, and I notice most of my friends express a common concern about how and when they listen to the news, because it so very, very sad and dark and full of grief.