Wednesday, October 03, 2007


Thomas Fink: This interview will focus on your latest three books, the first of which is Inbox (Kenmore, NY: BlazeVox, 2006). Inbox is nicely prefaced by your Sept. 12, 2004 email seeking permission to quote a lot of people’s emails to you. You explain the rationale of this “temporal autobiography”:

I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if I were to take the body-text of every email that was addressed specifically to me (nothing forwarded or from any listserv) currently in my inbox (over 200) and let all of the voices collide into one continuous text. The work is arranged in reverse chronology. . . . [Inbox] sculpts the space between the everyday detritus of dinner plans to discussions of fonts and notes from long lost friends. To be honest, as I’m a person pretty free of drama, the bulk of the work is boring, but intentionally so, in the generative, ambient way that Tan Lin writes about, well, one would hope anyhow. It’s the collision of voices that makes the work compelling, at least to me. The only thing is. . . . I didn’t write any of it; you did! (4)

First, when you say “take the body-text,” do you mean that you preserved each email from start to finish—you didn’t edit them?

Noah Eli Gordon: That’s correct. Although I did remove everyone’s name, along with whatever particular language was used to open and close each email, which allowed all of the text to merge. There are points where the shift from email to email is obvious, but the more compelling moments occur when it’s somewhat uncertain. After sending out that initial email, which, as you note, acts as a preface for the book, I did go back and excise several things from the project, mostly notes from those who expressed a little hostility toward the idea. Of course, such hostility is wholly warranted, as there’s something inherently exploitive about publicly airing what folks considered to be intimate correspondence. The only other instance of editing took place right before the book was published. There was a bit of text in there that signified strongly the opinion of one individual involved in the poetry community about that of another. I punted this person a note just prior to publication asking if it was okay to include the material. Interestingly, although not necessarily surprising, this person had forgotten the email I’d sent, the one which acts as the book’s preface, as it had been a few years since I’d gotten the okay. Honestly, I felt really bad about it, and so removed the mention. I suppose, in a way, this is what makes the project in my mind successful, in that it does involve a certain level of transgression, even of personal discomfort. The book itself was not difficult to write but the social dimensions of its possible reception were difficult to foresee.

TF: Authorial intention, then, is present in the selection of procedure, which doesn’t let you decide the distribution of continuities and collisions, whereas in most of your work, you deliberately choose the disjunctions and transitions.

Michel Foucault in The Order of Things and in The Archeology of Knowledge talks about regularities of discursive formations in intellectual disciplines in various epochs. Both the continuities between successive emails and in motifs recurring throughout Inbox (i.e. coaxing submissions from you, asking for you to look at the sender’s work, thanking you for having said something good or encouraging about the sender’s work, engaging in analysis of contemporary U.S. experimental poetry that articulates a position or the seeming impossibility of locating one amid the confusion) expose several of these regularities in this cluster of innovative poetry communities without your having to be expository, except a little at the beginning. So, because I’m very interested in these communities and how they function, I don’t find the book “boring,” in the sense that Tan Lin uses! Have you learned anything about the poetry communities from reading sections of the book publicly or from rereading it after publication?

NEG: In his introduction to the Barnes & Noble Classics version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Lin writes about boredom as “a temporary non-event defined by a span of near-indeterminate waiting.” I think the content of Inbox revolves around exactly that sort of non-event. The constituent parts gesture toward happenings or report on their aftermath, but there’s no dramatic arc. In fact, I think the act of checking one’s email is one of simultaneous boredom and interest. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Boredom can be interesting. Boredom doesn’t interest me, but I’m interested in boredom, which is not in any way an oxymoron. Regardless, I haven’t ever read from the book publicly, and don’t think that I ever will, since I see it as moving through an oddly voyeuristic space that feels more generatively intriguing to the active intimacy created by a reader, rather than that of a passive listener. I haven’t learned anything by rereading the work after publication that I hadn’t already learned when I initially read the individual emails, although for someone else, I’m sure the experience is quite different.

I call the book a reverse-memoir, as it covers a discrete portion of my life and not the up-to-now whole an autobiography would imply. Because most of my life revolves around poetry, for better or for worse, the book is going to be representative of one tiny nexus of colliding communities. That a reader might learn something about such a collision, and therefore something about those regularities of discursive formation, is merely a byproduct of the text. I’m pleased it happens. I’m pleased that the book might in someway be a testament to the ancillary busywork of a poet—and thus a kind of behind-the-scenes extra—but I didn’t think of it that way until I started to hear feedback from some readers. I’ve heard from more folks about Inbox than I have about any of my other books. Of course, one might expect this, given that I’m often hearing back from the collective authors of the book itself, or from those who are mentioned within it. But what’s intriguing is the uniformity of the response, which I’d characterize as essentially an initial uncertainty about the value of project, followed by a sense of surprise, and sometimes delight, upon actually reading the book. I’ve heard from about a half-dozen people who read the thing straight through in a single sitting without intending to do so. Granted, I’m not going to hear from those that hate the thing and this all sounds terribly self-aggrandizing, but my point is that I suppose the book works initially, before one reads a word of it, as a conceptual text, infusing it with an aura of non-emotion, which, after reading is immediately shattered, marking the experience as unsuspected. Surprise is good, right? Can boredom encompass surprise? Am I allowed to contradict myself?

TF: Makes sense to me. Mr. Emerson, Mr. Whitman, you contain multitudes, and you can’t be bothered with the hobgoblin of little minds; you can and may contradict yourself/ yourselves: “Lots of stuff in quotes. Lots of implied (and hopefully distinguishable) voices” (Inbox 10).

A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow (Kalamazoo, MI: New Issues, 2007) opens with the section, “A Dictionary of Music,” followed by “The Right of Return,” whose titles all begin with the words, “The Book of. . . ,” except for the last one, “Postscript: the book of Cain.” “How
Human Nouns”—and our readers should know that your blog was, until recently, called “Human Verb”—is the third section, and in the remaining ones, “epic theater,” the “allusive,” and two other “book” references, “Book of Names” and a ”A Little Book of Prayers,” are mentioned. Granted that the first section takes music as its point of departure, but why are there so many references to “book” in the poem- and section-titles, as well as to language, textuality in general, and literature? (I think of Mallarme’s notion of the “bookness” of the book.) What does this have to do with the arrangement of the poems and the overall project or poetics of this particular book?

NEG: I suppose it comes down to an interest in dualistic moments of rupture, in a recognition of artifice, and a desire to explore rather than conceal what one is doing with a textual surface. There’s a line in “How Human Nouns” that reads: “but someone coughs & the theater caves in,” which I think of as basically exemplary of such concerns. I remember a class I took in graduate school where we were discussing whether or not the speaker in Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper” had actually heard the song. Something about the discussion got under my skin, as I wanted to talk about that “solitary Highland Lass” as a kind of trope, a construct, something outside of experience but invented to simulate experience and explore notions of art and labor. Forgive me for wanting to read Wordsworth as one might read Stevens, which is a roundabout way of saying I’m completely aware that my interests here aren’t all that new or radical.

I guess if I owned a robot, I’d want that robot to know it was a robot. Maybe then it could do its job in a more authentic way. I like how Barthes calls Philippe Sollers’s Event “action, not product.” And who doesn’t like Cézanne’s canvas showing through? Isn’t it interesting when one can hear the screech of fingers moving across a fretboard along with whatever chords are being strummed? Things are layered. Why not poke a hole through them here and there? I’ve never seen an art show that featured photographs of people looking at photographs of people looking at photographs of people taking photographs, but I think I’d like to take a few pictures of one. The foremost concern of much of my writing is an argument with myself for its own justification. Will this interest everyone, certainly not, but then I like Jim Croce yet loathe James Taylor. If I were a choreographer, I’d have my dancers at some point climb into the audience. Once, while at a small indie rock show, the bass player handed the bass to a friend of mine. We were both standing in front of the band, as there was no stage. My friend didn’t know this band at all, but since he is an accomplished musician finished out the last minute or so of the song. I hope my poems can do that same thing. I hope they can be both the bass player and the person to whom the bass is handed off.

TF: Yes, your poems can fulfill that double task. What does Jim Croce have that James Taylor lacks?

NEG: Duende!

TF: Let’s apply your fascinating statement that your “writing is an argument with [yourself] for its own justification” to a “book” poem:

The book of hunger

the sound of smoke

was that of expansion

but the breaking of bread

like a dusk-shadow

became a name

losing itself in echo

until there was no sound

but the snapping

etched into each rib

which repeats

dust . . . dust . . . dust . . . (23)

“The book of hunger” is not the book of filled lack, of realized plenitude; like speech and writing, it is the deferral of presence. This “book” could be a text that either represents actual wants, needs, or desires of others, or acts as though language has its own desires, or propounds the author’s desire to win the argument with himself over the justification of the text. “The sound of smoke,” an auditory image implicitly aligned with a visual sense akin to the proliferation of actual writing on paper or typing on a screen, has “expanded,” if only gaseously (or not quite substantially) to fill enough of the space of writing to justify others’ attention to its textuality, “but” the physical fragmentation (“breaking of bread”) that signifies a stage on the way to the end of “the book of hunger” and to the realization of fulfillment is troped, rather than as being a solid, as having acted much less substantially than the supposed gas. After all, you may think you see “dusk,” but how can you feel it, and, if dusk is a shading or shadowing effect, to refer to a “dusk-shadow” is to entertain the possibility of a shadow of a shadow, the concept of a layering of progressive absences, like a “naming” as successive “echoes” that only gets farther away from the “veritable” thing-in-itself. Without taking too much discursive space by performing a reading of the rest of the poem (and leaving the Biblical-sounding “dust” for your interpretive gesture), perhaps I can say that you justify the poem’s existence to yourself in the act of writing tropes that comprise cogent and accurate ways of exposing a process of “expanding” lack that occurs while one, on the contrary, writes of hunger primarily as a means of replacing it with plenitude. How would you reconstruct the poem’s staging of the argument within you (or between you and you) about its justification?

NEG: Well, I’m not sure that I would, as you’ve picked a poem, actually a section from within a poem, which has a much more specific aboutness to it, although I appreciate your reading of it, and am happy to see it function on multiple levels. I hope that all of my poems might do so. “The book of hunger” is a section of “The Right of Return,” a serial poem that explores historical anti-Semitism and how it had essentially paved the way for the Shoah (the Holocaust). I wanted to create a work that would include numerous references to historical events and assumptions, very specific references, but one that would also be somewhat open, and employ elements of the diasporic experience that are undoubtedly universal, if only to demonstrate such universalities.

The title of the sequence nods to both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, specifically to article 13, and that of the Jewish right of return, as created via The Declaration of Independence that established the State of Israel. In fact, within The Declaration of Independence, there is mention of the Jewish people giving to the world “the eternal Book of Books.” The book is just such a charged and important concept in Judaism, not that I’m by any means a scholar, or even a practitioner of it, but I am Jewish, and did attend temple until my early teen years. The titles of the various sections of the poem owe something to Edmond Jabès. His work was crucial to me at a certain point, and I felt a deep affinity for his own experience of Judaism, although I’ve never been expelled, as he was, from my homeland for it.

I’ll tell you a funny story: I once had lunch with Tomaž Šalamun, and was explaining to him the way I read, how I’m always looking at form, trying to figure out how the book does what it does. Midway into what I’m sure was beginning to become a murky monologue, he asked, “Noah, are you Jewish?” I said, “Yes.” Putting his hand on my shoulder, he said, “That is the way with the Jew and the Book.” Of course, he was absolutely right!

As far as those references I’d mentioned, they’re all over the poem, although they can be hermetic at times, which is okay with me. I’m not big on the inclusion of notes pages in books of poetry and feel like the poet has done the work already and if one is so included to do some research, well, great, maybe it’ll make one’s engagement with the work all the more deepened, but it’s not wholly necessary. For example, “The book of rebuilding” quotes from a tablet which reads: “a month of fruit harvest/ a month of sowing/ one of after-grass.” Further on in the poem there is the line, “Knew they weren’t always wanderers.” Does it matter if a reader is unaware that I’m quoting from the earliest known Jewish calendar? No, it doesn’t, because one can infer that clearly agricultural activities means a peoples are rooted somewhere. There are allusions within the sequence which are well known, such as that of “a pound/ of flesh without a drop of blood,” from The Merchant of Venice, where the character of Shylock is representative of, and further propagates, anti-Semitic notions.

And there are also references to some of the ways in which we’ve tried to come to terms with the Shoah. I once watched all nine hours of the film Shoah, and was just completely devastated. That I watched it while I was an undergrad in a little viewing booth, with big head phones on, sitting in what was becoming an increasingly uncomfortable chair made it all the more unbearable. The first sentence of “Postscript: the book of Cain” is a reference to the film. It reads: “He took the train to an empty field which was not empty when an older train arrived years ago.” There are portions of the film in which villagers who had witnessed trainloads of people being shipped to the camps are interviewed while trains are moving down those very same tracks in the background.

Although I’m not so interested in fully explicating “the book of hunger,” I will say that the “expansion” mentioned is that of the death of the individual; it’s an expansion of self into otherness, as well as a solid into a gas. I think of the “hunger” here as very much that of literal starvation. Read through the lens of the camps, the poem takes on something quite different, no?

I realize that using such a charged historical landscape for a poem is an act fraught with numerous issues, but but but the poem doesn’t place the poet on a hilltop beaming down epiphanic quips about the human condition. As I said already, my intention here was to allow for a more open-ended reading. In a way, one might consider this the staging of that argument you mentioned. Does authorial intention matter? I hope not, but I also hope a work displays its presence.

TF: Your extremely useful explanation shows that intention can matter a great deal, even if it doesn’t constitute the horizon of interpretation. When I read the title, “The Right of Return,” I thought about the context of Israel, but then, I didn’t find anything in the sequence that seemed overtly related to it, perhaps because I haven’t read Jabès, so I figured that “return” might instead involve something like the “return of the repressed” in Freud. Yes, the Shylock references jump out at you, but at those points, I wasn’t thinking about the original meaning of “the right of return,” and I couldn’t connect this glaring representation of Jews with a thread of discourse about the Shoah. Now that you’ve brought all this up, your elucidation of specific intention (as opposed to the permission of “a more open-ended reading”) can enable my reading of the sequence to be much fuller, much more satisfactory, even if I don’t get around to reading Jabès in the near future. If there’s still anything of value in the rhetorical aspects of my brief and very partial interpretation above, they could be strengthened through contact with the historical frames.

I’d like to touch upon a dynamic raised in another sequence in the book, “Four Allusive Fields.” When Cy Twombly moved to Rome in the late fifties, the “abstract” marks in his paintings began to refer to textures and colors of ancient Roman architecture, and some works allude to Homer’s epics. There are plenty of allusions to this utilization of classical Greco-Roman culture in the four “allusive” poems, as well as descriptions of Twombly’s colors and surfaces and tropological flights that can be taken as imaginative descriptions. Here’s the first one:

Cy listens absently to absent Homer
& his refusal become a dead thing full of music
Smash it on a cyclotron. Drag it across a dozen centuries
Drips are old. Smudges are old. Talking a museum
out of its eternal monologue, it’s not embarrassing
to leak in waves & cones. Nudes fall from newspapers
as you fell from an oily twilight, from a painting
of the word twilight, arranged without letters, inkless
like a fire that consumes all before it, or better, inkless
as the phrase: “like a fire that consumes all before it”
Who wouldn’t be mayor of a worked-over surface
returning clutter for a broom, ever-after for Cliffs Notes
Work smudging talk; talk smudging work
Obedience is an awful word I think to get lost in (53)

In Burning Interiors”: David Shapiro’s Poetry and Poetics (Ed. Joseph Lease and Thomas Fink. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2007), your article, “Written and Rewritten to Order: The Gift of Generative Possibility in the Work of David Shapiro,” treats the rewriting of the texts of contemporary poets by contemporary poets—not “drag[ging] it across a dozen centuries”!—as evidence of the receipt of the “original” writer’s gift. It is also a reciprocating homage to and celebration of the source-poet and his/her work that actualizes possibilities inherent in the original text. In your own poetic practice, as manifested in A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow and your first two books (since we’ve already addressed the collage-technique in Inbox), I believe that you strive to enable source-texts, whether recent or “old,” to realize their “goal” of refusing “to become a dead thing full of music.” Even if you have to “smash” others’ language “on” your own version of “a cyclotron,” your reciprocal gift, homage, and celebration—a complicating, not a banalizing, simplifying “Cliffs Notes”—includes the intention of “talking a museum/ out of its eternal monologue,” of generating dialogic energy. Thus, “obedience” may be an awful concept, but paradoxically, some degree of obedience to others’ language affords, in Hart Crane’s terms, “new thresholds, new anatomies.” Could you please respond to my basic drift here and, if what I’m saying has some validity, provide a few examples?

NEG: Oh yes, I think there’s validity to your basic drift. I’m a big proponent of drifting, of flux, and the notion of the gift in all spheres, whether it’s KRS ONE sampling Public Enemy, Dante reanimating Virgil, or the rabbinical practice of midrash, of inserting (asserting) one’s self into Judaism’s core texts. Isn’t this the poetic tradition in a nutshell? Art transcending linear time? Maybe I’m getting too grand here, but I think your reading of my poem is spot on. The Fiddle book is full of homage, dialogue, and general engagement with the work of others. Outside of the “Four Allusive Fields” sequence that you mention (& that I discuss here at length:, the other poem that loudly tries to talk “a museum/ out of its eternal monologue” would be “A New Hymn to the Old Night.” The poem takes two variants of English translations of the same bit of Novalis’s Hymns to the Night, Dick Higgins’s “[d]own over there, far, lies the world,” and George MacDonald’s “[a]far lies the world,” as a kind of refrain, which I use as both digression and homage, attempting to open other possibilities, and in doing so, to effectively praise a meticulous uncertainty. The poem here and there nods to Novalis’s life, but in small ways, with mention of the loss of Sophie, his beloved, and the blue flower that figures so prominently in his novel, although, to be certain, it also includes things that are pretty far removed from Novalis. For example, while I was working on the poem I received an email from David Shapiro in which he mentioned his recent trip to Mexico, and how he was afraid of nothing. I loved the way he’d said this, how it rang with bravado and humorous self-parody, so I simply included it in the poem.

The danger in continually allowing in the work of others is when one uses it as a crutch, when one doesn’t attempt to further the work, so that a line or phrase from someone else becomes the most interesting thing in one’s own work. You should just edit an anthology if that’s the case. For me, I read as a kind of miner, looking for raw things, ideas, syntax, rhythms, I might extract, bring home, and then treat, alter, and polish; the final stage being the most important. The four sonnets that make up “Untragic Hero of Epic Theater” came out of my reading of Benjamin on Brecht, but it’s also infused with personal experience, as are all of my poems. I once watched “a display window where a bee stumbling/ between bits of jewelry” had me oddly enthralled in its epic tragedy. I’m not interested in the poem as book report. The poem that glues a chair out of books and then sits in, now that’s more interesting, as long as it’s willing to look out the window now and again.

TF: And the chair bears whatever poetic weight descends on it.

A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow features a variety of stanzaic-patterns, as well as modes of indentation, but the one-line stanza, which, I’ve noticed, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Timothy Liu, and Charles Bernstein also use to excellent good effect, is especially prominent. What advantages do you find in the one-line stanza? It would be interesting, also, to hear about whatever prompted some of the stanzaic decisions you made in various parts of the book.

NEG: I once watched a spider spin an entire web, from start to finish. This must have been sometime in the late 1990s. I was on my way out the front door when morning light caught the first anchoring volleys of the web, making it glisten and clearly visible. Normally, I’d have just pushed the threads aside and continued on, but seeing the little thing hard at work was too intriguing, its systematic creation—once I’d paused to watch—too stunning. So I let an hour or so get eaten standing in the doorway. I loved how the thing would weave back and forth, leaving behind these tiny boxes, which, in its next pass, were subdivided even further. Some sort of previously unarticulated understanding of form was beginning to oil the gears in the back of my mind. At the time, I lived with several housemates, and left them a note asking that they not use the front door that day. After leaving out the back, I returned home several hours later, and, having forgotten entirely the spider and my note, burst through the front door to find two of my housemates laughing at my transgression, at the sincerity of my note and my own ruinous forgetfulness.

For me, the line rises from just such a balance between diligent exactitude and explosive, ebullient destruction. A single line stanza is perhaps the embodiment of this kind of oscillation. It hovers, almost isolated, allowing one to consider all of its implications, meanings and possibilities as an autonomous unit, yet it’s also clearly wedded to its upstairs and downstairs neighbors, sometimes more closely to one than the other. There’s this moment before the sun has completely set when people have their lights on but haven’t drawn their blinds. Looking up at a multi-story apartment complex one might take in the buzzing life and brief private narratives of any of the individual windows, or step back and see the whole of it in the building itself. Not that I’m advocating voyeurism here, but the same is true with a poem’s stanzaic pattern. The first encounter with the page is visual. One is faced with a definite shape, a spatial arrangement that registers and projects a kind of order (or disorder) before one begins reading. I think this is something that you’ve been working with for several years now.

A lot of my own decisions about these patterns are based on an attempt to maximize the tension between that visual, pre-reading engagement with the poem and its later musical and referential dynamics. I like thinking about the relationship the line in painting has to that in poetry. In one of Cézanne’s letters, he writes about the horizontal line as giving breadth and the vertical as depth. I think there’s something there true to its similar function in poetry. I don’t ever compose in lines. I create them afterwards, which is why A Fiddle Pulled from the Throat of a Sparrow took six years to write and the prose of Novel Pictorial Noise took about six months.

TF: Novel Pictorial Noise (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), selected for the National Poetry Series by John Ashbery, consists of fifty prose-poems, each a page or less in length and each followed by a line or two or three or sometimes more of verse. Sheila E. Murphy’s “American Haibun” is a prose-paragraph followed by one line, but your approach is more variable. I like what Ashbery has to say about this in his blurb—that “each prose-bloc” is “modified or modulated by the ghostly fragments that interleave them,” and the ghostliness often has to do with grammatical anomalies, like two prepositions in direct proximity that don’t normally interact. The modifications that Ashbery talks about are mysterious to me; how did you establish a relationship between the paragraphs and the verse, at least in your own mind?

NEG: Forced proximity can be a funny thing. Isn’t that what we poets do, a little violent yoking? I’m glad to hear that there’s some mystery in the reading experience for you. I’m always compelled by texts that resist whatever default reading modes we bring to them. I haven’t seen the Murphy book that you mention, but the classic Haibun form—or at least what I know of it via Basho in translation—could be one way to consider the relationship the book sets up between prose and fragment. The reading that Ashbery applied via that blurb seems to gel with the gist of Haibun, an exploratory prose followed by either a summary or extending Haiku, which is here replaced with a fragment. It works if one thinks of the book as a progression, a kind of movement from one perception or inquiry to the next. But I’m not necessarily wed to that sort of reading.

One could think of the fragments as wall text accompanying the canvas-like geometric shape of the prose, or à la Williams’s Kora in Hell as an oblique sort of commentary on the prose. In fact, it’s pretty fitting that Ashbery selected the book, because his famous opening to Three Poems is probably the most useful way to engage with the prose/fragment dialectic: “I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.” To step out from behind the compositional curtain, the fragments are actually erasures of the prose, although they appear in the book in reverse order, which is to say that the fragment on page 2 is an erasure of the prose on page 99, so they touch their mirror images at the book’s center, on pages 50 and 51. I did this because I wanted to book to fold in on itself, to collapse and expand like a lung. As a fan of constraint, accident, and coincidence, I was pleased with the results.

TF: Could you explain specifically what you mean by “erasure of the prose”? Some of the words on page 99 are included in the fragment on page 2, but not all, so I’m not seeing how the non-repeated words constitute an erasure.

NEG: Sure. Originally this manuscript was called Fifty Paragraphs from a Perfectly Functional Book. I’d had an ambitious notion to begin work on a large scale, multi-volume poem that would explore lots of different forms. I’m about half way into another manuscript called One Thousand Lines from a Perfectly Functional Book, which should give some sense of the project’s scope, but I think I’m pretty much done with this idea, and will in time alter that title as well. Anyhow, after I’d completed the paragraphs, I realized that the book needed something else, some kind of counterpoint to the density and formal elements of the prose. Procedurally, I simply went through each paragraph, deleting its rhetorical framework, and retaining whatever minor elements I felt were somehow compelling. The words in each of the fragments appear in the same order as they do in the prose. The only word on page 2 that doesn’t appear in the paragraph on page 99 is the first, “composition,” which I must have at some point edited out of the final version of that paragraph. I decided to retain the capitalization within the fragments, which read to me like a kind of pictorial alchemy.

TF: The word “noise” comes up repeatedly in this book, and it harks back to sound references in the titles of your two first books, The Frequencies and The Area of Sound Called the Subtone. “The essence of pictorial fact,” you write not far from the beginning of Novel Pictorial Noise, “aspires to describe itself as a panorama, an impossible cultivation of pictorial elements” (15). Throughout the text, both the impossibility and appeal of such a cultivation of totality/ totalization is figured in diverse ways. I wonder, then, about the significance(s) of the title. Is its synesthesia a critique or (just an) acknowledgment of how the visual in U.S. culture saturates us wherever we turn? Does “novel” provide the less than approving connotation of novelty or the most positive sense of Pound’s “make it new”? Or is this prose-poem a creature of another genre, a novel including “pictorial noise”? Also, our readers can look up the book’s cover online and see the presence of “Prose” and “Poetry” with directional arrows and lines; if you feel like talking about the relation of Michael Labenz’s cover image to your own sense of how the title works, please do.

NEG: All of those readings of the title work, and all of them were intentional. It’s important to me to create things that work with multiple meanings, on multiple levels. I think this lends a sense of self-renewal to art. It’s not so much news that stays news as it is news that renews, news that opens in different ways with each encounter. Everything I write is acutely aware of itself on a sonic, aural level, and this awareness is part of its compositional structure, part of the way I proceed, rather than something that’s amended and altered in the editing process. The tuning fork, which is not an instrument at all, is also my favorite instrument. I’m not sure what exactly I mean by that, nevertheless I stand behind it with my entire being, because it’s an example of logical noise. Well, maybe it’s nonsensical music. It might be both.

As for the cover, I couldn’t be happier with it. Michael Labenz is a good friend of mine. He did cover images for The Frequencies and The Area of Sound Called the Subtone, as well as for all of the Braincase chapbooks that I’ve published. A new issue of Denver Quarterly will feature his work on its cover. He’s also gearing up to do all of the design work for a new press that I’m going to be involved with, but that’s a few years down the road. Mike is an incredible autodidact, a reading machine, and one of the funniest and most goofy people I know. When we lived in the same town, I’d often see him in the mornings on his daily pilgrimage to a café where he’d tackle all sorts of critical theory, philosophy, and poetry. The guy worked part-time and lived frugally so that he could read as widely and broadly as he wanted. He keeps small notebooks where he sketches out these almost hermetic graphic representations of his thinking, which are just incredible. Working with him is great because he’ll read the text and come up with an image that absolutely embodies its concerns, and that can further those concerns by adding a visual extension and depth, something that interacts with the writing instead of just representing it. I think that’s what he did with Novel Pictorial Noise, although I’ll leave the explication of the relationship between the image and the writing to someone else.

TF: The end of each prose section of Novel Pictorial Noise includes a rhyming or slant-rhyming couplet. (As you spent some time in Amherst, slant-rapmaster Emily is not irrelevant.) Within prose-poetry’s great flexibility, a formal feeling comes at the end. Of course, the rhymes are often humorous: “Snow falls over my perpetual excuse, turning the narrative loose” (33). Indeed, in this prose-poem, “each paragraph requires the participants to reposition themselves,” and the traditional constraint does not reassure, but offers a rousing disorientation: “If one were to take transgression as one’s starting point, then it would be limitation that throws one satisfyingly out of joint” (83). Rhyme might be the tuning fork that throws the reader satisfyingly out of tune or into an unfamiliar pattern. What was it like for you to use the rhymes as a constraint—that is, how did this element affect your overall process? And now that you’re another reader of the (finished) text, how do the rhymes influence your experience of the whole?

NEG: I did a reading from the book about a week ago, and afterward, a friend of mine—someone who’d never seen nor heard the work from this book—said, “I liked those jabs you had at the end.” Initially, I didn’t understand the comment, but after talking for a bit it became clear that the listening experience was one that, for this particular person, was punctuated with a sort of sly emphasis, that each rhyme served as both punch and wink. Of course, I was glad to hear it.

My intention with the rhyme was threefold: first off, I wanted to use a formal device that would call attention to the artifice of the work, like a photographer who purposely leaves a smudge on the camera’s lens; one is forced to recognize that there is a negotiation present, that there are layers to one’s interactions. Secondly, I wanted to trump some of the expectations that are tethered to the prose poem by combining it with a device normally associated with the lyric, with lineated works. Although the myriad definitions and considerations of the prose poem often focus on musicality, they rarely mention prosody, which makes sense, since one is not dealing with verse. However, I think of the sentence as a kind of line, a unit of measure, and moreover, the relationship between sentences as both mental and rhythmic caesura. I’ve been working with the paragraph form for about six years or so, and I see it as distinct from prose poetry, or at least as a subgenre with a separate set of concerns. I suppose that in trying to work out issues of form there’s something inherently polemical. The existence of the text becomes an argument for a position, for its position. Finally, and to more directly answer your question, I wanted to use a constraint that would push my writing in a different direction, or at least alter my compositional procedure. The most difficult thing about working in such a mode is trying to shake it. Acclimating was easy; I started thinking in rhyme. I was even inclined to include it in my critical writing of the time. After I’d finished the book, and so jettisoned its formal constraints (though not its formal concerns) from then current and future projects, I had to forcibly reject all of the rhyme that kept popping into my head. It was just invasive, and, at that point, felt formally dead.

TF: How does “the paragraph form” have “a separate set of concerns” from prose poetry?

NEG: With the paragraph, one can safely stow away the canonical baggage of the prose poem, which seems to be getting heavier and heavier each year. As I use it, the paragraph is a form that harnesses the pressure of having to sculpt attention out of a contextual void. It places a larger demand on immediacy and speed, which is compounded by the restrictions of duration, since more often than not I’m working without a title, and in such a way as to render a title superfluous. I’m interested in surfaces and surface play, but also in attempting to accrue some kind of depth. It’s like watching through a frozen lake as the shadow of a creature underneath darts by. The more intently one looks at a single spot with the hope of seeing it again the less the range one is able to cover, and thus the likelihood catching the thing is also lessoned. In a sense, the paragraph asks to be tackled quickly, but also in its brevity offers a palatable return. Of course, these things can all be true for the prose poem, however its leash seems to me to be a little longer.

TF: What are a few of the aspects of writing poetry and texts in paragraphs that you enjoy most—that keep you excited about doing it?

NEG: Being excited about writing, which I am, doesn’t necessarily mean that I enjoy it. It’s work. It’s what I do, what I think about. My brother, who is a sociolinguist, and currently doing research in Myanmar, once jokingly referred to me as a man of leisure. I think it’s a telling example of the overall, larger cultural perception of what it is that we poets do, as though I were wandering among some picturesque landscape with a quill pen, plucking fruit from trees, and jotting down metaphors about the purity of their taste. For me, writing is a way to work out problems. It’s an all consuming, anxiety-ridden, difficult activity that has completely reshaped the course of my life and the constituent components of each of my days. I absolutely love it, but am not so sure I enjoy it.

TF: Thank you, Noah.

NEG: And thank you!


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