INTERVIEW WITH JOSEPH LEASE by Thomas Fink
Broken World is studded with anaphora, and the musical effects are marvelous.
Robert Creeley and many others have testified to the remarkable grace of your music. Are there some principles regarding the musical element of poetry that keep occurring to you at points in the poetic process?
My work is ear driven. Language is music. When the music is right, I know the poem is done. When the music is right, your mind, your spirit, your emotions, change.
Standard Schaefer—in a very insightful review of Broken World—said you had written some of the most memorable montages in American poetry. Often your montages involve shifting from verse to prose or prose to verse. I really love this technique when I read it. I know it's great. But I'm not sure why.
Again, thank you. All I can say is that I’m trying to make change actual, to embody change. It has to do with the lyric sequence, and feeling tone, and scene structure. You can play self-consciousness, the way you can play the violin or the cello. Sincerity, for me, is emotion made actual. As Creeley said, a primary language—a rollercoaster ride, not a description of a rollercoaster ride.
In A Different Sense of Power: Problems of Community in Late-Twentieth Century U.S. Poetry, I wrote about how your poems meditate on intersubjectivity, the limits of the self, and the demands of the collective; and how your lyric I invites, invokes, and probes community (112). This applies to Broken World and your most recent poems as well. Would you say that a primary language entails solicitation of dialogue within a lyric/narrative construct of words?
Yes. Sure. We’re put here to mend the world—and that means the word for dawn is others. So a primary language can be, often is, an opening—a ritual for creating dialogue. All the poems in Broken World explore this theme. I think especially of “’Broken World’ (For James Assatly),” “Soul-making,” “Ghosts,” and “Free Again.”
As in the powerful short lyric, “Ghosts,” which commences Broken World, the ghost has been a recurring motif in your poetry.
When I was twenty—I wrote “Anything can be a ghost”—And twenty-two years later I wrote "Ghosts," a love poem to a visionary storyteller (Donna de la Perrière, my wife) and a meditation on visionary translation—The secret meanings of colors and dawn and others and an elegy for visionary awareness of correspondences. The word for dawn is others=in a word the uncanny (anything can be a ghost—even a bowl of strawberries—nature is a haunted house—of an unfinished world). America equals ghost.
“I can remember my secret book--
I was a ghost, you were the only one
who could hear me—“
Your visual descriptions can be even more precise than Ashbery’s, but I think what you’re doing in Human Rights, Broken World, and after indicates the absorption of both Ashbery and Creeley’s different uses of enjambment within a stanzaic pattern, and of Ashbery’s play of disjunction and continuity.
I’m excited about your new work. “Try,” for example, uses compression in a remarkably evocative way:
traces of snow, snow flying
if anybody needs
a branch in light—
panic, let time wash you, you can swim—
the green hills turn to gray, gray turning
blue, just say undershirt, just say hair,
shoulders—I’m falling, I’m flying, I’m
waiting, I’m nothing, I’m
in the forest we can say anything:
O cream, a warm
night in December; your hips sing, dinner makes a
naughty dream—let’s say I was Frank Sinatra’s
toothpaste, let’s say I lead a life of crime—O cream,
park your raspberries
on my moon—
if anybody needs
the lake’s glass skin—
traces of snow, snow flying
if anybody needs
a branch in light—
We talked about intersubjectivity, about addressing readers regarding shared concerns, and these lines do. Even if there are only “traces of snow” and not the full presence of an abundance, that speedy “flying” might be terrifying, and the poem, as I see it, is an exhortation to “try” to endure, to thrive, to live intensely in the face of “falling,” experiential speed, “waiting,” and a sense, at times, that the self is “nothing.”
In the third section of the poem, erotic joy comes to the forefront as a component of the task of articulation of awareness and the struggle against annihilation, the force of that earlier “nothing.” In the poem’s final section, you hark back to the “need” of the first section, adding “if anybody needs/ the lake’s glass skin”—a remarkably lucid image!—before you end by returning to two couplets that also open section one. This recurrence (with a difference) is designed to ask the reader to consider how the middle sections have changed what about “need,” illumination, and the fear of violent experiential speed. Surely, contact and sexual openness have been made precisely actual in a construct of language—to paraphrase Creeley’s reading of your earlier work. What else?
For me the poem embodies a kind of tenderness. I believe (many) readers will feel a gentleness in the poem—a fullness, and a tender awareness of aging. It’s also a poem of erotic experience. And of course there’s fear too, but the poem is a very tender motion. I hope the reader of this interview will go back now and read the poem a second time. I agree that the poem gets happier as we move forward in time, but I don’t think the opening is all that terrified. There is an excitement in the emptying out of the self, of zooming away from fixed, stable conventions. There is certainly fear there, and the fear is mixed with tenderness and desire and gentleness, and as the poem moves forward the tenderness deepens. Anyway that’s how I read it.
Let’s turn to your new long poem, “America,” which has a structure very similar to the long “Free Again” in Broken World; each section begins with the title of the whole poem. Like the earlier poem, which I’ll get to shortly, this one excoriates the right (and perhaps the center) for how they have wrecked the U.S.’s democratic potential and imperiled the entire world. There are various powerful citations, ones about ecological disaster, absurdly inhumane governmental budget priorities, Cheney’s remark about the endlessness of the “War on Terrorism,” and Bill Moyers’ urgent call for democracy to be rescued. These are juxtaposed with synecdoches for and reflections about an individual’s daily experience, brief allusions to recent national problems (“We’re going back home to every vote counts we’re changing the rules”), and more abstract, yet lyrical passages. Could you talk about how, through the heterogeneous textures of this juxtapositionality, you are making “America” enact political critique and redemptive exhortation and building on your past aesthetic innovations?
“America” builds on “’Broken World’ (For James Assatly)” and “Free Again”—and I guess it’s the most “topical” poem I’ve written so far. Parts of it work by collage—and it’s very direct. You know, we write what we need to write. Anyway, I was inspired by Susan Howe’s “Hope Atherton’s Wanderings,” Laura Mullen’s “Turn,” Donna de la Perrière’s “True Crime,” and Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.” Also—of course—Ginsberg’s “America.” All these poems put America inside a self-in-process. For me fullness of representation is both an embodiment of what it feels like to think/desire/fear in the world (to contradict oneself) and a continuation (proceeding by contradiction—I can’t do it/I must do it) of the lyric self. Howe and Rich and Ginsberg all refute the claim that lyric is unified or merely personal. The lyric “I” is a place. It’s a process. It’s not fixed and commodified. And that process becomes the ground for action, for critique and for re-imagining America.
“Re-imagining America” is surely the task of “the lyric ‘I” in “Free Again,” and this intense activity—which you never make into anything programmatic or anything less than a complex process of negotiations—seems to include an implicit call for people to go beyond the false consciousness that corporate elites often stimulate: for example, “I want you to stand there in your brightly frisky middle-class personalities and chant after me: ‘How about another tax cut, how about another tax cut—‘our wilderness’ and liberty and justice for us. . .” (52).
I attack the way the Republican Party since Reagan has tricked the middle class into voting against its own interests over and over, and into identifying with a political imaginary in which individualism equals upward mobility.
The manipulated portion of the “middle class” sees social programs for the poor as responsible for their tax burden; they miss notions of economic interdependence.
I think “Free Again” is about the absence of community and the need for community.
The title “Free Again” implies a recovery of fundamental democratic principles so that what was always theoretical in the U.S. can become actual. To go back to the idea of “re-imagining America,” I am interested in passages in “Free Again” that provide subtle intimations of the transcendence of current injustice and anomie; I see the social as connected to the soul in the poem: “It could be gorgeous, it could be/ loss, it could be broken, it could fold—/ . . . the soul inventing the world/ the soul inventing the soul—” (46). What empowers you to invest in felicitous spiritual or psychological /social aspiration in the face of rampant negativity?
Do you mean religious faith?
I’m not an atheist or an agnostic. Part of what I mean is faith in God. You can be a left-wing Dickinsonian/Emersonian Jew. I also mean faith in the human and social justice. My version of faith breathes discovering the joy of creation. Faith and art are both ways of learning—asking—they invite us into understanding and connection with others and with the sacred. When Paul Hoover asked me whether I see poetry as a soul-making activity, I said: “Soul-making, sure. Why not? That just seems true to me. I don’t want to sell poetry short. Poetry isn’t just a reminder of what we already know—it can be that—but it can also create life that we need—life that we don’t recognize until we are in the poem. And, yes, it also returns us to ourselves and makes us new. And it demystifies lies. I love Keats’s idea that the world teaches us to make our souls. I don’t see why poets would want to escape from that . . . In “Free Again” you have 26variations and the total is expansion of a life, a spirit, toward others.”
Thank you, Joseph.