Friday, January 28, 2005

Interview with Thomas Fink

Tom Beckett: You are a poet and a painter. Would you speak to what that means in terms of your daily practices? Do the two activities overlap?

Thomas Fink: I started painting in 1983, a good 15 years after I started writing poetry. Until 2001, I kept the verbal and visual spheres separate, at least consciously. But that year, I titled a painting “Gossip” to go on the front cover of Gossip, my second book of poems. I didn’t plan the painting to be seen as a highly abstract version of many folks gossiping, but, in retrospect, that reading might work. In January 2004, after finishing the poems collected and published eleven months later in After Taxes, I somewhat arbitrarily chose another cover painting called, naturally, “After Taxes.” At that point, I wanted to get away from the limited array of stanza patterns I’d used for three or four years. So, to find new stanza patterns, I talked to mathematicians about numerical sequences, but nothing seemed too promising, and I kept writing in my old stanzaic modes. Suddenly, it became clear I could forge a relation between painting and poetry by developing poems in abstract shapes that would then be used as imagery in series of paintings. So I’ve been doing that in both media for the past six months or so.

TB: I've always been fascinated by the fact that the Italian noun "stanza" means room.

Were those earlier stanza patterns, within those earlier poetic structures, to any extent pre-fabricated, pre-determined? Or were they developed through other considerations? And how does using "shaped" stanzas alter your composition process (if it does)?

TF: In Surprise Visit (1993), my first book, and in Gossip, I created strophe-breaks— rarely stanzas, because the patterning wasn’t usually consistent—when a pause seemed warranted or I could make things intriguingly off-balance. By 2000, when I started writing poems that wound up in After Taxes, this intuitive practice was getting dull, so I pre-fabricated a new kind of “room” for my verse: ascending, descending, and ascending/ descending stanzas. Eileen Tabios’s hay(na)ku has one word in a line, then two in the next, then three, etc. but, in mine, let’s say, one line in the first stanza, two lines in the next, three, etc. (When she invented her form in 2002, Eileen hadn’t seen any of those poems, only Gossip. Her sense of ascending came from other sources, as she explains in her new book.) After doing a few ascending and descending stanza poems, I figured this mode could be used exclusively in After Taxes, but there are some slight departures. It was a good experience to force the poems’ flux into rising/increasing and falling/ diminishing structures. At times, a “rising” linguistic coda would interestingly clash with a “falling” stanza pattern, so the structures never got too coercive.

Using abstract shapes in poems instead of stanzas doesn’t alter the beginning of my composition process. The first few drafts might be in prose blocks or lines of free-verse without stanza breaks. But when the language seems to be working, I begin to shape the words on the computer, and the material impact of each word and of line-breaks (occasioned by a prescribed or evolving overall shape) sometimes alerts me to new significations and sound-effects in word-combinations. When this happens, I may change some words or syntactical structures in the poem to jibe with the new awareness.

TB: Could you talk in a broader way about your process of composition? Where does the material for those first few drafts come from? How is it accumulated? Do any procedures come into play?

TF: I begin and develop poems in five or six different ways. I’ll talk about the most frequently used way. First, I accumulate 1 to 5 pages of lines in a notebook (or makeshift stapled “notebook” of used paper with one side blank). Some lines are usually free-writing, others immediate responses to passages from texts I’ve been reading, others interesting fragments or sentences from those texts. But I don’t copy the texts verbatim; I substitute other words for most of the text’s words through procedures like (and often not identical to) those that the Oulipo, Language Poets, New York School, and others have given us. One example of a procedure I don’t exactly use is N + 7; I find more flexible variations. Modifying Louis Zukofsky’s idea of homophonic translation, I write down bits of conversation in foreign languages that I hear on a train or in a restaurant. However, results of such procedures may not stand; they’re frequently transformed.

Once I feel I’ve accumulated enough writing, I first go to work on the least interesting parts that are my own free-writing, and I perform procedures on them to change some word-combinations to more felicitous ones. Then, still not knowing where the poem is heading, I revise the whole 1 to 5 pages in another notebook, getting rid of dead passages and doing whatever I can to make the language and emerging tropes or concepts more interesting. When I’m finally satisfied that all the lines are reasonably strong, the hard part arrives: I see which fragments and sentences connect with or play off of one another. It’s usually well under 50% of the lines/sentences, not surprisingly, and that portion is transferred into a third notebook, where I improve relationships between lines/sentences by adding or subtracting words, altering syntax, and adding further sentences in dialogue with ones already there. Finally, before moving to the “shaping” phase on the computer or, in some cases, creation of stanzas, I re-test the order of sentences/fragments and keep moving them around until I’m happy with the sequence as a poem. So even though constraints and procedures produce effects, those effects may be partially or wholly edited out.

TB: What appeals to me most about your poetry writing is its multiplying musics of slippage. There's a productive lyrical instability operative in your language which is wedded to the logic of collage.

TF: Thank you. I aspire to what you characterize in my work, and collage is central to what I do. In your interview in Jacket 25 conducted by Richard Lopez, several of your remarks about poetry resonate tremendously with my own preoccupations. You talk about how writing poetry for you is an epistemological process, how “part of a poet’s job is to rev-up the language,” and how central humor is to you. Collaging, though not an end in itself, pertains to all of this. Although I began to read Language writing carefully rather late, what you identify as “one of the major threads of Language writing—finding ways to break out of one’s usual habits of thought/ speech through mechanisms of disruption,” has been a primary concern of mine for a long time.
TB: Many of the poems in After Taxes bear a family resemblance to Charles Bernstein's work. Virtually any of the pieces in Section III would serve as examples. Here's the full text of "Dented Reprise II":


She's a

muscular void,
a discrete, intractable ditty.

A tether of drizzled pearls
paste a gel on me
and pee on my pride;

I'd spree on your slide.
This is no season
to subdivide.
We plot to spay the bruise if we

wanna fling taboos.
Angel prose, it don't appease thee.
Clear students,

open up your skies.
You don't have

to scribble highbrow recipes.

This is a poem as soundscape and associational avalanche. It is also a poem, that to my ear, wears its influences out in the open. I don't mean that as a put down. I often had moments in reading After Taxes when I'd say to myself, "That looks like something Charles would write." And that was almost simultaneous with the self-recognition that that same passage was something I wished I had written. I am, for example, deeply jealous of the line beginning "DECONSTRICTED SESTINA II": "Is this a lust-/controlled apartment.?"

What I'm rambling toward here is the question of influence. How does your experience of other writers figure in the creation of your poetry?

TF: In the “Dented Reprise” series, I transformed lines from rock songs into other, often rhyming or slant-rhyming words. For example, the first 3 lines of “Dented Reprise II” riff off Herman’s Hermits’ “She’s a Must to Avoid”; the closing lines echo Tom Petty’s refrain, “You don’t have to live like a refugee.” I’ve listened to a lot of sixties and seventies rock for the last 40 years, so, in these poems, “influences” are worn, to change your idea slightly, almost “out in the open.”

I did a doctoral dissertation at Columbia on John Ashbery in 1980, and it took me nearly the entire eighties to work through his overwhelming influence (and, secondarily, that of Wallace Stevens). In Hail, Hail Rock and Roll, Chuck Berry attributes his unique guitar style to the cross-fertilization of 3 influences—including Charlie Christian; the others I forget. Eric Clapton and Keith Richards add Berry’s pianist, Johnny Johnston. There could have been other big influences. The point is that some degree of multiplicity often helps. Since I’ve written reviews or articles on many current poets, more than a few have probably influenced me.

Regarding Charles Bernstein, I only know one poetry collection, With Strings, well, as I reviewed it positively for Verse, but I’ve really poured over the critical prose— especially in My Way. Nourishment for the “soundscape and associational avalanche” that you graciously locate in “Dented Reprise II” may stem from recent John Yau, Clark Coolidge’s On the Nameways books, David Shapiro (subject of my first book of criticism), Ashbery, early Joseph Donahue, the slippery ecriture of Jacques Derrida, Barbara Johnson, and Jacques Lacan, and the Capitol Steps comedian who spews Spoonerisms. Too recently to have influenced After Taxes, I’ve come across the work of Tom Beckett, Harryette Mullen, Sheila E. Murphy, Andrew Joron, and younger poets like Noelle Kocot, Sean Singer, Joanna Fuhrman, and Noah Eli Gordon. Probable influences on collage, abstraction, and representation of the social in my poetry are Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Robert Creeley, Joseph Lease, Denise Duhamel, Emily Dickinson, Timothy Liu, Stephen Paul Miller, Eileen Tabios, Ron Silliman’s Tjanting, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, and Wislawa Szymborska.

But to take your question differently, my source-texts typically include philosophical works, cultural criticism, novels, short stories, or plays I may be teaching in a lit class, political speeches, science texts I often don’t quite follow, biographies/ autobiographies of visual artists, U.S. Presidents, rock ‘n rollers, and the occasional unclassifiable weirdo, self-help books, and popular magazine stories. While writing “Trillion Urges: Manufacturers,” the longish poem that ends After Taxes, I read the bios of folks like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and J.P. Morgan and economics textbooks; it filled in gaps in my education.

TB: I'm having a difficult time typing now. The egg I wiped from my face is dripping onto the keyboard. What I saw as work influenced by Bernstein was work in which you employed some of the same kinds of techniques Charles has been known to use. Interesting…I didn't make the pop song connection.

Recently, on his blog fait accompli, Nick Piombino posted a piece about the "ownership" of words--"Who Owns Words?" Certainly there are characteristic usages that seem to belong to certain writers. "Insistent", I would argue by way of example, belongs to Creeley in a way that it belongs to no other writer. And it belongs to him through a lifetime of precisely idiosyncratic use.

Here I go, rambling precariously again… Let me ask: what are your thoughts about the ethics of appropriation in writing? And is there a word that you would like to have belong to you--and why?

TF: Now I have to read more of Bernstein’s earlier poetry!

To write anything, one “lifts” previous linguistic/conceptual patterns. Bernstein has made this point nicely in his essays about notions of innovation. When one doesn’t think s/he’s been appropriating, it still often happens. Wholesale appropriation of those who’ve been disenfranchised is terrible, whether or not there are material consequences. But uses of appropriation to engender a dialogue among sources, also including one’s own interpretive gestures, can reflect “openness” to “otherness,” to imagination as plural possibility. (Sorry about the purple rhetoric!)

In various poems, I use utterances of family members, living and dead, who are/ were not poets. Borrowings from any individual are all brief, even if many accumulate, as in “The Ethel Landsman Poems” and “And Called It Milk,” as opposed to “Symposium 1967,” in which close to 10 people interrupt each other. I wouldn’t feel right about taking someone’s extensive narration or philosophical meditation. I feel ok, though, about creating a new order for their fragmentary utterances and letting traces of their way of speaking convey something of their personalities—as homage and, in the cases of the dead, at least mediated preservation of their memory—but without the illusion that “selves” can be re-presented fully and accurately.

What you say about Creeley and “insistent” is so true. I don’t seek ownership of any word. I’m more interested in combinations of words than any single signifier.

TB: What for you constitutes the social space of writing?

TF: My response is informed by poststructuralist theory—the version that grew more overtly political in the eighties and nineties—which indicates that the social provides the diverse, often mutually interactive spaces (frames) through which writers construct at least minimal intelligibilities and, I hope, maximal dialogic energies. It would be good to think “beyond” or “beside” this poststructuralist view. (For example, I’d like to assess how aspects of religious experience are not necessarily constituted by the social.) But I don’t have the words to do that, so I’ll elaborate on what I can think at this point.

As Language Poets like Charles Bernstein have made clear, “liberation of the signifier” isn’t liberation from the social, but from poor, useless conceptions of the social. Barrett Watten and, I think, Nick Piombino have exposed how early surrealist theory trumpets the revelation of true inner selfhood (which indicates the mere instrumentality of words), the mystical spontaneity and freedom of the unconscious, manifested. Rejecting such mystification, I can still affirm surrealist practice as deployment (fully cognizant or not) of available materials within existing (social) discourses in order to shuffle, recombine, stretch, flatten, truncate, or otherwise morph them into pleasurable, edifying imaginative constructs. And surrealist constructs inevitably play off more familiar concepts of the social in the writer and the reader’s interpretive processes.

TB: In the exchange between yourself and Stephen Paul Miller which introduces Gossip, you state: "Some of my poetry attempts to use the play of voices to suggest how power relations in a family reflect larger social structures." Can you expand on that?

TF: Oy. Egg’s hitting whose keyboard now? Why did I bloviate like that? Now I have to issue a recall! Well, lemme salvage matters through editing: “Some of my poetry attempts to use the play of voices to encourage an open-ended dialogue among differing perspectives, including implicit social ideologies.” Many of us do that, right? And it’s worth doing.

In “Symposium, 1967,” the poem I was thinking of when I bloviated, members of a middle class family (mine) cope with health fears, insecurities about “self,” desires for and resistances to intimacy, and other “safety issues” by trying out assertions, posing questions, reacting, and evading answers in different and sometimes similar ways. No visual clues allow a reader to separate the voices, and, in this case, no ideological clashes are there to help. But I suspect that, after a page or so, distinguishing voices from one another isn’t difficult. “Hard Core Realty” is a short poem that uses italics and boldface to differentiate. I mostly allow a real estate agent to gab, but two other voices interject enigmatic utterances to destabilize the sales pitch.

TB: Bloviated?! You're being modest. At any rate, family voices figure prominently and memorably in some of your longest and strongest poetic texts.

I'm thinking, in particular, of "And Called It Milk" where lines often have the impact of aphorisms. For example: "Candy's like a mommy without a brain." It's a sequence that's remarkable for the unforced ways in which it explores the poetic ramifications of childhood speech.

Would you comment on how you came to compose "And Called It Milk" and your thinking about the role of family in your work?

TF: Between 1992, when my older daughter Ariana was 2, and around ’97, I wrote down many things she said—the way other parents take scads of pictures. This was also a means of paying careful attention, one that’s meaningfully different from the basics of physical “child care.” My younger daughter Maya, designer of the Mayan hay(na)ku recently, was born in 1993, and when I started jotting down her speech, I kept it separate from Ariana’s stuff.

In ’94, I asked Vanesa Perez-Alvarez, my student who was collaborating on some poems with me, to engage in poetic dialogue with Ariana’s phrases, as I wasn’t sure how to build a poem out of them myself. Though Vanesa’s a good poet, the experiment bogged down after a while. I had to do it myself; soon it was obvious I was writing a long poem. I kept adding, slightly revising, and subtracting sentences and rearranging sections and the order of sections—also including my own effort to inhabit her discourse—until 1999. Then, I figured I’d gotten “And Called It Milk” right (enough). Spin-off poems with unused sentences and at least one with Maya’s language and another with my mother’s conversation with her were then created and placed after the long poem in Gossip. Section II of After Taxes begins with several short poems that mostly use Maya’s sentences.

I made up the sentence, “Candy’s like a mommy without a brain,” but Ariana did talk a lot about candy. Why wouldn’t she? Exploring “the poetic ramifications of childhood speech”—exactly what you said—was my goal in “And Called It Milk” and the satellite poems. “The poetic” here involves questions children uninhibitedly ask; their wonderfully weird epistemological travels, fantasies involving power relations (and reversals of them); uneven assimilation and parody of adults’ values, positions, postures, and topics; and fascination with the uncanny and the transgressive.

The recent work of yours that I know best uses various kinds of discourse, but as far as I can tell, not children’s. Have you ever found kid-talk generative in your own writing?

TB: I've always been fascinated by children's language but it hasn't been generative in my writing. Humor though is often generative. Puns, creative mishearing, double entendres have recurring roles in my work.

There are frequently seriously funny moments in your poetry. What are your thoughts about humor in the context of innovative writing?

TF: I’m glad you say “seriously funny.” Except when subject matter is incredibly dark (and wit would be cruel), I find relentless gravity oppressive, and humor works well in addressing serious matters flexibly—without too much self-indulgent earnestness and rigidity.

Among other things, innovative writing investigates how language behaves. Far from aberrations, puns and double entendres exemplify a basic instability and plurality of reference; this naturally involves humor. When we change a few letters, words, or word-orders of a “pre-text” or our own “free writing” and foreground what Stevens called the “latent double in the word,” and thus arrive at something delightfully weird or “other,” it relieves the tedium and alienating effects of automatic, unthinking patterns of “communication” (non-communication?) and loathsome ideological gunk. What you aptly term “creative mishearing” can turn the material “conduit” of right-wing propaganda into marvelous stuff that simultaneously reminds us of the ideology’s absurdity, offers playful resistance to coercion, and pleasurable imaginative excess, a good kind of surplus. African-American signifying comes to mind.

But I find that language intelligently conveying admirable ideology or otherwise effective writing/talk—that is, words I don’t necessarily want to parody—can also be material for humorous effects. Is that true for you?

TB: It is. To twist Monsieur Mallarme's famous aphorism, sometimes it seems that all the world exists to end up in a joke. Which is not to say that everything should be made light of. Nonetheless, in many ways, the world is a funny place.

I think poets share a responsibility with philosophers: to test boundaries by asking fundamental questions. For poets, often those questions involve the role of language in the constitution of reality/realities. It is not surprising that "word" is embedded in "wor(l)d". Or that "whirled" is echoed in "world". It is all quite dizzying.

What for you, Thomas, does poetry do?

TF: Your points about articulation of “fundamental questions,” including those about linguistic functioning, are a superb answer to your question. Much of what we’ve said in this interview supports the vitality of these concepts.

Of course, fundamental questioning can emerge from the use of very different poetic modes, not only forms of experimentation we’ve stressed. I’ll mention a few others. Although the examples of William Carlos Williams, H.D., Louis Zukofsky et al. may make it hard for today’s poets to break new ground in placing primary emphasis on intense, concise, specific sensory perception of the physical environment (and human beings, animals, etc. within it), I still find value in updated “Imagism”/“Objectivism” when done freshly and well. Demanding that we pay attention to what’s (t)here, such work poses the question of how dominant forces in visual/ virtual culture, which tend to encourage perceptual atrophy, can be challenged in the name of greater responsiveness.

One example of an interesting but not so formally experimental mode is the use of matter-of-fact, often linear poetic narration with a strange, surreal quality that enables readers to attend to boundaries between truth/mendacity, sanity/ insanity, social accommodation/transgression. In the U.S., the dream-poems of Sandy McIntosh come to mind. Various European and Latin American poets saliently practice this mode.

One last example. Some poets make conventional aesthetic choices but offer powerful representation—unencumbered by an overt, very general political platform and open to proliferation of big questions—of a crucial social or political phenomenon. In his introduction to The Best American Poetry 2003, Yusef Komunyakaa vaguely attacked work that’s “too experimental.” That’s a drag, but he’s written many poems on the Vietnam War, as a direct witness, even participant, that present a trenchant record of a psychopolitical experience with which most of us still can’t come to terms. Since these Vietnam poems allow me not only to feel but to reflect carefully on the war’s contexts, his relative lack of formal innovation is no big deal. In this way, recent feminist experimentalists might value the seventies work of Adrienne Rich.

TB: It all comes down to what one is prepared to see. And what one is prepared to risk, remain vulnerable to.

I think poetry turf wars boil down to where one sees oneself on the risk-taking continuum. A New Formalist may fear incoherence. A Confessionalist may be wary of language sans emotional charge. A political poet may not stray from didacticism for fear of being misunderstood. A Language Poet may concoct elaborate procedures to avoid saying "I". The examples could go on and on.

I'm being absurdly reductive but I'm serious when I insist that how one conceptualizes one's work is dependent on what one is willing or unwilling to risk.
My final question, what for you is at risk in a poem?

: Having embraced the poetic strategies we’ve discussed (to achieve the benefits we’ve mentioned) means that I’m willing to risk some readers’ sense that my work is not only not didactic but insufficiently (i.e. too indirectly) political. Thankfully, if I need to advocate political views more directly, I can employ other writing or speaking formats. And to use humor a great deal is to risk being taken as frivolous, insubstantial. Better to assume that risk than to capitulate to a distortion-crammed sententiousness and feel idiotic about that.

I “fear incoherence”—the possibility that clauses and sentences in one of my poems don’t really talk with one another—but I fear facile coherence more. While my revision process could become a constipating struggle between these fears, I’d reframe this double awareness positively: risking both too much and too little coherence presents the opportunity to find verbally and conceptually enticing, exciting locations in between. And having ended a sentence with a pet preposition, it’s time to say thank you.

TB: Thank you.


Blogger EILEEN said...

I always thought that in Poetry, one (or I) need to descend in order to ascend...

Many interesting things here. Thanks for the thoughts, gentlefolks,

7:52 AM  
Blogger chris said...

So much to consider here--I'm fascinated. "Musics of slippage"--wonderful. Thanks very much to you both.

Best Wishes,
Chris Murray

11:05 PM  
Blogger Vanesa Alvarez said...

I dying to read your lattest book,
"After taxes." Your old friend, Vanesa.

5:36 PM  

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